Tag Archives: writers

20 Tips For Attending SCBWI Writing Conferences

A few of us here at the Spectacle will be attending the LA SCBWI conference at the end of the month and wanted to share some tips with you on how to make the most of a writing conference. This is also posted at my website.

1. Start a “conference notebook” and use the same notebook each time so that you don’t end up with scattered information in different locations. I date each entry, so it’s easy to go back and check information. Also leave some room in the margin for notes to yourself that you can consult at a glance.

2. Don’t bring a manuscript expecting to show it to an editor — editors usually fly in and don’t want to carry more than a few business cards back home. They will often invite attendees to submit after the conference. But it doesn’t hurt to bring some of your work to share with writing friends. Impromptu critique sessions in hotel rooms after conferences can be lots of fun.

3. SCBWI conferences are casual. Most people wear comfortable clothes — nothing fancy. Keep the high heels and business suits at home (unless that’s your idea of comfy clothes.)

4. Read the books of the speakers before you go. This makes it easier to relate to the talks and gain a better understanding of their experiences. If editors are speaking, check out some of the books they publish. Not only is this a nice courtesy, but you may discover new authors you enjoy.

5. Go to have fun. The most satisfaction I get out of a conference is talking to other authors who share my hopes, worries, and dreams.

6. Take a camera to get pictures of all the new friends you’ll make.

7. Bring bookmarks, copies of books for the brag table. If you don’t have bookmarks, business cards work great and give you something to exchange with new friends.

8. Hotel beds are often hard — I bring a small pillow with me.

9. After receiving a business card or bookmark, make a note on it to remind you about the person you just met. When I get home after a conference and have a bunch of cards, it’s easier to remember clearer with helpful notes to remind me of new friends.

10. Pack some bottled water–it leaves room in your suitcase for all the (autographed) books you’ll take home later.

11. It’s often a good idea to bring snacks, like muffins, crackers or granola bars for those times when can’t get a meal. Hotel rooms often have a bar full of food goodies, but they are usually NOT complimentary and a small bag of chips can cost $5. Check the cost before you munch. Also, Gelson’s grocery store is a great place to get snacks and an easy breakfast food for the mornings if there isn’t anything quick/cheap at the hotel.

12. Use a prepaid phone card to avoid extra hotel phone expenses — and verify any additional room charges ahead of check-out time such as meals, toiletries, coffee, and phone charges. Often the room phone may add extra charges, so use a lobby phone or bring along a cell phone (check roaming charges first). Save yourself the nasty shock of a $50 charge for five minutes of conversation.

13. Bring an extra zippered bag to pack new purchases for the flight home.

14. Make up a purse-sized photo book ahead of time with assorted pictures to share of our pets, kids, books, etc. You know your puppy is cute and your friends may enjoy seeing the picture, too.

15. Save meal, travel, and other expense receipts for tax records. Professional education such as conferences, travel and books are tax deductible for working writers. What a great job!

16. Keep expectations reasonable. Don’t expect to snag a huge publishing contract or a top agent. What you can expect is to learn what editors and agent want and how to target your submissions to the right person. You’ll also gain new ideas about writing, rewriting, characterization, etc. Listen, take notes, and soak in the knowledge offered. Then when you get home, polish your work and send it off.

17. Pick compatible roommates for fun conversations AFTER the workshops are over and to help cut room expenses.

18. If you don’t have anyone to hang out with, go down to the lobby and talk! I’ve met lots of new friends that way. And meeting other writers is the most fun of attending a SCBWI conference.

19. Think about your characters and current writing project when listening to advice. Instead of taking the information in a general way, mentally applying the information to specific characters/plots can be helpful.

20. When it’s all over plan at least one day for a “crash day” at home because you’ll be tired and need to slowly recover. You’ve had a GREAT time…not relax! Then get back to writing.

Hope to see some of you in LA!

Linda Joy Singleton will write about the conference when she returns…

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April Fool’s Day, Writers’ Edition

Forget about fooling your friends–use April Fool’s Day to get into the writing spirit…

Jump into Alternate Version Blogfest: post a short passage from your WIP, and then an alternate version of it in a different style on your blog. Check out other participating blogs and sign up to be listed as a participant on Livia Blackburne’s blog.

