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Last year I attended the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature One-on-One Plus conference. (Phew! That’s a mouthful. How ’bout I just say RUCCL from now on?)

It was my first big conference. It was my first conference, period. I thought I was prepared. I don’t get nervous in large crowds of people, nor do I find it difficult to go right up to someone and chat. And I love public speaking and performing. I’m not easily intimidated.

But, when I arrived, I realized it. I hadn’t fully prepared myself.

The day went by quickly. Those organizers pack the event chock full of excellent speakers and interesting topics. (See my post-conference notes from last year.) The time you have to meet people is the time it takes to walk from one presentation to another.

I didn’t get the opportunity to talk to many editors or agents. True, I had only just begun to write for children, and thus, I didn’t know who I should be chatting with anyway.

So I decided that I would try to help other first-timers. Here’s a list of lessons I learned last year. I hope they help you make the most of your day.

1. Research the faculty in advance.


2008 RUCCL mentors arrive

Find out which editors and agents are interested in the kind of work you produce. Make a list of their names, and if possible, look up their photos online. No, I’m not encouraging anyone to be a stalker! There are 80 professionals mixing it up with 80 attendees, all wearing name tags. If you don’t want to squint at people’s chests all day trying to figure out who is who, go online and see if you can find a photo to recognize people by sight.

Approach editors/agents only during appropriate moments. Don’t interrupt another attendee or tap the editor’s shoulder while they’re taking a big honking bite of sandwich. You should know that the restroom is a no-no! The best time you’ll have to approach professionals is between sessions. Another good time is when they announce where mentors and mentees should meet. (They will announce pairings via alphabetical order and ask “A-F” to meet in a specific area, like near the fireplace.) When I went to find my mentor for my 45-minute session, I didn’t immediately see her…because another attendee had already pulled her aside to talk.

And I’ll say it: lunch is a good time to talk. They will seat mentors at numbered tables that correspond with the five-on-five assignments. Although not everyone sits in the right place, it will be easiest to find people during lunch. But again, if someone is chomping on chicken salad, it’s probably not a good time to interrupt.

Why is it important to talk to the faculty directly? Because they may not accept your submission post-conference if you don’t make contact. Now that’s contrary to what I had heard about conference submissions, but I did get one submission returned after RUCCL, citing that they don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. (Yes, RUCCL was clearly marked on the envelope and in the cover letter.)

So find editors. Ask if you may submit. Ask for a business card. Don’t give them yours unless they ask. Be professional, courteous, polite and to the point! There’s not a lot of time, so don’t ramble. Which brings me to my next lesson…

2. If you know your manuscript needs direction, say so.

My submission last year was a novel I had only recently begun. I was not yet clear on the plot or direction. But when my mentor asked me about it, I meandered. I had two general ideas of the possible direction in my head, but I wasn’t certain which path I should take. Instead of asking my mentor what she thought, I tried to make it sound like I was clear. And I obviously was not.

Another attendee had it right. She told me, “I explained to my mentor that I had started the novel but stopped because I was stuck. I told her I wasn’t sure the direction it should take. She then gave me some very good ideas and we brainstormed the possibilities.”

3. Don’t be afraid to speak up and ask questions.

During the five-on-five, the mentees had an opportunity to ask questions of the professional panel. But our discussion leader asked questions off a prepared, suggested list of topics. They weren’t necessarily the questions I wanted answered, but I didn’t speak up and ask what was on my mind.

Remember, this is your day. The conference is arranged to help you, the mentee, take the next step in your career. So if you don’t find the topics to be of interest, speak up. Politely interject and ask if you can introduce a question instead.

Mixing it up at lunch

Mixing it up at lunch

4. Prepare a list of questions.

Questions about your submission, questions about the market, questions about the publishing house, questions about your other manuscripts. Whatever questions you have, take them with you. Refer to them. If there’s information you want to collect, this is the place to do it.

Another good idea is to bring a list of your manuscripts with one-line descriptions. Even if you just have ideas, ask if they’re good ones. A mentor might tell you to pursue idea A and D but not B or C because of current market dynamics, competition, or other factors (remember, one of those factors might be personal taste).

