2012 SCBWI International Conference in LA

10 Aug

Nothing can replace the atmosphere of a big conference with big name speakers. It’s one of those “you had to be there” kinds of moments. But I will attempt to distill at least some of that uplifting, inspiring, and fabulous feeling from this year’s conference.

Our first keynote speaker was Arthur Levine, from Arthur A. Levine books (an imprint of Scholastic). He spoke about what makes literature timeless. It’s an ethereal thing that you can’t exactly define (of course). But he did have some interesting comments, namely that anticipation is a better source of tension in writing than is surprise. I had never considered that before. But it’s true. Think about any book you love in that timeless way, and you will see that the author allows the reader, and maybe the main character, to have a sense of what might be about to happen. Horror films have the best handle on this, if they are done well. Arthur used The Golden Compass (one of my favorite books) as an example of this. He talked about the “dance between intimacy and separation” as the source of tension there.

Tony D. with the incomparable Lin Oliver, half of the lead team (with Steve Mooser) of SCBWI.

Tony DiTerlizzi, well-known illustrator of The Spiderwick Chronicles and author/illustrator of The Search for Wondla, gave a hilarious talk about imagination, in which he offered up some new (tongue-in-cheek) titles like Goodnight Twilight. I noted two of his comments: When you face your darkest hour, you have to do it alone. This is perfectly done in Chris Rylander’s book The Fourth Stall (which won the Sid Fleischman award for humor at the conference). Also, Tony told us that a fantastic way to show a character’s change is by looking backward to go forward.

I attended several breakout sessions, including one by Lissa Price, a screenwriter turned YA author. Here are a few tidbits of wisdom from her. A good tool for pacing the plot is a ticking clock—some sort of deadline by which the character has to fix the problem or face consequences. In the typical three-act structure that is part of screenwriting, by the end of act 2, the main character should be at his lowest point in the story. Dialogue can be used to build tension, since people don’t always say what they mean. There are subtexts.

Jay Asher, the fabulous author of Thirteen Reasons Why, did a whole breakout session on anticipation. Some notable points I loved: anticipation does not have to be part of the main plot. It can be little things that keep the reader turning the page. I can’t tell you everything he said. His talk was so good and chock full of examples and insights that it would take too much space to list it all here.

Jordan Brown, senior editor at Balzer and Bray at HarperCollins, had some insights into writing for boys. Most of which can be summed up by saying that boys KNOW when an author is trying to appeal to them, and they will avoid that. So his advice was to write compelling stories with characters boys will care about, because boys mostly want connect to characters and authors. It is a myth that boys will only read sci fi or superhero books. They DO like realism. Bathroom humor only goes so far. Sometimes boy protagonists are hard to write, since feelings and thoughts are a large part of how we show who our characters are, and boys are not known for expressing those thoughts and feelings. So it is more challenging, because authors need to convey emotions mostly through action and description. Also, boys tend to avoid conflicts, so having a boy as a protagonist means he will have to have a greater motivation to face the problem. Because, says Jordan, boys just want to get yelled at less.

There were so many more wonderful talks and conversations. That is one of the best things about conferences—talking to a variety of people. For example, I sat next to a retired rabbi at lunch one day, and he gave me several thoughts on sending a few of my books to a Jewish publishing house. (They involve Jewish characters.) Another person sitting next to me in a session said a character development  technique she had learned was to write about what your characters do when they are alone in their rooms at night.

Gary Schmidt, the fabulous (have I used that adjective too many times here?) award winning author of Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy and The Wednesday Wars, gave the final moving keynote talk. He said art is about giving the audience something with which to be more human. He moved the audience with tales of his school years and what was important to him.

Other moving talks were given by Bryan Collier, illustrator of Dave the Potter and Uptown. Ruta Sepetys, author of Between Shades of Gray (not to be confused with 50 Shades of Gray), told about her family’s Lithuanian roots and the atrocities of Stalin. Dan Gutman had us laughing about his many, many series and successes. And who knew that Patricia MacLachlan, author of the moving and poignant Sarah, Plain and Tallamong many, many others was so hilariously, irreverently funny?

Here is Ruta Sepetys with Verla Kay after winning her Golden Kite for fiction.

I could go on and on in this vein. The conference was stellar. If you’d like to find out more, visit the blog site from the conference at



3 responses to “2012 SCBWI International Conference in LA

  1. Janis McCurry

    August 10, 2012 at 7:08 AM

    “…anticipation does not have to be part of the main plot. It can be little things that keep the reader turning the page.”

    Neysa, this is great. We’re always told to focus on the main plot, and I tend to get invested in the subplot just as much.


  2. Peggy Staggs

    August 10, 2012 at 7:36 AM

    Anticipation is what keeps the reader turning the pages. So important and so hard to keep up.

  3. Clarissa Southwick

    August 19, 2012 at 2:29 PM

    Great advice, Neysa. Thanks for sharing this conference wisdom with us!


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