Friday, August 20, 2010

All-You-Can-Read Smörgåsbord of SCBWI LA 2010 Summer Conference Notes

I have so many fond memories of my first SCBWI International Conference. I would like to thank everyone who said hello, took an elevator with me, sat beside me at workshops, ate lunch with me, exchanged cards, held my youngest babe and danced with me at the SCBWI LA Summer Conference in 2010.

With fellow West Australian SCBWI pal, illustrator - Samantha Hughes

Meeting the inspirational Jon Scieszka

Most of all, thanks to Lin Oliver and Stephen Mooser for starting the whole darn thing so many years ago. So many people have benefited because of your initiative. I am so very appreciative of your efforts and feel very honoured to be part of this organisation.

I hope the moons align and I find myself at the conference again next year. If not, I will hold back my tears and connect with the amazing Team Blog. You guys rock!

Below you will find links to all of my (kinda rough but factual) notes from the conference. I have transcribed these whilst holidaying in north America with my family. I'll be back on Australian shores in mid-September.

Enjoy! Please feel free to comment and share your thoughts.

All the best,


Friday July 30th, 2010

Jon Scieszka: Tales of a Picture Book Writer: Do's, Don'ts, Maybes

M.T. Anderson - The End of all our Exploring: The Journey of Narrative

From Your House to My House: What Makes Me Choose Your Book? [Editor Panel]

Mac Barnett & Steven Malk - 5 Lessons from Classic Picture Books that Can Help You Launch Your Career

Loren Long - The Picture Book: My Two Cents Worth

Saturday July 31st, 2010

Gordon Korman - Writing for Kids: A Three-Quarter Life's Work

Literary Agents View the Marketplace

Jon Scieszka & Mac Barnett - What is Going on with Boys and Reading?

Rachel Vail - Hearing your Characters: Creating Distinctive/Contrasting Voices for Each of Your Characters

Gail Carson Levine - Sweat and Magic

Sunday August 1st, 2010

Why Narrative Nonfiction is Hotter Than Ever

Marion Dane Bauer - Basics of Writing a Picture Book

M.T. Anderson - Literary Experiment in Books for Children

Gennifer Choldenko - Kill the Bunnies: Writing Novels for Today's Kids

Monday August 2nd, 2010

Rachel Vail - School, Drool and Other Daily Disasters: Finding the Humour and Heart in Middle Grade Novels

Paul Fleischman - Surviving the Novel

A View From the Top: Four Publishers Discuss our Industry

Gennifer Choldenko - Rewrytz: How to be Your Own Best Editor

Jill Alexander & Michael Bourret - Your Manuscript is Ready, But Are You?

Jill Alexander & Michael Bourret - Your Manuscript is Ready, But Are You?

Jill S. Alexander
Michael Bourret Literary Agent: Dystel & Goderich Literary Management

These are my notes from Jill S. Alexander & Michael Bourret's workshop at the SCBWI LA Summer Conference, 2010.

In 2008 at the NY SCBWI Conference, Jill was reading her work during a group critique session. Agent Michael Bourret was sitting in on the group. He laughed out aloud at Jill's story. Aaron Hartzler predicted he would want to represent her. They did in fact exchange contact details there. Although it didn't happen on-the-spot, this is where the relationship began.

There are things you can do to ready yourself for the time when an editor or agent contacts you. The transition from writer to author happens quickly. Agents often forget that writers don't know the steps.

Develop a web presence in some way. Facebook/web/blog. When people type your name into Google they find your hub. Update at least twice a week. People need a reason to come back. People want to find out news about you. Librarians need to contact you. Web presence not only about marketing – also a way to contact you.

Jill: I can't imagine doing this without an agent.

Your office hours. How many hours will you dedicated to facebook etc. Be prepared with a routine. Set up a calendar for school visits etc. Think of writing as a business.

The real work happens after the manuscript is sold. Think about your answers to some questions people might ask you about your story. Learn a lot about your book and yourself.

Bigger things
Overarching letter – 'big picture' letter from the editor of the changes suggested
Sentence / paragraph level – notes written on manuscript

Smaller things
Copy edits - review the copy edit symbols; there are many.

You will read your manuscript another 8-12 times. Distance yourself from it. You must be able to leave things behind.

Consider making a list of alternative titles for your book.

ARC – stands for Advanced Reading Copy. These are bound books that go to librarians, reviewers. First signing opportunity.
ARCs are expensive to produce. Talk with your editor about who they will go to. Supplies are limited. They are precious.

People may then ask you “What's next?”, referring to 'career-long', not just 'next book'. Consider this.