5. Have fun!

This is your day. It’s a step forward in your career. Enjoy it, use it to your advantage, learn from it. Congratulations and have a great day!

I added the schedule from last year as I recall it, for those interested in how the day is structured. Please realize this may not be similar to this year.

2008 RUCCL Schedule
• Arrive, get folder with schedule/mentor assignment/faculty bios, read through it, have breakfast, free time to mingle with other attendees
• Introductory speaker (2008, Kay Winters)
• Mentor session
• Panel Discussion (2008, “How a Manuscript Becomes a Book”)
• Lunch
• Five-on-Five Discussion (You, your mentor and four other mentor-mentee pairs)
• Keynote Speaker (2008, K.L. Going)

Want to be a fly on the wall in an agent’s office? If you were at the NJ-SCBWI conference last week, you got that kind of insider buzz. Some top agents in children’s publishing revealed what’s been sitting on their desks, and more importantly, what hasn’t been submitted.

The agent panel featured:

After brief introductions, the agents welcomed questions. The first attendee (OK, me) wanted to know: “What trends are you seeing in your submissions? Specifically, what are you seeing too often? And what aren’t you seeing?”

The agents were quick to say that vampires were overdone. They’re seeing a lot of fantasy, especially with werewolves and zombies–on their own but also vampire/werewolf/zombie hybrids.

Jill Corcoran added, “I’m seeing a lot of plot-driven manuscripts, but where the character isn’t fully developed.”

The agents thought that paranormal hadn’t yet peaked, while historicals were down. That’s not to say a fantastic historical couldn’t come along and raise the whole genre, but as of now, they weren’t selling well.

They also added, “please don’t send anything about bullies. We’re sick of bullies.” Seems there was a bully article in a prominent parenting magazine (or perhaps it was an Oprah episode?) which began an unwelcomed trend.

Turning their attention to what wasn’t being submitted, Marietta Zacker said, “We’re not seeing a true depiction and representation of our diverse population. Kids aren’t seeing themselves in books and that’s a problem.”

Rachel Orr said, “And please realize there should be other Chinese stories than those about Chinese New Year. And stories featuring African-Americans that are about something other than slavery.”

Scott Treimel added, “Don’t send a story about three characters from three different races that have adventures.” He said such stories tended to be stereotypical and poorly conceived.

Ms. Zacker emphasized, “Certainly, be true to your voice. But write outside of yourself. Look beyond yourself to the world around you.”

Rachel Orr commented that she sees stories about a kid who moves to a new house far too often.

Scott Treimel wondered, “Where are the stories about the boys who feel weird about their sexuality? What if the girl is aggressive for a change?”

The agents agreed that in regards to sex in YA novels, the sky’s the limit, but it must be organic to the story. Don’t be shocking just for shock’s sake.

An attendee asked if she had been rejected by an agent, but spent several months polishing the manuscript, is it acceptable to submit again?

The agents said that the writer should first look to the agent for a response. Typically, they’ll note if they want to see a revision. And a writer must put the work in before coming back a second time. Marietta Zacker said, “This sounds like common sense, but don’t forget that we remember you. We really do read submissions. Don’t make us feel like we don’t know you. Please say, ‘I sent this to you six months ago but I’ve revised it…'”

Emily van Beek chimed in with: “Remember that the world owes you nothing. You owe the world your best work.”

In regards to working with an agent, the agents said that their business is all about relationships and trust. “We’re partners in your career. We’re architects for your career. We have a design for you.”

Also remember that an agent has their favorite editors so they’re tuned to the tastes of a few dozen editors, but not all of them. It pays to shop your work around to find the best match.

And one of the agents commented that if something isn’t selling, move on. “I wonder about those people who try to sell the same story year after year. You’re a writer! Write something else.” 

When the agents were asked what they’re currently working on, books they’re excited about, Marietta Zacker said they are asked this question frequently, “but we always shoot ourselves in the foot when we answer. We don’t want to pigeonhole ourselves. You shouldn’t necessarily send to us just because we liked something in particular. And we don’t want you to write to that preference, either.” Agents have a wide range of tastes. “We don’t know we want it until we read it.”

