Thursday, June 12, 2014

Executive Editor Jill Santopolo: #LA14SCBWI Interview

Your opportunity to take advantage of early-bird registration is ending soon. Save a little by registering for the conference on or before June 15. 

Whether you're already registered, or planning on doing so soon, do consider adding the Monday intensives to your conference schedule. The intensives are just as they sound: concentrated, intimate, and valuable. 

Photo Credit: Michele Arlotta
One of the faculty members who will be leading an intensive is Jill Santopolo. I've had the pleasure of learning from Jill in many settings: retreat, intensive, conference break-out, and she is fantastic. This is a wonderful opportunity to learn from not only an executive editor but a successful author. Learn more about her intensive in the interview below.

Jill Santopolo is an executive editor at Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group, a division of Penguin Random House. Her list includes many award-winning and New York Times best-selling authors including T.A. Barron, Floyd Cooper, Andrea Cremer, Olivier Dunrea, Lisa Graff, Alex London, Erin Moulton and Jane Yolen. Jill holds an MFA in Writing for Children from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and is the author of the Alec Flint series (Scholastic), the Sparkle Spa series (S&S), and the Follow Your Heart series (Puffin).  
It’s so great to see you’re part of the faculty for this summer’s conference. You were so well received at the winter conference. 

It’s so great to be part of the faculty! I had such a great time talking plot at the winter conference—I’m excited to go even more in-depth this time around.

At the winter conference you were part of the full-day plot intensive (with other editors and writers), and in LA you will be offering a 3-hour plot intensive. For those considering registering for the intensives who should hurry to grab up a spot before they’re gone?

I think my plot intensive will be helpful for writers in two different places in their book-writing process. First, I think it’ll help writers who have a nugget of an idea and want to flesh it out into a fully-formed story arc before they begin a first draft. Second, I think it’ll help writers who have written a first draft, but feel like the story is murky in the middle, or who have been getting feedback that not much happens or that there’s a lack of tension in their manuscript. The plot intensive should help writers in that second category diagnose plot problems and prepare them to tackle a plot-focused revision.

Can you give us just a peek inside your 3-hour intensive, From Beginning to End: Tips on Plotting Your Plot? 

Absolutely! We’re going to start small and go bigger and bigger and bigger, with a ton of exercises along the way. When people leave the intensive, they should have: An elevator pitch, a synopsis, a broad plot outline, a detailed plot outline, an emotional heartline, a story timeline, and a chapter-by-chapter manuscript outline, which should be the perfect jumping off point for beginning either a first draft or a revision.

I know many of those in attendance in NY felt your talk on plot helped them rethink their synopses. Perhaps this was an unexpected connection. Do you think some of your plotting tools are also helpful for synopsis writing?

 I don’t think the connection was unexpected at all. I think plotting and synopsis writing are similar because they both require breaking down the novel’s action in different ways. In fact, writing a synopsis will be part of the plot intensive.

Do you feel there is an element of plot that is often lacking or missing altogether in submission you receive?

I don’t think there’s anything that’s often missing altogether, but I do find that often the rising action could use some extra attention. A writer I once worked with told me that his mother, who was a writer herself, taught him that he had to torture his protagonist. It’s hard to do that sometimes, but when plots really work it tends to be because a protagonist keeps coming up against obstacles over and over again and then has to overcome them in new and different (and exciting) ways.

Are there any books that you’ve worked on that you think have especially well-crafted plots?

I think all of the authors I work with are pretty great plotters, but I’d suggest reading Proxy by Alex London andNightshade by Andrea Cremer if you want to see some extra intense, exciting plotting.

Follow Jill on Twitter @JillSantopolo.

Register for the conference and intensives here. Remember the final day for early-bird pricing is June15th. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

Kate Messner: Pre-#NY14SCBWI Interview

Kate Messner is the award-winning author of more than twenty current and forthcoming books for young readers. Kate’s titles include picture books like Over and Under the Snow, the Marty McGuire chapter book series, and middle grade novels like Wake Up Missing, Capture The Flag, and Hide And Seek. Kate’s books have been honored with the E.B. White Read Aloud Medal, and SCBWI’s Golden Kite Award for Picture Book Text; included on the New York Times Notable, ALSC Notable, CBC Outstanding Trade Books for Science, and Bank Street College’s Best Books for Children lists; and nominated for fourteen state book awards.  Kate spoke at the 2012 TED Conference and is a frequent presenter at schools, libraries, and conferences for writers and educators. Find her on Twitter @KateMessner and at

You were a middle school teacher, and, at least for a time, both writer and teacher. Can you share with us how teaching has influenced your writing, and how you balanced the two?

