Guest Blog by Meg Lysaght Thacher
Every year, over 700 writers, illustrators, agents, and editors converge on Springfield, MA, to meet and learn and talk about their favorite thing: children’s books. If you’re heading to Springfield next month, here’s how to make the most of your conference experience.
First, go read Francine Puckly’s Essential Conference Preparation Checklist.
Your First Conference
About a third of conference attendees are first timers. (You can recognize them by the subtle “First Conference” labels on their badges.) If you are one, be sure to attend the conference orientation on Friday afternoon. You’ll get information and advice that’s even more useful than what you’ll read here, plus you’ll meet the conference coordinators and the New England SCBWI team.
Listen well. Take notes. Participate! Don’t sit in the back—this isn’t high school.
Go into your one-on-one agent/editor meeting with an open mind. No matter how many times you’ve polished your work, no matter how many critique partners have read it, an editor or agent will probably see something that needs improvement. You paid for this advice. You will get your money’s worth by listening.
Visit the critique prep and support room. There will be a moderator and other attendees who can give you an idea of what to expect in your meeting, or help unpack your 15 minutes of advice.
There will be talks by lots of famous authors. Do not miss Jane Yolen’s keynote address. Just trust me on this one. It will be short, sweet, inspiring, and you will finally learn what BIC* means.
Other events include panels, open mic, peer critiques, an interview with Patricia MacLachlan…um, I don’t think the 24Carrot folks have enough space for me to talk about it all. Read your conference schedule!
* Behave like a professional.
SCBWI has recently adopted anti-harassment guidelines for its conferences. Would you like to be a professional writer? Behave in a professional manner. The NESCBWI conference is a place to learn, network, and hang out with fellow writers. It is not a singles bar.
* Meet new people.
Sit down at a table with someone you don’t know at least once. When you meet someone new, tell them your name, age group you write for, genre(s), and current project. Don’t just read each others’ nametags.
* Do not pitch unless requested.
There are 600 people at the conference, and all of them have at least two projects they’re dying to pitch. We could all stand around pitching for the entire conference, and we would not have a single human conversation. That being said, it’s fine to pitch when someone asks you to.
* Treat the agents and editors like the human beings they are.
There’s plenty of time after the conference to send them your manuscript and perfectly polished query letter. Would you rather that query letter started with “Remember me? I’m the one who monopolized your time during the Friday night mixer!” or “I really enjoyed chatting with you about our favorite classic fantasy novels”?
This is an excellent way to get involved, feel like you belong, help the conference to run smoothly, and meet folks. Plus, there’s free food on Saturday night, and you get to learn the secret volunteer handshake.**
Take Care of Yourself
You can always tell the people who don’t get enough food or sleep at a conference. By the last day, they have glazed eyes, are speaking complete gibberish, and have probably introduced themselves to you three times. Don’t stretch yourself so thin that you can’t make a good impression. There are quiet spaces listed in the conference schedule. Use them if you need to decompress or regroup.
And drink plenty of water!
Beware of False Comparisons
At any given NESCBWI conference, about a quarter of attendees are published authors or illustrators. Everyone else is “pre-published.” We’re all here to improve our writing and learn. Comparing yourself to other people will get in the way of that. Embrace your you-ness.
After the conference
A major benefit of attending a conference is that you get a list of agents and editors who will accept your query for a few months after the conference. The list includes people who don’t normally accept unsolicited queries. Follow the directions on the list. Show them how easy you will be to work with. Make sure you submit only a polished manuscript. You’ll learn a lot at this conference. Apply it! And never share the list with non-attendees. You paid for this privilege. And we don’t want to swamp the faculty inboxes.
Approach your conference with a growth mindset. Everyone is there to learn—even the faculty. Even the editors and agents. And especially you. So learn!
Meg Thacher will be attending her eighth NESCBWI conference this April. She teaches astronomy at Smith College and writes nonfiction for Highlights and the Cricket Magazine group. This is her first blog post of any kind.
Find out more about Meg:
Twitter handle: @MegTWrites
2017 meeting stats courtesy of Shirley Pearson (who will remind you to fill out your post-conference evaluation). Thanks, Shirley!
*Nope. Not going to tell you. Listen to Jane.
**There is no secret volunteer handshake. Maybe we should make one up!
by Annie Cronin Romano
When I finish a book, I usually pop onto Goodreads to jot down a few brief notes and mark the book as "read" on my shelf. I have been using Goodreads for several years. It’s a great tool for saving your “must read” list and tracking and organizing books you’ve already finished (See Kelly’s post: Use Goodreads to Build Your Virtual Library). I usually rate the books I read, primarily for my own reference, and I write brief comments in the “private notes” section to use to when looking for comp titles or mentor texts (i.e., rhyming PB, theme of overcoming fears, etc.).
