2.01.2011

10 Things I Learned at the SCBWI '11 Winter Conference

What a great weekend. The SCBWI 2011 Winter Conference was a blur of amazing keynote speakers, inspirational stories from legends of the industry, valuable insights from editors and agents, and connections with fellow writers. I came home informed, inspired and motivated to write. For those who couldn't make it, here are some nuggets I mined from the event:

1. IT'S ALL ABOUT VOICE.
Voice. That word must have come up twenty times. Especially by editors giving hints on what they look for in a good manuscript submission. A word to the wise: no matter how clever or touching your picture book idea may be, you MUST have a colorful central character with a distinctive and authentic voice. It's a combination of tone and character. It's about infusing dynamic attitude into a character and then getting inside that character's head and telling the story through them.

2. SHORT AND SWEET
Let your manuscript speak for itself and keep those cover letters and queries quick and to the point. A short, pithy, attention grabbing cover letter that represents the spirit of your work, but allows the editor to get quickly to the manuscript will serve you well.

3. SCBWI's EDITED BY LIST
Somewhere buried in Resources pages of the scbwi.org site, there is an "Edited By" list available for PDF download. I was unable to find the link within the current site, but Google came up with a link to the 09-10 list. This handy resource lists recent books published by publishing houses and exactly WHO was the editor for each book. Great for sending out personalized queries and covers rather than to "Dear Submissions Editor." Click here for the link.

4. A CALL TO ARMS
Linda Sue Park gave an inspiring closing keynote. One of many things she said that stuck with me: "Make every sentence worth reading." Enough said.

5. NO MORE DYSTOPIAN YA NOVELS, PLEASE!
Unless, that is, you have a really killer dystopian YA novel. Thanks to Suzanne Collins' popular Hunger Games trilogy, there seems to be a lot of people writing to the trend of teenagers living in dark, dreary future worlds. Many editors at the conference admitted to loving these kinds of books, but warned writers to really work hard at "world building" and creating fresh voices. Out of curiosity, I picked up The Hunger Games at the Strand Bookstore in New York before my flight back to San Francisco. I flew through 100 pages on the plane and can see the appeal. It's fun stuff.

6. FOCUS ON THE WORK
This theme came up in a few of the keynotes. It's easy to get wrapped up in our own issues that keep us from putting words on the page. "I can't do this, I can't do that." Instead, make an effort to direct your energy straight into the act of creating a story. Put aside self, and focus on writing.

7. FUNNY YOU SHOULD ASK...
Sunday's panel on Humor was, well, quite funny. Mo Willems, Lenore Look and Marvin Terban had the conference in stitches. Mr. Terban, who was a last minute substitute, took the stage by storm while shamelessly and hysterically plugging his book on comedy writing, Funny You Should Ask. Anyone looking to write funny, jokey children's books should pick it up.

8. I GOT GOOSEBUMPS
R. L. Stine's keynote was a series of very funny anecdotes that concluded with a life lesson to "Just Say Yes." Instead of finding excuses to say "no" to unexpected opportunities, embrace them, say "yes", and you might be surprised what good things will come of them.

9. FUNNY FROM UNFUNNY
Lenore Look gave some great pointers on how to create funny. One idea was to pick a subject matter that is actually grim and unfunny and then create unexpected moments to surprise the reader with funny twists. So much about humor is about the manner in which you tell the story. You can create diversions, let bad unexpected things happen to your characters, and give those characters deep flaws.

10. THE WELL
Patricia Lee Gauch encouraged us to discover our own original stories by dipping into "The Well" of our own lives, experiences and emotions. To be a great storyteller, we must pull from our guts those stored moments and feelings that lead to voice. She cited Yeats' "foul rag and bone shop of the heart", and encouraged us to "let go to story."