complied by Becky Levine and Kristi Wright

This year’s Spring Spirit–a one-day SCBWI conference sponsored by the California: North/Central Region–was, as usual, a wonderful day. There is always so much energy in the air. People are excited to attend the sessions, but they’re also greeting old friends and making new ones. Going to writing conferences really reaffirms how much we learn from each other and how important our community is for fostering our writing.

The takeaways in this post are from sessions by the following speakers:

  • Russell Busse, Associate Editor at Hachette Book Group
  • Sean McCarthy, Sean McCarthy Literary Agency
  • Jennifer March Soloway, Andrea Brown Literary Agency
  • Alex Ulyett, Associate Editor Viking Children’s Books
  • Mark Teague, Author & Illustrator (his advice came from an author/illustrator place)

Industry Takeaways

  • From Russell Busse:
    • Publishing is a tiny industry, and maintaining positive connections is really helpful when promoting your book.
    • Engage in Twitter since that is where agents hang out—it’s the place to be!
  • From Sean McCarthy:
    • There is a recent rise in popularity for Middle Grade; it’s the “new YA” (but still no sex).
    • Nonfiction is the hottest space in picture books right now.
    • Don’t submit to agents and editors at the same time—if Sean signs you and you’ve already subbed to editors, he has to take them off his list. (Editors at conferences can be an exception.)
    • In your queries, avoid clichés, rhetorical questions, using students or other children as endorsements, saying there’s nothing like this on the market, addressing a query to anyone but the agent you are subbing to, quoting from a paid critique or a generic rejection, and using comp titles that are either too broad or too dated.
    • There are five types of rejection (in his experience):
      • Form—absolutely generic
      • Personal Form—generic, but might have your name in the salutation.
      • Personal—references specific things they liked/didn’t like. Unless requested, don’t submit a revised version; submit a different story (when it’s ready).
      • Personal with additional information—personal rejection, but specific invite to submit more work/new work and an offer to look at a revision (in which you’ve gone beyond just the things they mention).
      • Revision letter—1-2 pages with really specific details. There is no commitment on either side. It can let both parties see how they might work together. (Sean sends only a few of these each year.)
  • Both Sean and Jennifer March Soloway recommended that if you’re getting a lot of generic rejection letters, it’s time to rethink the first 10 pages (what you typically submit to an agent).

Craft Takeaways

  • From Sean McCarthy:
    • If you’re looking for character-driven books to study, a character’s name in the title is a good indication that it’s character driven. Eleanor and Park is a great example of a character-driven novel. (Sean’s always on the lookout for good character-driven manuscripts.)
    • Picture books can explore darker humor.
  • From Jennifer March Soloway:
    • Writing is about asking questions and solving problems.
    • There should be a specificity that engages the reader.
    • Do not deliver information through dialog. Dialog is a way to get into the character’s head and to build tension, and an opportunity for a character to speak in her own voice. Tension is often what’s not being said.
    • Write your entire first rough draft without showing it to anyone else to give yourself an opportunity to experiment. Write for story and get the first draft down, then revise for structure, plot, and character. Share later drafts with critique groups.
    • During revision, take out everything that doesn’t engage the reader.
    • Read your manuscript out loud; have others read it out loud as well.
    • A critique group is extremely valuable, helping you brainstorm, suggesting different solutions. (She required that her clients participate in a group).
  • From Alex Ulyet:
    • When writing, create real people. “Characters” are often caricatures.
    • The best books come from someplace deep inside.
    • A 100% character-driven book is an adult book. Kids need story.
  • From Mark Teague:
    • Word count is less important than where you put the words and how you space them out between scenes.
    • You want to create a sense of anticipation that will make the child want to turn the page.
    • When you revise a picture book, you’re almost always wanting to take away words. Once you’ve got the pictures, you know what can go away.

 

Once again, I came away from Spring Spirit with new perspectives and understanding, but I also walked away with revision ideas for two in-progress manuscripts. I love when that happens!

Special thanks to blog contributors Sonya Doernberg, Suzanne Morrone, and Becky Levine for their insights.

Did you attend spring spirit? What were your favorite moments?


Becky Levine writes middle-grade novels and picture books. She has written two nonfiction children’s books for Capstone Press and is the author of The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide from Writer’s Digest Books. Becky lives in California’s Santa Cruz mountains and, in her day job, is Foundation Relations Manager at The Tech Museum of Innovation. She also blogs at beckylevine.com.

 

Kristi Wright (assistant editor) is the Assistant Regional Advisor for the San Francisco/South region of the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators and a writing mentor for the non-profit Society of Young Inklings. She offers writing workshops at the elementary school level with a focus on point of view and sensory detail. Her indie-published futuristic middle grade adventure series, The Basker Twins in the 31st Century, raises funds and awareness for a rare, childhood-onset disease, Friedreich’s ataxia. Find her at www.kristiwrightauthor.com and on Twitter @KristiWrite.