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?

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

Plus:

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.