Tag Archives: SCBWI Houston

SCBWI-Houston Conference 2017

Well, another great conference has come and gone. I splurged this year, as my schedule has been very hectic and promises to get worse. I took advantage of the special offer and booked myself into the Marriott Hotel where the conference was being held on the night before and stayed till Sunday. Very nice accommodations on Briar Park just off Westheimer.

Per usual, a wonderful group of local SCBWI volunteers helped keep us on track and on task, introducing our guest speakers and directing people to the silent auction, Blue Willow Books booth and the food, which was as plentiful as the information.

Our key note speaker this year was middle-grade author, raconteur, and former teacher Bruce Coville.  Some of his best stories involved lessons he learned from his own students and from those who helped him along the way. It was an entertaining and up beat opening to the events and a foreshadowing of the delightful novel writing workshop he ran on Sunday morning.

There was a panel discussion that included a number of our more successful and prolific Houston authors, from debut novelist Caroline Leach to the very successful Crystal Allen.  We also got tips from Jennifer Hamburg, Chris Mandeleski, Varsha Bajaj, and Pat Miller. Pat represented for the non-fiction contingent and led a workshop on that topic Sunday morning opposite Bruce Coville’s.

Little Brown Books editor, Deirdre Jones spoke on “New Twists on Old Themes” and how to put a new twist on the universal topical themes (think the seasons, holidays, colors, etc.) that make your book marketable year after year. Finding a way to mash up multiple themes in your picture book makes it seem fresh and ever more appealing to tiny would-be readers and their parents.

After a brief break, bidding on the auction items and some networking, the attendees were divided into break-out sessions for writers in general and a special session for published authors. I attended Random House editor, Martha Rago’s workshop, “Speed Dating with a Picture.”

Christa Heschke, agent with McIntosh and Otis spoke on writing an engaging mystery atmosphere that reeks of tension, is properly paced, and has an original premise. She stressed the importance of outlining in writing mystery. Pre-planning can save two or three of those seemingly endless rewrites.

Anna Roberto, editor with Feiwal & Friends, an imprint of MacMillan talked about the ever elusive ‘voice’ and what it is, what it sounds like, and why it is so essential to setting your manuscript apart.

Thao Le, who is an agent with Sandra Djikstra talked about the art of revision: tightening language, being specific, and the use of vivid active verbs.

I had two critique sessions, both informative and helpful, but differing widely in what needed to be fixed and how to do it.  While I was meeting with my critique mentors, I missed part of the presentation by Full Circle Literary agent, Adriana Dominguez, who spoke passionately and informatively about diversity in children’s literature, both in subject matter and in authors.

After a long and eventful day, the pitch sessions began, followed by dinner and dancing. I went to bed early, my brain completely overloaded.  But I woke fresh and ready for the novel writing session with Bruce Coville the next morning (pictured with me above).

Attendance was slightly down this year, partly because of the recent flooding and losses experienced by stalwart SCBWI members.  But overall it was a great experience.


SCBWI Houston Conference – 2016

Another great SCBWI conference for the record books on October 22, 2016. A new venue for SCBWI, the Hess Club (5430 Westheimer) was not difficult to find and the parking was free. I missed ducking out to a coffee shop as we did at the Memorial City Marriott in 2014 and 2015, but the food was good, the company congenial, and the speakers were great.

The proceedings opened with our illustrious Regional Advisor, Vicki Sansum and Charles Trevino. Then we were treated to a keynote address by our own Crystal Allen. If you see her ask her to explain ‘genre’, you’ll get a laugh.

A panel discussion included local success stories Lynne Kelly, Joy Preble, Bruce Foster, Kathy Duval, Sherry Garland, Kim Morris, and Sandra Howatt. Each touched on his/her path and the things they learned along the way, and how much SCBWI contributed to that journey. I’m sorry to say I missed part of this presentation for my first of three critiques.

