I have been quiet on the blog front over the past few weeks, because we have been on a family road trip, with me going from one wonderful writing event to another. We traversed Victoria and NSW, from tall timber forests, to Mt. Kosciuszko, to the ocean, to the river, and home again. Over the next little bit, I am going to share some of our journey here on the blog, and some of the highlights from the two conferences I attended – KidLitVic 2019 and the Children’s Book Council of Australia national conference.
At the start of the journey, we drove from Adelaide to Melbourne, so I could spend the day in a room filled with children’s writers and illustrators, publishers, and literary agents, at KidLitVic 2019. It was one of the singularly most interesting, brilliant and warm conferences I have ever been to. I was blown away by the amazing organisational skills of the team who put this event on, and how hard they worked – Alison Reynolds, Coral Vass, Nicky Johnston and Sarah Reynolds. Due to their efforts, this was one of the best events I have ever attended and I will be back next year!
I met some lovely people and got great feedback on my work. Everyone had one thing in common – we want to tell stories. We want to give children the gift of reading. We want to offer hope, optimism, agency in their lives. We want to entertain them, to make them laugh and shout out and cry. We want to connect with them, and, connect them to others.
I spent much of the day in add-on sessions, which I highly recommend. With KidLitVic, you pay for the conference, which is jam packed with amazing sessions, but you can also pay for additional sessions, including master classes, publisher assessments, up close and personal with an agent or publisher, and the opportunity to pitch to a publisher or agent. I was lucky to get into all of these, so I was only in the main room for a few sessions. Here are my take-home points from across the day.
Tips on attending KidLitVic
The add-on sessions book out literally within minutes. I have been to a lot of these kinds of events over the years and had planned my booking like a Ninja. As a result, I moved fast on the booking night and got everything I wanted in my basket and paid for within about 30 seconds – there really is no time to dilly-dally.
From about 10 minutes prior to booking, my recommendation is to sit at your computer and then start refreshing the screen about 5 minutes out. The team provide AMAZING information in the lead-up, so review who you want to book with in the weeks before booking opens, then be sure you know the timing and where they will sit on the list for booking, so you can scroll the list super-fast. Then you can grab all the sessions you want quickly. Bookings are held for you in your basket, I think, for about 15 minutes, so once in your basket they are yours. Then get them paid for.
You want to have done all your thinking and planning, well in advance. You are allowed to book 1 of each category only to begin with. The following week, they open up the opportunity for open-slather booking. Many things were booked out at the start, but I was able to pick up another publisher session and a master class in the second round of bookings. In the end, I had 2 publisher assessments, a master class, a pitch and an up close and personal (my favourite part of the day).
Event tips for people who are used to being on their own and do not like big crowds and who have chronic conditions and disabilities
Yes, that is me. I will not say ‘shy’ or ‘introverted’, because while I think these are aspects of me, I can also be very loud and very social, in the right circumstances. However, I spend most days alone and I am very sensory sensitive. I live with anxiety, PTSD and ADHD. I find it hard to break into groups and to walk up and talk to strangers. I also find it hard to ask questions and approach people who are a bit famous. I have been to many large events, some with 10,000 people. I tend to spend a lot of the time on my own and taking breaks in quiet spaces. I also live with type 1 diabetes, gastroparesis and a range of other chronic conditions. Food is a nightmare for me, so whilst the team were so kind, even calling me to talk through my dietary needs, the caterers did not get it right. Lucklily, I had packed my own food for the day.
If you have any special needs, KidLitVic is your event – the organising team are the best I have ever experienced, at any level of event. So make sure you speak up. They will do everything in their power to make sure your needs are managed well on the day.
The team had arranged a quiet area upstairs in the most beautiful space, where you could retreat. I used this at lunchtime and it really made a difference to lots of people who attended. There are also other areas you can wander away to, for some space from all of the activity. There are plenty of official breaks where you can mingle, or choose to step away for a little bit.
Summary of Sessions
As I only attended a few sessions, I can not review them all, but the ones I did attend were brilliant. Other people told me that they were all very valuable and enjoyable. So you can attend the event only, without any add-on sessions and get an amazing amount from the day.
In terms of sessions, for me the most valuable were the publisher assessments (highly recommend these) and the up close and personal session, which was new this year. It was just 6 people with an agent or publisher. I was lucky to get my dream agent! She shared many nuggets of gold with us during the hour we spent with her and offered the opportunity to send her some of our work afterwards. I also got to pitch to this agency, in a 3 minute pitch. If you have a manuscript ready to go, all of these are very valuable opportunities.
