Guest Post: SCBWI Conference with Cindy McCraw Dircks

For those of you following the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) events you’ll know they held their big annual New Jersey conference on June 27th – 29th. Since none of the Sisters had the chance to attend we asked Robin’s friend Cindy to guest blog and fill everyone in on the highlights. Here’s what she had to share about her memorable weekend:

Aside from a cloudy vacation in Vegas two years ago, this was the greatest weekend of my life. Why? Because I felt like this conference was all about helping me get published. Not just inspired—published.

The professionals I met gave me the hard truth about my writing. Hard truth that equal parts broke my heart and sent me into a frenzy of revision. It was thirty-six solid hours of feedback and up-close and hands-on advice. I’ve included highlights from only my schedule here, as I didn’t attend the other sixty-four workshops, the other twelve first-page critique sessions, or the myriad of other one-on-one critiques and pitch events offered by some of the publishing industry’s finest talent.

Here’s what I did:

1st Workshop: Editor/Agent panel: Sky Pony Press, Random House, Putnam.

Primary topic, diversity (see–#weneeddiversebooks on Twitter for more on this evolving topic). There’s a desperate need for characters from other nationalities to be fully developed characters, not flat, cardboard cutouts of characters. They should be so well entrenched in the story that their place of origin and appearance is glossed over in lieu of their overall contribution to the plot.

Editors also expressed concern over a book distributor’s tendency, such as Barnes & Noble, in specific parts of the country to place books featuring Hispanic characters in a separate Spanish section rather than placing all MG, YA, and NA books together by genre.

Lastly, in relation to voice, if you are going to incorporate a character from a country that is not your own, make sure you not only understand how teens speak, but how teens from that particular country speak. Said one editor, “No kids from South America speak like Dora the Explorer…”

2nd Workshop: Creating The Teen Voice with Sarah La Polla of Bradford Literary.

Ms. La Polla is currently inundated with “snarky teen girls and depressed teen boys.” She requests…”A little variety, please!” Teens know when an issue book is being thrown at them and can tell when somebody who’s over 40 is trying to sound like they’re 15. Listen to teens! Catch their phrases and sensibilities then simplify them—because your book, no matter how now and trendy, won’t be published for at least another two years once completed. Avoid pop-culture and social media. Try creating your own future-tech/twitter-like communication.

Per YA: Non-gratuitous sex and swearing—fine. Though “first time sex” is completely over done. “Twilight”-style romance is on the way out (Teens know it just doesn’t work that way).
Per Middle Grade: No swearing. Subtle romance, culminating in one kiss or pinkie-touching, okay.

In lieu of a 3rd Workshop I paid an extra $75 for a fifteen-minute, one-on-one critique session with an editor.

This was my most productive hour. The month prior, I loaded the first fifteen pages of my completed YA manuscript to the NJ SCBWI website. Thus, once we met, the editor had already reviewed my manuscript and was ready to discuss my work with me. So beneficial. She asked some tough questions, and suggested edits that made immediate sense. Then, at the end, she requested to see more. Finally—validation.

Next, I had my first-ever four-minute pitch session.

Ouch! So painful. Honestly, I wrote a one-sentence synopsis that I thought reflected the plot of my second novel pretty well. Man—I was wrong. My assigned agent said, after allowing me to elaborate on my story, that I didn’t nail the main conflict. It also didn’t help that although she likes the darker side of teen lit, she’s no longer into paranormal. And four minutes goes by REALLY fast! I stammered all over myself, worried the clock. What I learned: write your pitch, then read it out loud to your friends, critique groups, kids—anyone! Just practice until you’re comfortable or you’ll never succeed.

Sunday keynote:
I attended a “State Of The Market” presentation. Katherine Temean, former Director for NJ/SCBWI, polled attending editors and agents for news on today’s book markets. Tidbits I garnered included:

  • YA paranormal/dystopian is out—whereas Contemporary/Magical realism is in.
  • MG and chapter books are seeing an uptick in sales.
  • Despite the above two points, editors and agents cautioned not to write toward trends—it takes at least two years for your book to come out. Who can predict what will be popular then? If you like paranormal, write paranormal. It might be a tough sale now, but who knows…
  • And, yes, ebooks are thriving and though infinitely cheaper than hardcovers and some paperbacks, are bringing in large profits to all publishing houses.

A full PDF of this presentation is available on Katherine Temean’s blog and I recommend everyone read it for more valuable insight into where the children’s book industry is headed.

4th Workshop: First Pages session.

Given the emphasis placed on the opening line of a book, first-page sessions are crazy helpful. I submitted from a YA novel I just started and got some encouraging comments—but was told not to make the first page too “info heavy” (i.e., don’t include a character description in the first paragraphs unless it’s crucial). Also, if a character is bilingual, don’t say “they’re bilingual.” Let it come out naturally within the story.

One agent leading the session noted that all the first page entries here featured female protagonists. She said this was not only reflective of the sessions, workshops and one-on-ones she attended at this particular conference, but to the market in general. “Where are all the boys?”

5th Workshop: Editor’s Panel. Houses represented: Sky Pony Press, Sterling, Bloomsbury, Simon & Schuster, Farrar Straus Giroux and Putnam.

High points included:
– Query Letters: Don’t panic about having an“author platform.” Mention your presence on social media no matter how new—your willingness to promote your book is just as important. It’s more essential to write great books than lure people to your Twitter feed.
– Before Writing: KNOW YOUR MARKET. Check Publisher’s Lunch, Publisher’s Marketplace, and PW’s Children’s Bookshelf.
– Cool advice: Don’t overwork your manuscript. Learn when to stop revising and just send it out.
– YA/NA Plug: Check out Bloomsbury Spark—a YA & NA digital imprint from Bloomsbury Publishing. Submission guidelines available on-line.
– Lastly: There are no new stories —just new ways of approaching old topics. We have all heard this, but it’s comforting to hear it from publishing professionals.

Even if I win a Pulitzer before next July (Dream big, right?). I’ll definitely register for 2015. I’m still buzzing from the feedback and fun and can’t wait to open my laptop every morning.



Cindy McCraw Dircks began her publishing and media career as a “go-for” at Playboy Enterprises and peaked as a production coordinator at Sesame Workshop. She left that behind to raise three fantastic children, who are also her biggest story critics. Currently she fills her time writing YA and MG novels. Earlier this year, Cindy was selected to participate in the #publishyoself program with the Children’s Media Association. Her writing will be featured in a collaborative Middle Grade ebook slated for release in January 2015. Connect with Cindy on Twitter at @mcdircks, on Facebook, Linkedin or her website:



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