by Francine Puckly
My fellow 24 Carrot Writing bloggers and I just returned once again from the SCBWI New England spring conference. At Kelly’s suggestion a few years ago, we sit down together to list our top takeaways once we return from workshops and conferences. It’s a powerful practice!
I attended many informative workshops this year, but the key takeaway for me was from Ekua Holmes’ keynote address—and specifically the wise words of her mother. Her mother encouraged her not to become overwhelmed by the future and all of the tasks in front of her, but rather just “do the next thing.” This advice has centered me more than I could have imagined, and it fits with Kelly’s idea of the “do-it-today takeaways”—using the conference energy to take quick actions that will give you a boost toward your goals.
I have three big and messy projects in front of me this year, and I’ve been slow to make progress on them. But instead of racing too far ahead on my to-do lists or getting overwhelmed by the magnitude of my projects, this idea of doing the next small action item is simple yet profound.
My three “do the next thing” conference takeaways:
Have you recently attended a conference, a long workshop, or a webinar geared toward your writing and illustrating life? If so, reread your notes. Think about how you can incorporate your newly acquired knowledge by doing the next thing in each of your goal areas.
Don’t wait to take small actions that will propel you toward your goals. As we approach the midpoint of the calendar year, what’s your next thing?
A Post-Conference Letter
~ by Amanda Smith
Dear First-time Conference Attendee,
Phew! What a weekend! Is your head still spinning with all you heard and everyone you met? Are you finding yourself alternating between euphoric highs, having walked the hallways with legends, and gloomy lows with whispers of “but do I belong?” haunting your dreams?
Let me assure you, I know the feeling. I attended my first NESCBWI conference seven years ago. I was just returning to writing and not sure of anything yet. The inevitable ice-breaker “What do you write?” stumped me all day long. Because I went to the conference to figure that out! As I shared workshops with seemingly confident people who were much more knowledgeable than I was, I felt my voice getting smaller and smaller. By lunch time I was barely a whisper. Somehow, in my oblivion, I ended up at a table with YA and MG writers who were all either published or on the cusp of getting published. They included me, took interest in my work, encouraged me, gave advice, and showed extreme kindness.
I left the conference knowing this:
So, dear First-timer, here are some post-conference tips for you:
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 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:
By Francine Puckly
Like many of you, I take my continuing education and improvement of my craft seriously. I attend numerous workshops and writing conferences each year, and I collect handouts and scribble down pages of helpful notes as presenters take me through plotting and character development exercises, marketing tips and Scrivener tutorials. It’s a wealth of information. But what happens once I’m home? The notes are stacked on a desk or worse…tucked away in haphazard fashion, never to be seen nor heard from again.
I’ve learned that by taking just a few minutes after I return from these workshops and conferences to file my notes by topic, the information remains invaluable as I tackle various writing projects in different stages of development.
The first step in organizing notes by topic is to actually take notes by topic—separating each subject as it’s covered in your workshop or conference. The notes have to be taken on paper that can be easily separated (versus in a bound notebook, such as the beloved composition notebook). I use letter-sized, wide-ruled notepads to take notes. I keep all notes on separate pages. For example, if I’m at a conference and I move to a new workshop, I start notes for that session at the top of a new sheet of paper rather than continuing on the previous page. Other notepads will work as well—spiral notebooks and 5x7 hotel notepads to name a couple.
When I return home, I separate the pages from my notepad by subject and staple the pages from each workshop together. I keep any handouts with the notes I took, (either loose or attached with a paper clip). Presto! Notes by topic. Those notes are filed in manila folders by subject.
Once I have the notes in subject folders, I place those into an extra-capacity hanging file folder labeled “Craft.” Each subject file contains all related presentations. (You can read about my obsession with manila folders and extra-capacity hanging files in the-portable-office.html.
