SCBWI Day 1 – The Afternoon

First afternoon panel – What makes me want to choose your book? Featuring editors Nick Eliopolis, Claudia Gabel, Brenda Murray, and Jennifer Rees.

I felt an immediate connection to Jennifer Rees. When providing her biography, she mentioned she began her book career working as a bookseller for a Joseph Beth bookstore in Ohio. When in college in Lexington, Kentucky, I spent many a weekend at our local Joseph Beth. It’s a great store and glad to hear it getting some props at a national conference.

Some of the questions posed by the moderator:

Which is more important, voice or plot?

  • Jen – voice
  • Nick – plot
  • Claudia – voice, because it comes organically through the manuscript, but plot can be worked on together between an author and editor

Name two books you wish you were a part of in the last 10 years

  • Brenda – the big foot biography (think it was called “In Me Own Words”); the biography of Claudette Colvin
  • Nick – The Hungry Games, anything by Jon Green or Scott Westerfeld
  • Claudia – What I Saw & How I Lied
  • Jen – A Great & Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray; Speak by Laurie Hals Anderson

What are you looking for right now?

  • Nick – guy high concept
  • Brenda – something that teaches me information I didn’t know before (historical, modern, pop culture, scientific, any areas)
  • Jen – asks herself if it has commercial potential; will it have a wide audience?
  • Claudia – beautiful prose but also an author who can write fast; tween and teen mysteries

What are your pet peeves in submissions?

  • Jen – receiving a submission package that is not professional; cover letter is lacking, not a clear synopsis, all of these pieces are indicative of who you are as a writer
  • Brenda – not doing your research ahead of time. Why is your book different? What other books are out like it? What other authors write about this topic? What other publishing houses carry this type of work? You have to be as knowledgeable as possible.
  • Claudia – not seeing the author clearly in the cover letter/query letter. You need to put all of yourself into your work. The relationship is such a big part of the job and this is a chance to build it.

And the thing they probably wish they hadn’t told us but they did anyway.

They do (or do have their interns) read their slush. Brenda even mentioned that one of her first published titles came from the slush pile.

And your interesting fact for the day…a lot of the slush pile comes from prison!

Afternoon breakout panel – Writing Age with the extremely talented, personable, funny, and perfectly named Amy Goldman Koss.

I have lots of notes from this one too, so will do a separate post about it. But it was fantastic and I enjoyed her talk so much I bought one of her books and had her sign it at the wine & cheese reception later that night.

Day 1 –

New people met – between lunch and the sessions, about 8

Sessions attended – 4 keynotes and 2 breakouts

Books bought – 4

Ellen Hopkins burned

April Halprin Wayland girl coming in for a landing

Ann Haywood Leal Also known as Harper

Amy Goldman Koss The Girls


SCBWI Conference Day 1 – The Morning

It’s somewhat ironic that I started day 1 of a children’s writing conference by doing something I haven’t done since I was a teenager. I cut my leg shaving. And not just a small nick, no, this was full on large loss of blood massive bandaged cut. Even now, nearly 12 hours after the incident, I just took the bandage off and had to clean the wound again. It was right on my knee, so it’s a tad painful too. But enough about my grooming habits, and on to the conference!

It was my first SCBWI conference, and as I entered the Hyatt Century Plaza in West Hollywood and saw how many attendees were there, I felt a tad intimated and out of place. But after having the chance to meet some of those people and hear them speak throughout the day, I no longer have that feeling and even felt more prepared than some people I ran into.

Some of the highlights of the day and speakers I saw, met or heard:

Opening speaker – Jon Scieszka, author of the super cute picture book Robot Zot.

His tips for becoming a successful writer:

  1. Read every book possible in your genre. If you are a picture book writer, read the entire School Library Journal listing of 100 top picture books.
  2. You should also read some of the worst books in your chosen genre. A good place to start? Celebrity books.
  3. Do read children’s trade publications – School Library Journal, kid lit blogs, The Horn, Publisher’s Weekly.
  4. If you are writing a picture book, figure out what your word count is. Then cut it in half.
  5. No rhyming!
  6. No underwear fart books!
  7. No vampires!
  8. No alphabet books!
  9. No princesses!
  10. And no rhyming farting princesses teaching you the alphabet in their underwear while being chased by a vampire.

Second keynote speaker – M.T. Anderson, the only person to make Delaware sound interesting.

Per his introduction, he creates books for thinking kids. He says his craft is to interpose the landscape of fantasy on the American landscape, in a regular place such as say, Delaware.

