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.

Creating Brilliant Places to Write: The Writing Barn

The Writing Barn

The Writing Barn

There are many wonderful things about being a writer in the Austin, Texas, community, and one of the best is The Writing Barn. I admit I’m biased. The Barn was created by my brilliant friend and author Bethany Hegedus (Between Us Baxters). But no one can leave The Writing Barn without being just a little thrilled to know that a place like this exists and feeling that desire to want to come back.

Developing a great space to write and create is a skill, and I wanted to talk to Bethany about this dream space and what she’s doing to help writers everywhere.

Okay, Bethany, you know how much I love what you’ve done with this place. And to think that it’s a former horse stable! But it’s much more than a pretty space. What was your mission when you created The Writing Barn?

Our mission at The Writing Barn is summed up in our tag line: Retreat. Create. Celebrate. We offer writers, and others, a place to get away, clear their heads, read, write, and relax with private or group retreats. We offer classes and workshops to aid writers in the process and creation of their projects. And, we celebrate the journey along the way with visiting authors and illustrators autographing the “party porch.”  We also are available for book launch parties, book-themed baby showers, and even small weddings.

You have a lot of wonderful events there, including one I attended with your wonderful agent Alexandra Penfold. Tell us what you’ve got in the pipeline.

Author Lisa McMann signs the party porch at The Writing Barn

Author Lisa McMann signs the party porch at The Writing Barn

Oh, there is a ton going on at The Writing Barn this fall. Award-winning Latino author Francisco X. Stork (Marcelo and the Real World) is leading our last Advanced Writer Weekend Workshop for the 2013 season. The Advanced Writer Weekend events are a combination of lecture and workshop and the weekend is kicked off with a Cocktails & Conversation get together on the porch. Stork will be lecturing on “Thoughts, Gestures, and Dialogue” and we will discuss how to use reflection, imagination, and authorial technique to create and deepen our character’s complexities. The application deadline for the Nov. 8-10 workshop is Sept. 12. It’s a real treat to have Stork teach with us and I can’t wait to get many ah-ha moments for my own writing. You can apply here.

On Sept. 14, we have Triple Threat: Voice & Character with three amazing S&S authors: Newbery Honor author Kathi Appelt, Susan Fletcher, and Uma Krishnaswami. Our triple threat team will be co-presenting and writing exercises will be sprinkled throughout the workshop. Plus, included with the registration fee, each attendee will receive a hardcover copy of each author’s latest book: True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Appelt, Falcon Glass by Fletcher, and The Problem With Being Slightly Heroic by Krishnaswami. For more information see here and to register, email info@thewritingbarn.com.

Author Maggie Stiefvater at The Writing Barn

Author Maggie Stiefvater at The Writing Barn

The weekend of Sept. 21 and 22 is going to be a busy one. On Sept. 21, Michael B. Druxman, a veteran Hollywood screenwriter, will be teaching The Art of Storytelling, which will focus on screenwriting but has techniques for all writers to apply to their work. Then, in the afternoon, Michael Noll will present his Read to Write Workshop, where attendees examine scenes from novels and short stories and apply author techniques to their own works-in-progress. On Sept. 22, Dean Lofton, offers her popular Write Your Life as a Woman class. Attendees unplug, write by hand, and enter an inspirational and no-judgment zone.

For teens, in October, Yale grad and young-adult author Sara Kocek (Promise Me Something) leads College Essay Bootcamp, and I will be teaching Perfecting the Picture Book, one of our weekly class offerings, and agent Alexandra Penfold with Upstart Crow will be our agent guest, via Skype.

Told you it’s going to be a busy fall! But there is something for everyone. Writers in Texas, writers traveling to Texas. Austin is known as the Paris of Y,A and we’re thrilled to offer a diversity of programming. We hope to see many of your blog readers join us for these fantastic events.

How do you choose the people you bring to The Writing Barn to do workshops?

Sara Zarr fields questions at The Writing Barn

Sara Zarr fields questions at The Writing Barn

As a writer myself, I start with thinking about who I’d love to learn craft from. Then I approach The Writing Barn Brain Trust—writing friends from all over the country, mentors of mine, including Cynthia Leitich Smith and Kathi Appelt, and others—and generate a list of superb authors who not only write well but are tremendous teachers. Then I send out the invites. I was thrilled this launch season when Sara Zarr answered with a big ole’ YES before she even finished reading the invite email. She’d heard of The Writing Barn, had seen pictures of us online and was dying to come. Her sold-out event this April really took the work we do to a whole new level.

Locally, we have been and will be available for writers and others to rent and host their own classes and workshops.  NLP Austin is hosting a weekend workshop in late September and we’ve had interest from The Daring Way, facilitators who’ve trained with Dr. Brené Brown, author of the best-selling Daring Greatly and new O magazine contributor. It’s exciting to get inquiries and see what groups and types of events are interested in our space.

What do you hope people will take away from their time at The Writing Barn?

The Texas Book Festival party at The Writng Barn

The Texas Book Festival party at The Writng Barn

When writers come for retreat, I hope they leave feeling they spent their time well at the page, and they were able to do so without the distractions of daily life. I hope they leave renewed and fall in love again with the work.

With our classes and workshops, I hope writers leave armed with new tools for their toolboxes and plenty of ah-ha moments that they would not have had if they didn’t place themselves in a creative and safe learning environment.

And, with our parties, boy—I hope they’ve had a grand ole’ time, chatting under the trees, meeting new people, and if it’s a book launch, with a brand new autographed copy of someone’s dream tucked in their arms.

What are your future plans for The Writing Barn?

Lots! An expanded Advanced Writer Weekend Workshop series, some whole-novel retreats, perhaps some offerings for illustrators and in 2014, we will host a launch event for my new picture book, Grandfather Gandhi, co-written with Arun Gandhi and illustrated by Evan Turk. 2014 is going to be hopping!

Thanks, Bethany! Looks like I’m going to be spending a lot of time at The Writing Barn next year.

Check out Bethany talking about the Barn in this interview:

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.