Wordy Wednesday (“Writer’s Digest Conference NOTES, Part 5”)

You know what’s even better than all of these notes I’m giving you? A CHANCE TO ATTEND A WRITING CONFERENCE YOURSELF!! Writer’s Digest has another one coming up this February in gorgeous San Fransisco of all places, called the San Fransisco Writer’s Conference! Just follow this link to enter the contest!

Today’s WDC notes will be on Making Good Ideas Great by Jack Heffron (not to be mistaken for Zac Efron) and Kidlit Craft and Trends: How to Publish Middle Grade and YA in Today’s Hot Children’s Market by literary agent superstar Mary Kole (I literally almost started hyperventilating when I got to meet her last year — that’s how amazingly awesome she is).


Making Good Ideas Great by Jack Heffron

  • Write three sentences:
    • In the first one, use a word that is a type of flower
    • In the second one, use a word for some sort of personal quality
    • In the third one, use a word for a concrete noun – some sort of thing.
  • The person who writes the fourth sentence is the creative one. Creativity is going beyond what people are telling you to do.
  • There are no secret formulas in writing. It’s about pushing yourself to go beyond the expectations of those around you. Always be pushing beyond. Never be complacent.
  • Write passionately about your passions. Write about what you love, not what you know. Write about it in a way that feels natural to you.
  • Suspend disbelief. As you’re writing, if you’re going to be open to the possibilities of the piece and your idea – until you’ve written a complete draft – don’t be the editor or the reviewer. Don’t be the critiquer of your work. Let the team that comes after you evaluate your work, is it good or is it not good? Instead, look at the ways of pulling the full possibility out of it.
  • If you’re working on a project and you’ve got a good idea, you’ve got to be there almost every day. If you get away for too far or for too long, you stop believing in it. You’re no longer in that imaginative world. You’re no longer a part of it, so you no longer believe in it. Just keep going back to it, because as long as you do, you’re living in that world. Something completely random that happens to you – a conversation in the grocery store, etc – suddenly can be used in your book. You should see everything as a possibility to add to your book.
  • When an idea is in the early stages and still pretty fragile, don’t talk about it or show it to anyone. Keep it to yourself. Let it grow organically. Talking about your WIP makes you lose it. Keep it to yourself. Keep it internal.
  • Writers groups can be dangerous if you’re showing them things too soon. As much as we’re dying to show people something, as soon as someone tells you what they think of something, you lose a little bit of it. It’s a little less personal. Keeping something a secret makes it gain importance to you; don’t talk about it. Let it reach its full potential. It’ll be very much your world and in that world, happy accidents like conversations in the supermarket that inspire you are more likely to happen.
  • Writer’s Block doesn’t exist. It’s Writing. It’s like love – first there’s the honeymoon period, and then it starts to get tough, and it isn’t until it starts getting hard that you love it; that you prove true love.
  • Having the hard time doesn’t mean the idea’s bad, it means the idea’s asserting its independence. Let the idea talk to you, but keep control. It’s letting you know what it wants to be. There’s a sort of apartness in that process. You have to step back and let it tell you what it wants to be; let it tell you what it NEEDS to be, even if it’s different from your original core idea.
  • Even in successive drafts, it’s important to not be in a hurry; let things develop. Try out things.
  • A good idea that feels like it’s going bad doesn’t mean it’s going bad, it means that it’s blossoming into something deeper.
  • In creativity, the final product is in exploration and execution.
  • Creativity isn’t about one giant epiphany like in the movies. It takes time. It’s very interior. It takes a hundred little epiphanies that involve into something greater. It’s a matter of coming up with an idea and letting it talk to you – you’re more like a scientist than anything else.
  • Don’t see a problem as a problem; see it as an opportunity. “This piece is working well, but where are the opportunities?”
  • It’s never a story about not caring; it’s a story about caring and trying to hide it.
  • If you think something’s taking a weird turn, you think, “I don’t really want to go here,” then you’re probably onto something – writing is an act of courage. You take a solid, workable idea and turn it into something much more powerful.
  • It comes down to the questions that you ask yourself.
  • When pitching, you only have three minutes with any one person. Make those minutes count. Show why the reader should will care.
  • Is it a stupid idea, or do you look at the possibilities of your idea and how to make people care about it? If someone doesn’t care, it doesn’t mean the idea’s not good. It means that it needs to be recast, make it fresh and original, make it organic – you have to bring out the reason for the reader to care, ahead of the plot. Readers won’t care what happens if they don’t care who it happens to.
  • Share human qualities – Figure Skater who died: what does her voice sound like, what did she like to eat, what were her favorite things to do when not ice skating? – make it something other than generic. Let the reader know who these people are. The plot’s just there to let your character shine through. Don’t make your story a glorified magazine article.
  • “The beginning is exciting, but the middle lags” – the problem isn’t the middle, it’s not drawing a connection at the beginning.
  • The reader doesn’t care what happens to you. The reader cares about himself. Make sure you know what the reader’s getting, what expectations you’re creating, and know how you’re telling those truths and how they translate to you and the reader, etc. Make the experience true to the reader and something he can identify with.
  • “Too hate like this is to be happy forever” – Quote by Will Blythe
  • Publishing ultimately is a business. It’s not as much about creativity; it’s about selling books.  By trying to publish, you’re already compromised. You need to write for yourself, first and foremost; focus on the stage you’re in. Don’t worry about publishing until you get there.
  • Get a blank stare from an agent? Do they say “I can’t sell this?” It doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer, it means they literally CANNOT SELL THIS. If you’re getting feedback like “I can’t sell this,” look at possibilities for making it more saleable.