Ever heard of a republic called San Serriffe? In 1977, The Guardian published a faux report about a series of semi-colon-shaped islands that got readers excited about this new vacation spot. Read about the famous April Fool’s Day hoax here.

Today is the official start of Script Frenzy, a NaNoWriMo-style challenge to write 100 pages of original scripted material in 30 days. If you’ve been itching to write that TV show, play, or even graphic novel, sign up here to join the frenzy.

It might be difficult to find a copy of the famous “fake” novel, I, Libertine, but you can read here about how it was created. In 1955, deejay Jean Shepard encouraged his listeners to flood bookstores with requests for a novel that didn’t exist–I, Libertine, a title invented by a listener. Once bookstore owners started calling publishers to ask when the novel would be published, Theodore Sturgeon was commissioned to write it as a joke. Copies of the resulting novel are now rare collectors’ items.

Know any other great ways for writers to observe April Fool’s Day? Leave a comment.

Parker Peevyhouse hopes not to fall for any hoaxes today

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Dance squads and energy on the page

I’m a metaphor junkie.

I also see a fair number of critique or contest manuscripts, and I lead workshops on occasion, so for a while I’ve been trying to find words or instructional help for something I’ve noticed in lots of manuscripts, and that I think separates pretty good work from publishable work, but that I don’t see mentioned often. I’ve thought of it as “coherence” or “cohesiveness,” but when I say things like that, people glaze over. They don’t know what I’m talking about.

But recently, I attended my high-school niece’s regional dance squad competition, and I may have found the metaphor I need.

I’d never been to a dance competition or even a practice before, but it became clear by the third squad on the floor that you could tell how strong each team’s performance was going to be within the first bars of their music. And usually even before. It was a matter of their energy level, which was almost tangible (or not); the sharpness of each young woman’s movements, and her synchronization with her teammates. It was the looks on their faces. It was the ease and precision with which they found their correct spots on the floor before the music began. And a really big clue was how they got to those spots in the first place — whether they walked silently out and wiggled around and looked at each other and shuffled and found the right position — or marched/pranced/stomped out in step, as a single unit, with discipline, and with everything from their swinging arms to the angle of their heads united — from the audience’s very first glimpse. Without second thoughts, adjustments, or tentative steps.

And I see a lot of manuscripts that would not be winning dance squad performances. They’re good — pretty good writing, pretty good story. But they are not contenders from that very first glimpse. They don’t “take the floor” like winners, every word precise, sleek, disciplined, and in step. (This is why I think proper formatting, spelling, and grammar are crucial.)  The first page doesn’t ooze energy and confidence. The smile or sobriety on the author’s face, the tone, balance, and grace of her writing muscles, are not evident on the page.

I understand so much more clearly now how an editor or agent can reject a partial on the basis of that first page. The writing performance, like the dance squad performance, must be telegraphed in those very first moves. And while some agents and fewer editors will see the talent and be willing to help train and choreograph and discipline, many won’t. They’ll let somebody else coach that writer instead.

I still have to figure out how, if at all, this metaphor might be useful in a workshop. But it also makes me think of those “light bulb” experiences in general. If you’re a writer, what light bulbs have helped you jump a level of skill? If you’re a reader (aren’t we all?), what it is about a first paragraph or page that tells you that you’re in for not just a good performance, but a great one?

— Joni, who’s giddy with this metaphor fix and will overuse the analogy for a good while yet. And whose niece’s squad got a third place. Which was about right, in her aunt’s opinion.

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Right Now in Speculative Fiction

Book Blogger Appreciation Week is September 14-18: it will be devoted to spotlighting blogs that talk up books and promote reading. Plus, there will be giveaways and awards. You can vote now for your choice to win categories like Best Speculative Fiction Review Blog and Most Chatty.

Tweeting writers will want to use this Twitter guide for writers, which includes a great tip for easily finding out whether a person you follow is also following you, as well as a discussion about how much you should share in your tweets, (among other tips).

Harry Potter: 44. Hamlet: 7.  How much are your favorite books worth? This essay on the much-used Accelerated Reader school program laments the uneven approach to getting kids interested in reading.

Those handwritten notes stuck to bookstore shelves can influence buyers to pick up certain books. Publishers Weekly’s “Shelftalker” herself gives some interesting tips on how to use shelftalkers. Most notable to me: hand-written shelftalkers may work better than printable ones that come from outside sources (such as writers’ websites).

