Make writing worth your time, says Jennifer Nielsen

Jennifer Nielsen

Jennifer Nielsen

“Writing is such a diverse field with so many options and possibilities, it’s easy to choose the route with the immediate payoff, or the one that best strokes your ego, but if they don’t get you closer to what you want most, then it’s not worth your time.” — author Jennifer Nielsen

I love this quote from author Jennifer Nielsen, whose The False Prince series I could read over and over and over again. Her books are filled with twists and emotion and deep characters that couldn’t possibly have just rolled off her fingers so perfectly in a first draft.

Writing is not easy. Or rather, I’ll say storytelling, because a lot of people think writing a novel is the same as a shopping list. But storytelling involves creating great characters that live and breathe as much as the reader, locations that feel like you could step right into them, and plots that are more complicated than a teen’s love life.

I’ve heard writers say they’re ready to be done with their manuscripts and to send them out into the world, either to agents or editors or through self-publishing. While I completely understand that feeling, I always urge them to hold off, put it in a drawer and work on something else for a while. Sometimes, our desire to give the story to someone else is because we’re not sure what more to do with it, but that doesn’t mean it’s ready and can be the best that it can be.

To put our best work out there, we have to go the hard route, the long route, the frustrating route. Because that’s the route with the most rewards: characters we never want to say goodbye to, settings we wish we could live in ourselves, and stories so complicated, we’d love to stay up late unraveling.

Jennifer Nielsen will be speaking and teaching at the Austin SCBWI conference in March. I can’t wait. Hope I see you there.

My first writing conference — organizing

I’ve said on this blog numerous times that I’m a HUGE fan of writing conferences. When I took on the Regional Advisor job for the Austin chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, I wanted to honor the organizers of all the wonderful conferences I’ve been to over the years and put on an event that was just as good as theirs.

When myself and the rest of the regional leadership team — Assistant Regional Advisor Shelley Ann Jackson and Illustrator Coordinator Amy Farrier — sat down to start planning, we had four goals, all things we’ve experienced at the best conferences we’ve been to:

Matt de la Peña

Matt de la Peña inspires the crowd; Photo by Sam Bond

Learning: Whether it’s craft or career, the best conferences make me leave with pages and pages filled with notes. The more I’ve learned about publishing, the more I’ve learned the importance of craft, so we wanted to make the craft of writing and illustrating the focus on our conference. But, in Austin we’re blessed with a membership that’s varied from those just dipping their toes into children’s books all the way up to multiple-book published authors, so having some offerings for the more experienced writers and illustrators was important too.

Sharing: I don’t mean sharing work here. I mean sharing experience and support. Publishing is not an easy industry to be in, filled with highs and lows, disappointments and rejections. It’s easy to feel alone when you’re the sole creator of your work. Whether you’re writing a story or developing an illustration style, having people around you who know what it’s like is so important. Critique partners and friends are also supporters, and being surrounded by like-minded people for a weekend can leave you with enough love to last a while.

(l. to r.) Editors Laura Whitaker, Madeline Smoot and Sarah Ketchersid and agents Abigail Samoun and Liza Pulitzer Voges

Laura Whitaker, Madeline Smoot, Sarah Ketchersid, Abigail Samoun, Liza Pulitzer Voges; Photo by Sam Bond

Inspiring: Never underestimate the power of inspiration. Writing and illustrating for children is perhaps one of the best jobs in the world, but as I said in Sharing, the industry isn’t necessarily easy on our egos. But we don’t do it just for us. We’re the only ones who can tell our stories, but to keep pushing on, to keep creating, we need to stay inspired. Keynotes and sessions at conferences, hearing about the challenges others have overcome, can be like fuel to the flame within us. We need to keep it burning.

Next Level: As in coming out of the conference and feeling like I can take my work there. I usually come out of a conference with at least one nugget that I can hold on to to push my work and career to the next level (sometimes a giant leap, sometimes a small step, but something that moves forward), and I wanted that for our attendees. Whether craft or professional, I wanted each attendee to leave with at least one nugget that they can put in their work to give them a boost in their next step.

