On Saturday, (April 26th) I attended the NorCal regional conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in Rocklin. It was organized by Patricia Newman (http://www.patriciamnewman.com/meet.html) and Erin Dealey (http://www.erindealey.com/), co-regional advisors, and the many helping hands always required in putting together events like this.
I’ll share a little about each speaker that I had the good fortune to listen to, narrowing it down to advice that meant the most to me. Consequently, this blog is going to be a bit longer than usual.
The keynote address was by Judy Sierra, an award winning children’s author whose current book, Wild About Books, is a New York Times #1 Children’s bestseller, and she has tons of award-winning books. (http://www.judysierra.net/)
Sierra advised the audience to: 1. Know your genre. 2. Know your audience. 3. Know yourself – how to manage your unconscious and intuition, the source of all your inspiration. She shared a lovely quote by Uri Shulevitz from his book, Writing with Pictures. It resonated with me, since among the books I’m revising, one is a picture book. Here is the paraphrased quote, as I can never scribble fast enough to get things down word for word. “A picture book is like a small theater…, the text is like a script…, every page is a new scene…, the page turn makes the pace.”
Following the address, there were four time slots for concurrent break-out sessions, two before lunch, two after. During lunch, editors, agents, and authors visited each table and chatted -- a really unique idea. (Our table was fortunate to get Mary Rodgers, Editor-in-Chief at Lerner Publishing: http://www.lernerbooks.com/ )
Each of the four break-out slots mentioned above offered three choices. I’ll share a bit from each of my choices – bits that were helpful to my concerns.
I. A Novelist’s Craft: Working Out a Plot: Speaker, Jeanne DuPrau, author of the City of Ember series. (http://www.randomhouse.com/teens/booksofember/home.html ) DuPrau is also the winner of the 2004 ALA Notable Book Award, among other awards.
DuPrau said a good beginning starts with some kind of trouble or a question or problem that has to be solve or answered. The middle has to keep the escalation building through complications, but the ending has to grow out of the beginning and address the questions raised at the beginning. All along the way, you can’t be rigid, and the story may change. But if you are true to the integrity of the story, an unexpected ending feels true and not a weird surprise.
II. TMI: Being You, Being Professional: Speaker, Brian Farrey, Acquisitions Editor for Flux, the young adult imprint of Llewelyn Worldwide. (http://fluxnow.blogspot.com/ )
Farrey was full of good advice on setting up an “online presence”. First, have a professional email address (simply your name and dot whoever). Essentially, you are “building a brand”, which can sound depressing for someone who doesn’t know much about marketing, but he turned out to have such nuggets of wisdom, I was happy I sat in on that session.
Farrey's “no-no’s included: Don’t use your site as a personal journal, venting, sniping, gossiping, etc.; whatever you write will circulate for sure and be seen by everyone. Avoid attacks or feuds. Avoid an excess of negativity. Recognize the difference between raising important issues and wallowing in self-pity. Don’t tweet or blog in anger. “Think twice, tweet once.”
I particularly liked his advice on what you should do: Be regular about blogging or tweeting – daily, weekly or monthly, however often you think you can show up. Vary your content. Share good reads. Raise money for good causes. Visit other blogs and participate by commenting. Network. Get to know other writers and librarians. It’s about camaraderie, not just selling your books. Be a community member first and a promoter second, and remember to have fun.
III. Anatomy of a Synopsis: Again, Brian Farrey.
I was happy to hear Farrey say that, while query letters are important, good writing of the book is more important, as is a good synopsis. To write a good query, you do have to tailor it to the agent or editor. Since all queries include a short synopsis, here is Farrey’s advice for a query synopsis, and the longer full book synopsis:
Query synopsis -- One or two paragraphs, highlighting characters and conflict, focusing on the plot. Don’t mention theme or explain meaning; instead, give specific details in the plot: Who is the protagonist and what does he/she want? What obstacles stand in the way? How does he/she try to get around the obstacles? What complications arise from that? Pull your short query synopsis from the first 50 pages of the book to give a “taste” of the flavor of the book.
The full synopsis is one or two pages at the most and is a short version of the book, with a beginning, middle, and end. Again, avoid talking about journeys or themes or meanings. Give a short, specific paragraph to each of the following: The character and inciting incident (conflict #1), how character copes and new problem (conflict #2), how character copes and new problem (conflict #3 and climax), (maybe go up to conflict #4 and climax), and finally the resolution.
IV. The Many Revisions of the City of Ember: Again, Jeanne DuPrau.
DuPrau advises that the most important step is to see what isn’t working. If you don’t know what’s wrong, you can’t fix it. It helps to put it aside for awhile so you can read it with fresh eyes.
Here are some things to look out for in your re-read:
1. Uneven storytelling. The tension doesn’t keep building; a “slumping” arc.
2. Lack of clarity at the start. Moving in too quickly confuses the reader about what is going on.
3. Bad basics. Poor spelling, syntax, etc.
4. Imprecise word choice. Choosing the right word is hard, so write “xxxx” and come back later with the right word.
5. Unnecessary stuff. Every incident or word, has to have a purpose.
6. Poor dialogue. a) Avoid dialogue when its only function is to give expository information. b) Don’t use distracting dialogue tags when “said” works fine.
7. Flat or inconsistent characters.
8. Absence of setting and context. It isn’t clear who is speaking, or when or where.
9. Implausibility. Would your characters really say…, do…, think that?
10.Boringness. The most fatal flaw.
The conference closed with a Question and Answer panel – all very helpful – and then it was over. Thank you Patricia and Erin and everyone else involved in making it such a satisfying day!