Truth Seeking at the SCBWI Summer Conference

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In June of 2014 I graduated from Cal State San Bernardino with an MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) in Fiction. My thesis project was a young adult novel called Proficiency. It is the book that I hope will be my debut novel.

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After grad school I was exhausted. It was a full time program, and I worked a 60% teaching assignment while completing it. (What can I say, I had bills to pay.) I also wanted to spend some time with my family and a little bit of time with my friends too. I didn’t have much of a social life, but I didn’t want it to die completely.

During the following year I gave myself some room to breathe; I needed time to recuperate. So, I continued to work my part time teaching assignment, lead two creative writing workshops, learned how to be social again (sort of), and tried to figure out what to do with my novel.

You see, the sad truth was that, even after two years of grad school, my novel wasn’t done. It needed more time to bake, and a few more ingredients. Unfortunately, I didn’t know what those ingredients were.

Everyone kept asking me when the novel would be out and I had absolutely no idea what to say. I wanted it to be done, oh how I wanted it to be, but I couldn’t bring myself to begin submitting it to agents.

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So, I turned to my wonderful writing group. They became my beta readers and, after reading my entire manuscript, they came back to me with feedback. Some of what they said I was expecting, other suggestions were a complete surprise, all of it was helpful. (Thank you, guys.) Unfortunately, I still didn’t know what to do. There were structural issues with the novel and I couldn’t figure out how to fix them.

So, I made the revisions I could and took another break.

I first submitted my completed thesis in May 2014. After the suggestions from my beta readers it took me until March of 2015 to write a new draft. Unfortunately, the manuscript still wasn’t where it should be, and I knew it. I also knew that you DO NOT start looking for an agent until your manuscript IS ready.

So, I did what all writers should do when they feel stuck. I signed up to attend a conference and I paid extra for a manuscript consultation. For me, the conference was SCBWI’s Annual Summer Conference.

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SCBWI is the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Every summer they invite their members to meet in LA for a magical and inspiring weekend of break out sessions and key note speakers. It was amazing and completely worth the money. (Sorry to be the one to tell you, but conferences can get pretty expensive.)

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At SCBWI, when you sign up for a manuscript consultation you submit the first ten pages of your novel with a short synopsis. Your consultant then reads these materials and prepares comments. The two of you then meet together during the conference for a twenty minute conversation.

My manuscript consultation was with Jenny Bent of the Bent Agency. She gave me some wonderful feedback about what was and wasn’t working in the story. Then she made a suggestion that completely changed the way I thought about my book.

She wanted me to consider reworking the manuscript into a middle grade novel instead of a young adult one.

I have to admit to being a little surprised that first moment. But almost immediately I begin to sense creative stirrings. The more I thought about it, the better I felt. I spent a week reflecting on the suggestion, rereading my entire manuscript, and brainstorming with a few of the people in my writing group.

Then, in only a month, I revised the entire manuscript and wrote the missing scenes that were needed at the end. A month. It had taken me almost a year for my previous draft.

This is absolutely amazing to be. It also brings me to the point of this post; the truth I have learned.

The right suggestion, at the right time, can be exactly what you need to hear to write. So, get out there, share your work, and listen for the comments that will change your life.

That, my friends, is how I became a middle grade author.

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