Monday, October 13, 2008

Conference Notes: Speech by Alyssa Henkin on Agents and Writing

This is it. The last post about the SCBWI-C Conference. I hope you've all enjoyed the series. It ended up being much longer than I'd intended, but I do like to take crazy long notes.

This was the final program of the conference, a parting speech by agent Alyssa Henkin. I know some people had felt at odds with her at the conference during a workshop she gave in which she touted outlines pretty heavily (although I was not at that workshop and do not know the details). Her speech was mostly about getting an agent's attention.

Alyssa Henkin noted at the opening of her speech that this is the "most exciting yet challenging time to be a children's writer." There is more publicity than ever on who does what (therefore less of a mystic about getting published), and there are twice as many books being published for children today. However, there are also many more writers and talent out there. The opportunities are higher, but so's the competition.

Right now, there is a lot of emphasis on commercial MG (yes!), but it's important for authors to also look for the hole in the market and fill the need. Henkin suggests keeping track of deals to be aware of both what's popular now and to think about what need there is in the market for the future.

In querying, Henkin suggests that you pay attention to the basics—don't have typos, address it correctly, etc. However, also be aware of the importance of a personal rejection and utilize the specific comments that are made in them. In the end, though, don't over-analyze rejection. "It doesn't matter what it means, it means move on." Correct, change, and fix what you can, then try again with someone knew.

To improve writing, Henkin notes that critique groups are helpful but limited, and suggests professional classes, either a MFA or a class. She says it's best to learn the basics before trying anything too complicated, and to always keep kid appeal in the back of your mind.

Henkin is a staunch supporter of outlining (much to the chagrin and disapproval of many conference attendees). She also suggests character sketches to help organize the writing. Reading and "seeping in other books" is essential, as is developing a strong plot and voice. Dialog is particularly important to Henkin: "I've passed on manuscripts with dialog that didn't sound like teens." Good language, such as unique (not clichéd!) similes, are what Henkin calls "secret weapon lines" and can help sell a manuscript. In the classic question of how long is too long to work on one manuscript, Henkin says not to belabor the same manuscript and be willing to work on new and different things.

Henkin concluded her speech with an analogy between query letter writing and What Not to Wear. The classic suit that Stacy always recommends in the show is having the right basics—a good word length for the manuscript (too long can break a deal immediately), right genre, etc. Layering clothes for dimension on the show is similar to layering plot in a brief synopsis (give the synopsis a sense of the story arc—see jacket flap copy for this). The pop of color of a black dress is how the author shows how his/her work is different from others and is unique. "Contrasting with accessories" is the extras you can add to make yourself stand out: a blog with the number of hits, a biographical background in children or marketing—the things that can help Henkin "spin someone" during marketing.


PJ Hoover said...

Great post, Beth! I love the unique simile part!

Sheri Perl-Oshins said...

What struck me by this was that if it's too long, agents will pass, or if the dialog isn't right... But wouldn't an agent look at the script, and be able to look past those things, knowing they can help you cut word length, or strengthen dialog???

Unknown said...

PJ: Glad you liked!

Sheri: You know, that was part of my impression, too. I took it with a grain of salt, especially considering the Martha Mihalick/Stephanie Greene talk: from that, I really got the idea that Stephanie Greene's book needed a lot of work and revisions, but Mihalick et al were willing to do it because there were so much other stuff working for the book--good writing trumps up, and I imagine that what Henkin was talking about was the idea that un-teen-like dialog is the straw that broke the camel's back, or an indicator that the rest of the writing ISN'T good.

Susan: You were a creative writing major? I'd love to know what that was like! I went the English Lit route in order to get a more secure job than writing, but I've often wondered what it would be like to have gone the creative writing/MFA route. I took a creative writing class in my undergrad years, but I hated it--the prof started the class with "The only limitation you'll have is that you cannot write science fiction or fantasy--those are too easy."