Crayons, scallops, and truth: What I learned at ‪#‎NESCBWI15

NESCBWI15 logoAnother NE-SCBWI (New England Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators) Conference is in the history books, and as always, it was an exciting, fun, information-packed smorgasbord of opportunity!

One of the biggest benefits of the conference is the networking – agents, editors, and fellow writers all converge on this one location and get to meet, chat, and dine with each other, which is worth the price of admission in and of itself. The varied workshops and high-profile speakers are also huge draws, of course. And this year, I had an additional reason to attend: The Marguerite W. Davol Picture Book Critique Scholarship for pre-published authors!

As I explained in a previous post, I was awarded this honor based on a manuscript I submitted last year, and the judges felt it was strong enough to deserve some special recognition, which was very humbling. I’m so proud of that manuscript!

So as you can see, I had plenty of reasons to want to attend; by its very nature, the conference is immensely educational, but I wanted to share a few choice tidbits of wisdom gleaned from the experience. This list is by no means exhaustive, and even what you read here is a fraction of a fraction of what transpired:


1)
 Working on your craft is the only way to succeed. Beekle
And don’t do it for any other reason than because you’re passionate about it! 2015 Caldecott Award Winner Dan Santat was the Saturday morning Keynote Speaker, and his tremendous talent (and dry wit) kept the audience on the edge of their seats. The author/illustrator also revealed a revelation he had a few years ago, while watching the TV Show, “Mad Men:” one does not need to like a character to like a story; one simply needs to understand the character(s).

2) I have a good voice for middle grade. One editor in attendance mentioned this to me following a quick story synopsis I scribbled down during a workshop session. I’ve written poetry, poetry collections, short stories, and picture books…but never anything long enough to require more than one chapter! I’m going to need to think about that.

3) Scallops are expensive. Well, I kind of knew that already anyway, but that fact became abundantly clear to me Friday night, when a small group of us left the conference center and dined at a nearby Mediterranean restaurant. I order a $13 scallop appetizer and received…two scallops. Two. As in, one…and then just one more. Admittedly, they were quite good – but I’m not sure they were 13-dollars-good.

4) Be True. This was actually the title of author Jo Knowles’ Saturday evening Keynote Speech, and a very moving, inspirational speech it was. Jo related her own story of a young, shy girl who wanted to be a writer, lessons coverwho credited the SCBWI as well as (and even more so) one special teacher with helping her achieve success.

Regarding her first YA novel, Lessons from a Dead Girl, she learned that the book just wasn’t ready until it was true. Until her characters, the story line, everything felt true…the manuscript went nowhere. So one of the most important questions a writer should ask themselves is, “Is it true yet?”

5) Understanding Common Core Standards for English Language Arts is not as hard as it seems. My thanks to fellow NE-SCBWI member Michelle Cusolito for an informative workshop geared towards helping authors doing school visits. Learn more by joining her Facebook group!

6) If you don’t take the crayons out of the box…nothing happens. Australian children’s writer, animal expert, musician, and 2010 SCBWI Member of the Year Christopher Cheng was the Sunday morning Keynote Speaker, and shared this nugget. He’s right – if you want to create something, you have to take action!

That doesn’t just mean one needs to write; it means one needs to be aware. In his view, “everything has a purpose” and it is up to the writer to determine what that purpose is and the extent of its usefulness. He didn’t explicitly state that this mentality translates to the concept of “mindfulness”…but as a writer myself, I’d say it certainly does!

Poetry Panel, from left: Heidi EY Stemple. Leslie Bulion, Richard Michelson, Jane Yolen

7) Book marketing just took a new, creative turn for the better. While chatting with author and fellow New Englander Julie True Kingsley, she told me about a new start-up venture she is involved in: BizzieMe.com. If you are an author and want to bring your book into the digital age via interactive games and video, I encourage you to check it out! A reader scans your book cover into their smartphone or tablet, and can immediately start interacting. Very cool stuff.

8a) Reluctant readers aren’t really “reluctant” – they just haven’t been given books that interest them yet. CrossoverThis is something else that didn’t come as a surprise, really, but it was something important of which to take note. Boys and girls share many interests, and it’s important to not try to pigeonhole boys with our preconceptions of what they will like.

During Newbery Award-winning author Kwame Alexander‘s writing workshop – as well as his Saturday lunchtime speech – he reminded those in attendance to take advantage of opportunities that come your way. “Say YES!” was his takeaway message, and his words on authenticity echoed Chris Cheng’s and Jo Knowles’.

8b) What a difference a year makes! Those were the words uttered by poet and artist Richard Michelson while we were chatting during a book signing. Richard and I were admiring the long line that led to Kwame’s table, and Richard remarked that he had been with Kwame at a signing last year and no one knew who he was…but now thanks to The Crossover, he was the hit of the weekend!

Heidi & Me - spread-mates
Heidi EY Stemple and I, with her poem on the left and mine on the right!

9) If you’re going to a conference that fellow writers will also be attending, bring books with you! I couldn’t believe I left copies of Lullaby & Kisses Sweet, The Crossover, and others at home! After I had arrived, my absent-mindedness dawned on me. Heidi Stemple, with whom I share a spread in Lullaby, knows this.

After a poetry panel discussion with her, Jane Yolen (her mom), Leslie Bulion, and Richard Michelson, we chatted and I signed her copy. I’ll probably have to wait until next year’s conference to see her again and have her sign mine!

10) Monsters are a euphemism for disability. I had never considered this before, but author Tim Weed made an excellent point during his workshop on image systems in middle grade an YA fiction. The creature with the hunch, the creature with the strange face, the creature who can’t speak…all find their origins from the same place.

11) Networking is as important as attending the workshops.

Me, Deb, Janet, Craig (NESCBWI)
From left: Craig Munson, Janet Costa Bates, Yours Truly, and Deb Blake Dempsey

This is not something I learned – it’s something I preach! If you have ever considered attending an SCBWI conference, I highly encourage you to do so. I wouldn’t be at this stage of my career had it not been for networking, saying hi, chatting with people, striking up conversations, listening to what fellow attendees are talking about. Yes, I’ve learned a lot from the workshops – but it was one simple, short, casual conversation that started me on the way towards publication.

Will I see you there next year? The dates are already set for 2016: April 29 – May 1. If there’s another SCBWI conference closer to you, by all means, register! And for more info on where to find local SCBWI chapters or critique groups, log on to http://www.SCBWI.org. Hope to see you at one someday!

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13 thoughts on “Crayons, scallops, and truth: What I learned at ‪#‎NESCBWI15

  1. Katie L. Carroll

    Sounds like you had as an amazing time as I did. Thanks for sharing your perspective…and congrats on the award!

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  2. I appreciate you sharing your takeaway from the conference, Matt. It sounds like it was a tasty weekend, with or without the $13 scallops! I’m so excited to be attending our Florida SCBWI workshop conference in about a month. I don’t attend many, but with Lee Bennett Hopkins on board, this one was not to be missed!

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    1. Oh, Lee’s going to be there? Please tell him I said hi! If it wasn’t for my very first NESCBWI conference, I’d have never met him. I was chatting with Lin Oliver and Tomie DePaola and mentioned that I wrote poetry and was trying to break into the industry, and Lin suggested I contact Lee! That’s why I tell people the networking is often even more important than the workshops.

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  3. Good grief. It’s May 31, and I just re-read this…and am amazed that anyone can make head or tail out of it, given the syntax errors that abound. That’ll teach me to write a blog post on only a few hours sleep.

    Speaking of which…zzzzzzzzz…….

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