Monday, March 10, 2014

SCBWI Winter Conference Wrap-up #1 2014

Every few years, I'm able to find both the time and the funds to get to one of the SCBWI National conferences. The NY Winter Conference rolls around each February, and the LA Summer Conference is in August. Each time I've gone, I've lucked out, because I seem to hit on the Best Conference Ever. (Or is it possible that all the SCBWI national conferences are phenomenal?)

This year, I was lucky to be able to attend the NY Conference on some of the few days that New York has actually had fair weather this winter. I took that as a good omen! That, and the giant head with the Cat in the Hat topper greeting us in the hotel lobby. And my roomie (and Dublin critique partner) Nancy Roe Pimm, who is always smiling, laughing, having a good time. The tone was set! Fun conference ahead.

We started out Saturday morning pre-session sipping tea with a group of ultra cool ladies, including Edith Pattou, Colleen Moidu, and Jill Bixel, and Elizabeth Wein. You'll read more about Elizabeth in the wrap-up, but this illustrates what I adore about the writing community:  Before the conference, I had contacted the British Isles SCBWI chapter to see if anyone might be attending the conference. My current WIP features a Scottish setting and I wanted to make sure I was getting sensory details correct. Elizabeth emailed me and offered to meet up. So gracious. Absolutely love her.

There was so much goodness packed into those two days, it will be hard to fit it all in just a few blog posts, but here are some of the highlights:

In the Welcome, Lin Oliver opened up the conference for the "tribe" by giving the attendance stats. I love when these are announced each conference because it shows how huge, widespread, and yet connected the children's literature community is. There were 1,085 people in attendance, hailing from 47 states and 20 countries.

She introduced Kristen Fulton, an attendee of this years conference who shared her experience of getting an agent and getting published. Karen had been a veterinarian, but discovered she had stage 3 breast cancer just about the time her youngest was moving out of the house. She was unable to continue her career, so she asked herself, What next? She had always wanted to write for kids, so she switched gears, found SCBWI, attended numerous conferences to learn the business and the craft, and wrote, wrote, wrote. She now has a two book deal with Scholastic. Hooray, Kristen!

Jack Gantos's keynote had the entire ballroom in stitches. Awesome, awesome speaker.  Some of the takeaways:

*  "A great character will carry a weak plot, but a great plot will not carry a lousy character."

*  "A reader has to feel what the character feels... without empathy you don't have a good book."

*  "The reason we read books is to change. As writers, we have to infuse change into our writing so that the reader feels it."

*  A great book should have two good endings - the external ending and the emotional one. "At the end of the story you have to solve the problem and bring in empathy."

*  "To be a great writer, you have to be a great reader." (Yes! Yes! Yes!)

Next came the keynote panel: The Future of Authorship. Panelists included Paul Aiken of the Author's Guild, Jean Feiwel, SVP Publishing Director at MacMillan Children's Books; Jane Friedman, web guru and editor, Virginia Quarterly Review; author Abby Gaines; and Timothy Travalini, Director of Children's Acquisitions at Open Road Media.

They discussed the changes in the industry with the growth of e-books, social media, self-publishing, etc.  We have lost 60-70% of our shelf space, Mr. Aiken said. "The opportunity (to succeed) is still there, but we need to adapt."

Ms. Gaines seconded that. She began by building her author platform online and publishing e-books. She made mistakes (says her first book was truly bad) but has learned and adapted and is now a top selling author, with both e-pub and traditional publishing credits.  Ms. Friedman agreed that this was a smart strategy. She says that building author platforms should be organic, slow, and about connecting to readers.

Elizabeth Wein spoke on Bearing Witness, Authorial Responsibility. If you have read her books, CODE NAME VERITY and ROSE UNDER FIRE, you know the kind of authenticity Elizabeth brings to her books. (If you have not yet read these books, what are you waiting for?)

I assumed the keynote would be about getting our
research correct - and she did speak a bit about that - but she also spoke a lot about our responsibility as authors to be gracious and positive. She noted the jealousy and self-consciousness that can sneak up on us as writers and artists, but says to approach every aspect of our careers with appreciation.

"The tide comes and goes and comes again," she said, and reminded us how important it is to "maintain grace" in the face of both adversity and success. (I.e., send thank you notes, be happy for others' successes, don't post negative comments about anyone in any forum, etc.)

Elizabeth says her message to young readers, all the way from her first book THE WINTER PRINCE, is "Take responsibility for your own actions." Authors should do the same.

The next keynote panel, Banning Books- Where Do We Stand featured Joan Bertin of the National Coalition Against Censorship, author Ellen Hopkins, and Chair of the Pen American Center Children's and Young Adult Book Committee, Susanna Reich.

I admit to skipping out on this one to visit with my dear friend from the area, Jen McAndrews (a huge motivation for me to attend NY conferences), but I do have some notes that were shared with me.

Susanna Reich noted that 72 of the top 100 most challenged books in the past years have been children's books. She also said "To create something, you have to face your own fears." (More on writing bravely later.

Ellen Hopkins, whose books have been banned numerous times, had these words of wisdom to share:
*  You make children stronger by giving them the truth.
*  Pull the books out from under the covers and read them with your kids.
*  If a 13-year-old experiences sexual abuse, shouldn't she have the right to read a book about it??
*  Write bravely. Speak the truth. We have a responsibility to our readers - not the censors.

That should about do it for now. Individual workshop recaps and Sunday wrap-up coming. Stay tuned!