Friday, November 21, 2008

Prairie Writers' Day 2008

Writers and other publishing types who live on the coasts tend to feel a bit sorry for those of us who live in those flyover states of the Midwest. Maybe not so much anymore, now that our President-elect’s vacation home will be in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, but still. What they might not realize is that we can get the cream of east-coast children’s publishing to come visit us, thanks to our fantastic local SCBWI chapters.

I present to you: Prairie Writers’ Day 2008, courtesy of the Illinois Chapter of SCBWI. On November 15 2008, 175 published and pre-published childrens’ writers from Illinois (as well as a few from neighboring states) gathered for the 4th annual Prairie Writers’ Day at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois. You might want to make yourself comfortable, because this is long!

First up was Harold Underdown, editorial consultant, go-to-guy for all things KidLit on the internet at The Purple Crayon and author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Children’s Book Publishing. Harold introduced his two sidekicks, Mr. P (a.k.a. Mr. Glass Half Empty) and Mr. O (Mr. Hey, That There Glass is Half Full!) for an overview of the childrens' book publishing industry. Mr. P got his say first, as he so often does. Yes, the publishing industry has consolidated to the extent that the Big 5 publishing houses account for 1/2 of all the published books in the U.S. Many of the houses have closed their doors to unsolicited (or unagented) manuscripts. This has led to a loss of institutional memory in the industry, which seems now to be more interested in publishing safe spin-offs of old series and pushing movie and toy tie-ins than finding and cultivating new talent. And then, of course, there is the huge elephant in the room: the recession. Could things be worse?

Enter Mr. O! Not only could they be lots worse, but there’s much to be hopeful about! Turns out, Mr. P gave you only part of the picture. Yes, children’s book publishing has gone multi-national, but so has the rest of the world. Live with it. And there are still many independent presses and small imprints within the Big 5 that understand and love the children’s market and continue to do well. There are still many opportunities for unagented authors to reach editors, especially in the nonfiction and picture book markets.

But isn't technology rotting our childrens’ minds? Not necessarily! Consider the wonderful audiobooks that bring children’s books to entire families trapped in a car as they drive from, say, Illinois to Kansas for Thanksgiving. Think, for example, Bruce Coville’s Full Cast Audio books. E-books? Just another way of reading.

Loss of institutional memory? Dig a little deeper, my friends! The next speaker on the panel, Martha Mihalick, editor at Greenwillow, can trace a direct lineage back to the great Ursula Nordstrom. Take that, Mr. P! Yes, there is some schlock being published nowadays, but---who knew?—that sort of stuff has always been around. We just don’t remember it because it hasn’t lasted! Ha!

And as for the 800 pound gorilla that is the recession—well, perhaps it weighs only 600 pounds. Look at it this way: would you rather be making and selling SUVS, luxury jackets and the like, or books? ‘Nuff said.

Harold’s virtual handout is available on

Next up: Martha Mihalick, editor with Greenwillow Books. She drew the “character” straw in the craft discussion, and a good thing, because she said that she is strongly drawn to character-driven books. She most often finds herself turning down manuscripts when the characters fall flat. Populate your books with memorable characters! This is not just true for novelists, but picture book writers as well. Think of Lilly, Olivia, Fancy Nancy, Max (the Wild Things) and the Pigeon who wanted to drive the bus. Characters should be identifiable as types (jocks, nerds, etc.) but there should also be characteristics that set them apart and make them memorable.

Using some Greenwillow books, Mihalick illustrated the categories that can reveal character: objects/possessions; people around them; actions (and reactions); opinions. I’m looking forward to reading or re-reading the books she mentioned with an eye to character: The Thief (Megan Whalen Turner); Tracking Daddy Down (Marybeth Kelsey); Me and the Pumpkin Queen (Marlane Kennedy); Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse (Kevin Henkes); The Last Apprentice series (Joseph Delaney); Deadline (Chris Crutcher). Well-rounded characters, Mihalick ended by saying, gain the reader’s trust.

