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Before I recap the SCBWI conferences I’ve attended the last two months, there’s a pressing topic that requires outing…a little quirk I have witnessed at every kidlit conference from the dawn of time (or, in my case, since 2008).
Maybe you don’t have a teen in your household and you’re shrugging right now. What the heck is FOMO?
Well, let’s describe the scene.
See the new-to-kidlit conference attendee, nervous yet determined, marching around the event carrying a stuffed animal based on their story’s character so people will inquire about it, talking to anyone who will listen to the pitch…which, unfortunately, the attendee hasn’t quite figured out yet.
Witness the cornering of an agent or editor in a hallway, a conference room, the buffet line, or heaven forbid, the restroom stall, being asked if they will read the manuscript, listen to the pitch or “peek” at other work.
See the attendee making conversation about the story and only the story, never asking anyone what they’re writing or even about their family, where they scored that awesome vintage dress, what they do for fun, where they’ve traveled, or anything unrelated to WORK.
You see, the new kidlit conference attendee is gripped by FOMO:
FOMO makes us jumpy, anxious, pushy and, dare I say it, annoying. The person-with-the-manuscript thinks this conference is THE ONE CHANCE to break through, to get the manuscript not only read, but read and LOVED, contracts thrust forward with gusto. They envision a bidding war breaking out right at lunch table 10, pitting Viking against Sterling, swords thrust forward with gusto.
It’s an unflattering portrait I’ve painted, and I apologize. But you see, I too was afflicted by FOMO. I know it so well because I lived it. (I am the first person above with the stuffed animal, just so you know.)
It took me a couple years, and some serious coaching by professional authors, to calm down at conferences, to realize that the lunch table duel just DOES NOT HAPPEN. Yes, an agent or editor may fall in love with your project, but more frequently they fall in I-think-I-like, ask for revisions, and begin a relationship with you. The opportunities happen AFTER the conference.
And remember, relationships can start with something other than A MANUSCRIPT.
Editors and agents are real people, too. They are not these mystical beings who float away to enchanted realms after a conference ends. They are wives and husbands, fiancés, mothers and fathers, lacrosse coaches, knitters, ukelele players, cycling enthusiasts, City Harvest volunteers, Rick Springfield fans and even former accountants who love spreadsheets (these people mystify me). They are multi-faceted, shimmering personalities. They like to sip a glass of wine at cocktail hour and talk about anything other than the books sitting on their desks. Honestly, an editor will remember the person with whom they share a passion for the Amazon rainforest and try to forget the pleading, desperate person who repeatedly asked if they had five minutes to hear a pitch.
FOMO. It can ruin your judgment. It can make you forget how to forge friendships.
Do not fall victim to conference FOMO. Because if you are clamoring, praying, hoping for JUST ONE book deal, I have to warn you—this is not true! Because once that book deal happens, the satisfaction may indeed last a lifetime, but the longing for a NEW book deal circles back again and you think: JUST ONE MORE book deal. The ideas never end. The storytelling never ends. If you are a writer, a creative being, you are hopefully in this for life. Getting published does not change the mission—to pour your innermost being out on paper. Getting published does not fundamentally change your life (unless you get a 7-figure debut deal). Yes, you have accomplished something few people ever do, you worked hard for it, but you are still you. You will want to do it again. You will want to ride this crazy rollercoaster of rejection and self-doubt and discovery over and over.
So the FOMO you feel? It actually never goes away once you are published. The trick is to learn to control it.
Do not let that BAD FOMO MOJO zap you of your creative energy, your imagination, your unique perspective, your force to do good in the universe. Don’t let FOMO make you a BOZO.
If you are new to kidlit conferences, RELAX. Listen. Learn. Just be you. Don’t fixate on selling the manuscript in your tote bag. Getting published takes years and it is not a race. It’s a marathon, an insanely strenuous yet joyous journey. Sit back and enjoy the run! You are not missing out on anything. You are in the thick of it.
This morning I thought I was still at the NJ-SCBWI Summer Conference because I stumbled downstairs expecting to find fresh-baked coffee cake and a fruit platter. Instead, I found a slumbering adolescent who never got up for middle school and missed the bus. Hence, I was rudely thrust back into the life of a mom. Sigh. So I decided to ignore my life for a while and write this post. Relive the glory days!
