Tuesday, November 17, 2009

SCBWI Conference Part II

How often does an unpublished writer get to listen to agents and editors talk about how to improve your writing? Unpublished, maybe never. Unless you attend a conference. And, the advice is invaluable in my opinion. While much of it seems obvious, similar to Ms. Giff's advice I wrote about yesterday, as we all know, it isn't. So much of what I heard on Saturday I have read somewhere before but that doesn't mean I don't need to hear it again. And again to make my writing better.

Agent Linda Pratt of Sheldon Fogelman Agency was the first speaker Saturday morning. And, what was nice was I could tell she was a little nervous. I can't help it but at this stage in my writing career, it felt good to see an agent get nervous in front of a group of writers! Her advice was well delivered and I appreciated it heartily.

She spoke on tension; how to make sure you have it and how to know if you don't. The most important start to creating tension is to ensure your readers become emotionally invested in your MC quickly. Then she broke down tension into picture books and novels.

Picture Books: The pitfalls for lacking tension are:

-starting from a place where you want to teach a child a lesson
-writing in a straight line
-no plot
-not having something at stake for the MC

Linda admitted that not all picture books will have tension but most should. Her "Toolbox" for ensuring there is tension:

-Less is More. Allow the text to set up the picture. The text should not tell the entire story else there is no need for pictures. The setup between text and pictures provides the tension.
-Master the art of the Page Turn. Similar to knowing how to end a chapter in a novel, the words in a picture book should end at a tantalizing point at a page turn.

Novels: The pitfalls for lacking tension are:

-wanting to protect your characters. Instead you need to be willing to hurt them and not to be afraid to have the reader dislike them or their actions.
-Don't confuse action for tension. Her example was you could have a scene where some guy hangs from a helicopter over a tank of sharks, his hands slipping. Then you can have a boy who has taken his dad's prized baseball. This baseball was one that his grandfather gave to his father before he passed away. The boy takes it to the park where it was stolen by bullies, muddied and torn, then returned just as the boy's Dad pulls up to the baseball diamond. There is more tension in the 2nd story b/c you become more emotionally involved with the boy, not that there is more action.

Her "Toolbox" includes:
-Step outside your novel to chart the character arcs. Do primary character and secondary character arcs. Eventhough we need secondary characters to develop our primary characters, the secondary ones still need to have a full arc to fullfill the reader.
-If the character's arc is not complete, play the "what if" game. Ask what if you put that character into a different situation, how could that enhance the story.
-embrace your character's flaws (and make sure they have some). Sometimes their flaws help write the story for you.
-Make sure your characters have enough emotion. Think about a time when you might have went through a similar situation as your characters to help you connect to them.
-If you're still having problems, reread works that successfully accomplish what you are trying to.

More tomorrow.


  1. I don't write picture books, but this is intriguing. Thanks for sharing.

  2. That's a very good list for all of us, not just writers of children's books.
    And people think the life of a writer is easy! Ha.

    Straight From Hel

  3. Great post! I've never done it, but picture books sound more difficult than novels. I admire writers who have that gift.