2014 SCBWI Winter Conference in NY

In February, I attended the 2014 Annual SCBWI Winter Conference in New York. I saw a play and ate wonderful food at the galas and socials. I was captivated by the amazing artwork at the art browse. I discussed banned books and the future of authorship. I watched the presentation of awards and attended an autograph party. I made new friends.  And I learned a few things I’d like to share with all of you.

Optional Intensives were held on the Friday before the conference. I attended the Author Roundtable, which opened with an editor panel. Attendees heard advice about what makes a good hook: voice, an economy of words, unexpected events and first person dialogue. And the panel’s recommendation on prologues? Don’t use them!

Each group of eight attendees was assigned an agent or editor who led the discussion and critique of five pages of writing. I had the privilege of working with Brett Wright, an Associate Editor at Bloomsbury Children’s Books in the morning session and Tina Wexler, a Literary Agent at ICM Partners in the afternoon. These sessions reaffirmed for me the power of belonging to a critique group. Every single person at the table had suggestions for the other members of the group that were both helpful and insightful. Your manuscript will be tighter and more polished if you share it with others (grandma doesn’t count!) on a regular basis and you keep an open mind to the suggestions you receive.

In addition, for those still looking for an agent, Wexler offered this advice: don’t be afraid to try the “newbie” agents. They are the ones looking to increase their client base and have just as much knowledge as the “old timers.”

The Round table Intensive ended with a session on revision mapping led by independent editor and author, Harold Underdown. Underdown discussed four types of revision maps: Darcy Patterson’s favorite the manuscript,condensed which are chapter summaries or shrunken manuscripts (single spaced, reduced font, no margins); outlines, which can be done to follow plot or character arcs; bookmaps, which use illustrations to tell the story (JK Rowling and Anastasia Suen are proponents of this method)  and grids.

Jack Gantos gave the opening keynote on Saturday. He was quirky, entertaining, and his stories kept the audience enthralled. But here’s what I remember most: he writes six hours a day.  He goes to the library and writes for two hours, then revises for two hours. Next, he takes a two hour break to read. Then he puts in another two hours. Now, many of us still have day jobs that make putting that kind of time in impossible. But the lesson I learned between giggling at his antics was, if you want to succeed as an author or illustrator, you have to actually write and illustrate. Daily.

There were a host of breakout workshops available to conference goers. The first session I chose to attend was Writing Historical/Period Fiction led by Kendra Levin, Senior Editor at Viking Children’s Books. She discussed seven essential points: use diverse sources when researching, be thorough & precise, create context, balance history with the story, value authenticity, know your audience and make connections.

My second session, Writing The Classic Middle Grade Novel, was led by a senior executive editor with Knopf  Books, Nancy Siscoe.  Like Levine, she also discussed seven essential things: audience (it’s an age of enthusiasm and openness), plot (the characters must solve their own problems), hope (MG novels have to have some), likable characters (a main character they’d want to friends with), voice (be distinctive), heart (the quality that makes the story last) and readability ( does it read well aloud?).

On Sunday, the highlight for me was the keynote delivered by author Kate Messner. Her topic: The Spectacular Power of Failure. She said many thing that brought tears to my eyes, but what I decided to take home with me was this: take the time to celebrate your successes. So often we meet a goal, only to raise the bar on ourselves. We vow to write or draw at least 15 minutes a day, then lament that it’s not thirty. We finish a manuscript or illustration, but lament not having an agent to send it to. We get an agent, then lament that the manuscript or illustrations haven’t sold. We sell a manuscript or illustration, then lament that it is not a best seller. JUST STOP! Remember to pat yourself on the back and enjoy every success, no matter how small.

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