The weekend was chock full of good friends, like author extraordinaire Tammi Sauer, whom I’ve known for SEVEN YEARS but had never met in person. I wanted to make a good impression upon her, so I picked her up from the airport…and then proceeded to get hopelessly lost in Newark. We did spy a ’57 Chevy during one of our dozen-or-so U-turns, so perhaps all was not lost.
And then, we got cut off by a rumbling, muffler-roaring Racini. RACINI, PEOPLE! Only in Jersey.
Of course, there were also the usual suspects present: Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, Kami Kinard, Marcie Colleen, Ame Dyckman, Adam Lehrhaupt, our fearless RA Leeza Hernandez, and newly-signed talents like Jason Kirschner, Colleen Rowan Kosinski and Kelly Calabrese. (For those of you with bets in the pool, Ame’s hair shone bright blue this year, bordering on periwinkle, stylishly accented with a coral red bow.)
Katya Szewczuk from KidlitTV let us know that her last name is pronounced “Shove Chuck.” Sadly, Chuck Palahniuk was not in attendance. What a fight club that would have been! (P.S. Isn’t Katya adorable? I call her Ame Dyckman Jr.)
Carrie Charley Brown, Kirsti Call, Lori Degman and Robin Newman were there, too…but the Witherspoon Grill couldn’t get us a table for 10. For shame! But they did get us a bottle of Prosecco. Next time, it should be on the house.
My editor from Sterling, the smart and lovely Meredith Mundy, made an appearance with a stack of NORMAL NORMAN cover designs from which to choose. Tammi, an author of eight Sterling titles, offered her expert opinion, too. And guess what? We all agreed on two favorites. (Now do we eeny-meeny-miney-mo?)
I only saw critique partners Corey Rosen-Schwartz and Mike Allegra briefly. I waved to Mike from my post at the registration table. Then he promptly dissolved into the crowd. This became a new picture book idea. Thanks, Mike!
So I bet you’re like ENOUGH ALREADY, TARA. GET TO THE NUGGETS.
Opening Keynote by Denise Fleming
Denise encouraged us to find out what age we really are. No, this isn’t a plug for how-old.net. Go back to your childhood and discover the age of your true voice. Denise never aged past Kindergarten. Me, I’m perpetually 8.
So that’s what you write. Dig down to emerge as a child, forever locked in a state of wonder.
Denise told us an impromptu paper-making class inspired her to choose this art form as her picture book medium. She evolved from precise watercolor paintings to a more loose, bold, colorful style. HER STYLE. Her illustrations set her apart. She asked us to ponder what makes us each unique. You’ve got to offer something different and not be like everyone else. Stand out, don’t blend in.
Oh, by the way, Denise thinks you’re pretty.
Writing Picture Books that Sell! by Tammi Sauer
With 23 contracts in 10 years, you’ve got to listen to and respect Tammi’s advice. She presented her top 12 tips for picture books, citing from her titles as examples. The quirkiest thing I found out is that she loves to use the name “Louise.”
Tammi recommends reading A LOT of picture books. You will begin to absorb information about their structure and format without even realizing! This knowledge will then seep into your manuscripts.
Tammi also wants us to write titles that POP. Up the tension in your stories and use words that SING.
Me? My name sings. I shall hereforthto be known as Tra-la-la Lazar.
Writing Mainstream (BUT COOL!) Picture Books by Ame Dyckman and Adam Lehrhaupt
This dynamic duo demonstrated a lot of energy, pizzazz and “special sauce.” No, we’re not talking about McD’s. Their “cream of creativity” is a mixture of unique elements that add up to writing a hook-y, mainstream winner. Slather on your own writing style, stir in heart and humor, and you will concoct a winning picture book recipe.
But remember, that’s just the sauce—an accent. Your picture book still needs meat! Pick popular subjects, relatable situations and age-appropriate “big picture” messages to make your story its most delish.
Thinking Outside the Box to Market Your Book with Jen Malone
I call this presentation “How to Sell Your Book Without Being Creepy.” As natural introverts, we writers don’t like going outside to deal with “people and weather.” We abhor the uncomfortable, used-car-like sales pitch. We don’t want to plaster the interwebs with “BUY MY BOOK!” Ick.
So what’s an author to do? Jen presented unique, creative ways to market by simply being you. Look outside your own book community to find opportunities for connections. Offer others what they want and they might just offer what YOU WANT—an introduction to a new audience. Jen has been doing work with the Girl Scouts and a famous bakery to reach her target audience, tween girls. (And, there are CUPCAKES involved. Win, win, stuff yer face.)