If I’m working on revising a draft of my manuscript, I grab the “Revision” file and peruse it for ideas and reminders for cutting, tightening, and pulling subplots together. If I’m struggling with my opening chapter, I pull out the “First Chapters” file to get inspired for fixing that. If I’m stumped about my website and how to improve the design, I pull out the “Web Design/Web Presence” file. You get the idea!
If, like me, your notes are taking over your office space, take a few minutes to think about what supplies you could add to your conference book bag in order to make your information more accessible and beneficial to your craft the next time you set off for a workshop. It only takes a few minutes of planning and filing to make the year ahead more productive, and all the money you’ve spent on conferences and workshops will be well worth it!
COME PLAY A LITTLE
~ by Amanda Smith
Encore is a yearly event where some speakers from the NESCBWI Spring conference are invited to present their workshops. Two Encore events are offered to provide opportunity for more writers to learn from these excellent teachers. This year’s Encore II was held at Devens on Saturday, October 21. Because of the nature of Encore, the event is not themed, yet, somehow, every year, in the subtext of what the presenters are saying, a theme emerges. This year the common thread was PLAY.
Dana Meachan Rau, author of over 300 books, including Robot, Go Bot! and books in the Who Was? series, presented a workshop about injecting emotion in characters to encourage empathy from readers. She led us through writing exercises where we played around with writing a character’s emotion through a setting or an object. When we play to explore emotions, we connect deeper with our character’s emotion. “First we feel, then they [the readers] feel,” she said.
Molly Burnham, author of the Teddy Mars series and 2016 Sid Fleishman Humor Award winner, talked to us about humor and writing funny. She implored us to play for a minute, to horse around with ideas, to do seemingly silly three-minute writing exercises, like matching different animals with human actions, and finding the funny in it. Sometimes we get so bogged down in the work of it all. The deadlines, the goals, the next chapter. Playing is freeing for the exact reason that it is not a work in progress. And yet, playing accesses a different part of our brains, which sometimes leads to breakthroughs in our current work. She said, “It’s great just to play, we are artists after all.”
Under the direction of sticky-note queen and author AC Gaughen (Scarlet, Lady Thief, and Lion Heart) we played around with character traits. We scribbled pieces of identity on sticky notes. She then urged us to discarding the go-to traits, the comfort zone, and go with the unexpected, which leads to the development of more interesting characters. AC also had us play around with our character’s central traits. Through play we discovered how changing what is central to our character changes the conflict.
Chris Tebbetts, whose books include the Middle School series and Public School Superhero with James Patterson, as well as the Stranded series with Jeff Probst, presented on Improv and Play. He reminded us that “purpose should not be more important than play” and encouraged us to sometimes throw out the rules and just write. Write without thinking, don’t get logical, and see where it leads. “Improv helps limber up one’s creativity.” He also challenged us to sometimes “play with a limited set of tools.” Setting our own rules and staying within those rules help us think outside the box. Play off-screen, with visual techniques such as story-boarding and maps.
Erin Dionne (Models Don’t Eat Chocolate Cookies, Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking, Ollie and Science of Treasure Hunting and more) rounded the day off with quirky revision techniques. Revision lends itself to play, as not one technique works for every project. The revising writer needs to play around with a variety of hands-on techniques including story-boarding, spiderwebs, grids, calendars and maps, until they find what works for that particular project. “Problem solving is an act of creativity,” she said.
The presenters reminded us that every activity connected to our characters and story is considered work. So even when you are playing, you are still working. Playing is just more fun! We are writing for children after all.
From Flashlight to Spotlight
By Amanda Smith
So, you have been writing and revising and polishing and editing. You also attended an SCBWI conference or two, and printed out the highly coveted faculty submission guidelines. You poured over editor and agent names, highlighted deadlines, and bookmarked MSWL. And then you stuffed the guidelines in the bottom drawer along with your manuscripts, and climbed under the covers with a flashlight and a book. Because putting your precious story OUT THERE is just too much.