The New York Times spotlights something that could have come straight out of a futuristic novel: vertical farms. Global warming and population increases may end up severely limiting our farmland, but no problem–we’ll just build tall structures that make use of hydroponics to grow food year-round. From a distance, these leafy towers would look like “gardens suspended in space.”

Just when you were thinking the prolific James Patterson should take a vacation comes the news that he has  signed a deal to write 17 books by 2012, including both adult and YA novels. No word yet on how this is humanly possible…

HarperTeen has launched a new interactive books series for readers aged 13 & up: read an excerpt of The Amanda Project: invisible I. You can take part in the search for Amanda both by reading the novels and by participating online. Some readers will even have their online writing published in the books or the e-zine.

And if you’re itching for some free books, remember to enter our current giveaway of THE AMETHYST ROAD and THE NAVEL OF THE WORLD (ends Sep 21), and the Fantastic Book Review’s giveaway of 3 urban fantasy books of one winner’s choosing (ends Sep 13).

cheryliconParker Peevyhouse

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Deus ex Machina and Foreshadowing: Advice for Writers

Deus ex machina.

It’s pronounced “DAY-us EX MAH-kin-a”, and you’ve probably seen the term before.

The literal translation is “God from a Machine”, and it comes from ancient times when the Greeks would put on plays and introduce one of the gods to the story, bringing the actor to the stage on some sort of machine (a crane or a riser from the floor). Oftentimes, the god appeared to resolve conflict and save the day without being mentioned at any point earlier in the story. It was a convenient and easy way to wrap up a tale.

But we’ve come a long way, baby.

Deus ex machina is now seen as a pathetic plot device used by amateurs who don’t plan for the ending of their book (ask me how I REALLY feel about it). At the last minute, when it seems doom is imminent for the main character, suddenly…they realize they have the ability to fly! And they escape the bad guy. The End.

Agents will not like this. Editors will not like this. Readers will not like this.

This is why we have foreshadowing. When your reader gets to the point where the main character resolves the conflict, it must be believable. To make it believable, you must have left an impression in the reader’s mind that such an event was bound to happen based on the events that preceded it.

Example, you ask? Of course.

The Hunger Games: (spoilers follow–but not for the sequel, Catching Fire)

When the Games get down to just the two contestants from District 12 (Katniss and Peeta), the Capitol announces that only one contestant will survive (earlier they’d been told if both contestants from a district were the last standing, they’d both win). Since neither Kat nor Peeta wants to kill the other, Kat devises a plan that they will both pretend to eat a poison berry and die, meaning no winner for the Games. As soon as they put the berries in their mouths, the Capitol changes their mind AGAIN and announces them both the winners.

Foreshadowing Points:

  • Through stories from Kat about the kind things Peeta has done for her and by seeing her and Peeta in action, you understand that it would NEVER be possible for them to kill each other.
  • Earlier in the story, Peeta had picked several of the berries, thinking they were edible, and one of the other contestants had tried to sneak some of them to eat. Kat and Peeta saw her die and knew the berries were poisonous, and Kat put a couple in her pocket just in case she might need to use them on another contestant later.
  • Throughout the story, the Capitol is perceived as being all about appearance and keeping up their image. Kat knew there would be a massive uproar if NOBODY won the Hunger Games, so she used that to her advantage. It was also made known throughout the novel that the audience LOVES Kat and Peeta. If neither of them won, there would be serious outrage.

Your foreshadowing points should add depth and detail to the story. They shouldn’t seem forced into the text.
“I’d better keep this knife hidden in my boot at all times. Who knows when I might need it to resolve a conflict?”

The audience should sense the foreshadowing but not focus on it. Uusually, this means reiterating your conflict resolver SEVERAL times through the story. If you mention a hidden knife once at the beginning of the book, the audience won’t remember it at the end.

For more on foreshadowing, check out this post on my livejournal.

joiconJo Whittemore

(Reproduced from http://jo-no-anne.livejournal.com)

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Why Someone Else Won the Contest

Have you entered a writing contest and won? If so, congratulations! It’s not easy and a huge accomplishment.

But if you’ve entered contests and not placed in the finals, there could be some simple things you can do to improve your chances.

