Friday, February 27, 2015

One-Liners Abound at New York Conference

What do you get when you plop a four-star Grand Hyatt Hotel on top of the world’s busiest train station?

You get a grandiloquent setting for the 16th Annual SCBWI Winter Conference, February 6-8, 2015 in New York City. I was lucky enough to be one of several hundred attendees, my way paid by the Tribute Fund, a grant that recognizes the service of the local volunteer members. 

On Friday, I attended a Writer’s Roundtable intensive, where 25 of the biggest names in publishing’s editors and agents sat at a round table with eight other writers and critiqued their first 500 words. It would take a whole blog post just to mention every name; suffice to say that I was honored to sit with Kate Sullivan, senior editor of Delacorte Press in the morning, and Molly Ker Hawn, an agent for the Bent Agency based in London in the afternoon.

That was just one of three intensive tracks on what was essentially a bonus day. The real conference kicked off on Saturday morning, and the list of keynote presenters is so long, and my word count so restricted, that each person only gets one sentence.

Anthony Horowitz said “Remember the first line is the line the reader will read in the store.” He followed that up with his first line of the first book in the Alex Rider series, "When the doorbell rings at 3 o’clock in the morning, it’s never good news.”

Next up was the Keynote Editor’s Panel. 
Justin Chanda said, “The business is cyclical; we need picture book readers to graduate to middle grade to young adult.”

Laura Godwin added that “It takes about $50,000 to start up a picture book: we’re not going to put up that investment lightly in our partnership with you.”

Beverly Horowitz said, “People love books for children who will grow up to be adult readers.”

And Stephanie Owens Lurie indicated that research suggested, “Kids prefer physical books.”

Our first breakout offered choices A-K, where agents, art directors and editors discussed “Seven Essentials You Need to Know About...” I chose Executive Editor Jordan Brown, who said “The Number One Rule with Writing: you can do whatever you want, as long as it works.”

After a lunch in the catacomb food court of Grand Central Station, we returned for another one of eleven breakout sessions. This time I chose Senior Editor Ben Rosenthal who discussed thrillers, “You need to hook immediately; you turn on the faucet, the reader can’t (and doesn’t want to) turn it off.”

More afternoon keynotes followed. Herve Tullet, a gangly French artist, talked about a transformative presentation where he “invited a child to draw wiz me, drawing scribbles zat became an idea; from zat scribble it became a story.”

Next, author Kami Garcia admitted she “broke a lot of rules writing for a group of teens, not writing to be published.”

Afterwards, illustrators displayed their portfolios during the Art Browse, followed by a Gala Dinner and Optional Socials (for those of us still standing).

SCBWI-MI Co-RAs, Carrie Pearson and Leslie Helakoski, with Taraneh Matloob, the winner of Shutta's NY Conference Scholarship. Congrats, Taraneh!

Sunday went by like a New York minute.

Legendary children’s writer (and SCBWI’s first Regional Advisor) Jane Yolen spoke briefly, urging the crowd “No more ‘starting,’ just do it.”

Author/illustrator Laura Vaccaro Seeger effectively demonstrated the magic of her concept picture books by showing them to the audience. She suggested journals for writers and artists “so you have a place to collect your thoughts, ideas and doodles.” But she went a step beyond and numbered the pages and made a table of contents, for easy brilliance retrieval.

Best-selling author James Dashner confessed, “My method has nothing to do with trends; I write stuff that’s cool to me...there’s no magical formulas, you just have to be passionate about it.”

The Keynote Agent’s Panel featured Barry Goldblatt (who appeared at an SCBWI-MI conference a few years ago with author and wife Libba Bray). He said that an agent’s job "is 24/7; it doesn’t ever turn off.”

Jennifer Laughran said a good query letter is “long enough to cover everything but short enough to get you interested, like a gray skirt.”

Tina Wexler advises writers she needs “writing with heart, not writing to pay the bills; I want passion and you on the page.”

Finally, Newbery Award winner Kwame Alexander sent the crowd out on a delirious note. He described his unlikely rise to fame as an author and poet. His secret? “You have to say ‘Yes!’”

New York City. Editors. Agents. Authors. Illustrators. It is an experience never to be forgotten. Make it a goal to go to at least one national SCBWI conference in your lifetime; it will transform you.

Charlie Barshaw is currently stitching together the tattered remains of his middle grade story about a squirrel invasion while fiendishly contemplating major surgery on a YA WIP. He’s also co-planning a spring conference with his wife, author/illustrator Ruth McNally Barshaw.

For more highlights of the NY conference and plenty of photos, visit the official SCBWI conference blog. But first, click on the links above because Charlie carefully collected all of them for you!

Coming up on The Mitten blog: small press success, writing character emotions, and another round of Hugs and Hurrahs. Send your good news to Patti Richards ( by March 25th to be included.

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Have a great weekend!

Kristin Lenz


  1. Thanks for the recap, Charlie. It's the next best thing to being there.

  2. How awesome you got to go, Charlie. Thanks for sharing a bit by so many speakers.

  3. Thanks, Charlie--

    Makes he hanker to get to one of these...


  4. Thanks Charlie! It was fun seeing what you wrote about NY!

  5. Great quotes! Thanks for sharing with everyone.

  6. Thanks, Charlie, for helping us recharge!

  7. Great wrap-up and taste of the conference! Thanks!

  8. Thank you for sharing, Charlie. The speaker soundbites are very encouraging. And your French accent is magnifique.

  9. Great recap, Charlie! Thanks for taking the time to share and inspire.