The introvert's guide to surviving a conference

The 18th Annual SCBWI Winter Conference in New York is coming soon! 

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I'm not gonna lie. My first few SCBWI conferences were a shock to my system. Part of this is because I'm an introvert and don't spend a lot of time in crowds. Part was because I was hearing and learning so much great information that my brain was melting. But the last part? I wasn't really sure how and when to talk to people. 

I suppose this is closely related to my introversion. But it's also because I wasn't familiar with conference culture. I read in advance that we weren't supposed to foist our manuscripts on people. Fair enough. 

Beyond that, though, I felt a lot of anxiety about best strategies for meeting new people. Here's what I've learned over the years: 

  • Most people feel nervous in this environment, or have memories of the time when they did. So, don't feel nervous that you are nervous. It's part of the deal, and it will dissipate. 
  • We are all here for one reason: We love books and want to make great ones. Come ready to talk about books you are loving. And come ready to meet some of the people who made them: writers, illustrators, editors, agents. It's a great idea to look at the faculty and read some of those books beforehand. You'll even have a chance to get copies signed, if you want.
  • A corollary: If you feel like criticizing books, bite your tongue. You never know who's listening, and you don't need to prove how smart and accomplished you are by criticizing the books of others. Also? If you think "no one is writing good books these days," well, you might not know as much as you think. 
  • Ask people what they're working on. Listen and ask follow up questions if you can. People love talking about themselves. Be ready to answer these questions. Not at great length. You're not pitching your work. You're just talking about it, which is great practice for the time when you are ready to pitch.
  • Speaking of pitching. Some conferences have pitchfests and opportunities. This isn't one of them, although there are roundtable critiques that sometimes do get you noticed by agents and editors. That's rare, though. Don't obsess about pitching or taking your one shot. There is no such moment, 99 percent of the time. Your best bet is to come with an open heart and ears, so you can learn everything you can. There WILL be a time when you and your work are ready, and you will know when that happens. Success isn't a result of a single moment. It's something that comes with work and perseverance.
  • It's OK to take breaks when you need them. Find a quiet corner somewhere. Go for a walk (dress warmly; it can be cold outside). 

I've been coming to these conferences for many years now and absolutely love them. Not only have grown as a writer, I've also grown as a person and am wildly better at thriving in crowds and chaos than I was. 

Look for me in New York. I'll be typing away at the blog table, but I'll always take a break to let you know I'm truly glad you've come.

 

Author Kate Messner: an #NY16SCBWI interview

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Kate Messner is an absolute star in children's literature. The award-winning author of books in several categories, Kate is a former teacher and a current mentor to many in the writing community. She'll deliver a keynote speech at the New York SCBWI conference in February with fellow middle-grade author Linda Urban on building and sustaining a creative life.

It's hard to imagine anyone better at doing this than Kate, whose last keynote is remembered as one of the most insightful ever given at an SCBWI conference.

What are a couple of things you wish you’d known about this business before you were ever published? 

Runners who focus on their own performance and pace are simply more successful than those who are constantly looking over their shoulders.
— Kate Messner

One thing I wish I’d understood is that the very best thing I could do for my career was writing my next book, rather than running in circles doing every little thing to promote the book that just came out.  With my first couple of books, I spent an inordinate amount of time on everything from social media to blog tours to finding the perfect place to print my bookmarks. It never felt like enough, and time that I should have spent celebrating my first books in the world was instead spent fretting over that. These days, most of my “book promotion” consists of doing a handful of things that I love, that help other people, too – Skyping with kids in classrooms, running an online writing camp for teachers and librarians, and being part of a community of readers and other writers. It’s a much more joyful way to approach things, and I get more work done, too.

The other thing that I should have known – but somehow failed to internalize at times – is that it wasn’t helpful to compare my career to anyone else’s. My daughter runs cross country, so we go to a lot of meets, and one of the things I always hear coaches shouting out over the trail is “Run your own race!” Runners who focus on their own performance and pace are simply more successful than those who are constantly looking over their shoulders. Every time I hear that, I remember it’s important advice for writers, too. When you’re looking around at someone else’s advance or marketing plan or awards list, you undervalue the small joys that happen in a writing life every day, and that’s tremendously sad. I try hard to remember that and to hope for good things in general rather than obsessing over the details. I don’t always succeed in running my own race, but I’m much better at it than I was with my first books, and much happier as a result.

You do school visits, the summer educational program known as Teachers’ Write, publish books in multiple categories and more. What are your best tips for staying focused and on task? (This is where I will link to your awesome bullet journal post, but if you have a state-of-mind tip, we can go over that here.

