Tales from a Web Librarian

Southampton Writers Conference

I am so thankful I had the opportunity to participate in this year’s Southampton Writers Conference. I’ve known about this conference for quite a few years but understood it to be very competitive, expensive, and solely for an elite class of wordsmiths. I had no idea there was an entire portion dedicated to writing children’s literature! If it wasn’t for the Fellows program, I wouldn’t have dared apply. But now that I’ve experienced it, I want to go every year!

The conference itself was magical. From July 19th - July 23rd, I was entirely focused on writing. Writing hasn’t been my priority in recent years, but during those 5 days it was everything. I existed in a tiny bubble of creativity with people who understood The Struggle. Everyone I encountered became a fast-friend. Regardless of age or writing genre, we all struggled with the same problems and insecurities. It was challenging, exhausting, and exhilarating and, somehow, I left with renewed confidence in my ability to get words onto paper.

I arrived at the conference on Wednesday afternoon and went over to Duke Hall for the welcome/orientation. Afterward, all new conference attendees were put into groups (Children’s Literature Fellows together!) for an ice-breaker scavenger hunt. It was a fun way to get to know everyone, as we were forced to do semi-embarrassing, writing-focused activities. These included recreating the story of Moby Dick in a 30-second film, writing the vows of two unlikely literary characters (we chose Christian Grey and the Cheshire Cat), writing a back-cover blurb about a cheesy book based on its cover, and mashing up poetry to Britney Spears’s “Baby One More Time.” Much to everyone’s chagrin, we were asked to perform everything in front of the other conference attendees and a panel of judges. Somehow my group secured the 2nd place title, so I guess we didn’t do too bad!

Afterward, everyone retreated to the outside tents to enjoy a couple glasses of wine before dinner. Emma grabbed a table for all the picture book authors, which gave us a chance to talk about what we would be working on in the coming days. Most of the picture book authors were part of the Children’s Lit Fellowship, but a few were attending the conference independent of a program. They shared some of their challenges querying agents or trying to publish and it really highlighted how valuable it is to be a fellow. Most of the fellows have never published in the genre before (or even allowed someone to read our work!) but our program really dives into each step of the writing and publishing process.

One of the greatest aspects of the conference was hearing from other writers about their process. Favorites included Meg Wolitzer, Lucas Hnath, Patty Marx, Matthew Klam, Roger Rosenblatt, and of course the wonderful children/YA authors Emma Walton Hamilton, Patty McCormick, and Maryrose Wood. I really enjoyed seeing Lucas’s writing and revision process (I can’t imagine throwing away a perfectly good draft just to see if you can write it from memory), and Roger Rosenblatt’s classes were both fantastic and terrifying (thank goodness he didn’t call on me). Every lecture was both humbling and validating: no, you won’t be able to quit your day job writing picture books; yes, we all feel like terrible writers sometimes; yes, you can call yourself a writer even if you haven’t published anything; and, just because one person rejects your story doesn’t mean someone else won’t accept it.

Amid copious notes, I was able to pull out some of my key takeaways: revision can start at the earliest idea; have someone read your work aloud; go through your work and describe everything that works and why; go through everything that didn’t work, why it didn’t work, and why it matters that it didn’t work; propose ideas to fix what didn’t work; watch out for transition language; identify what’s at stake, the action, the verb, what happens in a scene that tips over and causes something else to happen, and then identify the consequence of that happening; don’t try to solve the problems of your manuscript IN your manuscript (edit in a safe space OUTSIDE of it); read your story backwards; good writing reflects the process not the person; a well-structured middle is just a series of discreet adventures and mini-stories; never underestimate the power of three; show over tell - art is the adjective and adverb; every page turn should be a revelation with more information uncovered; know your central dramatic question; know what want to leave a reader thinking/feeling; your main character should end somewhere emotionally or physically different than where they started.

The most intense and intimate parts of the conference were definitely the workshop sessions. During these three-hour long sessions, we closely examined each picture book manuscript and offered suggestions, worked through plotlines, explored character arcs, learned do’s and don’ts, and really uncovered the key elements of telling a successful picture book story. It was like therapy. We offered up very personal parts of ourselves, our creations, in order to make them stronger. We spent about an hour workshopping each and without fail, around minute 45 something magical would happen: we would hit on something and it suddenly became clear how to make the story better. Every single manuscript. I came away with a deep connection to every author in that room -- like we had been friends for years! I’m so excited to reconnect with everyone in January!

My manuscripts are currently in a state of fabulous disarray. I learned so much and I’m slowly attempting to infuse that knowledge into my stories. I’ve gone back to my first manuscript and started rewriting it in verse (inspired by Jennifer Young’s story!). I’m not sure if it will work, but I like how it’s going so far. I’m also in the process of storyboarding both manuscripts. I'm planning to spend a good chunk of time in August writing and exploring these ideas more fully!

Dana Haugh