by Dana Carey

Everyone knows what a great organization The Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators is—bringing together people who love children’s books for 40 years. Did you know they do it all over the world? SCBWI France was founded in 1995 with a handful of members but it’s grown to a plucky little chapter of about 50. We have our regional conference in the fall that coincides with the French Children’s Book Fair in Paris and another big event in the spring. This May we’re organizing a Seaside Retreat way out here (I’m waving at you from the Breton coast in western France) with Diane Stanley as author/illustrator-in-residence.

I joined SCBWI in 2004 and started volunteering by cleaning up after a conference. Our tireless Regional Advisor, Tioka Tokedira asked me to explore the idea of a retreat in my area. Next thing you knew, I was an Event Coordinator. Then on the board working on publicity. And now I’m Assistant Regional Advisor. Tioka is great at rounding up the troops and I’m so glad she spotted me. I never really thought of myself as an Event Coordinator never mind ARA but here I am. That’s SCBWI: possibilities abound.

Living far from La Capitale can be isolating but being an active member of SCBWI France has helped. I’ve connected with people who share my interest but more importantly take it as seriously as I do. I’ve learned about children’s literature and the publishing industry but I’ve also done things I didn’t think I was inclined to do. One recent example was the Literary Discussion/Pitch Event in Paris with agent/author John Cusick of Scott Treimel NY on April 1st called “The Hook and Heart of the Story.” The idea of pitching in person made me nervous.

Our homework for this event made me think about my stories differently. While preparing my “hearts” and “hooks” as well as a pitch, I had to take a cold hard look at my work and reduce it to a few sentences. It was a test that revealed the difference between a story for submission and a story that stays in the desk drawer.

We met in a cozy restaurant called Le Patio but weren’t on the patio; instead we were in the basement, like those 1950’s beatniks on poetry night. There was even a jazz duo performing at one point. We sat on sofas and ottomans nestled around John discussing the heart of the story: “it’s the bones of the book.” The heart provokes the emotional response while the hook draws in the reader.

During the second part of the evening we pitched to John one-on-one, as if we bumped into each other in an elevator and he could not escape. It was supposed to be natural but I memorized it and rehearsed with my daughter (she couldn’t escape either) and we both realized why I’m not an actress. Luckily, this did not matter. It was evident during the pitch that John was much more interested in listening and processing my content than in dissecting my delivery. It was great to have the chance to try something new in a nonjudgmental atmosphere. John gave me some solid feedback on the pitch and then we discussed the story. All in 5 minutes.

I left knowing my next steps. And I learned first hand that during a pitch, the “pitcher” isn’t the only one working: the agent is listening hard, processing the information and then delivering a coherent critique full of insight. Not an easy thing to do in 5 minutes. But it’s worth stepping out of your comfort zone for it.

Join me (somewhere outside my comfort zone) at an SCBWI France event (in English): Find us on twitter: @scbwifrance and Facebook: SCBWI France.

Bon courage et à bientôt!

Before she moved out to the provinces, Dana Carey worked as a graphic designer in Paris then taught English to architecture and art school students. Now she writes and illustrates picture books. She also reads MG/YA books in English and writes reports in French for French publishers as well as doing some translation, painting and child-rearing on the side. Find her on twitter: @danaFR.