Missouri SCBWI Conference Recap, Part 1

I attended the Missouri SCBWI conference on Saturday. I drafted a single post with my key takeaways, but it was too long, so I’m splitting it into two. You’ll get Part 1 today and Part 2 tomorrow.

The first keynote speaker was the very entertaining David Harrison, a prolific author who’s been publishing since the ’60s. Here are a couple of quotes that stood out to me.

“What’s the best part about writing? Falling in love with this idea.”

He expanded further on this during his breakout session. He developed a whole book out of noticing he was losing his hair and another after reading a Far Side cartoon. It’s funny how one little thing can be the starting point for a story.

“Six years and 67 rejections later, I sold my first book. It was easy.”

Ha! And he was submitting in a much less glutted publishing marketplace, but what was true then is true today. I’m not at six years yet, but I’ve definitely received more than 67 rejections :).

The second keynote was by editorial consultant Emma Dryden, who spoke about the digital landscape. Ms. Dryden went through an alphabetical list of companies/trends that are affecting the industry. One that stood out to me was the iPad. I’m not sure I got it all exactly the way she said it, but here’s what I wrote down:

“The iPad put the capability of digital reading into the hands of millions of readers who didn’t know they wanted digital reading.”

Think about that for a minute. It really makes sense. The Kindle came out the same year, and it offers the same reading opportunity, but the iPad is different because the e-reader is just one part of the device. I don’t know the statistics, but I’d guess a small percentage of people originally bought it for reading, but a large number of people who bought it for other purposes now use it for reading. I know that’s been the case for my husband.

Ms. Dryden spoke about publishers getting into apps and bookstores figuring out how to stay relevant. Publishers have to re-imagine their business models. Bookstores are no longer the main customer. Publishers also need to go through Apple, Google, and Amazon and even direct to the consumer. Another interesting note was that enhanced ebooks are not as lucrative as publishers expected them to be. She said they’re only worth it if there’s extra value in the enhancements, and that’s not usually the case with fiction.

Thanks to YALSA also happening in St. Louis on Saturday, we had a panel of YA authors do a Q&A during lunch. They included Beth Fehlbaum, Jo Knowles, Deborah Heiligman, Selene Castrovilla, and Shannon Delany.

The first question to the panel was: How do you write about something true? I didn’t keep a good record of who said what, but the basic answer was that it’s a mistake to keep the story too close to what really happened. Instead think about what could have made the situation better. Take yourself out of the story and make it the character’s story instead. Then the story can take flight.

I did take down some other quotes. Most of these are related to how and why the authors incorporate character details and quirks.

“What do we remember about a book? We remember moments. We remember little things.” Selene Castrovilla

“Listen to the characters. Even when we don’t know where they’re going, they do.” Shannon Delany

“The characters that you love most in fiction, you can probably name things about them.” Deborah Heiligman

“You can’t just add quirks. Characters need to have a reason for them. They have to have a purpose.” Jo Knowles

So, I hope those quotes give you something to think about as you’re imagining characters. I’ll definitely keep them in mind.

Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of my recap. If anyone else was at the conference, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Conferences, Pitching, Querying, Writing

Homicidal Fairies and Other WriteOnCon Lessons

WriteOnConI spent the last two days glued to WriteOnCon, plus several days before in the forums critiquing and posting. If you are a writer and don’t know about WriteOnCon–particularly if you write for kids or teens–head over there now! The conference was online, and everything remains posted forever.

Thank you to all of the published authors, agents, and editors who participated. I’m going to share a few of the points that stood out most to me.

1. Not everyone defines the lines between MG and YA the same way. I thought I had a pretty good handle on what’s MG vs. YA, but not everyone agrees. Here are a few of the points agents and editors made, with links to the source material:

Agent Jen Rofe: “If the fairies in your book are doing mean things, it’s MG. If the fairies in your book are homicidal, it’s YA.” (more people retweeted this quote than any other I posted)

Editor Liesa Abrams: “In MG, the characters are learning how they fit into the world. In YA they’re learning how they stand out!” (my favorite definition)

Peter Knapp conducted a query/pitch workshop in the forums. If an MG pitch didn’t include a friendship element, he rejected it. He said MG must have friendships, and in his case, that must be highlighted in the query to get a request. (You must register in the WriteOnCon forums to view this event.)

