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This is the final installment of my conference rehash.  If you’ve been following along, you already know what a fun, information-packed event it truly was and why I wanted to break this into several posts.

Sunday was no less info-packed than the previous two days, except by now my eyes are beginning to glaze over from all the amazing art I’ve seen and my brain is verging on overload.

The morning began with two outstanding panels. The first was the AGENT PANEL which included Jill Corcoran of the Herman Agency, Deborah Warren of East West, Linda Pratt of Wernick and Pratt, and Josh Adams of Adams Literary. As always, it is very interesting to hear the agent’s perspective, since their business is as much about devloping an author’s career as it is about selling content. As a group they encouraged authors to think strategically about their careers. (You mean we don’t just do this for fun?) Their advice: ask if each new book is moving your career sideways or elevating it. Ask if a particular project is worth your time and will show you at your best. It doesn’t help to take just any old job that comes your way. They said that a common mistake is not establishing a body of work and that there is a strategy to placing that second title. They also noted that if you are fortunate to publish a book and it sells well, be prepared to deliver year after year with subsequent titles. The time between book releases has become shorter and shorter. When asked what is a reasonable advance, the audience was informed that advances were never intended to cover living expenses. (Okay, this did not make me feel the love.) The goal for all authors now more than ever is to sell as many copies as possible to get to the royalties. They concluded with: think positively, cherish your gift, and remember the joy in what you do. Truer words were never spoken.

The second panel discussed THE DANCE BETWEEN PICTURES AND WORDSand featured the amazing Dan Yaccarino, Jon Klassen, Antoinette Portis, Lee Wardlaw, and Eugene Yelchin. It quickly became obvious to anyone present that as picture books become more visual, the illustrators’ responsibilities grow proportionally. I loved that they reminded us to write for the five -year-old within; we are the first audience. And whenever someone tells you to look for where the rules can be broken, you know you’re listening to a truly creative individual. They also recommended that we layer material in a picture book so that anyone–child-parent-teacher–can get something from the story. Finally they said to shoot for clarity . These were just some of the many gems offered by this pool of talent.

Perhaps one of the best presentations I saw all weekend was delivered by Matthew Kirby who spoke on VOICE. When you consider that voice cannot be taught and can barely be defined, you get aglimpse at the challenging topic Kirby had to tackle, and it is certainly something that has mystified me on more than one occasion. He contended that voice must be cultivated and that it is the intersection between the words you choose and character. It has to be approached indirectly and be derived in an organic manner. If it is forced, then it will come across as inauthentic. (Hey, and isn’t that the last thing anyone of us wants to be–inauthentic? Egads!)  He said since everyone chooses words differently, each person’s voice will  naturally be unique. Takes the pressure off, don’t ya think. His final bit of wisdom? Subscribe to A WORD A DAY.

Every year I look forward to the Golden Kite Luncheon. It is a chance to gather with others and share favorite moments. It is also a chance to hear from some of  the year’s most outstanding authors and illustrators. Awards are presented, cold rolls and pasta are consumed, and then everyone rolls out for the final sessions to be followed by the autograaph party. This year’s  luncheon did not diasappoint, nor did the honorees.

The final keynote was a riveting speech by Gary Schmidt. I had recently listened to his book TROUBLE and loved it. He reminded us that the authors job is to ask the reader, “What ails you?” Then we must ask ourselves, “Does the writing serve?” Above all else we must cherish our children and give them the best we have to offer. And isn’t that what it’s all about–the children.

All in all, this year’s SCBWI conference once again exceeded expectations. I came home re-energized, optimistic about prospects for the market, loaded (not with alcohol) with  ideas for new projects, and anxious to test out strateguies for salvaging old ones. More than anything, though I returned to my office knowing that I am truly fortunate to belong to such a wonderful community of people who dedicate themselves to providing children with only the best in literature. They deserve no less.

