Thursday, August 9, 2012

SCBWI Conference - the future looks bright!

Last weekend I attended my first international SCBWI conference in Los Angeles. I was extremely fortunate to receive funding to attend this conference from CAL, so I shall do my very best to report back all that I learned as well as the conference highlights for me.

1) The news is good! Editors, Publishers, marketing people report that the current vibe in publishing is 'cautiously optimistic'. Picture books, having suffered a slump in the US recently, are being picked up again and overall, children's books generated the strongest sales in all areas of publishing.

2) Arthur Levine (Scholastic USA) gave the opening address and was asked to speak on 'timeless' books he has worked on. Along with a few of the expected books (the Harry Potter series) he gushed over Shaun Tan's 'The Arrival', which of course made me very proud. ('I know him!' I whispered to the person sitting next to me.)

3) Tony Diterlizzi (co-author of The Spiderwick Chronicles) gave a fabulous and amusing keynote, which made me think I really need to lift my game as a public speaker. Towards the end of the conference, I began to think Americans must have a gene that makes them naturally confident, articulate and amusing as soon as you put them on a stage in front of a microphone. After all there were 1234 people in the audience and even the DEBUT authors showed no sign of nerves!

4) After sitting in on a 'breakout' session with a Hollywood screenwriter-turned YA novelist on how to make my novel better by pitching 'High Concept' ideas to her I was starting to feel completely out of my depth. Fortunately, a later keynote I attended was given by a wonderful author called Patricia Maclachlan, who spoke of writing in the way that it has always been for me: sometimes frightening, occasionally exhilarating, often frustrating and always time-taking. To me, the speakers swung dizzyingly between the Hollywood-style-high-concept-self-marketing-get a book out every six months style to the slower-paced-angsty-self-doubty-'quiet book' that I am more familiar (i.e. comfortable) with.

5) And that was only the first day!

6) Saturday I attended an editors' panel, some more workshops and an incredibly moving keynote speech by Ruta Sepetys who spoke of researching her family's devastating story of life in Latvia under Stalin's reign. How she managed to have us first laughing then bawling then laughing again is beyond me. Later, she ran a great session on touring internationally full of practical details and useful advice that once again left me feeling very backwater.

7) That evening I wagged the 60s themed dance party. I wasn't feeling quite up to dressing up as a hippy and dancing with 1233 strangers so just watched the party from my balcony.

8) Sunday morning was another panel of editors. Apparently, as always, every publisher is just looking for "a good story well told". E-books haven't taken off in children's publishing as much as for adult books but one editor believes that the future of print books will be as beautiful archival objects. I liked that. When working with publishers, we were advised to be flexible and let go of our egos. Oh, and social networking is unavoidable. Everyone must do it. But BE PROFESSIONAL. One agent said she had turned down three prospective clients after looking them up on Facebook. So, untag those drunken party shots and hold back that bitching - someone out there might actually be reading you!

9) The Sunday afternoon marketing overview reiterated much of what the publishers, authors and editors had been saying, that children's publishing was still strong. Middle grade novels are currently in demand, after a glut of YA fiction. There is less interest in vampire and supernatural fiction and more interest in contemporary settings with characters that readers can relate to. BUT we were warned not to pay too much attention to trends. In the end you need to write the book you need to write.

10) Lastly, I will finish with a quote from Somerset Maugham given by author Karen Cushman that I think is probably the most relevant piece of information I took away from the weekend (and was grateful to be reminded of it after feeling extremely overwhelmed by all the conflicting advice I received). So, here it is:

"There are three rules for writing... unfortunately no one knows what they are."

In the end, writing is like riding a bike. You can study the manual, take courses in balance and aerodynamics, endlessly watch other people ride their bikes, but unless you get on that bike, and ride and ride and ride, you will never really learn it for yourself.


  1. Enjoyed your post, Sally.

    Thanks for sharing:) Sounds like another fabulous conference. I went last year and it was fabulous.


  2. Thanks Sally for sharing that. Sounds fantastic. And don't worry about being self doubty. Read the Robert Hughes quote on my wall :-)

  3. Thanks Dee and Jackie - I had a great time!

  4. Fabulous post Sally! I'm exhausted and exhilarated just reading it. and might add quietly optimistic. Hooray for kids lit! jxx ps I would have wagged the party too. I dance for NO-ONE. ;-)

  5. Sally, I really enjoyed reading your post about the conference. It felt like being there beside you :)
    I'm going to the SCBWI LA conference next year so it was doubly interesting. :)
    Looking forward to your post on NY too (loved the New Orleans one).

  6. Thanks for sharing this info. It all seemed quite uplifting. Peta