Notes from Gennifer Choldenko

Gennifer Choldenko went to her first SCBWI conference after she was under contract for a picture book sixteen years ago. Now with more than eight books published, she is about to release the final book in the trilogy that started with, “Al Capone Does my Shirts.” Here are my notes from her keynote address at the summer conference.

Just because a kid appears outwardly sophisticated, doesn’t mean that they are inwardly mature. Growing up is just as hard today as it was when we were kids. If everybody is growing up faster, how come nobody gets there?
Kids need to see stories that reflect their own circumstances. Twelve years ago heard that YA books are dead. Now we’ve swung to the other extreme. But kids don’t start reading at age 14.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid started off online, blog to book. There are more ways to get your foot in the door these days.

Human beings need stories. We always have, we always will. The delivery system is expanding. Need to be more selective of concepts and make sure that every word is working hard.

The best novels teach us something about ourselves.

Childhood is a lot harder than it looks and to write well for children, you need to conjure up the whole spectrum of feelings. If you’re stuck in the nostalgia of your childhood, dig deeper.

What you experience while you’re writing, we will experience while we’re reading.

Each character should reflect a different part of your main character. If your character looks the same way from every other character’s eyes, something is wrong.

Jot notes on how people walk, facial expressions, snippets of dialog.

Every detail must work within the context of the world you have created, not just in fantasy. It’s an essential part of every novel.

Each scene must be gratifying in and of itself, not just be a setup for a later scene.

To make your novel fulfilling, you have to get to the emotional core.

Trust the sticky, weird images that come out of your dreams. Cultivate the between state, between waking and sleep, during a walk or a swim, the moments when you aren’t stressing. Keep a notebook to capture ideas that come when your mind rests and you let go of the intense effort and focus.

If every risk you take pans out, then you aren’t really risking very much. Give yourself space to take risks.

Take care of your writer self with time spent reading, writing and distance from toxic people.

Give yourself a block of uninterrupted time to write every day.

You can’t think your way through a novel, you have to feel your way. It has to come from your gut.

Push your protagonist. Your readers want to see what would happen if your character does something they would never do, something they have only thought about. See who your characters are by the choices they make under pressure.

Be careful of competing story lines. Remember who is driving the scene. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted by the other characters.

Don’t let promotion overwhelm your work. You can’t market your way to success. Get your work out there and get yourself out there, but make sure you have books worth marketing.

Just because a novel needs work, doesn’t mean the book stinks.

There is a kid out there who needs your book. Write for that kid.

No one can teach you how to write, you have to teach yourself. Write yourself from that side of the podium, to this side.

15 thoughts on “Notes from Gennifer Choldenko

  1. Sherry,
    This is wondeful! Thank you so much for sharing. I feel like I attended right alongside. And you're one fast note taker.

    I listened to IF A TREE FALLS AT LUNCH PERIOD a few month ago. It's one of my favorite YAs on my list this year.

  2. Cool, I did not know that about Diary of a whimpy kid!!!!! I'd like to think there are readers out there who need my books. I must believe this or I would never write.

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