COMMERCIAL BREAK! Is this not one of the cutest pictures you’ve ever seen?

(Me and Sammy when she was a puppy — I’d just gotten her for my thirteenth birthday, here, after begging my parents for a dog basically since I learned to speak.) (I’m not kidding. I’m pretty sure my first words were, “I want a puppy.”)

Kidlit Craft and Trends: How to Publish Middle Grade and YA in Today’s Hot Children’s Market by Mary Kole

  • Your novel has to have good plot and voice
  • Kids like books that make you uncomfortable because they’re so authentic and true to life (minus picture books like this)
  • Must feel fresh and have a great voice
  • Publishing, and especially children’s publishing, loves categories
  • “good books for bad children” – what children’s books are
  • The only difference between kids and adults is a lack of experience – children are a lot smarter than adults give them credit for
  • Children’s books supporting blockbuster successes is a new thing
  • Right now there’s more pressure on titles to be saleable, have a good hook, and bring in good sales numbers right off the gate. Books used to have the chance to have time – a snowball eventually made a snowman – but now there’s pressure on the first three months before release and the first three months after. If sales don’t live up to expectations, which are constantly rising, you aren’t likely to sell your next work.
  • Publishers don’t like midlist books anymore. They like only breakout books. Breakout Books: Publishers think that they have breakout potential, so they put a lot of pressure on making them breakout from the beginning; lots of marketing and attention. It’s getting very dangerous to try to make a career as a midlist author. Your books need to have lots of enthusiasm about them. (Before I Fall, Matched, etc)
  • Breakout books are generally very high-concept and action driven.
  • Teens like ebooks. In 2011, ebook numbers doubled from 2010
  • Teens are reading ebooks – huge shift toward ereaders.
  • YA is definitely benefiting from ebooks
  • Harry Potter becoming ebooks is going to make a massive move toward ebooks for everyone
  • PB (picture book): 3-5 yrs old on younger end, 5-7 yr olds on upper. Usually under 500 words, 700 max. Tougher market, fewer houses acquiring. Text only, illustration only, or as author/illustrator.
    • Looking for cute, funny, short, and unique stories. Must be engaging for both the children AND the adults. Character driven that can turn into a series (but most pictures from debut authors start out as standalones and don’t develop until later).
    • Rhyming and traditional verse are a really hard sell right now. Bubble, Trouble by Margaret Mahey is good to look at.
    • Avoid: pets, grandma and grandpa, down on the farm, popular fictional characters (Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, etc), Mommy/Daddy loves you, first day of school/summer vacation, bedtime (especially monsters), etc.
    • Holidays are a tough sell, because your sales window is so small
    • Talking objects are a no. Children and animals are a yes.
    • You need mult. hooks or sales points (curriculum books, friendship story, diverse, recipe in the back, etc) – These are hooks. A hook is sort of like a gimmick, but not… gimmicky.
    • A world of questions and big ideas; learning a lot; rely on others for help, information, primal needs, sense of belonging; conflict, animals, friends, adventure, magic, home, imagination; struggle with fitting in, learning new things, parents, siblings, self-expression.
  • MG (middle grade): 8-10 yrs old, 10-12 yrs old. Characters must be 13 or under. Also known as “independent reader” books.
    • 35,000 words average, 60k max for fantasy/scifi – not recommended to go that long, though – this age is still very reluctant to read long books (especially boys)
    • MG is your chance to hook reluctant readers
    • Kids will “read up” so keep in mind that your audience will usually be younger than your protagonist.
    • You have to pick a lane – you can’t have an “older middle grade/young YA/tween thing” – you can be creative, but make sure to fit into one of these categories.
    • Fantasy and adventure rule the middle grade shelves. High concept, action, adventure, and fantasy rule the shelves.
    • Engage your boy readers by featuring sibling or friend groups involving both genders
    • Action/adventure and fantasy work well because MG readers want to live vicariously when their lives feel out of control and their sense of self is still evolving
    • Literary doesn’t sell well – usually only a couple literary books sell well each year (cute friendship novels)
    • Not as edgy as YA; issues usually dealt with secondhand (so sees people doing drugs, doesn’t do it themselves)
    • Very little language and content, become gatekeepers; parents, librarians, booksellers play a more active role for this age range
