Moments from the NESCBWI Conference

I’m in Fitchburg, MA this weekend for the New England Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators Conference, and this morning, I’m up early and pretty much overwhelmed with gratitude that I get to be part of this world. It’s been an amazing conference so far. Among the highlights…

  • Hearing Allyn Johnston & Marla Frazee discuss their editor/illustrator collaboration.
  • Listening the inspirational Cynthia Leitich Smith talk about change and challenges in a writing life.
  • A long and unhurried dinner conversation with smart, funny, kind friends. Good pizza, too.
  • Seeing my awesome agent, Jennifer Laughran, in real life for the second time. We live on opposite coasts, and almost all of our conversations are via email, so getting to talk and laugh together face to face is a treat.
  • Giving my workshop on Skype author visits, having all the technology work well, and hearing people say it was helpful.
  • A late-night conversation with Harper editor Molly O’Neill about one of the projects she’s been working on. Listening to Molly tell the story of acquiring a YA novel called YOU that releases in August, I was so impressed with her passion for the book. I think as writers, we’re used to hearing other writers gush about their characters with that kind of excitement, but we don’t often get a chance to hear editors talk about their work. It was a great reminder that they care about our words and stories just as much as we do, and that these are their book-babies, too.  Also, I am now dying to read YOU.
  • Having Jo Knowles & Carrie Jones sign a couple books for my classroom library. (*waves to students*  I am bringing you presents!)  Here are a few photos from yesterday’s book signing. 

Marla Frazee signs ALL THE WORLD, with Frank Dormer & Erin Dionne as autographing neighbors.

Here’s Erin Dionne visiting with a reader/writer friend. See the stacks of Oreos?  Erin brought them to go along with her terrific tween novel MODELS DON’T EAT CHOCOLATE COOKIES.  Because the signing was many hours after lunch, this made Erin very popular.  Erin is funny and wonderful and popular anyway, but you know…Oreos always help.

Here’s Jo Knowles, signing a copy of JUMPING OFF SWINGS.

Here’s Jo, Cynthia Lord, and me at our signing table. See the blue book between Cindy and me?  It’s an ARC of her upcoming novel TOUCH BLUE, a middle grade book set on an island in Maine, and I had a chance to read it recently. It’s beautiful and full of heart, like her Newbery Honor Book RULES, but special in its own different ways, too.  Look for it in August.

The photo that I don’t have but wish I did?

Cindy crawling UNDER the table and emerging from beneath the white tablecloth so she could get over to a different table to have Matt Phelan sign a book. Our signing table was long and pushed back close to the wall, so in order to get out from behind it, you had to squeeze past the other people signing, stepping and tripping over bags and backpacks.  Cindy’s shortcut was much faster.

On the agenda today? A free verse poetry workshop with Kelly Fineman that I’ve had my eye on since the conference program was first released. Kelly is a gifted poet, and I’m looking forward to hearing her talk and taking some ideas back to my creative writing class, especially since a few of our kids are working on free verse novels as their extended projects.  Then I’m talking about blogging on a panel with Jo Knowles and Carrie Jones.

I’ll leave you with the question Linda Urban asked that got us all thinking at dinner last night…  Is there a project that you’ve always wanted to do but don’t feel ready to write yet? 

Those of you who read this blog regularly know I’m a big fan of dystopian novels.  I’ve always kind of wanted to write one, but I never felt like I had the right idea at the right time until this spring, when things came together in my head for an upper middle grade dystopian that I’ve been writing fast and furiously.  My agent recently sent a proposal to my editor, so my fingers are crossed.  And it turns out that a couple other people at our dinner table are in the same place…just beginning to work on that "someday project."

What about you?  Is there a book that you’ve been waiting for the right time, the right inspiration to write? 

The Top 10 Reasons You Should Come to the NESCBWI Conference

10. This year’s theme is "Moments of Change."  The publishing industry is evolving. We can lament that and snivel a bit, or we can be involved in the process and shape it creatively, in a way that values story and writers and readers.

9. This year’s conference chair is Anindita Basu Sempere, one of the most organized human beings I’ve ever met. This will mean good things for the conference, I’m sure.  Anindita has already posted a FAQ hereConference registration begins on Monday, and you’ll be able to register online here.

8. Manuscript critiques. You can sign up in advance to have the first pages of your manuscript critiqued by one of the agents, editors, or authors offering feedback at this year’s conference. If you’ve never done this before, it’s a great opportunity to get a kind-but-very-honest opinion on how your manuscript might be received when you send it out.  If you want a manuscript critique, sign up for one right away; these spots tend to sell out quickly.

7. Orientation session for first-time attendees.  The organizers of this conference know that attending your first one can feel overwhelming, so they’ve set up this how-to-manage-your-weekend session on Friday afternoon.  Smart.

6. Marla Frazee is one of the keynote speakers.  MARLA FRAZEE!!!  A two-time Caldecott Honor winner, and a kind, funny person, too. Marla will be speaking Saturday afternoon, along with her editor, Allyn Johnston of Beach Lane Books

5. Cynthia Leitich-Smith is another keynote speaker.  You know…from Cynsations?  She’s not only a well-loved kidlit blogger, but also a talented author and faculty member at the Vermont College MFA program.  She’ll be talking Saturday morning.

