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.

Three Cs Book Review: The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy

I’ve been wanting to do book reviews for a while to spotlight the great books I’m reading, but I wanted to lean my reviews toward writing and editing and couldn’t come up with quite the right format. Until I had a sleepless night during the Texas Library Association convention in Houston earlier this month and inspiration struck.

So here’s my first Three Cs Book Review, Three Cs for Character, Conflict and Concept. In each review, I’ll focus on these three — very important — aspects of a book.

In my first Three Cs Book Review, I’m thrilled to be picking apart The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy, the debut novel by the wonderful Nikki Loftin and a fun middle-grade adventure.

The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid AcademyFirst a little about the book. Sinister Sweetness follows Lorelei as she starts a new school, Splendid Academy, which was practically built overnight after her old school mysteriously burned down. Splendid Academy looks to be too good to be true, with bowls of candy on every desk, optional homework, gourmet meals served by waiters in the cafeteria and the best playground any kid could want. When her new friend Andrew goes missing, Lorelei must solve the mystery about the school and take on their beautiful teacher, who’s really a witch.

The book isn’t out yet. I was lucky enough to beg Nikki for an advanced reader copy. But The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy will be released on Aug. 21 from Razorbill and is available for pre-order now on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Indiebound, among others.

Now onto the review…

Concept: Sinister Sweetness is definitely a high-concept story. It’s Hansel & Gretel for a modern audience. Instead of the gingerbread house, Lorelie (Gretel) and Andrew (Hansel) are enticed by Splendid Academy. And they’re not alone. Lorelie’s older brother Bryan, her best friend Allison and lots of other children from her neighborhood are thrilled to be attending the new school. And who wouldn’t? Here’s the description of the playground (note: the excerpts I’ve used are taken from the ARC, so the wording might be slightly different in the final version):

“It was the most elaborate, most breathtaking playground I had ever seen. It took up what must have been two acres, with every single piece of equipment you could imagine. There were monkey bars, swings, climbing frames and slides, all brightly painted and gleaming with newness. I even saw some of the old equipment that was practically outlawed at other schools — I counted two carousels, four seesaws, a high bar, and two high balance beams. … [Plus] a life-sized chessboard with red and black painted pieces as big as me. Just beyond that was a rock-climbing wall that must have been thirty feet tall, and two zip lines that stretched from the edge of a soccer field to a tall platform near a half-sized football field, complete with goalposts.”

And in the classroom:

“Every desk was decorated in gleaming jewel colors, and the name of each student was painted in large, looping cursive letters. Mine, which was next to Allison’s, had been written on with gold ink. I’d always liked the way my name looked in cursive, but this was the best handwriting I’d ever seen. The giant L was gorgeous; it looked like a swan swimming toward the edge of the desk.”

Writing in the first-person point of view of Lorelie, Nikki has done a great job of letting readers see the space the character’s in from her perspective. We don’t just get descriptions, we see everything through Lorelie’s eyes and understand how it feels from her emotions. Notice how she doesn’t just describe the lettering, but how Lorelie reacts to it, and what that L reminds her of tells us a little about the character.

Nikki changed the witch of the gingerbread house into a teacher, a beautiful, kind teacher who lulls Lorelie into her sinister plans. So, teachers who eat children and children enticed by a fabulous, shiny new school? High-concept indeed.

Character: The main character, Lorelie, is a determined yet self-conscious girl. Like many of us, she’s trying to figure out who she is and her place in the world. But for her, the dilemma is made worse because her mother died and she now has to accept a step-mother into their family.

This is where Nikki does a great job of delving deeper into the characters. Lorelie isn’t just a girl enticed by a gingerbread house type of school. She’s also a girl who desperately misses her mother — a fact known all too well by Splendid Academy’s evil teacher. It adds an addition layer to the Lorelie as a character and to the story as a whole.

And the writing gives us a clear view of Lorelie’s personality, a strong voice that we can hold onto and follow throughout the book.

“I stepped back, stunned. I didn’t even know her! If this was the sort of teacher they had here, forget it. They could bus me across the district. I didn’t care.”

The other main character of the story, Andrew, is also not two-dimensional. Facing childhood obesity, Andrew understands that food isn’t always your best friend, and when Splendid Academy puts whatever the children want on the menu, he becomes suspicious.

Not stereotypical, Andrew is smart and brave, although underappreciated by many of the children. And his strength helps Lorelei when times get tough.

All of Nikki’s characters are well-rounded, from Lorelie’s dad, who’s loving but pre-occupied with his new wife, to her best friend Allison, who’s taken in by the splendor of the school.

Conflict: With a school that calls to children and a witch who wants to eat them, this novel is obviously stuffed with conflict. But from that basic Hansel & Gretel inspired idea, Nikki took the story a step further, giving it more depth with other issues from the characters.

Lorelie’s relationship with her older brother isn’t stellar, although she’d like it to be better:

“I wished I could get Bryan to hand out with me again. We never did anything together anymore, not since Mom died. Well, besides fight.”

And she’s not getting along with her stepmother Molly and struggling with the fact that her father has asked her to welcome Molly into the family.

“…As if Molly knew anything about children. She’d never had any, and I’d heard her telling a friend on the phone she was glad she only had to be a mother two of the darn things. Except she used a different word than darn.”

But to really pile on the conflict, Nikki shows us that Lorelie is unhappy with herself. As much as she tries to be a good daughter, sister and best friend, she believes she’s a horrible person because she killed her mother.

Whether this is true or not isn’t important — the answer is in the book, and I’ll let you find out for yourself — what’s important is that the character development adds extras layers to this story and to the character. Even if readers don’t feel that they’re responsible for their mother’s death, they all have felt at least one time that they weren’t enough. We can empathize with Lorelie and understand how her pain affects the decisions she makes that drive this story.

Overall: The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy is a fun and inventive story, a re-imagined fairy tale that’s entertaining throughout. Like many of the best fairy takes, it has dark undertones, but nothing that’s too scary for the middle-grade audience it’s intended for. And it has enough depth to keep older readers happy too. I highly recommend this novel both for pleasure reading and as learning reading for writers.

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.