By Charlotte Offsay
On March 9, writers swarmed the Skirball Cultural Center for SCBWI’s annual L.A. Writers Day conference. The day was packed with wisdom, tips, and motivation. Here are some of my favorite takeaways from the event.
The publishing industry is subjective, do your research and don’t give up!
Doubleday Books Editor Frances Gilbert cited being bored, an overly complicated plot, or an over-published topic among her reasons for rejecting manuscripts. She shared her own journey as an author and highlighted the subjective nature of this business – one of her manuscripts was called too specific by one publisher and too vague by another. She encouraged authors to do their research before submitting to find the right home and champion for their manuscript.
Stop using the phrase “sensitivity readers.”
Author Lee Wind encouraged the industry to move away from the term “sensitivity reader.” He reasoned that the phrase implies that underrepresented groups are guilty of being easily offended. He suggested that we use “cultural competency readers” instead, since it’s the writer’s job to represent their culturally-diverse characters in a competent way. This shifts the blame from the reader to the writer.
Illustrators, keep sending those postcards!
Gilbert reported that she and other editors at her publishing house still keep and reference illustrator cards. She encouraged illustrators to keep sending them since she often flips through them when working on a new project.
Write with respect, be honest with kids, and expose them to the real world.
A panel of experts discussed today’s young readers and where to draw the line in terms of appropriateness and writing responsibly. Gilbert encouraged writers to trust families to figure out where the line is for themselves. Wind said that books can be a safe space for kids to explore difficult topics and encouraged writers to “stay current and think about writing from a place of love for your ultimate readers. If it’s too dark maybe that’s not the world we want to give them.”
SCBWI Co-Founder Steve Mooser saved the day and stepped in as a last-minute replacement for author Tamora Pierce, who couldn’t attend the event. Having only a day to prepare didn’t stop Mooser from giving an inspirational keynote about going after what life puts in front of you and using your own unique experiences to fuel your work. His own childhood desire to be a treasure hunter pushed him into unique adventures as a young adult and influenced his writing career. He encouraged writers to “follow [their] weirdness” and to remember that “persistence and hard work pays off.”
Ground your reader and build the world so your readers don’t close the book!
Red Fox Literary Agent Abigail Samoun taught writers how to use opening paragraphs and the confidence of good storytelling to hook readers. She advised writers to avoid overwhelming their readers in the beginning, hint at something good to come, and use humor to put them at ease. Samoun suggested experimenting with where you open your story. Does it improve by starting five minutes later? How about hours later? Or what if you start with a different set of characters or setting altogether?
Everything Cornelia Funke says is gold.
Author and illustrator Cornelia Funke spoke at length about her process. Here are a few takeaways from her that I found particularly inspiring.
- “We are the ones who have to find the words for those who don’t have the words.”
- “If you want something that you don’t see, write it yourself.”
- Work on whichever idea “is shouting the loudest” and “pushing the other ideas off your desk.”
- “Writing on a computer will trick a writer into thinking their work is polished and done.” Funke recommends writing in notebooks and showing your process not only for your own benefit but for other writers who will want to study your process.
- Funke compares selling your manuscript movie rights to “pushing a virgin into a volcano.” Know what you are getting yourself into and proceed with caution.
Once again, I left Writers Day inspired, armed with new tools to enhance my craft and career, and grateful for the warmth of the SCBWI community.
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Charlotte Offsay is an aspiring picture book author. She writes picture books ranging from simple to more complex plot lines, but all aiming to combine heart, a drop of humor, and often a surprise twist. She resides in Los Angeles with her husband and two young children. For more information visit her at charlotteoffsay.com or follow her on Twitter: @COffsay
Photos by Charlotte Offsay. Author photo by Lisa Gilbar Photography.