KS SCBWI: the low-down

Said | Oct 09 2011

KS SCBWI really stepped it up a notch last weekend, playing out with a great cast to a packed house. Here’s the highlights:

First pages

Kendra Marcus and Minju Chang of Bookstop Literary Agency.

    In general, first pages need to…

  • Motivation motivation motivation—show it right up front.
  • Give a sense of where the story’s going.
  • Be visual, show don’t tell.
  • BUT don’t spend forever setting the scene. Get on with the story. If starting with drama, keep the sense of urgency by toning down the description.
  • A thinly veiled 3rd person narrative voice in 1st person isn’t good. 1st person is restrictive, if you’re using it there needs to be a good reason, especially 1st person present tense.

Kendra Marcus…
Enjoys language and great writing, but language can be sprinkled in. Loves exaggerated thoughts and doesn’t like present tense. If it’s a lesson she doesn’t want to hear it, but if it’s a story she wants to read it. Says stories begin on page one, so don’t take ten pages to get there.

Minju Chang…
Loves voice and attitude. Doesn’t like prefaces—don’t make the first page so dramatic the following pages fall flat. Thinks science fairs always make a good setting for PB. When an MS starts with exaggerated emotion, it’s harder for her to believe in the character/story. Thinks predictability isn’t good, wants a twist. Believes stories should start from the inside out, not outside in—start with character, then get into the world.


Linda Pratt of Wernick & Pratt Agency

Voice is about blending, and is the single most important thing in hooking the reader. You can’t teach it in a editorial letter, but you can learn how to improve it by listening to how people talk.

    Voice is…

  • How a person’s history informs their view of the world.
  • Word choice, which shows age, education, gender, location.
  • Don’t qualify voice—you’re undermining it. Imperfections are interesting.
  • Don’t protect your characters.
  • Doesn’t want to hear author voice—if in the rhythm of story & rhythm breaks then it’s the author’s voice coming through.
    For genres…

  • Write what you know/want to write, but think about where it belongs in the marketplace—books live and die by sales figures.
  • If you have to stretch to find readers, you probably don’t want to write that book.
  • YA from a boy’s POV is a difficult sell, and tricky even when well done.
  • Paranormal romance is a bit saturated, especially when it involves meeting “a beautiful stranger.”
  • In MG, don’t do Rick Riordan.
  • More people interested in horror.


Minju Chang of Bookstop Literary Agency.

Revision is…
Deconstructing the MS, examining the working parts, throwing away the unnecessary bits, looking for holes, and strengthening the core elements.

After first draft…
Write four sentences, one each about:

  • The plot, what the protagonist wants.
  • The protagonist’s emotional arc.
  • What’s at stake.
  • The story’s theme.

Don’t spend too much time on them, just write and put the MS away.

Later, have your trusted readers read for emotional response and level of engagement. Take them to lunch and get their honest first impressions—don’t give new info, just listen. Did your four sentences hold up? Did your MS reflect what you intended?

Stories need to have a compelling mix of external and internal drama. Too much internal, and it gets claustrophobic. Too much external, and the action becomes meaningless. Emotion and action should tie together and inform each other.

The reader-character bond is sacred. Often, a reader bonds most when s/he is the only one who sees the potential in the protagonist. Setting isn’t as important as establishing the protagonist’s voice and what they want in the beginning scene. The protagonist has to live up to being the main character, and act like the MC—cause ripples, have the most to gain/lose, and drive the action.

Panel: audience questions

Bonnie Bader, Editor-in-Chief of Grosset & Dunlap (Penguin)
Minju Chang of Bookstop Literary Agency
Diane Muldrow, Editorial Director of Little Golden Books
Linda Pratt of Wernick & Pratt.

Most exciting change in the industry?
Pratt: flexibility and expansion in genres, blurring lines.
Bader: ebooks.

Apps for PBs
Muldrow: created Pat the Bunny app recently, which honors the book without overshadowing it. Loved it. Random House bought Smashing Ideas in Seattle. Little Golden Books is famous for their format, and their ebook versions emulate the format as much as possible. Golden Books have cheap paper, but the apps really bring out the illustrations—they look awesome on iPad. Selling well. Hopes ebooks and apps will be like tv to radio, each enhancing the other.
Chang: ebooks bring out of print titles to life.
Bader: apps are very expensive to make, so publishers only do popular ones.

Series are hot, is there still a market for standalone?
Bader: market for both, though series has long history for MG. Great vehicle. Still room for standalone, but publishers are being pickier. Kids move into standalone from series.
Pratt: editors want MG that’s not a trilogy. If everything is trilogy, then publisher is committed to three books. Want series potential, but wants it to sell well before signing more. Really room for standalone.

How do you feel about agencies opening publishing arms?
Pratt: don’t know how its not a conflict of interest. The question I ask is, does it put my relationship with editors at risk? Do are the editors feel like they are getting leftovers?
Chang: agrees. Understands, but agrees.
Bader: agrees. It becomes self publication.

Panel: self publishing

Bader is not interested in editing books for those intent on self publication. Readers need the gate keepers.

Pratt is not interested in clients who want an agent to self publish. If the author ever wishes to go the traditional route, Pratt feels s/he will be disappointed. Publishing takes time, and evaluating her relationship with him/her over the long term, the disappointment will set tone for relationship.

Author Linda Sue Park thinks ebooks are a good way to get out of print books back on the market, but is also concerned about gatekeeping—how will readers know which books are good? Wonders if a book being “edited by” a specific, respected individual will be used as a type of gatekeeping.

Author Chris Eboch thinks future will be mixed, that self publication is a good market for niche books, or continuing a series the publisher dropped. Warns against using editors associated with self publishing houses.

Chang thinks it’ll come full circle, with editors becoming their own publishing houses

Author Lisa Harkrader believes there will be cross-pollination, self publishing old stuff to market new traditionally published work.

Great event all round, three cheers KS SCBWI!

PS: sorry for the lack of photos. They held the conference as the KU Edwards Campus and every time I closed my eyes, all I saw was my journalism professor collecting my classmates phones and piling them on the table—where we’d all stare and wait to see which rang first. MY phone was never among the collection, and I wasn’t about to start now. Not that my journalism professor was there or anything, but I could just see one of the agents marching between the desks, holding out her hand and snapping her fingers. And I would have DIED. Like, SLOW AND TERRIBLY.
So you’ll just have to deal with the lack of my photographic genius.
I’m sure you’ll survive.


Tessa Elwood

Genre: YA sci-fi. Webdesign: Pop Color. Last seen: jumping the KS/MO border in a black camaro.
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3 Responses to “KS SCBWI: the low-down”

  1. What a great round-up. I almost feel like I was there!

  2. Pamela K Witte Pamela K. Witte says:

    Huzzah for SCBWI! New Mexico’s regional was great too. I love getting perspective from different states! Very cool, Tessa.

  3. Judy H. says:

    Linda Sue Park was my favorite. Just finished her book A LONG WALK TO WATER. Thanks for this roundup! :)
    ~~Judy H.

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