Or life got too busy. It was spring, and then the school year ended, and then it was summer, and then the school year started, and phew! And now you’ve missed all the deadlines. Oh, well, next year after the conference you will do better.
Make a plan. Today. Because your beautiful story, your heart spilled onto the page, will never ever see the light of day if you don’t send out those submissions. Lots and lots of submissions. And if you don’t cowboy up and deal with those rejections. Lots and lots of rejections. And keep on sending out submissions until you get the call or the email. And then there’ll be dancing. But first. Submissions.
So, here’s my plan: (Because yeah, this is totally me.)
No more excuses. This year, grasp the wonderful opportunities provided by SCBWI. Put the flashlight down, creep out from under the covers, and send your stories out into the big wide world of publishing. We promise, we will hold your hand when the rejections come in. But one day you’ll get the call. And then there’ll be dancing! Lots and lots of dancing.
Downloadable pdf files:
A Writing Conference for Three
By Kelly J. Carey
I took a bold step this year and decided not to attend the NE-SCBWI conference. I love this conference, and making the choice to miss out on inspiring lectures, helpful lessons, and the fun of communing with my fellow writer’s was not easy. But here is where I was mentally.
I was not lacking in inspiration. I had writing projects in various stages from tidy third and fourth drafts, to word files with a few phrases of an idea, to a synopsis lacking middle grade novel that were all waiting my time and attention.
I was not lacking in motivation. For months I had been drifting off to sleep thinking about those projects and waking up wondering if today would finally be the day I would find time to dig into them. Driving in the car, I’m thinking of one of those word files. Waiting for my son’s lacrosse practice to let out, I’m wondering about the third draft of a picture book. I have not lathered my hair in the shower in weeks without ruminating on a plot path of a new story.
My desk is piled with notebooks from prior conferences stuffed with craft improving handouts, epiphany inducing notes highlighted with stars, writing prompts that actually make my fingers itch, and sticky-note worthy quotes from authors and editors.
I had inspiration, motivation, and tips and tricks galore. What I lacked was activation.
I had fallen into the trap of talking and learning about my craft without actually practicing it. At a certain point, you need to take a break from learning and apply what you have learned. You need to write. So that is what I did this spring. I poured over those great notes and applied suggestions on voice, editing, and character to three picture book manuscripts. I employed those fantastic writing prompts to flush out characters and plot in two developing picture book ideas. I still need to write the synopsis for my middle grade novel, but now those motivational quotes feel more like congratulatory toasts.
Don’t be afraid to take a pause from learning.
I recommend that you shut your door, quiet your brain, and let yourself write. Relax and know that you have skills, that you have worked on your craft, that your mind is open and ready to be creative. Use all your time, energy, and focus to create.
The conferences, the lessons, the writing community will be there – but take a moment to just be you and your writing. A productive pause, to apply all the knowledge that you have collected, can be the most rewarding conference you have ever attended.
You, your knowledge, and your desire to write – a private conference for three.
Have a great conference.
Refreshed Reading Lists
by Francine Puckly
One of my favorite takeaways from the SCBWI Winter Conference in New York City each year is a refreshed reading list. Tying into Annie’s blog last week (March into National Reading Month) and the celebration of National Reading Month regardless of age, here are some young adult fiction and craft books being discussed by agents, editors and fellow writers at the conference. Select a couple titles to add to your reading list!
