Sorry, I started that story at the wrong place, according to Australian author Jen McVeity, whose talk on "Five Minute Fast Starts" showed how jump-starting your book with an action scene (and not with your main character getting out of bed) can pull the reader into the story right away.
So, let me try again...
"Ha! Waah! Yikes!"
Keynote Speaker Bruce Coville advised attendees at the Mid-Atlantic SCBWI Fall Conference to make sure their stories contain one of each of these three key ingredients. The "ha" is a belly laugh. The "waah" is a tear. And the "yikes" is a moment of shock.
Better? Better. I hope Jen would be proud.
Now, since I have no idea how to continue my "story" analogy for this report, I am going to switch instead to a bulleted list of conference highlights. BTW, once again, I left my camera at home. Sigh. Please imagine lots of beautiful, smiling faces as you read this.
- Editor Bonnie Bader's handouts. She provided the first drafts of some of Grosset & Dunlap's best-known books, along with the resulting editorial letters, revisions and final versions. Can't wait to go through them with a fine-tooth comb and learn everything I can from the mistakes of some writers who are much more talented than I! One thing I took away from that session: The words, "This is a great start" in an editorial letter actually mean, "We've got some work to do!"
- The aforementioned Jen McVeity's writing exercises. Jen put us to work. Our assignments: (1) Write intriguing first sentences, and (2) Incorporate body language and description into our dialogue tags. My takeaway: In stressful situations, 87 percent of communication is via body language and tone of voice.
- Author Bruce Coville's presentation. Yes, the entire presentation. The man is an actor and clearly loves to talk about writing for kids. These two facts combine to create a pretty wonderful speech. My favorite part (aside from "Ha! Waah! Yikes!"): Coville posited that Harry Potter had so many fans because of J.K. Rowling's "CTPP Index," the number of Cool Things Per Page. Especially in fantasy, the more you can load up on cool stuff, the more fun your story will be.
- The honest look at the realities of publishing explored during the first-time authors and editors panel. A few notable insights: (1) Sometimes a story can be well written and compelling but will not be acquired because the editor and/or the house simply do not think it is sufficiently marketable. Depressing, but true. (2) Houses don't pay that much attention to bad reviews, because (with the possible exception of the School Library Journal), they don't tend to have much effect on sales. And (3) Editors are just as nervous about writing and sending revision letters as authors are about receiving them. Who knew?
- Agent Alyssa Eisner Henken's refreshing honesty regarding how much she enjoys TV. I love people who proudly admit to watching a lot of TV! Anyway, to make this relevant to writing ... Alyssa compared the query letter to the fashionable but conservative business suits often recommended by Stacy and Clinton on "What Not to Wear." Don't try to get fancy or cute. Just write a straight query and let your writing and your story idea speak for themselves.
- My manuscript critique. The wonderful Laura Arnold of HarperCollins Children's was most encouraging and had some exciting (albeit frightening) suggestions for taking my mystery to the next level.
- The book sale and signing. At last I got to meet the lovely and talented Sara Lewis Holmes, who signed my copy of Letters from Rapunzel. Sara worked with Laura Arnold on the book, and the two of them created something truly special.
- Working at the registration desk. I put this last, but it was a real highlight for me as it gave me an opportunity to meet so many wonderful writers and illustrators. A terrific group dedicated to bringing messages of compassion, concern, joy and hope to kids.