I’m a big fan of Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD, and that philosophy serves me well when it comes to juggling lots of things without feeling overwhelmed. Because I do work in multiple genres and with multiple publishers, it’s rare for me not to have at least two or three things on my desk on any given day. I try to prioritize based on deadlines and focus on that one project without letting the others peer over my shoulder.

Also, a little over a year ago, I started using a Bullet Journal to keep track of projects, events, and daily goals and tasks. It works beautifully for me because I’m the kind of person who loves checking things off a to-do list. Here’s a blog post I wrote a few months into my bullet journaling experience, where I share some details about how that system works in my writing life:

http://www.katemessner.com/bullet-journaling-childrens-author-version/

And here’s a Facebook post I wrote after a year of using this system, reflecting on how it’s impacted my writing life (and fitness goals, too):

https://www.facebook.com/KateMessner/posts/10154386945097516

Who are three writers you wish everyone would read? 

Oh dear. I’m not sure I can do this one. I am in love with so many different kinds of books – and sometimes, I love one book by a writer but only kind of like the others. So forgive me – but I’m going to play my presidential-candidate-during-a-debate card and pretend you asked me a totally different question.

Martha: Hey, Kate! What are eight books that you’ve loved lately that you wish everyone would read, and why?

Kate: Gosh, Martha…I’m so glad you asked that question!

BIG MAGIC by Elizabeth Gilbert – because it reminds us as creative people to show up for work, to be gentle with ourselves, and to honor the magic.

BROWN GIRL DREAMING by Jacqueline Woodson, BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and ALL AMERICAN BOYS by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely – because they are beautifully written and unsettling, in a world that needs both beauty and examination.

WE CAME TO AMERICA by Faith Ringgold. I saw this picture book about our nation’s legacy of welcoming immigrants at NCTE. I read it in the publisher’s booth, and cried because it is so lovely and important. It doesn’t come out until May, but I wish it were out now.

MILO SPECK, ACCIDENTAL AGENT by Linda Urban, PICKLE by Kim Baker, and HOOK’S REVENGE by Heidi Schulz – because they will make you laugh. Also because there are singing ogres, wild pranks, and girl pirates, respectively.

More about Kate:

Kate Messner's home page

Follow Kate on Twitter

Watch Kate talk about building fictional worlds on TedED.


Literary agent Sarah Davies: an #NY16SCBWI interview

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Sarah Davies, who founded The Greenhouse Literary Agency, is one of the very best in the business. She's my agent, so of course I'm biased. But you'll want her to be your agent once you hear her speak at the New York SCBWI Conference—she's dynamic, direct, savvy, and deeply professional.

She'll be talking about middle grade fiction, and what makes books "salable." I asked her about this, about great middle grade reads, and about when a writer can know his or her book is ready to submit. Here's what she had to say: 

At what point in the writing process should we be worried about what is “salable”? 

There are many reasons to write, but if you aspire to land a deal with a publisher then you need to consider salability from the outset. But beware! I don’t mean by this that you should be focusing narrowly on a preconceived notion of genre or topic — or trying to replicate what you see in the marketplace. Rather, focus on developing  the two big ‘C’ words — Concept and Craft. An agent or publisher will be looking for a great idea (Concept) to underpin your story — preferably something they’ve not seen before or at least spun in a way that feels really fresh. Structure and perspective may both play a part in this. Once you start getting your big idea on to the page, in story form, you will need a full toolkit of Craft with which to give your story maximum impact. All kinds of elements will play into this — voice, world building, characterization, show-not-tell, sense of place . . . and much more.  So don’t get bogged down in what you perceive other writers are doing — develop your own ideas, style and writing abilities so that the story you have to tell feels authentic and compelling.  Then agents and editors will definitely sit up and take notice!

What books should every aspiring middle grade writer read to be familiar with the best books on the shelves? 

That’s a really tough  question as everyone will have a different list – and I’m bound to leave out something significant! So here’s a mix of books I would have loved to represent (I’m deliberately leaving out books by my own clients, so you know this isn’t PR!):

Develop your own ideas, style and writing abilities so that the story you have to tell feels authentic and compelling. Then agents and editors will definitely sit up and take notice!
— Sarah Davies, The Greenhouse Literary Agency

Classics:
HIS DARK MATERIALS - Philip Pullman  
WALK TWO MOONS - Sharon Creech

Great contemporary standalones: 
BROWN GIRL DREAMING – Jacqueline Woodson;
THREE TIMES LUCKY – Sheila Turnage
THE TRUTH ABOUT JELLYFISH – Ali Benjamin
LIESL & PO – Lauren Oliver

Humor (of very different kinds): 
BETTER NATE THAN EVER – Tim Federle
GEEKS, GIRLS AND SECRET IDENTITIES – Mike Jung

Series: 
CLEMENTINE – Sara Pennypacker(perfect voice/storylines)
A  SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS – Lemony Snicket (the collectible power of a fantastic concept!)

