Yes, I am going to tell you the secret to getting your book published, but first, before anything else, don't you think you have to have this T-shirt? Go HERE.
Okay. I'm feeling a little emotional and a lot grateful right now at the end of another SCBWI weekend. It's been a new kind of SCBWI experience for me: one that involved not so much helping my dreams come true, as, well, my dream has already come true, and now here I am, up on the spotlight-side of the podium! Me! And of course, my dream of becoming a published writer would not have come true if not for all the SCBWI conferences in which I was on the listening side, the scribbling notes side, the yearning side. I mean that from the bottom of my soul. When asked about my path to publication, the answer is so simple:
I've written about this here before, but I think it bears telling again, especially in the light of the extraordinary full-circle that this weekend brought me in Bellevue, Washington. So here goes.
Seven years ago I splurged to go the national summer conference of the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators in Los Angeles. I couldn't really afford it, but Jim and I had just gotten married, and I think we actually used some money that we'd gotten as a wedding gift so that I could do it. Looking back, I know I had dreams that I would be discovered by an editor or an art director and get an assignment to illustrate a children's book. That didn't happen. It didn't happen the next summer either, incidentally, when I went back again.
Something else happened. I learned to become a better illustrator, a harder worker, and most importantly... to rediscover myself as a writer.
A writer is what I am. I remember that now. But seven years ago I was in the midst of a long detour away from writing into illustration (a detour I am glad I took, by the way), and I had to find my way back to myself. AND... I had to learn how to write a book! (Minor detail!) I started going to SCBWI conferences hoping to learn the secret to getting published, and I did learn it. The secret is...
Write a really good book!
Mo Willems touched on this in his keynote address this weekend, in his hilarious way of being glib but deeply true at the same time. He said that all you need to know to get published is: BE SUPERLATIVE. Teachers in art school told us the same thing. Good work will rise to the top. Work hard. Do good work. Duh, right? Yeah, but I had to stumble onto this secret by going to workshops on craft, in between the workshops I thought I needed, which were the ones on how to get published. We conference attendees partly go to these things for the chance to meet editors face-to-face and hope they might publish our book; if we're really lucky, we might wander into a workshop where a writer tells us something that will help us make our book better, and better, and better, and hopefully, finally, worthy of publication. It happened to me. That workshop was taught by Dan Greenburg and I scribbled notes the whole time, a sudden fire of understanding lit in my brain, and when the conference was over I sat up on the hotel terrace in the Los Angeles late-afternoon sun, had a glass of wine, and rewrote those notes into my first Dreamdark notebook, the notebook in which Blackbringer was just beginning to take shape, and I asked myself questions that Dan had put in my head, and my book took a massive stride toward the next level. (Thank you, Dan!)
Those notes are still there on pages 10 and 11 of that notebook, that same notebook from which I read a [different] passage yesterday while teaching my first workshop on writing at the SCBWI! That's part of the full-circle, but there's more.
Two years ago Jim and I went to the Western Washington conference for the first time. It was at the moment in time that Blackbringer had sold to Putnam and I had just delivered the full manuscript to my editor Tim and was awaiting his response. To fill those nervous, fidgety days, I was working on some short stories (which happened to come from Sunday Scribblings prompts.) Well, we went up to Washington for the conference a day early so Jim could go to the friday "illustrator's intensive," and all day I sat in the Starbucks at the Bellevue Barnes & Noble and brainstormed how to take this very short story I had written -- Hatchling -- and flesh it out into a longer, more sophisticated story. I thought and scribbled notes all day. From the Starbucks I went to a sunny park and sat at a picnic table beside a lake where a heron was building a nest, and I came up with the BIG IDEA for Hatchling.
This past friday, two years after that, Jim and I sat at a brewpub next door to that exact Barnes & Noble, on the eve of that same conference, having lunch with Arthur Levine, who took a stack of edited manuscript out of his bag and handed it over the table to me. In that stack was Hatchling.