7 Revision Tips to Take your PB from WAAH to WOW! by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen and Marcie Colleen
Don’t let the high-heels distract you. These two PB experts offer furlongs of fabulous advice. (Furlongs? I gotta stop the alliteration.)
They emphasized reviewing your picture book to ensure visual variety. This refers to textual elements as well as compositional ones. Think story AND layout. Think page turns. Think scene changes. Dump anything that’s repetitive or passive without purpose.
Is Your PB Worthy? by Marie Lamba
Oh, how I regret not getting a photo of Marie hugging her presentation easel. Adorbs.
Marie, an author and agent, bubbles with enthusiasm for picture books. She brought some of her all-time favorites to share and exclaimed, “Isn’t that HILARIOUS?” while doubled over in laughter.
We all want that—a reader who loves our book five, ten, even 20 years after first reading it. So how do we get that?
Be different. Don’t just write the first idea that comes to mind. Write five ideas. Then another five. Use the tenth one. Applying this tip from Donald Maass means you’ll arrive upon something no one has done.
Marie also shared the top 10 mistakes she sees in picture book submissions. For example, she doesn’t want to see “just a schtick.” (Don’t you LOVE Yiddish words?)
Your picture book can be ridiculous, but quirky humor isn’t enough. She cited her own manuscript about a girl who wears gloves on her feet and pretends she’s a monkey. It’s cute and funny, but it’s not enough. Marie didn’t have a story, she had a schtick. Your manuscript needs a plot to matter.
Other common errors include rhyming NO MATTER WHAT and writing a slice-of-life vignette—a set-up instead of a story.
Sunday Morning Keynote:
Top 10 Things You Need to Know About the Children’s/YA Market by Harold Underdown
Harold! You have to love him. (You have to follow his Purple Crayon website!) He’s bursting with kidlit experience and wisdom.
First, he told us some great news: the children’s publishing market rose 20% last year!
Hard copy books are not disappearing and ebooks are not replacing them. In fact, the ebook market has hit a plateau and represents only 15% of the children’s market, but that number leans heavily toward YA. Picture books are preffered in hard copy by a wide margin.
Bookstores (both online and brick-and-mortar) are now the biggest sales channel (40%), as opposed to schools and libraries in years past.
Know that diverse books are hot and that writers and publishers are taking this issue seriously.
YA remains a boom area, MG is very healthy and PBs are experiencing renewed interest. Some are even calling this time “the golden age of picture books.”
However, Howard emphasized that you should always do your best work and not focus on what’s hot. This is what will get you published.
Marrying the Right Manuscript with the Right Publisher by Steve Meltzer
Steve is a welcomed, popular mainstay at NJ-SCBWI. He emphasized doing your research when searching for a publisher. It’s important to seek out comparable titles published within the last three years, those that are of a similar subject and format, but not famous or mega-selling. No one’s gonna believe your series is the next Harry Potter. Query with a reasonable comp, not an outrageous claim.
The Changing Face of Humor in Picture Books by Steve Meltzer
Do I even have to talk about this? Steve and I disagree. I respect his opinion immensely, but I think a popular recent title missed the mark and had opportunity for so much more humor than it presented. He nudged me on the lunch line, “It’s a great book.” I topped my salad with bleu cheese and thought about it.
How to Be a Writer Without Losing Your Mind by John Cusick
John Cusick said much about life as a writer and agent, how he uses an Iron Man figurine on his desk to distinguish agent-time from writer-time, and how to balance our life roles.
He reminded us that our job is to “sit down and start.” Don’t worry about writing the whole book. Write a little bit for now. (This resonated with me. I tend to panic about writing AN ENTIRE NOVEL when I should really just put one word in front of the other.)
Also, no one cares if you stop writing. YOU MUST be the motivator.
Have a writing friend you can complain to…and let them know that this is their purpose. (Not their sole purpose, of course. We all need to kvetch and we need a kvetch catcher.)
Bottom line, it’s irrational and childish to make things up for a living. It’s crazy-making. So embrace it. Be crazy. It’s crazy that anything can be this good!
“Don’t worry about being normal because what you do is extraordinary,” John said.
I couldn’t agree more. How about you?
You may be wondering–what ever happened to Tara? It’s been almost a month since she blogged. (Or you may not. You may be relieved your inbox has been devoid of my blivel. I made that word up, in case you’re wondering. A portmanteau of blog and drivel.)