It's important to share what you are doing with your editor/agent. Timing is important (eg. Interviews etc). Agents are paid for you to bother them – don't be shy.

Have school presentation things in mind. SCBWI shout outs important.

Don't give away your three free copies.

You don't need to feel obliged to visit for free (schools etc). However, if you want to say “I am willing to waive the fee”, this is your prerogative. Your time is valuable.

Protect your creative think time. This is different to your writing time. It could be during your driving time. Set some office hours.

Publication date – this may be a major date to you, but emotionally be preprared that others will not care. Beware of the disappointment after the date has come and gone. Like boxing day – it's all over quickly.

Balance your family and writing commitments.

Secure a domain name. Your blog can showcase some of your writing.

If the teachers don't support you at your school talk (leave you to 'look after the class' etc.) let your agent and publisher know right away.

Some people have something else ready straight away, some people find it harder.

How do you know you will get along with your agent? Find somebody who represents the kinds of books you love. Someone who loves your voice. They light up when you talk about your book.

There are no good and bad agents, just good and bad matches.

Find an AGENT before you sign things over to editors.

If you have interest from an editor, it may make the agent move faster.

It takes more than 500 words for an agent to offer representation.

If someone doesn't seem enthusiastic about your work, they won't be enthusiastic when trying to sell it.

Gennifer Choldenko - Rewrytz: How to be Your Own Best Editor

Gennifer Choldenko

These are some very brief notes from Gennifer Choldenko's workshop at the SCBWI LA Summer Conference, 2010.

Author of “Al Capone Does My Shirts”

- After first draft, keep it and do a new one.

- Believe in the process of improving the manuscript.

- You don't run into the fridge fast to move it. You do it slowly and gently. If you get like that about your manuscript, slow down.

- If you find yourself not wanting to work on a chapter, it's a big clue that it's not working.

Go where the heat is!

- If the heat's there for you, it's there for the reader.

- Resist doing chapter one over 400 times.

- Don't 'baby' your characters, because life doesn't.

Put a character up a tree and throw rocks at them? This doesn't work for GC. She needs domino effect stuff that makes other stuff occur. The tension builds.


- She once went to a scummy bar with a friend. (This was the inciting event)

- Her friend went home with some guy.

- The friend dropped out of school and got married to the guy from the bar. (Sub-plots included sitting her friend down to talk about it and having a huge falling-out).

A View From the Top: Four Publishers Discuss our Industry

These are my rough notes from the SCBWI LA Summer Conference, 2010. Apologies - a bit sketchy and at times I lost track of who said what here...

Justin Chanda: Simon & Schuster

Jennifer Hunt: Little Brown Books

Stephanie Owens Lurie: Disney-Hyperion

Francesco Sedita: Penguin Young Readers

Francesco: Young readers want something they feel they can read, but isn't so light-weight that they feel incompetent. Must be readable for reluctant readers. Illustrated.

Stephanie: 80% of titles are commercial. 20% are literary, award winning books.

Justin: The commercial v. literary divide is false.

The state of the US market today:

Francesco: The rules may be wiggling. We need content first and foremost. Want the newest, most exciting, out-of-the-box stories.

Justin: If your face is melting because you love it so much, we will acquire it.

Stephanie: Twilight, Diary of a Wimpy Kid are selling in huge numbers – never seen before. The “No Child Left Behind” initiative damaged trade picture books. Teachers had no time to use trade books because they were all spending time teaching to the test.

Embracing technology trend – interaction with picture books.

Where there are no shelf space issues, the ratio is 50/50 picture books/novels.

If you're not making mistakes, you're not taking risks.”

No kids' magazines anymore, so it's hard to market books to kids.

Ebooks – Justin thinks they're great. Every hardback goes to eBook at Simon & Schuster.

Loser Queen” - you can co-author a story online by voting.

39 Clues

Proposal for digital would be considered. Learn together. Pay attention. Give your opinion/suggestions.

Enhanced book” includes an app., interviews, photos, games etc.

Kids in Walt Disney World after dark - “Kingdom Keepers” series. Cult book – trans-media game. Had to read book to play the game. Gave you keys. 3rd book sold 70% higher than 1st two.

Paul Fleischman - Surviving the Novel

Paul Fleischman

PF uses DEVONthink software – helps to organise disparate pieces of information, separate chapters etc. Software that helps you make lists, make decisions, problem solve, brain storm, find solutions, think about your cast and scenes etc. Store details of research, unused lines (save them, move them somewhere else), back matter (lists of names, possible scenes, characters/their appearance, acknowledgements, possible titles).