Kelly Murphy and Laurent Linn

Illustrator Kelly Murphy and art director Laurent Linn; Photo by Sam Bond

Last weekend, our first conference was held. Bouncing off the goals above, we  tried to have something for as many people as possible, novelists, picture books and more. We also introduced some new items, including a Professional Development track, with sessions on school visits and pitching, and an all-day illustrator track.

We invited speakers who could inspire, teach and offer opportunities for signing with an agent or getting a book deal. Award-winning author Matt de la Peña and award-winning illustrator Kelly Murphy gave the keynotes, reminding attendees why we should push our art. Simon & Schuster Art Director Laurent Linn encouraged the illustrators to grow in their style. Agents Liza Pulitzer Voges of Eden Street Literary and Abigail Samoun of Red Fox Literary gave sessions on plot, series and more. And Candlewick Press Executive Editor Sarah Ketchersid and Bloomsbury Children’s Books Associate Editor Laura Whitaker taught writers about picture books, novel opening lines, rasing the stakes and looking your best in front of editors.

P.J. Hoover, Liz Garton Scanlon, Nikki Loftin and Don Tate

Local authors P.J. Hoover, Liz Garton Scanlon, Nikki Loftin and Don Tate; Photo by Sam Bond

We also invited four published authors (Liz Garton Scanlon, Bethany Hegedus, P.J. Hoover, Nikki Loftin) and an author/illustrator (Don Tate), as well as a local micro publisher (Madeline Smoot of CBAY Books), who live in the Austin area to do sessions and sit on panels, reminding attendees there’s so much to learn from the people in our own community, as well as providing inspiring success stories that are close to home.

When the weekend was over, the conference proved to be a raging success. Attendees said it was the best they had been to in a long time, and even our faculty said they left feeling energized.

I was left happy, satisfied and humbled. But not so much because of the work we did. I mean, sure the months of organization helped it run smoothly; and yes, the researched schedule and speakers offered opportunities; and wow, our local published authors was incredibly generous in their door prize donations. (And I can’t thank our speakers and volunteers enough for all they did!)

Austin SCBWI 2014 conference attendees

Attendees at the Austin SCBWI 2014 conference; Photo by Sam Bond

But what made this conference so special were the lessons, sharing and inspiration that all our faculty members gave, and our attendees’ willingness to learn, share and soak up as much inspiration as they could, all so we can get to that next level, not just for ourselves, but for our work and for children’s books.

And that’s what conferences are all about.

If you haven’t checked out an SCBWI regional conference somewhere in the world, I highly recommend you do. They’re all listed on the organization’s events calendar. And if you can make it next to Austin February, we’d love to you. We’ve set the bar high and plan to push it even further in 2015. Hope you can join us.

Inspiration at the Austin SCBWI Conference

At the Austin SCBWI conference last weekend, author/illustrator E.B. Lewis pointed out that writers and and illustrators are the same people, all trying to create art the captures peoples’ imagination.

Whether we’re using paint or words, we’re both making pictures that tell stories. And those stories have to have a few things to be successful:

Drama: E.B. pointed out shadows create drama in pictures. In stories, it’s the shadows behind what people are saying, the subtext, the conflict.

Mystery: E.B. said pictures shouldn’t give you all the details, because if the brain has everything it’ll get bored and move on. Writers also want to give just enough detail for readers to understand but not so much that there’s no need for them to figure things out on their own. Readers, like art viewers, want to be able to interpret some of the details themselves.

Off-center composition: E.B. explained that the center of an image is the “not important” area; what’s important should be off-center. Similarly, a story shouldn’t have characters that are all centered (okay, maybe I’m stretching this a bit, but you get the point). Characters should be a little off-center, because real people are off center. No stereotypes because in real life, even the most stereotypical person has his or her own identity.

Dark and light: E.B. showed us that good picture composition contains three dark corners and one light. Stories don’t need that structure, but it’s good to have dark and light. Too much dark, and readers will be depressed. But equally, if everything goes too smoothly, what’s the point of the story?

One bit of advice that E.B. gave applies to everyone: “Love playing in the sandbox.” A good reminder that no book is brilliant in the first draft and the best art comes from experimentation.