This is the second installment to my report on this year’s SCBWI Conference. After tanking up on some java, I was revved and ready to go for what promised to be a jam-packed second day. First up was KAREN CUSHMAN, author of a number of successful historical fiction novels, including , Lucy Whipple, Will Sparrow’s Road, and Newbery award winner The Midwife’s Apprentice. Karen said there are three rules for writing; unfortuntely no one knows what they are, so make your own rules, or better yet, have no rules at all. That may not sound very helpful, but I think the point was that you have to give yourself permission to try something different and then figure out how to make it work. She also suggested that we separate the editor from the critic.

What I took away from the panel of agents that followed was that authors should be open to and have the ability to revise. When asked  by Moderator Lin Oliver what would be the one thing you would tell authors to do, or not do, Neal Porter said, “Please yourself, don’t follow trends.” Elise Howard and Laura Godwin warned against accepting too much advice from others. And Jordan Brown said to be aware of the market so that you can create something new.

Following an inspiring talk by BRYAN COLLIER, author and illustrator of the Coretta Scott King Award-winning book Uptown, I attended a session on Renewal and Revision by EMMA DRYDEN. She coached those present, many of which were well-published authors, to learn how to manage our expectations in a rapidly evolving market. Putting our words out into the social network, doing a sketch a day, changing genre’s, and setting new goals were all methods for reinventing ourselves when the tried and true  no longer works.

CLARE VANDERPOOL spoke on the Power of Quiet for creative pursuits. Her suggestions were to:
1. Make quiet a priority.
2. Look for an opportunity for forced quiet.
3. Limit input.
4. Look for the resting points in a day.

Next up was a high-energy session with CAROL TANZMAN, author of the YA thrillers Circle of Silence and Dancegirl, who offered acting tips for readings. We watched and listened as she used eye contact, constant movement, volume changes, a different inflection for each character, and strategic pauses to enhance  and energize a reading from her book.

Perhaps the most moving presentation of the day came from RUTA SEPETYS, author of the New York Times bestseller “Between Shades of Gray.” I had met Ruta at this year’s ALA convention in Anaheim and was immediately struck by her openness and warmth. She is the perfect example of an SCBWI success story and credits the Work-in-Progress Grant she received plus other support from the organization for her success, but  honestly, it is her passion for her subject matter that makes her writing so moving. If you ever have the opportunity to hear her speak–do it. You will walk away loving her.

The final presentation of the day was an overview of the current children’s book market by DEBRA HALVERSON. I learned that for the first time in a long while there are signs of improvement. There is more optimism among agents, book sales have risen, and the picture book glut has been corrected.  So what are publishers looking for? Fresh voices and character-driven books that dig deep, but what else is new?

Then it was party, party at the Hippy Hop where revelers surprised SCBWI’s founders Lin Oliver and Stephen Mooser with a Flash Mob to the song Aquarius. We all got our groove on and had a great Rumpus of a time, to borrow from Where the Wild Things Are.

Me, Alexis O’Neill, Tina Nichols Coury,
Yuki Yoshino, and Allison Crotzer at the
2012 SCBWI Conference Hippy Hop

Every year I look forward to the SCBWI (Society of Childrens Book Writers and Illustrators) Summer Conference, knowing it will be the highlight of the writing year. It’s an opportunity to reconnect with friends and hopefully meet new ones. Coffee is typically consumed in vast quantities and sleep is a rare commodity. Since I am now the illustrator coordinator for our region, this conference began early for me. At pre-conference meetings, I learned about the SCBWI website revamp. Let me sum up by saying that there are going to be some wonderful improvements, and if you’re reading this and not a member of SCBWI already, you’re missing out. Nowhere else will you be able to find a better resource for children’s book writers.

The main conference began bright and early Friday morning, August 3, with over 1200 in attendance representing 15 countries. It ran over three days with a fourth day of intensives. Although my brain is still downloading much of what I heard, I wanted to share some of my favorite take-aways. So here they are:

ARTHUR LEVINE, Vice President and Publisher of his own imprint, Arthur A Levine Books, led off with the first keynote, and spoke about some of his most memorable books and what in his mind makes them timeless.. He said that a book becomes timeless when the author and reader can share an authentic experience. He cited examples of books that do just that, including Lisa Yee’s MILLICENT MIN GIRL GENIUS, Shawn Tan’s THE ARRIVAL, and HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCEROR’S STONE by J.K. Rowling. He reminded the audience that great writers use anticipation instead of surprise, citing Peggy Rathman’s GOOD NIGHT GORILLA as a brilliant example.