You can mentally walk through the whole book. Which route will it take? Paul's father was an improviser – it came from his acting background. It has a level of excitement, like riding a wave. However, having a surfboard under you is handy.


- Bookmarks are handy. You can save versions of the document in Microsoft. Email documents to yourself. Keep a list for continuity, like in movies. Keep your facts straight. Write down descriptive words used so as not to repeat yourself. They can become like a 'tic'. The use of a colon was like a tic for Paul at one point.

- Have a running list of research questions (eg. I must find out more about...)

- When you revise, make notes on what you did in that edit.

- You always need to research for novels – even when set in the present day.

- Highlight things


-Study your settings, characters etc. Use Google street view to describe the look of the environment, streets etc. PF gave the example of perusing a monthly newsletter for a retirement home as research about what elderly people may do.

- Podcasts.

Need at least a half-day at your disposal when writing a novel. It will feel easier than writing smaller chunks here and there.

Every word should be there for a reason. Weigh each word.

Scenes are not just there because you like them – they are not just to show off your research.

Read straight through – highlight but don't fix so that you read quickly through and get a sense of what you've done.

Be prepared to do major rewriting. There's no way around, but through.

Every book teaches me to write it, but not the next book.”

The years pile up … writing is not for the impatient.

The Novelist and the Nunn” - a book about writer's block.

Lying Awake” by Mark Saltzman

Laughter gives you a sense of control. Optimism and view of life.

Rachel Vail - School, Drool and Other Daily Disasters: Finding the Humour and Heart in Middle Grade Novels

Rachel Vail

Be inspired by books that really move you.

Middle grade – you emerge into the world, away from your family. It hits you. Is your family weird? Books can be company for you. You feel that others out there are like you. You also discover 'there are other ways than my way.'

Common humanities. We are the same, but different. Are we more or less daring? Shy? Do we live in different places?

How do we move past our own lives? How do we become someone else? Start with what you know. Eg. Metaphorically, do you feel that you were 'kept under the stairs'? How would you act/react as a person in this situation?

Life or death moments are a dime a dozen in middle grade. You just want to die. You can also feel utter joy. Suddenly shame, lust and ambition emerge. You have never felt these feelings before. RV describes feeling 'soul-melting jealousy' when she discovered that a boy in her class could already read at 6 years old.

Young adolescents can feel that they are changing in front of everybody – in full view. There is no cocoon to hide in. You are learning to laugh. They feel soul-burning humiliation as if they are naked in front of the world. The need the loyalty of a friend.

Ask yourself: who did I not want to sit next to and why? How did I feel when I stood at the top of the ski hill when I actually didn't know how to ski yet? Speed write for 10 minutes about these thoughts and see where it goes.

Little children harbour worries that parents may not be aware of. They often think: what if?

Many stories of middle grade have a one act play structure. RV wrote Justin Case as such. Then she threw it out and started again. It takes practise to get the voice right.

Rachel told us about her discovery of the water cycle when she was in school. To her it was a big revelation and she felt excited about telling everyone in her family about it. Everyone responded with 'Yes, I know', except her uncle. He played along and acted very interested and intrigued. He took her seriously. It made her feel important and special. Can you be a person who listens to a child?

The first draft: Michaelangelo said that the sculpture was hidden in the stone. As the stone, start chiseling away and find your story.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Gennifer Choldenko - Kill the Bunnies: Writing Novels for Today's Kids

Gennifer Choldenko

These are my notes from Gennifer Choldnenko's keynote speech at the SCBWI LA Summer Conference, 2010.

Do kids “grow up faster” today? Why the trend for longer books if attention spans are shorter now? Graphic novels – Diary of a Wimpy Kid – started as a blog. Trend of gaming and storytelling collaboration.

- E.B. White killed off Charlotte. Wasn't afraid to make it real.

- If you had a happy childhood, you should consider writing for adults.

- What the writer experiences, the reader experiences.

- Each character in your book should have as much personality as the kids had in your 3rd grade class.

- Jot down notes on how people walk, dress, move, talk, look. Eaves drop.

- Every detail must fit the world you've created. Style your own book. Clothing, environment, language etc.

- If you don't care about what you're writing, stop. Go back. Must be gratifying in itself, not just a set up for something later.

- Once you write your first draft, go back and discover what you are avoiding saying.

- “Between” state is most creative (between sleep and wakefulness). Most likely to get an idea after intense brain storming, after the pressure is off.

- Only those who risk going too far find out how far they can go.

