I attended the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and illustrators) Oregon Spring Conference this weekend. This is a fantastic conference I usually attend annually and look upon as the launching point into the summer conference season.
As usual, Spring into Action did not disappoint.
Friday I spent with twenty other students in an all-day writing Young Adult novels Intensive (tracks for illustrators, picture book authors, and middle grade authors were also offered). The morning began with “Getting to Know Your Characters,” taught by Emily Whitman, the author of Wildwing (a novel I enjoyed just last month). In this workshop, Emily led us through a number of exercises for helping writers get to “know” their characters. I plan to use a number of these as I develop the main character, Branwyn, for my next novel.
Session two, “The Construction Zone: Building an Authentic & Complete World for Your Story” was taught by Martha Mihalek, associate editor of Greenwillow Books. This too was both a lot of fun and very useful to me as I am also working on developing Branwyn’s fantasy world. Martha ran us through an extensive list of tips and questions to ask ourselves as we create worlds for our novels, be they real or fantasy. She illustrated her points with samples from recent Greenwillow books. In addition to learning a lot, I’ll be adding Heather Dixon’s Entwined, Suzanne Crowley’s The Stolen One, and Rae Carson’s The Girl of Fire and Thorns (not coming out until September!) to my reading wish list.
The day closed with WOW sessions, an opportunity for each person in our track to read aloud the first page of his or her novel and receive a critique from Emily, Martha, and the rest of us. This, as usual, was so fun. It is amazing the range of subjects and genres represented by our group of twenty. I loved hearing what others were working on and their critiques because each critique provided a chance for all of us to learn.
Saturday was the day for whole group keynote addresses and break-out workshops.
Diane Muldrow, Editorial Director at Golden Books (Random House), was the first speaker. She talked about the history of Little Golden Books and in doing so shared the characteristics that make a book a Little Golden Book. She showed books that spanned the 70 years of Little Golden Books. Everyone got a kick out of seeing slides of books they remembered from their own childhoods. I saw a cover of The Saggy Baggy Elephant, a book I still own, and Margaret Wise Brown’s The Golden Egg Book, which I read to my granddaughter just last month. One I didn’t see, but still love is Margaret Wise Brown’s The Friendly Book. I’ve often considered using it as a base from which to launch a writing assignment. By the end of her talk, I realized I do have a manuscript that could be a Little Golden Book. I’ll be submitting it soon.
Bonnie Bader, Editor-in-Chief of Grosset & Dunlap and Price Stern Sloan (Penguin Young Readers), discussed “Writing for the Masses.” She called her publishing house the “Old Navy” of publishing as they put out books that are “cool, but inexpensive.” Grossett… and Price… sell books everywhere—bookstores, grocery stores, department stores… Their books include series and licensed products, and she says she can always use writers who can work fast and are easy to get along with as publishing licensed books is very much a timely and team activity.
For my first workshop, I attended Pamela Smith Hill‘s “Plot, Setting, and Character: The Essentials of Memorable Fiction.” Pam, who recently published a biography, Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life, used many examples from Wilder’s The Long Winter and Wilder’s correspondences with her daughter Rose to show how plot, setting, and character must be woven together to create the tapestry that is masterful fiction. I bought the book (the biography), and Pam graciously signed it using Wilder’s words that had so inspired her: “Because there are so many ways of saying things.”
For my second workshop, I attended Sandy Asher‘s “Whose Story is This? And Why? And Are You Sure?” For this workshop Sandy took us through a series of exercises based on the research of Abraham Maslow (I’ll bet you teachers remember him), Erich Fromm, and Julian Rotter identifying the core psychological needs of the individual. Based on her exercises, authors can more easily identify who should be the protagonist in their novels, who logical allies and adversaries are and why these characters can fill these roles. She even had us considering whether or not all our characters are even necessary and the qualities that make it possible to combine multiple characters into one. I found working through her exercises in class very useful in evaluating the cast of characters for Branwyn’s story, and intend to put in more time using the core needs approach in developing them.
The final keynoter was Martha Mihalek, with whom I’d spent Friday. Her talk, “Behind the Scenes: The Inside Scoop” examined three phases of the publication process at Greenwillow: evaluating submissions, acquisition, and the road to publication. She dispelled any illusions we might have had that if an editor loves your book she can just publish it. Martha has to consider many questions before taking a novel to an acquisition meeting. She needs to know not just that she likes it, but why. Writers can help her get their books to that all important meeting if their work reflects strong storytelling skills, a compelling voice, realistic characters, a plot that has both an internal and external arc, and a sense of authenticity that reflects what that author is passionate about and believes in. Martha again shared books and her enthusiasm for her work and her authors was contagious. I think every one of us left wishing we could be one of her writers.
There was a final panel discussion which began by talking about this new digital age of publishing. The consensus seemed to be that digital options are not “instead of” options but rather another exciting way writers can reach readers.
The event closed with a drawing. I gave away a free ten page critique, and I won an awesome thesaurus, twice as thick as the one I had at home!
I returned home tired from all the great information I had taken in, and excited. It looks like I’ll be making some submissions soon.