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The final SCBWI intensive workshop I attended was one of the best workshops at the conference. Deborah Halverson “edited children’s books for ten years—until she climbed over the desk and tried out the author’s chair on the other side. Now she is the award-winning author of the teen novels.”
She gave us the top 10 markers for larger mistakes in manuscripts and actual fixes for them. Her talk added more tools to my revision toolbox because she presented tangible, actionable things that I could apply to my manuscript.
One of the most important ones is “Stop Looking” and this relates to voice.
Is there is a lot of stares, looks, and smiles filling narrative beats in your manuscript?
Then you may have a tendency toward generic action and passive voice.
To diagnose this issue, do a search and count (this can be done with the control+F function in Word) of all the times you use words like:
- Turn to
Everytime you use “feel” or “thought” you are telling the reader not showing them. You want to let the reader be the judge of what is happening.
This is the most common problem for new writers.
So how do you fix this problem?
- You fill scenes with action.
- Have characters interacting with setting props.
- Make interactions specific and unique–change a hair flip to spearing an apple.
- Make scene messier–instead of sitting around chatting have them hunting or at dance class. Give them something to do that’s interesting while they talk.
- Use dynamic language–instead of sitting in a chair lounge in it.
- Have characters interacting with setting props.
Gary Schmidt was the final keynote speaker at the SCBWI 41st Annual Summer Conference. He echoed the sentiment about surprises in his own unique way saying, “the only gift that God gives us that he can’t enjoy are surprises.”
He also said, “As writers, never doubt that your stories can change a kid’s life.”
Power stuff there. Realizing the impact a book we write can have on a reader. On a complete stranger we may never meet.
The three day conference ended with a book signing party. BTW, it’s a great way to find new books to read, talk to debut authors, and meet fellow writers in line.
The next day, I attended an additional intensive with agents, hearing their take on lots of aspects of the publishing industry. Here are a few of my takeaways:
- Editors are looking for award winning books and bestsellers. Agents try to take on books with the potential to do that.
- Agents do prioritize conference attendees queries over cold queries.
- As a writer, it’s important to stop and think about what you want your career to be. Whatever you want your career to be, it can be. But be honest with yourself, can you produce 2-4 books a year or 1 book every 2-3 years?
- Sometimes in auctions it’s not the highest dollar value that wins. Authors need to find an editor whose vision for the book matches the author’s vision.
- Agents must feel intense/passionate about your book to take it on. Must live with it for a while.
- Agents are advocates for writers.
At the Summer SCBWI conference, I attended Sara Shepard’s workshop on Issues Writing Girls. One of the most interesting points she raised had to deal with dating your books. And not in the going out for coffee sense. But rather by making too many allusions to brands like Abercrombie or J. Crew or Iphone.
This was one of those lesson she learned from writing Pretty Little Liars. The first book has lots of brands and labels that help establish who the characters are.
She said it’s very tempting to drop a modern reference, but that what is hot in 2012 may not be in 2013, 2014, 0r 2015 when the book is published. She suggested finding other ways to define characters without using those references.
She also cautioned against the use of slang like “frenemy” and using music to define a character. Both define, but date quickly.
Ruta Sepetys’s Keynote address was my favorite key note of the entire conference. She is a fantastic speaker. Every word/sentence she spoke built on her central premise. She moved me to tears with her honesty.
Her talk “You Can’t Break the Broken: Writing Emotional Truth” is why I go to conferences.
Her debut novel, Shades of Gray, is the story of a Lithuanian girl sent to Siberia during Stalin’s regime in Lithuania. The novel explores what it takes to bear the unbearable.
It’s next on my to read list.
Ruta grew up in America, knowing her father and his parents fled Lithuania under Stalin because Stalin forced everyone he deemed “anti-soviets” in Lithuania (including all writers, teachers, librarians, landowners, musicians, military) to go to Siberia.
Her dad grew up in a refugee camp before they came to the U.S. That was all she really knew of her story.
Until she went back to Lithuania and found out that 12 of her relatives were taken in place of her father’s family. 11 of them died in Siberia.
She decided to tell the emotional truth of what happened to the people of Lithuania under Stalin. She fictionalized it so she could speak for the people who never spoke of what happened to them.
When she decided to write the truth, she had to decide how much she was willing to pay and give of herself–her emotional self. She explained that you have to be willing to turn yourself inside out and expose your deepest deepest feelings.
She encouraged us to “write the novel only you can write.” She reminded us that for the things we feel “there is a reader out there who feels it too.”
Karen Cushman spoke to us about the importance of courting surprises in our writing. One of her best tips is “Don’t fear surprise, welcome it.” Sometimes we have no idea why something comes unbidden. But it’s okay to stray from our outline. She advised that we “ask the questions we don’t know the answers to.”
What I appreciated about her talk was that she made a point of saying that we “are not channeling someone” nor is there “a muse at work.” We as writers do it unwittingly. Sometimes we leave clues in our own writing about what will happen. We just have to look for them. We prepare ourselves for the surprises.
Jay Asher is one of my favorite workshop teachers at the entire conference. He conveyed so much useful knowledge while constantly engaging the audience. If you get the chance to hear him speak, GO!
He really made us think about how to inject suspense into any type of book. One of the key takeaways was the importance of ANTICIPATION. The reader is waiting for something to happen, something that is supposed to happen, and eventually it has to happen to satisfy the reader.
He mentioned how with Twilight the back cover created anticipation about the vampire discovery. The first 10 pages of the book are all about the weather and setting, but it makes it the perfect place for a vampire, which the reader know to anticipate because of the back cover.
In terms of how to inject suspense at the end of a chapter, he advised that writers can: cut the action early, hint at the story to come, or have multiple narrators so the chapter end is a bit of a story cliffhanger.
My favorite quote? “It’s our fault, but their problem when a reader is up all night reading our book.”
1,234 people were on hand for the SCBWI Summer Conference in LA August 3-6th. The biggest children’s book writers and illustrators conference of the year kicked off with some hilarious opening remarks by Lin Oliver and Stephen Mooser.
Stephen regaled the audience each morning with a story of how he broke his wrist.
Inspired by the Summer Olympics, Lin lit the SCBWI “torch” and began our “opening ceremonies.”
She had each of the panelists/faculty for the event introduce him/her self and then say one word. Literally one word.
It was AMAZING.
Jay Asher’s word was “Hysteria” from Def Leppard. Let me pause here to catch my breath. Jay *freaking* Asher. This man’s books are some of the best I’ve read in years. I <3 Jay Asher.
I forgot this speaker’s name, but I absolutely loved her enthusiasm at 9 ish am.
He defined timelessness as a story capturing the moment of intimacy between the author and the reader.
This point would reverberate through other speeches at the conference that stressed that an author tell their truth to the reader.
One common thread in timeless book is the perceptiveness of the author about what makes people tick.
He gave a few examples of books that had timelessness: The Once and Future King and The Golden Compass.
The next keynote speaker was Tony Diterlizzi. Wow. Just wow.
By far the most entertaining and engaging speaker of the day, more akin to a late night talk show host.
He talked about never abandoning imagination. One of his main points was that he writes books that 10-year-old Tony would want to read.
The trick is staying in touch with the 10-year-old version of himself as he progresses further and further from that age.
He stressed the importance of writing books you’d love to read at the age you are writing for.
He was such an engaging speaker, I bought both books that he had for sale and got them signed.
I’m going to pause here, but I’ll be covering snippets from the conference for a few weeks.