Nuts and Bolts and Chocolate

Picture book author Tony Johnston has over 125 books for children in her repertoire! She was kind enough to speak at the 2011 Southern California SCBWI Writer’s Day and share her immense knowledge and insight. This was one of the most heartfelt talks I’ve ever been too. Johnston is passionate and moved by her responsibility as a writer.

The following notes were taken during her talk:

"Giant" by N.C.Wyeth

Where Do You Find Inspiration?

  • “Keep alive to everything.” – N. C. Wyeth
  • Bumble through life at the ready.
  • “If I keep alive to everything, a story will find me.” –Tony Johnston
  • “I have not exhausted the ground I stand on.” – N. C. Wyeth (on why he doesn’t need to paint the alps. There is plenty to see and explore where he lives.)
  • Notice things more and more. Inspiration doesn’t always come from an emotional core.
  • The LA Times is a great place to find stories.

 Let the Feelings Catch You:

  • “Be caught by feelings.”
  • “Words from the heart, enter the heart.” (Saying in the Torah ??)
  • Sentimentality is the cheapest lie.
  • You don’t have to include significance and meaning to have a heartfelt moment in your book.
  • Make ‘em laugh, but do it honestly.
  • Heartfelt silliness is also an emotion.
  • When writing about difficult subjects (like racism) remember that children don’t flinch. It is the grownups that flinch.

On Writing Picture Books:

  • Keep it simple.
  • “How difficult it is to be simple.” – Vincent Van Gogh
  • Writing simply does not mean words must be short and easy. It should be the words that belong.
  • “The difference between the right word and almost the right word can be the difference between the lightning and a lightning bug.” – Mark Twain
  • Don’t slip into Cinderella’s Syndrome. Don’t try to fit a story into something that doesn’t fit. The glass shoe is the shape/structure of your story, if you try to force it, it will break.” Johnston’s example of this was a picture book that was really a novel, but she didn’t realize it till an editor pointed it out to her.
  • Find the right form for your story.
  • Listen to your editor.
  • Don’t sentimentalize or trivialize.
  • The process for every book is different.

The Essence of Childhood:

  • Great picture books deal with the essence of childhood. Essence is the spirit, the pith, the heart of a story.
  • The language of essences is clean, like an arrow, straightforward.
  • “To the memory nothing is ever truly lost.” –Eudora Welty
  • You must get back to the place where it hurts.
  • “No tears in the writer. No tears in the reader.” –Robert Frost

Be Bold When You Write:

  • Don’t play it safe. Writing is about risk taking!
  • Writing is about sharing yourself.
  • “Don’t hold anything back. Don’t hold anything for the next one (book). It’s the only way to write. It’s the only way to live.” – ?

 Other Thoughts and Wisdom:

  • Any small goodness is of value.
  • We need to take time to halt our lives, become introspective, and focus on what is important to us.
  • “It is in the early morning that I think about what I believe and want to say.”
  • How do you write a novel? Hemingway’s answer: “First I clean the Fridge.” (He’s finding space to think).
  • Johnston is a bit superstitious. She believes it is “spiritually healthy” to let her manuscript to “rub elbows” with other great books. Before she submits a manuscript she puts it on her shelf between other great books and lets the essence rub off onto her work.
  • If you are in the middle of a cocktail party and inspiration strikes, politely say “I’m writing a novel, I’ll be right with you in a moment.” Then go and get out what you need to. “It is about the writing, not the cocktail party.”

Tony Johnston has written around 125 books for children. She studied under the renowned poet, Myra Cohn Livingston, and has taught creative writing at UCLA. Her awards include Honorary Texan for The Cowboy and the Black-Eyed Pea, Simon Wiesenthal Award for The Wagon, and the John and Patricia Beatty Award for Any Small Goodness.

Finding the Heart to Unlock Your Story

Newbery Award winning author Susan Patron spoke at the 2011 Southern California Writer’s Day. A former librarian and lover of children’s books, she had a lot of heartfelt insight on writing for children. Her talk ranged from finding the courage to write to insights from childhood. The following are my notes taken from her presentation:

Why Does it Take Courage to Write?

  • Why do we keep writing after the shocking horror of the 1st draft?
  • Why do we continue to write after the shocking horror of the 2nd and 3rd drafts? Maybe I should be a carpenter instead, we think.
  • Each draft takes courage!
  • Writing a novel is a thrill, like riding off on a runaway horse, it’s thrilling and terrifying.
  • When Patron became a full-time writer she was scared because this meant there were no more excuses to not be writing.

