Last weekend there was a convergence of the sublime in Oklahoma City as the SCBWI Oklahoma chapter held its annual Spring conference. Great company, great speakers, great weather. Ah! I had so much fun and my brain was crammed with so many good ideas, it took me all week to process everything. And as two of my manuscripts were chosen for top speaker picks at the very beginning of the day, I did have to struggle at times to stay focused on being present, to listen and take notes, instead of sprinting down the revision tunnel express.
First speaker of the day was the lovely Tricia Lawrence, an associate agent with the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.
I do apologize for missing out on most of Tricia’s talk as my face-to-face critiques were scheduled during this time. I did get to speak with Tricia during the weekend and I gleaned information about her talk from those who were able to hear her talk. First of all, I loved Tricia right from the start as we both share Pacific Northwest roots. I spent some of my formative years in her neck of the woods and I still hold a special place in my heart for that part of the country. (A friend of mine swears this is why I don’t sound like I’m from around here, even though I’ve lived in Oklahoma almost without interruption since I was about four.) Tricia talked at length about how her career path was guided by the need to stay on the West Coast. She spent years working as a freelance editor among other things before breaking into the agenting side of the business. Lucky for us, her stars aligned at the right moment when she came to the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.
During her talk, Tricia discussed how important it was to really get to know your characters before you start writing, to sit down and have therapy sessions with them. Put them on the couch and get them to spill their guts. She said they may not want to open up at first, they may much rather run outside and ride bikes or go play video games, so you have to keep digging. Ask them about their biggest fears, their most hidden secrets, what they want more than anything. Keep asking until they crack; until you know your characters inside and out. Hey, therapy isn’t easy, folks.
It was a very stimulating talk that got several writers thinking of ideas all weekend. At least, I’ve never heard so many people eager to go into therapy. As a big proponent of self-exploration, I love this idea. I plan on putting my main character through some serious couch time starting this week.
Tricia, like all of the speakers, mentioned some books that showed great examples of the ideas she wished to convey. All of the speakers mentioned how important reading was to the craft of being a writer. I know I say it all the time, but it never hurts to remind you guys that the professionals say it as well. You gotta READ!!!
Tricia’s book recommendations: THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green, GRAVE MERCY by Robin LaFevers
Follow Tricia on Twitter.
Next to present was the spunky and adorable Colleen AF Venable, Art and Design Editor at MacMillan’s First Second Books and author in her own right with her fabulous GUINEA PIG, PET SHOP PRIVATE EYE graphic novel series. When she made the conscious decision to have her main character – a female guinea pig named Sasspants – NOT be drawn with over exaggerated eyelashes or a big bow to show her gender, “Because guinea pigs don’t have giant eye lashes or wear bows in nature”, I wanted to bow down at her feet or jump up and scream, “YES!” (I’m a huge believer in realistic role models for girls, obviously.)
Colleen took us all to school on graphic novels and taught us about what they were and were not. Simply put, graphic novels are defined thusly:
Visual story-telling using sequential images.
Well, gee, that could be anything, you might say. I mean, I’ve seen some picture books that might even qualify by that definition. And you would be correct. Still, they are NOT all about tightly-clad radiated people with superpowers. (Not that there is anything wrong with those kinds of graphic novels.) Here are some examples of graphics novels that may surprise you:
It was such an enlightening talk and I must say, it made converts out of many of the participants. What struck me most was how many non-artists have written graphic novels: Shannon Hale, Neil Gaiman, Kate DiCamillo, Jane Yolen, Cecil Castellucci, Holly Black, and don’t forget Stan Lee, (totally not an artist!). Rainbow Rowell, author of ELEANOR & PARK, has a graphic novel series in the works with First Second Books right now. How exciting is that?
Colleen discussed how you can add an extra layers of depth to your story with the visuals in graphic novels. Even by just manipulating the layout of the panels and how you use the spacing between the panels – the gutters – you can create completely different pacing styles to the story, similar to how traditional writers use sentence and paragraph structure. Fascinating. She suggested that if you were interested getting started in graphics novels, as a writer, you should read lots of plays and comics to help you get the flow of graphic novels. Script writing especially can aid in learning to think more visually about how you tell your story.
Colleen gave us a comprehensive reading list hand out (another perk of coming to such a fabulous conference), broken down by age groups, so I won’t list all of her recommendations here. Some of them are pictured above. I will list others she mentioned by name.
