Amy Goldman Koss – SCBWI Presentation

Amy Goldman Koss – SCBWI Presentation

I knew I would like Amy Goldman Koss by her name. I mean, she’s an Amy. Ironically, it was in her presentation that I met a new writing buddy at…and she is also an Amy. What can I say, I have an affinity for the name. I was never one of those kids who wished my parents had chosen differently, I loved my Amy-ness and still do.

Amy Goldman Koss gave a great breakout presentation on writing age. And her advice is really, REALLY simple: Remember what it was like to be the age of your reader. Think of your character’s reactions as yourself at that age.

Writing for young adults? Remember the crappiness of high school and describe it in all its glory. Writing picture books for young children? Remember the simplicity and joy of learning something new and exciting every day. And writing for middle grade? Well remember that boy who said you had buck teeth and looked like a beaver and have your character spit a loogie on him. Yeah…that’s a little personal regression there.

Here are some writing prompts she gave us:

  • Remember where you read when you were the age of your reader
  • Look in a mirror and describe yourself when you were the age of your reader

I first heard this in Amy’s session, but heard it repeated again by Rachel Vail in another session. You need to know EVERYTHING about your character.

  • Do they eat oatmeal or Cream of Wheat?
  • Do they wear boxers or briefs?
  • Are they a vegetarian or do they eat meat?

Every random detail you can think of, make a note of it. It doesn’t necessarily have to go in the manuscript, but you need to know this about them to write them true.

I asked her about writing across gender. Her fantastic response: “It’s the same shit.” The minor differences: Boys talk less, boy characters don’t like to stand genital to genital (it’s shoulder to shoulder), and boys need to have something to do in a scene.

Stuff to keep in mind when writing for kids:

Everybody’s insecure

Your enemy is so clear if you’re the picked on kid. If you are popular it gets dicier.

Take the characters that you love and treat them like dirt.

If you find a character you are writing is getting stale, do a find and replace and change their name. You may find that a “Casey” acts differently than a “Rhonda.”

Teenagers are not and are never altruistic – they are only thinking about themselves. They may be thinking “how do I make myself look more altruistic” but that is not real altruism.

And when I met Amy around in the hotel later that night, after buying a copy of her book “The Girls,” she signed it to “One of the Amy Crowd.”



SCBWI – Stephanie Owens Lurie, How to Think Like a Publisher

I’m back from the SCBWI conference with about 100 pages of notes! It was an amazing experience and I thoroughly enjoyed everything about it. I got to hear great speakers from inside the industry (writers, agents, editors, and publishers), meet fellow writers, and learn. Those who know me well know what a huge learning nerd I am. School is my happy place.

The first breakout session I attended was with Stephanie Owens Lurie, an editorial director at Disney-Hyperion Publishing. Disney-Hyperion is the branch of Disney Publishing charged with creating non-Disney content, and not tie-ins to existing content at theme parks, movies, or television. Stephanie has been in publishing for 30 years and at Disney-Hyperion for 2 years. The woman knows her stuff.

She talked the process of publishing a book from query to publication.

Here are my notes, in raw form.

IMPORTANT: a book is judged not only on its own merits but whether or not it fits with a publisher’s list. When sending out your work, keep in mind a particular company’s strengths and needs.

The Publisher’s List

Publisher’s Goal: fill a hole in the list as soon as possible

Author’s way to support:

  • Know the standard formats
  • Research the publisher’s list
  • Don’t send what they already have (this means vampires)
  • Don’t send a category of book that they don’t publish (this shows lack of research)
  • Make sure the manuscript is polished (revise, revise, revise)
  • Be flexible about the publication date (they are not on your schedule, you are on theirs)

The Pitch

The Publisher’s Goal: To have a compelling sales handle (to sell stuff)

Author’s way to support:

  • Have an elevator pitch (FORMULA: name of character is so exaggerated personality trait that the following happens) – if you can’t do this your story isn’t focused enough.