Well, I’ve been traveling! I’ve actually changed out of my pajamas several times in the last few weeks!
At the end of March I drove down to MD/DE/WV SCBWI’s Annual Conference to present my workshop “From Concept to Dummy for Picture Book Writers”. About 70 writers attended–it was a full house in our little room. The attendees got a taste of my imbalance. Yes, my mental imbalance, but also my MS imbalance. Luckily I didn’t topple the whiteboard. I did, however, have one sinking moment when I thought I used a permanent Sharpie on the pristine white surface. It reminded me of NJ-SCBWI 2008 when I volunteered to hang signs on the aging plaster of the Princeton Theological Seminary, only to take chunks of wall with me when I removed the signs. Be forewarned, I cause mayhem and destruction at SCBWI events.
I think many will agree that the best part of the workshop was when we read the beginnings of successful picture books to discern the WHO, WHAT, WHERE, and WHEN in each opening line. Incorporating these details makes your reader ask WHY and eagerly turn the page to find out.
Many new writers mistakenly begin stories with, “My name is Jamie and I’m six years old.” This tells a reader nothing about the story to come. And more importantly, an editor who reads this plain first line will most likely stop there. YIKES. Not what you want. You have to break out of that slush pile with a line that captures the editor immediately.
After reading a dozen picture book openings, with me screaming WHY? WHHHHHYYYYY? and bending over in feigned painful anticipation, shaking my fists at the sky, I challenged the participants to rewrite their opening lines. Everyone was quite thrilled to get their own Tara WHHHHHYYYYY? in response to their improved introductions.
Writer Sarah Maynard summarized my workshop with bullet points, to which I’ve added my thoughts from the event:
- You have 30 seconds to grab their attention. MAKE IT GOOD!
Like a resume to obtain a job, you have limited time to make an impression with an agent or editor. They can have hundreds of manuscripts to read each week, so they give each one only a few moments to grab them. Punch that opening, make them want to continue reading.
- “Writing a picture book is 99% staring and 1% writing.”
There is A LOT of thinking involved in writing a picture book. Don’t worry if you’re not actually putting words on paper every day. Think about how to resolve problems in your story. Stare at your manuscript. Your subconscious will most likely be working on a solution and it will pop out while you’re doing mundane chores, like emptying the dishwasher, folding laundry, or taking a shower.
- Learn who YOU are as a WRITER.
A lot of authors, including me, espouse advice that may not work for you. Discover how YOU work best and stick with it. For instance, routine doesn’t jive with me, although it works for a lot of other people. I used to force myself into routine only to get frustrated, losing my creative mojo. Only you know how to thrive in your creative mode. It’s very personal. Don’t take advice that doesn’t serve you well. (It may be useful to note here that I’ve shunned routine my entire life.)
- If it’s not apparent by words you’ve written, add an art note.
One attendee told me I was the first person to speak positively about art notes. Yeah, I think they get a bad rap. They’re absolutely ESSENTIAL to use if it’s not apparent what’s happening by your words alone. If the text says your character is smiling but you actually want them to frown, you need an art note to convey that. Of course, you should not use them to direct the entire shabang, but to ensure there are no misunderstandings. Which brings me to the last point…
- Don’t make an agent or editor guess!
I find that some new writers like to surprise the reader on the second or third page of a manuscript. This means the beginning is not entirely clear and the reader must guess what is happening. Well, what if your reader guesses wrong? Then they become hopelessly confused at the reveal and probably discard your manuscript. You don’t want an agent or editor to have to guess what is happening in your tale. Make it CRYSTAL either by the text or the addition of art notes. It can be as simple as “[art: the character is a bear]” to make everyone understand.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Maryland—the hospitality of the chapter went above and beyond. We had a lovely faculty dinner at the Craftsman-style log cabin home of former RA Edie Hemingway. Is there anything more writerly than that (I mean, c’mon, HEMINGWAY)? Edie has a charming home with a writing hut tucked into the woods.
Far better than my writing space—my unmade bed!
As I crawl back into my pajamas, I’ll be getting another blog post ready. This time, about my trip to Reading is Fundamental and the donation that my publisher and PiBoIdMo participants made possible, enriching the lives of children with BOOKS!
Today we’re lucky to have Peggy Robbins Janousky visiting to share highlights from SCBWI FL’s Picture Book Intensive. Take it away, Peggy!
