Friday, June 19, 2015

2015 New Jersey SCBWI Conference

     If kidlit writers had unlimited time and money, we could attend every conference. But we don't. So here's a recap of the sessions I attended at last weekend's NJ SCBWI annual conference that might help you decide if this is something you want to save up for. [Spoiler alert: start saving!]
     Everyone was treated to Denise Fleming's opening keynote.
Fantastic books for gifts!
     Denise is smart. Zany. Generous. And apparently impervious to heat as the room a/c hadn't been turned on before the conference. Think dank, rank men's locker room in the Amazon rain forest to experience it yourself. Despite this hiccup, Denise energized the crowd, sharing images of how her work progressed from merely gorgeous mouse to stylized (publishable!) mouse, reminding us that "good" isn't good enough. Keep exploring and pushing boundaries like the kids we write for.

     I had my critiques during the first session, so I didn't attend anything during that slot. Even if you belong to a zillion peer critique groups, unless your peers are the likes of Jane Yolen and Mac Barnett I recommend hearing what the conference faculty have to say about your work. One of my critiques was with 
fabulous author Ame Dyckman and I got a two-fer surprise with author Adam Lehrhaupt reading and commenting as well. Doesn't get better than that!

     Editor Steve Meltzer taught workshop 2 - Who is going to buy my book? Finding the Right Publisher. (View one of his writing tips on Youtube here)
     I hadn't heard the term "BISAC code" before, but now know to go to the Book Industry Study Group pages for juvenile fiction and nonfiction to see if my book has multiple keyword hooks. Steve's discussion of successful comp titles has me looking for those that got marketing support, second printings, trailers and the like.

     Author Wendy Pfeffer led workshop 3 - Writing Nonfiction and Narrative Nonfiction. Wendy started her career writing educational books and recommended that as a good way to start, learning to work with editors and building a brand name that now allows her pick her own ideas for stories in the trade market. One of her top tips? Don't just get "an expert" for your book. Get "the BEST expert on the subject," noting that these top tier folks are also often the most generous with their time.

     For workshop #4, I attended Scholastic Senior Editor and author Orli Zuravicky's presentation "Developing Picture Book Character." Because picture books have so few words, character development can be tough! And if you're not also an illustrator, you can't rely on the pictures in your head (wouldn't it be nice to have a way to share those "mind pictures" without illo notes!) Orli examined successful classics (Eloise, Clifford, Fancy Nancy, Pete the Cat), noting that while much of your character work won't appear in the pages of your book, it should be done before writing the plot.

     Agent Marie Lamba tackled the topic of "Worthy Picture Books" in workshop #5 by going through examples of what doesn't work. Schtick (jokes, not stories), Poor execution, and Didactic tone led off her list of ten flaws. She used an easel (instead of power point), hugging it at points for emphasis. She had us eating out of her hand! Now I wonder if Dav Pilkey will notice a jump in sales as everyone in attendance scurries to find a copy of one of Marie's favorites, The Hallo-wiener (first published back in 1999, it was new to me!)
     Tired of reading yet? Imagine--this was all day ONE. And I chose to be part of the peer critique groups as well which meant the formal sessions ended for me at 10:30PM. 

     Day two opened with freelance editor and author Harold Underdown's morning keynote. Harold tackled ten things to know about Business Trends. I hadn't considered how reduced library and school sales affected the "BIG" publishing houses' acquisitions, putting the focus on what will 'sell itself' on Amazon and at Barnes and Noble, leaving quieter, quality books for smaller independent publishers. He advised that the material he covered would be delved into in even more depth on his Purple Crayon website. I'm glad to know that e-books have a place in the market, but print still rules as the medium of choice. I like to flip back and forth.
    And you don't need to be on every social media platform, but get a website/blog up!
     My workshop #6 choice was Seven Revision Tips with authors Marcie Colleen and Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen. Didn't want to miss this for two reasons: I've heard the adage that 90% of good writing is re-writing, and I'm lucky to count Marcie as one of my critique partners. Listing specific items to look at in our manuscripts--removing past participles, adjectives, adverbs and thought words from our manuscripts, specific goals to look for such as variety not just in text, but in compositional format--my writer's toolbox was bulging by the session's end. Marcie and Sudipta transitioned seamlessly back and forth, covering a lot of material.

     Author Tammi Sauer kept the picture book mojo going-highlighting her work in Picture Books that Sell, workshop #7. Humor is an integral part of Tammi's work and one of her observations I loved and noted is that sometimes the sadder/bigger/scarier the moment, the more humor you can (and should!) find in it. She finds a way to take familiar topics (monsters, pets) mixed with a
timeless theme (perseverance, friendship) and make a fresh story. And while titles may be changed after acquisition, having a great title is one way to catch an editor's eye. And forget 5-Hour Energy, find out what Tammi is eating because that woman is on fire!

     I finished off the workshops (#8!)with a first page session. I was one of two "readers" which is fun to do. Editors Traci Todd (Abrams) and Shauna Rossano (G.P.Putnam's Sons) responded to each manuscript with lightning speed, giving everyone insight on how fast editors can evaluate our work. They reminded writers not to use words that would date a manuscript (like "dude") and as a result of their feedback I'm going to try my draft in third person instead of first.
     The day ended with agent and author John Cusick's keynote and then a book signing. And he brought home the reminder to enjoy the process. Which is one of the highlights of my conference experience. We're all spinning on the same carousel, working toward the goal of successful careers in the industry, but achieving that goal--that part is out of our control. Connecting with the wonderful people who are on the same journey, learning more about the craft and process, those are their own golden ring. And there are enough rings to go around!
     Grab it at the next SCBWI event.


  1. Thanks for the recap Wendy. I hated to miss it!

  2. This was a fun peek into the conference Wendy! I know you can't share specifics, but what does "variety in compositional format" really mean? Making certain your characters move around to different settings? TYVM!

    1. Sorry I missed this before! I will IM now. :) Compositional format referred to the way we use empty space and place the text.

  3. They always do a good conference. Miss the conferences up there. Glad you got to go.

    1. Could be a reason to come back north next year!

  4. They packed so much into this weekend. Thank you. i learned a lot just from this summary!

  5. Sounds like great advice! I learned a lot from your post (like, GET TO THE NJSCBWI)! Now I just need to figure out a way to get into the SCBWI... Thankfully, Robin Newman gave me a bunch of ideas... ;)

    1. You don't need to be a member of SCBWI to go, Erik!You pay a bit more, but it's open to nonmembers. I have seen a couple parent/child pairs at conferences I've been to.