Emily van Beek talked about the importance of falling in love with a manuscript in order to represent it because they do all work on spec. “We don’t get paid until we sell it.” So her mantra tends to be, “If you can resist it, do. I know that sounds [harsh], but it’s true.” She finds projects she can’t live without. Then she has the passion to sell it.

Interestingly, she told us that Kathi Appelt’s Newbery honor The Underneath took two years and underwent eight major revisions.

Scott Treimel added, “Writing and revising are equally important skills.”

Some agents will help edit your manuscript for submission, others may not be that involved. It depends upon the agent. But remember that your agent is not a critique group. Be sure that you have reliable crit partners and that your manuscript is “polished to within an inch of its life” prior to submission.

So when does an agent know that the manuscript is ready to be submitted to editors? When do they let go? Jill Corcoran said, “When I think it’s phenomenal.”

And to end the panel, Jill Corcoran talked about endings. “I love endings that are expected, but unexpected; surprising but logical.”

And I suppose this is a logical place to end this post. Be sure to check back for more from the conference throughout this week!

Lewis“For all those who thought E.B. White was coming. Sorry, I’m the black one. As you can see, I’m not white and I’m not dead.”

Talented artist and illustrator E.B. Lewis discussed process versus product for his NJ-SCBWI keynote. He opened with some humor but then got to serious business.

He has a strong work ethic and told the audience that a person was only an artist if they spent each day producing art. It takes no less than 10,000 hours to become an expert in your craft. If you’re counting, that’s nearly 5 years straight of 40-hour work weeks, no breaks, no vacation.

Work is just that–work. It shouldn’t be easy. But you should love the work. If you don’t, then maybe you’re just fooling yourself into believing you’re something you’re not. Some people say they don’t have the inspiration. “I don’t understand that. I can’t step out of my bed without falling over a juicy piece of inspiration.” (Note to Mr. Lewis: I’m the one who tripped over your portfolio case. How’s that for falling over juicy inspiration?)

Mr. Lewis claims that once he finishes a painting, he admires it. He loves it–for about two hours. Then he hates it. For him, it’s all about the process of creating. He isn’t happy until he is creating once again, improving upon his last accomplishment, trying something new. “As soon as an artist knows their style, they’re dead in the water,” he said. Because your style is something that should be evolving. You’ve got to work hard, you’ve got to better yourself. If you’re satisfied, perhaps you aren’t a true artist.

homesoonHe gave us some background on his childhood. “When I visit schools, I tell the kids that I failed 3rd grade. It levels the playing field. ‘Wow, E.B. Lewis failed!’ the kids say.” The children immediately understand that if Mr. Lewis was able to become an artist, they, too, can reach their goals.

Mr. Lewis attended a small, old school with fireplaces in every classroom. One day during math class, he crawled up the fireplace. Remember how the girl in A Christmas Story pointed shyly toward Flick, outside, tongue frozen to the flagpole? Well, the whole class pointed shyly up the fireplace when the teacher asked where Earl had gone.

Then on career day, a classmate said he wanted to become a doctor. That boy received a lot of attention. E.B. wanted that same kind of attention, so he raised his hand. His teacher pushed it down. He raised it again. Finally, he was able to answer. “I want to be a lawyer,” he said, not because he really wanted to, but because he thought everyone would admire his aspirations. Instead, they all laughed, including the teachers. No one thought E.B. Lewis would amount to anything.

So E.B.’s uncle decided to take a special interest in his nephew. Every Saturday afternoon for years, his uncle drove him to art class because he knew E.B. loved to draw. His uncle told him that artists were the critical thinkers of society, and very well read, so he gave E.B. a new book to read every week. This man connected E.B. Lewis to his passion.

E.B. began his career as a fine artist. He would take photographs of his subjects, but from far away, hidden, with a telephoto lens, because as soon as someone knows their picture is being taken, they no longer act naturally. They’re no longer in the moment.

His work appeared on the cover of a magazine and a few days later he got a call from someone in the children’s book industry, asking if he’d like to illustrate a book. He said no. Why not? “Because I’m a fine artist, not an illustrator.”

What’s the difference? A fine artist solves their own philosophical problem. An illustrator solves someone else’s problem.