I have attended many picture book intensives over the years, but this one topped them all. Participants were treated to an all-star panel that included: agent Deborah Warren of East West Literary, editor Laura Whitaker of Bloomsbury, author and editor Andrea Davis Pinkney and author Toni Buzzeo.
The presentations were practical, but powerful:
- Always bring your “A” game.
- Rhyme is not taboo, but bad rhyme is.
- Picture books are getting shorter and are being targeted for younger audiences.
- Show, don’t tell.
- Hook me and keep me hooked.
- Be passionate about your book and be able to pitch in just a few sentences.
One of the best things that was presented was the HOT list. These are the topics that editors and Barnes and Noble want now:
- Moments of the day
- School stories
- Learning concepts
- Holidays (MLK, Valentine’s Day, 4th of July, St. Patrick’s Day)
- Friends and family
- Character-driven stories
- Original stories that every kid will love
- Interactive picture books
- Finding the new in the old
If you haven’t taken an intensive before, I strongly urge you to consider it. Intensives are exactly that, intense. They give you the opportunity to delve in deeper and they also give you the opportunity to get to know the presenters on a more intimate level. I came away from this intensive with a new sense of purpose and drive. I also came away with a few good friends. All in all, it was money worth spending.
I have to admit, I almost did not attend the Miami conference. I was having a pity party and I wasn’t really up for the company. I had broken my leg in three places. Needless to say, getting around was a wee bit difficult. I was ready to bail. I am glad I didn’t. The first page of my manuscript was read during “first page reads”. Much to my surprise, the panel loved it. One editor wanted to know who wrote it, an agent wanted to read more, and another editor wanted to acquire it. I have to admit, I was in shock. By the end of the weekend, thanks to the help of a good friend, I had signed with that agent. Just one month later… My bio and picture are up on the East West Literary website. The editor that I mentioned is considering three of my manuscripts. And I am still pinching myself.
I will tell you that this was not an overnight success. I have attended many conferences and taken copious notes. I have revised, cut, and revised some more. I have also had moments where I was so rejected that I thought I would never put myself through another critique again. So what’s the moral of the story? Never give up. Never let pity or self-doubt get the upper hand. Believe with all your heart that your day will come. Then get off your butt and get to that conference. Your happily ever after is waiting for you to show up!
Peggy Robbins Janousky uses her offbeat sense of humor to write offbeat picture books. When she is not writing, Peggy uses her time to rescue stray animals. Much to her family’s dismay, she keeps them all.
And thanks to Kristen Fulton for adding this summary of Andrea Pinkney’s workshop: The Write Stuff.
- Writers write every day, whether it be a holiday or vacation.
- Find your “twinkle”—what makes you sparkle around others?
- Establish immediacy—using voice, characterization, mystery and drama.
- Ask yourself, “Why does the reader want to come on this journey and what makes the reader stay on this journey?”
- Writing is fun—and hard work.
- Writing is re-writing at least 10 times.
- Just get started and keep going.
- Read every day, whether it be a holiday or vacation.
Kristen Fulton writes non-fiction picture books and is running an amazing non-fiction picture book retreat with loads of agents, editors, and authors on July 7-12. Check out her website for details!
Let’s welcome Mindy Alyse Weiss back…she’s got the scoop from the recent SCBWI FL Conference. And boy, what a scoop it is! It’s chocolate fudge with rainbow sprinkles!
Ever wonder about an editor’s wish list? Wonder no longer! In the Editor Panel, Stacy Abrams, Kat Brzozowski, Aubrey Poole, Laura Whitaker and Andrea Pinkney discussed what kind of projects they’re seeking—and not seeking. There seems to be a trend away from dystopian and paranormal novels in YA.
Stacy Abrams, Executive Editorial Director of Bliss and Entangled Teen
Contemporary (no paranormal or dystopian). Can have an issue in it, but the book can’t be about the issue.
Kat Brzozowski, Associate Editor, Thomas Dunne Books, MacMillan
Dystopian is hard. Would love a good YA mystery. Comes across as loving dark but does love girl meets boy and they kiss, light romantic contemporary stuff for girls.
With social media, if you do one thing well but don’t like another, don’t force it.
Aubrey Poole, Associate Editor, Sourcebooks Jabberwocky and Fire
Loves sci fi, YA, not looking at genre really—it’s the stories that stand out within a genre. More experimenting with format. Read more about her wish list here.
