Monday, June 28, 2010

11 Conference Round-Up: Words in the Woods

This week's conference round-up comes to us from the wonderful Carol Grannick, who recently attended the Words in the Woods retreat. Also in attendance were Award Winning Author Kathi Appelt, HarperCollins/Balzer & Bray Editor Kristin Daly, and Foundry Literary + Media Agent Stephen Barbara. If you have recently attended or plan on attending an SCBWI event and would like to share your experience with us, please let us know!
Because I’m a writer who works hard at staying resilient, and because I help other writers to do the same via blogging and counseling, I’m always searching for experiences that fuel resiliency. Positive emotions created by optimistic thinking (learned or natural) and intellectual and emotional nurturing do just that.

The Words In The Woods Lakeside Retreat, planned and executed with exquisite finesse by the Illinois-SCBWI Downstate committee of children’s writers John Bown, Louann Brown, Sara Latta, Toni Leahy and Alice McGinty.

I’ll share some brief moments here, even though it seemed that absolutely every moment was special. I hope the concepts and information shared spark not only your creativity and energy, but your desire to find a fabulous conference and do everything in your power to attend.

Words in the Woods offered a perfect format of large-group presentations, small-group critique sessions, time to write, critique group meetings with our guest author, editor and agent, and informal one-on-one conversations, thanks to the generosity of the guests and respect of the participants. Why does the conference format matter? Because it stimulates the brain in different ways, creating opportunities for different types of experiences. If you’re conference-searching, look for a format that’s a good match for you!

A lot of us took in the light Kathi Appelt shed on character during the opening workshop by introducing the concept of Controlling Belief. Many of us are used to thinking about our main characters’ occupations, how well they perform those occupations, their goals, and what is at stake if they don’t reach the goals.

Kathi stressed the importance of those aspects, but said that when we ask a different question, “What does my character believe?” we plunge more deeply into our character’s inner life. “And ask yourself,” Kathi said, “What your character’s main role is. How well does your character believe he or she is performing in that role?” Your character’s overarching controlling belief doesn’t have to be true…but it does propel your character through the story.

I could feel the impact of asking this question as Kathi spoke…And I know I wasn’t the only writer in the room to feel it. It was a light-bulb/goosebump moment.

And since the concept isn’t exactly non-complex to think about, Kathi helped us along with some examples. In KEEPER, her recently-released novel, her main character’s controlling belief is that her mother is a mermaid. In SKIPPYJON JONES, Skippyjon believes he is much more than just a Siamese Cat. Romeo and Juliet offer this controlling belief: “I can’t live without you.”

Kristin Daly, editor at Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins Children’s gave a powerful argument for creating emotional, lovable, layered characters that readers like – and then “putting them in peril”. Action is fabulous, Kristin said, but without showing character reactions and choices in the face of obstacles, the deep humanity of our characters is lost.

Stephen Barbara, Literary Agent at Foundry Literary + Media, gave an in-depth presentation about a topic near and dear and difficult – the anti-hero. How do you pull it off? How do you create vulnerability in, and empathy for, a difficult, misbehaving, even somewhat evil, character? Stephen patiently highlighted a number of techniques from current children’s and adult authors, including reader direct-address, and characters justifying their own behavior. Stephen recommended BEFORE I FALL by Lauren Oliver and Lynne Jonell’s EMMY AND THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING RAT for great examples of managing the creation of fabulous anti-heroes.

As the weekend unfolded, we covered Voice, Dialogue, Plot and questions about the business in general. If I had to pick a few more points to share (and I do!), they’d be these:

• Voice: What would the ‘soundtrack’ of your story be? What musical tone would match your character’s feelings?

• “Don’t Be Afraid”: to play around with voice, dialogue (to get it fast & sharp); plot; to revise; to make your characters suffer; to be patient so that you only submit the very best manuscript you can.

• Learn and follow the etiquette of the business – manners in person and in query/cover letters matter.

Honestly, Words In The Woods was a bundle of abundant information, support and encouragement! It fueled my memory about how nourishing a good conference can be, and triggered a fabulous week of work. Now, where should I go next?

Have you had conferences that push you into high-creativity mode, too?
Carol Grannick is a children’s author and clinical social worker in private practice. Her stories have appeared in CRICKET and HIGHLIGHTS, and she writes picture books and middle grade novels. At her blog, THE IRREPRESSIBLE WRITER and in her private practice, she helps writers build and maintain resilience for writing and life.


  1. Thanks for the helpful information. Nope. I haven't been to a conference yet. That's just another fate-ridden ill of living in the boonies. Patience before submitting is such a key. Thanks, again.

  2. Dear Salarsen - Thanks for taking the time to comment...and believe me, some of us city folks might trade for "the boonies." Small town life has many advantages...But I hope you'll soon find a conference travelling distance that's do-able for you!

  3. Conferences in general give me boost and that's probably because I meet so many different people, but all of them "get" what I do.

    Of course, then there's the information and synergy that comes from sessions and those large and small group meeting that you mention.

    I envy you that Words in the Woods time. It sounds wonderful.

  4. I really enjoy the conference roundup series. It helps me to know just what is out there and decide ones I want to be apart of in the future. Thanks!

  5. Conferences are great! I've been to the Oregon SCBWI conferences; good learning experiences.

    Not that this has anything to do with this particular post, but I'm a little concerned about the main 100 first-line contest in that only 59 out of 75 first-round winners have posted! A friend of mine emailed and said she hadn't seen any info on it, and somehow missed Thursday's post (and I guess she didn't notice the sidebar). Once on another blog I accidentally bookmarked the daily page instead of the home page and almost missed a deadline. I hope no one has done that, for this contest!

  6. Thanks! It sounds like it was a fabulous conference and it's always good to hear what other local SCBWI chapters are doing.

    Martina - I have something for you on my blog... (and you can share with Marissa)

  7. Wow. I think this was one of the most impactful conference summaries. Love the idea of asking the character what their role is, and their main controlling belief.

    Thanks so much!

    Angela Ackerman

  8. another fabulous post -- and such an excellent summary.

    thanks so so much for the insight!!

    you ladies are all incredible :D

  9. Great information - sounds like a terrific conference! Thanks for sharing :)

  10. Such a great summary, thank you!

  11. Thanks, all, for your comments on the conference post! Glad you enjoyed the summary...Carol Grannick


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