I recently judged a writing contest and it was so interesting to read these entries; imagining myself an editor, and sympathizing with some of the common mistakes they must see repeatedly. (Note: this was NOT a SCBWI contest, so most entrants were probably new writers).

In this contest, I read only one chapter and a short synopsis. I found some of the synopses really interesting, but often the writing wasn’t strong enough. In one situation, it was the reverse: great writing but weak synopsis. So I started keeping a list of common mistakes in the entries and will share them with you:

9 Things to avoid when entering a fiction writing contest:

1.  Telling too much backstory in the first chapter, so it ends up sounding like a long synopsis.
2.  Simple grammar, punctuation and spelling mistakes. Please double space and indent paragraphs.
3.  Stereotypes instead of interesting characters, such as saying “popular crowd” with few other details.
4.  Of the dozen+ entries, two were vampire books and one a zombie book.  If I had three trendy YA topics, I can only imagine how many editors are receiving!
5.  Mixing past and present tenses.
6.  Opening a book with a dream–this can be overdone.
7.  Introducing too many characters in the first chapter.
8.  Know the genre you’re entering — middle-grade and YA can be similar but there are differences.
9.  Describing a character by having him/her look into a mirror.

In addition I’ll add some reasons why I chose the top two entries:

ENTRY 1:  The entry started off with a shocking scene. The following action grew, enhanced by the main character’s inner thoughts and fears. By page 3, something very strange happened. By page 4, a stranger showed up who added even more mystery. The story mixed dialogue, inner thoughts, narrative smoothly. I was curious enough to keep reading if there had been more.  Also, this entry was double spaced, with a good synopsis that told the key points in the drama and concluded on an inner plus outer resolution.

ENTRY 2:  Loved the title–catchy and perfect for the current YA market. It gave me one of those “wish I’d thought of this!” moments. The synopsis wasn’t spaced exactly right but it told the story with drama and wry humor. The paranormal set-up was not vampires-zombies-werewolves but instead a twist on the genre. The opening line was sharp and intriguing. I immediately connected with the character. The dialogue and inner voice were a great mix of teen angst balanced with humor. I really loved this first chapter and am considering recommending it to my editor (only the contest is anonymous so don’t know who wrote it).

Another note about ENTRY 2–the paragraphs were not indented properly and the spacing was off. But that didn’t stop me from making this my top pick. And I think that’s how editors feel, too. They will forgive small mistakes if they fall in love with a story.

I really recommend judging contests — it’s insightful and a great lesson in writing. I always learn a lot–and it’s very satisfying to know I’m making the winners very happy.

lindaiconLinda Joy Singleton

(Reproduced from http://lindajsingleton.livejournal.com)

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Creating Suspense… Without Ominous Music

When something bad is about to happen in a movie, the music cues the audience to move to the edge of their seats. But until the Kindle makes use of sound chips, writers have to depend on tone to create suspense.

Tolkien used short sentences and low-toned sounds to get our hearts beating:

We cannot get out. We cannot get out. They have taken the Bridge and the second hall. [...] We cannot get out. The end comes, and then drums, drums in the deep. [...] They are coming.

Hawthorne relied on spooky description in The House of the Seven Gables:

His face was preternaturally pale; so deadly white, indeed, that, through all the glimmering indistinctness of the passage-way, Hepzibah could discern his features, as if a light fell on them alone.

Of course, there are also great cliches to be used: a strange noise, a “little did he know,” a sudden change of the weather. Please watch this hilarious Onion video for more exaples, and then tell me: How do your favorite authors create suspense?

cheryliconParker Peevyhouse

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Roundtable Discussion: Agents (cont.)

Our discussion continues about how we found our agents.

pjicon4P. J. Hoover

When I finished my manuscript, I sent it off to see if I could get into the Big Sur Writing Conference held twice a year by the Andrea Brown Literary Agency in California. I headed out there in March of 2008. My agent-to-be, Laura Rennert, was the leader for one of my critique sessions there, and afterward she expressed interest in my story. Once I got back to Texas, I sent her the first three chapters. Later that night she responded requesting the full (yay!). It was a long two days before she sent an email saying she’d like to offer representation. Needless to say I accepted!