So, embrace your inner artist, get your hands dirty and create.

Got any insights you’ve learned from a conference lately?

Why Writing Conferences Are Priceless

Writing is solitary. Just us with a computer and a head of ideas. But we’re not really alone. And going to a writing conference is a wonderful way to celebrate that.

Of course, seminars at writing conferences are great learning opportunities. Query letters, characters, plot, dialog — I’ve learned about all these at conferences. But as I’ve become more experienced, I still come away from conferences filled with inspiration.

And then there are the friends you make. Priceless.

As a children’s book writer, I feel very lucky to be a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I’ve attended both national and regional conferences held by this organization, and I’m never disappointed.

If you’re a member of the SCBWI, take advantage of the conferences. The national ones are huge, overwhelming, intense, exhausting and fabulous.

The regional ones are just as fabulous, but, because they’re smaller, they also have more intimacy and give more opportunity for networking with agents and editors. For example, I’m lucky to live in an area that has four regionals conferences yearly that are within a five-hour drive (thank you, Austin) and check out the people I’ll have the opportunity to meet next year at just the Austin and Houston conferences:

At Austin (Feb. 8-10, 2013):

  • Crystal Kite Award-winning illustrator Patrice Barton
  • Author Shutta Crum
  • Author and Agent John M. Cusick of Scott Treimel NY
  • Agent Erzsi Deak of Hen & Ink Literary Studio
  • Peachtree Publishers Associate Publisher Kathy Landwehr
  • New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author Cynthia Leitich Smith
  • Award-winning author Cynthia Levinson
  • Award-winning author-illustrator E.B. Lewis
  • Agent Rubin Pfeffer of East West Literary Agency
  • Roaring Brook Press, Neal Porter Books Editorial Director Neal Porter
  • Caldecott-winning Author Liz Garton Scanlon
  • Chronicle Books Editor Tamra Tuller

At Houston (April 13, 2013):

  • Agent Josh Adams of Adams Literary
  • Author-Illustrator Peter Brown
  • Simon & Schuster and Paula Wiseman Books Art Director Lucy Ruth Cummins
  • ABDO Publishing Editorial Director Stephanie Hedlund
  • Agent Paul Rodeen of Rodeen Literary Management
  • Balzer+Bray Assistant Editor Sara Sargent
  • Simon & Schuster Assistant Editor Danielle Young

But that’s not all. Conferences often also have contests, which are excellent opportunities. At the 2012 Houston SCBWI conference, I won the Joan Lowery Nixon Award and have been working with Newbury Honor author Kathi Appelt for the past year.

As I said, priceless.

What’s your favorite conference story?

How to Choose a Writing Conference

Frances Yansky and Samantha Clark at the Austin SCBWI conference

Me (right) with author-illustrator Frances Yansky at the 2012 Austin SCBWI conference, photo courtesy of author Cynthia Leitich Smith.

As I’ve mentioned many times on this blog, writing conferences are gggrrrreeeaaatttt! (For example, the recent Austin SCBWI conference and Houston SCBWI conference, where I was nominated for the Joan Lowery Nixon Award.)

The chance to hang out with like-minded people and talk about books is wonderful enough, but there’s also the seminars where you can build your craft, breaks when you can make new friends and, often, critiques and contests where you can get one-on-one feedback for your work.

And, for most conferences, the attending agents and editors will accept unagented submissions from conference attendees (complete with a sticker or special code identifying them), which is a great opportunity, especially when many editors and even some agents are closed to submissions.

Going to conferences, however, can get expensive, so how to choose?

1. See what’s available.

Big writing organizations such as the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, of which I’m a member, have both national conferences and smaller regional conferences and dates for both are easy to find on the organization’s website and magazine. Organizations for other genres of writing have similar events. Whatever you write, find organizations that fit and check out their website for upcoming events. You can also look at more general writing organizations, such as the Writers League of Texas, which offers opportunities for all writers.

A search for writing conferences online can yield results, and many websites and blogs keep a running list. Here’s one example and here’s another.