Laura Whitaker, Associate Editor, Bloomsbury Children’s Books
She’s tired of dystopian and paranormal YA. She wants to be immersed in a story so much that she’s physically removed from her own issues. She wants to read about real people. Contemporary, original voice. With MG and YA, networking is important. Do a lot of digital marketing initiatives. You can get a huge impact from doing a blog tour. “Help me help you.”
Andrea Pinkney, Vice-President and Executive Editor, Scholastic
More diversity, African American boys, adventure, mystery, fun. Contemporary stories. *You need to normalize and not make it about the problem, even with something like bi-polar.” She’s interested in a novel with a character who has piercing or a lot of tattoos.
Besides writing a well-crafted story, how do you catch an editor’s attention? Laura Whitaker presented “Dating 101: What Makes YOU Desirable to an Editor”.
Tell her something interesting about your writing journey. What drew you to telling this story? Let her know any cool things you can share about yourself—show what makes you vibrant and unique.
Title—come up with something original that represents your work. If the title is the same when you’re published and there’s a story behind how you arrived at the title, marketing will want it later for a blog/Tumblr piece.
She’ll look at a query for 30 seconds to a minute. First thing should be the hook, then a two sentence synopsis (three if you have to), then info about yourself.
Your website is your calling card—especially for picture books.
Do you tweet out interesting, dynamic tweets? It’s the best way to build connections with other authors, agents, and editors. Twitter is more important for MG and YA.
Interact! Do you write about the process or what you’re working on? Marketing and publicity want to see your social media platform. The more social media, the better—but it is not a substitute for the craft.
Thanks again, Mindy!
Come back on Friday for the rest of the scoop from SCBWI FL. We’ll have vanilla and strawberry for those who don’t like chocolate. (Don’t like CHOCOLATE? Who are you people???)
Wanna know how I got published? The NJ chapter of SCBWI is to thank. I began attending their events years ago, soaking up all the craft knowledge and publishing tips I could like a piece of garlic bread hungrily sops up the last bits of gravy (yes, my Italian grandmother called it gravy, not sauce).
This year the conference will be held June 28 & 29 in Plainsboro, NJ at the Crowne Plaza/Holiday Inn Conference Center. (Hmm, I wonder if they’ll be serving pasta with gravy?)
Hope to see you there!
The title of this blog post is a misnomer because no one has a crystal iPhone to see into the future. All I can report upon is what I heard at the NJ-SCBWI conference this past weekend. But I can say with certainty there is good news, not portents of doomsday.
In fact, according to Steven Meltzer, Associate Publisher/ Executive Managing Editor at Penguin Group USA, with every new technology, from the gramophone to the radio to the TV, came a prediction of the book’s demise. But the book continued to thrive and grow despite innovative forms of electronic entertainment. And today, Americans purchase 8 million physical books daily. In the 4th quarter of 2011, Amazon’s sales of physical books rose by double digits. It surprised them, too. But you cannot give an ebook as a holiday gift. Well, you can, but there’s nothing to wrap—and more importantly—unwrap. So physical books won out in the season of giving. Plus e-book sales remain a relatively small percentage of book purchases: 26% of adult fiction and 11% of children’s books.
Moreover, 74% of today’s readers have never even read an e-book, and 14% of those who own an e-reader have never read a book on it. The digital book market, despite what seems to be the e-reader’s ubiquity, is in a nascent stage.
Stacey Williams-Ng, author of the digital book ASTROJAMMIES and founder of Little Bahalia, a book app developer, also demonstrated how poorly imagined some digital books currently are. A swipe of the finger on an iPad screen blew the wind in one book, but the same motion also turned the page. This meant a child playing with the app could be easily frustrated with the next page when they really wanted to manipulate a tornado.
Also problematic, the vertical orientation of most e-readers creates double the page turns of traditional picture books, throwing off the timing of a story. Creating digital horizontal spreads is preferred, but then you’re also dealing with a much smaller version of the original. Sometimes the solution is to make digital books (that do not have a hardcopy counterpart) shorter than the traditional 32-page picture book.
But Williams-Ng learned the hard way it’s difficult to do traditional promotion with a digital book. She has a great relationship with her local bookseller, but when it came time to do an ASTROJAMMIES appearance, she realized she had no physical book for the store to sell. Moreover, there was nothing to sign. Williams-Ng warned, “You need a hardcopy book to sell the digital book.” She self-published the hardcopy version of her digital creation so she didn’t have to wait years to find a traditional publisher.