- Take care of your 'writer' self. What does it need? Write almost every day so your muse knows when/where to find you. Suit up and show up. Butt In Chair method. Don't be concerned with quantity (number of words) too much – it's about quality. You could also try going for quantity and see if it works for you.

- Feel your way, don't think your way through a story.

- Push your protagonist. The reader wants to see them doing something that they themselves would never do – only think about.

- Skills increase with practise.

- Kids deserve the very best books we can write. A child out there needs your book. Write for that child.

M.T. Anderson - Literary Experiment in Books for Children

M.T. Anderson

These are my notes from M.T. Anderson's workshop at the SCBWI LA Summer Conference, 2010.

  1. Experimental fiction is not experimental

  2. Picture books take up these elements naturally. In adult fiction they would be noticed.

  3. Experimental pieces teach us how to read them.

  4. ? (oops...missed this one...)

  1. 5. Introduce terminology. Words to describe what you're doing.

    Kurt Schwitters – contributed to surrealists. “Poem 25” - a series of numbers that teaches us how to read it - this is similar to children learning how to read. The poem is form without content. Structures don't relate to anything but themselves. Consecutive lines confirm patterns. There are surprises and disruptions. There are sequences. Uses one sequence to introduce a new sequence. Insight into the way that words turn into meaning. Structure for meaning. Group words.

    Late 19th Century children's books – syntax of narrative picked up implicitly. Children accept strange elements because they haven't yet assimilated the models that restrict us as adults.

    Oppositions. Difference. Differentiation.

    eg. Red, Blue, Old, New, Sad, Glad

    Units of sound – feel a particular way.

    It seems like the works of Suess began as doodlings and noodlings and they were 'banged into shape' later.

    Defamiliarisation. Russian formalists. The writer puts road blocks in our way. 'Nobody thinks about air until someone poisons it.'

    The Arrival – Shaun Tan. New element introduced at the end of the page. Drawn all together and contextualised. The book teaches us how to read it.

    Metafiction: any element of fiction that's about the story being a story. Eg. The Monster At The End of This Book. Grover trying to impede the progress of the book being read is in itself the forward motion of the narrative. He knows that he's part of the narrative structure. We fear the 'monster', but desire it. Like in every book. In some sense, each monster is ourselves, after all.

    'Go, Go, Go, Grabote!' Character crawls out of the artist's eye and paints it's own jungle and goes into it. This is metafiction.

    Typographical play and intrusion: experimental literature reminds and draws attention to the fact that you're reading – rather than aiming to disguise it. Techniques go almost unnoticed in children's literature such as playing with typography – eg. Lauren Childs (Charlie and Lola).

    Words as sounds instead of meaning: old dataist technique.

    Nonsense or whimsy: teaches us to read in a very different way. YA novel entitled 'YA Novel'. It has no moral: it's a datastory.

    Hypertext: does not demand that you read in any particular order. Provides links or avenues for you to read in an alternate order.

    Self-contradiction: “I am the Cheese” Has two plot lines running parallel. Characters cross over from one to another. They can't coexist. The one you least want to exist turns out to be the real one.

    No plot structure – eg: Red Fish, Blue Fish

    Experimental fiction: we see the world as sparkling with possibilities as a child does.

    See some things that break boundaries. No rules. Octavian Nothing: all documents. Some are real, some fabricated.

    Experimental can be tiring – it may be too tiring to use in a novel, but charming in a picture book.

    You are storytelling. Imagine children sitting around your knees and listening. You interact with them. You are drawing the reader closer.

Marion Dane Bauer - Basics of Writing a Picture Book

Marion Dane Bauer

These are my notes from Marion Dane Bauer's workshop at the SCBWI LA Summer Conference, 2010.

Started writing picture books. Got bored. Wrote MG/YA novels. Every now and then got the urge to do a picture book. Authors had only one publisher at that time. Her editor said “You're not a picture book writer. This is not a picture book.” She has since written 19 easy readers and 27 picture books.

Picture books are short. Most are less than 400 words. Picture storybooks are longer. They are harder to sell. Editors tend not to want these.

Everything has to make opportunity for changing, active pictures. If it doesn't, you're writing a story. You're doing the pictures for people's minds. Writers have to let go of the visual aspect of the story.

Reads Jane Yolen “How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight?” The story gives opportunities for the artist. Action. Things the characters do – movement. The rhythm keeps it palatable for adult re-reading. Reads aloud well.

'Chicka Chicka, Boom Boom' has a rhythm. There is not only one kind of rhythm. It can vary. It can slide and change. Rhyme can come and go. This gives the satisfaction of rhyme without the inevitability. Subtle repetition.