Editor Cheryl Klein (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic) talked about plot. There are two types of plots, she said: those based on character, and structural plots. But in either case, any plotline must also include an action plot (the changes in circumstances) and an emotional plot (changes within the protagonist). I won’t go into Klein’s talk in detail, because she has posted the outlines of some of her talks on plot on her website, Talking Books. Highly recommended, especially for those of us who struggle with plot.

Caroline Meckler, Wendy Lamb Books editor, took on that most elusive beast, voice. We all know it when we read it, but what is voice exactly, and how do we find our story’s voice? The elements of voice, she said, are diction (choice of words); detail (life and color); imagery (sensory details); syntax (sentence structure, length, cadence, etc.), and tone. The voice that works for I Capture the Castle (one of Meckler’s favorite books) would obviously not work for, say, a John Grisham novel. Author Joan Aiken (The Wolves of Willoughby Chase) wrote, “Nothing encourages the flow of a story so much as the discovery of the voice in which it is to be told. I once sat down and began a book with the lines, ‘It was dusk—winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills…” In those fourteen words I had already fixed the whole mood and atmosphere of the story so firmly that, though the book they began was interrupted after three chapters by outside circumstances, and not recommenced until after a gap of seven years, when I took it up again, I had not the slightest difficulty in going on from where I had left off.” (The Way to Write for Children: An Introduction to the Craft of Writing Children’s Literature, p. 33).

Jennifer RofĂ© (previously Jaeger), of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, works closely with her clients on revisions. Using her clients’ books as examples, she outlined some of the revision questions you need to ask yourself when you’ve finished your first (or second, or third…) draft. Is there a good balance between direct and indirect characterization? Read Milagros, Girl From Away, by Meg Medina, for good examples of characterization. Make sure you—and your reader—understand what motivates your characters. She cited The Year the Swallows Came Early, by Kathryn Fitzmaurice (coming out February 2009) as a good example of character motivation. Is the story moving forward effectively, and are all the scenes and dialogue necessary? Check out The Farwalker’s Quest, by Joni Sensel (coming out in February 2009) for a well-paced read. And finally, are the plots and subplots sufficiently developed? Is the storyline unfolding sensibly? Read Cynthea Liu’s Paris Pan Takes the Dare, coming out in June 2009.

Pretty rich stuff for writers, no? But SCBWI-Illinois, much like the Cat in the Hat, had still more tricks to throw at us. Sharon Darrow, faculty chair of the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts, did a terrific teaching session using a complete rhymed picture book manuscript and the first few pages of two longer manuscripts submitted by SCBWI-Illinois members. SCBWI-Illinois’ very own Carol Grannick, a licensed clinical social worker, talked about Learned Optimism for Writers (check out Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, by Martin E.P. Seligman). And SCBWI-Illinois member and fitness instructor Mary Loftus led us in two much-appreciated fitness breaks, with specific tips for staying fit while writing. (This might be a good time to stretch!)

If you’d like to improve your craft, whether you’re published or just starting out, I highly recommend attending an SCBWI writers’ event near you. You can find a local chapter at Many of the editors who come to these events agree to accept unsolicited manuscripts from attendees (after the event, of course!). I know of quite a few people who say that they sold a manuscript as a direct result of attending an SCBWI event. And you never know when you’ll meet someone who can help you advance your writing career—or just make a new friend.

Happy Writing!
--Sara Latta

(cross-posted on KidLit Central News)


Sminthia said...

"And SCBWI-Illinois member and fitness instructor Mary Loftus led us in two much-appreciated fitness breaks, with specific tips for staying fit while writing."

What a superb idea! I'm going to suggest it to our Wisconsin chapter.

Sara Latta said...

It was great, especially the afternoon break because folks were starting to get sleepy and stiff after sitting for so long.

Vivian said...

This sounds so fantastic! We don't have many events like this in my area. Makes me sad...