TONY DiTERLIZZI, New York Times Bestselling author and illustrator, took the stage next. He is hilarious, by the way, freely covering the stage and at one point crawling on his knees to imitate a child. His pithy take away for me was that when an illustrator reads a manuscript, they are not reading the words; they are reading instructions.

As usual, it was difficult to choose between all of the notable workshops. I opted to sit in onLISSA PRICE’S talk on how to use screenwriting techniques to make your YA novel better.  Using her new novel STARTERS  as an example, she explained that High-Concept books are often an easier sell. She also stressed that a good logline creates emotion, gives an idea of what the protagonist wants, hints at the obstacles to be faced, and spawns an emotional response, often with irony. All this happens in one sentence! Sounds easy, right? Not so much, as was demostrated by many of the volunteers who offered up their loglines.

Following lunch, PATRICIA MACLACHLAN, best known as the author of SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL and winner of the Newbery Medal, the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction and the SCBWI’s Golden Kite Award,  entertained us with anecdotes about her grandchildren and how they influence her writing. She said that every concern we have now, we had in preschool. I would only argue that I appreciate naps much more now than I did when I was four. Her advice to writers was to remember that character is plot and all plot emerges out of character.

Earlier this year I read TROUBLE by GARY SCHMIDT and marveled at the way he was able to weave thematic significance throughout the book and to surprise me along the way. I was thrilled to see he was on this year’s faculty and made a b-line to his workshop on Layering a Character. What rung true most for me was when he said that speed is never the friend of the writer; we must embrace the time it takes to create. This prompted a giant “note to self,” since I find it a challenge to let ideas percolate and projects to ripen.  He also emphasized that setting should not be merely a stage; it should be a reflection of the character.

The speeches and workshops of the first day were followed by a social for traditionally published authors, and once again this year I had the pleasure of sitting beside Sue Fliess who had her new book, TONS OF TRUCKS, on display. Her energy, warmth, and generosity are contagious, and I am just grateful that our last names fall one after the other and the organizers saw fit to arrange us all alphabetically.

Me with Sue Fliess, and no, we are not in a brothel. It was just really funky lighting.

Imagine a hundred or more amazing and gifted artists all eager to meet more of the same and you get a glimpse of of the social for illustrators organized by the wonderful Priscilla Burris together with SCBWI board advisors Pat Cummings, David Diaz, and Cecilia Yung.  When it was all over , I collapsed back in my room to catch what I could of the Olympics and consume my daily ration of dark chocolate courtesy of Alexis O’Neil, our regional advisor extraordinaire and my roomie for the conference. By the end of the Day 1, my head was brimming over with ideas for new projects, ways to resurrect abandoned ones, and enough inspiration to last me the year. I realized that like the athletes in London, I would need to pace myself or I was never going to make it to the finish. (Read faculty party here.)

Next Week I will be posting Part Two of my conference takeaways. It will feature more insights from the conference along with some incriminating photos from Saturday Night’s festivities. Stay tuned.

Recently I have noticed an alarming trend in children’s books. The words are gone. In many cases the illustrations now carry the brunt of the burden in telling the story, a huge change compared to most children’s books of thirty years ago. Not a problem unless you try reading a story aloud to a small group of children, and you find yourself having to ad lib to fill in the plot or the flow of words is so choppy each page feels unrelated to the previous one.

More and more I hear that picture book texts should be as brief as possible, that anything that can be shown in the pictures should be cut. No adverbs, few if any adjectives. But in my opinion, the balance between text and art has swung too far to one side. Texts have been whittled back until read alouds are often choppy and the reader finds they have to fill in the transitions. The writing is sterilize, the poetry in the prose slaughtered. That’s not to say less can’t be more, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of the oral presentation. Picture books, after all, are intended to be read aloud to a child. They should be pleasant on the eyes AND on the ears.