Until recently, I rarely wrote any reviews. But during the past few weeks, I’ve started writing down more detailed thoughts and observations about the books I’ve read, and some of those have morphed into reviews. In doing this, I discovered something interesting: reviewing a book--writing down the specific reasons why a book appeals to me (or doesn’t)--helps me examine my own writing in a more critically constructive manner. By delving beyond basic notations on style or theme, I often hit on the core of what may or may not be working in my own manuscripts. Simply reading books and making a few quick annotations about style, POV, or theme didn’t give me that same insight. It wasn’t until I started writing down more reflective thoughts on the books themselves that I began to consider how those opinions carried over to my own work and could help me in strengthening my craft.
The comments may include my thoughts on plot development (Is there a strong hook? Sufficient tension? An effective plot twist?), character (Are the characters relatable? Well-developed?), and use of language (Did the writer effectively use language to evoke mood? Was the dialogue effective?). My review may also refer to how I felt after reading the story. Would I want to read it again? Would I recommend it? Why or why not? Writing down specifically what I think a story’s strengths are and what didn’t work for me helps me apply those strategies and techniques to my own writing.
The takeaway? When you finish reading a book, be it a picture book or young adult novel, write a constructive review. You can share it on Goodreads if you'd like or simply write it for your own benefit. Then keep your eyes open for what you can learn from your own observations.
Hosted by Kelly Carey
Tami Charles' debut middle grade novel launches this month and the buzz is already high for LIKE VANESSA (Charlesbridge). The novel is a Junior Library Guild selection and has earned a Kirkus starred review that praises the work as "a treasure: a gift to every middle school girl who ever felt unpretty, unloved, and trapped by her circumstances".
24 Carrot Writing is thrilled to have author Tami Charles join us for a candid interview exploring her path to publication, networking and marketing advice, and some thoughts on how she approaches working in different genres and with different editors.
A big 24 Carrot Writing welcome to Tami. Thank you so much for joining us.
Congratulations on the publication of your debut middle grade novel, LIKE VANESSA (Charlesbridge, Spring 2018)! Can you tell us a bit about your journey from teacher, to freelance writer, to author of a Kirkus starred review middle grade novel? (With ahem…more happy buzz and more books on the way!)
First of all, thanks so much for including LIKE VANESSA on your blog! I was a teacher for 14 years, beginning as a substitute teacher and then an elementary teacher of third and fifth grades. I’d always loved to read and write as a child. As I grew older, I sort of forgot about my dream of becoming an author. Once I became a teacher and started reading wonderful books with my students, my passion was reignited and my students encouraged me to write again. I’m so thankful for them! So, I started writing stories, picked up a few freelance article gigs along the way, which taught me discipline, and once I finished writing LIKE VANESSA, I knew I had to take the plunge.
In an online article, you credited your husband with the quote “If you want to be great at something, you have to surround yourself with people who are doing it and doing it better than you.” How did you act on that advice and how has it made a difference both for your pre-published self and for you now as a debut author?
My husband is one of the smartest (and funniest) people I know. When he told me this, I did the research and found the SCBWI and Women Who Write. Who knew there were organizations out there that supported aspiring writers? I had no clue! Joining these groups put me in touch with critique groups where I had the opportunity to have my work read by other writers. This level of feedback was crucial to improving my craft. I’m certain that being in a critique group played a role in my publishing journey. To this day, I still have online critique partners. The give-and-take is invaluable.
You once wrote “Having the talent is a HUGE part of making it in this industry, but don’t rule out the power of networking.” What is your networking advice? Can you give the 24 Carrot Writing crew a do’s and don’ts list?
To me, networking is everything! My grandmother used to say, “Closed mouths don’t get fed.” And she was right! You’ll get what you need to progress if you have the courage to ask for it. My two cents on networking: A thank you note goes a long way (this can be hard copy snail mailed or a quick email). Study the bios of who will appear at writer’s conferences. Get to know the editors’ and agents’ work to see if they’re the right fit for your work. Last but not least, don’t be pushy. Your work should be able to speak for you. If you get a rejection, take it with a grain of sugar. More craft, more work, and your time will come!
What do you wish to accomplish with LIKE VANESSA?