What is the Higher Power in “The Higher Power of Lucky”?

  • Patron deliberately left this open-ended. Maybe it is God, maybe it is a goal, maybe it is the power of self. Each reader will (and should) interpret it differently.

Insights about Childhood:

  • “Growing up is something that happens in the tiny details of everyday.”
  • The inner life of children is rich.
  • We (humans) are fundamentally good, but we are able to do things that are very bad. She wants to show that her characters are human and flawed. That’s why they do bad/mean things sometimes.

Thoughts on Censorship:

  • The educated possess the knowledge, judgment, and ability to make decisions and opinions on their own about what they read.

Insights on Writing and Reading:

  • Reading is the only time we are able to merge our consciousness with another (with the character).
  • It wasn’t until she finished “Lucky Breaks” that she realized she was writing a trilogy.
  • Patrons writing process: She doesn’t know what she wants to say till she’s thrashed her way through a book. She reads like she writes – to see what happens.
  • You need a view to write, so that imagination can meet memory in the dark.
  • She has never written a novel in under 2 years.  So it was really hard when she was given a 9-month deadline for her “Dear America” book.
  • This quote unlocked the “Dear America” book for Patron: “Boldness is a mask for fear, however great.” – ?
  • I know everything I know about this industry from coming to SCBWI. She’s been a member since 1972.
  • The cover is the first step to getting a reader to pick up your book. It is important.
  • You can write in multiple genres. Look at the work of Linda Sue Park as an example.
  • The diary element of her “Dear America” book seemed like a challenge at first, but soon she treated it like any other first person narrative.

Thoughts on winning the Newbery:

  • It was a whirlwind.
  • “You lose a year of your writing life when you win the Newberry.” – Richard Peck

About Editors:

  • Your editor is your collaborator and your friend. Their suggestions will make your book stronger.
  • The Lucky Trilogy had three different editors. The first editor retired (first book), the second editor was let go with budget cuts (second book), and the third book had third editor.
  • Editors are very good at seeing what you are too close to the manuscript to see.

How do you get over Writer’s Block?

  • Take long walks.
  • Despair!
  • Read craft books.

Fun Tid-bits:

  • Patron taught herself to read using the LA Times comics section.
  • The public library was “Mapquest for the heart.”
  • A State of Arrested Decay – the state of a building that has been abandoned but preserved by the state.
  • Patron doesn’t read other novels while she is writing.
  • Patron was a very active librarian. She even served on the Caldecott and Laura Ingles Wilder award committees in her career.
  • Verite Sans Peur = Truth without Fear

What Resources does the Library Have that we should be aware of? (This was a Question from Audience)

  • Go to your library and talk to the librarian about your project. They will direct you to sources you may not be aware of.
  • There are lots of databases that the library has subscriptions to that the patrons can use. Often you can access these from your home!

Susan Patron specialize in children’s services for 35 years at the LA Public Library before retiring in 2007. That same year her novel The Higher Power of Lucky was awarded the Newbery Medal and the FOCAL Award, and went on to become an New York Times National Bestseller, as well as being translated into 12 foreign languages. The Higher Power of Lucky has been turned into a trilogy including Lucky Breaks and the forthcoming Lucky for Good.

The Quick Take Away: 2011 SoCal SCBWI Writer’s Day

It’s been awhile since I reported on a conference event, but never fear I’ve got lots of good information coming your way. I attended the 2011 Southern California SCBWI Writer’s Day this past Saturday with a variety of speakers from Susan Patron to Bruce Coville. Here’s a few quick take-away’s from the event:

Susan Patron Newbery Award Winning Author said:

  • Writing a novel is a thrill, it’s like riding off on a runaway horse, it’s thrilling and terrifying.
  • For children growing up is something that happens in the tiny details of everyday.
  • More on to come on winning the Newbery, new projects, and finding the heart of your story.

Tony Johnston author of almost 125 Picture Books shared:

  • If I keep alive to everything, a story will find me.
  • Keep it simple. But writing simply does not mean words must be short and easy. It should be the words that belong.
  • Don’t play it safe. Writing is about risk taking!
  • More to come on being inspired by your own emotions, the essence of childhood, and where to begin when writing a picture book.