If you are interested in seeing a particular agent or editor who you think might like your work, look at their blog or website and see if they have a list of upcoming events. Even if you don’t get to meet or talk to the agent or editor at the event, seeing them speak is an excellent opportunity, especially with agents, to get a feel for how they work.

2. National vs. regional.

Both national and regional conferences have their benefits. National conferences are packed with superb speakers, from editors to agents to best-selling authors, and generally have something for everyone, from beginner to seasoned writer.

They’re usually longer, two or three days, and more expensive. At just one or maybe two days, regional conferences are a less expensive option and have other perks.

While national conferences do allow for some networking with other attending writers, regional conferences are better if you’d like to speak to an agent, editor or featured author. At the national conferences, the speakers are generally so busy, and the crowd that wants their attention so huge, that they are often pulled out of one room and into their next engagement without much time for socializing. Regional conferences, however, are more intimate affairs. The speakers often eat lunch with the attendees and don’t mind a quick chat in the breaks (as long as you don’t follow them to the bathroom to pitch your book).

For beginniners, I would recommend going to a regional conference first, because the nationals can be overwhelming.

3. Research speakers.

Deciding which conference to go to is all about the speakers. If you write picture books and a conference you’re looking at is all about novels, you might want to find one that has more to offer you. Equally, if you’re a novelist and all the speakers are geared toward picture books or non-fiction, keep looking.

Check your local conferences first, but if their speakers don’t aren’t geared toward what you write, look at the other regional conferences your organization holds. Going to these might cost you an airfare and hotel, but they will likely still be less expensive than the national conferences.

When you’ve got the list of speakers for the conference, read the bio that is included for each speaker. For agents, look at their clients’ books. For editors, see which books they’ve worked on. And for both, read the types of books they’re interested in. If they’re similar to yours, this might be a good conference for you.

4. To critique or not to critique.

Getting a critique is an invaluable opportunity to get one-on-one feedback about your work from a professional. The cost is extra, ranging from about $20 to about $80, but most are on the lower end. Once you’ve secured your critique spot, you’ll send your writing (usually 10 pages, sometimes plus a synopsis) a couple months in advance. Then on the day, you’ll meet with your critquer face-to-face for about 10 minutes.

Critiques are offered from agents, editors and authors at conferences. If you’re interested in getting a critique from an agent or editor, sign up early. Identify the conference you want to go to, and register as soon as it’s open. Critique spots for agents and editors are usually sold out fast. But don’t shy away from the authors. They have been where you are and can help you bring your writing to the next level.

Before you sign up for a critique, however, do your homework. Just like you researched speakers, research the critiquers. If you write science-fiction and a critiquer likes novels in verse, you might not be the best match. Look for critiquers who like the type of stories you write. You don’t want pure praise in your critique — although it’s always nice — but you do want feedback from someone who gets what you’re trying to do so the notes can be as constructive and helpful as possible.

5. Extra seminars.

Some conferences offer breakout sessions taught by professionals for an extra cost. You won’t always have the schedule during registration to compare what you’ll be missing, so this is another area to consider before you buy. If you’re at the earliest stages of writing your first book, you might not need, say, a course on book marketing just yet. But if you’re polishing your manuscript to get it ready for submissions, a session on query letters could be useful.

Again, make sure the the professional teaching the session is someone who will be compatible to what you need right now. If that query letter session is on non-fiction proposals, it might not work.

When you’ve picked your conference and registered, start looking forward to a great time. You will have one.

How do you choose what conferences you go to?

Benefits of Writing Conferences

Houston SCBWI 2012 Conference logoThere’s a wonderful feeling you get after a writing conference. An excitement and energy that comes from spending a day or weekend with people who are just like you. With an SCBWI event, that feeling is even more exaggerated, due to the warmth and generosity of the writers and illustrators of children’s books.

I spent Friday and Saturday in Houston for the Houston SCBWI chapter’s annual conference and have that same energized glow today. The writers attending were at all levels of their writing journey, from those who are happy to be at their first conference to those who have a few manuscripts and conferences under their belts, and to those whose books are already on shelves or debuts are about to be released (including Crystal Allen, whose How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy sounds wonderful).

