Last Saturday I woke at 5:00am to meet up with my critique group to drive to the Western/Central Upstate NY SCBWI Cabin Fever Conference in Syracuse. The roads had not yet been plowed and the snow drifted across the lanes making me think that if the plow guys weren't up yet, then I shouldn't be either. But that is how much I wanted, needed a mid-winter writing boost, to mingle with other writers and learn something new.
The first speaker was writer Linda Oatman High, who I admire for her ability to take historical anecdotes and create compelling picture books like Cemetery Keepers. She shared how she uses her own experiences and weaves them into fine fiction. I liked her advice for dealing with annoying siblings -- "Don't fight'em, write 'em." Put them in your stories and you can turn the tables to make them do anything you want them to do.
Illustrator Jonas Sickler spoke about self promotion, and although his advice applied mostly to illustrators, I learned that each time you update your website Google elevates you in their listings. I also learned about amazon.com associates and why it might be a good idea to have a fan page on facebook. Although there is nothing lonelier than a fan page with no fans. Or is it one of those "build it and they will come" phenomena?
For me the highlight of the conference was agent Jennifer Laughran. Her frank humor was refreshing. "There is no point in this process," she said, "when someone won't be mean to you -- so if you can't handle that, please stop now." Yet she patiently provided answers to beginner's questions and demonstrated why any writer would want her on their side. Laughran has a wonderful enthusiasm for championing her client's stories, and I felt a pang of envy, which I promised to turn into resolve in my own search for an agent.
After lunch where I chatted with another writer and a future librarian, I sat in on the first page critique. I didn't submit anything, but learned a lot listening to each page read and then the comments of Laughran and an "Anonymous Intern" who spent her summer as a first reader at a major publishing house. What sparked comments? Overdone leads like watching the character wake up in the morning; too many similes in one paragraph; a passive voice; starting too early in the story; starting too late; and leads that are meant to be mysterious and intriguing, but to a reader are just vague and confusing.
Back in the car, we rehashed the day and each of us wondered how we could revise our work based on the new bits of information we acquired. I bet everyone at that conference was back at their desks the next morning, reenergized and ready to work. And that's what a great conference can do -- give you the boost you need to elevate your work to the next level, so, someday an agent will lift your books high. As Jennifer Laughran said, "There is always a market for amazing."