Rachel Cohn New York Times Bestselling Young Adult Author said:

  • First impressions are really important with teen readers. You must get it right from page one.
  • Everything feels so big to a teen. It’s epic! It’s biblical!
  • Voice is the way you speak on paper.
  • More to come on what makes a good first page, working with a writing partner, and how to keep your teen voice authentic.

Bruce Coville Fantasy author of almost 100 books shared:

  • “Fairytale is the best way to tell the truth.” – C.S. Lewis
  • The world has become too small for the heart of a ten year-old. Fantasy liberates kids, it sweeps them off to a new place.
  • Ask the tough questions. Why are we here? What do we need? These are the riddles of our lives.
  • More to come on the difference between Sci-fi and Fantasy, tips for writing fantasy, and how to find the courage to dream.

Dig In!

Author Margaret Peterson Haddix spoke at the 2008 SCBWI LA conference. The following bits of wisdom were mentioned in her keynote speech:

Dig In!

  • “Dig In” – Focus on this now.
  • What makes your character’s dig in?
  • “Why” why are your characters doing what they are doing?

A Bit about Voice…

  • Character’s Voice – see if you can switch a line from one character to another and see if you know who is who or if they are interchangeable.
  • Give characters distinct voices.

What Stories are Worth Telling?

  • What stories do you have that are worth the effort to tell? Peterson Haddix referenced the movie “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” where the author had to dictate through blinking his eye the entire text of his book. What’s worth that effort for you?

Remember Being a  Kid…

  • Use your childhood journal (if you have one) to remind you of what it was like back then.
  • Try something new to remind you what it feels like – kids are always experiencing things for the first time. It can be scary.

Where Do You Want to Go?

  • “You will go in the direction you are looking.”

Margaret Peterson Haddix has written more than 25 books for kids and teens, including Running Out of Time; Don’t You Dare Read This, Mrs. Dunphrey; Leaving Fishers; Just Ella; Turnabout; Takeoffs and Landings; The Girl with 500 Middle Names; Because of Anya; Escape from Memory; Say What?; The House on the Gulf; Double Identity; Dexter the Tough; Uprising; Palace of Mirrors; Claim to Fame; the Shadow Children series; and the Missing series. She also wrote Into the Gauntlet, the tenth book in the 39 Clues series. Her books have been honored with New York Times bestseller status, the International Reading Association’s Children’s Book Award; American Library Association Best Book and Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers notations; and more than a dozen state reader’s choice awards.

Why Do You Write?

The following notes and bits of wisdom come from author Bruce Coville and were jotted down during his 2008  SCBWI LA Keynote Speech:

Ask Yourself…

  • “Why do you write?”
  • After you’ve asked yourself why you write, push the “why” as far as you can! (i.e. I like to tell stories. WHY? Stories help us to connect to one another. WHY do you want to connect to someone else? etc…) Do this in order to see the truth underneath. Find out for yourself what lies at the root, at the deepest level.

Why Do We Write for Children?

  • The function of the child through history: The child began as economic contributor, this then changed to an object of love, and now is a consumer.
  • Children are denied real work that they love. Children want to contribute.
  • Children need hero’s, real hero’s.
  • Children ask themselves “Who do I want to be like?” not “Do I want to be good?”
  • “Every day doors close in children’s hearts.” – Coville

Never Give Up!

  • Dr. Seuss got 27 rejections for the story about Mulberry St.
  • Exceed expectations!
  • “No jump no wings, period.” (You have to take the risk).

The Seven Sins for Writers:

  • Dullness
  • Sloth
  • Perfectionism
  • Repetition
  • Cliché
  • Inattention
  • Clumsiness

The Seven Heavenly Virtues for Writers:

  • Passion
  • Sensuousness
  • Wisdom
  • Guile
  • Humor
  • Courage
  • Joy

Tips For Writers:

  • When writing a scene ask yourself how many senses you have engaged in your writing. You need at least three out of five.
  • No Character lives in isolation, always think about the implications of your character’s actions and how they affect the rest of the people in your character’s life.
  • EXERCISE: Take each grade from first through sixth grade and write down your most significant memory from each of those grades. See what stories you have.

Bruce Coville is the bestselling author of dozens of books, including The Monsters of Morley Manor, Armageddon Summer (cowritten with Jane Yolen), The Skull of Truth, Jennifer Murdley’s Toad, and Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher. He lives in Syracuse, NY.

Your Manuscript is Ready. Are you?

Author Jill Alexander and her agent Michael Bourret spoke at the 2010 SCBWI LA conference about what happens in the time between selling your first book and getting it published.

