Diana Renn

Mysteries that Matter


Spring brings showers — for me, showers of new information and new friends and contacts. It’s conference season, the time of year I like to put on actual clothes (as opposed to the pajamas I work in most days) and emerge from my cave. In years past, I attended teacher’s and textbook writer’s conferences; now, on a hiatus from teaching, I try to attend more events for creative writers. Earlier this month I attended Grub Street’s Muse and the Marketplace, and this weekend I went to the NESCBWI conference for the first time.

I’m relatively new to SCBWI (the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) and completely new to NESCBWI (the New England chapter). Why did I wait so long to join this amazing organization? I don’t know. Maybe I just found the acronym intimidating, or had trouble typing and saying it. Now, after this weekend, it rolls off my tongue. I cannot say enough wonderful things about this group. It was exciting to spend the weekend in the company of 500+ attendees who are all passionate about children’s fiction.

I could only attend two out of three days, due to a schedule conflict with a taiko drumming performance I was in (more on that later this week) and a desire to not completely abandon my child all weekend. Not staying on site also meant an hour’s commute to Fitchburg each way. But my long hours on the road were completely worth it. Highlights included:

  • A workshop with Janet Fox on “Elusive Elision” — deciding when to hold back and when to reveal — a craft issue I thought about a lot during my last novel revision. Extremely useful. 
  • A workshop with Susan Raab on promotion strategies and finding your marketing voice.
  • A panel discussion with Tony Abbott, Elise Broach, and Nora Baskin on sustaining a long-term career as a children’s author.
  • A sparkling discussion on multicultural fiction, with authors and illustrators of picture books, MG books, and YA books.

I also met up with four fellow Apocalypsies (2012 kidlit debut authors) for lots of shop-talk, and greatly enjoyed getting to know them in person. Email’s great and all, but there’s no substitute for a good old-fashioned face-to-face conversation. And it’s always so great to meet other writers and hear about where they are on this journey.

There are lots of good people working hard to write and sell top-notch books for children. The seriousness of attendees struck me the most. Yes, we’re all writing for children, and maybe (I thought, on occasion) we could lighten up at times. But I think we all have this great hunger for information on craft and promotion. When we get to a conference like this, we’re greedy. We don’t want to waste a minute. We want to write great books. We want to get them into the hands of readers. It’s a fun job, and a serious business.

I’ll be back next year at this gem of a conference, hopefully presenting with some colleagues!

This weekend I attended my favorite writer’s conference: Grub Street‘s Muse and the Marketplace, at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel. I’ve been going to this conference since its earliest days, when it was a simple one-day affair. Now it’s exploded into a jam-packed two-day event that draws attendees from all over the country and attracts high-profile keynote speakers such as Ann Patchett, Chuck Pahlaniuk, Jonathan Franzen, and, this year, one of my all-time favorite authors, Ron Carlson. I love how the conference is true to its name, devoting equal attention to matters of the Muse (sessions focused on craft and inspiration) and the Marketplace (everything from acquiring an agent to promoting your published book).

The conference was more of a whirlwind for me than before as I could only attend on one day. I was a sponge during sessions, drinking in all the wisdom I could from workshop leaders and panelists, and then rather frantically trying to connect with old friends and meet people between sessions or bites of food.

Among the many highlights of the day:

  • Kidlit author Ben Winters led an energetic workshop on “Writing Funny for Young Readers.” We analyzed a number of passages from successful and classic kids’ books (Tom Sawyer, Anastasia Krupnik, Beezus and Ramona, among others) to see how tone, character, and conflicts can be vehicles for humor, and vice versa. We also brainstormed what’s funny for kids, and how to be consistent. Some of the passages we looked at were from books I hadn’t read since childhood, but instantly remembered — and now, looking back through an analytical lens, could see why I loved them, what made them sing.The workshop was MG (middle grade) focused, and did not really get into YA (young adult) humor, so I’ll puzzle over humor and the older market on my own time.
  • Acclaimed author Randy Susan Meyers  led a panel discussion with an in-house publicist and a freelance publicist to discuss how authors might leverage both to promote their books. I’m not yet sure if I’d hire an outside publicist, mainly due to cost, but I took away a number of tips for working with publicists when the time comes, and gained a new appreciation for the power of having a team of people involved in promoting your book — and the importance of communicating well with that team. (Plus, if you have never heard Randy speak, you must drop everything and get to one of her book readings or talks ASAP. She is that rare combination of brilliant and funny. She could talk about anything — publicity, her novel, broccoli — and I would go hear her).
  • Ron Carlson gave an inspiring keynote speech. I had chills when he took the stage; I own every book of short stories this guy has written. (I’ve read one of his novels, but prefer his stories for some reason). I’ve been recommending his book on craft, Ron Carlson Writes a Story, for years, and it was great to hear him  give voice to some of the ideas expressed there, such as the need for the writer to “stay in the room” — not to leave the room, desk, or scene when the going gets tough, because the best material usually arises when you stay and proceed ahead into the unknown, toward doubt.
  • Jenna Blum, Ethan Gilsdorf, and Jonathan Papernick gave a rousing “Hour of Power” talk at the end of the day: Guerilla Book Promotion. All three have engaged in innovative strategies to promote their own books. Jenna has visited countless bookclubs and chases tornadoes. Ethan scheduled his own book tour and finds unique book-related venues at which he can speak or give workshops. Jonathan (a.k.a. “Papernick the Book Peddler”) hand-sells his books from a pushcart in New York City and appears at Farmers Markets (where, as he put it, he doesn’t have to compete with the likes of Jonathan Franzen; he’s just competing with vegetables). 

A full day, which I’m grateful I could enjoy. I’m ready to hit the desk again this week and finish Phase One of my revision. As always after the Muse, I’m in awe of how many writers come to conferences, how many of us are engaged in this zany and wonderful pursuit of putting words on a blank page, and how book culture and reading are alive and well.