Chicago Writers Conference’13

“There is no such day when I find myself without stories or

ideas swarming around me.”

Rick Kogan, an icon of Chicago journalism and a keynote speaker at CWC’13.

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I was blessed to attend Chicago Writers Conference last month with my friend, talented writer Madelaine Standing, who came all the way from Canada.

CWC’13 started with a Kick-Off party at Open Books Bookstore where I volunteer. Besides socializing and making new friends, conference attendees were entertained by special readings of Chicago Stories by performers from This Much Is True.

For the next two days the conference took place in Harold Washington Library Center of the Chicago Public Library.

One of the most interesting presentations for me on the first day was that of Ian Belknap, the founder of “Write Club” – a lineup of Chicago writers/performers who compete in performing for cash going to a charity of their choosing. Ian gave advice on performing writer’s work in front of the audience and capturing listeners’ attention. Here are a few tips from Ian on how to be an excellent reader:

1. Always keep in mind that the goal of reading is to deliver the message, tantalize the audience.

2. It’s always better to choose simplicity when reading an excerpt from your book.  If a sentence can’t be read in one breath, it has to be rewritten. Dialogue would probably be a bad choice, unless it’s a breaking point in a story. But if you do read a dialogue, don’t change the way you talk with a change of the character. Instead, you can change a deepness of your voice or the way you turn your head.

3. When asked to read a 5-minute long piece, make it 4 minutes, and leave  room for questions.

4. Not everyone is brilliant when it comes to public speaking. You may need to take a Live Lit class or public speaking class in your local university before performing your work.

5. Practice is the mother of excellence. Read aloud as if you are performing as much as you can; study your tendencies and improve them.

Shannon Downey from “Pivotal Chicago” shed some new light for me on social media as a tool for selling books. She stressed that once a writer defines social media as a marketing tool, she is screwed. Social media should be seen as a collection of tools that can help a writer curate a boundless community of people in a different way. Trust and authenticity are factors that will drive any social media. Instead of promoting your book on your website, become sort of “go-to” in your field. Less than 10% of your content should be about what you are selling.

Since I am interested in travel journalism and plan to attend Columbia College to get my MA in Journalism next year, I really enjoyed a presentation by Glenn Jeffers, an Editor of Kellogg Magazine, “How to Take “Free” Out Of Freelance”. He gave a step-by-step guidance for beginning freelancers to get their foot in the field:

  1. Get business cards. You never know whom you can run into.
  2. Create your website with your resume and short clips that show your ability to tell what happened in a precise manner.
  3. Do your research on editors of magazines/newspapers that you’re interested in and see what they’re currently looking for. Mediabistro.com is a great tool for this. It is a website that features news in publishing industry as well as writing jobs.
  4. Define what your area of expertise is and work hard to expand your knowledge.
  5. Improve your video/audio production knowledge.
  6. Try to submit your work to small publications: custom publishing companies where they have a small editorial staff and hire journalists-freelancers (i.e. Hemisphere Magazine by United Airlines or universities alumni magazines); regional publications such as Chicago Sun – Times or Red Eye. If your first work is spotless, you’ll become a sort of go-to for the editors.
  7. Join professional journalist groups such as Chicago Headline Club.

I feel overwhelmed with the gratitude for experiencing Chicago Writers Conference! Besides learning more about writing craft, I feel a part of Chicago creative community now.

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Groovy SCBWI Summer Conference in Los Angeles’12

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    You are a chilren’s book author and you would looove to dance at the poolside costume party and to mingle three days in a row with publishing industry insiders? Then SCWBI Summer Conference in Los Angeles is definitely something to consider when you plan your next writing getaway!  In August 2012 I was blessed to attend it and want to share this experience with you.

        I will start by saying that it was my first SCBWI conference. As all newbies I was a little bit nervous – there was no familiar face among 800+ people that attended. However, after a new attendees orientation where we were explained how things “will work” and were encouraged to get acquainted with each other all uneasiness disappeared. We also had a bird sign on our name badge so other attendees were extra attentive with us:)

Besides this, there were plenty opportunities to mingle and make friIMG_0627ends with other writers as well as editors/agents. One could get a feedback about his/her manuscript at Peer Group Critiques; enjoy Yoga sessions at the pool of the hotel the conference was at; get books signed and talk with published authors or browse entries in Portfolio showcase; attend Illustrator, International Social, or LGBT Q&A. Being originaly from Ukraine, I naturally couldn’t miss International Social and was blessed to meet colleagues from Canada, Australia, Great Britain, Japan, France, and many other countries. It started three friendships for me with people living so far away, but sharing the same passion – passion for children’s literature!

