SCBWI Winter Conference 2014: The Lessons I’ve Learned

A night out with fellow SCBWI Winter Conference attendees... Photo courtesy of Uzi Barlev
A night out with fellow SCBWI Winter Conference attendees…
Photo courtesy of Uzi Barlev

I just returned from the 2014 Annual SCBWI Winter Conference in New York City. To get a better idea of the over all feel of the conference, I recommend the following:

The Official SCBWI Winter Conference Blog

Kate Messner’s Blog Post, SCWI Winter Conference: A Weekend with the Tribe

I thought I would share the lessons I learned at this year’s conference:

I attended the Friday Plot Intensive. I have done a few intensives with SCBWI, but this was by far the best. The intensive was moderated by the fabulous and energetic Emma Dryden, founder and owner of drydenbks. Author/ editor Jill Santopolo gave an enlightening talk on mapping both emotional plot and action plot with Freytag’s Plot Pyramid.

Lesson #1: Try a new way to organize my story. Jill had us write down our 10 point plot structure, and I’ve already put an enlarged version of Freytag’s Pyramid on the cork board in my office. I plan to try it out on my current work in progress. I’ve never been one to map or outline, but I made quiet a few connection with my subplots as I worked through Freytag’s 10 plot points! If you are interested in learning more about Freytag’s Plot Pyramid,  I thought Intuit QuickBase was a good resource.

Author Elizabeth Wein gave a talk on weaving plot and structure.

Lesson #2: If I am not engaged in my mind with the character I have created, my readers won’t be either. A great writing exercise from Elizabeth Wein: rewrite your first paragraph from the perspective of a newspaper reporter, a social worker, and then another character in the story. I was amazed at what I learned abut my main character, the setting, and the shape and feel of what my work in progress is becoming! I love having this tangible work next to my computer as I get back to writing. In fact, I would say that the best part of this year’s intensive was the writing exercises.

In her talk Chasing After, the incomparable and always inspiring Jane Yolen spoke of using characters to find your plot (my favorite method).

Lesson # 3: “Sit down and listen to the story. Don’t dictate it. Listen to the story and its needs.” -Jane Yolen. I was inspired by her challenge to “fly into the mist” and let character go out on adventure while I chase them down. What a joy! This is how I love to write, but the above lessons in charting out my territory are going to come in handy while I edit! My writing always feels like an untamed forest. I like the idea of creating a new wilderness, then returning with mapping techniques to chart out the territory a la Louis and Clark.

Kate Messner talked about “inventing the tools we need” to tell a story. She is one of the most giving artists I’ve ever come across. If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend you attend one of her classes.

Lesson #4: Kate gave a valuable writing exercise. She asked us to write down an answer to the following questions: What is my book about on the surface? What is it REALLY about? That undercurrent can be explored through subplots. I love subplots (sometimes too much) and I think this will be another valuable tool to organize my writing during the editing process.

The intensive also included a small group faculty-led critique of a story synopsis. Kate Messner was the facilitator at my table. It was the best round table critique I’ve ever experienced. The other writers were supportive, and I learned a great deal from each of them. I thought it might be helpful to share the synopsis I brought with me, and then the lessons I learned from the feed back of Kate and the other writers:

Sixteen year old Elin Anderson lives a pampered life with her pretty, artistic mother and her prominent doctor father as the Victorian world crumbles into World War I. When Spanish Flu strikes, death takes her mother. Elin survives, but she is changed. She now sees the world in the blurred colors of the impressionist paintings her mother always loved. As she learns to navigate life again, an accident brings an unexpected friendship with wealthy, disreputable Nolan Young. Elin’s father enlists in the war and sends her to live with her grandmother and her strange stories of the Northern Lights in the North Woods, but Elin desperately wants to return to Nolan and her indulgent city life. She makes a promise to Nolan she believes will always be easy to keep…until she meets Tobias, a strange boy who lives in the woods. Tobias teaches Elin to live on her own and to cherish the gift in her new vision. When Nolan comes to bring her home, she isn’t quite so sure what home means anymore. Elin discovers the truth in her grandmother’s strange tales. Not everyone who lights the path of her story will be there until the end.

Lesson 5: Where does this story take place? Originally, I planned to set this story in an alternate world but while doing a brief scan of the internet before I got to the conference, I became intrigued World War I. Now that I’ve got a time period, I need a place! (Smacks forehead and goes beet red). The quick addition of these historical fact into my synopsis lead me to my next lesson…

Lesson 6: Do your research. World War I followed the Edwardian, not the Victorian Era (ugh, and I knew that!) Did the Spanish Flu epidemic fall into the dates of World War I? Barely, but yes it did, which leads me into the next lesson learned…

Lesson 7: Research holds magic. Kate Messner said this. When the intensive was over, I started researching World War I, the Spanish Flu and the influences of Modern Art in early 20th Century America more thoroughly, and I was met with magic almost right away. Not only is my story more accurate, but I’ve discovered a new plot twist with Elin’s father shaped by the timeline of history!

