It was a marvelous experience to attend and participate in the Kansas SCBWI conference. Between the Friday night portfolio review and the Saturday sessions, I took twelve double-sided pages of notes. (Seriously.) My writing hand was furious for the rest of the weekend, but it was worth it.
Here are some recommendations and reflections from Saturday’s sessions that I found particularly insightful or inspiring.
Opening Keynote: “Togetherness” by Mike Jung
- Ask yourself, “How can I contribute to the kid lit community?” Ensure that your contributions are:
- Have no expectations that others will return the favor if you praise them—even though you want this! These expectations can mutate to a sense of entitlement.
- The goal is to work with people in the industry, so be open to exploring suggested changes.
“From Query to Bookshelf: An Intimate Look at the Author/Editor Relationship” by Arthur A. Levine and Mike Jung
Mike’s take-aways from working with Arthur on Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities:
- Trust the people you work with.
- Be open to feedback.
- View the process as collaborative.
- The editor and author roles are different, but the goal is the same.
Arthur’s take-aways from working with Mike:
- Be aware that when you’re writing in a public place (e.g., Facebook, Twitter), people can see your writing, for better or for worse. As an author, you have an extra responsibility in deciding what and how you share. Before you post, ask yourself, “Am I okay with anybody reading this forever?”
- When you meet an editor, don’t feel a pressure to pitch them. You can just have normal interactions and build on them. That way you also get a better sense of what the person is like (and whether you would want to work with them).
“Great Openings: Capturing Attention for Your Book in the First Line” by Susan Hawk
Write your book and then throw away the first chapter. The author needs the first chapter (to acquaint himself or herself with the character, pinpoint the true start of the book, set the scene, etc.), but often the reader does not need to be involved in that process.
Susan’s opening “pet peeves”:
- The alarm bell is ringing and the character is getting out of bed. Start the story later!
- A discussion of the weather. She sees a lot of these descriptions.
- The character in the middle of a mundane process. Spark her interest and make her curious.
“Tapestry: The Multi-Layered Picture Book Process Made Visible” and “Inside and Outside the Box: How to Self-Edit Your Manuscript and Illustrations” by Melanie Hope Greenberg
- Kids really examine a picture book and expect to find many things. You can transcend the text through your art with what Melanie calls “silent stories.” These include themes, recurring symbols throughout other books, and multiple interpretations of the text. Multi-layered picture books provide opportunities for meaningful discussion.
- When you’re having trouble painting something small or big, resize digitally or with a copy machine. It’s okay to “cheat!” Also prepare several same-sized sketches that you can use for models.
- Assembly line work can help you meet a deadline when working on a picture book. (For instance, in Mermaids on Parade, Melanie didn’t complete one painting at a time. She did all her pencil work first, then moved to the light box portion of the process, then painted all of the images of the mom, then painted all of the sky, etc.
First Pages with Susan Hawk, Mary Kole, Michelle Poploff, and Arthur A. Levine
In this session, Jenn Bailey collected and read aloud anonymous submissions of conference attendees’ first pages so that the faculty could react to them. Here are some of Susan, Mary, Michelle, and Arthur’s recommendations in regard to the picture book texts that were shared:
- Avoid a long beginning as the agent or editor will start to worry about how long the text will be.
- Too many characterization details can be distracting. The reader will wonder, “When is the action going to start?”
- Make sure the voice matches the age group. Word choices should be appropriate for the book.
- Leave room for the illustrator.
- A lot of images crammed into one sentence can scatter the focus.
- “Day in the life” stories do not sell.
- Avoid similar-sounding names as it can confuse the reader.
- Ask yourself, “What would a kid think about when they’re reading this?” Adults interpret things differently than kids.
- Avoid overwriting. Sometimes there is a style and finesse in simplicity.
Closing Keynote: “How to Sell a Book in 12 Years!” by Jay Asher
- Life is more enjoyable when you notice the subtleties and aspects of it that make for a story.
- It’s not just about the story you want to tell; it’s about how it’s being read. In other words, it doesn’t matter how you intend a passage to be interpreted if the reader does not interpret it that way. This disconnect is why it is important to have critique groups.
- It took 12 years of pursuing publication of a variety of texts (i.e., humorous picture books, a humorous middle grade, and even an adult parody of Pat the Bunny!) before Thirteen Reasons Why, a serious YA novel, was written and published. There were times when Jay grew discouraged. At one point, he seriously considered giving up and focusing his creative energies in an area with less rejection. But now he recognizes that his path to publication happened the way it needed to happen.
Thank you to the conference faculty and organizers for a delightful time!