Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Conference Reflections: Lisa Ann Sandell of Scholastic

Ever been to one of those conferences where the presentations cover information you already knew or had heard so many times before? Well, that wasn't the case at the recent Houston SCBWI "Reach for the Stars" conference. All the speakers were excellent, and so many people-- beginning writers, seasoned writers, and everything in between-- complimented the quality of the speakers.

For the next few days, those of us who attended will be posting about the conference. See Laura's post about Nancy Feresten of National Geographic.

Author and editor Lisa Ann Sandell of Scholastic gave a presentation on "Breaking Through the Black Hole (aka The Editor's Desk)." Lisa has been with Scholastic for about 10 years, and works mostly with mid-grade and young adult novels. The books she's worked on include the Charlie Bone series by Jenny Nimmo, The Fire Eternal by Chris D'Lacey, and Does My Head Look Big In This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah. An upcoming book she's excited about is Shadow by our own Jenny Moss!

If you've browsed through the young adult section of a bookstore lately, you've probably noticed a lot of paranormal books on the shelves. So many of us love reading them, too, but Lisa's noticed that it's getting harder for books in that genre to stand out. She also sees plenty of fantasy submissions and wonders if that genre has peaked. She sees more potential for growth in mid-grade books, and predicts that mysteries and thrillers are about to hit it big.

So what is she looking for? The book that hasn't been written yet. She likes to see a compelling hook on the first page, an original voice, something different from anything she's ever read. Whatever the story is, readers need to feel that the book is relevant to them, that the stories and characters are relevant to their lives. They need to be invested in the characters. The book needs to feel important to today's readers but have staying power too.

Lisa advises authors to find an agent, because they can fend for you in the best way.

She gave great advice on writing a stellar query letter. Here are a couple of her tips:
Keep the letter straightforward, with a concise summary of the plot and characters.
Focus on your story-- don't include a marketing plan or comparisons to other books.
Be yourself, because that will ring true. Can you write a description of your book on a 3 x 5 card? What about on a Post-it note? (I'm sure she means the regular size-- don't go out and get the poster size, you cheaters.) Keep that note at your writing table so you can refer to it now and then.

I was lucky enough to talk to Lisa at the pre-conference party, and again during my conference critique of my work-in-progress. Besides being a super-nice person who loves books, she was so helpful in discussing where my story is going and what I can do when I revise to make it better.

One thing I've noticed from the presentations here and at other conferences and workshops is that the popularity of different genres is cyclical. Several years ago, YA novels were hard to sell, and everyone wanted picture books. Now the YA market is huge, and as those who write picture books know, it's harder than ever to get an editor or agent interested in acquiring a picture book manuscript. I'm sure vampires and other paranormal creatures will never go away (especially if they're in the form of teenage boys with abs of marble), but maybe we are getting to the point at which people are saying, "Enough paranormal! Give me something else!" And that something else could be a mid-grade mystery, a picture book, or whatever you're writing right now.

We'd like to thank Vonna Carter for her awesomeness and for letting us lift pictures from her site, since none of us dorks thought to take any at the time. Visit her website to see more pictures and conference posts.


  1. Thanks for the scoop, Lynne! This was great!

  2. Good info. It's interesting to hear what editors are up to and looking for. (Even though my WIP is paranormal. ;->)

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