In terms of preparing for these, it is important to research all of the agents and publishers. Be sure you know what they are looking for, their current books and authors, their personal preferences and styles. Then, prepare, prepare and prepare again.
The publisher assessment sessions will all be different. I had 2 sessions and they had some similar feedback and some very different feedback – all of which was invaluable. The pitch is so short, I can not even really remember how it went! The main point with this again, is to prepare and follow all of the in-depth guidelines that the team will provide you with. Then try to relax and enjoy it. I figured I had nothing to lose – I walked in with just my manuscript and if I walked away with just my manuscript plus some advice on making it better, that was a bonus.
Overall, here are my main take-away points:
What makes publishers say ‘yes’?
- Keep your cover letter short and to the point. The process of reading your pitch should be easy for the publisher or agent.
- Don’t send a long synopsis to begin with.
- Clair Hume from Affirm Press said they are looking for funny, warm, inspiring, adventure, with diverse characters.
- Zoe Walton from Penguin Random House said ‘ditto’ to that! And also, funny, fast-paced and compelling stories.
- Susannah Chambers from Allen and Unwin agreed, and added that they are looking for positive stories, ones that are uplifting, with an original and intense voice.
- The top 3 tips overall in making publishers say ‘yes’:
- Professionalism – follow publisher guidelines, interact with them in a professional manner
- Voice – an intense and original voice – an original character you can connect with, characters that feel real
- Some point of difference to what is already out there
- Tips on submission:
- Polish your MS
- Then let it sit for a while
- Go back and edit again
- Then let it sit for a while
- Be sure it is as polished as you can possibly make it
- THEN consider submission
- Be sure to include where your book sits in the market, what are the comparable titles?
- You can include something like, “I saw that you published x book and thought you might be a good fit for my book…”
Perfecting your Manuscript
I attended a masterclass with Maryann Ballantyne. Here are my take-away points from this:
- There is a craft to being a writer and potential can be lost through lack of process
- When pitching to a publisher, if you understand your process you can say “I have worked on this and have done ABC and am hoping to take my MS to the next level with you.”
- Pre-writing – keep all the ideas you get in a notebook – always carry a pen and notebook.
- Then, come up with a one-liner that describes your idea and write this at the top of the planning page in big letters.
- Next, the outline of your story matters. You can use any of the available structures, such as Freytag’s Pyramid or Linda Seger’s Story Spine
- Outline your story description in 300 words – the hook, plot, time and place, then expand on this.
- You need to develop rich backstories for all of your characters, not just the main character.
- Once you have the storyline, you can break it up into chapters and drop the story outline into this structure. You will deviate from this as you write, but at least you will know why you are doing so.
- Then, WRITE!
- Revise, re-draft, edit – distance yourself from the MS for a while, before returning to do this again.
- The climax should be the moment of greatest emotional drama, where the protagonist needs the most willpower and must make an important decision. The midpoint of the story is critical. This should be the most important point of the story and should be in the middle.
- You can check the flow of the story by going to your climax and checking how many words come before and after that point – is it the midpoint? If there is too much beforehand, or afterwards, it will give you direction for editing, cutting or adding more to the story.
- Look for ‘flabby writing’ – words that can be cut. If you have too many words in any part of the story, try to aim for cutting 10 words per page. Reduce adverbs and dialogue.
Overall, whatever you attend, this will be one of your most valuable writing events. It reminded me that reading is a gift. I was reading before I started school and can’t remember not being able to read. I remember the joy I felt when each of my boys started to see words instead of black scribbles. I have kept many special picture books I read to them all, because they are brilliant, but also because they have such strong memories. Make every word in your story sing. Think about who will be reading those words, where they will be sitting when they read them, who they will be reading them with and to. Consider the impact your words can have on someone’s life.
KidLitVic will remind you that being a writer is a gift. Words are powerful. Books matter. Keep reading with your children, with other people’s children, with all the children – no matter what. Encourage a love of books. It might make all the difference, to their lives and to our world.
I will be back soon with insights from the CBCA conference and some of our journey across NSW and Vic. Have you been to this event or another one that inspired your writing? I would love to hear your tips so please drop a comment.