The Franchise (intellectual property that can be leveraged beyond one book and used in different media)

The Publisher’s Goal: To grow revenue year over year

Author’s way to support:

  • Once the manuscript is complete, think bigger: is this a series, does it have global potential, can I as an author crank out additional manuscripts on a tight schedule?
  • Show that you have ideas and are open to feedback and collaboration
  • Don’t be afraid to share your ideas in your query, but don’t be overwhelming

The Deal

The Publisher’s Goal: To secure top talent that can be grown over time

Author’s way to support:

If you receive multiple offers, take the following under consideration: the money being offered, the marketing plan, what else will be in the sales bag, and the chemistry.

The Media

*once the book is done and sent to the printer the job is only half done!

The Publisher’s Goal:  To have a promotable author with a fascinating back story

Author’s way to support:

  • Think about what inspired the book
  • Do you have relevant credentials?
  • Do you have any media contacts?
  • Do you enjoy meeting new people / schmoozing?
  • Are you willing to promote your book online?
  • Can you develop and give a presentation?
  • Would your book lend itself to a discussion guide?
  • You can share all of these ideas with your editor, but … trust your  marketing and publicity departments too.

The Gatekeepers: The Bookseller & The Consumer

*Booksellers will bring in books that they respond to on a personal level, but also know what will sell.

The Publisher’s Goal:  To partner with the bookseller in order to achieve the highest possible sell-in

Author’s way to support:

  • Give careful thought to mature content
  • Remember most children’s books are purchased by adults (the majority by mothers and grandmothers) – for picture book through middle grade, but most teenagers but their own books

The End Users

The publisher and the author should have the same goals: to deliver high quality entertainment to young people, to change a child’s perspective, to grow readers

But authors, keep in mind:

  • Write for kids, not for ego gratification
  • Know your target audience
  • Respect your readers
  • Never condescend of ridicule your target reader
  • Writing is not just an art form, but a form of communication

The Future

The Publisher’s Goal: To remain competitive, innovative, profitable

Author’s way to support:

  • Embrace technology, because your audience has
  • Find out what different publishers are doing in the digital arena (and good news…l’ll be posting some of that information coming soon)
  • Realize that the rights landscape is changing

What is the difference between an author and a publisher?

  • The Author: TELL the story
  • The Publisher: SELL the story

The ideal author is:

  • Talented
  • Dedicated
  • Reliable
  • Strategic
  • Collaborative
  • Appreciative

And, if you’ve kept reading until this point, I would also add patient. As you can see, Stephanie gave a great presentation. My hand hurt from writing after it, and it’s hurting again now after typing. Now time for sleep!

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!

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.


Setting in fiction

Writing question of the day: How important is setting in a fiction manuscript?

Recommended reading: Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

I’ve already discussed about setting in non-fiction and poetic works for children, and its importance still reigns in a regular good-ole fiction book. The story can revolve around a main character and those who surround the main character, and it can revolve around the plot, but the setting provides the visceral layer to the story.

Setting is what allows the reader to walk the same streets as the main character. This happened in Thirteen Reasons Why as Clay Jensen walked Hannah Baker’s streets. Sure, he could have just been sitting thinking about the different places, but if he did not actually go to them, and feel what Hannah felt when she was there, it would not have affected him as much. In this story, we actually have two settings, Clay’s setting and Hannah’s setting. It is the intertwining of the two that makes such a beautiful story.

Setting is not just “a desk was here,” “my house is there,” “I go to school here.” It is a part of the character and of the character’s story. If the main setting changes, the story changes. Imagine The Catcher in The Rye not in New York City, or The Chronicles of Narnia not in Narnia, or Harry Potter not in England, or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn not in the South. It changes the story – maybe not wholly, but substantially. Location is more than a physical world, it is history, culture, stereotypes, and pre-set notions.

Those are examples of longer reads, but even in a picture book the setting is important. You may not know the city or the exact place, but the sights and sounds of the main character need to become the sights and sounds of the reader as well. One of my favorite picture books is The Snowy Day. I don’t know what city it is in, but the setting of the snow-covered outside Peter traipsed through is integral to the story.

