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#NESCBWI16 recap

On the morning of Sunday, May 1st, the Ballroom of the Sheraton Springfield Monarch Place sounded a bit like a punk rock concert. Unless you listened closely, and realized what the hundreds of writers and illustrators were yelling at author-illustrator Jarrett J. Krosoczka’s encouragement: “EEE-I-EEE-I-OH!”

power of reinvention logoAt the 2016 New England conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators: “The Power of (Re)Invention” (#NESCBWI16 for short), punk rock concerts weren’t the only things that got reinvented. Attendees rethought their query letters, their ways of framing a manuscript, their plans for the next steps in their careers. I was there, as I have been before, as a writer of middle-grade fiction, but I’ve reinvented my use of the conference over the years, attending a wide variety of workshops and availing myself of agent and editor critiques at times when they were most helpful. There were time slots this year when the choice of workshop was nearly impossible, but I was able to get a good combination of practical advice and renewed inspiration.

The first workshop I attended fell mainly into the first of those categories: “Become a Scrivener Ninja” with MarcyKate Connolly. Scrivener is a writing software with all sorts of features for keeping writing organized, and I think I’m going to like using it a lot better now that I have a better sense of what it can do and how. Searching for all of a character’s appearances and making sure her eyes haven’t changed color through the magic of my own forgetfulness is only the beginning!

A panel of agents and editors (TJ da Roza, Moe Ferrara, Zaneta Jung, Linda Camacho, and Kate Sullivan, moderated by J. L. Bell) shared some tips and some pet peeves (DO NOT pitch directly to them on Twitter), as well as expounding on some larger ideas. A major point that came through: although we rightly think of them as gatekeepers for books, they have their own gatekeepers, and even if they love a book, sales teams and others can keep it from succeeding.

Jane Yolen delivered the “rouser” at the opening ceremonies, reminding us that if she can write twenty gazillion books (number approximate), so can we. And of course, she dispensed her standard advice for getting so much done: “BIC.” (Which, for the uninitiated, stands for Butt in Chair.)

The Book Doctors, also known as Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, conducted their popular Pitchapalooza event along with agents Rebecca Podos and Jennifer Laughran and editor Eileen Robinson. They selected brave souls who’d put their names in a bucket to practice the pitches for their books and have them critiqued for all our edification (did I mention the conference had 699 people registered?) and for a chance to win an introduction to an agent or editor. To their credit, the panelists kept their critiques constructive as well as entertaining.

Wendy Mass and the Yellow One

Wendy Mass and SpongeBob

On Saturday morning, a woman stepped into our fairly crowded elevator with a large SpongeBob balloon in tow. I thought this was a bit strange until I saw her nametag: Wendy Mass. It was the morning’s keynote speaker — that was all I needed to know. And, in fact, SpongeBob was with her because conference co-director Josh Funk had arranged for the Absorbent-and-Yellow One’s delivery to her hotel room, in honor of a similar balloon that appears in her middle-grade novel Eleven Birthdays. Her speech outlined her journey to the point in her writing career where people leave references to her books as gifts, and she even gave us waterproof notebooks so we can write down ideas in the bath, shower, or pineapple under the sea.

In her two-hour intensive workshop “Revising like a Pro,” Erica Orloff showed how she line-edited writing samples submitted by attendees. It was a good refresher on the finer points of the ellipsis, and also got me thinking about how I can get more character-development mileage out of my sentences (she said with such emphasis that she knocked her teacup over).

Lunchtime keynote speaker Patrick Carman spoke about Evel Knievel’s influence on his own way of living. This daredevil author quit his advertising job, blew his savings to self-publish a novel, encouraged kids at school visits to attend bookstore signings, and parlayed that success into a traditional publishing contract. Unusual though his story is, his points about using whatever’s in your experience — as he did with his advertising background — are applicable in any number of situations.

In a workshop titled “Blueprinting Your Novel or Short Story,” Wendy Mass took us step-by-step through the method she uses to plan out her manuscripts, involving the idea that each scene answers a question. As the Book Doctors might put it, it’s outlining-meets-brainstorming.

The next workshop was a completely new topic for me: “Branding Your Author Website.” Author Jen Malone discussed the goals of an author website and ways that even not-yet-published authors can convey the type and tone of their books in the very short time users tend to spend on such sites. Hint: colors send messages faster than long blocks of text.

Jarrett J. Krosoczka rocks out

Jarrett J. Krosoczka rocks out

As aforementioned, Sunday morning keynote Jarrett J. Krosoczka had us rocking out, farm-style. In between moos, he also told us about how the encouragement of those around him led him to a children’s book career. (And if I didn’t already think he was the coolest, his recollections about choosing the Anne of Green Gables books for his book reports would’ve done the trick.)

Mary Cronin and Bonnie Jackman’s workshop “Re-imagining Families with GLBT Parents” raised questions about how to include this aspect of diversity, and portray some of the obstacles that nontraditional families might face, while also telling other stories about characters from such families. As one commenter put it, society’s response can function as an aspect of setting while the plot focuses on whatever else the story is about.

Presenters Amitha Knight, Padma Venkatraman, and Carrie Banks had lots to say in “Don’t Dis Disability,” particularly about tropes to avoid. A major takeaway: if you’re writing about a character with a disability you don’t have, get at least one “native” to read and critique it.

Melissa Stewart moderated a panel on “Working with Educators and Booksellers,” with Elizabeth Bluemle, Susannah Richards, Colby Sharp, and Donalyn Miller. (Check out Colby and Donalyn’s article about the Nerdy Book Club!) They talked about making the most of social media and other practical matters, but also reminded us why we do what we do: as Donalyn said, kids, not the adults who buy books, are the audience.

Former bookseller that I am, I couldn’t resist attending Elizabeth Bluemle’s workshop “A Bookseller’s Perspective” to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge. She discussed ways authors can build relationships with bookstores and help events run successfully, with an emphasis on the value of independent bookstores to their communities. Hear, hear!

In “A Children’s Literature Advocate’s Perspective,” Susannah Richards blazed through a wide variety of insights about awards and trends. Books, she said, should “ignite, delight, and cultivate.”

Phew! It was a full weekend that also involved catching up with friends and making new ones. I came out with lots of ideas…which I’ll start implementing when my most coherent thoughts aren’t “EEE-I-EEE-I-OH!”

Shoshana Flax About Shoshana Flax

Shoshana Flax, assistant editor for The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MFA in Writing for Children from Simmons College.

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