Young Adult Fiction Highlights:
All the Truth That’s in Me by Julie Berry
The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry
The Dark Days Pact by Alison Goodman
The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman
Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
The Smell of Other People's Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock
Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge
Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver
Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
Chime by Franny Billingsley
Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy
Caraval by Stephanie Garber
American Girls by Alison Umminger
If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo
Graceling by Kristin Cashore
I Capture the Castle by J.D. Salinger
Wonderful Feels Like This by Sara Lövestam
Aftercare Instructions by Bonnie Pipkin
Dear Reader by Mary O’Connell
The Skin I’m In by Sharon G. Flake
Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales
Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han
Books with a Craft Focus:
The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults by Cheryl Klein
Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom
Edit Yourself: A Manual for Everyone Who Works with Words by Bruce Ross-Larson
The Hero Is You by Kendra Levin
Books in the Category of “Why not?”:
The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits by Les Standiford
The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe
None of these books casts a spark for you? Fear not! Generate your own list. Chat up your local librarian and bookstore salesperson or ask critique group members and friends for suggestions. I’ve asked complete strangers about the books they’re reading. My experience has been that people who love books love to share their thoughts about books! So whether the coming days are rainy and dreary and you’re curled up on a couch or the first warmth of spring beckons you to a park bench, take along a new story.
Encore II: All about heart
By Amanda Smith
Last Saturday five fabulous speakers and almost eighty eager writers gathered at Mount Wachusett Community College. Every year NESCBWI offers a one-day mini conference in the fall where the cream of the crop from the Spring conference present their workshops. This year, for the first time, NESCBWI offered two Encore events, to make these valuable workshops available to more writers.
Even though all the speakers’ presentations were excellent and full of practical and eye opening advice, often the most honest, most useful tidbits are shared once the presenters go off script. These bite size bits of revelation are what I would like to share with you.
Anna Staniszsewski (Power Down, Little Robot, Once Upon a Cruise) spoke about finding the emotional heart of your picture book. She urged us to ask the hard questions before we start drafting. Knowing the heart of your story will keep you on track as you write. She also reminded us not to teach a moral. “Your point will get across if you tell a good story.”
Kristine Carlson Asselin (Any Way You Slice It) gave an excellent presentation on query letters. My biggest take away from her talk is that there are rules, and ways to break them, but above all, your query letter should be professional and appropriate. Her workshop connected well with Anna’s in that as writers we have to know the heart of our story in order to pitch our work project convincingly and effectively. She summed it up with this quote by Albert Einstein, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
With humor, music, and some boss handouts, Annie (AC) Gaughen (The Scarlet Trilogy) lead us to discover our antagonist’s story. It was a fascinating exercise to dig into my antagonist’s background, character traits and motivations. Through Annie’s guidance, I discovered that what the protagonist views as his strengths, are often his greatest weaknesses in the eyes of the antagonist. That contradiction lies at the heart of your story and exploring it builds strong conflict.
Erin Dionne (Ollie & the Science of Treasure Hunting, Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking) helped us become better critique givers and receivers. Sticking to the unwritten theme of the day, she challenged us to identify the core of our story. “What is the thing, that if you take it away, makes your story collapse?” she asked. One of her most helpful off script tips was to keep a different note book for every book you are working on. Why didn’t I think of this before? No more flipping through three different notebooks containing conference notes, and free writing, and research on multiple projects to find a hurried note scribbled down in the middle of the night. No more filling through folders with slips of paper flying everywhere. Thank you, Erin! You have changed my life!
To end our full day, Trisha Leaver(The Secrets We Keep) challenged us to bleed onto the pages, to dig deep and discover the emotion behind each action. She encouraged us to explore senses and perceptions, and how they are colored by emotion.
Even though I have a notebook filled with advice from Encore II, my biggest take away is this: Do not underestimate the power of the writing community. I walked into that room on Saturday feeling overwhelmed by synopsis writing and the querying process, doubting the worth of my work. By listening to these presenters, and discussing ideas with my peers, and being in a room filled with creative energy, I was pulled out of my funk. Some workshops confirmed what I was doing right, others gave me the tools to go fix what I was not yet doing right, but most of all I am refocused.
I would like to urge you to get with your writing community. Find a workshop in your area, check out SCBWI’s website for regional meet-ups, have coffee with your writing group, join an online group. It will do your heart good! We cannot be lone rangers in this endeavor.
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