SCBWI Asilomar – Day 3 – The Book List & Thinking Like an Editor

What I like most about being at a literature conference of any type is that you are surrounded by people who love books. At SCBWI conferences, that focus becomes children’s literature. As Sunday morning opened with a panel of the amazing Asilomar faculty, a great take-away was the reading list. RA Amy Laughlin asked, “What books (that you don’t represent) were your favorites over the last year?” Here’s the list:

When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead
Fat Vampire: A Never Coming of Age Story and The True Meaning of Smekday, Adam Rex
Tales of Outer Suburbia, Shaun Tan
Red Sings for the Tree Tops, Joyce Sidman and Pamela Zagarenski
All the World, Liz Garten Scanlon
Lips Touch, Lani Taylor
How to Say Good-bye in Robot, Natalie Standiford
Charles and Emma, Deborah Heiligman
Ages and Angels, Adam Gopnik
Tender Morsels, Margo Lanagan
The Hotel Under the Sand, Kage Baker
Diego, Bigger Than Life, Carmen Bernier and David Diaz
Jeremy Draws a Monster and Henry in Love, Peter McCarty
Marcello in the Real World, Francisco X. Stork

And there you have it. The books the agents, editors and authors liked.

Tracy Gates, senior editor at Viking’s Children (she’s blurry in top right because I didn’t want to flash her), presented “Thinking Like an Editor” with visuals via PowerPoint that gave you a real feel for what an editor does. Her favorite part of the job is the reading (not necessarily the emails which can suck up a whole day), but her responsibilities extend far beyond that. She covered topics like how to get her attention (attend conferences, get an agent), what she is thinking when she reads a manuscript (is it as good as these?) and whether or not she can work well with the author (do we have a connection?) Also, are you ready to revise, Revise, REVISE? She looks for people who are ready to work. I’ve seen editors talk before, and I’ve worked with editors in my freelance work, but Tracy’s insight into the thought process of an editor was outstanding and very helpful to both newbies and veterans alike.

The conference ended with a commitment ceremony. People wrote out a commitment for the year on two cards–one they took home to remind them what they selected and the other they burned in the fire. I was reminded of GirlScouts. Before the cards were burned, everybody stood in an energy circle as if to say, “We’re all in this together.”

And, really, we are.

Meals at Asilomar are a great way to get to know other SCBWI members and conference faculty. Many have been coming to this conference for a very long time and come with their whole critique groups. This, however, did not keep them from warmly engaging with me. This is a friendly group and I so enjoyed everyone I got to know.

Saturday started out with agent Sarah Davies (Greenhouse Literary Agency) giving the recipe for a breakout novel. The first ingredient: write the story you are excited about. Work out the “USP” or unique selling point and avoid information dumps. (A light sprinkling, perhaps, but no dumping.) She addressed six aspects of a successful novel: larger than life characters, inspired concept, high stakes story, deeply felt theme, setting as character and voice.

Ken Wright (Writers House agent/New York office) followed with a question and answer approach, allowing the session to take its own unique form. (Ken, I learned in my private critique session, prefers his synopsis to look like a book jacket and he would rather not know the ending.) An interesting tidbit: 70% of his clients come from referrals from other industry professionals. He also emphasized the subjective nature of evaluating manuscripts.

Breakout session speaker AnnMarie Anderson (Scholastic editor) spoke next on paperback series. She gave examples of series (Goosebumps, Baby Sitters Club, Geronimo Stilton for reluctant readers, The Amazing Adventures of Nate Banks and the Poison Apple series which she described as supernatural chick lit for 8 – 12 year olds.) She described the paperback series as the mac and cheese of the publishing world. Each series needs to have a hook (which was certainly the thematic word of the weekend launching with Erin Dealey’s rap, “You Gotta Have a Hook”). That hook can be recurring characters (Babysitters Club) or thematic continuity (Goosebumps). Plots must resolve from book to book. My social media session with Greg Pincus was scheduled during this session so I needed to leave before it was over. On the way to my session, three deer walked in front of me as if to say, “Really? Social Media?”