Katherine Jacobs.JPG

Katherine Jacobs


Our first guest speaker was Katherine Jacobs, who is a senior editor at Roaring Brook Press. Her talk was entitled “The Body Electric: Creating Characters that Spark With Life.” She spoke effectively about bringing your characters alive using their physical characteristics and mannerisms, and incorporating active verbs to describe them. She suggested, “If your character seems boring or cliché, it’s because you didn’t go deep enough. Listen to your character.” Contrasting Flat and Round characters, she used specific writers and their work to make her point, recommending being willing to take your characters to a ‘dark place.’ Summing it up, she said, “Your characters are the soul of your work.”

Maria Middleton is the Art Director at Random House Children’s Books and is responsible for the overall look and feel of all their Middle Grade books. As you might expect, she talked about visual storytelling, using slides to illustrate her points to great effect. Like many people, I’m in a great hurry to get published, so it hit home when she said, “Give yourself time to be great.”

Kelly Sonnack (one or my critiquers) compared Story to a journey, where the writer is the travel guide. She encouraged us to see the story as a path, where you leave a series of breadcrumbs. But you must trust the reader to understand and follow those directions. You promise them a destination, and you need to deliver. She also spoke about character and making the reader root for yours. Likeability plays a big part, but even unreliable or less than admirable characters must allow the reader to connect on some level to be successful. Some things she recommended:

  • Look at how you introduce the character.
  • Identify their flaws.
  • Is every character necessary to the story?
  • What does the villain ‘offer’ the protagonist?

She also discussed Plot and examining what the character really wants. This rang true for me, because this is how an actor approaches a character and what he/she does. She gave some very specific recommendations on Voice and Dialog, which feed into each other. Both contributing to Pacing, in that the rhythm and length of your sentences can quicken the pace and build to the climax or completely derail the forward movement.

Susan Dobinick is an editor at Bloomsbury Children’s Books. At her previous publishing job she was one of the editors on Lynne Kelly’s Chained.  She tried to help us understand the difference between the ‘moral’ of the story and the broader themes, or the Big Idea. As an exercise, she had each table work together to write a paragraph for a story using three words suggested by the audience: peach, cloud, and robot.  I think our table’s story was very promising!

Brianne Johnson.JPG

Brianne Johnson


I missed the beginning of Brianne Johnson’s talk about first pages because I was in my second critique. She is a senior agent with Writer’s House. But I don’t think I missed many minutes because what I heard made perfect sense, was very lively and filled with examples. She suggested introducing a mystery or conflict from page one of your manuscript and planting lots of scraps of mystery and conflict as part of character development, tone, setting, and action. “Little mysteries can hook you.”

Ginger Clark was a delightfully spirited and funny speaker. A senior agent at Curtis Brown, Ltd., she is particularly interested in MG and YA historical or fantasy and its world building. We had several things in common, actually:

  • Her love of historical YA and MG fiction, I’m writing an MG novel set in 1965 during integration.
  • She loves Eleanor of Aquitaine, I played her in Lion in Winter.
  • She was in drama and band when she was younger, as was I (and my heroine is a band nerd)
  • She is looking for a manuscript about Queen Boadicea, which she pronounced correctly but I knew how to spell.

Ginger compared writing a historical to packing the luggage for the characters. You have to do the research and know what fills their day and what are their habits, clothing, and environment. She encouraged us to use primary sources. Road trip! She also cautioned that you don’t do a historical just to avoid technology or on a whim; let the setting suit the story.  She used examples from published texts to show how strategic use of period terms or objects can immediately tell the reader what sort of story he/she is reading and when it occurs. “Give us a place name a kid would know—transportation, clothing, are all world-building. Choose wisely.”

The day was rounded out with a First Look panel discussion of selected first pages and art. I’m happy to say they picked my first page as one of the ones to discuss and it got some very favorable and constructive comments.

Finally, award nominees were announced and everyone found out how many of the silent auction items they’d actually won. I bid on everything! Fortunately, I only won three items, but it was great fun.

Of the two out of three critiques I received (the email one is still outstanding), I was lucky to have generally glowing comments from the lovely Crystal Allen and equally encouraging but constructive criticism from Kelly Sonnack. Yea!

The day concluded with a congenial dinner at Los Cucos. Lots of discussion and impressions from the day and generally good fun.  Congrats to the conference planning committee on a job well done.