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Me with two Regional Advisers from Southern Breeze Chapter-Heather Montgomery and Jo Kittinger

On the second day The Hippie Hop Poolside party gave everyone a chance to get loose and take part in a Flesh Mob. Everyone danced their feet off in hippie costumes(they even had a contest for the best one!) to the groove of 60’s.

The faculty of the conference consisted of the most knowlegable and successful figures in our field- Arthur Levine, Tony Diterlizzi, Linda Pratt, Jill Corcoran, Matthew Kirby, Krista Marino, Dan Gutman, just to name a few.

Among the keynote speeches I heard, Ruta Sepetys’ “You Can’t Break The Broken: Writing Emotional Truth” was the most inspiring and touching. She told the story behind her novel “Between Shades of Gray”. Her father was a military officer in Lithuania and knew that Stalin was coming for him. He and his wife escaped and made it to a refugee camp before the Soviets got to them. Only in 1949 they made it safely to the US. That was the only piece of information Ruta had about her ancestry. To learn more, one day she flew to Lithuania to meet with some of her father’s relatives. She discovered that when the Soviets came for her father and discovered he had escaped, they took twelve members of their family and deported them to Siberia as a punishment. Only one of them survived. She faced a shocking truth: her family’s freedom in the US was paid for by the relatives left behind. Since then Ruta wanted to write about the experience of her people, Lithuanians, in the Soviet prison system. But she needed to do an in depth research first. In order to experience the brutality of what her relatives had gone through, she went to a Latvian prison for a stimulation-against everyone’s advice! She was beaten and imprisoned there for almost 24 hours. One of her quotes that lingered with me is: “Share the truth behind your fiction so that you can make it better for another human being.”

The workshop that I enjoyed the most was Krista Marino’s “The Importance Of Firsts”(Krista is an Executive Editor at Delacorte Press). We all know that what hooks the reader from the very beginning is that intriguing first line, first page or even first five pages. Krista gave advice on how to make them more appealing. She pointed that the first sentence has to: inspire to question; introduce your main character; give sence of setting; establish voice of the story. She said that common mistakes are: authors start with the weather; they start describing characters who are looking in the mirror; address the readers directly; let their protagonist wake up from a dream. The first page needs to build more tension so the reader will go on asking questions. It should make a hint or introduce the main problem and continue introducing the protagonist. The first page most importantly has to establish the story’s setting, genre and tone. In the first five pages, Krista said, the tone of the book should be kept. There shouldn’t be any changes of POV or dialogue out of space(assign pre-setting and characters). She mentioned that common mistake that she sees is that the authors tend to introduce too many characters at one time and often wander off to tell the back story in the beginning. These tips helped me to rewrite the first page of a novel I was working on.

Bonnie Bader(Editor-in-Chief of Grosset and Dunlap and Price Stern Sloan) gave an invalubale insight on a niche in publishing market that is quite empty nowadays: transitional readers. She said there are not enough books for kids whose reading levels have advanced beyond easy readers but who are not yet ready for full-length juvenile fiction/nonfiction(kindergarten-2nd grade). These transitional books usually have up to 100 pages of text and large, easy-to-read typefaces. They have corky, memorable characters and simple plot. An example would be “Captain Underpants”.

 I will wrap it up with the best writing advice I got  from Tony Diterlizzi at the conference (author of “In Search Of Wondla”): “Remind yourself of childhood. Write what a 6-10-12-15(choose necessary) year old YOU would want to read!”

In front of a huge bookshop we had. I got home literally with an extra bag of books:)

In front of a huge bookshop we had. I got home literally with an extra bag of books:)

Golden Kite Luncheon and Awards.

Golden Kite Luncheon and Awards.

SCBWI conferences: an invaluable resource of knowledge and inspiration for writers of all levels.

          Joining SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) two years ago was a smart decision that I made as a pre-published writer, since I exposed myself to a professional network and got access to up-to-date information about a publishing world. One of the benefits of being a member is a chance to attend conferences (international and regional). This is an excellent way for a starting writer to improve his/her skills and get closer to agents/editors/publishers.