Pay attention to 13/14 page spreads – 28/29 pages. You can leave it to the editor or art director, but then you might end up with a big block of text that serves only one illustration.

Type up the text of a loved picture book to see how it is laid out.

You need a fresh idea. This is often the hardest thing. After all, children's experiences are relatively limited. However, their feelings are as deep or deeper than ours. Retreading old territory is unavoidable. “If You Were Born a Kitten” (MDB) was unique because it dealt with birth.

Bark, George” was an old concept whereby an animal makes the wrong sound, but it was make original and funny because of it's storyline.

The Hello, Goodbye Window”

Harold and the Purple Crayon” - the child takes a crayon and creates his world.

Don't write for a young child, write through the child you once were. Find that heart place that makes it your story.

There needs to be a pay-off for the child. Eg: In “Bark, George”, George is in charge of his own world. Makes the child want to re-read. Deep satisfaction. Resonance.

Something for the adult, too. They are the gatekeepers. Eg – the book teaches or promotes something. However, don't wink to the adult above the child's head. Go through the child.

Quality is very important.

Never forget it's the child you're writing for.

The best stories are subversive. For example; 'Where the Wild Things Are'. It was controversial because it was scary. 'If You Give a Mouse a Cookie' provides great pleasure for the child.

Q&A: Don't focus on word count. Focus on compression. Approximately 400 words.

If it needs to grow (into a story), let it grow. If not surviving in that format, edit it down.

Why Narrative Nonfiction is Hotter Than Ever

Ken Wright (moderator) – Writer's House NY

Tanya Lee Stone

Deborah Heiligman

Susan Campbell Bartoletti

Elizabeth Partridge

Susan: Extreme athletic research. Research to the edges of the subject. Contradict stereotypes that live in the middle. Libraries – uses division one university libraries . Has 6 library cards. Secrete database access – alum. Has friends with passwords. Reads bibliographies of books and papers for resources.

Visit the places you write about. It feeds the senses and emotions. Once the facts repeat themselves there is nothing new to learn – it's time to write.

Deborah: was terrified to write about Charles Darwin: “Who was I to write about him?” One fact was very interesting to her – that Darwin's wife Emma was terrified that Charles would go to hell and they would be separated. It became a focal point for her research.

JUST go to primary sources. Deborah read Darwin's autobiography. She also read letters (volumes) from Emma's family, beginning with Emma's birth. Got passionately attached to Charles and Emma.

Writing about living people: don't discount information because it doesn't fit your angle. Not a linear process. Listen, ask for different people's perspectives on an event.

Checking that the stories you get from people are true is very important. Take a journalistic approach.

Editor will want a cover letter, one chapter and an outline. They need to love it.

Your book will be different by the time you write it.

A primary interview with a live person is very valuable. One author looked up and called many people with the surname to get an interview. When you interview people, get them to sign a release. Record audio as you state the date, person's name and read them the release on tape. A signed copy is given to author, interviewee and publisher. Sometimes the interviewee needs to be reassured that the story will still be theirs after they share it. They are not 'giving it away'.

Don't let form dictate content: let content dictate form. Leave yourself open, trust. You never know what you'll find. Often it will end up a very different story than you were signed up to write. Susan signed up to write a book on WWII. Went back to researching WWI / Germany / kids in Germany. Deadline loomed, the book was meant to be about American history but this did not eventuate. Asked to change her contract.

Ask yourself: what is important about this story that I need to tell? Always stick to 'what do I need to tell?'

Have multiple layers in a nonfiction book.

Don't do a 3 paragraph data dump. Have emotion in as many paragraphs as you can. Resonance. What emotion drives the scene?

Q: What's hard about writing about famous dead people?

A: They still have family. If you portray the person in a negative light you may offend. Must be respectful, but keep to your truth about it.

Susan talked to and argued with the person she was researching whilst washing dishes. Spent a weekend with the KKK. It breathed the story to life.

Elizabeth: Photographs of celebrities are much more expensive. Make sure in your contract you have a photo budget. It's 'easier with dead people'.

When you have a strong point of view about a subject, how do you find a balance?

Nonfiction novels are using a lot of techniques from fiction. Can't invent dialogue... although this has been done. Don't go there.

Source notes – keep track of where you get everything.

There's no such thing as a perfect book. Small details may be missing, but they don't alter the state of the book.

Hit the deadline. Be reliable.

Gail Carson Levine - Sweat and Magic

Gail Carson Levine

These are my notes from Gail Carson Levine's keynote speech at SCBWI LA Summer Conference, 2010.

Plot and suspense. Not all stories need a crisis, but every story needs a shape. Need growth of experience. Reader is satisfied.

