Yes, I’m back! I took some much needed time off from the blog to recharge my creative battery, which was getting frightfully low.
Part of that recharge included attending the 45th Annual SCBWI Summer Conference in Los Angeles with my tribe. I never feel more at home anywhere in the world than when I’m surrounded by these people. I always come away feeling fulfilled and motivated.
We started out in a new venue this year, the (extremely haunted) Millennium Biltmore Hotel, which boasts many specters, one of the most famous being Elizabeth Short, known as the Black Dahlia, who was last seen in the bar before her death back in 1947.
Throughout the conference there were reports of doors and cabinets that refused to stay closed and bathtubs that filled up all on their own. Still, the spookiest thing that happened was when one of our own group from Oklahoma snapped a selfie all alone in the hallway of the infamous eighth floor. But it wasn’t quite a selfie – something was in the background behind her. It freaked everyone out who looked at it, I’m telling you. (If you’re really curious, just ask Ginny to show you sometime…at your own peril.)
Day One began with a marvelous welcome by the incomparable Lin Oliver and the always entertaining faculty parade. Then it was on to the first keynote.
Drew Daywalt Embraces His Inner Voice
Drew Daywalt launched the conference with his keynote entitled “Does This Keynote Make My Butt Look Big?” And yes, it was just as funny as you would imagine. But it was also touching and inspiring as well. His first two picture books, THE DAY THE CRAYONS QUIT and the sequel, THE DAY THE CRAYONS CAME HOME have both been very successful. This is not something he was expecting. “I come from a long line of failed picture book writers.”
After growing up one of six kids in a house that was most likely haunted (sensing a theme for the weekend?) he started his adulthood writing screenplays in Hollywood, but found that world very unsatisfying and a little too cutthroat. He kept coming back to something author Jack Gantos once told him, that he had a voice for kids’ books. Yet, he kept put off writing for kids.
Then one day, he saw a box of crayons and thought about how they always had crayons but he never remembered buying them. He gave it a shot and wrote his first children’s book. Ten long years later – it took his agent four years to sell the book – it was published.
After his first school visit, a kid “broke through security” to give him a hug and kissed his cheek. He talked about how that experience changed him.
“Hollywood knocked me down, and a million tiny little hands caught me.”
(Yes, there was a collective “Awww” heard round the conference room at that.)
His picture books express a unique voice, a unique vision. When addressing the concept of voice, he said, “it is absolutely your fingerprint.”
Every story has been told, so it’s been said, but none in YOUR voice. You have to be willing to be vulnerable, too.
Writing a story and asking someone what they think about it is like standing there butt naked and saying, “Hey, do you like it?”
It’s about honesty.
You have to be honest to your own voice, and then you’ll be fine.
Fantastic way to open the conference!
Arthur Levine Gets Personal
Moving into the workshop portion of the morning, the fabulous Arthur Levine, (Scholastic’s imprint Arthur A. Levine – Harry Potter’s American publisher, that Arthur Levine) gave a talk entitled, “When It’s Personal: Translating Life into Fiction”. He’s also an author and has written several stories that have been inspired from his own life.
“Arguably, all good fiction is drawn from the personal.”
How do we do this well? We take a story we care about that already has setting, emotions, and characters.
Blindspots are the problem.
When we’re telling personal stories to friends, we don’t have to be as careful about timelines, backgrounds, and setting. There’s a history built in with the audience.
When we try to translate these stories, we forget what’s visible. Interpersonal dynamics aren’t always clear. We don’t know how well this is showing up on the page. We still have all the work of creating characters that live on the page. It’s not visible unless we make it visible.
Sometimes memories aren’t complete. You may only have snippets of memories from one event that don’t give you a cohesive story. Diligent research can fill in for memory lapses.
Readers don’t know that you’re mixing and matching as long as it works and there’s fidelity.
Your stories and anecdotes are tools.
What are you trying to say? Does this plot support that? If not, you need to change it. The more changes you make, the more distance and objectivity it gives you.
“Feelings are clothing that other characters can wear – have to tailor to fit.”
Many great ideas for future stories came out of this session!
The great thing about our new location is that we were smack in the middle of downtown LA and there was so much going on around us and so much waiting to be explored. After dreading the long line at the hotel café, I saw a tweet mentioning food trucks across the street. Not only food trucks, but live music, and a beyond fascinating moving art sculpture canopy. Lunch time was saved!
Sara Sargent Cuts to the Edge of YA Fiction
After a fascinating lunch time diversion, and a few more interesting talks, came a brilliant workshop by HarperCollins Executive Editor Sara Sargent. I just love her – and not because she remembered me from our Spring 2016 SCBWI OK conference and gave me a hug while we were in a crowded elevator together. I’ve never had an editor do that!
Sara’s talk was entitled, “Cutting Edge YA Fiction”. She started at HarperCollins about a year ago to develop books that teens really want to read. She studied these teens in-depth. She thought we should get to know these readers, understand them, “and dare say, even love them”.
What a radical concept!
Here’s some marketing data on this Gen Z:
- They are the 1st generation to be majority non-white
- Have an average attention span of 8 seconds
- Use an average of 5 devices – smart phone, laptop, desktop, tablet, TV
- More tolerant of gender diversity than previous generations
Their experience at school is totally different than what your was.
**One of the main reasons Sara rejects a manuscript is because it seems like the author is writing to the teen they were instead of to who teens are today.
Who are you telling the story for? Do you know today’s teen audience?