Greg took quite a bit of time to inventory what portals were being used and how they may work together more efficiently. He let me know what I was doing wrong (never status both Facebook and Twitter through Tweetdeck) and offered suggestions in extensive notes on how to zero in on what you are trying to achieve with the social media (make it easier for people to subscribe to your blog and subscribe to other blogs which you can centralize and read from one place with Just having someone to ask questions was great.

Following lunch, I found new friend and another first timer, Kristi Wright. We were both wandering around trying to figure out which way to walk in the conference grounds maze. We ended up deciding to take a walk down to the gorgeous coastline and see the great Pacific. Kristi and I discovered we had much overlap in our lives and I was reminded of the synchronicity that reigns over these SCBWI events.

After our speed walk down the beach, my two hours of sleep was starting to show. Sleeping in a tiny bed next to my poor, sick coughing roommate who was very close by in her tiny bed made for very little sleep on Friday night causing me to reevaluate Saturday’s sleeping arrangements. All cabins are different, but I think we picked the short straw. I didn’t want to be a zombie Sunday, so I jumped on Hotwire and found the most charming hotel in Monterey with a king bed called Pacific Hotel. Friendly people, cute place. Officially, a diva.

Sleeping arrangements in place it was back to class. Social media was the next topic presented by Greg Pincus. Greg asks writers to ask questions like “Who do I want to read my blog?” If you can’t answer that, he suggests you wait to blog until you can. Greg tracks who is reading his blog and suggests you do the same. He talked about his success with social media using poetry and how he was able to land a double book deal with Arthur A. Levine without actually having books. Way to go, Greg!

Ellen Klages (The Green Glass Sea (2006) won the Scott O’Dell for historical fiction and the sequel, White Sands, Red Menace (2008) won the California and New Mexico Book Awards) and whom I had the pleasure of dining with Friday night talked about the young adult crossover novel and not being pigeon-holed. She is quite funny and her refrain was “the interesting things happen on the edges.” When asked why she writes for children, she says, “I don’t. It just happens that way.” I can relate to that.

Following a fun dinner where I got to know Linda Joy Singleton and Nathalie Mondo, my Twitter buddy, for the first time, we headed back to the Fred Farr Forum which is where most everything happened.

The keynote speaker Gary Schmidt was incredible (Wednesday Wars won the 2008 Newbery and he has written more than fifteen books for children/ young adults and has won numerous other awards). I thought he might be a religious leader because he had this hypnotic and inspiring way of capturing his audience and telling them, “what happens next.” Master storyteller, he began his talk by reading a pile of recipes. (Later we find out they were recipes written down by Holocaust prisoners who wanted to leave part of their legacy behind.) He told the story of Humphrey the whale. The message was not just what was said, but the way he delivered it, modeling for listeners how to stay awake and tell a good story. My favorite story was one he told where he was taken to a “book group” by a librarian following a talk and ended up in a prison with some fans. Despite his success, Gary does not have a website, an agent or cards and maintains a humble, encouraging demeanor.

What an amazing day.

Stay tuned for Day 3: the entire faculty weighs in on their favorite books of the year and Tracy Gates puts on a power point presentation with some great visuals that show us what “thinking like an editor” looks like.

SCBWI Asilomar Conference – Day 1

Day 1 at Asilomar – SCBWI Nor Cal Conference

Driving into the Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove/Monterey for my first SCBWI Nor Cal SCBWI event brought me back to the ocean smells and ever-present mist of Central California. I never tire of it. Asilomar sits next to the Inn at Spanish Bay just off 17 mile drive. You can see the golf course and hotel from the beach on the Asilomar property which is like dangling ice cream in front of a toddler and saying “Don’t you wish you could have some?”

The grounds are beautiful, quite rustic—and HUGE. During the course of the conference I lost my room on several occasions, once in the dark, which my roommate warned was not good because there are “Beware of Mountain Lion” signs. (On the second day, I saw three deer standing in front of the sign…but no mountain lions.)

What an excellent program San Francisco South put out. Friday launched around 4ish with Ari Lewin of Disney Hyperion taking the audience through the multiple steps an editor must move through with a pitched piece that the editor wants to buy. The number of meetings alone the piece must travel through (sales, acquisition, launch, marketing, blah, blah, blah) makes me appreciate the miracle of each publication. She wrapped up with a list of “don’t evers” and “do-s”. (Don’t ever complain to a bookstore that they don’t have your book and do establish yourself online.)