Joan Abelove “Go and Come Back”. Not a great deal of tension. You can make it work. So much is possible. GCL's books are plot driven. When she thinks “This is boring” she writes lists of possibilities in her notes. No idea is stupid.

Turning a pumpkin into a cart won't work, but don't give up. Have courage. Plot usually arises out of a situation. Eg: The Little Engine That Could – what if the engine was pissed off or depressed? Where would the plot go?

Concentration camp - GCL relates the story of a man killed by a Nazi guard because he was argumentative and resented authority.

One character could ask another character 'What are you thinking?', which might start major warfare.

Time - make time pressure loom. Dialogue, worried thoughts can convey this. If the character worries, the reader worries.

Distance – Travel toward a destination (looming). Chapter headings (eg. 4 stops to go).



Separation (from the problem)

Main character flaw (eg. Marty in Back to the Future can't tolerate being called a coward)

Secondary character flaw (eg. Boyfriend of main character)

Isolation (wanders away alone from others – gets into some danger)

Expectation – (Eg. mum expects son to be a brilliant student – creates tension. High expectations of self. Also a character flaw.)

A test

A disaster

Something is lost (and it's necessary – or main character thinks it is).

Prompt: think of something very tense that could happen as you go through your day.

Predictability. Is it really bad? You can walk a fine line. Adrian Monk episodes – you know who the baddie is but you're not sure how it will pan out.

How to surprise?

Confound expectation

Ask your characters

Avoid easy morals

Surprise yourself

Make a list


Workshop it

Choose wisely where you will introduce 'out there' ideas like dragons landing on earth. It works at the beginning because the reader is ready for anything. It may not work so well to introduce this half way through the book.

Set yourself a goal: eg. I will write 12 ideas. Don't fall short.

Don't stress about getting a moral across. You can't control what the reader will get out of the story anyway.

Prompt: Have one character ask another about his or her thoughts. Does it lead to disaster?

Gail Carson Levine starts with plot, not character. Characters don't come fully formed. We have to be with them for a while.

Character development: (*apologies - somewhat incomplete notes here...*)


Grow in the writing


Thoughts and feelings

Speech – Reminds the reader about the character's personality. Eg: “Look at me!” or “Get out of my face!”


Movement (character touches someone's shoulder – why? Caring? Dominant? Character looks at shoes – tells us something about him/her).

A nickname can tell you a lot.

What's in his pockets?

What's in his bag?

How does he relate to his friends? Does he set things up? Follower? A hanger-on?


Loves to...

The character shouldn't always be saintly. The reader does a great deal of interpreting the person because you can't describe all the layers of a person.

Characters may interrupt – but for different reasons. Reveal the reasons.

A character may use certain expressions often.

Speech mannerisms. Eg: “You know what...” for one character is likely to be followed by “This sux!” or “You're an idiot!”

Three characters get ready for school. How does each one prepare? Reveal their thoughts...

People do things differently (eg. Pack a suitcase) – can reveal something about them.

Prompt: Re-read your story/stories and consider what meaning they may have for you. What are you telling yourself? Do you have themes that you often go back to? Are your characters very obedient / cowardly / worry a lot?

Much of this information is on GCL's blog. Comment and join in.

Rachel Vail - Hearing your Characters: Creating Distinctive/Contrasting Voices for Each of Your Characters

Rachel Vail

These are my notes from Rachel Vail's workshop at the SCBWI LA Summer Conference, 2010.

How to hear your characters? Listen. Try spying. On train, wear headphones with no music playing and eavesdrop. You must like stories. You must like sentences!

Take a note book with you everywhere you go. You never know what gems you'll hear. 'Bump of bread' (her son talking about a roll). 'Sucked his cubes' (a waitress who cleared the drinks from the table of a famous actor!) 'Christopher only likes red. All day long.' (A little girl RV once met).

You know the character by their voice. Figure out who they are to learn their voice.

- What they notice

- What they talk about

- What they don't talk about

Notice how people sit, talk, walk etc.

Use of opposites

Explosive character and an implosive character. Volatile and steady.

How we express our ideas and what we notice differs according to personality. Eg: Dancers use movement, musicians use music, artists notice light and shade, psychologists notice relational information. Some people notice absurdities.


2nd book harder to write because of 1st protagonist in your head. “The Friendship Ring” - you see the same situation through someone else's eyes in different books in the series.


Walt Whitman – I contradict myself. I contain multitudes.

Start with yourself. Sense memory. Imagine you are in your father's car (as a child). Write down what you smell, see, hear, feel, think etc.