How do people know their work is ready to query? Is there a checklist of steps you’d recommend?

Ideally, you should be writing in a growing context of awareness of the children’s books business. By which I mean — reading widely, dipping into craft books or articles and experimenting with your voice and style (what one of my clients calls “playing”), networking with other writers so you see different forms  of authorial process, listening to what agents and editors say, online or at conferences, and — very importantly — gathering around you a trusted set of critique partners. Preferably at least one of these CPs will already be published and have gone through the trial by fire of intensive revision, submission, acquisition and all that lies beyond, so they can give your work some tough love (as well as encouragement!). 

Don’t be frightened to be radical — rewriting can be far more powerful than tweaking, as it allows you to pull in fresh thinking in the strongest possible way so the new draft feels fully coherent.
— Sarah Davies, The Greenhouse Literary Agency

Test drive your writing and story in as many settings as you can manage. Perhaps with a one-to-one at a conference (or several conferences). Please note: your family or school class aren’t going to be able to give you the objective critiquing you need, so get yourself into as professional an environment as you can achieve.

Weigh the critiques you’re given, and be honest with yourself.  If in your heart of hearts you know the advice you’re given has merit, then dive back in.  Don’t be frightened to be radical — rewriting can be far more powerful than tweaking, as it allows you to pull in fresh thinking in the strongest possible way so the new draft feels fully coherent. 

Rinse and repeat all the steps above till you have a manuscript which feels as good as you can make it.  Then put it away for a couple of weeks, so you reread it completely fresh as if you’ve never seen it before. More work to be done?  Then now is the time to do it!

As you’ve been writing, you should have been formulating your pitch.  In fact, you can formulate your pitch BEFORE you start writing! This will help you identify the arc, the high stakes, where your characters are headed – even before you write a word.  This is all about finding your focus.  Bring all this together into your query letter, which should also include an “elevator pitch” (a line or two summing up the story), target market, word count – and any useful info about yourself. 

Voila! You are ready to query.

Follow Sarah on Twitter
Follow The Greenhouse on Facebook
About The Greenhouse Literary Agency

The Benefits of a Writers Roundtable: #NY15SCBWI

Have you registered yet for the SCBWI mid-winter conference in New York City? It's coming right up (Feb. 6-8), and one thing that sets this conference apart is the rare opportunity for you to participate in a writers' roundtable, receiving feedback on your work from an agent or editor.

I'll be moderating this event, and I've also participated as an attendee, so I thought I'd tell you what these are like—both so you can feel more relaxed going into it, but also so you can be ready to get the most possible benefit.

As the name implies, you'll be sitting at a round table with a group of other writers and a faculty member (typically an editor or an agent). There will be two sessions that day, so everyone can either read the same manuscript excerpt twice, or can get feedback on two pieces.

What should you bring?

Your best opening, ideally to a completed work. And do make sure you've read it out loud to yourself for practice. You'll catch hidden typos and hear awkward word repetitions.

What's it like?

Because so many people are reading out loud at once, the room gets noisy. So, be prepared for that. Once you've read your work, the faculty member will give you feedback. The point of this is to help you take your writing to the next level. So, listen and take notes. Then thank everyone for their thoughts. It can be tempting to explain what you were trying to do when you feel your work has been misunderstood. Resist the urge! You don't want to waste time that could be spent absorbing wisdom this way. And the hard truth is, if you have to explain something about your writing, what you did isn't working.

How will this help me?

This is the primary benefit of these round tables: hearing a professional reaction to your writing. Only in rare cases does the agent or editor request the work.

This can happen; it happened to me, and the novel I brought to New York three or four years ago, THE GAME OF LOVE AND DEATH, will be published by Scholastic next spring. But guess what? It's not being published by the editor who requested it. She's not even an editor any more, so even if I'd thought the roundtable was my big break, it wasn't.

 Coming May 1, 2016 from Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic.

Coming May 1, 2016 from Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic.

So, if you let go of the hope that this will be your big break, and think of it as an important investment in your education as a writer, you'll be in great shape.