    • Family, friends, issues of growing up are all good ideas to explore, romance should be sweet (ie: SHRUG by Jenny Han)
    • Your story shouldn’t require a series right off the bat, though they are popular once they are launched (and launched right) – MG beginning to YA finish, like Harry Potter
    • Historical is tough, setting can’t be the plot itself; there have to be things happening on top of it
    • One of the most famous and timeless MGs is Maniac McGee
    • Portrait of a MG Reader: One word: contrasts! You want to belong and fit in, but to develop as an individual and stand out. You want to make big choices but to feel safe. Stuck between childhood and young adulthood. Remember hormones and first crushes, body issues and self-consciousness, self-centered viewpoint and decision-making, actions and consequences. Everything is new to them and this should be reflected in your descriptions of the world around your characters. How do they smell, taste, touch, and experience it.
  • YA: 12+, 14+, or even 16+ for edgiest offerings
    • Length min: 45,000, max 90,000, ultimate max: 100k
    • Taste run from sweet and literary to edgy and sophisticated
    • You don’t have to be edgy. If you’re not naturally edgy and try to be edgy, it comes across as fake; you don’t need to follow the market, do what’s real for you
    • Authenticity and truth is the most important thing – teens have a built in BS-meter
    • Paranormal and dystopian invite readers to live vicariously, flesh out romantic fantasy lives, give them control
    • Dark/death-related worlds and concepts interest teens
    • Other trends: light sci-fi, dream worlds, time travel
    • Romance is always a powerful plot driver
    • Realistic endings, idea of sacrifice and complexity
    • Thirteen Reasons Why (Jay Asher) is a fantastic example of current YA
    • Strong contemporary stories are in vogue a lot – tougher sell at some houses, but other houses are clamoring for them
    • In a trend valley right now, waiting for the next big thing to come through
    • Big concept, voice, bittersweet endings – there need to be shades of grey. You have to sacrifice to get the things that you want.
    • World of possibilities and electric firsts
    • Big things happening all at once: love, heartbreak, end of a friendship, big decisions, bigger consequences, disillusionment, first time they are really tested
    • Over-the-top reactions and lack of coping skills
    • Self-censorship and self-control are issues here
    • Self-centered viewpoint and decision making, actions and consequences
    • If your teen protagonist is too polished or composed, rough up their edges
    • Research today’s market, really pay attention to what successful creators are doing (and check in with real kids! Hahaha) (I laugh because of my age)
    • Tell the truth and be authentic, per Ursula Nordstrom
    • Get in the mindset of your audience, they want to relate to characters and stories that reflect their lives
    • Make your work fit publishing guidelines (learn the rules of the game, then win it)
  • Write Irresistible Books
  • Writing is a journey and every time you sit down to write, you get better
  • Learn to love the process or writing and revision
  • Learn to put a manuscript aside if it has stopped feeling fresh to you, and let new ideas come in
  • Suffer from a wealth of ideas, a lack of sleep, and an insatiable curiosity
  • Chapter books: max out at 15,000 words – don’t get a lot of attention (Magic Tree House) – difficult to sell
  • Fairytale retellings are big right now (so like Cinder by Marissa Meyer)

Only a few more sessions to go over! Yay!


5 thoughts on “Wordy Wednesday (“Writer’s Digest Conference NOTES, Part 5”)

  1. Thanks again for these, Jules!

    Uggggghhhh… your notes just reminded me that I have to make Nadia a little older than she is now, so I can pull myself out of the Middle Grade Muck, as I call it. (They aren’t bad books, but catering to 7-10 year olds is much harder than catering to 11-13 year olds, I’ve found) I mean, RLS is kind of literary, and it drives a message that I think the YA audience might more relate to. But I dunno. I’ll figure it out. And I’ll stop ranting about my book on your blog, lol.


    • I’d like to point out that seven year olds are in the PB-to-chapter-book range, not middle grade, and eleven to twelve year olds are generally still MG readers, not YA. 13’s the absolute youngest you can shoot for with YA, and generally then the readers are reading up a level instead of reading at the level most kids their age are. My MCs in Forgotten are 14 and 15, and I actually had an agent tell me at the conference that they might be too young, I might have to age them up a year or two, because YA readers like older teenagers.

      Something to think about. 😉


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