Think about your mum and a disaster at the supermarket. Most of us know our mum's voice. What would be a disaster to her? Write as if you were her in that situation.

Sometimes I'm trying so hard to be nice that I forget to think.” RV spent 6 hours trying to write this line one day. Delete, delete, delete...

I don't know what I want” - if this comes up in your dialogue, you have a problem. The character is speaking to you, telling you that they need a motivation.

If you can't get a character's voice out of your head, what do you do? Sometimes you can't, so it becomes your next book.

Play with dialogue in order to meet your characters.

Rachel read us some dialogue between her characters Justin Case and Elizabeth the Excellent. Elizabeth is spelling her name – it's wrong, but to her it's just right. She believes that the spelling of her name can change. Justin is a perfectionist and is getting very annoyed and frustrated with her because it just isn't correct. Elizabeth stands her ground and just believes that she is right. A lot is revealed about the characters from this exchange.


Have a notebook and pen at all times. People say things that can be like gold. Eg. 'A runaway freckle', 'A bump of bread.'

Notice how things smell. It's a primal, ancient sense.

If you get stuck, make tea. Force yourself to remember.

Use forces of opposition. If they usually act one way, make them respond in the opposite way.

Screenwriter once said: 'Take a character's statement out and you should be able to guess who said it.' It should be unmistakeable. Often takes 60 drafts for Rachel to get a 'first draft' that she sends to her editor.

Ask your character:

What do I want?

Why can't I get it?

Who is stopping me from getting it?


Why do I want it?

What do I REALLY want? (Sometimes it's the opposite of what you think you want – eg. You might want to get away from your mother, but at the root of it you want to be closer to her).

What will happen if I don't get it?

What is a risk?

Rachel described writing a book with her friend Avi (Edward). The story was called 'Never Mind!'

It started as a joke – Rachel wrote a chapter (left the end hanging) and emailed it to her friend Avi. It was from one character's point of view. He edited her chapter and wrote chapter two from another character's point of view. They went back and forth until they had a whole book.

Note: a particular voice may not be to the editor's taste.

Rachel uses her 'Form to Form a Character' list of prompts. Some of these are listed below.

My name is

How I look (from outside)

How I look (from character's point of view)

I can't stand...

I love my mum, but...

My friends...

I wish...

If I could change one thing...

My favourite food is...

I love to wear...

When I grow up...

The worst thing I ever did...

The best part about school is...

I wish I were more...

The thing nobody knows about me is...

My dad always...

I am afraid...

When I get mad...

I don't care about...

I used to like...

My life would be better if...

My family is...

A great day for me...

I don't think I'll ever...

Jon Scieszka & Mac Barnett - What is Going on with Boys and Reading?

Jon Scieszka – number 2 of 5 brothers. Taught for 10 years in New York. Former Ambassador for Young People's Literature. Masters in Fiction. Vice President of Guys Read. He has two children – a son who is very much into hockey, and a daughter who he says is a typical high-achiever.

Mac Barnett Mac has had three picture books published in the last year, with five more to be released over the next few years.

Jon and Mac write out of their own experience. They have a natural connection with what boys like. It is not all about underwear and fart jokes.

Teaching is very much feminised today – the vast majority of teachers are female. This leads to boys feeling that they are in a 'girl world' at school. Sometimes this is the case at home, too.

Schools tend not to be boy-friendly. Reading is attached to sitting down and being quiet – not innately boy-oriented activities.

Magazines, comics, and wrestling websites are all valid forms of 'reading'. Supply guys with stuff they want to read. Expand your definition of reading to include audio books, magazines, newspapers, comics, cartoons etc.

826LA – centres where boys can be supported in writing after school. 826 National” is a not-for-profit organisation. Jon S is on the board for the Brooklyn store.

Academically, boys are achieving at lower rates than girls. This is a sociological and a biological issue.

On, book titles are sorted into topic categories to make book selection easier for reluctant readers.

Provide a balance of books, TV, games etc. rather than banning any one medium in favour of books. One form is not inherently better than another.

Boys tend to fall-off around 4th grade. This is the time when they are often emotionally rejecting their mother. Their teacher is often also female, and can be seen as another 'mother figure' to reject. Boys need more male role models - especially role models who are seen to enjoy reading.

Write for the biggest range of children that you can. Don't set out to write for boys, write from your experiences. About 80% of guy authors write for guys. Kate DiCamillo – a female author who writes well for boys. There is a stigma about women writing for guys. However, JR Tolkien and HI Larry are successful. The cover tends to be more important than the name of the author with regards to children picking up the book.

