Dispatch from Oregon’s Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Conference
Portland, Oregon–”I like weird shit.” Andrew Karre–Editorial Director of Carolrhoda Books, Carolrhoda Lab, and Darby Creek–summed up his preference for freelance submissions in a sentence Saturday morning, sending an audience of perhaps 150 (mostly Anglo women over 40) into giggles of delight. This year, SCBWI Oregon’s indefatigable conference organizers kicked off the morning with brief talks from visiting agents and editors who offered both insight into the types of children’s and young adult books they adore, and their contact information. With my husband and daughter safely on their way to OMSI, I arrived late, right behind Karre, and ducked out for coffee when Laurent Linn, Art Director for Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers stepped up to the podium. He seemed delightful, but I have about as much chance of making it as an artist as I do as a supermodel.
Over a cup of pretty decent joe, I met Katie Schneider, author of All We Know of Love (Broadway, 2000). I reached to shake her hand. “I’m Melissa Hart,” I told her.
She blinked at me. “You’re . . . la gringa!”
Turns out she reviewed my memoir, Gringa,for The Oregonian some years ago. “I have goosebumps,” she said. I did, too, mostly because I stood navigating a rather dry croissant with a lovely professional woman who knew the ridiculous way (along with everyone who read my coming-of-age book) in which I lost my virginity . . . and my imprudent decision to put the anecdote into print.
We moved on. I found myself rethinking and relearning humorous writing techniques from the poised and funny Leila Sales, author and Associate Editor at Viking Children’s Books. Using examples from published children’s and YA, plus her own experiences as an actress, she explained how to work techniques like the classic “rule of three” and hyperbole into a fiction manuscript. I sat in on a query writing workshop by the fabulous Jill Corcoron, an agent at Herman Agency; in a thick New York accent, she deconstructed elevator pitches for participants, offering straight-shooting critique that ran the gamut from “Don’t change a thing” to “Why on earth, as a debut author, would you want to write an alphabet book?”
I laughed–always a good thing at any writers’ conference, where generally, the lights are too florescent, the rooms are too air conditioned, the meals are too starchy, and anxiety from participants pitching their manuscripts is palpable. I laughed more when I found myself in a workshop that was–for me–the pièce de résistance: a talk on school visits with nonfiction author Kelly Milner Halls. I present frequently at conferences myself, and so I admired the hell out of the beautifully organized outline she gave us and her ability to elaborate on it in her presentation with information both relevant and immensely entertaining. From Halls, who speaks as candidly and kindly as if she’s enjoying a latte with 50 of her closest friends, I learned how to approach school librarians, how to negotiate pay for a K-12 school visit, how to tailor presentations with regard to my individual books and students’ ages, and how to use props (dinosaur poop, anyone?) to engage people. Kids love her. I’ve seen their quotes on her Facebook page. I love her, too.
SCBWI’s Executive Director, Lin Oliver, wrapped up the conference with a talk on how authors can best promote their work. “Spend money on your website,” she said. I cringed, knowing that my website bears as much resemblance to a professional online portfolio as I do to the aforementioned supermodel. She advised a packed room to reach out to readers via Facebook and Twitter and on blogs, as well, but did so with such excitement that I found myself less dreading the shameless self-promotion and more eager to connect joyfully with readers and writers around the world.
I left the conference with a better understanding of how to revise and pitch my humorous middle-grade novel. My scrawled notes and excellent handouts from the workshop speakers assured that I’d actually remember the information, and Jill Corcoran’s parting words to her workshop participants (“Everyone go forth and know that you’re great”) echoed in my ears. As I walked through IKEA (practically next door to the conference location–what’s a girl to do?), I had only two questions: first, did Lin Oliver really co-write a book with the same Henry Winkler who portrays the debauched lawyer in my all-time favorite TV show, Arrested Development? And second, do I have what it takes to write weird shit?
Hey, writers! Come on up (or down, as the case may be) to Portland the first weekend in August for the 2012 Willamette Writers Conference, where I’ll be speaking on a variety of topics. I can’t promise you dinosaur poop, but I might be able to rustle up some owl pellets . . .
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