Tired and Wired. That’s what I am. I just finished an intense weekend at the SCBWI Southern Breeze Springmingle conference.
I don’t care where you are in your children’s book career, conferences are FUN. They are opportunities to hang out with lots of people who just plain “get it.” They get how difficult it is to break into this industry. They get the passion for children’s books, and they get the desire and work it takes to contribute.
And we’re odd birds, y’know. I’ve never met a children’s book author or illustrator who wasn’t intelligent and curious about the world around them. It makes for easy and interesting conversations no matter who you end up sitting next to.
Along with being an attendee this year, I also gave portfolio reviews, which is something I love to do. My history in graphic design and illustration makes this a fairly easy exercise, and the teacher in me loves to give what I hope is helpful advice and pointers. Some artists’ work I had seen before and I was happy to see growth in skills. Go illustrators!
This year’s conference had some great speakers too.
Gretchen Hirsch, Assistant Editor at Harcourt Children’s Books, shared interesting perspectives as an Assistant Editor who works with picture books. Especially helpful was her break-down of the hierarchy at Harcourt: Editorial Assistant > Assistant Editor > Associate Editor > Editor > Senior Editor > Executive Editor > Vice President and Publisher. She suggested targeting Assistant Editors with submissions as they are starting to acquire their own manuscripts (with guidance from their Editor) and are eager to establish their own list.
Claudia Gabel, of Delacorte Press, has a background in book packaging and therefore presented a more formulaic approach to the structure of mid-grade and young-adult novels. She stated the importance of establishing a “hook,” an unusual twist in plot or structure of a book that makes it commercially viable.
I found her advice of dealing with a plot driven story in three Acts extremely helpful. It’s based on the classic Shakespearean structure, but she shared page counts per section and what stage of a story should be happening where within that structure.
In Act I set up the story and end with an inciting incident in no more than 50 to 70 pages. In Act II, the meat of the story, end each chapter with a mini-cliffhanger, something to make you want to turn the page, and end the act with a high stakes situation which is nearly impossible to get out of. This section should be about 100 pages. Finally, in Act III, resolve the story, but make sure the resolution is not by coincidence. Readers want heroes - give them one.
She said your character should want something in the beginning, but by the end realize what they need is something else.
Barbara Seuling, Grande Dame of children’s book writing and illustrating, was delightful. She was well-spoken and knowledgeable as she shared her thoughts on the business as one who is highly established. She never forgot her roots however, and makes a point to visit every region of the SCBWI and share her experience with beginners. What a generous spirit.
And finally, Michelle Poploff, author, VP and Editorial Director for Random House’s Yearling and Laurel Leaf imprints and Executive Editor of Delacorte Press, a true heavyweight in the business. She looks exactly like you would expect an established editor to look, intelligent, sharp and comfortably confident.
I couldn’t believe what I heard as she described what she was looking for, basically describing my book, “A Bird on Water Street,” until she mentioned she was currently working on a book about mining (my book centers around the closing of a copper mine). However, I was thrilled (notice that manic-depressive pattern I talk about in this business?) when she sat down with me and my new friend, Shelli Johannes-Wells, and said she had read my book.
Turns out she was one of the editors to whom my agent sent my book (go Faith!). Ms. Poploff talked about my book and the characters and asked me about the setting (can I tell you what a strange experience it is to have your creation quoted back to you?). She mentioned it needed some work in places, which I expect, but said she didn’t think Faith would have trouble selling it.
OMG. Do I need to explain how validating this was? Can you blame me for being a bit freaked out that one of the top editors in this business read, remembered and said kind things about my First novel which took me almost four years to write? Wow.
So, along with getting to hang out with my buds Liz Conrad, Vicky Alvear Shecter, and new friends, I received some wonderful feedback, and much needed validation.
Kudos to Jo Kittenger, Donna Bowman, Robyn Hood Black, and all the volunteers for pulling together yet another fantastic conference (and to Tina Bilbrey who created the great logo).