However, that art director was persistent and encouraged E.B. to go to the children’s section of the library. Mr. Lewis soon realized that some of the most ground-breaking artistic work was being published in children’s books. He called back and agreed to illustrate.

batboyOver the past 14 years, Mr. Lewis has illustrated 47 books at the rate of about 3/4 books a year. He has won the Coretta Scott King illustrator award four times. He won a Caldecott honor for Coming on Home Soon. He works with 14 different publishers and is currently booked through 2014. (That’s right, five years in advance. But I’m taking special note of the lucky number 14.)

He is one of the few illustrators who travels to meet with his editor and art department to discuss a book at the early stages. He likes to create a brain trust in the beginning. He starts with thumbnail sketches and this begins the dialogue. Then he enlarges the sketches to a dummy and adds the words. He researches photos in the library and uses a model, often combining both photographic guides to create the end result.

“I have a love of the process, the doing. For me, that’s all there is.”

How lucky for us. We get to enjoy the fruits of his labor.

Thirty-eight agents, editors, art directors and acclaimed authors. Two days. Twenty workshop sessions. The NJ-SCBWI is one little conference that packs a writing wallop.

Over the next few days, I’ll share notes from the event, from my own journal and that of writer Natisha LaPierre. So even if you weren’t there, it will feel like you were. (Just surround yourself with friendly folks passionate about children’s books while you read.)

peckThe first keynote presentation by Richard Peck, Newbery award-winning author of The Year Down Yonder, set a serious yet exciting tone for the conference. His unique voice extends beyond his books–when he speaks, he feels as big as a Shakesperean actor, filling the room, enunciating, using his entire body. (It was no surprise to learn that he belongs to a group of authors known as the “Authors Readers Theatre”  who travel the country performing each other’s works.) Charming, witty, it is impossible not to be drawn in by Mr. Peck’s dynamic presence.

“I am a writer because of two boys on a raft,” he began, noting his love of Mark Twain. “Writers are readers first. Nobody but a reader ever became a writer. Read 1,000 books before you can write one.”

Mr. Peck encouraged attendees to look at other voices in order to find their own. And what does he think about “write what you know?” Rubbish. “A story is something that never happened to the author,” he said. “I assure you that J.K. Rowling never attended Hogwarts. Beatrix Potter was never a rabbit.”

A writer’s job is to add hope to reality. A story is always about change, and change is animated by epiphany. In his master class on Saturday, Mr. Peck explained epiphany further. When he asked middle school students to define ephiphany, an 8th grade boy said, “Epiphany is when everything changes and you can’t go back.” Mr. Peck thought that was the finest definition he had ever heard. The teacher informed Mr. Peck that the boy had lost his father, and his mother before that. That boy has been overdosed on reality. Now he needs hope.

yeardownyonder“A lot of fiction is about remembering better days.” The elder characters in Mr. Peck’s books are often patterned after the old men who frequented his father’s filling station in the 1930’s and 40’s. He recalls their conversations and makes “rough music out of real speech.” You can write in the voice of a young character, but have that young person know old people. Children want adults to be strong, but they often can’t find them.

Years ago, the books in his school library were kept under glass and you had to find the teacher for a key. “Consider that metaphor,” he said. “The teacher has the key.” Book are still as precious, but it is up to the writer to make them so. “You can teach children or fear the parent, but you can’t do both. We are the last literature teachers left because we can’t be fired. We’re unemployed!”

Every week Mr. Peck visits the book store and spends an hour perusing first lines. “We live in the age of the sound byte, so you have to ‘byte’ them out front.” He recited the first line of Charlotte’s Web to remind us of its power: “Where’s Papa going with that axe?” Six words on one line ignite the imagination. And then he gave a fine example of voice with M.T. Anderson’s Feed: “We went to the moon to have fun but the moon turned out to completely suck.”

He always travels with a book from the past and a new book. The book from the past reminds him that we’re all links in a chain, while the new title keeps him tuned to what’s coming next. “If we don’t know what publishers are releasing this year, how will we get on next year’s list?” He’s reading Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls, “the greatest argument for writing in first person. It skates too near to the truth.”

Mr. Peck concluded by reminding us that “a story is always a question, never an answer. We can ask the questions that no one else will ask.” Story is the most important gift we can give our youth. Think about that 8th grade boy. “Story might be the companion that a child needs.”

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