SCBWI OK Spring Conference Recap – Part Two

Let’s dive right into Part Two, shall we?

Melissa Manlove2Following lunch, the dynamic Melissa Manlove, Editor at Chronicle Books stepped up to the stage and treated us to a talk about reading first pages like a pro. In the first page, editors can see how effective your use of language is. To read like an editor, she emphasized the importance of close reading, which is very different than reading for pleasure. When you close read something, you break down to elements and look at the construction of a story; you see what really makes it work.

For example, in the first page of Kate Messner’s OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW, the word choices not only dictate the cadence of the story, they evoke the mood of winter. See here in the very first lines:

Over the snow I glide. Into the woods, frosted fresh and white.

Over the snow, a flash of fur – a red squirrel disappears down a crack.

The end of the first line becomes a bit of a tongue twister, which slows you down as you read. The images of frosted and fresh and white evoke the wintery mood. Melissa mentioned that Messner also purposely chose words that together would mimic the feel of skis moving along the snow. THAT is paying attention to what works on more than one level in your story. And that is all just in the first line!

When discussing a good use of rhyme, Melissa gave the example of Liz Garton Scanlon’s book ALL THE WORLD. There is a great deal of cadence and structure, which is repeated. The author is showing she knows what she’s doing with structure in these first stanzas and it shows.

Rock, stone, pebble, sand,

Body, shoulder, arm, hand,

A moat to dig, a shell to keep –

All the world is large and deep.

 

Hive, bee, wings, hum,

Husk, cob, corn, yum,

Tomato blossom, fruit so red –

All the world’s a garden bed.

This is a goodnight book and in these type of stories, you want structure with a calming flow. Melissa went on to say that one of the reasons that many editors beg off rhyming manuscripts at the behest of their therapists is because most manuscripts they see only bother with rhyming the very last words in a line. While syntax is importance, it’s tough to make it sound natural if you don’t make it work in context with the entire story and take the overall RHYTHM of the story into account as well.

Melissa also said that mastering these skills, like all other skills, takes practice. Hoping to get it write like a bolt out of the blue isn’t the greatest plan. Writers may have to come up with a thousand mediocre ideas before they find that one great story. Then she said something that struck a chord with everyone:

Your brain is a machine made for generating ideas. Inspiration can feel electric, but lightning doesn’t strike the person laying in a sunny field, it strikes the person habitually cranking at the generator.

(Thank you to Gayleen Rabakukk for helping with the accuracy of that quote.)

There were so many other things she shared that were fantastic, I could blather on all day her talk alone. I suggest doing some close reading and practice writing of your own.

Melissa’s book recommendations: OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW by Kate Messner, CARNIVORES  by Aaron Reynolds, ALL THE WORLD by Liz Garton Scanlon, SKIPPYJON JONES by Judy Schachner, IT’S A TIGER by David LaRochelle, GOODNIGHT GOODNIGHT CONSTRUCTION SITE by Sherri Duskey Rinker, ON A BEAM OF LIGHT by Jennifer Berne,  and SWAN by Laurel Snyder (Fall release 2014)

Follow Melissa on Twitter.

 

Next up was the vivacious Kristin Miller-Vincent, Associate Agent, D4EO Literary Agency who talked about how to keep it fresh, get it fresh, and deliver it fresh. (Sounds like a pizza delivery commercial Kristin Miller Vincentwhen I say like that. She was much more eloquent.)

Fresh is hard to define. “We don’t know what it is, but we know it when we see it.”

So how can you bring fresh ideas to your stories?

  • Engage with the world and find truths that would make great fiction – find inspiration in the unusual things you come across that fascinate you. She gave an example of a strange statistic about the number of people hospitalized each year while taking down their Christmas trees in the nude.
  • Figure out what ISN’T actually out there – in pitch for the book,  THE EIGHTH DAY, it was described as there is a secret eighth day of the week, sandwiched between Wednesday and Thursday, with roots tracing back to Aurthrian legend.
  • Put a new spin on an old tale – reimagine a fairy tale or tell an old story from a different point of view. CINDER is a cyborg Cinderella story set in outerspace.

Those are just a few ideas as far as the plot are concerned, but what about voice?

Fresh voices are created are when authors know their characters well enough that they can let go of their own egos and let their characters use them as a vessel to tell the story.

Don’t get in the way of your narrative voice.

(Another speaker suggestion for delving deep into your characters – I’m sensing a theme.)

Kristin ended with discussing the critical mindset. You should welcome criticism and also be critical of your own work. Continue to question and wonder about ideas and the world around you.

