SCBWI-Carolinas Conference 2011

After my first SCBWI conference, I intended to spend the week ruminating and riding the wave of inspiration.  I did this successfully for a day or two before, against all advice, going back to my busy life.  One week later, rather than consult my notes to refresh my memory on the great deal of knowledge I gained there, I will share with you the insights that have made a lasting impression on me.

For a regional conference, I was blown away by both the quantity and quality of authors, agents and editors.  In a market dominated by Young Adult books, I was surprised and delighted by the number of picture book writers and illustrators in attendance.  Of course, one of the greatest benefits of the conference was making connections and being surrounded by those with the same passion and going through the same process as myself.

When I arrived Saturday morning loaded with coffee and running late, I was immediately endeared by Marietta Zacker‘s keynote speech about her inspiration: her grandfather.  Her advice to us was, like a perfect cup of leche caliente, to “stir” our writing until it was “exactly the right temperature.”

Through various workshops and panels, I learned more about the publishing process.  It reinforced the value of going through an agent rather than directly submitting to publishers as well as the value of writing magazine articles and work-for-hire writing to bolster a writer’s resume and bank account.

Perhaps most immediately relevant to me was the opportunity to talk to fellow writers about graduate school – an idea I have been bouncing around recently.  At lunch, I met a writer attending a school that I had been looking at that offers an MFA in children’s writing.  She spoke very highly of it and was persuading me in that direction.  Later, during an author’s panel, I threw the question of an MFA at them.  Author John Claude Bemis first asked the audience to raise their hand if they had an MFA.  Out of about 30 attendees, there were only two hands raised.  When he conducted the same poll among the panel, not one of the thirteen published authors raised their hand.

My favorite session of the conference was “First Pages, First Impressions” in which conference attendees submitted first pages of their manuscripts to be read aloud and agents and editors told us their initial impressions of the work.  To see this step – likely the most important 60 seconds in the publishing process – will stick with me through every first page I ever write.

John Claude Bemis concluded the conference with another fantastic keynote.  He explained that creativity is not one certain way of thinking, but the ability to shift fluidly between many ways of thinking, from the ‘wild shaman’ to the researcher to the critical judge – all important to create a good book.  He gave us useful activities to exercise our own creative thinking, such as listing ‘magnetic nouns,’ or ideas that are interesting and important to us, and finding unusual ways to connect them.  He left us with the words of Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand, “The original writer is not one who imitates nobody, but one who nobody can imitate.”  And yes, I cheated and went back to my notes for that one.

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