Colleen’s book recommendations: AMERICAN BORN CHINESE by Gene Luen Yang, BENNY AND PENNY by Geoffrey Hayes, SMILE by Raina Telgemeier, SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD by Bryan Lee O’Malley, THE PLAIN JANES by Cecil Castellucci, OWLY by Andy Runton, BABY MOUSE by Jennifer Holm and Matthew Holm, ROBOT DREAMS by Sara Varon, ZITA THE SPACEGIRL by Ben Hatke
Learn more about Colleen here.
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Andrew Harwell, Editor with HarperCollins came back to Oklahoma for a second time after doing such an amazing job for us at our Novel Revision Retreat back in 2012, and was christened an honorary Oklahoman. (That’s just how it goes, if you come back, we claim you as one of our own. Our list of these lucky conference alumni is steadily growing – Laurent Linn, Krista Moreno, Alexandra Penfold, all honorary Oklahomans.)
Andrew wanted to talk about something new this go around, so he delved into how the family dynamics in Middle Grade and Young Adult writing help to create richer characters. Strong central families are common in all the stories he is drawn to. He said that when he gives an elevator pitch for a book, he realized that he always begins by discussing the relationships first. No matter what kind of story you’re writing, whether it’s a fantasy, mystery, paranormal or whatever, you have to get the reader to care about the characters first, right? In order to do that that we have to get to know the character, and what better way to do that than by using the family. After all, Andrew asked us to think about this:
You are most yourself around your family.
Who else sees us at our most vulnerable? When we are exhausted, pushed to the limits, cramped in a minivan for hours on a road trip to Aunt Bonnies’s with nothing to do but listen to each other breathe and your brothers won’t stop farting or touching your side of the seat? Oh yeah. You really get to know a person in those circumstances.
There are all kinds of families. You have to ask yourself what your character’s family history is before you begin your story. This is your character’s beginning, after all. No matter how much of this history you decide to show, YOU as the writer need to know it. Knowing whether or not your MC is friends with everyone in his family (or not) or whether your MC is supported or misunderstood at home will determine how s/he interacts with the world at large. It will also add more emotional depth to your story.
Andrew showed examples from many different books to highlight the different ways that family dynamics can create amazing stories. Whether you use these dynamics to create empathy, as in THE HUNGER GAMES (whose heart didn’t break when Katniss volunteered to go into the death match in her sister’s place?) or to create conflict as in FANGIRL (what does it mean when your twin sister doesn’t want to be your roommate?) or to create a villain in the family as in THE GOLDEN COMPASS (Does Lyra’s mother love her or is she evil through and through?) bringing family dynamics into play can be the best thing for your character and your story.
Andrew’s book recommendations: PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ by A.S. King, THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins, PANIC by Lauren Oliver, IF I STAY by Gayle Foreman, CASE FILE 13 by J. Scott Savage, WONDER by R.J. Palacio, SEA OF SHADOWS by Kelley Armstrong, ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE by Benjamin Alire Saenz, FANGIRL by Rainbow Rowell, THE JUPITER PIRATES HUNT FOR THE HYDRA by Jason Fry, REALITY BOY by A.S. King, THE GOLDEN COMPASS by Philip Pullman, ASYLUM by Madeleine Roux, ALMOST SUPER by Marion Jensen, UNDER THE NEVER SKY by Veronica Rossi, THE HARRY POTTER SERIES by J.K. Rowling, MOCKINGBIRD by Kathryne Erskine, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green, I CAPTURE THE CASTLE by Dodie Smith, TENDER MORSELS by Margo Lanagan, ELEANOR & PARK by Rainbow Rowell, PENNY DREADFUL by Laurel Snyder, ONE CRAZY SUMMER by Rita Williams-Garcia
Follow Andrew on Twitter.
Can you believe how much sage wisdom was imparted in this morning session alone?
It knocked my socks off.
After an entertaining lunch where I hosted a table with Tricia Lawrence, who was ever so gracious with her precious time and insights. I met some new writers, one was attending her very first SCBWI conference and was so enthusiastic about everything, it was delightful to see. There were so many writers there with teaching backgrounds at my table; I may have been the only one without a teaching degree. After lunch, and a brief (and humorous) commercial for our Fall Retreat, we returned for our remaining three speakers.
Stay tuned for PART TWO to hear what they had to bestow on our eager minds…