Why We Created this Breakout Session:

  • For Alexander the transition between un-published and published felt like it happened in a whirlwind and overnight. So she wanted to create this session to let everyone know what the process is like and things to be prepared for.
  • The transition is a quick one.
  • Agents often forget all the steps that authors are unfamiliar with when they are publishing their first book. Bourret’s hope is that this session will help you to navigate the choppy waters ahead!

BEFORE -Things to do before you get published:

  • Develop a Web Presence:

o   Develop a web presence in some way. Create an online hub. This should be one central place where people can find you.

o   You want to update your online hub with new content on a regular basis so that you can begin to build an audience.

o   Think about your web presence as a way for people to contact you! A place for fan mail, or librarians to say hello, etc. Some people use Facebook, but Alexander doesn’t accept minors to be her friend on Facebook.

o   Forward thinking – you won’t have much time later! Think about it now.

o   Secure a domain name and get a blog. You don’t need a fake book cover or anything, just be yourself.

  • Create your Office Hours:

o   How many hours will you spend social networking? (Twiter, email, blog, etc.?)

o   Create a calendar system for school visits.

o   Think about writing not as a hobby but as a business.

The Real Work Starts After You’ve Sold Your Book:

  • We are not talking about writing here, we are talking about the media. You will have to talk to them! You will have to get used to having an audience.
  • Think about how you will talk about your book. What was your inspiration? Have pre-packaged answers to those questions ready (or some idea) so you don’t look like a bumbling fool. Practice your responses.
  • Alexander has a post on her website of common questions she was asked when she got published. Take a look at these and practice what you would say!  Questions are here:

The Funny Things You Never Think About…

  • It turns out there is another author out there named Jill Alexander. Only she is an erotic writer! That can be a problem when your young adult audience starts looking you up on the internet! Alexander decided to use the S. of her middle name to differentiate herself from the other Alexander. Her agent helped her through this issue.

Revision, Revision, Revision… 

  • Revision is a long process. There are a lot of little steps along the way.
  • Revision begins with a larger letter discussing the major story issues. This is the time you SHOULD address these issues. I can be hard to change major things later on. Editors hate hearing “Is it too late to change…” The earlier in the process you deal with these things the better.
  • Later you will get a long letter with lots and lots of notes on each line (copy edits). It can be intimidating.
  • Review your copy editing symbols so you won’t feel so confused when that draft comes along.
  • Expect to read your book another 8 to 12 times!
  • You will be addressing different things each time you get your manuscript back.
  • Learn to distance yourself from the manuscript and be willing to read your manuscript differently.

Renaming Your Book:

  • It is pretty common that the name of your book will change. This can be for a lot of reasons. For Alexander the word Christmas in her book title caused it to need to change so it wasn’t thought of as a seasonal book.
  • Have a list of other possible titles ready! Try to think up 5 to 10 titles.

What’s and ARC?

  • An ARC is an Advanced Reader Copy. These are copies of your book that are sent to librarians, reviewers, etc.
  • ARC’s are great for your first signing opportunities. You can raffle these off to your blogging community for example.
  • And ARC is a precious commodity.
  • You get 5 to 10 copies of your ARC’s. They are expensive to make so make sure you think clearly about who will get them.  They should be for people who will write about your book and will help sell your book. Be prepared to be told by your publisher that the supplies are limited. Ask who they have sent ARC’s to so that you don’t double up.
  • When ARC’s come out is when the “What’s Next” question starts to come up.

The Book Launch is More of a Wrap Up Party:

  • Once your book comes out a lot of the work will already be done. It’s the end result.
  • Pub dates – this day will only be super exciting for you the author. It doesn’t mean much for everyone else. That can be emotionally taxing. Don’t try to build it up too much for yourself.
  • Bourret tries to be mindful of publication date and calls his clients on that day.

The School Visit:

  • Have school presentation ideas in mind. Put your ideas up on your blog or website for schools to see. Have some of these ideas ready by the time your book comes out.
  • Schools will ask you to come visit for free. Tell them you have a set fee. “I would be happy to waive the fee.” This way you are giving them something.
  • Alexander used to teach high school, so doing a book visit at a school wasn’t very scary for her.
  • Set limits to the amount of students you will talk to. Never do an auditorium because it’s too big and the kids don’t care enough when they are in a large environment like that. Agree to go to 3 or 4 classrooms instead.

