Holy Houston Conference Cow!

Every once in a while, awesomeness just sneaks up on you. If you were at the Houston SCBWI conference this past week, it snuck up on you with waving pompoms and a 100-megawatt smile in the form of agent Sara Megibow. Or with a series of side-splitting illustrations and personal stories that ranged from the hilarious to the heartbreaking, from keynote speaker Ruth McNally Barshaw.*

The presentation I want to touch on today was given by the glamorous and thoughtful Abby Ranger, editor at Disney/Hyperion. For some reason, every one of her talking points hit home, sent me scrambling for my pen, and started off a rainstorm of ideas in my mind (now a bunch of garbled notes on my spiral notebook, but I’m working on getting them into the computer!). Her talk was titled “Ten Universal Tenets of Story (What movies taught me about the craft of fiction),” and early on she referenced my new favorite writing book, so I was hooked.

Now, be warned: I’m not going to give everything she said away here. For one thing, I’m too lazy, and you know I type with five fingers like a deformed T-Rex anyway. But also, her talk was so in-depth, there’s no way I could do it justice… and she’s planning to revisit it at another conference — so sign up and get the rest yourself!

Here are her 10 Tenets:

1. The Power of Premise – pretty self-explanatory. Do you have a plot? How about a unique one? If you don’t have a unique idea, well, that’s a harder sell. Put some thought into this before you write that next novel.

2. A Hero Who Wants Something. A lot of main characters Ms. Ranger sees in slush manuscripts don’t have clearly defined goals. The more important/exciting the goal, the more engaged the reader will be.

3. Write the beginning last. Okay, I’ll admit, I don’t do this. I write the beginning first, then sometimes again in the middle, and sometimes last, too.

4. Save The Cat. If you don’t know what this means, buy the book. Stop writing, and buy this book before you make All The Mistakes again. Ms. Ranger recommends spending time examining the 15 Beats section with your manuscript idea.

5. Sympathize with your villains.

6. Contradictions are more interesting than quirks. Regarding characters, that is. Quirky authors are just fine. Give your characters contradictions to have them stick with your reader, not just a funny mustache and a limp. (Reference:  Robert McKee’s book, STORY)

7. Make it about something. Thematically speaking, not just plot-wise. What is your theme? The need for acceptance? The cost of vengeance? The value of friendship? The eternal necessity of chocolate?

8. Good dialogue has subtext.

9. Make things worse… then worse again.

10. Heroes are people who change. True transformation can’t happen spontaneously; change takes work.

So, that’s what you’re getting form me. For more and better coverage, check out Shelli Cornelison’s blog on the Houston SCBWI shindig. Great job, Houston!

Next time, I’ll share some excerpts from the deeply inappropriate rhyming picture book I wrote during the twenty minutes I *wasn’t* writing down Vastly Important Notes. Wait for it.

Write well this week!

* I read Ms. Barshaw’s first Ellie McDoodle book at the conference, HAVE PEN, WILL TRAVEL, and had a hard time not giggling out loud repeatedly. This is a great book! I wish I’d bought the others. If you have a reluctant reader, or a kid who liked WIMPY KID or NATE, buy these now!

Posted in Children's Fiction, People I Love on 04/11/2011 06:52 pm


  1. Hahaha — you five-finger typist. You read faster than anyone else on the planet so I’m pretty sure it balances out. Next year, we remember to bring our own wine and pack the chocolate for the pre-conference convention in the lobby! 🙂


  2. Great information. Thanks for sharing this, Nikki. Just ordered the book, Save the Cat. 🙂


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