packaging my imagination

CANSCAIP: PACKAGING YOUR IMAGINATION 2013: a weekend of writing wisdom

For my first blog post, I thought I would share my learning’s from this weekends CANSCAIP: Packaging Your Imagination conference held at Humber College in Toronto. For those of you who don’t know what CANSCAIP is, it’s the Canadian society of children’s authors, illustrators and performers. Find out more details here. Every year, they host a conference called Packaging Your Imagination to help writers and illustrators hone skills, expand their network, and learn from others in the industry.

My writing partner-in-crime, Kristi, and I decided to sign up for the one day conference (Saturday), as well as the one day Get Published Bootcamp (Sunday). One month in advance, we also decided to take the plunge and submit excerpts from our novels for a “pitch” session. We later found out that we would both be pitching to one of Canada’s most impressive and well-respected editors. (That being said, that’s also when we labeled ourselves  certifiably insane for wanting to pitch in the first place). Needless to say, we weren’t sure that after our pitch session we would be all that motivated to come back the following day for the Get Published Bootcamp!

Creating a pitch paragraph and submitting a one thousand word excerpt was extremely daunting. I didn’t know how to go about doing it. Questions were running through my head: How do I decide what to submit? How do I explain all of the elements has to offer? How long is too long for a pitch paragraph? How will the editor understand what’s going on in my book from a measly one thousand words? How will I prevent myself from fainting upon meeting said editor?

At the Word on the Street Festival,  the amazing, inspiring (and 2013 Governor General Award winner!) Teresa Toten had expressed to me that I should submit something unique; something that would set my work apart from others in the same genre. Teresa also advised that the excerpt doesn’t necessarily need to be the most well written piece, but instead the most powerful and intriguing. Her advice was sound, but also made me even more nervous. After much poking and prodding, and slicing and dicing of a chapter I narrowed down for the submission, I obviously took her instruction seriously and chose an excerpt that focused on the cultural elements of my novel, but also a piece that showcased emotion, drama and the overarching love story. After submitting it, I had to shove all restless thoughts into my back pocket… until this weekend. It was not an easy feat.

The conference started with a quick introductory speech, and then all attendees were off to the seminars they chose. Up first, Kristi and I attended a session about overcoming our publishing humps led by publicist, cartoonist and author Evan Munday. Thirsty for knowledge, and glowing with our ever-present keenness, Kristi and I settled into our seats like school girls, ready to learn. Evan was a great presenter and intriguing to listen to. Some of the most important themes of his presentation were to know the publisher you’re sending your Query Letter to, and to participate in as many literary events as possible. Evan also described his unique, systematic way of plotting and researching his books by using Excel spreadsheets and colour coding. It’s always interesting to hear about people’s processes and what works for them.

The rest of the day included a Teen Talk seminar led by the charismatic Sylvia McNicoll (where we were exposed to some eccentric writers), and a captivating panel discussion with  Hadley Dyer, Yvette Ghione, Monica Pacheco and Wendy Mason. I was glued to my  seat and hanging onto Hadley’s every last word, as she and the rest of the panel discussed submission crimes and standout manuscripts. Note: When writing a Query Letter, that recipients don’t need to hear that you love your family and your pet dog.

Lastly, Linda Bailey was this years Keynote Speaker, and while her genre isn’t the same as my novel, I still found what she said useful. Here are a few helpful and inspiring pieces I took away from her address:

– Have faith and confidence in your writing

– Surround yourself by supportive people

– Educate yourself and do your homework. You’ve got to pay your dues.

– Don’t be afraid to change lanes (genres). Take risks!

After the Keynote, Kristi and I played the waiting game… it was almost time for our individual Pitch Perfect Sessions (cute name, eh?). Kristi went in first (and while it’s not my place to say, she obviously got great feedback), and I went in right afterwards. It was one of the most nerve-wracking things I have ever done! The clock was set for ten minutes, and in that time, I was given positive feedback, a helpful critique and a one pager of bullet points to take with me. I left feeling like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders: everything I have been working so hard on hasn’t been a waste of time! Bottom line: I need to keep going, and remain inspired! It was an incredible experience, and the only disappointing aspect of the session is that we only got ten minutes to chat. And while I knew that going in, I didn’t realize how quickly time would fly! If anyone ever has the opportunity to sit down and pitch to someone in the industry, I strongly recommend taking the plunge, no matter how timid your are, or how much self doubt you have. It’s only going to make you a better writer. I feel better already 🙂

Today was the Get Published Bootcamp, which Kristi and I felt a bit more confident going into after our pitch sessions. And while the Bootcamp confirmed that we still have such a long way to go (editing never ends!), it was extremely valuable. The first speaker of the day was Vikki VanSickle, who works in marketing and publicity at Penguin and has published four middle grade novels. Some key takeaways from Vikki that I found useful (beyond the social media elements, since I work in digital media and know a lot about social already) were:

– Tell everyone about your book. Don’t ever discount your personal network

-When looking for an agent, look at books that you enjoy reading and that are within your genre, then flip to the acknowledgements section. Authors often thank their agents.

– Using “comps”  (comparative titles) in your Query Letter is extremely important

– Learn your elevator pitch

– Be your brand

– Blogging Tips (Hence me starting this blog right this second).

After a fantastic morning, the afternoon session was led by Cynthia Good, former president and publisher of Penguin Canada and the current director of Humber’s Creative Book Publishing Program. Cynthia is extremely well-versed in creating Query Letters, manuscript submissions and publishing houses in Canada. One thing she mentioned was that US agents are almost impossible for Canadians to get, which discouraged me a bit. She said that a lot of US agents will put a Canadian return address to the bottom of their pile, and that sticking with Canadian agents and publishers means it is easier to make a connection. I understand how this is the case, but I still think that if a writer wants to pursue a US agent, they should go for it, and not be deterred. What’s another rejection letter to a pile of them anyway? (This is me trying to develop a thick skin in advance to minimize disappointment. See what I’m doing here?) Cynthia also gave encouraging stats on format market share in Canada (only 18% of books are ebooks) and also discussed new products in the marketplace (Kindle Matchbook, and the Harper Collins and Scribd partnership, to name a few).

All in all, PYI2013 was a great experience, and motivated me to buckle down. I learned a lot, and enjoyed meeting industry experts and acting as a ‘sponge’ for the weekend, trying to absorb as much information as humanly possible. And while at times I felt a little discouraged about the way the Canadian publishing industry was being showcased, I appreciated the honesty and candidness of all the speakers. I know it’s a long road, and I’ve still got a ways to go. But right now, I just have to relish in the ride and keep doing what I’m doing. I’m still enjoying it, after all. And isn’t that what it’s all about?

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