February 4th, 2012

Greetings From The SCBWI Conference!

Originally published at Through the Tollbooth. Please leave any comments there.

Tollbooth friend Tim Martin joins us again this weekend to report on the recent SCBWI conference in New York–

The SCBWI winter conference in New York: thoughts from one tuckered out, dog-tired (but still-smiling) attendee.

The SCBWI winter conference came and went like an invigorating whirlwind of ideas, insights and connections. As usual, there were scores of diverse industry folks (including, this winter, people working in digital storytelling and marketing), and an inviting collection of breakout sessions of which we attendees could sample three. This seemed, at first, restrictive, but I think it pressed us to be specific and focused on our areas of passion and interest.

So, here are my picks of a few key moments, and the things that stayed with me as I jetted from the conference on my way home to Los Angeles:

Connections. SCBWI, along with all its regional and international tentacles, and associated writing groups, bloggers, and specialty discussion groups, has always been the nerve center for accessible networking between writers. The Society primarily functions as a community, and the twice-yearly conferences act as testament to this collective spirit. To that end, this winter get-together encouraged attendees to get to know their regional advisors, consider a submission to an editor, get involved in panel discussions, ask that burning question, and, of course, make that accidental connection over bagels and lox cream cheese. You know, the one that may just nudge a writer’s fortune in some unexpected direction.

Breakout sessions. A good assortment of topics were covered, from “Non- Fiction” (Ken Wright of Writer’s House) to “Diversity and Multiculturalism” (Stacy Whitman of Tu Books) to “Narrative Fiction” (Alvina Ling of Little Brown). For an attendee, it’s always hard to select from the list, and I found it worthwhile to check in on friends who had chosen alternative sessions, so as to get a gist of more themes, and more conference content. Many sessions were craft oriented (revision, dialogue, pacing and exposition), and some had an illustrative component. It was also interesting to see less conventional session topic selections, such as “Ebooks and Apps”.

The breakout sessions I chose were generally broad in scope, and tended to be genre related. Sarah Davies from The Greenhouse Literacy Agency took us through the subject of “thrillers” in an action-packed, spine-tingling, lightening-speed hour. She’s an inspiring speaker: passionate, articulate, and informative. She blended solid crafty talking points with the commerciality demanded from many agents such as herself.

In the second session, Arianne Lewin from G.P. Putnam put a spin on the topic of “fantasy” by focusing in on the first two pages of some well-known recent bestsellers. How did the authors manage to convey the fantasy world without too much exposition? What part did dialogue and action play?

In my final session, Tara Weikum of Harper Collins led us through the first sentences of evocative YA books, and gave her suggestions to what makes this early impression a key to each novel’s success.

Digital. Most presenters deduced that the current state of digital storytelling was still in its infancy, and one which is likely to become more “associated” material to books rather than “cannibalistic”. That said, it is a fast growing industry, and all publishing houses have digital advisors with plans to embrace any opportunities that present themselves as good ideas and/or money makers. Writers were encouraged to think about how their books could be redesigned for “enhanced” purposes, and how their stories could cross platforms so as to maximize all possibilities.

Promotion. Yes, the message that came through was that a writer’s website presence is mandatory, and blogging and twittering are encouraged (particularly if you are promoting a book). However, it is not a great idea to force these social media avenues if you’re not “that person.” Nothing like a stale one-blog-a-year, or a lackluster Facebook page that doesn’t really tell anyone anything. Friday’s “Marketing Intensive for Professional Writers” outlined how writers can use social media to our best advantage. The making of trailers, websites, and other promotional platforms were discussed and demonstrated. The term branding was bandied around (no-one seems to wholly embrace that word), although it became evident to me that, from a marketing perspective, that is what we writers should all be doing. As soon as an author’s name is registered as a dot com, she is stamping herself with a brand that begins to shape her professional identity. Any subsequent websites, blogging articles, and, of course, the writer’s work itself, begins to further sculpt their personal brand. It seems sensible to hone this identity than confuse or downplay it, as, ultimately, it is going to help increase book sales and readership.

Trends. Agents and editors are generally reluctant to forecast trends, and they usually fall back on the important mantra of “write the book you need to write, and write it well.” But there were some hints at shifts in the near-future publishing market. A “mash-up” or blurring of genres is being seen. Why not sci-fi morphed with supernatural and a slathering of romance, for instance? Some are also seeing themes, writing style and genre returning to a “classic” feel, although this seemed a very vague notion. There appears room for more very young middle grade stories (for, say, 2nd graders). In addition, “best seller hits” are intensely hunted down, so “commerciality” is becoming the new norm writ large. Most importantly, the strongest trend is that editors must not just love a book, but EVERYBODY must love the book (including sales, marketing, Barnes & Noble, etc). Books have to find a place in the marketplace. Those stories that have a global reach tend also to be more attractive to those marketing them (this may be the reason the fantasy genre continues to do well, as it tends to deal with plots beyond local issues, and thereby may appeal to a wider audience.) Beyond all this, each speaker made clear that the Bottom Line is, of course, great and engaging storytelling.

Focus. Kathryn Erskine’s final keynote lecture set out an abundance of ways we should, and can, focus our frail, skittish selves to get down to the business of writing. Candles were offered to calm us (a “transition ritual”); ways to fjord off unwanted interruptions of the human kind were recommended; headphones were suggested; playlists were proposed … and the list went on. But in our world of multitasking and distractions, focus is one of the hardest undertakings to achieve and keep. Kathryn’s point was that focusing eases the writer into a deeper state of imagination and consistency. Left and right brain sides speak to each more smoothly, threads are better connected, and, needless to say, progress is better made.

Awards. In a surprise announcement, Jane Yolen eloquently presented a new SCBWI award to be given annually to mid-list authors. It seemed an appropriate and over-due recognition, although her description of the “death-cycle” was pretty sobering. The Tomie DePaola award was given to Yvette Piette Herrera, with Laurie Eslick as runner up. In addition, two illustration students, Davin Choi and Eunhye Seo, won the Student Illustrator Scholarship. Finally, the Portfolio Showcase – where 185 illustrators competed – culminated with Mike Curato as the winner. Mike had entered a wonderful art piece of a tiny white elephant yearning over an elaborate iced cake in a shop window. Runners up were Wook Jim Jung and Lori Nichols.

Unwind. SCBWI parties bring out the “wild” in the writers, or at least show up those enthusiastic networking skills. Who says writers are shy and unforthcoming? In any case, it’s a testament to the Society’s accessible and welcoming nature that these parties turn out to be really fun. I was tugged between the lavish cocktail event, the Australian regional contingent (my country of origin), the GLBT discussion group (growing in greater numbers and diversification every conference), and the VCFAers (who gathered en masse for a fantastic Italian dinner on 42nd Street). If I didn’t know how to “network” before the conference, I could certainly do it two days later.

Tim Martin is a third semester student in Vermont College of Fine Arts’ Writing for Children and Young Adults program. He is based in Los Angeles and his website is: www.timothyjohnmartin.com