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Last weekend I drove down to Oklahoma City for the SCBWI Oklahoma Spring Conference.

This one-day conference was jam-packed and incredibly well organized. We kept on schedule (thanks to their RA Anna Myers!) and, apart from breaks, stayed in the same room. That meant once you settled in for the morning session, you didn’t have to worry about navigating an unfamiliar building or finding seats until lunchtime. As a directionally-challenged introvert, I felt this format made the experience less stressful and facilitated a focus on the sessions.

Here are some excerpts from my notes.

Tricia Lawrence, Agent, Erin Murphy Literary Agency

Tricia focused on discovering what’s lurking in a character’s unconscious. She walked us through an exercise inspired by Brandilyn Collins where we:

  1. Chose a cliché character (e.g., the heartless popular girl, the chosen one, the fantasy character who is shocked by his or her universe, etc.);
  2. Turned the cliché inside out; then
  3. Personalized the character.

“Level B”—turning the cliché inside out—is where most writers stop. But that final level is the most important one. That is where you ask your character a series of questions to find the “so what” of your story. If you listen to your character, you will uncover his or her pain points. Tricia said, “The author has to know what’s at the ‘bottom’—even in happy books!”

You must ask these questions before you send your manuscript to an agent or editor. As she noted, “Not all of this information will end up on the page, but it will color what is.”

Colleen AF Venable, Art and Design Director, First Second Books

The graphic novel form has always been mysterious to me, so Colleen’s “Graphic Novels 101” session was illuminating. She began by defining a graphic novel (“anything in book format with a spine; a long-form comic; visual storytelling using sequential images.”), then explored an illustrated history of graphic novels, reasons for creating graphic novels (for instance, 8 of the 10 most circulated books at the New York Public Library are comics or hybrids), and the seven steps for creating graphic novels.

She emphasized you don’t have to be an artist to make a graphic novel. You can collaborate!

Tucked into our conference folder was an incredible handout containing a Reading List for Aspiring Creators, a Graphic Novel Best of the Best checklist—divided by age group—AND a list of Publishers with Great Kids Graphic Novel Lists.

Andrew Harwell, Editor, HarperCollins Children’s Books

Andrew spoke about family dynamics in middle-grade and young adult books. He chose this topic because he found he is drawn to books with strong central families.

He explained that authors can use family dynamics to serve various purposes in middle-grade and young adult books, including creating empathy and sympathy for a character, creating a support network (to keep the pace going when a plot turn is devastating), and creating conflict.

The quicker you can have a character interact with others, the better because it’s revealing. In these scenes, you see a lot of different sides to a character.

Andrew said he appreciates parent characters who “feel three-dimensional”—where you can see how they influence the main characters. After all, parents’ knowledge informs kid’s knowledge.

Melissa Manlove, Editor, Chronicle Books

In Melissa’s “First Pages Like a Pro” workshop, we studied the qualities of first pages (e.g., anticipation/tension, cadence, humor, word choice, structure, etc.) by close-reading openings to eight different picture books. These picture books included OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW, CARNIVORES, ON A BEAM OF LIGHT, and the forthcoming SWAN.

Some points Melissa made:

  • Be aware of metaphors. Make sure they’re consistent.
  • For “goodnight books” (e.g., GOODNIGHT, GOODNIGHT CONSTRUCTION SITE, ALL THE WORLD) structure and predictability is important.
  • Predictability is the opposite of humor and tension.
  • On inspiration: “Lightning doesn’t strike the person sitting in a field in the sun. It strikes the person habitually cranking the generator.” (Everyone in the audience liked that quote a lot.)

Kristin Vincent, Associate Agent at D4EO Literary Agency

Kristin led a GIF-dotted presentation on “Keeping it Fresh: Writing About What You Don’t Know, Things You Can’t See, and What Doesn’t Even Exist.” She said “fresh” is often defined similarly to “voice”—agents and editors don’t know what it is, but they know it when they see it. She typically thinks of “fresh” ideas as ideas she hasn’t thought of or a treatment she hasn’t seen yet.

She provided a number of suggestions for writing something that feels fresh. One suggestion was to put a new spin on an old tale. An author can accomplish this by applying a new setting (see CINDER), swapping genders (see SCARLET), or using a great voice.

Voice is created when you know your character well enough that you can let go of your ego and use them as a vessel to tell the story. You don’t get in the way. She noted that voice should tell her everything from setting to the ages of the character to genre and tone, time period and class—without the narrator or character outright telling her these things.

Liza Kaplan, Editor, Philomel Books

In the final session of the day, Liza spoke about how to use drama and tension to create the “flashlight-under-covers reading” that you want.

Stakes are what a character stands to win or lose, the motivating factors. The higher and more demanding your stakes, the more you draw a reader in. If you receive feedback that your novel doesn’t feel immediate or urgent—or that it isn’t making an agent or editor feel—that means the stakes are not high enough.

How do you create a book readers want to clutch to their chest?

  • Make a reader care. Your character must be messy and honest—whose stakes are huge.
  • Reach them on an emotional level. Serve up characters struggling with something profoundly human and universal. The reader can relate regardless of plot and setting.

Liza recommended having an emotional hook (what the reader needs to know) in addition to the intellectual hook (what the reader wants to know) as this doubles the opportunity for storytelling. These hooks should be identifiable in the first 1/5th of a novel.

“Adolescence is a time of heightened emotionality,” she said. “Readers come to novels seeking answers to questions they might not even have yet.”

Conference Highlights

Each attendee was assigned a table at lunch with a faculty member or well published author or illustrator. I had the pleasure of sitting with Hannah E. Harrison, author and illustrator of EXTRAORDINARY JANE, and a group of other writers and illustrators. Hannah answered questions about being a picture book author/illustrator and shared her publishing journey with us.

Of course, the BEST part of the trip was meeting my agent for the first time.


On Sunday morning, Kristin and I chatted over breakfast about projects, pets, awkwardness, and the conference. It was a real treat!


For me, a great conference is marked by note-taking hand cramps, new ideas, clearer understandings, and brain weariness. I have to say the Oklahoma SCBWI Spring 2014 Conference was the best regional conference I have ever attended.

THANK YOU to the incredible faculty and conference organizers for a thought-provoking and inspiring weekend.