At this conference, I made new friends, hugged old ones, heard how illustrator extraordinaire Dan Yaccarino‘s penchant for trying new things has helped his career, how Penguin Young Readers Group considers books for aquisition (a handy title information sheet with hook, selling points and comparable titles), what agent Jennifer Rofe asks herself while reading a manuscript (so what? — that’s what she asks herself) and learned about the magic of chapter books from Scholastic‘s Jenne Abramowitz (a character that kids want to hang out with is important).

I also received the best gift: a nomination for the Houston SCBWI’s 2012 Joan Lowery Nixon  Award from Dial Books for Young Readers’ Heather Alexander — Thank you, Heather!

If you’re considering going to a writing conference, do it! They are invaluable, even if all you take away is a bigger passion for writing and a longing to get back to your story.

Have you been to a conference lately? What did you get out of it?

Austin SCBWI Conference: Definitely Something For Everybody

Austin SCBWI 2012 conference logoI spent last weekend at the Austin SCBWI conference, and reafirmed my understanding of why going to events like these are so good for writers.

I was there in a volunteer capacity, helping to organize the critiques and make sure they went smoothly for all participants. On that front, it was wonderful to see the nervous faces going in and the smiling, filled with enthusiasm faces coming out. Not all critiques were glowing, but it seemed like everyone came away with at least some nugget of information that would help them make their writing better.

I did manage to get to a few sessions, including Greenhouse Literary agent Sarah Davies‘ great talk on the making of an extraordinary book. She talked about getting the wow factor, the emotional pull of a story that makes readers not only see the characters, but wonder what they would do in the same situation.

I was also lucky to get into a small-group intensive with the awesome children’s book marketing guru Kirsten Cappy of The Curious City. With publishers’ funds increasingly shrinking, authors have to do more to get the word out about their books to make them a success. Many people think that means spending thousands of dollars on a publicist, but Cappy showed us that a little thinking out of the box can grow a book’s publicity and maybe even help others at the same time.

The key, Kirsten said, is providing opportunities to others that are themed around the subject for your book. For example, creating story kits and providing them free to teachers and librarians, who are also seeing shrinking budgets. Or sending your book and a kind letter to organizations that could use your book to promote their agenda, for example, the National Eating Disorders Association if your book is about, say, a child affected by obesity.

The day after the conference, I was thrilled to attend a workshop by the brilliant children’s book author Lisa Yee, who demonstrated with the help of two of my favorite writers, Bethany Hegedus and Nikki Loftin, that there’s more to bad guys than evil. Bad guys have feelings too, and they don’t think of themselves as villains. As writers, we should know our antagonists as well as our protagonists, including the reasons why they do nasty things. It was great fun creating well-rounded bad guys and seeing them from different perspectives.

After her seminar, Yee and the wonderful agents Sarah Davies, Jill Corcoran of the Herman Agency and Erin Murphy of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency commented on anonymous first pages. It was wonderful listening to the great writing and varied writing from this community, read so well by Nikki Loftin and Tim Crow.

The agents said that the problem with most of the first pages they read, including in the slush pile, is that they start in the wrong place — not enough characterization, not enough action, too much backstory, etc. Finding the perfect place to kick off your story is so important.

(On a personal note, my first page got very good comments, with one paragraph pointed out as unnecessary but the rest “compelling.”)

There was plenty more at the Austin SCBWI conference, including a talk by the fantastic author Donna Jo Napoli that got a lot of attendees talking and thinking. I missed her seminar, which was about the reasons why we write, but here are some links to others who were there:

Salima Alikhan‘s Why Donna Jo Napoli is Amazing

Lindsey Lane‘s Thinking in the Dark


Lisa Yee blogged about her experience at the conference

Cynthia Leitich Smith compiled a bunch of pictures, including the award she won with her husband Greg Leitich Smith for the wonderful help they continually give the Austin writers community

The Austin SCBWI website posted loads more pictures in a slideshow

Nikki Loftin published more pictures, of both the conference and Lisa Yee’s seminar

Bethany Hegedus put some photos on The Writing Barn website

And here’s perhaps the best news from the conference, writer Lori Stephens was signed by Jill Corcoran. Congratulations, Lori.