It kind of gives me chills. This book (which, by the way, is not going to end up being called Goblin Fruit after all; title announcement is forthcoming) started life at the SCBWI Western Washington conference in 2006, and it journeyed its way through the 06 Los Angeles conference, was sold to Arthur Levine in 07, and now, in 08, I got to sit with him and talk all about it and read the notes he'd written on my manuscript!
It's just so cool.
Here we are, by the way, and Jim of course:
Can you tell I feel totally blessed and amazed right now? I guess the moral of my story is: To get published, write good books. To write good books, go to SCBWI conferences! Go with a mind that is not bent exclusively on getting a contract. Go hoping to attend a workshop that will give you insight in how to make your book better, which will make it so much easier for you to get it published! Now, I do not mean to downplay the awesomeness and availability of the editors, agents, and art directors at these conferences. It is HUGE that they are there; it is important. It allows you to see the human face of publishing in a way that makes it seems like a real career filled with real people, rather than a mail drop box that eats your manuscripts ever now and then! AND, when your manuscript is ready, there they ARE. I'm just saying, there's more to it than that. Like Susan Patron said over the weekend, "A writer friend of mine said 'They'll only have one question for you, and that's: how do I get published?'" Just: have more questions than that!
And did I mention? Conferences are SO FUN.
Some writers reward you with candy for coming to their workshop.
There might even be cupcakes around.
And if not cupcakes, there's a strong likelihood of brownies, chocolate-covered strawberries, wine, cheese, and even rice krispie treats! Come for the snax!
Come to hear amazing, inspiring writers speak, like Newbery-award-winning Susan Patron (on right), and Newbery-Honor-winning Cynthia Lord.
And Newbery-Honor-winning Kirby Larson and talented illustrator, Sasquatch-costume-wearer, and [wo]man-on-the-street documentary film-maker Jaime Temairik:
(They kind of look like they're having fun, no?)
These two beautiful ladies are the Regional Advisors of the SCBWI, Sara Easterly and Jolie Stekly, who put the fabulous conference together and who everyone agreed were... amazingly well-organized!
They couldn't have done it without Laurie Thompson, left, shown here with Jim, me, and Kate Schafer, agent extraordinaire, aka Daphne Unfeasible, agent to the awesome Maureen Johnson, among others.
Here's Jim with, on the left, the super-talented Portland illustrator David Hohn, and in the middle, Laurent Linn, Art Director at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (he used to be creative director for Sesame Street and he got to tour Japan with Big Bird! Truly. He is also -- and it blew me away to learn this this weekend -- a reviewer for Bank Street College and was one of the ones who chose Blackbringer for their years-best children's books list! Thank you, Laurent!!)
Here are Jim and I with Sara and Jolie, Kate, and my fellow Putnam-author Royce Buckingham.
Below, agent Stephen Barbara, writer/illustrator Jim Averbeck, librarian and kidlit blog queen Betsy Bird (in her fab red dress) with Jaime, Kim, author Joni Sensel, and Sara.
And a few of Jim and I, in which you can just make out the new yellow racing stripes in my hair!**
And lastly, and most brilliant of all the people at the entire conference, are these ladies and gentleman (yes, I believe there was, in fact, only one gentleman)...
...who were smart enough to come to my workshop! Thank you!!
It was an amazing conference; I feel inspired, in love with the industry I am lucky enough to be part of, and ready to write more books. What more could you ask for?
**okay, the hair: my wonderful hair-stylist Maggie at Belle Epoque asked if she could put some fun colored extensions in my hair, and I said, "Okay!" We held up strands of all the 82 available colors, the blues and purples and stuff, and we decided on bright yellow. They barely took a half-hour to put in, and they last up to four months, though you can get them taken out at any time. They aren't the sew-in kind that makes girls cry on America's Next Top Model, and if you think you might want to try a splash of color, I say go for it! Call Maggie.