Oct 4, 2017

Conference Takeaways–Engage Your Readers

compiled by Kristi Wright

In August, many of our members attended our regional SCBWI Agents Day in the San Francisco Bay Area. We came away with many ideas about craft and nuggets wisdom. We’ve compiled some of our insights from the conference for you here. We hope they inspire you in your own writing!

From Jen:

It was an amazing day. I loved that it was so focused on craft. I learned so much! Here are some takeaways:

  • In Mary Kole’s interiority presentation, she mentioned that readers like to be part of the discovery process. They want to play an active role in getting to know characters and story. If you tell them everything, they’re outsiders with no stake. So, this is the reason behind showing, not telling. If you say, “Josh was sad,” it shortcuts the discovery process, so the reader isn’t invested. Whereas, if you say, “Josh opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. He looked away, hoping no one would notice as he tried in vain to swallow the enormous lump in his throat,” then the reader is picturing all of this and feeling the feelings, and thus gets to be part of the discovery process.
  • In Kurestin Armada’s First Pages presentation, she had us map out the sentences in our first pages according to their purpose. The interesting thing was that the ideal mapping depends on what kind of book you’re writing. For example, in a book that will be part of a series, the first fives pages of the first book need to have a lot of character building, because the bond with the character needs to be strong enough to carry the reader through all of the books.
  • In Taylor Martindale Kean’s Voice presentation, she defined voice: the emotional atmosphere of the book. She had a couple of recommendations, but one that stuck with me was that the voice of your character should be authentic to that character. Not to the writer, not to the generic kid, but to that character. It seems kind of obvious but it’s also a difficult thing to put into practice and is a good reminder. 
  • In Natalie Lakosil’s Revision exercise, she mentioned the SCBWI Gold Form. I’d never heard of this and it’s a wonderful framework for a critique.
    • editor’s note: Here are the elements included on the Gold Form: The positive aspects of this work, The elements that require attention and improvement, Notes on character development, Notes on plot/structure, Notes on language/diction, Notes on voice, Notes on marketability, Next steps, Additional comments.

From Anne-Marie:

  • I loved Natalie’s reminder to be clear about your own purpose/intentions for your work as you receive feedback so that you can evaluate whether the feedback is useful or not. I also appreciated her reminder to listen to what’s behind the feedback: someone might say there’s a pacing issue, but it might actually be that they’re not connecting with the character.   
  • I also really appreciated seeing Kurestin’s breakdowns of character building, world building, and plot in opening pages. It was good to see the differences in categories (more character building in chapter books, for instance), and helpful to see how all three are necessary and intertwined.
  • And Mary Kole was amazing. Her distinction that there’s something more than the showing and telling dichotomy–that interiority is giving emotional context, the characters’ thoughts and reactions, and is necessary to our connection to the character–is gold.

From Michael:

  • Be specific. Show readers why your character feels the way they feel. Show the thought that sparks their feelings. (I think all that was Mary Kole.)
  • Another gem (Natalie, I think)–Paraphrasing her: “How do you know you’re ready to submit? If you feel very inspired when you leave here today, you probably have further to go. On the other hand, if you think: ‘I have twenty critique partners and I have gone as far as I can with revisions and I know all this stuff,’ then you may be ready to submit.”

From Sonya: Natalie Lakosil recommended that we all TAKE A BREAK! In longer form, it’s good–even necessary–to take a break from your project before you dive into revisions to gain valuable perspective.

From Gwen: “And? So?” Mary Kole said to ask yourself this when you’re fleshing out your character’s interior thoughts. The idea is to use these questions to make you go a level deeper.

And from me, Kristi:

The day had so many actionable nuggets. In addition to the wise comments above, here are a few more that especially resonated for me.

  • Both Mary and Taylor spoke to the idea of specificity when it comes to bringing your characters to life. Mary reminded us that everyone experiences emotions differently. Writers need to show readers what their main character’s unique version of an emotion is. Interiority equals the personal part of Voice, and the best interiority is specific. For Taylor, Character Voice is about being super specific and individualized as well. “We want to know what this particular character would feel and sound like.”
  • I also loved Mary’s discussion on how as the author, you are the spotlight operator. You get to decide where to shine the spotlight. And where you shine that spotlight, you are telling the readers to PAY ATTENTION. So, you need to be careful not to misdirect the reader by accident. If your character has a huge reaction to something, it better be important because that huge reaction will make the moment seem bigger!
  • Also, Mary’s reminder that the protagonist MUST be empowered and drive the story is something that I personally need to be told on a daily basis.
  • I’m excited to try the dot test that Natalie recommended for plot revision where you draw a line and place a dot for chapter 1 on that line. Then for the next chapter, you place a dot either above the line or below the line depending on if the stakes are higher. Next chapter, the dot either goes above or below the previous dot, depending on whether the stakes are higher. You do this for the whole story and determine whether the graph approximates a story arc.

It’s always a good day when you get to hang out with other writers and explore things like character interiority, character voice, show vs. tell, what makes for a strong opening, and revision. SCBWI SF/South Agents Day was a very good day. Time for me to go shine a spotlight on some pivotal turning points in my current work in progress!



  1. This was a very helpful and informative post. Thanks! BTW, Is there any way to access the Gold Form you mentioned?

  2. LA Biscay says:

    Awesome summary! I need to apply the “dot test”!


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