Right now there are three main forms of e-books: e-pubs, which are similar to PDF files and have re-flowing text (which means you can change text format and size); enhanced e-books, which are e-pub with embedded features like audio and video; and book apps, which can be anything that can be programmed, from a movie to a game and beyond. “The sky’s the limit with book apps,” said Williams-Ng.
However, the Big 6 are picking and choosing which picture books to digitize; one publisher is no longer making e-pubs of their entire list because most e-books do not sell. The ones that are popular now are the classics like Dr. Seuss—books everyone knows. A new picture book has to lend itself to interactivity for a publisher to consider the book app investment, which can run approximately $25,000, according to Williams-Ng. So if you, as an author, WANT to have a digital book, you should think about interactivity at the very start of your creative process.
Digital publishing is about five years behind the music business in terms of figuring out new distribution and pricing models. In 2011, digital music sales surpassed physical music sales for the first time. Album sales were up for the first time since 2004. The industry is adapting. Publishing will adapt as well.
Steven Meltzer believes picture book sales will escalate because parents will buy a hardcopy book for the home, and if their child enjoys it, they’ll purchase the digital version for their mobile device. “Bundling is coming, too,” he said, referring to the practice of selling a hardcopy and digital book together at a discounted price. “It’s good news for picture book authors.” (Insert Snoopy dance.)
So what’s next for digital books? The future could be digital readers with foldable layers, multi-screened with high definition graphics. The future might even be Xenotext: “encoding textual information into genetic nucleotides, thereby creating ‘messages’ made from DNA—messages that we can then implant, like genes, inside cells, where such messages persist, undamaged and unaltered, through myriad cycles of mitosis, all the while preserved for later recovery and decoding.”
“Remember M.T. Anderson’s FEED?” Meltzer asked. “Wouldn’t it be ironic to be fed FEED?”
No matter what the future holds, “people are still writing and reading…ain’t nothing ever going to change that.”
Thanks, Mr. Meltzer, I needed that reassurance.
This is the fourth in a series of posts about the NJ-SCBWI Annual Conference. Visit all this week for insights from this first-class children’s book writing event.
The first piece of Kate’s final writerly contradiction—listen to what others say; don’t listen—was demonstrated by a conversation between Kate and her agent, Holly McGhee.
Kate finished a picture book manuscript and sent it off to Holly. The conversation began with Holly:
Kate didn’t understand. “Huh?”
“No.” Holly repeated.
“I don’t care about the main character.” Holly didn’t even think it was a picture book. “This is a novel,” she said.
Slowly Kate realized that Holly was right. Kate wanted to write a picture book but a picture book is not what emerged. Deep down, she knew it was something more, but darn it, she wanted it to be a picture book. She was trying to get away with something, but Holly caught her.
Kate then explained “don’t listen” by circling back to the time after she had released THE TIGER RISING and BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE, two southern novels. She received many accolades. People loved her work.
So she began to write another “novel set in the south about nothing really at all,” like her two previous books. Once people loved her work, she felt compelled to continue along the same vein. She wanted everyone to keep loving her. But what was coming out was not genuine. The love and joy and play in her writing was gone. She was forcing herself to create something she did not want to write. And all to please everyone else, not herself. (Remember contradiction #2?)
Instead, she began a fairytale about a princess and a mouse. She showed it to a trusted friend. The response? “It’s not what you do best.”
Again, people expected her to write a southern novel.
But she pressed on. The princess and mouse was where her heart led her, and that is where she would remain. “Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!”
Damning those torpedoes was an excellent decision, for THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX won the Newbery.
In the end, Kate DiCamillo assured us that a life of a writer can be “terrible beyond all imagining, but it will be okay.” Another contradiction. We know this business is tough, but we still choose to write because we can’t NOT write.
I, for one, will try to embrace the terror from now on, because that’s what writing is—being in the depths of the unknown…and yet in a constant state of discovery. The final contradiction.
This is the third in a series of posts about the NJ-SCBWI Annual Conference. Visit all this week for insights from this enlightening children’s book writing event.
She repeated a story about Kafka walking in the park and encountering a little girl who was crying. He asked “what aileth thee” and discovered she had lost her doll. Kafka told the little girl not to worry, that her doll was fine. “How do you know?” the girl asked. “Because I have a letter from her telling me so.” Kafka promised the girl he’d return the next day with the letter, which he went home to write. In fact, he wrote an entire series of letters for the girl. The letters explained that the doll appreciated all the girl had done for her, but it was time for the doll to be on her own.