Editor Martha Mihalick: A middle grade book is usually about a kid and their place within something. YA is about finding your own path. (similar to Liesa’s definition)

In the final live event, agent Katie Grimm said a lot of “tween” is disguised as MG and explained it as: “Well, of course there’s the obvious age difference of more 9-11 and those creeping on 12,13,14…and calling it MG. … And although it doesn’t seem like a big difference to us, there’s a HUGE DIFFERENCE between elementary and middle school.”

I found this last one interesting as I’ve always considered MG to be aimed at middle school, whereas her definition implies MG is aimed at elementary school kids. I think it’s an excellent example of how agents see things differently. My take-away was that I shouldn’t pitch Katie Grimm my 13-year-old character as MG :).

While it was interesting to see how agents and editors viewed the MG/YA divide differently, the best post on the topic was by author Claire LeGrand. It includes a comprehensive list of options with examples. My favorite? “Kissy-Kissy or Kissy-Kissy?”

2. It’s all about an agent/editor connecting with your writing.  Another common theme was that for an agent or editor to take on your novel, they have to connect with it. Here’s how a few of them explain it.

Editor Liesa Abrams: “If I connect to what the character feels then I can go with the character on any kind of plot journey.”

Agent Jen Rofe: “I want something that will make me read it in one sitting. Something that, pages into it, I’ll be rushing to offer representation.”

Agent Mollie Glick: “I’m always looking for a great story. A manuscript that I pick up, intending to read just a chapter or two and pass, and wind up staying up all night, ignoring my husband, to finish.”

Agent Sarah Davies: “I often know very soon – like a few lines in – whether a new writer has that ‘something’ or not. Obviously I have to see how the story/characters will develop, but that sense of voice and the moment is often there from the start. It’s like listening to a young musician. You can hear the musicality even if they just play a simple scale of C.” (I can’t even express how much I love this quote!)

Agent Katie Grimm: “We are all looking for a book where we say, man why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?”

So specific, right? Actually, I think it’s very telling. What I take away here is that your novel doesn’t have to be perfect, but it has to make an agent/editor care. That’s going to be subjective, but all you need is one.

3. Consider critiques carefully, but don’t make every suggested change. I posted in the query, first 250, and first 5 pages forums. On the plus side, these are people who haven’t read your manuscript, so they’re looking at it the same way an agent would. On the negative side, they’re seeing each piece independently, whereas an agent almost never sees the writing without a query. I wish there’d been a forum where you posted the query with the sample. Regardless, here’s how I approached it. I never make a change as soon as someone suggests it. First I ask myself these questions:

Did more than one person comment on this issue?

Is this critiquer’s point a matter of taste or a real issue?

If I make this change, will it improve the piece or bring up even more questions? (mainly on the query)

Is this change in line with my theme/the overall feel of my manuscript?

After evaluating each critique, I decided whether to revise or ignore. I didn’t get any Ninja Agent visits, but the process was still valuable, and I met some great new writers in the forums. There are so many exciting projects out there!

If you didn’t attend WriteOnCon, go check out all the posts and review the live events. You’ll get insight into the personalities of agents and editors, as well as excellent advice as you start, revise or query a project.

On a personal note, points No. 2 and 3 have made me decide to jump back into querying. I had been waiting to hear back from the agents who still have my manuscript, but the events with the agents and editors reminded me that it’s never going to be perfect. It’s just a matter of finding that agent who connects with Miranda. Guess I need to learn the same lesson my character does!

I’d love to hear what everyone else learned from WriteOnCon. Tell me in the comments!