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New authors found support, inspiration at annual conference

You could say that Heather Dixon danced her way into writing. It was while she was taking a "bunch of dance classes" at BYU that she started thinking about one of her favorite fairy tales — the story of the 12 dancing princesses — and about writing her own version of it.

"I've always liked fairy tales. They are so visual. And I really, really loved that story," she said.

The visual quality is important to Dixon, who works as a storyboard artist. Truth be told, she says, "I'm probably more into the untraditional ways to tell a story, things such as comic books and radio shows, rather than books."

As a storyboard artist, she takes a movie script and turns it into art panels. "It's a mid-production step in animation," she says. She thought about doing a storyboard project on her princesses, "but the idea of a book just wouldn't let me alone."

It took her four years to write the book, but it was published this spring: "Entwined," (Greenwillow, $17.99). It tells a story filled with adventure and magic, as well as the importance of family as the princesses deal with the mysterious Keeper, try to break an evil spell and straighten things out with their widowed father. There's also a lot of dancing — not generic dancing, but specific dances that the princesses learn to perform such as waltzes and reels and polkas and the magical Entwine with its binding capabilities.

Dixon's own favorite dance is the Viennese Waltz. She grew up in Davis County in a large family — four brothers and six sisters — so she also know all about getting along with siblings, one reason she likes the story of 12 princesses.

Matthew Kirby's protagonists, on the other hand, are children who are all pretty much alone dealing with the harsh realities of street life and poverty in early New York City until they find each other.

Giuseppe is an orphaned street musician under the control of a nasty master; Frederick is an apprentice clockmaker with a past he can't remember; Hannah does have a family, but must work as a drudge in a grand hotel. The story of how mysterious circumstances bring them together and how they complement each other like the turning gears of a clock is told in Kirby's debut novel, "The Clockwork Three" (Scholastic Press, $17.99).

Kirby, who grew up in Utah but lived all over the country because his father was in the Navy, majored in history at Utah State University but went on to earn graduate degrees in school psychology and works as a school psychologist in Davis County.

He has always wanted to write, and while growing up produced a comic book, wrote some short stories and dabbled in poetry. But he discovered that his true passion is for middle grade and young adult novels. It was when he found an old newspaper clipping that told of the practice of kidnapping children in Italy and bringing them to New York to work as virtual slaves that the idea for "The Clockwork Three" came to him.

The book has since been licensed in seven foreign countries. It's fun to see how other countries interpret the story on their cover, he says. Kirby is currently at work on a second novel, "Icefall," which is set in ancient Norway.

The books written by Dixon and Kirby are very different, but as new writers the authors both have a lot in common. One of those things is that they both got a huge boost in their writing careers at the annual Writing & Illustrating for Young Writers Conference, which will be held this year June 13-17 at the Waterford School in Sandy.

The conference, now in its 12th year, used to be held at the BYU conference center until it outgrew it and needed more space, noted conference organizer Carol Lynch Williams. But it is still supported by the BYU English Department. The conference gives aspiring writers a chance to meet with professional writers, editors, publishers, agents and others in the industry.

"I took a class from Martine Leavitt there that was an amazing experience," says Kirby. "The art and grace and intelligence that she brought to writing and critiquing are lessons that will take me through the rest of my career."

It was also at the conference that Kirby met his agent, which led to the selling of his first manuscript.

As Kirby and Dixon know, when it comes to getting your first book published, the actual writing is often not the hardest part. Getting it into print takes a lot of work and sometimes a little luck. But Dixon also met an editor at the conference who eventually led her to publication.

The first time she went to the conference, Dixon only had the first chapter written.

"But the editor liked it and wanted to see the rest of it," Dixon said. "It took me another year to get it all done. I went to the conference again the next year."

There was a lot more work after that.

The conference is a great place to connect and may offer some shortcuts, but the thing to remember, Dixon says, is that there are no guarantees: "You still have to have good stuff. You still have to work hard. This book took me a long time to write, but I learned a lot."

Dixon is currently working on something she calls "Illusionarium," which is a "steampunk story set in an evil circus. I've always been fascinated by clowns; they can be funny but they can be not-funny, too."

It's more boy-action oriented, she says, but it still draws on the rich, Victorian world she likes. "What I really enjoy," she says, "is storytelling. Writing is one way to convey a story. But no matter what I'm doing, as long as I'm improving, that's what makes me the happiest."

For Kirby, too, story is paramount. "You always are concerned hat the story be the best it can be." He likes writing for young readers because "I think you worry less about judgment and criticism and have more fun."

He also loves interacting with the students he works with. One thing he has learned about them, he says, is that "kids are resilient. They want the truth, and can handle more truth than we often give them credit for. They are also voracious in soaking up the world. Reading offers a way to do that."

Fantasy is huge with young readers right now, but it's not the only genre out there. "They enjoy historical fiction, realistic fiction, adventure and more."

Reading is so important, Kirby says, whatever form it takes. "Reading gives you experiences you might not otherwise have."

Writers conference

The 12th Annual Writing & illustrating for Young Readers conference will be held June 13-17 at the Waterford School, 1480 E. 9400 South, Sandy.

Class sizes are limited, and a number of classes have been sold out, but a few morning spots, afternoon spots and keynote speaker spots are still open. For complete, up-to-date information and registration, visit

Cost for the full session is $480; for afternoon only, $130, writer's boot camp, $595.

This year's faculty includes National Book Award nominees, New York Times Bestsellers, award winners, editors and agents. Keynote speaker is Ally Condie, local author of the popular book "Matched." Other faculty members include Sharlee Glenn, Kristyn Crow, Claudia Mills, Emily Wing Smith, Louise Plummer, Holly Black, Martine Leavitt, Kathleen Duey, A.E. Cannon, Alyson Heller, Lisa Yoskowitz and Mary Kole.