             During past two years I’ve attended quite a few conferences and meetings and would like to share what might be useful to know. I’ll start with the most recent one I’ve been to – Springmingle’13(SCBWI Spring Conference for Southern Breeze Chapter (includes states of AL/MS/GA)) that took place 22-24th February, 2013 in Atlanta, GA.
For the first-time conference attendees my advice would be to research conference faculty beforehand. Usually it consists of major publishing houses’ editors and literary agents as well as professional writers and illustrators. Check out their bios and what they are currently looking for(for editors/agents) and a list of published books (for writers/illustrators) so you’ll choose in advance which of split sessions besides general sessions to attend in order to learn what you’re specifically interested in. At the beginning of each conference there is also a panel where each of the faculty members presents him/her.
This time the faculty consisted of Jill Corcoran (Literary Agent at Herman Agency), Katherine Jacobs (Editor at Roaring Brook Press), Diane Hess (Editor at Scholastic Books), Beck Mcdowell (Author), Carmen Agra Deedy (Author), Nikki Grimes (Author), and Chad Beckerman (Art Director at Abrams Books).
Springmingle conference started off with an inspiring keynote speech by a renown Carmen Agra Deedy (author of The Library Dragon, The Yellow Star, Martina The Beautiful Cockroach, The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale, and 14 Cows for America). She described how she came to realize her talent and love for books even though she hated reading as a child (she was diagnosed at some point with dyslexia) and dealt with cultural barrier since she was originally from Cuba and came to the US as a refugee in 1964. I quote:”Excellence (in writing) is not only about passion, but also about doggedness!”
Nikki Grimes (author of Bronx Masquerade, Dark Sons, The Road to Paris) was talking next about an importance of patience in the writing world. Being an “impatient perfectionist” as she called herself, Nikki said that it’s vital for a writer not to be in such a rush so that he/she settles for a good story, instead of a great one. Sometimes we have a great idea; however, we lack skills to write it down and thus can ruin the whole project. She gave an example of her “patience battle” when she was creating novel “Jazzman Notebooks”. Working mainly in verse, it was hard for her switch to prose at first. Her editor told her to “just keep on writing and you’ll figure it all out”. Which she did:) Nikki focused on small pieces instead of the whole project and became more comfortable with prose with time. She also gave advice not to revise until after the first draft is completed.
Dianne Hess with Scholastic pointed out two interesting things. 1. Digital age pushes more publishers to make sure their books are available as eBooks. Being so, Scholastic launched Storia eReading application recently. One can create an account and buy books for all kids’ levels (birth-18) and price ranges. All Storia eBooks include an age-appropriate dictionary that instantly provides definitions using text, images, and optional Read-to-Me narration. Other standard features can include a highlighter and note-taking functions. 2. Parents and teachers are interested to see more books that support Common Core Program, the new educational standards the goal of which is for students to aim “for college and career readiness”. On a sales and marketing end, it could mean a peaked interest in high-concept picture books, historical fiction, biographies, and works representing diverse cultures.
Katherine Jacobs during her session “Plot and Pacing” compared two types of structure used in a manuscript: Freytag’s Pyramid and The Three Acts Structure. Freytag’s Pyramid stands for how we are all used to divide a book into “pyramid-forming” parts – exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution, and denouement. In this case exposition and denouement, rising action and falling action should have same or similar length respectively. Katherine underlined that nowadays The Three Acts structure is encouraged to be used more, especially in screenwriting, in order to create a dramatic, life-like writing. If you could tell your story in 120 minutes, then Act 1 where we find out what the main problem of the story is should be told in 30 minutes. Act 2 should occupy around 70 minutes and must include the following: the complication and the destruction of the protagonist’s plan. In Act 3 the resolution of the problem should be told in 20 minutes.
Finally, a dialogue between an author Beck McDowell and her agent Jill Corcoran was very helpful for those writers seeking an agent. They talked about mutual expectations between two parties. For Beck, the most important features in her agent are: professionalism; enthusiasm about what she is writing about; being responsive, approachable, nurturing, flexible, and financially savvy. Jill gave advice on what questions to ask an agent who offers you a representation: How much do you edit? How much will you be in touch with me? Who makes a final decision when selling the book to a publishing house?jill

I also found out  that Jill Corcoran recently co-started “A Path to Publishing Workshops” – workshops via a powerful interactive video chat platform that allows you to not only watch presentations but also participate with faculty directly. You can find more about it on her blog. I’ve already signed up for the one on March 6th,2013 with Walden Pond Press Editors.

Besides all of these useful sessions, Springmingle had a bookshop where one could purchase signed books of published authors in the region and sometimes even mingle with them:) Among my precious findings were Beck McDowell’s “This Is Not a Drill” in which readers are allowed into the minds of two high school students who are volunteering in a classroom when a crazed parent with a gun holds the young students, the high school students and the teacher hostage; and Janice Hardy’s “The Shifter” in which Nya, an orphan who has a gift – with her touch, she can heal injuries, pulling pain from another person into her own body – is struggling to stay alive and save her sister during war. I used both books to research character development because both authors succeeded in creating an incredible emotional depth of their characters’ inner worlds.
I also took advantage of both “written only” and “formal face-to-face” critiques. You will be able to read an article on my impressions about each of them in Summer edition of Southern Breeze Newsletter.

In the next blog posts I will continue with an International Summer conference’12 I attended in Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, go ahead and treat yourself for the next writer’s conference!