Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Ten Things I Learned at the SCBWI Conference -- Ellen Renner

This weekend Winchester was overrun with illustrators, writers, editors, agents, publishers, string quartets and a certain amazing, talented cake maker as the British branch of SCBWI (the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) celebrated its tenth birthday.

I've been going to Scooby conferences for seven of those ten years, but there has never been such a buzzy, sparkling, friendly, aspirational, confident event as this year's get together. Added excitement was due to the huge party on Saturday evening to celebrate the mass book launch of seventeen SCBWI members with publications out this year.

SCBWI has a lot to celebrate, as increasing numbers of its members buck the tough publishing climate and secure first deals, helped by initiatives like the Undiscovered Voices anthology. In the space of a few short years Scooby has grown from an invaluable support network for unpublished writers and illustrators into a unique organisation which continues to help beginners while also providing opportunities for published members. There is nothing else out there remotely like it.

So what did I learn?

1) BE POSITIVE! Too often, when more than two writers (I can't speak for illustrators) gather in one place it isn't long before the air is filled with the gnashing of teeth, the beating of breasts and low rumbles of discontent. With reason: writers are all too often the canon-fodder of the publishing industry, especially in these tough economic times. But the Winchester university campus positively vibrated with the optimism and enjoyment of the artists, writers and creatives gathered there. And if I bring nothing else away from the conference, it will be that word: joy. The joy of creating. I have been reminded of why I write: because I love it.

2) Facebook friends are even better in real life: I was thrilled to meet Keren David at last. We're writing twins (first books published on the same day) and we share an agent. I'm a huge fan of Keren's and it was lovely to get to meet her at last. And there was much excitement as Nicky Schmidt of Absolute Vanilla fame flew in all the way from South Africa, to the delight of her many friends at the conference. Fabulous meeting you, Nicky!

3) A good critique group is worth its collective weight in gold, which I already knew. But what I discovered was that limiting time during a live critique session focuses the mind and makes for a stronger experience for everyone.

4) If you are speaking at the conference, it's guaranteed to be at the same time as the one or two other sessions you desperately wanted to attend.

5) No one knows what the future holds for the book. Contradiction lies at the heart of the publishing: What the editors would like to publish and what they are allowed to publish are not always the same thing. During the industry panel, the editors explained that when taking on a new writer, they were looking for a unique voice. Almost with the same breath they were trying to predict the next big 'trend'. But all had to acknowledge that the gatekeepers now are the buyers for the huge retail chains, which inevitably leads to copy-cat publishing as retailers only want to buy in what was known to sell last year. So when the black and red vampires finally sink back into the grave (soon, please!) another writing fad will inevitably rise to take their place. The wild card in all this is e-books. The entire industry seems to be holding its breath. Will publishers be out of a job? No one knows, but the consensus was that gatekeepers of some sort are essential.

6) More mass book launches, please! This is certainly the way to go. Shared stress, shared joy, and lots of people enjoying themselves. The best book launch I've been to by seven leagues. Celebrants included: Mike Brownlow, Dinosaurs of Doom; Jason Chapman, Stan and Mabel, Jane Clarke, Gilbert the Hero; Lucy Coats, The Beasts in the Jar; Keren David, Almost True; Candy Gourlay, Tall Story; Savita Kalhan, The Long Weekend; Maxine Linnell, Vintage; Anita Loughrey, Shapes Around Me Squares; Jon Mayhew, Mortlock; Sarah McIntyre, Vern and Lettuce; Tamsyn Murray, My So-Called Haunting; John Shelly, Outside-In; Donna Vann, New York City Adventures; L. A. Weatherly, Angel; Sheen Wilkinson, Taking Flight; and my own City of Thieves. Whew!

7) Tea breaks are essential to a functioning brain.

8) Most writers fall into two camps: plot-driven and character driven. This became a topic of debate during the conference. Should the 'what' drive the 'why' or the other way round? For me, action derives from character; that may be why I don't plot in huge detail in advance. Or perhaps I'm just lazy.

9)Someone can be in their 33rd year in publishing and still radiate optimism, enthusiasm and inspiration – as long as that person is David Fickling.

And 10) As Mr Fickling reminded the writers and illustrators in the audience repeatedly: You are the makers. We can't do it without you.


adele said...

That sounds a brilliant weekend....thanks for writing about it. And reading about Keren David reminds me that I haven't had an answer from her to an email of may I use this comments box to say: KEREN! Did you get my last message?? If not do write to and I'll reply to your email.
Sorry to use you as a kind of email conduit, Elen, but everyone reads ABBA!

Jackie Marchant said...

It was great wasn't it? Who made the cake? Was a shame to eat it. But I did. Lovely to see you again.

Luisa Plaja said...

I loved reading this - thank you! The whole experience sounds so wonderful.

Nick Cross said...

Eating the cake - it was a fattening job, but someone had to do it! I had two slices :-)

I finally had to accept that I was a character-driven writer. Hearing Marcus Sedgwick talking about going to all sorts of far-flung places just made me think that I'd much rather go to the nearest shopping centre and watch the people there!


Liz said...

What a fantastic write-up. I am so sad I couldn't attend!

I love the list - very clever, funny and helpful. Also, can't believe I missed my fellow countryperson Nicky! For shame!

Linda said...

It was every bit as great as Ellen suggests - fun, support, advice, and lots of food. But how could anyone eat two slices of that cake: it was as rich as it was beautiful!

Keren David said...

Ellen - so lovely to meet you too,and I agree with everything you say about the positive spirit of the conference - truly uplifting.
Adele - no, definitely no email! I'll email you right away.

Kathryn Evans said...

Wonderful blog Ellen - my agent laughed when I told her I wasn't a demonic plotter - think she thought I was having a crazy moment but YOU know what I mean :O)

catdownunder said...

Sounds so good - wish I could have been there!

Dave Cousins said...

So little time, so many people to talk to. Next year can we have a three day conference and longer tea breaks? I didn't get the chance to come over and say hello Ellen! Like you, I came away from Winchester with an enormous sense of well-being and positivity – SCBWI is indeed a unique organisation. Hope to get a chance to meet you properly at the next gathering.

Miriam Halahmy said...

I had two pieces of cake. Was that allowed? Well it was chocolate. It was great to see you Elen and everyone else who came to the Conference. This was my fourth year and I agree it was the best one yet. Looking forward to next year already!

Juliet Clare Bell said...

It was my best yet, too. I'm still buzzing now, a week later.

And the Pulse event on marketing was brilliant. SCBWI's definitely providing great stuff for published authors/illustrators too, now.

Thanks for the post, Ellen. Really enjoyed it Clare.

Unknown said...

Wonderful post, Ellen - it was a fab weekend and an absolute treat to meet you at last! Am so glad I could make it!