Guest post by Lianna McSwain
Hi All! SCBWI-LA was a massive event. There were over 1,200 attendees and close to 100 professionals from the field. The conference took place over three days and included so much information I filled a notebook almost completely with notes, which I am happy to share with you. These notes cover only those events I was able to go to. It’s like a cupful of information that I collected from the fire hose.
I wish I could have been everywhere!
After Lin Oliver and Stephen Mooser kicked off the conference by charming everyone with their wit and loveliness, we sat back and had our minds blown by Meg Rosoff.
Her talk dissected several academic complaints that fairy tales are harmful because they give children unrealistic perceptions of the world. The academics charged that stories such as Goldilocks and the Three Bears are dangerous because they fail to teach that bears live in dens not cottages, that they eat ant pupae not porridge and that they are more inclined to disembowel and eat small children than they are to be suitable playmates for them.
Meg Rosoff responded that fairy tales are dangerous, but not in the ways the academics say. She reminded us that fairy tales are subversive. They upend cultural norms and allow us access to our most repressed thoughts and fears.
Fairy Tales take the dark matter of our unconscious minds and put them into our hands.
She assigned us the task of going out into the world and writing those stories we’ve been told we can’t or shouldn’t write. She asked us to write subversive.
There were seven editors on the Friday morning editor’s panel: Alessandra Balzer (Balzer+Bray), Mary Lee Donovan (Candlewick), Allyn Johnston (Beach Lane Books), Wendy Loggia (Delacorte), Lucia Monfried (Dial), Dinah Stevenson (Clarion), and Julie Strauss-Gabel (Dutton).
Lin Oliver moderated the panel and asked the editors to begin by naming things they’d like to see more of.
Nearly everyone called for more work with voice.
The editors also called for work that was authentic, original and that surprised them.
Julie Strauss-Gabel asked that the writers take the time to get to know the editors, so that when submitting a work, the writer would know whether the work would be a good fit for that editor. Julie stated that she only publishes 9 or 10 works per year, and she needs to fall in love with them.
The other editors agreed that they too were hoping for works that the writers or agents saw as being a good fit for them. Wendy Loggia said that when an agent says to her, “you’re the best editor for this book” she feels a need to put that manuscript on the top of the pile.
Lin Oliver jumped in and recommended that writers consult the fabulous SCBWI resource called “Edited By.” This is a list of current editors and the ten books that they believe best represent the kind of work they like to publish. This list is included as a chapter in the Market Section of The Book. If you are not familiar with The Book, it is a pdf compilation of the most current information about the state of children’s book publishing available to all members of SCBWI for free, download here.
The editors agreed that while they understand that multiple submissions are the norm these days, they really all frown on submitting a manuscript to multiple editors within the same house.
Finally, Mary Lee Donovan looked for writing competence. Dinah Stevenson wanted a story with a definite beginning, middle and end and nothing over 100K words. Wendy Loggia requested that manuscripts have page numbers. Julie Straus Gable wanted stories that weren’t boring. Allyn Johnston requested stories that were readable out loud.
The editors also agreed that respectful communication goes a long way.
Judy let us into her mental art studio, and confirmed what I suspected all along—Ms. Schachner is a wellspring of genius! She showed us photos of her collage books. When she is creating a character and a story, she spends weeks and weeks pulling photos and compiling them into a workbook in a non-logical jumbled up way. She collages photos on top of drawings, loosely, with her editor’s eye turned off. When she has finished the book, she goes through and looks for juxtapositions that catch her eye. From this rich source material, she makes her story. I was very impressed by the amount of work she put into the generative stage, the stage before she began writing the story. Also, Judy is amazing at accents. She can slip into from a Tennessee drawl, to an Irish brogue, and then to Antonio Banderas. I’m in awe!
