8.11.2011

Tim's Top 10 Takeaways from #LA11SCBWI

Star Wars PJ's and a Corona. All for the kids.
Sitting in Gate 50B for six hours at LAX Sunday evening (only to have my flight canceled at midnight) gave me plenty of time to reflect on all the positive things I gained from the 2011 SCBWI Summer Conference. It was a marvelous weekend filled with a balance of nuts-and-bolts and inspirational moments. A massive undertaking with over 1,300 attendees, this event was a rousing celebration of SCBWI and its rich history while still serving as a dizzying resource of information from some of the industry's biggest and brightest stars. In other words, I'm glad I went.

10. TAKING HANDWRITTEN NOTES ON AN IPAD 2 WORKS!
Along with my shiny new iPad 2, my stylus from Target, and the excellent note taking app Notes Plus, I decided to ditch the spiral notebook and ballpoints and embrace the 21st century. I've also enjoyed downloading books I discovered over the weekend to my iPad 2's iBooks library. Books like Hatchet, Going Bovine and the Time Warp Trio series, for example. Anyway, my wife catches me staring at my iPad 2 with such loving eyes that she's grown a little jealous. I named it Sharla. To quote Ferris Beuller: "It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up."

9. ARE YOU THERE JUDY? IT'S ME, TIM.
Judy Blume made a surprise guest appearance when John Green canceled due to illness. It was like the Pope arrived. Ladies were fainting in the hotel lobby. Okay not really, but many, many writers were thrilled to have their life-long idol come and impart her wisdom at the conference. I must admit that I have never read any Judy Blume and that she is not my life-long idol. If you must know, Luke Skywalker is my life-long idol. Yet, I have known of Judy Blume since I was a grade schooler, wondering what all the girls were snickering about. During her Q&A with SCBWI co-founder Lin Oliver, Ms. Blume said "I'm more interested in what my characters are thinking, versus what they are saying." That single statement will inform my dialogue writing from here on out. Time to go read some Judy Blume...

The Hyatt Regency Century City in LA
8. FACE YOUR DEMONS AND PUT THEM ON THE PAGE
Saturday morning was a doozy. Donna Jo Napoli gave a stirring keynote regarding the importance of writing about terrible things. Though, she explained, it is life changing for the "unprotected child" (victims of abuse, racism, etc) to read about another unprotected child, it is even more important for protected children to read tough books about troubled young characters in order to learn empathy. And what better, safer place to learn these things than through a book? Ms. Napoli was then followed by writer/illustrator David Small, who presented a riveting video presentation of his graphic memoir, Stitches. Napoli and Small's one-two-punch to the gut affirmed that if we write what's from inside us, those places of pain, that's where the truly vital stories come from. That's how we do our service to society.

7. LOTS AND LOTS OF LEVELS
Bonnie Bader is Editor-in-Chief of two imprints of the Penguin Young Readers Group. She offered a detailed rundown of how leveled readers work. Leveled readers are short books for beginning readers that typically have a number and/or letter displayed on the front cover to indicate the reading difficulty. Our 6-year-old son, Nate, has been enjoying reading these simple books on his own for about a year now, and we're always looking for more. Turns out, so are the publishers. Level 1-A readers are in high demand. But just because they're easy readers doesn't necessarily mean they are easy writers. Very specific vocabulary, sentence structure, sentence length, concept, a strong character, and other criteria factor into creating an appropriately leveled reader.

My conference packet and name badge
6. A PICTURE IS WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS
Though I worked as a graphic designer for over 10 years, I don't consider myself an illustrator per se. I'm concentrating on the writing end of things in hopes that one day my books will be illustrated by top-notch artists. Still, I love beautiful artwork and, like anyone, am drawn to books by their enticing covers. Rather than attending another writing session, I sat in on "The Art of the Picture Book", led by Martha Rago, Associate Creative Director for HarperCollins Children's Books. Seeing visual examples of great picture book art set my imagination ablaze. I left the workshop with more new ideas for books than any other session I attended. Hmmm... what does that say about me? At any rate, it was good to step out of the box and hang with some cool illustrators for an hour.

5. WHEN I GROW UP, I WANT TO BE JON SCIESZKA
Say it with me: Shess-kuh. Like Fresca with an SH at the beginning. Jon is a jack of many trades. He writes early readers, picture books, and middle grade, including a book series called Spaceheadz that crosses over into a whole online world. Jon's keynote was basically summed up like this: "Get it out there in whatever form you can." Before the conference, one of my critique group partners encouraged me to change my business cards. They read: "Tim McCanna, Picture Book Writer." I was trying to be clear and definitive. Picture books are what I've been concentrating on. But, she felt it pigeonholed me. I should be open to other formats. So, I updated my website and cards to read "Children's Writer." Good thing, too. After hearing Jon Scieszka speak, I was struck by a middle grade series idea of my own that I plan to start working on ASAP!

Viewing the Gala from my hotel room balcony
4. THE THREE WISE MEN OF CHILDREN'S WRITING
Norton Juster. Gary Paulsen. Richard Peck. It was almost too much to handle. What a weekend. These three giants of the industry told their tales and passed on their words of wisdom with such perfect wit and style. Richard Peck, with clenched fists, commanded us all to "Read like a wolf eats." Gary Paulsen, author of the YA classic Hatchet (which I sadly had never heard of until this past weekend) closed by encouraging us to write for the young kids who need the help and still have a chance to learn from books before they become adults. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth. I can't wait to pass this mind-bending classic on to my kids.

3. A "LITTLE" PUBLISHER DOING BIG THINGS
During an agents panel, Tracey Adams mentioned in passing that she liked what she was seeing from an independent publisher called Little Pickle Press. Having never heard of Little Pickle, I jotted down the name in my notes. After the conference, I visited their site and discovered that they are based in the Bay Area and they are a certified B corporation. What's that? Here's what they say: Certified B Corporations are a new type of corporation which uses the power of business to solve social and environmental problems. B Corps are unlike traditional businesses because they: meet comprehensive and transparent social and environmental performance standards; meet higher legal accountability standards; build business constituency for good business. Sounds good to me! Heads up, Little Pickle. Manuscript submissions coming soon...

Waiting for takeoff with Sharla (lower left)
2. IT'S GOLD, BARRY. GOLD.
Literary agent, Barry Goldblatt gave a frank and in-depth look into how he approaches working with writers and editors. It was a refreshing experience to have so many facts checked, myths dispelled and questions answered. Barry encouraged us to stop freaking out about our query letters and let the stories speak for themselves. But the best bit of advice he gave in regard to finding an agent was, "Find the BEST place, not the FIRST place." That golden nugget of truth can be applied to many things in life, actually.

1. IT WENT ON AND ON AND ON
Three days. Thirteen keynote speeches. Six workshops. A poolside pajama party. An illustrator portfolio showcase. The Golden Kite Awards luncheon. Autograph sessions. AND, an incredible 20 minute critique for Beetle and the Dung Ball with the best children's book writing coach I could have asked for. (More on that in my upcoming post-- FOLLOW MY MANUSCRIPT! Chapter 6: The Critique.) Not to mention that I didn't even stay through Monday, which featured additional day-long writing and illustrating intensives. The event was massive, and a true celebration for those who answer the call to write for children. By all means, if you can't get to LA or New York for the national conferences, then seek out your local SCBWI chapter, go to your regional events, find a supportive writing community, and keep writing.