Think about setting in your own story. Does it matter? If you changed the setting, how much would it change the story? Drastically? Somewhat? Not at all? Try it in another setting. Not then whole work, but a scene or two. If you are writing a book set in Nevada, put it in Connecticut instead. Or if a scene takes place in a school gym, try it at the doctor’s office and see what you think.

Consider the nuances of setting too. Speech is a huge part of setting. It’s not just formed by where someone lives, but by what they are experiencing as well. If it is extreme weather, your characters will not just act but speak differently whether it is sweltering hot or freezing cold. Dialect is of course another form of speech setting. I am from the South, and in my own writing I have been told to take out or rephrase certain words or phrases because they don’t make sense. Hmmmph. That never makes me happy to read, but it’s something we need to consider when writing. The first is that will everyone understand what you are saying if you are using regional language. The second (and more important to me) is will those from the area feel like you have represented them correctly. If not, you could have bigger challenges.

Good reading, and good writing.


Setting and plot/character in poetry

Writing question of the day: Is setting in poetry, especially YA poetry, as important as setting in either fiction or non-fiction?

Just as setting in non-fiction and fiction, setting in poetry has a purpose and importance. However, the difference, especially in YA poetry or novels in verse, is the focus on the main character’s thoughts and feelings and less so on the setting surrounding them. The setting plays a part, of course, but it is not an equal to the part of the thoughts and feelings and needs of the main character. This leads to a greater emphasis on plot and character.

I recommend reading Far From You by Lisa Schroeder as an example of YA poetry setting. There was plenty of setting shared, but the words used to describe it were carefully chosen. Yet you felt as strongly to the car and woods they were stuck in, the stepmother’s parent’s house, and the record store where boyfriend Blaze worked and hotel they went to that they did not feel any less important. It’s not pages and pages of prose, but it’s letting you into the character’s mind to show how they felt about the setting to make it stronger with less words.

But what there was more of in Far From You was plot (a very strong plot) and character development. The plot, which focused on a teenage girl dealing with a new stepmother and stepsister after the death of her mother, was very strong. Yes, this book had the dead mother syndrome. But it added with the impending crisis of being stuck in the woods.

The same goes for character development. There was a strong main character whose voice was heard throughout. I felt her pain and her denial and her acting out as it happened. Main character Alice had her own wants, needs, and issues she needed to work through during the story.

There were also very strong supporting characters – her best friend, her boyfriend, her stepmother. However, although her father was a very important figure in her life, as a character I felt he was extremely underdeveloped. Perhaps this was purposeful.

I most equate YA poetry with YA fiction. You need to have a strong character and a strong plot to really pull the manuscript along. You probably even need your MC to have a stronger voice than usual, especially if they are the narrator of their lyrical poem.

Character & Plot in Fiction

Writing question of the day: Regarding character and plot in your story, which one do you start writing first?

In my own writing, I have done both. I don’t think one is better than the other, but the important thing to realize is that both work in different ways.

I study children’s books, and I study adult books, and I find that either plot, or character, or in really great works, both, carry the work. I think of the children’s books I have loved, and there are ones on my Top 10 list that I remember more for plot (Bridge to Terabithia) or more for character (Charlotte’s Web, Ramona stories, Baby Sitters Club stories). Then there are the rare few that knock it out of the park in both (To Kill a Mockingbird).

It seems books based on plot are more likely one-and-done type books, where those based on character have the potential for creating future works (a la Harry Potter). But I don’t think that is necessarily always the case or most certainly should not be a deciding factor in how to proceed on your own work.

I have two current works in progress, and each has started differently. The picture book I am working on is based on true happenings from my childhood. It features me, a family friend, and his chickens. Those are the characters. It has a starting plot, but as I have been writing I find that I need to expand on it to fit the model of threes for picture books. The YA novel in verse has a character I have been developing in several different forms, and this one seems to fit him best. Now I have to develop the plot around him but with different settings than I have done previously.

What works for you?