It’s no surprise really. That’s what publishers want because they claim that’s what buyers want. I understand that today’s children have short attention spans, but every child I ever knew was perfectly happy to listen to a story, or perhaps several, if it meant they could stay up longer or avoid another work assignment. So maybe it’s the parents, teachers, and librarians who have been crying out for shorter reads. I get it. Time in school is at a premium more than ever. Parents are tired after a long day doing the work of three people thanks to labor cuts, their time for parenting is over-taxed and full of demands. What has happened though is that the flow of texts and vocabulary has been dumped in favor of brevity.

Perhaps things will shift back again some day. Storybooks that emerged out of a strong oral tradition will return in popularity and the picture book market will once again tolerate the well-written but wordier story that is not only entertaining, but a song to the ear because of its rhythm, rich vocabulary, and thoughtful literary devices. There will be context to introduce listeners to new and marvelous words, and memories will be challenged to stretch in recalling favorite passages.

In my opinion there is a reason the words have traditionally come first and that’s coming from someone who started this business as an illustrator.

l-r Lisze Bechtold, Nancy Hayashi, Anita McLaughlin, Marla Frazee, Naomi Howland, and Me

I have belonged to at least one critique group since I first began writing, including one group in of picture book  author/illustrators for over seventeen years. The benefits have been enormous.  In addition to the camaraderie–which by itself has been worth the price of admission–there has been an endless source of objective, positive criticism, encouragement, and support. Yeah, I know. hard to believe someone would  relish the idea of criticism, but the way I look at it I would rather hear it first from a group of people I trust than to hear it from an agent or editor and blow my chance for a sale.  The truth is I can think of no better way to learn how to objectively judge your own work than to practice on the work of others. When it comes to our own work we all view it with our own biases. Learning to listen to how others view it forces us to consider that it may not be as glorious as we first thought.

In addition, attending a regular critique group keeps you accountable. It’s expected that you will have something to show each time you attend. Sure, life is going to get in the way, but knowing you have a meeting means you always have at least some kind of deadline. For those writers who tend to procrastinate, don’t underestimate this benefit, and hopefully the other members will call you to the mat if time after time you are showing up without work. Just remember they are doing you a favor.

Here are some basic suggestions I would offer to anyone beginning a group.

1. Look to work with others who can readily accept CONSTRUCTIVE criticism.  There is nothing that will kill a group faster than someone who is overly defensive.

2. If possible have someone else read the work other than the author. Writers tend to read their own work the way they think it sounds instead of how it really reads. This is especially true of poetry.

3. The creator should not talk until everyone else in the group has had a chance to comment. This encourages serious listening instead of defending or explaining.

4. When you present your work, introduce it with just the basic information, title, genre, what draft it is.

5. Do not offer apologies or excuses.

SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) is a great resource for children’s book writers and offers even more information about how critique groups function, how to join an existing one, or start a new one at  Critique Groups and Critiquing.

If you are truly serious about your craft, consider joining a group. Whether you meet in person or share work over the internet is your choice. Either way it beats sitting in your office and wondering if your work is ready to be sent out into the world.  With the insight of a good group you’ll know and your work will steadily improve–I guarantee it.

This past weekend my son Ian and I spoke about writing and illustrating children’s books at the Central Coast Writers Conference, organized by the wonderful Judy Salamacha, and held at Cuesta College in beautiful San Luis Obispo, California. We were honored to be a part of an event that included such a talented and enthusuiastic faculty. Jonothan Maberry was a keynote speaker and Mark Coker, creator of Smashwords was another. Interesting bookends. On one hand you had a prolific author reminding us that with hard work and years of dedication to craft an individual can still make a living at this writing thing. On the other, you had someone telling us there is an alternative.  Everyone wins–or do they?

