I recently had the honor to sit on the First-Books Panel at the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators Florida Regional Conference, and while it was an amazing experience to tell about my journey to publication and something I will always remember, I came away from the conference with so much more than that. Here are some of the gems I picked up from the wise and talented speakers.
Jonathan Maberry, a NY Times bestselling author and five-time Bram Stoker Award winner, passed on the wise words he learned (at the tender age of 13) from legendary author Richard Matheson: “Don’t be a jackass.” Or, to paraphrase Ray Bradbury, another early mentor of Maberry’s, you don’t have to beat someone else to be good at something. Maberry also noted that if something isn’t fun, “you’re not doing it right… It’s all about the positive.” As a result of giving off positive vibes, Maberry says he gets more work than he can handle. “Attitude trumps everything else,” he told us.” I, for one, am a believer.
Debbie Ridpath Ohi, author and illustrator of books for young people, spoke about how to build your personal brand without losing yourself. When presenting yourself in social media, Ohi says to find your niche and be yourself, but don’t be afraid to step a bit outside your comfort zone. “If you fail, it makes you stronger,” she says. But if you succeed, you’ve expanded that comfort zone. Great advice, and I’ll definitely be putting it into practice.
The editors who spoke at the conference sounded off on some of the most consistent problems they see in manuscripts. Grace Kendall, editor for Farrar, Straus, Giroux Books for Young Readers/Macmillan, said she sees a lot of structurally sound writing, but so much of it is generic—i.e., there’s nothing inspired about it. She encouraged writers to find what truly inspires them and write about that. Natashya Wilson, executive editor of Harlequin TEEN, said she sees too many derivative stories and too much awkward dialogue. (When real people speak, they don’t usually address each other by name, she said. The same should apply in written dialogue.) Christian Trimmer, executive editor at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, said the stakes need to be high in those early pages. He also noted the importance of character motivation: What’s driving the character? The answer to that question sets up the emotional arc. As I continue to work on my next book, these nuggets of advice will serve me well.
Finally, Christina Gonzalez, award-winning author of THE RED UMBRELLA, A THUNDEROUS WHISPER, and MOVING TARGET, spoke about how to keep readers turning the page. She talked about the importance of cliffhangers, and how cliffhangers come in different forms. You can put characters in physical danger, but a cliffhanger can also be the careful placement of new information—something the character needed to know that will change the course of the story. Pivoting the story (turning the story in an unexpected way) can also keep readers turning the page. And so does foreshadowing—that is, hinting at or telling the reader that something bad is going to happen, even while the characters have no clue. When I am revising my work in progress, I will definitely review my notes from Gonzalez’s talk.
I think the main lesson here is that if you’re a writer and haven’t attended writer’s conferences, you’re missing out. As I said in my speech for the First-Books Panel, if not for the people of SCBWI, I would still be sitting at home dreaming about being a published author. SCBWI helped my dream come true.