joiconJo Whittemore

I started by getting recommendations from friends and checking www.agentquery.com and the Writer’s Digest Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market. Then, I started querying. I ended up with four offers and spoke to their clients and did a little research on my own to find out who would be the best fit for me. While the other three agents were outstanding and sweet as can be, I chose Michelle Andelman at Andrea Brown Literary Agency. When Michelle left to work with a scouting agency, I was blessed to get my current agent, Jennifer Laughran. I was very fortunate to go from one superstar to the next. :o)
It sounds simple, but these were my stats:

Submitted to 16 agents

Of those 16:

6 were rejections from the get-go

5 requested fulls

5 requested partials
Of the 5 who requested fulls:

2 made offers

1 was a rejection

1 I never sent because they wanted an exclusive

1 got lost somewhere along the way (agent said she never received)
Of the 5 who requested partials:

3 were rejections

2 made offers


So, the moral is…you have to break a lot of eggs to make an omelet. Actually, I don’t like omelets, so we’ll say…you have to add a lot of chocolate chips to make a cookie.

Thanks for joining us, and if you have a question you’d like us to answer for next month’s roundtable discussion, please leave it in the comments.

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Roundtable Discussion: Agents

Our topic for this roundtable discussion is: How did you find your agent?

lindaiconLinda Joy Singleton

I’ve had more than one agent.  I got my first agent after selling several books on my own. I was reading through a writing publication and noticed one agent who listed making sales to two juvenile publishers that I respected, so I queried her. She liked one of my projects and signed me, selling my series MY SISTER THE GHOST to Avon Books (now Harper). She retired and I didn’t have an agent for many years, then while in Verla’s chatroom, I found out about a new agent with Andrea Brown Lit who was looking for clients, and after asking what she was looking for, I submitted a YA novel which she liked enough to offer me representation. I’ve been with Jennifer Laughran for 1 1/2 now and she’s negotiated a 2-book contract for me.

joniiconJoni Sensel

I went to a workshop that included a query review. I would never have queried her otherwise — her website said she didn’t represent what I write — but I figured the feedback on the query would be valuable anyway, and it was included in the cost. Long story short, she wanted to first read the full manuscript and another I had complete, and then to represent me. Sometimes gold can be found not where you’re looking, I guess!

parkericonParker Peevyhouse

I first looked for an agent using Agent Query, a website that allows you to search a database of agents by entering information about genre, etc. I researched the results the search engine gave me and then sent out several query letters. Shortly thereafter, I signed with Michelle Andelman at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency and she sold for my first novel, LAST MIDNIGHT. When she left the agency, I partnered up with ABLA’s Jennifer Mattson, who did a great interview for the Spectacle on magic(al) realism.

Join us for more on this topic tomorrow…

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Roundtable Discussion: Manuscript Critique Process (cont)

We continue our discussion of the kind of critique process we go through before submitting a manuscript.

steveiconSteve Brezenoff

When it comes to my jobs for my school and library contract, I have no crit process. I simply outline, write, read, and fix, then send off to my editor. What she does with the stuff at that point is her business!

When it comes to my young adult and middle grade work, I’ve been in workshops, crit groups, etc., but I don’t have any standard method. I’m as comfortable sending material to my editor or agent for a first
look at my finished draft as I am sending it off to my online crit group for opinions. The only person on whom I rely for thoughts on every single thing I write is my wife. :)

cheryliconParker Peevyhouse

I  used to meet with a group every week, which was great for morale and accountability. After I moved out of the area where my group met, I started using online resources–I love Critters Workshop, a site which lets you add your manuscript to a queue so that you can have a turn letting other memebers critique your work. I’ve read some really interesting stories on that site, too!

Lately, I rely on a critique partner whom I send chapters to via email. She helps me work on clarity and logic and also reminds that rough drafts aren’t supposed to be perfect. We talk on the phone when things get really sticky, plot-wise or otherwise. Since I tend to make my stories overly complicated, I generally need quite a lot of help getting a manuscript in shape before I’m ready to let anyone else look at it.

lindaiconLinda Joy Singleton

My method for writing is to write a chapter, rewrite it to death, then repeat with every chapter. By the time I finish the book, it’s pretty solid. The routine with my publisher Flux is to rewrite again then send it to my editor. More rounds of rewriting from two different editors. Then before the book is sent off to printing, I get one last chance to go through and edit. I actually LIKE rewriting. It’s so much easier to shape something that’s already written rather than create something entirely new.

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