I got up (a lot) earlier than I needed to. I gained an hour crossing into the Central Time Zone. I hit no traffic and made no stops. All of which is to say: I arrived with time to spare. I didn’t need to attend the pre-conference keynote for first-timers, but I was there. I had paid my money. I went. Esther Hershenbohm told us to list a want, a need, and a wish for the conference. My want: ideas to find and shape sellable nonfiction stories. My need: specific tools for marketing my book(s). My wish: a connection with an agent or agents. She told us to revisit these wants after the conference. Hey, I’m doing my homework.
Betsy Bird hit just the right note at the opening keynote. We are in the midst of a new golden age of children’s literature–with a twist. The best of times, the most challenging of times, as it were. She articulated ideas that had been floating, inchoate, in my mind. There are so many books coming out, yet sales are dominated by a few big names and series. More opportunities, but more competition. More ways in, but more ways to fall out. More books told in different voices; more progress needed.
And is there room for the white male voice? We–the mostly white, upper-end of middle class writers and illustrators–were told explicitly not to feel aggrieved, as if we were the “victims” of affirmative action. In the Saturday night diversity panel, Cheryl Klein made the case with numbers. Seventy-nine percent of children’s books [in a recent year] were written by white authors, who come from a group accounting for seventy-two percent of the population as a whole [2010 census].
But still: How do I, a white male, help contribute diverse books if I am supposed to write in my Own (privileged, white) Voice? The answer came out in lapping waves over the course of the weekend. Jack Cheng helped in Breakout #1 by admitting his own shortcomings. Born in Shanghai, he has authentic multicultural bona fides, but when he tried to write a black secondary character into his latest book his editor told him, “You haven’t done the work.” Aha! We all have work to do to write voices that transcend stereotype, avoid so-called tropes, and speak authentically.
The conference helped confirm my thinking that an anthology-type book, a book on a single topic from a variety of points’ of view, could be the way to go. (I have already begun researching the topic.) I couldn’t fairly be accused of presumptuousness or cultural appropriation if all the stories are from different cultural groups. No one else could tell all these stories in their own voice. The success of the project all depends whether editors see that this story–group of stories–needs to be told. Clelia Gore shared successful examples of this type of “anthology” nonfiction book. Other suggestions for me to attend to: unconventional biographies, a new angle on major events (especially by narrowing the lens), and historical subjects that have “topicality” today (“things that kids should know about”).
Allison Remcheck focused her breakout on “high concept,” the conceit of the story, the premise or idea that will grab your reader’s attention. A concern for fiction writers, surely, yet it made me at least consider bringing the high interest to the fore in my researching and writing decisions. One picture book entry in the First Pages session showed me how strong writing can make a traditional historical topic fresh, “high concept,” and relevant to readers of all ages.
Feeling more confident about finding sellable nonfiction stories: check.
Linda Howard came in the penultimate slot. She had numerous suggestions for promoting your books. She was thorough, yet there was something of the buckshot in her approach. Something of the checklist. She covered the required ground but as if from a train window. We didn’t get out in the ATV and feel the bumps in the road. One place where I began to feel the lay of the land: She described a way to find relevant hashtags on Twitter and other social media, then how to use them to find (insinuate?!) my way into a community. She also gave several sites for creating memes. I might well look into that. She explained that Pinterest is a popular hangout for teachers and librarians, just my market. Hey, I did get concrete ideas from Ms. Howard, after all!
Josh Funk gave a very detailed and thorough presentation on the ins and outs of school visits. (He even reminded us that schools view the transaction from the other side and think of them as “author visits.”) He has done scores of visits, plus hundreds more virtually. He explained how to establish connections (conferences, snail mail, social media, booking agencies) that can lead to school visits. He got into the nitty-gritty, especially concerning prices and contracts. In fact, he walked us through his contract line by line. He could not have been more helpful. To my question–What if you have just one book and it is geared more toward middle school?–he neither discouraged nor quite reassured. There is no reason in theory his tips won’t still apply. I just may need to work harder to turn them into gigs. The woman in the next row turned around and whispered that I should look into connecting with book clubs at junior high schools. Good idea.
Learning concrete steps to better promote my book(s): check.
I spent three hours with Clelia Gore on the opening afternoon. I can submit to her with a “Marvelous Midwest Conference” in the subject line. She will give it a look. I liked when she described ordering books at her public library, dropping by every week, and browsing through her collected titles. A library user. My type of agent!
Stephen Fraser shared his thoughts on “loving the world enough.” His traditionalism endeared him to me. Clearly, he is excited by manuscripts that take a fresh look or break new ground, but he also takes the long view and values the classics. He is not impressed by the loud or the showy. He is wary of the snarky and the cynical. He gave examples early on from Missing May, Seed Folks, and The Whipping Boy, all books that made a strong impression on me. Do I love the world enough? I don’t love easily or generously in any context, but I have not a “toxic” bone–or gene–in my body. I value realism in my story-telling, always with the “affirmation of dignity” that Fraser values. I learned that he is agent for J, the first and most interesting author I met at the conference. Bonus points for the both of them.
My conference ended with Carrie Pearson‘s breakout session on finding the right agent match. She has earned authority in this area, and not by finding the right agent the first time. It took her three tries to find the one who will (she hopes) stay with her for the duration. As she explained, the first agent was too hot, the second agent too cold, the third just right. She admonished never to send the same query to different agents. I should know the agent well enough, know the books they represent well enough, to personalize the first paragraph of each. High bar, but she is proof it can be done and she gave tools for making it possible. I need to get The Book from SCBWI, get back on Publisher’s Marketplace, use Twitter, especially TweetDeck, and Google Alerts (for writing project research, too!) She shone some light, even if not a flood light, into the black box of agent/editor research.
Making a connection with agents: check.
The conference was a success. Ready to move forward with new understandings and renewed enthusiasm.
SCBWI MMW Conference, Dorothia Rohner
Secret Garden’s: The Golden Age of Children’s Literature, Humphrey Carpenter