DO take a notebook
Prepare to feel as if you’ve taken a long dive off the top board and are just surfacing for air when a tidal wave strikes. Information overload. I had to leave early on the Sunday as my brain was full and my head was in danger of falling off.
DO be prepared to take home a very vivid picture of the current state of children’s publishing
As an author it is difficult to know which bits you need to be aware of as talks covered everything from the state of borrowing from libraries, the markets for illustrations inside books to the advances in technology for apps of picture books. I returned home feeling very well informed and wished they had those stands like they do at the London Book Fair where you can stop off and get a head and neck massage every time you feel overwhelmed (I would have been their best customer).
DO go and listen to Frank Cottrell Boyce
For sheer enthusiasm for children’s books, vast knowledge of the secrets of how to create real magic and laughter in children’s writing – I discovered this weekend that Frank Cottrell Boyce is the master.
He shared snippets of his own work, but also read a huge piece of E Nesbit – an author he loves reading to his children.
I could do a whole blog on just how inspiring Frank Cottrell Boyce is, but as I am lucky enough to be hosting an event with him next week, I am going to really try hard to do one of our usual ‘five questions’ interview with him – which will be on the Mostly Books website (if he has time).
Now I am not sure if I want ‘Small Change for Stuart’ to win the Costa or ‘The Unforgotten Coat’ – I adored Stuart when it came out earlier in the year and recommended it to anyone who came within hailing distance of the shop and was delighted it was up for an award. And now I love Frank’s book too. Too too tricky.
DO buy more books by E Nesbit
And Joan Aiken. Brilliant thing having kids – reading all your favourite books to them at bedtime can be put down to research. I feel a little veer towards the classics coming on.
DO learn what you can from the editorial one-to-ones
One thing you quickly learn from any critique experience (writing group included) is that an ability to read between the lines of what is being said is almost as important as listening to what people are saying.
I came away with another overload of information after a really short chat – the most interesting of which wasn’t really about my book at all. For example, some of the perceived differences between YA fiction and middle grade fiction – which is very different from a reader’s perspective (I would say). Lots for me to think about. I found it really interesting.
I think it helps you take on board how very difficult it is to critique something that just doesn’t appeal or speak to you on any level. It’s that whole thing about trying to be objective, but at the same time knowing that you have to engage with writing to get it at all. It is something I experience a lot at bookgroup – the level of detail where people just can’t disagree and find no common ground is constantly surprising.
Not sure how it helps with my writing!
DO give a cheer for publishers who make it clear they are taking on authors not books
The SCBWI conference was full of sound industry advice that will seriously increase your chances of being published. It is all scribbled in my notebook.
And it was clear that if you can make your book commercial you rapidly increase your chances of success.
So why was is that when I attended talks that gave really useful prescriptive advice that your protagonist should be (a) and your word count should be (b) and ‘this sounds like subplot’ get rid of it and is it moving forward quickly enough, that it all sounded like a recipe for flat-pack fiction and made my heart sink not a little?
Yet when Amber Caraveo explained how at Orion they took on debut authors to build and knew that an author’s first book was not always their breakthrough book – I was giving a big cheer.
And Sarah Odedina from Bonnier who said ‘don’t look at what’s selling – write about what you want to write’.
Hooray for a vote for original fiction. But it is tricky to try to work out how much you should compromise and head for that path of least resistance. Why give yourself a harder time than necessary?
DO buy books and use it as a chance to discover new authors
There was a brilliant bookstall manned by two folk from P&G Wells, an independent bookstore in Winchester, who worked a 14 hour day on the Saturday and went back for the whole day again on Sunday – just to ensure that all the authors appearing at the conference had a chance to sell their books. What a brilliant job they did – all the authors present must have been so pleased.
DO make sure your hotel is not a twenty-minute walk up hill and the other side of a graveyard that you have to walk through in the dark twice a day Enough said.
DO recognise there are no short-cuts to finding the right agent and publisher
There does seem to be broad agreement about what is a commercial book. And most publishers are not going to turn away something that possibly could be ‘the next best thing’.
But for lesser mortals who have written a book which is a lot more personal to us, then the whole ‘getting published’ process is essentially going to be one that involves a lot of rejections, a lot of postage and a lot of random chance until we find someone who believes in it.
So – do you make changes on the basis of someone who read it and didn’t like it? Do you recognise why they didn’t like it and realise that it would be fairly easy to make changes to remove those factors? And if you did would it mean it would be much easier to find an agent – and can you do it without remove all the bits that you actually like about your own story?? Brain ache, brain ache, brain ache.
DO go with friends
A chance to switch off your brain from input mode. The very welcome sight of a friendly face in a crowd is just such a relief. Probably the chance for a sit down to scoff down some lunch, swapping notes and experiences of all the different talks can give you insights even to the bits you didn’t manage to attend would also be useful. If you want to. I think I already mentioned my brain was beginning to object by this time.
DO go with friends like Jo
Then when you get back to your hotel room feeling utterly exhausted after a rollercoaster of a day you can recall that she presented you with a box of birthday chocs to you on the train journey there and they are still in your bag and how cheering and energy boosting a box of choccies can be. Thanks Jo.
DO go with friends like Amy
If you are confident and outgoing sort the idea of an evening function attended by lots of industry folk and the chance to pitch your book endlessly could possibly be a welcome idea. Alternatively, you may find you watch all those talented writers professionally pitching their books and find yourself thinking enviously of your friend Sally who had four of her wisdom teeth out which prevented her from attending and is sitting at home eating soup instead. And then Amy says ‘oh I’ve never pitched a book to an agent in my life’ and you feel so much better. Thanks Amy.
Do take time and try to take on board all the information you’ve gathered together before trying to decide what to do with it all
The easiest thing in the world is probably to take all that information – some of it contradictory – and just pick and choose the bits you want to take note of and ignore the rest!
The tricky thing is trying to work out which bits are the bits you should be taking note of. I have known for a while that my book isn’t quite ready yet to start sending out.
But I am not completely convinced I am quite sure what I need to do to it in the next edit. As this was my main goal in going to the conference I think I do need to have a long sit down before I make any decisions.
And back to that critique group!
A huge thank you to SCBWI and all the organisers. What a brilliant opportunity to meet with so many other writers and hear directly from the industry professionals.
Next time I shall be more prepared and will pack a bigger brain.