4. Workshops! Workshops! Workshops!   I’ll be presenting a session on Skype author visits and will also be on a panel with Jo Knowles and Carrie Jones to talk about "Blogging for the Future," how to set up and maintain a blog that will serve you throughout your career as a writer.  And I’ve already started making my list of sessions I’m dying to attend, too.  Matt Phelan is doing a session on Writing the Graphic Novel.  Mitali Perkins and Deborah Sloan will talk about successful social networking.  Toni Buzzeo and Cynthia Lord team up for a session on school visits, and Kelly Fineman offers a session on free verse.  Kara LaReau, with whom I had the absolute pleasure to work with when she was an editor at Scholastic, is giving a workshop on "Getting Unstuck in Writing and in Life" that you will not want to miss; she is an amazing, amazing editor & writer.  And that’s just a start. You can download the full list of workshops here.

3. The "workshop" after the workshops.  At conferences like this, the workshops are great, but some of the most valuable conversations happen after the hour-long session has ended, in discussions with writer-illustrator colleagues over coffee and lunch.

2. Brownies.  There are usually brownies on Saturday afternoon.  Big, thick, chewy ones.

1. Where else can you spend time with hundreds of other people who will talk seriously, for hours, about made-up people as if they’re real?  I laugh at this one, but it’s important to me. Writing for children is important, but sometimes people in our day-to-day, grocery-store, water-cooler, day-job lives don’t entirely get it.  It’s refreshing and invigorating to spend time with a big group of people who do.

Registration opens on Monday, February 8.

NESCBWI Conference Panel Handout

At the request of some folks on Twitter, I’m posting the handout from last weekend’s NESCBWI panel discussion, "Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know About Agents…But Were Afraid to Ask."  I participated in the panel, along with my agent Jennifer Laughran of ABLA,  author Jo Knowles and her agent Barry Goldblatt, and author/illustrator Carlyn Beccia and her agent Tracey Adams.  We talked about many elements of the agent-author relationship Saturday afternoon and promised more on how to query an agent in the handout.  Some of it will seem obvious, but believe it or not, agents see query letters that don’t follow guidelines all the time. 

Tips for Querying Agents

1. Do your homework. Make sure you know what kind of work the agent generally represents.  Spell the name correctly.  Make sure your manuscript is ready to submit. Then follow the submission guidelines exactly. 

Why is this important? Because you’re asking someone to represent you as a professional in a career where you will frequently need to follow directions and do things a certain way.  Prove that you can do it up front.  Don’t give an agent a reason to say no.

2. When you write your query letter:

a. Address the agent by his or her name, i.e. Dear Mr. Goldblatt

b. Write a very brief first paragraph explaining why you are writing (to see if the agent is interested in representing your project) and why you chose that agent in particular.  Did you read that the agent was looking for paranormal romance? Does he or she represent an author you love? 

c. It’s fine to say you’ve met one of the agent’s clients or admire their books, but don’t make it sound like you were referred to an agent unless an author specifically referred you and offered to contact the agent to say so. Agents will check on this, and you’ll look unprofessional if you’ve stretched the truth.

d. In your next paragraph or two, give a brief summary of your book.  This summary should read more like jacket copy than a book report.  It’s meant give a quick overview to entice the agent to request your manuscript and does not need to include every little plot element.  It does need to be clear, concise, and well written.  If your book is funny, it helps if your query is funny, too.

e. In your last paragraph, give a brief closing.  You might say to whom your book would appeal or how you think it fits into the market.  Thank the agent and offer to send your manuscript along at his or her request.

3. Give it time.  Agents are incredibly busy and may take weeks or months to respond to your query.  Status query only after three months or whatever the agent’s guidelines suggest.

Keep in mind, there’s a lot of advice out there on querying, and this is just one take on the process. There are no magic query potions.  If you’re interested in learning more about what to do and especially what not to do, you’ll want to check out this post from Scholastic editor Cheryl Klein.

The Top Ten Things I Learned at NESCBWI

10. An unreliable narrator — one who doesn’t tell the truth for any number of reasons — can add tension to a story.  In her workshop called "You Lying Scumbag"  (love that title!),  Jacqueline Davies read a bit from her new historical novel LOST and shared an Ian McEwan quote that stuck with me.  "Narrative tension is primarily about the withholding of information." 

9. Being sort of scared to write about race, for fear of messing up, is not a good reason to avoid it.  Mitali Perkins challenged her workshop participants to include more diversity in their casts of characters, and not in just superficial ways.

8.  Along those same lines…a quote from Floyd Cooper during the diversity panel… "A good multicultural book should start as a good book."

7. It is possible to remain calm, cool, collected, and friendly while coordinating a conference for hundreds of writers. Co-directors Anna Boll and Anindita Basu Sempere proved it over and over again.

6. My agent   is just as terrific in person as she is online.  We met for the first time Friday and got to spend lots of time talking and laughing over the weekend.

