So you say you want to write children’s books?

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The statues in the Grand Hyatt’s lobby wore Cat in the Hat hats during the conference.

I wrote my first picture book manuscript in 2006.  I submitted it to multiple publishers in 2007 and it got rejected.  Many, many times. I published Day by Day in 2010 and had my daughter in early 2011. By late 2011, I wrote another picture book manuscript. I finished it in 2012. This time I submitted it to agents instead of editors since I learned most publishers don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. Wouldn’t you know I spent the first few weeks of 2013 licking my wounds after I received rejection letters from a variety of agents?

My pity party lasted awhile. Therefore, I redirected my non-consulting related energy into my daughter’s speech therapy. By late 2013, I grew frustrated with the way I put my writing on the back burner so I registered for the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) Annual Winter Conference in New York.  I even registered for a pre-conference intensive writers roundtable session, which would allow me to share my work with others and get it in front of an agent and an editor.
It’s hard to sum-up my SCBWI conference experience. I am only including a few highlights since you can check out the conference blogs by clicking here or reading through #NY14SCBWI on Twitter.
  • Literary agent Alexandra Penfold moderated a panel of three editors who talked about openings, hooks, and grabbers. I kept hearing Penfold refer to the “economy of words.” This term was new to me, but I heard the word “economy” referred to in the same context a few more times during the conference. Essentially, this means you have to choose your words carefully. As a writer, you have to think about each work and what it’s telegraphing to the reader (e.g., about the character).
  • I participated in two critique groups, which were led by an editor and an agent. The feedback I received from the industry professionals, as well as from the other writers at the table, gave me the direction I so desperately needed to revise my present picture book manuscript.
    • One of the most useful pieces of feedback that Ari Lewin gave me (that I will use not just on the writing I’m working on now, but I’ll use it in the future) was to keep everything that builds tension. Since I’m trying to shorten my manuscript, she told me to lose anything that builds imagery since one shouldn’t over-direct an illustrator.
  • Jack Gantos’s keynote address was as entertaining as I hoped it would be.  Gantos does a lot of writing at the Boston Athenaeum. Once he gets there he sets himself up with his equipment. He has a plan (e.g., amount of writing time, reading time, revising time). He knows how to get started and where he’s going every day. This made me think I need to be more like Jack Gantos before I get started with every writing session.
  • Jean Feiwel, an editor, said something that reminded me of Carol Dweck’s work on mindset. “It is okay to experiement, fail, and try again.” This pretty much sums up my road to publishing a picture book, doesn’t it. (Perhaps this needs to become my mantra.)
  • Editor Jeannette Larson spoke about “Several Essentials You Need to Know About Writing Picture Books.” She spoke about each of the seven essentials in great depth, but thing I starred in my notebook dealt with rhythm. Larson said, “Remember you’re writing for a listener who is new to language.” She was referring to the care and prevision it takes to figure out which words to choose as you tell your story.  She urged us to think about a young child who is reveling in the joy of language. By being purposeful about the language you select, you can foster a child’s love of language from an early age.
    • Also, she urged us to not only read our own writing aloud for rhythm, but she encouraged us to have someone else read our work aloud to us. This can reveal a lot to you as a writer, Larson asserted, since someone else may not read your work in the way you intended it to be read (and therefore you’ll need to revise and/or edit your writing).
  • Dan Lazar’s breakout session on getting an agent. A few of my favorite tips from his session were:
    • Learn more about agents by going to Publisher’s Marketplace.
    • Craft a query letter where your writer’s voice jumps off of the page.
    • Instead of saying something like “I’ve heard a lot about the work you represented,” be specific. Cite books you know the agent has worked on.
  • Kate Messner delivered one of the most exquisite keynotes. In “The Spectacular Power of Failure” Kate encouraged us to “be brave” and “never underestimate the power of failure.” Anyone who is familiar with Dweck’s work on mindset knows failure is an integral part of the learning process. When we try, fail, and learn from it, we grow.
    • I tweeted several quotables from Kate’s talk. Here are three of them:
      • “You have to fall if you want to fly.”
      • “You learn how to make your work by making your work.” (Kate quoting Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils and Rewards of Art Making.)
      • “Failure is a pretty good marker that we’re headed in the right direction.”
    • Several years ago, I was embarassed to tell anyone I received rejections on the first (not-so-good) picture book manuscript I submitted. I’ve come to realize the rejections — the failure — was part of the process.  The rejections I have received have made me work on the craft of writing and have gotten me to read more so I can learn more about what makes a picture book really good.
  • Editor Arthur A. Levine moderated a panel of five illustrators: Peter Brown, Raul Colon, Marla Frazee, Oliver Jeffers, and Shadra Strickland. I have a deep level of respect for illustrators. First, they make stories come alive for young readers. Second, I’m in awe of nearly anyone with artistic ability since I have little to no drawing ability!
    • Peter Brown and Oliver Jeffers talked about timelessness and geographical vagueness as it pertains to illustration.  Brown seeks to make timeless picture books. He wants books he illustrates to feel timeless down the road. For instance, books with devices (e.g., iPads) may not feel relevant in ten years once the device is replaced with something new. To that end, Jeffers seeks to make his books geographically vague so they can feel relevant and accessible to kids in all corners of the world. The notions of timelessness and geographical vagueness are ones I want to keep top-of-mind as I compose my writing going-forward.
    • The panel was also lively. It even included a debate as to whether or not authors should be allowed to give illustrators any direction when they hand-over their manuscript.
If you’ve ever considered writing a children’s book, become a member of SCBWI now.  Don’t wait years like I did. Join today! (NOTE: I don’t get any kind of kick-back from you joining today or any day. I just think it’s a good idea!) Next, sign up for a conference (either a regional conference or one of their large conferences in L.A. or NYC) so you can learn from industry professionals and interact with other writers.
Let’s talk about the other attendees. There were over 1,000 people at the conference, none of whom I knew before last week. I met pre-published and published authors and illustrators from all over Pennsylvania at the Saturday night gala. I ate lunch with women from Alaska and Tennessee. I sat beside people from Vermont, Oregon, and even New Zealand in the keynotes. I left having shared a weekend with people who understand what it is like to live the life of a writer. (And trust me, that’s a big deal since I am the kind of person who has had to train my family to wait ’til I say “come in” after they knock on my office door. I’ve done this because I’ve been interrupted many times when I’m int he middle of composing strong lines and can rarely recall what I was writing once I’ve been interrupted.) The camraderie I felt from the other attendees was one of the greatest reasons I can’t wait to attend another SCBWI conference.