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#NESCBWI18 recap

art by Priscilla Alpaugh

The 2018 New England SCBWI annual conference — with the theme “Dream. Explore. Create.” — was held in Springfield, MA, April 20th–22nd.  I’ve attended this conference most years since 2008, and was aware of some welcome new measures: attendees are now required to read the SCBWI anti-harassment policy before registering, and the (always large and active) corps of volunteers at the conference now included a Safety Team. But the general focus of the conference was the same as always: lots of book creators wanting to get their ideas into the hands of readers.

Region founder Jane Yolen spoke in her usual light-a-fire-under-’em manner on Friday, both in her “rouser” opening speech and in a conversation with her daughter Heidi Stemple. She reminded us that rejection is part of the process (said an editor she’d worked with previously: “I like this book a lot, but I don’t love it enough to marry it,”), that we should stop talking about finding time (“it’s not stored in the attic or under your bed”), and that we should join critique groups with writers who are better than we are if we want to improve. (Shout-out to my writing group, the A-Team!)

In the “First Look” panel moderated by J. L. Bell, anonymously submitted illustrations and opening paragraphs received critiques from agent Linda Camacho, author/illustrators Matt Phelan and Dan Santat, and author Nancy Werlin. My favorite nugget of picture-book wisdom came from Dan Santat: you can write apple, or you can show an apple, but never do both, because then you’re talking down to your audience.

“First Look” panel: moderator J. L. Bell, Linda Camacho, Matt Phelan, Dan Santat, Nancy Werlin

Rita Williams-Garcia exuded joy in her Saturday morning keynote speech “Smile: It’s Only the Beginning!” But she also candidly told us tales of the not-so-joyful early days of her career: burning a manuscript in the sink after Essence magazine accepted and then pulled it; submitting an unsuccessful Love Boat script; making dinner from whatever came in the unlabeled cans on sale for a dollar. (She has since made it into Essence — an issue with Idris Elba on the cover, no less! — and is smiling a lot more these days.)

There were a dizzying number of workshop options throughout the weekend. I started with Nancy Werlin’s “Twisted Plotting,” which was reassuring for us non-logic-puzzle-type thinkers. Plot twists don’t need to determine a book’s ending; instead, the desired ending can help the author decide what twists to include. Another comforting thought: many of the best twist ideas occur during revision.

Monica Tesler, in “My Book, My Business,” encouraged us to approach our writing, research, and marketing time in the same meticulous way that lawyers, who bill by tenths of an hour, keep track of theirs. She recommended resources to help us stay organized, ranging from to-do list apps to the less high-tech bullet journals.

In “What a Wonderful World,” Jo Knowles advised us to think in terms of worldbuilding regardless of the genre we write. A realistic fiction author might not need to think about how magic operates in a novel’s world, but does need to think about how power operates, whether it’s social power in a classroom or authority in a family. (“What a Wonderful World” was also a wonderful reunion for several Simmons alums and our former professor, Knowles, who is herself a Simmons alum.)

Delacorte editor Wendy Loggia took us step-by-step through “The Editor/Author Partnership,” from acquisitions to editorial letters to weighing in on cover ideas.

YA author Amy Reed gave a heartfelt Saturday evening keynote about her challenging road to publishing success, the impostor syndrome she admits she still feels, and why it’s all worth it. “Our readers need us in a way others don’t often need their authors,” she said, citing as an example a reader who said she decided to go to rehab after reading Clean.

Matt Phelan’s keynote presentation on Sunday morning was full of encouragement. “Draw like you mean it,” he told us, and don’t fear having to say, “this might not work.” He also made us laugh (ruefully) with his account of avoiding the news in fall 2016 while he was working on Pignic — it didn’t put him in the right headspace for a book about how “things will be okay.”

Linda Camacho’s workshop on “Plot Issues,” particularly avoiding “saggy middles,” included helpful discussion of structure and some surprising connections to character work. What characters desire, and whether they get it (or think they get it), is closely tied with the way a plot rises and falls.

Lynda Mullaly Hunt shared “Lessons Learned” since signing her first book contract, with a few detours into her pre-contract journey. She had tips on marketing, school visits, and “staying a happy human”—and getting writing done — while doing both.

Erin Dionne’s “Themes, Threads, and the Core” workshop got us thinking about our characters’ internal and external wants, what needs to happen to get them from point A to point B in their character arcs, and how these points, as well as individual scenes, can reinforce the big ideas at the center of a novel.

Finally, in the last workshop I attended, Lisa Papademetriou reminded us that “Creativity Takes Courage,” and that writers tend to use their active imaginations to torture themselves by catastrophizing. I have no idea what she’s talking about…and on a totally unrelated note, we made it to the bus station in plenty of time.

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. She is a member of the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee.

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