SCBWI in LA is my first writer's conference, and unsurprisingly, the effect has been the same. Since being here I've completely revised the beginning of my current WIP, and other ideas on making it better better BETTER are nagging away at my brain. Workshops and keynotes aside, just being around so many people with the same passions is inspiring.
So what exactly are the insights and words of wisdom floating in the air at the Hyatt Regency the past few days? Here's a few of the ones I grasped.
Writing for Kids: A Three-Quarter Life's Work
According to Aristotle, there are two forms of drama; comedy and tragedy, of which comedy is the lowest. He so jinxed us.
There are too many dead dogs in children's literature. If you show a room filled with fifth graders a book with an award sticker and a dog on the cover, they know that dog is going down.
8th graders are one of the most intimidating age groups to impress. Their highest form of praise is "pretty good." In other words, they're New Yorkers.
Ginger Clarke, Ken Wright, Josh Adams, Lisa GrupkaLiterary Agent Panel: Viewing the Marketplace
JA: The author-agent relationship is about teamwork and communication, being on the same page. You should strategize together, talk about what you're working on next.
KW: A good agent is your first editor, your shrink, your sherpa.
LG: Agents want to give your project its best possible chance, and they serve as your first line of defense in the publishing world.
GC: I am not your therapist, best friend, or mother, but I am your bad cop.
GC: If you have a mermaid book, query NOW.
JA: Timeless will always be timely.
LG: YA/MG with an international focus is something to look at, as is anything with crossover potential.
KW: There's more interest in YA literary and very young MG fiction just above chapter books.
GC: A good agent thinks globally. Certain types of fiction do even better abroad. Don't write books for other countries' markets, but consider not making it super American (i.e. a football story) if you are interested in selling abroad.
KW: There are no guarantees in selling in other markets; it's all subjective.
JA: It's usually a much better deal for authors when the agency markets foreign rights directly.
LG: If you (as an author) happen to speak another language fluently or have a connection to a country in some way, mention it to your agent, as it could be a marketing point.
Ebooks and Technology
GC: Agents don't want to give up audio/multi-media rights, and pubs want them. Film companies don't like the idea of enhanced ebooks – they want those rights, or they want to "freeze" them (i.e., the film company doesn't use them, but no one else can have them).
In addition, agent Andrew Wylie created his own ebook publishing service for his clients as he was unhappy with what publishers were offering. This raises the ethical question, can we (as agents) function as a packager for clients and direct them to a self-publishing service? In this dual role, does an agent take commission?
JA: Even publishers without audio programs want audio rights.
LG: There's so much new technology, no one knows what's next, so publishers are like "squirrels trying to gather all the nuts for winter." No one understands it all yet, so they all want it just in case.
Breaking In and Midlist Authors
LG: It's hard for midlist authors in any genre. Amazon's power grows daily, and publishers are beholden to them.
JA: In some cases it's easier to sell a debut than a midlist, somewhat published author because there's no track record for pubs to look at the numbers. Focus on quality fiction and you will find a home.
KW: In the last decade, children's publishing has focused on really big commercial books, but there's always editors looking for that great new voice. Hope is still there.
GC: It's a golden age as far as power within the children's publishing industry because people are realizing how powerful of an industry it is – there were adult sci-fi/fantasy editors sent to the Bologna Book Fair specifically to hunt down YA. It's being taken more seriously - actually respected - because it's what's making money.
KW: Summer might be better to query because agents have more time to read (submitting less, vacation time).
JA: Submit when your work is ready.
GC: Consider not submitting right before and after the Bologna Book Fair.
LG: There's little spikes in the fall around Frankfurt and spring around Bologna to avoid.
Creating Characters That Come To Life
Consider their details, their quirks, how they hold themselves, facial tics. Think about their language, the way they speak. Read it out loud to hear the language.
Write the first draft, and let it be crappy.