Now I have a story set in Minnesota during the short period of American involvement in The Great War and the Spanish Flu epidemic. This puts the parameters between April to November 1918.

Lesson 8: Aside from the great faculty, the best reason to attend an SCBWI conference is meeting your fellow writers. It’s cliche to say it, but writing is a solitary effort. Our stories come from our hearts and telling them is like sharing a secret. I find it hard to open up about the stories I write, but at SCBWI it is impossible to feel alone. I met another writer at lunch and told her about the feedback of my critique. It turns out she is also writing a novel set in World War I and is also a fan of art. She told me about a show at the New York Historical Society Museum.

New York Historical Society

The Armory Show at 100

The Armory Show took place in 1913. It was an epic exploration of Modern Art and while it was controversial, it did a great deal to raise an understanding of historical and contemporary Modern Art for an American audience.

As I walked through the exhibit, I became my main character Elin. I saw myself as a younger girl, five years before the story takes place. My parents took me by train to see the Armory Show because it was important to my mother. They argued about the inclusion of European artists. Did they overshadow the American contributions to the movement? My mother still loved Van Gough, although he’d been dead for more than twenty years. My father preferred the more realistic works. Father liked the American artists. He thought art should convey an idea through a subject. Mother liked the Europeans and believed art for its own sake could touch a deep cord in the human heart. In living through Elin’s eyes and Elin’s world…in experiencing what felt like an intimate moment with her family… I suddenly knew my characters better.

And Elin was disappointed in me. She doesn’t want to be seen as a girl who “desperately wants to return to Nolan and her indulgent city life.” Elin has so much more she desires and dreams about.

I opened the book from the Armory at 100, and discovered this chapter...
I opened the book from the Armory at 100, and discovered this chapter…

She is living in the dawn of women’s suffrage. In the outside action of Elin’s world, the definition of what it means to be a girl growing into womanhood is changing fast. Elin will have opportunities her mother didn’t have…and all the while in her emotional plot, she is struggling with the hidden guilt of believing her mother took her place with death. Women went to jail so that she could vote. Her mother died so that she could live. What is Elin going to do with the gift of these sacrifices? Now there’s the question I will have to answer!

On Saturday morning, I heard Lin Oliver, Stephen Mooser, and Jack Gantos. I attended two break out sessions: Seven essentials you need to know about Historical/ Period fiction with Kendra Levin, Senior Editor at Viking Children’s Books. In the afternoon, I attended another break out session: Seven essentials you need to know about Fantasy with Karen Wojtyla, Vice President and Editorial Director, Margaret K. McElderry Books. Eizabeth Wein gave a keynote address on authorial responsibility. The day ended with a keynote panel on banning books (one of my favorite subjects). The panel included Joan Bertin, Executive Director, National Coalition Against Censorship; Ellen Hopkins, Author; and Susanna Reich, Chair, Children’s and Young Adult Books Committee, Pen American Center. On Sunday, Kate Messner gave an incredible talk on The Spectacular Power of Failure. There was a keynote panel on picture books with Peter Brown, Raul Colon, Marla Frazee, Oliver Jeffers and Shandra Strickland that was moderated by the legendary Arthur Levine! Sharon Draper gave the final keynote, Creating the Dream through Fiction for Young Readers.

I am going to sum up what I learned from them into one final lesson (although they were all so much more too)….

Lesson # 9: Be brave and write! I used to spend a great deal of time in front of my computer asking myself who I thought I was to believe I could write a book. Now I wonder who I think I am to hear the call to write and not answer.

I hope the lessons I’ve learned at the 2014 SCBWI Winter Conference will give some sense of what it was like to be there. I’ve included links to everyone I mentioned and enjoyed reading more about each of them now that I am home.

Be brave and write!

She’s a River

 Close up of the painting Ophelia Artist: John Everette Millais Source:
Close up of the painting Ophelia
Artist: John Everette Millais


She’s a river
You want to ride her
Along her smooth crystal waters
Through her raging turbulence
All the way

Dive inside her
Hidden below her surface
Drift apart
To the bubbling hope of distance
You drank from her edges
She drew sinuous lines through your world

You think you can forget her
She’ll grow inside you
Alive like holy water
Heady as wine
Warm as whiskey
A traveler to your dark spaces
Your hidden world
Your lonely places

Build your dams
Hold her back
Keep her captive
Tell her you don’t believe

Every night
You swim in her curves
Almost young again
Until you wake
Afraid she’ll drown you
Pull you under with her stones
It’s in her nature
She’s a river

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