Character, Critiquing, Querying, Revising, Writing

New England SCBWI Conference: So Worth the Trip!

This past weekend I traveled to Springfield, Massachusetts, for the New England Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators Spring Conference. It wasn’t my first SCBWI Conference. I’ve attended the Missouri conference multiple years, and it’s been very valuable. However, the IMG_2576New England conference is significantly larger and offered the draw of my long-time critique partner, Kip Wilson, who I’d never met in person–until now!!!

Here we are, together at last. We had a fantastic time, staying up way too late discussing our various projects, the conference, and the angsty “what should I do about this” kind of conversations that take much longer over the back-and-forth of email :).

I met a ton of other amazing writers and published authors I’ve chatted with over Twitter as well, including several whose books I’ve highlighted here on the blog. I mentioned a few of those in my blogiversary post earlier this week. I made a point of picking up signed copies of MONSTROUS by MarcyKate Connolly and THE SECRETS WE KEEP by Trisha Leaver to give away. There’s still time to get in on that. Just click here. I also met many new writers and illustrators whose careers I will now be following.

So, on to what I learned at the conference. In a nutshell: fantastic presenters with exceptional content. But here are some of the highlights.

  • Editor Aubrey Poole, speaking on killer openings: Your first line should present a question in a way that is unique to your story. Maybe that’s a voice the reader has to hear more of, a spoiler missing critical details, two facts contradictory enough to intrigue, or a statement that sets the stage for the entire story. Most of all, don’t be boring!
  • Author Erin Dionne on critique
    • On receiving critique: You have to know the core of your story before asking for feedback—not what it’s about but the heart of the story and what you consider sacred.
    • On giving critique: Grammar and wordsmithing are important but not your number one job as a critiquer. Also, ask where the person is in the process and what level of critique they want.
  • Agent Ammi-Joan Paquette on taming the synopsis: One of your primary goals in a synopsis is to avoid questions. You want to bring in your internal story arc in addition to the plot; you may have to go out of your way to include it.
  • Author AC Gaughen on antagonists: The antagonist is not necessarily the villain. It is something that gets in your character’s way; it doesn’t have to be a person but anything, even themselves. Stories are most satisfying when we can see the character arc of the antagonist.
  • Author Jo Knowles on characters: Dig deeper for what your character really wants. Try to go five stages deep. Also, secondary and tertiary characters give complexity to your main character and help establish the world.
  • Author Padma Venkatraman on voice: Go with your heart and your unique pair of ears—or eyes, because most of the time we’re reading. As you begin to write, listen to your voice. We all have one voice. Give yourself that space so only you can write that novel.

I’ve already started applying many of these tips in the manuscript I’m revising (that one that won’t let me go). I shared a few others on the #NESCBWI16 hashtag. I gained so much insight from talking one-on-one with other writers, listening to the keynote speakers, and participating in the more intensive sessions. I highly recommend this conference if you’re in the New England area or have the resources to travel. If not, find an SCBWI conference near you. It’s worth the investment of your time and money!



The Evil Synopsis

I made up my own hashtag last week as I was working on the synopsis for the YA version of DUET: #evilsynopsis. Because I truly think they’re evil. How am I supposed to condense 77,000 words into a less than 500-word summary? It’s much harder than when the book was 44,000 words.

My point with this post is not to tell you how to write a synopsis, though. Other people with much more experience can do a better job of that. My goal is to share some lessons I’ve learned as I attempted to whittle this novel down to less than two pages. But, for those of you who want to know the basics, here are a few:

  • Follow the agent’s guidelines for length.
  • It should be in third person even if the novel’s in first.
  • Double-space unless the agent asks for single-spaced.
  • Don’t mention more than four or five characters, and avoid names if possible (i.e., “the owner” instead of the actual name).
  • As much as possible, make sure it matches the tone of the novel.
  • Make the reader care about the main character first, then get to the story.
  • Avoid a list of facts/actions.

Most of these tips were taken from a workshop I attended with author Shawntelle Madison at the 2012 Missouri Writers Guild Conference. She even has a synopsis wizard available on her website:

So, back to my experience. I’m a detail person. For example, when I tell my husband about something that happened during the day, I feel compelled to include the backgrounds of the people involved, what they did yesterday that led to what they did today, how the side characters are involved, what they did, why they did it, etc. Get the picture? So you can imagine how hard it is to boil my full-length novel into a summary. Here are some hard-won lessons for me that may apply to you, too.

It’s OK to leave out some characters. I’ve been working on this synopsis off and on for about a month, and every time I came back to it, I knew there were too many characters mentioned. I kept asking myself: what does the reader really need to know in this summary? Do I need to mention the crush or should I stay focused on the main love interest? What about her old best friend moving away and her struggle to build new friendships? Ultimately I decided I didn’t have room for the old best friend or the crush, even though they feed into the main plot, and once I took them out, it freed up a lot of space. I was wasting too much time trying to explain their roles in the story. And that leads me to a second point …

It’s OK to leave out some subplots. This one drives me crazy! I have a conversation in my mind that goes something like this:

“But they have to understand that the strained relationship with her old best friend leads to her not fully trusting the new best friend and lying about still being hung up on the crush instead of admitting her addiction and–”

“NO!” interrupts other Michelle. “They don’t. Really all they need to understand is the main character, her internal and external conflicts, and the end result.”

It sounds easy when you write it out that way, but it’s SO HARD. Because when you leave out subplots, everything doesn’t fit together as smoothly. You have to fudge some of the details to make them work together, and as someone who’s very literal, I have a hard time with that. The next conversation goes something like this:

“But that’s not really why she decides to do that.”

“It doesn’t matter. That’s all we have space for. The point is to give them an overview of the story. They’ll get the details when they read the actual novel.”

Huge sigh. “Fine.”

Hopefully I’m not the only one who has these internal conversations :). This is the first time I’ve worked on the synopsis before the query, and I actually think that’s going to help me. After all, I’ve already done the hardest part–figuring out who and what can be left out.

So, I think I have this synopsis on the right track, but I’d love some opinions from people who haven’t read the novel. Any takers?

I’d also love to hear what you’ve learned about writing synopses. Do you hate it like I do, or are you a rare person who loves it?