Thanks to everyone involved with putting on this great conference, especially Regional Advisor Debbie Gonzales and Carmen Oliver.

Write On Con

If you’re not already devouring every bit of information on the first annual Write On Con online conference, head over there and start browsing (after you’ve finished reading this post, of course.)

Write On Con is a fabulous idea, and I was excited about it when they first announced the event. I love going to writer conferences. You can get so much inspiration out them. But they can be expensive and it can be very difficult to get away.

With Write On Con, you don’t have the benefit of networking face to face with other writers, agents and editors. But, the WOC organizers has done a great job of getting wonderful speakers to dish about interesting subjects. And the dishing is both through videos and text. Best of all it’s free.

And you can still network, through leaving comments on pages and through live chats with speakers.

Here are my favorite seminars so far:

Refining Your Craft With Each Book by author Janette Rallison

Bringing the Funny by author Rachel Hawkins

Give Yourself Permission by editor Molly O’Neill

and, of course, author Josh Berk’s awesome keynote.

It can be a bit difficult to find older items from the home page, so here’s a hint: Head straight to the Write On Con schedule then click on what looks good to you.

Write On … Write On Con!

New agent and how to make the most of conferences

Revision update: Chapter 28 out of 30. The rework idea I had for that chapter I was working on worked. Phew! Got three chapters to go to finish.

First up today, news of a new agent. Former Delacorte Press/Random House Children Books editor Marissa Walsh has opened Shelf Life Literary, a boutique agency specializing in pop culture, humor, narrative non-fiction, memoir and children’s books. Marissa’s publishing career also includes working at Nan A. Talese/Doubleday and Ellen Levine Literary Agency. Marissa also wrote the comic memoir Girl With Glasses: My Optic History and the young adult novel A Field Guide to High School and teaches children’s writing at Gotham Writers Workshop. Good to check out.

Also, I’m guest posting today at writer Jordan McCollum‘s blog. The post is about writing conferences, how to choose the ones to attend, how to prepare and how to make the most of the conference once you’re there. The post will be put up this afternoon, so check it out.

Finally, come back here to DayByDayWriter tomorrow for an interview with new literary agent Mandy Hubbard.

Write On!

Editor Alexandra Cooper on submitting to an editor

Revision update: On chapter 18 of 30. Getting a little behind my goal, so tomorrow, I’ve got to step up my game.

Alexander Cooper headshot

Alexandra Cooper

In my third report from the Houston SCBWI conference, Simon & Schuster editor Alexandra Cooper talks about submitting to an editor, including herself.

If you missed my earlier reports, Scholastic editor and author Lisa Ann Sandell talked about making your query letter package stand out, and Balzer & Bray editor Ruta Rimas talked about what makes a great book.

Alexandra said she works with picture books, middle-grade and young adult fiction, but not easy readers or non-fiction. The exceptions are a few non-fiction picture books that came out of an idea she had and she assigned to a writer and illustrator.

When considering manuscripts, she takes into account the balance of her list as well as the list of her imprint. She said editors are responsible for bringing in books to add to the company’s bottom line, so they can’t always publish everything they’re passionate about. They will turn down good books if the imprint already has similar books, for example. However, she said, outstanding books won’t be turned down.

Editors want a balance between backlist authors and new authors (looking for writers she can work with again), as well as a balance between commercial and literary books.

Right now, she’s signing more novels than picture books, but it’s cyclical, she said. One of the reasons publishing companies are more cautious on picture books right now is the cost and economy. Color picture books are printed in China, and the weak dollar is making printing costs rise.

Finding an editor is like dating, she said, and as such, writers should want someone as committed to the book as the writer is.

The Internet and conferences such as the SCBWI ones are good places to find out about editors, she said. (And I fully agree. These conferences are great!)

As for the issue of most publishing houses not accepting unsolicited manuscripts except through conferences, Alexandra said a lot of the time it’s because of legal reasons. The company doesn’t want to open itself to a lawsuit if they turn down a book that’s similar to one they’re already working on.

However, she said the first book she acquired was from a query, so they do work.

Check back tomorrow for notes from National Geographic‘s Nancy Feresten.