I’d love for readers to take away that no matter what hardship they may face in life, there’s always something beautiful waiting for them if they stay focused on the journey. This, I feel, is what Vanessa learns in the story.
For a bit more on LIKE VANESSA, check out this Author Discussion video.
At 24 Carrot Writing we are big on goal setting. Do you set detailed writing goals, broad yearly goals or do you fly by the seat of your pants?
How about all three? Ha! I do make it a habit to wake up, Monday through Friday, at 4:30 a.m. This is my best time to write when the whole house is sleeping and no one is bothering me for a snack. If I’m on a deadline, I do set (and try to stick to) my goals. But if not, I absolutely just go with the flow.
How have you approached marketing your debut book? What lessons have you already learned? What are you going to do again and what might you avoid next time? Has your experience as a teacher helped you construct school relevant material and visits?
Being a teacher for 14 years really guided my marketing decisions. Ultimately, I write for children, so I knew I wanted to incorporate a strategy that involved young readers and their responses regarding what they got out of the book. I learned a lot in creating this campaign—how to write a script, secure participants, budget, and edit. I don’t regret a second of it. Moving forward, I’m sure I will come up with new ideas.
In the meantime, I’d love to share a reader’s response video below:
You write both fiction and non-fiction, both PB and MG, and I hear that a YA is in the works. Can you talk about the different skill sets you employ to write in those different genres and for those different age groups?
Let me just say that I haven’t written a new picture book since last summer and I MISS THEM SO BADLY!!!! I’ve been busy writing MG and YA these days. And you’re right, I need a different mindset for those. For my current YA, it’s set in 1984, so I had to research slang, clothes, fads and watch way too many old school movies to capture the essence of the story.
Voice is important no matter what you write. To fully immerse myself, I can only work with one category at a time. I find the voice to be snarkier with middle grade than YA. With YA, I can cross certain lines that I can’t with middle grade. There are times I’ll write a swear word and I’ll cringe just a bit, but then I remind myself it’s totally allowed in YA.
With picture books, I have to become a student to capture the inner child as best as I can. This involves reading lots of mentor texts and Disney watching!
How did you find your agent? What have you found most surprising, most rewarding, and/or most daunting about working with an agent?
I found my agent the old fashioned way. I queried her. I can’t say enough about Lara Perkins. I have no clue how she manages to carry her client load and still make me feel like I’m her ONLY client, which I know isn’t true. She has quite the roster of successful authors! Lara is a cheerleader and she gives me a good kick in the literary butt when I need it. Her advocacy for my work has been the greatest reward!
So many writers spend years writing without the input from an editor. How did you find working with an editor? Did the experience differ between editors? And has the experience with your MG been different from working on your PB, FREEDOM SOUP (Candlewick, Fall 2019)?
Picture books are a different animal from middle grade. A lot of the work is in the hands of the illustrator and that takes time. I find the editing to be heavier with middle grade because there are no pictures to rely on. I’ve done some edits on FREEDOM SOUP and there will likely be further small edits once the art is in place. On the other hand, the edits for Vanessa were pretty ongoing and extensive. May I also add that I adore both Karen Boss and Carter Hasegawa? It’s been a great experience!
What is up next for you? And where can readers find you and your books?
Right now, I am revising the follow up to LIKE VANESSA. This will be a companion YA novel featuring Beatriz Mendez, who is a secondary character in LIKE VANESSA. She comes across as a bully in the first book, but in the follow up, we learn her backstory and see her passion for dance reignited. I also have a middle grade novel, DEFINITELY DAPHNE, publishing with Capstone in October.
Thank you Tami. We wish you continued success with LIKE VANESSA and in all your writing endeavors.
If 24 Carrot Writers would like to purchase a copy of Tami's debut novel LIKE VANESSA, please click on the links below. To learn more about Tami, please visit her website at https://tamiwrites.com/ .
by Francine Puckly
Conferences and workshops are invaluable to our development as writers and illustrators, but their disruption to our normal work schedules can be anxiety provoking. We launch into a frenzy of polishing manuscripts, digging through closets in search of clothing-beyond-yoga-pants, sharpening pencils, and buying really cool journals for note taking.
Knowing that some of the spring conferences are already upon us, I wanted to share the preparation checklist I’ve used for many years for the workshops and conferences I attend. I hope this guideline will take some of the angst out of planning for your next event!
Three Months Before the Conference:
Two Months Before the Conference:
One Month Before the Conference:
Two Weeks Before the Conference:
One to Two Days Before the Conference:
And Don’t Forget to Pack:
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