A shout out to writer Beth Graubert who mentioned the critique time was on the back of my name tag so that I did not miss my Friday session with Ken Wright of Writer’s House which I easily could have done just having just arrived from a fun Thursday night of dancing with my daughter and her friends in San Francisco the night before. Not accounting for the size of the grounds made check in take longer than planned, but having the early time was great. Thanks, Beth, for the heads up.

Every time I have a critique I learn something new. Ken’s encouragement and suggestions were both helpful and inspiring. (Yay! My Young Adult novel First Break is very marketable!) It can be a mysterious industry and it was nice just to be able to sit down with a real live agent and ask questions that roll around a newcomer’s mind in an agent demystified sort of way.

Up after Ari was illustrator Yuji Morales. Her unique and stunning art has won numerous awards. Harvesting Hope is one of my favorites. Can you imagine how beautifully she could illustrate “Sunshine’s Song?” Sadly for the writers of the world, I learned in a conversation later with Yuji that after finishing out her contracts she will stick to illustrating her own writing.

Watching Yuji’s thumbnail sketches transform into images and hearing how she blends mediums using her magic tools (pencil and eraser) then later photo shop and paint, building layers from the background forward, was fascinating. It made me want to be an artist. To hear her in her charming way say that she did not think she could draw anything at one point inspired the audience to its core. I swear you could hear “I think I can, I think I can” and the sound of wheels screeching up a track.

The evening concluded with a cocktail party giving me a chance to meet a couple of the savvy San Fran South organizers, Kristin and Naomi, who were quite warm and welcoming. What a fantastic job they do. I wondered if they start planning next year’s conference today.

After wandering the grounds in search of my room, I arrived back in my room. (I vow never to sleep in a twin bed again in this lifetime). I met my roomie Katharine Wright. The picture is Katharine hard at work editing her photos. Even though she had laryngitis and flashed me an index card saying she couldn’t talk, we managed to stay up until 1:00 talking.

I lay in bed thinking how thankful I was to have been touched by so many creative, talented people during the course of the day.

Next post: Day 2 at Asilomar…when I check into a hotel room.

NAMI Book Signing – Voices of Bipolar Disorder

Tonight was my first book signing. I was invited to come sign books at the Redding NAMI meeting last month and agreed to do that. With the release of their monthly newsletter, it became clear not only was I going to be signing, but I was the main speaker as well. Public speaking has never been my fave; I’d rather write out my thoughts which probably makes sense since I’m a writer. But I have endured my share of Toastmasters meetings during my marketing career (I would actually sit in my office and cry before I had to do my speeches–true story)so I was okay with the evolving role I would play in the meeting. As my daughter had written in the anthology in a side-by-side perspective of what living with bipolar disorder during adolescence feels like it only seemed right she would be with me to talk. But she was working 3 hours away, in work she’s loving, and I did not want to interrupt that in anyway. I would speak alone (and drag my husband along for moral support.)

The day of the reading, the NAMI President told me they would be expecting 40 people, more than their usual group. I had ordered books from LaChance Publishing, but really was not sure how many to order. All I knew was I couldn’t have a book signing without books to sign. But I also didn’t want that “inventory” writers are always talking about trying to clear out.

We got to the meeting and I wondered how I was going to fill up two hours. I didn’t so much have a speech as index cards with bullet points. Those bullet points never got read. Fifty five people came (helpers were scrambling to find chairs)and after I read, there were so many questions people had to take numbers. I signed far more books then I had planned. People traveled from outlying rural areas. And everyone was so thankful.

What this says to me is that there is a thirst for knowledge about bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. My husband and I often say the statistics are inaccurate: the prevalence of mental illness in our society is much higher than is talked about in the literature. At least it seems that way from the street. Stigma can prevent people from speaking up, but once people know I write mental health material, they often open up with their stories or concerns about a loved one.

What I am always struck with at NAMI meetings is the incredibly, heroic work that is being done by people who have a mental illness, and people who love people that have a mental illness. It feels rock solid honest and it’s inspiring.

If this is what all book signings are like, I’m in. Especially the NAMI ones.