5. Agents in general — at least the good ones — are incredibly committed to good books.  I was impressed when an audience member at our panel discussion on agents & authors asked how long an agent will shop a manuscript before it’s dead in the water. The answer?  A really, really long time, if they believe in the manuscript.  Barry Goldblatt told the story of a book he sold after seven or eight YEARS of trying on and off, and Tracey Adams shared a similar experience.  Sometimes, depending on what the market is like, they’ll put a story on the back burner for a while, but that doesn’t always mean giving up on it.

4. The Nashua Crowne Plaza has very good chocolate chip muffins, but it’s impossible to eat them without making a mess.  There are chocolate smudges on half of my notebook pages.

3. Sometimes, when I am really busy and having lots of fun, I forget to take all the great pictures I intended to take.   But I have these…

Saturday night dinner at The Peddler’s Daughter in Nashua

What we had for dinner there, which brings me to….

2. I do like fish & chips!  I do, I like them, Sam-I-Am.  Actually, that would be Linda-I-Am, since it was   who told me I really ought to order them, since they are the specialty of this great Nashua pub and come all wrapped up in newspaper. The meal was fantastic, as was the company.

1. Children’s writers & illustrators and the editors and agents who work with them are some of the friendliest, funniest, smartest, most supportive and generous people on the planet.  I so loved meeting new writer-friends and spending time with people I usually talk with online, including my agent and online critique buddies.  Truth be told, I knew that before this weekend, but every time I attend an event like this, I’m reminded of it, so it’s still #1.

Saturday at NESCBWI – Part II

Highlights of my Saturday afternoon at NESCBWI…

  • I was part of the panel discussion "Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know About Agents…But Were Afraid to Ask," along with my agent Jennifer Laughran, Jo Knowles and her agent Barry Goldblatt, and Carlyn Beccia and her agent Tracey Adams.  This was my first time presenting at an SCBWI Conference, so I was a little nervous, but having so many smart, nice people on the panel made it a million times easier.  We had great questions.  Can a first-time novelist still find an agent?  (Yes!)   How do you usually communicate with your agent?  (Email, mostly.  It was interesting to note that two of the three agents on the panel had met their clients in person for the very first time just this weekend!)  More on the panel, questions & answers later on.  And if you were at the panel, thank you so much for coming and for your great questions!  Watch your email for the handout later this week!
  • I loved looking at the posters for the illustrator showcase.  I’m always in awe of illustrators, and the folks who created work for us all to enjoy in the conference lobby deserve a big thanks!
  • Fish & Chips!  At a local pub so loud my ears are still kind of ringing.  With homemade ketchup…  Mmmmm….
  • I stayed up wayyyyy too late talking with friends in the hotel lobby.  To that end…. time for coffee.  I’ll post some photos later in the week!

An Early Update from NESCBWI

I left my camera connector thing at home, so photos will have to wait, but I thought I’d post a quick update from Nashua all the same. (For my mom and others who may not know writer acronyms, NESCBWI stands for New England Society of Children’s  Book Writers and Illustrators.)

Highlights of Day 1:

  • Meeting conference co-chairs Anna Boll and Anindita Basu Sempere and other conference organizers at lunch.  Honestly, the organizational abilities of these women has me in awe. And they shared some exciting news about next year’s conference – a new venue and a 21st century theme, "Moments of Change," focusing on the way technology impacts our craft and careers.
  • Meeting my agent   in person for the first time! She is just as funny and friendly and smart in real life.  I knew it!
  • Seeing writer friends from all over New England, meeting people I’ve only talked with online, and celebrating recent good news with so many of them.  We New England folks are a busy, busy bunch of writers & illustrators!
  • Coming back to my hotell room to find an email from a young reader that started out, "I wanted to write and thank you for being an author!!!"  Every sentence in her email had three exclamation points.  It made my day and was a lovely reminder of why we’re all here.


  • I’m so looking forward to Cynthia Lord’s keynote address after breakfast.  She warned us to bring the Kleenex.  This is just trouble for those of us who are known to cry during Folgers coffee commercials.
  • Terrific workshops on tap – and I’m wishing I could be everywhere at once!  First stop for me today…Jacqueline Davies’ session called "You Lying Scumbag: The Joys and Perils of Creating an Unreliable Narrator."
  • I’m presenting this afternoon as part of a panel on "Everything You’ve Wanted to Know About Agents… But Were Afraid to Ask" along with my agent Jennifer Laughran, Jo Knowles and her agent Barry Goldblatt, and Carlyn Beccia and her agent Tracey Adams. We have a crowd of 80 people signed up for the session, and I bet they’ll have some great questions.
  • Then I am going to the conference bookstore, where I will proceed to buy more books that do not fit on my shelves at home.  We need more shelves.
  • Then off to dinner with friends at a place with what’s been pitched to me as the best fish & chips ever.  Stop by for the full rundown on unreliable narrators, friends, fish & chips later on….

Can’t forget about Bruce!

How in the world did Bruce Coville get left out of my NE SCBWI conference photos?  What an incredible speaker. I heard him at the World of Children’s Literature Conference in Lake Placid, NY six years ago and couldn’t wait to see him at SCBWI last weekend. He was funny and smart and worth every minute of waiting.