Reading Don't Fix No Chevys” by Mike W. Smith - a book analysing boys' reading habits. Showed that boys often use books for information. They often prefer nonfiction and humour.

During 2nd - 5th grade, series are popular. Children feel a sense of accomplishment, having read the whole set. They are comforted in knowing there's another book at exactly the same level.

Guys Write for Guys Read” - Volume 1 is all about humour.

Use swear words. Need to make sure that literature is reflecting what goes on emotionally for boys. In the book My Parents Gave My Bedroom to a Biker” by Paul Feig - the term 'skid marks' (ie – in the toilet) was censored out. Sad, because it was humorous. Publishers out of touch. Books may not accurately reflect what's going on.

Definitely depict boys pursuing girls / vice versa. Relationships are dealt with in 'The Brixton Boys' by Mac Barnett.

More artwork is being included in middle grades novels. Sometimes there is a push from parents to get their kids reading 'proper novels' without illustrations – something to brag about. This is a shame because illustrations can make stories easier to digest.

Don't demonise video games. There are certain things that are fascinating to boys (eg. exploding heads in video games). Yes, they may need to see this, but it's not the only thing they need to see.

Literary Agents View the Marketplace

These are my notes from the keynote /agent panel at the SCBWI LA Summer Conference, 2010.

Josh Adams – Adam's Literary

Ginger Clark – Curtis Brown

Lisa Grubka – Foundry

Ken Wright – Writer's house

Middle grade series are coming back. 8-12 y.o. have been neglected for a while. Market growing.

Ginger: Angels – editors bidding for these stories. Lots of angel submissions at the moment. Mermaid or Siren books desired. Dystopias, post apocalyptic stories wanted. Email query preferred. Aims for a paperless office.

Ken: Very young fiction wanted – a little older than first readers. Picture books 'tough' at the moment.

Josh: Picture books through to YA. Market strong. “Timeless” books wanted. High quality, worthy of markets abroad. for submissions. Receives approximately 8,000 per year.

Lisa: YA fiction / MG and books with an international focus. Expose kids to different world views. Likes storeis that are reality grounded / stories that relate to her own childhood. MG fiction: voice driven, strong characters, humour. Submissions – emails faster, but more focused attention when looking at hard copy.

Josh: Priority given to SCBWI members who have attended conferences where they've spoken, so put in subject line. Make sure your agent knows that translation is important. Has 19 co-agencies that represent their authors overseas. Bologna and Frankfurt. Auctions worldwide. Publishing series preferred for international market. Stand-alone books not so attractive to market overseas.

Tell your agent if you speak another language / lived in another country.

Multimedia rights – enhanced e-book rights. Want to animate picture books. Movie subsidiary rights - movie makers want multimedia rights or want to freeze them.

Mid-list authors are hard.

Agents are always excited to break out a new author.

Looking for a great new voice.

JA: Not an editor. Will help polish for submission, but that's all!

Gordon Korman - Writing for Kids: A Three-Quarter Life's Work

These are my notes from Gordon Korman's keynote speech at the SCBWI LA Summer Conference, 2010. Apologies for their brevity - I think I was too busy laughing!

Gordon Korman

Canadian author. Has 70 titles. '39 Clues' is a collaboration between 7 authors. GK is the author of books 2 and 8. Started writing at age 12. Was mentored by Paula Danziger.

Humour doesn't get a lot of respect – ie awards, accolades. Korman asks: 'Why don't we teach humour in school? What skill do you use more – humour or recognising foreshadow?' :)

Luck can be important. In middle school Korman wrote “This Can't Be Happening at McDonald Hall.” It was 1976. The Track and Field teacher was standing in as his English teacher and allowed him to work on anything he wanted for four months. GK decided to send it to Scholastic, seeing as he was in charge of the book orders at school, and therefore practically an employee (!) It was published some months later.

Kids are not an exotic species. We were kids once. Have a sense of what's cool. What you think is cool is probably cool to kids. Knowing what they will think is cool is a good asset.

Swindle” was created as a kids' version of Oceans 11. Cool. Stealing something back. The 'team' had their specialties eg. Climber, Dog Whisperer, Blowtorch specialist.

Sometimes you have a great idea but can't make it work - just have to let it go.

Once he was asked about a humorous book he wrote. The adult asked, perplexed: “What exactly is the message in your book?” He answered “Uh, I guess my message is … lighten up.” He believes it is possible to inject some humour into almost every situation.

Picture a bored, disaffected 11 year old. Picture him saying “Do I care about this?” This should tell you whether or not you're on the right track for your middle grade novel.

Have some stick-to-it-iveness!