A writer’s purpose is to deliver the truth, yet make the truth bearable. The little girl was never to reunite with her doll, but at least she knew the doll was having a good time on her journey and was doing well without the girl.
At the same time the writer is comforting humanity, the writer must not write to anyone else’s whims. Not write to the market trends. Not write to please anyone else. In order to grab the truth, the writer must write what is in his or her heart. In doing so, the joy and love of the words will flow honestly, truthfully, genuinely.
But when writing the truth, the writer can be pained, digging into their own dark vault of emotions. The writer must be naked to the world. And this is when the third contradiction is borne: you must encase yourself in armor to survive the raw emotions, but you must take the armor off in order to write.
You must expose yourself—“here is my heart”—but never let the reader know you are writing about yourself.
Kate’s friend in the theatre said that you must “allow 50% of the audience to hate you”, for that is when you can reveal the hard truths.
When speaking about compromising yet never compromising, Kate said that the story in your head is always better than the one you actually create. Therefore, the very first words you write are already a contradiction. They will never be as good as you imagine.
But as you move on and submit your work, there will be people who ask you to change things—your critique group, your agent, your editor. You have to bend but you also have to know when it’s not time to compromise.
Kate told a story about a picture book manuscript that was due to be published. She wanted to leave the last two spreads wordless, but her editor did not agree. The editor had her write some final words to go with the spreads. Meanwhile, as they were waiting for the illustrator, her editor left and a new one was assigned. Three years had passed. Kate looked at the manuscript again and hated it. The words at the end were all wrong. She told her agent they had to pull the deal. She eventually discussed her displeasure with the editor. The editor didn’t like the last lines either. The outcome was that the final spread was left wordless.
This is why you have to bend but know when not to. It’s a fine line, but “if your heart, soul and mind are in it then you’ll know where the line is.”
This is the second in a series of posts about the NJ-SCBWI Annual Conference. Visit all this week for insights from this incredible children’s book writing event.
After seven years, Kate decided she wanted to live a life in which she was always making art. She had fear as a writer, especially in revision, but instead of the terror paralyzing her any longer, it motivated her.
Kate introduced writing’s first contradiction: “you go on a long journey but stay in the same place.” The writing can take you anywhere, but you are still a lonely writer sitting at a keyboard.
Kate explained that a career in writing means you have to “chart a course through the contradictions.” She revealed five pieces of contradictory writing truths:
- Be absolutely rigid; Be loosey-goosey.
- Write only for others; Write only for yourself.
- Hide yourself; Reveal yourself.
- Compromise; Never compromise.
- Listen to what other people say; Don’t listen.
Kate had a good friend Oscar during that not-writing-but-wanting-to-be-a-writer seven-year stretch. One day they discussed belief in miracles and Kate told Oscar that she wanted to be a writer.
“Baby, that don’t take a miracle. That’s all on you,” Oscar said.
She had never realized that the whole of the task was on her. You have to do what you promise yourself. After years of brooding, she came to know that it was “easier to do the work than to NOT do the work.” Just in case we didn’t get it, she repeated this several times.
Yes, art and fear always go together. The constant feeling of uncertainty creates a tolerance for uncertainty. In other words, embrace the terror. It’s a prerequisite for success.
As I sat in the balcony, I had my own epiphany. Writing picture books is my comfort zone. My middle grade novel has been sitting untouched for more time than I’m willing to reveal. And it’s languishing out of pure fear: fear of ruining what I already adore, fear of not knowing what comes next, fear of writing more than 600 words IN A ROW. Why have I not embraced the fear before? Kate DiCamillo says she never works with an outline; “an outline kills it.” She writes to know what happens next. And that’s how I write, too. I enjoy discovering the story as I write. But I thought writing a novel like that was WRONG. Now I understand that nothing is wrong, it’s just the way I like to work.
So when Kate says “be absolutely rigid”, she means to commit yourself to the work. But when she contradicts this advice with “be loosey-goosey” she means the stories want love and joy and play. Go ahead and write without an outline, don’t plot where you’re going and you’ll journey somewhere totally unexpected. She equates this first contradiction with standing at a door and knocking. You must stand there, but how you knock is up to you. Shave and a haircut? A rock riff? Gentle tapping? How will you knock?