When the Book Comes Out:

  • “Free books are at the library.” Don’t give away your book. Have people buy them! Particularly your friends and family.
  • Your contracted books (that you get free from the publisher) don’t go to friends and family. They need to support you and buy your book!
  • Don’t give your contracted books away to anyone who doesn’t have some influence.
  • When you are post-publication you will have to spend time promoting, etc. This takes away from your writing. “My time is valuable,” is an important mantra. It shows that you need to be paid. Your time isn’t free.
  • Protect your creative think time. This is different than your writing time. Driving can be a great place to have think time. To help separate creative time from business time Alexander moves to different areas of her house. One area is for social networking (twitter, etc.) another area is for writing.

Remember Your Family Dynamic:

  • Remember that the world goes on for your family even after you are published. Life doesn’t change much for them. So be sure you still make your family an important part of your day/life.
  • Remember to keep a balance. There will be less home-drama if you do.

What Is Next? Writing Your Second Book:

  • Your next book is an important thing to talk about with your Agent. You want your career to be long so you want to have a good conversation about the best choices for you. Talk about this early with your agent and publisher. Never do things in the dark.
  • Alexander though a previous book that she had written would end up being her second book, but her agent thought it might be too dark for her audience and they went with another idea.
  • Michael Bourret likes to know everything and as soon as possible. He likes you to share what you are doing because it allows him to figure out the timing. This is important for you next book but also important for other things like promotion. If you set up an interview with a broadcast but do it before your book comes out then it can be wasted publicity. Timing is important.
  • You can bother your agent! Share! It’s their job to hear from you!

A Bit About Agent Michael Bourret:

  • He represents children’s ficton and adult fiction, but he doesn’t do adult genre fiction.
  • He does represent some children’s books but he isn’t dying to see more.
  • He advises everyone to find the editor and agent who lights up when they read your book.
  • “There aren’t good or bad agents, there are only good or bad matches.”
  • Bourret suggest you find an agent before you find an editor.
  • Bourret will Google an author if he finds their manuscript interesting. See what is out there on yourself!

Jill S. Alexander is an author and SCBWI success story. Her debut novel The Sweetheart of Prosper County was discovered through the national conference critique process and ha s received a starred review from School Library Journal as well as being awarded to the 2010 Texas Lonestar Reading List. Jill’s second novel Paradise and His Smokin’ Squeezebox is set for release in Spring 2011. Visit Jill at:

Michael Bourret joined Dystel & Goodrich Literary Management as an intern while studying film and television production at New York University, and began at the agency full-time in 2000. After ten years as an agent in the New York office Michael now works in Los Angeles at the West Coast office of DGLM as Vice President. Michael’s authors include Sara Zarr, Lisa McMann, Bernadette Shustack, Anne Rockwell, and Heather Brewer.

Climbing the Publishing Mountain

You’ve got a long climb ahead of you, so wear a comfy bra! Young adult author of novels in verse, Ellen Hopkins, began her keynote speech at the SCBWI 2009 LA Conference with this phrase. The following is her advice on how to persevere and get published!

Climbing the Mountain:

  • It takes a long hard journey to make it to the publication mountain. Not everyone wakes up with an idea, writes it in a few months and sells it right away (like Twilight). Most of us have a long hard climb ahead of us.

Examples of the Long Hard Climb:

  • Harry Potter (the first book) took six years to write.
  • Dust of 100 Dogs – took 14 years of submissions and rejections before getting published.

Put Your Pain Into Your Stories:

  • Put your pain into your stories. Ellen’s breakout book Crank is about her daughter getting addicted to Crystal Meth.
  • When you are alone you become someone else, who is that person you become?

Develop Your Craft and Your Resume:

  • Write and publish in smaller venues – magazines, etc. The goal here is to create a publishing bio.
  • Editors do not want to deal with amateurs.

Once You’re Published the Climb Doesn’t End:

  • You need to promote your book. It took Crank two and a half years before it made its way to the top ten list.
  • Send out postcards, do library visits, school visits, radio shows. Get the media out on your first book.

Other Interesting Facts about Ellen Hopkins Shared in Her Speech:

  • She’s adopted.
  • She was given $8000 for the advance on her first book Crank.

Ellen Hopkins is a New York Times Bestselling Author of books for young adults and novels in verse. Her books include: Crank, Impulse, Glass, and Break. Hopkins considers her fifth grade teacher to be the first person to encourage her to become a professional writer, and she herself spends up to 100 days a year educating writers at conferences, school visits, and festivals.