Because so many of my writer friends have emailed to ask about the SCBWI weekend conference at McDaniel College, I'll write my reaction here instead of repeating myself in emails to you. Because I do not have the permission of the editors and agents who were there, I have decided to speak in more general terms instead of quoting them verbatim. If any of you would like to know more, feel free to email me.
On Saturday morning as soon as I picked up my materials, I was met by Naomi who was in charge of critiques with such enthusiasm that I thought I'd won the doorprize. Nope. One of the agents (Michelle Andelman of Andrea Brown) was a last minute cancellation and they had juggled the critiques and I was up first. I hustled on upstairs to meet with my critiquer who had some nice things and some helpful things to say about my middle-grade ms: Theo, Miss Sister and 16 Rules for Living at the Rest Easy (AKA Pretty Nearly).
That meant I missed most of the talk by a different agent: "So You Really Want a Literary Agent" but he spoke about query letters and the different ways to snag that elusive agent. Of course, the best way would be a Query with a referral from a client of theirs, a published author, or an editor interested in your manuscript. A second potential agent-getter is to query with an offer from a publisher. Also helpful: query as a published author or solicited from an agent at a conference. His last remark: "No agent is better than a bad agent" had heads nodding in agreement. Judging from the Q&A afterwards, an agent is much desired and hard to get.
Next up was Jean Gralley an illustrator who opened our minds to the potential new genre of digital picture books. I admit to spending the first moments organizing my handouts for the conference but in about one minute, make that 5 seconds, I looked up and didn't let my attention waver again. Amazing presentation on what could be the next interactive, playful, multi-dimensional "book" for young readers of all interests and abilities.
The morning workshops covered the gamut for illustrators, new writers and jaded hard-working seasoned types. I chose an editor's talk on "Tales from the Slush Pile." The market is saturated, times are tight. Save time and postage by targeting the publishers who not only take unsolicited mss but might be likely to publish yours. In her opinion, the "do's" to include in your cover letter are your relevant experience, any previous (again, relevant) publications, if you're a member of SCBWI or have taken classes, etc, and the inspiration for your book if it is interesting. A very brief sentence about your professional qualifications can be included. She repeated the oft-told advice that editors are busy and impatient people who love to find reasons to stop reading. She reads like a kid so make your opening lines sing. A quote-- perhaps a paraphrase-- from Richard Peck: "You are only as good as your opening lines." Oh, and Mr. Peck says he goes through as many as 25 revisions before he gets it right.
From this editor, and often during the weekend, we heard her list of what makes a good book:
1. Authentic, true voice
2. Natural-sounding dialog
3. Deftly realized time and place
4. Characters who make things happen
5. Truths that arise organically from characters' actions and development
She's drawn to funny and quirky, a unique voice, and character-driven stories.
Sorry to report folks, sweet is not selling.
This editor recommended an article in the Sept/October 2006 issue of Horn Book Magazine about good opening lines. I'll look for that at the library.
(I'll skip quickly over lunch. It was a college cafeteria.)
The very young editor who spoke to the large group in the afternoon was bookish, well-spoken, knowledgeable and enthusiastic. I loved what she had to say about VOICE: What it is and Why it Makes Editors Go Ga-Ga. From Lily's Purple Plastic Purse to A Northern Light, both personal favorites of mine, she gave examples of how much care goes into each word, the specific word choices and how they speak to voice. Text from a page of a book she edited, another all-time favorite, Ida B looked fabulous projected large on the screen. Made me think about how words, paragraphs, dialog look to these elusive editors and agents reading our mss. She cautioned us about finding those perfect words: "The ear is important. Get rid of words that niggle at you every time you read them." I have some of those words. They need replacing.
Other advice about what makes a good voice? Cohesiveness, energy--a good voice propels us through the story, and authority/ confidence. Authority is not false, not an imitation. You must know everything about the character to consider him the story teller.
I spent my afternoon workshop with Jen Bryant listening to her speak about "the marriage of fact and fiction." Just sitting there inspired me. Although she also spoke about the publishing process (multiple submissions are good), she told us about how she researches her non-fiction, how she gets her ideas. Her picture book biography about Georgia O'Keefe, Georgia's Bones, is witness to her process, a beautiful and fascinating book. She cautioned us that if we are "real" writers, we should write every day. "You'd better love the process because you spend a lot of time with your laptop, the dog, and a pb and j sandwich." I hope I'll be forgiven if that was a paraphrase. Jen said so many things worth writing down.
Our last session was an agent panel that consisted mostly of a Q&A with the two agents, mostly about their current likes. Both agreed that the agent/ client relationship is longterm.
On Sunday, our first gathering featured an amazing writer with an ability to speak succinctly, intelligently and humorously, a tall order. Over my career as a librarian, I've heard almost every writer who's on the circuit speak and Cynthia Lord's talk this morning was one of the best.
If you haven't read her Newbery Honor book, RULES, I suggest you put it on the top of your list. Writing about an autistic boy and his sibling, she went for funny. Some of the stories she told us about the publishing process and the heartfelt letters she receives from kids, teachers, parents were worth the price of the conference. She repeated what I'd heard before about how to get more emotion (her editor suggested she needed this) into a scene. Imagine a time you felt the same as your character. The details don't have to match, just the feeling. Because of her clear explanation and concrete example, I finally got this exercize. The title of Cynthia Lord's talk was The Pluses and Perils of "Writing What You Know." I have pages of notes from this talk and will revisit and absorb and perhaps blog about this terrific session later.
As she does with her younger audiences, she passed around her Newbery Medal plaque and we were invited to touch it and make a wish! Even the most cynical (that would be moi...) in the group participated...
I spent the the afternoon break-out session with the young editor who'd spoken about voice on Saturday. Her talk was "The Very Beginning: Hook a Reader (and an Editor!)" and she used lots of examples. A good beginning should give the reader a sense of what the book is about, something to connect to, and it should make you want to read more. Again, every word is there for a reason. Obvious stuff but difficult to pull off.
The agent who spoke in the afternoon to the entire Sunday group gave us Career Lessons. First we should figure out who we are, as our writing is about all we have control over in this business. Also for consideration, where are you in your career? Write your goals, say them aloud. And be sure they are goals you have control over. By selecting children's books we all know and love, she gave fun to consider examples and advice, much food for thought.
In closing, we had a Q&A with all the presenters, writers, agents, illustrators and publishers. Some of the tips that came from this panel: Editors often read the blogs, check facebook pages, go to websites of writers who submit to them. But before we scurry off to furiously send off manuscripts, we need to spend time with their take-home advice. Let things digest. Make the opening lines sing.
This was one of the best organized and worthwhile conferences I've attended. Thanks to my NYC New School former classmate Mona Kerby and her committee for a weekend well spent.
Now, off to make those opening lines sing.