The introvert's guide to surviving a conference

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

Register here!

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.


The Game of Love and Death has a German book cover!

My books are better traveled than I am—something I plan to fix. But for now, I am looking forward to the German, Brazilian, Turkish, and Georgian editions of The Game of Love and Death (which has a lovely edition already out in the UK). 

The German cover just arrived. Isn't it lovely? 

Loewe-Verlag is my German publisher. Ausgezeichnet!

Loewe-Verlag is my German publisher. Ausgezeichnet!

The entire jacket is superb. 

Author Kate Messner: an #NY16SCBWI interview


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:

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):

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


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

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

Great contemporary standalones: 
BROWN GIRL DREAMING – Jacqueline Woodson;
THREE TIMES LUCKY – Sheila Turnage
LIESL & PO – Lauren Oliver

Humor (of very different kinds): 

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

Mike Curato: an #LA15SCBWI success story

Sometimes when a new author/illustrator makes a huge splash with a debut, it can seem as if that person came from nowhere and became an overnight success.

Almost always, though, that overnight thing took years to achieve. The SCBWI is full of such stories, and one of my favorites is Mike Curato, a true gem of a person whose debut book, Little Elliot in the Big City, charmed everyone (including a New York Times reviewer). I remember seeing his portfolio a few years ago at a conference and I was smitten—and it's a thrill to see what's become of Mike and his charming polka-dot elephant.

His is one of the SCBWI success stories who'll be featured at the summer conference in Los Angeles, and I'm delighted to give you a preview here.

(You can still register for the conference, which might just be the best investment ever you make in your writing and illustrating dream.)

So, Mike: You're an SCBWI success story now. What was the Mike Curato story leading up to your success? How many years did you work for this, and how did you refine your skills?

In 2003, after graduating from Syracuse University with a degree in illustration, I moved to Seattle, WA. As you can imagine, forging an illustration career fresh out of college is quite a challenge. Those early years were dedicated more to survival than to my dreams. There I went from working as a barista to retail to office admin to graphic designer. I worked hard, and I became successful as a designer. However, that whole time I was still daydreaming of making picture books. Over the years I sent out manuscripts and post cards, entered illustration competitions, had an occasional local show, all in the hopes of jump-starting an illustration career.

Then in 2010, I was approached to illustrate a picture book by a local aspiring author, Amy Jones. We met several years prior via a show that she curated. Amy was going to self-publish, an she was going to pay me to make her book, Mabel McNabb and the Most Boring Day Ever. I had three months to make the entire book, and I did it. Though we did not have the resources to ensure the book's success, the experience emboldened me.

I created the book using a style that I had been developing for a bit: pencil drawings with digital color. After years of being unsatisfied with my painting work, I went back to my original love, drawing. I combined my hand work with Photoshop skills that I learned as a designer. To experiment with this new technique, I focused on a character that I had doodled in my sketchbook since moving to Seattle: a small white polka-dotted elephant. After Mabel McNabb was finished, I threw myself into making more personal work featuring "Elly." I booked a show at my favorite cupcake cafe to give myself a deadline. The show went up in December 2011, and the response was very positive.

Two months later, I gathered up my portfolio and attended the 2012 SCBWI Winter Conference in NYC. I suppose the rest is history.

Little Elliot, Big City released August 2014, eleven years after I graduated.  

Oh, hey, Hillary Clinton. We see you have a copy of Mike's book. We approve.

Oh, hey, Hillary Clinton. We see you have a copy of Mike's book. We approve.

If you could give your old self any advice when starting out, what would it be?

I think I'd tell myself to spend less time crying and more time creating more personal work. The work is for yourself. Make things that make you smile inside. Above all, don't give up. I remember when I started contemplating that it may never happen, and that eventually I would have to accept reality. Thank God I wasn't satisfied with that.

What's your process for writing and illustrating a picture book like? Do you start with images or with character or with story?

In the case of Little Elliot, the character came first. I was at an extreme advantage since I had spent ten years getting to know him. In "design speak," I already understood the Little Elliot brand. The images came next. There were several images that haunted me for years until I finally committed them to paper. Then, I would write about the images and try to answer the questions that came from them. Then, I jumped back and forth between writing and drawing. In the end, all the images and words go back to who Elliot is as a character.