The second key benefit of these writers' roundtables: You'll also get to hear feedback about other people's writing, and in the same way, learn how it strikes people who really know what they're doing. So, pay close attention and you'll learn a great deal.

This, by the way, is why it's important to bring your best work, and not something you just dashed off the day before (people do this, believe it or not). When you've put everything you can on the page, you've done your best work. When someone shows you how it can become better, and you take that advice to heart, you will rise to a new level of skill. And this is how you get published—you just keep breaking through your old plateaus until your work is as good or better than what's already on the shelves.

The third benefit of these experiences might be the most important: the relationships you make with other writers at your table. It's not at all unusual to form lasting friendships this way, or to find people willing to swap pages with. This is a hugely important aspect to becoming a writer: cultivating a mutually supportive community.

As I was finishing a major revision of THE GAME OF LOVE AND DEATH, I received an unexpected email from someone who'd been at that writer's roundtable. She'd heard me read my second work-in-progress and asked me what happened to it. I explained that I'd chosen to focus on GAME. She offered to help me with that last revision, and I was so grateful for the second set of eyes—it made a difference when I was feeling pretty tired and bleary. (Her name is Denise Hart Alfeld and she does this sort of thing for a living, as it turns out.)

What's more, I'm working again on the book she asked about, and I know I can count on her for meaningful feedback when I'm ready. Even though she lives on the East Coast and I live on the West Coast, we can support each other in our work, a relationship that never would have happened had we not both taken the big step of our first roundtable critique session.

I hope to see you in New York in the next couple of months!

Newbery winner Linda Sue Park on writing: #LA14SCBWI interview

Linda Sue Park, photographed by Sonya SonesLinda Sue Park is one of the most beloved authors writing for children today. Her many awards include a Newbery for 2002's A SINGLE SHARD, which I saw performed on stage in Seattle, where it was every bit as powerful as on the page. Her recent title A LONG WALK TO WATER was a New York Times bestseller.

In addition to being a top-notch writer and storyteller, Linda Sue is also a fantastic speaker and teacher. I took one of her intensives a few years ago at a summer conference, and the revision I did based on her advice became my first published novel.

She'll give a keynote this summer in Los Angeles on how we can make every word in our manuscript count. I can't wait to hear what she has to say.

If you haven't signed up yet, and you're thinking about it, the earlybird discount ends June 15. You can register here.

On the fence? I get it. These conferences are a big commitment in every way. But they're worth it. I also came up with the idea for THE DINOSAUR TOOTH FAIRY after my first Los Angeles conference. At another LA conference, I heard my agent speak for the first time (and thought then how much I would like working with her). And, as I mentioned earlier, Linda Sue showed me exactly what I needed to learn to sell my first novel. In all, six years after my first national conference, I have five children's books either on the shelves or under contract. I know that would not have happened had I not taken that leap of faith.

Linda Sue was kind enough to answer a few questions. Here's hoping you find some useful information and inspiration to tide you over until August. 

What's the best piece of writing advice you've ever received?

I’ve read and received all kinds of wonderful *inspirational* advice, but by far the most important tip was PRACTICAL. From the great Katherine Paterson: When working on a novel, write two pages per day. Every day. That’s it. Idiot simple. I actually begin my daily writing session by editing the two pages from the day before (sometimes throwing away the whole dang thing), but I don’t get up until I’ve written two new ones. They don’t have to be good. They just have to be done. Because I’m going to start my next session by editing them, right? I’ve written all of my novels that way—two pages at a time—and if I hadn’t read Paterson’s advice way back when I first started out, I’m convinced I never would have finished even one of them.

How do you know when your writing is working?

When I feel excited to get to work every day. I’m not saying it’s ice cream and balloons every time I sit down to write, but if I don’t have an overall feeling of eagerness to get at the story, I know something isn’t working.

What sort of research do you do before a project, and when do you stop with that part and start writing?

I try to do the lion’s share of the research before I start writing. Of course, there are always holes I have to fill in along the way (hopefully small ones…). But I think of research as revving up my engine. It helps create excitement for the project (see above). I let the story itself guide me regarding the question of when to start writing. I reach a point where I feel I have a good handle on the topic, and I know this by the fact that my use of post-its slows considerably. (I stick post-its in place while I’m reading, then transfer that info later to typed notes.) At the same time, my eagerness to start writing grows until I can’t rein it in any longer. Reaching that stage has varied for every book I’ve written. Sometimes a couple of months, sometimes years!

Linda Sue Park online 
on Twitter: @LindaSuePark