With diminishing sales of hardcover books, distributers like Ingrams cutting back on warehousing, and a rapid increase in competition amongst titles, there are some definite losers in the fray. For one, readers. I’m not hearing anyone discuss the need for self-publishers to employ copy-editors. I can personally account for several times when one has saved my publishing ass. Sure everyone seems concerned that self-publishers will be diluting the literary world with their babble, but what about the proliferation of misconceptions and falsehoods. On more than one occasion while researching for a project I have often found factual contradictions even amongst primary sources. Without gatekeepers, these lies will continue to reappear in new works. Ultimately the responsibility lies with the author as it always has, but fresh eyes can make all the difference. Without a fact checker literary credibility will suffer just as visual credibility deteriorated with the advent of Photoshop. It will be like the difference between a documentary and a movie “based” on a true story. Eventually a reader will be unable to tell what to believe–not that that isn’t already somewhat of a problem, but at least there are still factual watchdogs on the staffs of most publishing houses working to limit the proliferation of false information.

The other issue that seems to be the dark unknown is how authors and illustrators of books, particularly picture books, will continue to make a living? Twenty or so years ago a highly reputable editor told me that if you could maintain ten books in print, you could make a living off of your work. I’m hear to tell you that’s no longer possible. The shift began years ago and many authors found they needed to augment their incomes with speaking, teaching, and in my case painting murals. With the recent economic woes, shrinking advances, sluggish sales, the demise of Borders, it’s only become more challenging.

I do support the idea that all people should have a right to express themselves in print – digital or ink. But I also believe that it should be possible for the best writers and authors to make a satisfactory living from their work. I tend to be an optimist, so I’m going to cling to the idea that with time most of us will find a way to make it work. Why? Because most of us can’t imagine NOT writing or illustrating. Ultimately time will tell.

Hey Diddle Diddle

Animals are often associated with very specific characteristics. We all know cheetah’s are fast, sharks are dangerous, dogs are loyal, monkeys are mischievous. But how do you choose the right animal for your story?

To begin, determine the primary characteristics of your story’s main character. Then examine which animal species best exemplifies those traits OR, to make the tale even more interesting, the animal which is completely the opposite. Let’s look at a few examples to show how this might work.

Let’s first look at an animal that fits the character’s arch-type.

Typically the main character in a story must  change or grow. If the protagonist  in your story starts out meek and timid, you might choose to make the protagonist a mouse.  Mice are particularly popular in children’s books because children can easily identify with them. Mice never grow beyond small. They are familiar. They are considered to be shy and mischievous. And mice are easy prey making them appear vulnerable. The great thing about working with a mouse as the main character is that it is the perfect foil for overcoming large obstacles.

Next, we’ll look at using an animal that is the anti-archtype.

If our story was centered around a character that is foolish, but must learn to think for itself, we might choose to use an owl. Typically owls are thought to be wise. In Western folklore, owls are commonly associated with studious scholars and wise elders. Perhaps the earliest known link between owls and wisdom is their association with Athena. The Greek goddess of wisdom is often depicted holding an owl. By using an owl as our protagonist we go against these common assumptions, but we also make the challenges for our protagonist greater and in effect make the story more interesting.

I.Q. Goes to School

Some animals are definitely more popular than others. My picture book I.Q. GOES TO SCHOOL was nearly rejected because my main character was a young rat and  the editor had a strong dislike for rats because so many inhabit the subways of  New York where she works. In the end we let people think I.Q. was just a mouse.

Dogs, on the other hand–or paw, pop up in many children’s books, but why? One reason is that people already treat them as human making it much easier for the reader to connect with the protagonist. Dogs crave attention and depend on  humans to provide their needs–much like children depend on others. They are as varied in breed as people are in looks. If you choose to adapt a dog to your story even the breed can alter the reader’s perception. A pit bull is going to be seen as a much different character than a poodle or a chihuahua. All of these associations come as baggage which you as a writer can use to your benefit or will have to at the very least acknowledge when writing. The fact that dogs are so common in children’s literature also means that you will want to make your character more original.

Also recognize that different people might see the same animal differently. It might be a cultural thing or the result of experience. Someone from Alaska who frequently has to deal with wild moose might see that animal in a way that is much different than someone from the city who has only seen them through popular culture (Bullwinkle, for example). It is not ever enough to simply plug an animal into your story in place of a human. You must understand how that selection will affect the reader’s perception of that character and then use that to your advantage. The important thing is to remember that in children’s fiction the animal is always the proxy for the child.

Which animals have you used in your stories, and why?

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