There’s no room for complacency in publishing! You can do it!

Kristin’s book recommendations: PETE THE CAT by Eric Litwin, THIS IS NOT MY HAT by Jon Klassen, THE GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS by Rae Carson, THE EIGHTH DAY by Diane K Salerni, CINDER by Marissa Meyer, SCARLET by A.C. Gaughen.

Follow Kristin on Twitter.

 

Liza KaplanOur final speaker of the day was Liza Kaplan, Editor with Philomel Books, Penguin Group and she talked to us about tension.

A novel thrives on tension and drama, but the thing that makes a novel un-put-downable is the TENSION.

There are different types of tension:

DRAMATIC – those filled with situational difficulties, the most general tensions, romantical “will they or won’t they?” tensions

ENVIRONMENTAL – throughout the story the reader wonders if the character will survive. ex: BETWEEN SHADES OF GREY

WORLD-BUILDING – use of a forcible task or inescapable danger, very literally life and death situations. ex: HUNGER GAMES

THEMATIC – universal issues like love, freedom, free will, life and death, fighting for love at the cost of life. ex: 13 REASONS WHY

You should vary your use of the types of tension within your story. Remember that two opposing forces prolong uncertainty and delay resolution to keep up the tension. The faster we get to a resolution of a problem, the more comfort we feel. Make your readers wait for the resolution.

But tension isn’t the only thing needed for a great story. The stakes have to matter; the main character has to risk something big. And the higher, more demanding the stakes, the more tension you create.

Your novel should be like an emotional roller coaster. Your job is to be an emotional manipulator to your readers.

What helps create a visceral reading experience is making the reader care. If your character has stakes where s/she is personally invested, so will your reader.

Liza’s book recommendations: THE FIFTH WAVE by Rick Yancey, ELEANOR & PARK by Rainbow Rowell, BEAUTY QUEENS by Libba Bray, WONDER by R. J. Palacio, THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak, AMELIA ANN IS DEAD AND GONE by Kat Rosenfield, 13 REASONS WHY by Jay Asher, HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins, BETWEEN SHADES OF GREY by Ruta Sepetys

Follow Liza on Twitter.

After our brains were full to bursting with information, we wrapped things up with an informal dinner at a local barbecue place where everyone could unwind and mingle. Here are a few pictures from the end of the day. It was such a fantastic conference. I can’t wait for the next one.

SCBWI Group 2014

SCBWI OK Spring Conference Recap – Part One

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.

Tricia LawrenceI 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 Colleen AF VenablePRIVATE 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:

 

Monster EndPigeon

flotsam

The Arrival

 

 

 

 

 


Friends with Boys

RapunzelLaikaTo DanceLone Wolf

 

 

 

 

 

 

bk_floraLewis and clarkSmileGiants BewareHereville

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Follow Colleen on Twitter.

Andrew HarwellAndrew 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…

Digging Deeper with Music

I’ve often heard the debate between writers – music or no music?

While I can respect both sides and I myself can write with both silence and with music, I do prefer to have a soundtrack to my story. Not that I necessarily need a structured song by song, chapter by chapter playlist matching every moment, but I do create a writing playlist and put songs on there that I think my main character might listen to or songs that might inspire a certain mood my character needs to be in at certain parts of the story.

How do I put myself into the right frame of mind when I enter my writing space?

Usually I can get back into my scene by just rereading a few passages from my last writing session. I picture in my head where I want to the story to go next and off I go. Other times it takes a bit more work. I may have just had an enjoyable conversation with a friend or just woken up in a pleasant mood. Not the best time to be writing a heartbreaking sobfest moment, is it?

When I’m writing the toughest, most intense scenes in my manuscript and I need to connect with my characters – how they are feeling when their worlds spin apart, when they’ve been dealt a devastating blow – it helps if I can access those deeper emotions in myself.

What music does for me.

The problem is that these feelings aren’t always easily accessible on my complicated surface – I don’t always wear my heart upon my sleeve. For me, the right music cuts through my over-thinking, defensive layers and lets me tap into those deeper emotions. When I listen to music like Bon Iver’s self-tilted album with tracks like Perth and Wash. and Holocene, the piercing melodies along with Justin Vernon’s haunting harmonies dig inside, deeper than I let anybody else in. They help me access the raw energy and emotions that I need to help me bring my characters to life. Once I feel what one of my characters is feeling – maybe utterly and completely alone in the world – then I can write it. That is hard for me to imagine in an emotionless vacuum  of silence. I must have access to the emotions first.

Here’s Bon Iver’s Wash. video for your enjoyment.