For the sixth year in a row, SCBWI’s MidSouth conference sold out as it drew 215 authors and illustrators from as far away as Texas and Ohio to gather on September 12 at the Embassy Suites in Franklin, Tenn. With an emphasis on craft, the MidSouth conference featured panels from a faculty comprised of agents, editors, and bestselling authors and illustrators like Rosemary Stimola, Jennifer Rofé, Stacey Barney, Ruta Sepetys, Katie McGarry, and Robert Blake. Gennifer Choldenko (Al Capone Does My Homework) kicked off the festivities on Saturday during her keynote, setting the tone for the weekend when she noted, “People remember the emotional context of a book – even if they read for plot.” Choldenko advocates for the “butt in chair” method for writers, urging them to “look for the bullseye where plot and character collide.” She added, “Great writers are ruthless. You have to be.”

Daniel Nayeri, director of children’s publishing at Workman, further spoke to the idea of how authors and illustrators tell story in his panel, How to Be Interesting. “Finding the conversations of our age and talking about it is our task as writers.” Stacey Barney, senior editor at Putnam Books for Young Readers, cautioned during her panel, Chit Chat and Jibber Jabber—In Other Words, Dialogue, “Be careful to not lean on dialogue as a device.”

Authors Katie McGarry (the Pushing the Limits series), Robert J. Blake (Painter and Ugly), Amanda Driscoll (Duncan the Story Dragon), Choldenko, Ruta Sepetys (Out of the Easy), and Kristin Tubb (The 13th Sign) shared advice in their author and illustrator panel on Saturday afternoon called Setting Your Ideas Free. Topics discussed ranged from how they decide which stories to pursue to what their process is for fixing problematic manuscripts. “I always kill a character when something isn’t working,” Sepetys joked. “Then I tell myself to move from reaction to observation. I remove emotion and then I can see what is really going on.” Choldenko noted, “If my characters refuse to do what I tell them, I know I’m having a good day.”

Kelly Delaney, assistant editor at Knopf, explored what makes a book timely, noting it isn’t always easy to tell what will endure, particularly in contemporary children’s books, though of course sales and award status can provide some clues as to which books will be sticking around. She offered tips for authors – such as setting their book in a different time or different world to avoid dating themselves – while adding, “Do what feels natural, because when you start to force things one way or another, it feels forced.”

On Sunday, Stimola, Delaney, and Driscoll took the stage for a panel called From Spark to Flame: A Picture Book’s Path to Publication, where they debuted Driscoll’s forthcoming Duncan the Story Dragon. Focused on transparency of the process, agent, author, and editor walked the packed room of attendees through the steps of gaining an agent, the agent’s submission process to editor, and the editor’s collaboration with the author-illustrator. As Stimola noted Saturday morning during her The Risky Business of Children’s Publishing: An Agent’s View panel, “When I send out a book to an editor, I'm putting my integrity on the line.” Delaney and Driscoll spent months going back and forth, as Delaney pushed Driscoll out of her illustrator comfort zone. “She allowed [the revision] to go further than we thought it would go, and it was great,” said Delaney.

Driscoll, who experienced years of rejection prior to selling Duncan, credited much of her success to SCBWI. “The support of all of you is why I’m up here telling my story,” she said. “There were times I wanted to give up, but you kept me going.” She wasn’t the only author to skirt the edge of walking away from publishing, only to find success. Katie McGarry echoed Driscoll in her Sunday talk, noting of her 41 rejections prior to selling her book. “If it were not for SCBWI, and Margie Lawson[’s writing and editing class], I would not be published.”

Sepetys told PW of her experience finding an encouraging writing community, along with critique and beta readers: “My writing career began many years ago at an SCBWI MidSouth conference. To return and share the experience with my mentors, dearest friends, and new writers was an honor beyond description.”

The conference wrapped up Sunday afternoon with an agent and editor panel, discussing everything from what the panelists are looking for in submissions to indie publishing and diversity in books. Lucy Cummins noted of self-publishing, “I think the moment of people being able to hit with self-publishing has passed,” and Nayeri adding, “There are many reasons you may want to self-publish, but [it’s] not to break into traditional publishing.”

When it comes to diverse books, Nayeri said, “Everyone buys comfortably and not curiously,” and said that readers have the power to support diverse books by buying more of them. Stacey Barney added, “The books are there, and editors want to acquire those books. The disconnect is with marketing. As an industry we have not figured out how to market African-American books. We need an internal sales division to go after the demographic.”

While not every question was afforded an easy answer, no topics were off-limits at the conference, and many of the attending commented on the inclusive nature of conversation. Stimolo praised the conference for its “meticulous organization and exceptional warmth,” adding that “the author/editor/agent/art director collective of this particular faculty had the most wonderful synergy, where the whole was certainly greater than the sum of its parts.”