Some of his other key points:

  1. Books take us away from home so we can actually see home.
  2. Through estrangement we are forced to see what we know in a new way.
  3. Literature restores the sense of the unknown in what we already know.
  4. He sang his version of the Delaware state song. Nuff said.

First breakout session – How to Think Like a Publisher with Stephanie Owens Lurie from Disney-Hyperion.

I have a LOT of notes from this session, so check back later for a post dedicated specifically to this topic.

 That was the morning, afternoon notes to follow!

Books as Life

Thought for today’s post I would go into some of my back story of why I love books so much. I wrote this last year when I was home for an extended period of time. It brought a lot of introspection my way, hence the “Books as Life” piece.


Books as Life

My old childhood friends have come to seek me again in adulthood.

Escapism into a good book.
The words of another created to envelope you and bring out their own take of your life situation.

The book, whether fiction, classical, non-fiction, poetry, or favorite childhood picture book, will grab on to a certain piece of you and tattoo what they have seen of you and you of them. Like a tattoo, the experience grows with you, and leaves an ever changing stretch mark on your internal skin. You should never leave a book unscathed; to do so means either you or the author has not given the experience the full sensory overload it demands.

The book not only knows if you have a Mr. Darcy, it knows if you want one, need one, or have been misguided away from one. It is felt through the way you race through certain scenes, the way you sigh, or perhaps the way you roll your eyes. It is up to you, the reader, to make your own story with this information; your book has with no pre-conceived notion of you. Are you a loveless Lolita, taken advantage of before setting your own, if not ideal, path for yourself? Or are you a Daisy (and there are two Daisys from which to choose). Both Daisys expects you to choose a love that would ultimately lead to someone else’s downfall (nay, death). Do you choose your own or that of the man you love? For you know in these tales, there is no happily ever after.

As a reader, do you understand what is expected of you? Books are not just paper, they are not to be read and discarded or dismissed. If you have not let at least one character into your life of friends, you have not read at all. Reading is not the act of viewing words and making sounds out of them, but rather escaping into another world and leaving with cherished friends and sometimes even hated foes. If you do only the former, you have seen words and you have moved on. Does Rebecca not haunt your thoughts; do you not often wonder “what if” in regards to Gatsby’s death? And do you ever think of the multiple victims of Humbert’s – not just Lolita but also her mother Charlotte and Claire Quilty, so easily dismissed though brutally murdered. A true reader sees all of these as characters, and not just names or words on a piece of paper.

Who are your characters? Have you felt the pain of Tennessee Williams’ Laura and her awkward quest for a “gentlemen suitor” or have you looked at the bottom of a glass of an empty drink across the sea with Jacob Barnes? If you are you, then can you also be a different version of you created decades, maybe centuries before. It is not to see you as a direct representation of Jay Gatsby or Daisy Miller or Jacob Barnes, but to understand that these characters are more than just a figment of someone’s imagination. They are your own imagination, and they are manifestations of all of us who study them, learn them, and understand them.

These are the ways books touch our lives, not only as a refuge, but also as mirror.


Liking the Main Character

Writing question of the day: Do you need to like the main character to care about the book?

I don’t believe that liking a character is an essential part of a story’s success. However, you need to care about the character, whether they be flawed or not.

In adult books, many times the opposite it true – the more you dislike a character, the more you may end up being engaged in the story. Vladimir Nabokov’s brilliant Lolita has no likeable characters, but they are memorable. The lead male is a leech, the mother character is a needy person willing to sell out her daughter for her betterment, and even the daughter, Lola, is a spoiled brat. But wow, did those character’s flaws stick with you because of the story.

In children’s writing, I find that the need for a character to be likeable fits with a child’s age. For the youngest readers, characters need to be the most likeable. “Goodnight Moon” is not the place for villains. As the readers increase in age, you might find auxiliary characters who are not likeable, but not the main character. Those non likeable characters are usually placed as the main opponent to the main character – perhaps an obnoxious sibling, a boy who picks on them at school, a mean teacher, or a parent who just doesn’t get it.

As you increase in age to young adult books, you may find that readers attach themselves to the likeable character as much as they do the unlikeable character. There are many fans of Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter series. Probably not as many as Harry, Ron and Hermione, but passionate about that character just the same.

In any case, likeable or not, the character just has to make the reader feel some emotion about them. If we, as readers, don’t care one way or the other about the character, we probably don’t care about the story either. That is the task that we, as writers, have to make come across in our writing.