Do the research - know who your character is, get to know their interests. Try this writing prompt:
1. What does your character keep hidden in his/her underwear drawer?
2. Who would your character contact when something good happened, and what would that thing be?
Gail Carson Levine
Sweat and Magic
Plot and Suspense: Not all stories need to have a crisis, but they do need to have a shape. Plot arises out of situation. A crisis can be small; for example, you can create one just by having one character ask another, "What are you thinking?"
A challenging (and mean!) prompt: Pick a passage or scene from a book you don't like. Rewrite that scene and make it better.
Justin Chanda, Jennifer Hunt, Stephanie Owens Lurie, Francesco Sedita
A View From the Top: Four Publishers Discuss Our Industry
The economy is bad but improving, and all that means is publishers are paying closer attention to what they take on.
The children's industry is leading the charge in the digital era because teens are leading the charge in online EVERYTHING.
A particularly notable quote from Francesco Sedita: "I like to take risks on new voices."
Ebooks are great. If you don't think so, you're wrong. (Ha!)
Go home and write your best middle grade book - PLEASE!
If everyone goes home and writes to trends, then the vampires win...and we can't have that, people.
Rewrytz: How to be Your Own Best Editor
Quote of the day: "I hate my legs. If I revised myself, I could revise my legs with great legs! That's what's so exciting about revisions."
When you revise, ask yourself: What am I avoiding?
It's not a matter of a plot-driven story versus a character-driven story. That doesn't work, because the two need to come together for the book to be truly great.
Regarding character growth: They don't have to do a complete 180. The most moving books sometimes have characters that experience a small, yet significant change by the end.
Experiencing the dreaded "middle sag" in your book? Take a look at your subplots. They don't all need to climax at the end - a subplot reaching its climax in the middle could help add energy to that part of the book.
It's not always a matter of show being better than tell; it's just choosing when you do which. Sometimes telling is a good way to get a character's voice (particularly in first person narrative). But pay attention to emotion; for example, when a character is under stress, he's not going to be thinking intellectually. That's a better time to show.
Ask why, ask how, ask if its believable - get rid of the plot holes. If a reader doesn't question it, they won't see that you're pulling a "plot trick."
You can't baby your characters because life doesn't.
Sometimes you won't know the end of your story until you reach it.
Who You Callin' "Chick Lit"? Writing MG-YA Fiction that's Commercial and Classic
Coleen prefaced this with an interesting story about sitting in a workshop after her first book was published. The editor was speaking on commercial versus literary writing, and picking out authors in the crowd as examples of one or the other. When he picked her out as commercial, she was devasted, and told him so afterward. He was surprised, to say the least, and she's come to change her mind completely.
Some things are timeless and, in regards to MG-YA lit, are present in commercial and literary. For example:
- Family dynamics
- Search for/loss of a best friend
- Desire for a home, to plant roots
- Body image issues
- The journey
There was a lot of great advice in this workshop, but this story sums up my own personal feelings about commercial lit well. Coleen told us she wanted to be (and was) a picture book author. Her editor felt she'd be good at novels. She gave Coleen a random title - "The Wedding Planner's Daughter" - and asked her to think on it. Initially, Coleen thought...ew. Sounds so girly, so commercial. On a long drive home, she mulled over the title and asked herself what this tween daughter of a wedding planner would want. The answer? A father.
Coleen said she pulled over to a stop sign, sobbing, and proceeded to write for over two hours on a legal pad. Why did this idea touch her so much? Because at age 12, that's all she wanted too. All of these fun commercial ideas came out of it, but at the heart of it is something that touched her (and her readers) - and that makes it very classic.
She shared a few letters from tween girls, and I thought it was fascinating to see just what about a book made kids care so much they had to write to the author. Overwhelmingly, it's feelings of connections to the character and feelings of joy. I wrote these down word for word:
"I'm just like her - I have those feelings!"
"I feel like when I go to school tomorrow, she'll be there."
"I am SO much like her!"
"I haven't read anything for fun in a long time."
"I love this book because it's the perfect escape."
"This book was like medicine for a cold."
"I was inspired to write stories again."
Commercial books can still be classic when they tap into your heart.