Sara then gave many ideas on how an author could immerse themselves in teen culture to see what teens today are interested in.
So what does ‘cutting edge’ mean? It plays with expectation and form. To Sara, it’s pushing boundaries and trying new things – “Making me think in new ways.”
Here are some brainstorming ideas to get you started:
- Using Adult Novels for Brainstorming – What exciting things are your favorite adult authors doing that you’re not seeing in YA? Same goes for TV shows, movies, webisodes, and Youtube.
- Backward/Parallel Universe – Think BEFORE I FALL by Lauren Oliver or Sliding Doors movie
- Using Video Game as a Framework – Like Ready Player One.
- Complete Opposite – Instead of something to escape FROM, give characters something to escape INTO.
- Think about a world that has one element our world doesn’t have – one element. Take it away or add it. Think Pleasantville and color.
- At the Plot -level – Think about character dynamics. Does the football player always need to be popular?
- Period of time – Play with the limit of time your story takes place – 24 hours, a couple of hours. How would this change/affect a story?
There were so many great ideas. You can rethink storylines and come up with something innovative. The one point she made at the end was that you can be cutting edge while staying true to your own story.
Only way to top the first day of great speakers was with dessert…
And more relaxing time with my writer friends at the Golden Kite Awards Dinner.
My artistic soul on the mend at the end of Day One.
I always enjoy listening to illustrators when they give keynotes. (Maybe because they have great visuals in their presentations.) Even though I’m not an artist, per se, I love learning about their stories and their creative process. There is always something to learn and you can always find inspiration in another’s journey. Jon Klassen’s keynote was a great way to start day two.
Jon Klassen Thinks Outside of Himself
Jon Klassen opened Day Two with his keynote entitled “Finding Yourself in the Work”, which was all about how we go about the process of creating or rather how we don’t. “Your job is to take care of what creates your style, not to try to define it or try to think about it.” When it’s time to do the work, think outside of yourself.
Pretty heady stuff for a children’s book illustrator, yes?
Klassen gave the example of David Bowie creating music as Ziggy Stardust. He had to create this character to begin to create the music for the album. He had to get outside of himself before he could start the project.
Joseph Albert, known for solid color square paintings, would give his art students an assignment to paint a blue square. They would all be different. “All of you have your own style, even with the most basic instruction.”
Start with what you can do. “I was a horrible animator.” He did like drawing big animals who didn’t look like they wanted to be there. Bears, especially. “Bears have a lot of potential for violence.” A bear in your studio with a hat could go very badly. He didn’t know how to start with dialogue. Then he started thinking in terms of plays and his characters acting out and using their own lines, not his; it started to work.The idea for the book I WANT MY HAT BACK came about through this process.
He said at one point your process may even drift away from its starting point. You have to be okay that your process will wander in unexpected ways. At one point, it’s not yours anymore, it belongs to itself.
Marie Lu Gets Creative
I loved racing through Marie Lu‘s LEGEND series. More than anything, I loved the characters. So I didn’t hesitate when choosing my next breakout session to hear her speak on the subject, “Character is King: Bringing Imaginary People to Life”. This was immediately following her keynote, which was also fantastic.
Although she considers herself a panster versus a plotter, she does take a lot of time developing her characters before she starts writing.
“I always plan out my characters. They are very real people to me.”
She then decides how to build a world to suit them.
One idea she expressed that I loved was that when building characters, there should be some opposition to each other. Create tension before you even put them into a room together.
And that was another great suggestion, she plays around with her characters before getting down to writing her story. She will put two of her characters into a room together and write some dialogue just to see what happens.
She discussed many character building tricks she uses. My favorite one was flip it, where you write a scene where a character is forced to act opposite to their strengths and core beliefs until you discover the point that they become weak, selfish, etc. Or the opposite for a villain.
It helps to know what you want from the story and who you want to tell it before you begin.
Truly an enlightening talk.
Later I had the pleasure of getting one of her books signed. She was such a delight! (And I can’t wait to start reading this next series!)
As Saturday was my daughter’s birthday, I treated her to lunch at a fancy schmancy place of her choosing within walking distance of the hotel. Delicious.
Neal Shusterman Struggles with Chaos
I feel like I live at the corner of chaos and procrastination, so the title of Neal Shusterman’s keynote, “Making Meaning: The Writer’s Struggle to Find Order in the Chaos, and Stories Worth Telling”, was just what I needed to hear. He discussed he ever-so-slow journey to publishing success with its many failures and missteps and with surprising discoveries along the way.
He even shared some fallacies he discovered about the writing profession, like “never ask for feedback from someone you feed”. Friends may just want to make you happy and parents always have an agenda, he says, but kids will be honest. (Even the ones you feed.) He says the best feedback you can get is from other writers.
At the end, he asked, so why do we write?
How do we find the stories worth telling?
It’s about the reader.
Deep down we have a belief that we have something to say. We need to dig in to our own passions, wrestle with our own demons. If we’re doing it right, we always struggle with whether or not we’re doing it wrong.
I had the privilege of meeting him later to have him sign a copy if his outstanding book CHALLENGER DEEP. He was so nice.
BIRTHDAY TREAT AT LOUIE!!!
I couldn’t exactly bake my youngling a cake, but stopping in for a treat at this divine bakery was a fine substitute.
OFF TO THE BALL!!!
Saturday night means party time!
(And even though the youngling commented on the goofiness of the old people music and dance moves, she had a great time.)
I had such a wonderful time at the conference this year!