I spent fifteen years teaching middle school English and put, quite literally, thousands of books in kids’ hands during those years.  Handing a student that “just-right” book was one of my favorite parts of my job, and it led to me think a lot about what makes kids love a novel.  That’s one of the things that got me writing more seriously while I was teaching. In those days, my writing time was from about nine o’clock at night until midnight, and that’s how my first half dozen books were written.

Visiting schools to give presentations and do writing workshops with kids is still one of my favorite parts of my job. People ask me sometimes how I get the kids in my books to sound like real kids, and for me, it comes down to knowing how kids talk and think and what it feels like to be twelve. I still have all of those students’ voices in my head and their dreams and hopes and worries in my heart.

You have written many books for kids, ranging from picture books to novels. Is your process for each format the same, or does it change depending on the project?

It’s different for every project, and while I wish I could tell you that I have a “picture book process” or “novel-writing process” down pat, even that isn’t true.  While I do have a very general process (think and research – draft fast – revise fearlessly again and again) I’ve found that every book is different in what it demands of me.  If they’re at all unique, books can’t follow a cookie-cutter process, so I find myself inventing new planning and revision tools for every new book, and they’re not always useful later on.

Case in point: my science thriller WAKE UP MISSING has a main character with a concussion, which makes her narration shaky and unreliable at times. She’s receiving treatment through part of the book but not other parts, and when I was revising, I was worried that her actions and thoughts weren’t consistent with her post-concussion symptoms. The solution? I designed a chapter-day-symptom-treatment-thinking-emotion chart so that I could track, chapter by chapter, whether or not Cat’s symptoms were making sense with the other elements of the story. It was incredibly useful and helped me solve a lot of problems with that book, but is it going to come in handy again? Probably not!

In 2012 your picture book OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW won the SCBWI Golden Kite Award for picture book text. Can you share a little about that experience and the role SCBWI has played in your writing life?

I still remember getting that phone call from Lin Oliver. I was actually in California at the time, getting ready for the TED Talk I gave in 2012. Hearing all the other speakers at TED that week was a gift of an experience and I was quite literally walking back to my hotel room after one of the speaker sessions, thinking “Days don’t get much better than this,” when my cell phone rang and...well...the day got even better. Learning that OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW won the Golden Kite Award for picture book text was one of the most exciting things that’s happened in my writing life because it comes from my fellow writers in an organization that really forms the heart of our community. The New England SCBWI Conference is where I attended my first writing workshops and learned about agents and editors. It’s where I was inspired by speakers like Bruce Coville and Laurie Halse Anderson and Cynthia Lord.  It’s where I met my first writer pals – who are now not just critique buddies but some of my best friends in the world. So yes...that Golden Kite phone call made me a little weepy in the best possible way.

At the upcoming conference, you’ll be giving keynote, but you’ll also be presenting at the sold-out Plot Intensive. Do you tend to start your projects with plot?

I’m learning, answering your questions, that there aren’t a lot of “usuallys” in my writing world because my ideas come to me in all different shapes. SUGAR AND ICE, for example, started with character and setting – a figure skater and a maple farm. CAPTURE THE FLAG started with genre and setting – I remember thinking, “I want to write a mystery set in a snowed-in airport!” and taking it from there.  And Marty McGuire, of course, is all about character – Marty herself.

But plot is such an essential piece of the puzzle for any book we want kids to keep reading, so whether or not it’s the starting point, it’s something I always spend lots of time on. Usually, my plot outlines start out incredibly rough – a few scribbled lines in a notebook. From there, I do a rough outline in Scrivener, the writing software I use, and then I start writing.  Most days, after I write a scene or two, I go back and revise my outline, so it’s not a strict guideline but more of a fluid document that changes as I grow to understand my characters more fully. Plot that doesn’t grow out of character often feels forced to me, so it’s not often helpful for me to think about the two as if they’re separate elements of writing. I absolutely love to talk about planning and plotting, though, so I’m incredibly excited for the plot intensive. Any time I participate in a group workshop like this, I always learn so much preparing for my talk, and then on the day of the event, I inevitably learn at least as much as I teach. It should be a terrific day!

You can still register for the upcoming SCBWI Winter Conference HERE. It's right around the corner!