Aaron led us in a two part sing a long of “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey. Imagine half the auditorium singing the bass line, and the other half singing the tenor line while Aaron Becker sang the melody on stage. He said we sang better than the editors and agents did at his last presentation. We all sat down feeling very smug. They don’t call us writers ‘the talent’ for nothing. ;)
I didn’t realize how much I liked Aaron’s wordless picture book Journey, until I saw it projected onto a large screen, and I could immerse myself into his gorgeous artwork. Journey was the only book I bought at this conference. Aaron’s story was very inspiring, as his first book was published later in life. His story exemplifies a quote I heard earlier from Erin Murphy:
“The path to success is filled with many waiting periods that feel like failure.”
Maggie Steifvater stomped on stage looking like a punk rock cheerleader—all tight pants, boots, and leather bracelets covering up a shock wave of energy and enthusiasm.
Maggie talked about being a thief. She steals people’s souls. She freely admits to meeting people and finding their essence. Then she puts that essence into her characters. It’s easy, she said, “just find that one thing that makes them uniquely who they are.” If someone is wearing a plaid shirt, Maggie says, that detail is useless until you know why they are wearing a plaid shirt. When you know why, you can change the details, you can know how they will act in the future. Steal their soul, she said.
Deborah started the Market Report by reminding us that the watchword for 2013 had been ‘dip’. She meant that 2012 had been higher than normal because of the Hunger Games, Divergent and the new Wimpy Kid book, so the sales of 2013 were a return to sales slightly higher than 2011, but not as high as the blockbuster 2012.
She stated that for 2014, the dip is gone. All trade publications are up. Sales of print and ebooks are up 31%.
Picture books in the last two years have been the best ever, specifically those aimed at the youngest markets. Because older kids are moving to chapter books sooner, there is a demand for heavily illustrated chapter books. There is not a lot of demand for digital picture books.
Non-fiction picture books are on the rise, though Deborah stated that they should be considered an extra opportunity rather than a driving force behind higher sales numbers. Writers should be aware that there seems to be a backlash against the common core, so non-fiction picture books need to have entertainment value apart from their ability to fill the common core niche. (A text’s compliance with Common Core requirements should be that extra hook that pleases the editor who would have bought the book anyway.) Non-fiction books that have a strong character driven narrative still sell well, and longer texts are still acceptable.
Chapter Book sales continue to grow because of titles such as The Magic Tree House, Geronimo Stilton, and Dragonbreath. These highly illustrated hybrid books help readers find their footing. Single title Chapter Books struggle for shelf space in the midst of many series which dominate the market niche.
Middle Grade is finally on the upswing. There seems to be a lot of excitement surrounding recent middle grade titles, both series and stand alone titles. Editors are eager to find the right the combination of voice and humor, which have to be spot on. There is a call for more adventure fantasy, and light humor. There is also a place for historical fiction as long as it sounds contemporary.
Young Adult sales are starting to slow down a little, except for within the field of realistic contemporary fiction. Editors are excited about stories that focus on normal kids within normal school settings. Editors are also eager to see YA thrillers and mystery stories including some speculative fiction with a thriller twist. Historical YA is still a hard sell, and paranormal titles are tricky.
Overall, the field is looking up and editors are optimistic that the market will continue to be strong.
Linda Sue Park:
Linda is gracious and calm but she writes like a ninja. Here is her advice for writing lean, clean prose. She says:
Take each block of text and treat it as if it were a prose poem.
Give each clause its own line so you can see which words are working and which ones are cluttering up the flow. Eliminate all clutter.
Bruce advised creating a Bible for each series with detailed character studies, historical background, and the rules of the world. The more detailed the Bible, the more potential a story has for becoming a series.
At this point we were all exhausted, staggering around under the weight of our books, looking bleary-eyed for the exit.
It was a great conference.
Lianna McSwain lives in Northern California with her husband and her two extraordinarily charming children. After a career in economic development and fundraising, she finally returned to her true love, writing. Lianna is completing an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, specializing in YA and Middle Grade. When she is not writing, she is reading and eating chocolate. Or playing music and taking improv classes. Or hiking with friends. She rarely does housework willingly. Sometimes she just sits there, thinking.