2017 SCBWI LA Summer Conference Highlights – Part 1

I was very honored this year to be a winner of the SCBWI Tribute Fund. (Even if it meant I had to stand up in front of over 1500 people!) A brief moment of awkward public embarrassment was well worth what I received in return. I honestly can’t thank the entire staff of SCBWI enough. From Stephen and Lin for providing this grant and selecting me, to everyone in the main office I interacted with regarding all the details – they were all just so lovely.

And of course, a huge thank you to Helen, my Regional Advisor, who nominated me. (Who also took this awkward picture of me waving awkwardly to a crowd of 1500 people. AWKWARD!)

Now I would like to share with you my favorite parts of the SCBWI LA summer conference that I was able to attend this past July as a winner of this wonderful grant.

DAY ONE

One of my favorite things about attending these conferences is how energizing they are, how they recharge my creative battery, and remind me that what I do is important. Especially in these uncertain times, it was such a reassuring thing to hear Lin welcome us into our own “Bubble of Love” (complete with actual bubbles).

Lin Oliver welcoming us to the beginning of another wonderful SCBWI Summer conference.

 

Bubble Love photo credit: The Official SCBWI Conference Blog

It was also nice that our region got a shout-out for having such a large group in attendance, along with a handful of other states, but you know ours was the LOUDEST!!! We got a few more shout-outs, just so everyone could hear us make some more noise – something we were not shy about doing! (This happened several times during the conference, which was fun.)

Most of our SCBWI OK group on Day One. Such a large group was hard to corral into one place at any given time.

VANESSA BRANTLEY NEWTON – SPREADING SUNSHINE

Vanessa Brantley Newton, illustrator of THE YOUNGEST MARCHER and MARY HAD A LITTLE GLAM (written by our own Tammi Sauer! OKLAHOMA SCBWI in the house!), opened the conference by making us get up out of our seats and dance.

In her keynote entitled, “Diversity Designed by Adversity”, Vanessa said we could let adversity ruin us, make us sad, or lean into it, wrap our arms around it, shake it off, and pack it under.

To illustrate her point, she told a story of a farmer who had a goat that fell down a well. Bemoaning the loss of the goat, he threw dirt down the well to bury it, but the goat just shook it off, and packed it under. Soon, it had a pile tall enough to climb out of the well.

“That’s been my life.”

She was born with dyslexia, synesthesia, and she also struggled with stuttering. Her dyslexia caused her to to go inward, to draw pictures. The synesthesia influenced the use of bright colors in her art. Her parents were both singers and helped her deal with her stuttering. “I sing in my head” the words she wants to say out loud. All these things didn’t stop her, they influenced her work.

Vanessa talked at length about the need for diverse books. She told the story of wanting to be a Breck shampoo girl when she was younger. She thought to have blonde hair, she just needed the shampoo.

She didn’t see herself reflected.

Then came Ezra Jack Keats and THE SNOWY DAY. She didn’t remember the words, but the pictures were powerful.

Little Vanessa and her teacher who read her the story.

She told us how Ezra Jack Keats said, “I drew Peter because he should have been there all along”.

Vanessa called on us as artists, as writers to embrace our own challenges.

“You’re built for adversity.”

Some of the best stuff is raised out of adversity. You gotta be willing to put in the hard work.

 

You need to dream so big that it scares the hell out of you.

 

She ended by singing to us, and I don’t know if there was a dry eye in the room when she was done.

Honestly I couldn’t see…

 

 

TRANSFORMING LIFE INTO ART

photo credit: The Official SCBWI Conference Blog

PANEL DISCUSSION WITH ALEX GINO, AISHA SAEED, RUTA SEPETYS, AND KIM TURRISI (MODERATED BY EMMA DRYDEN)

Emma Dryden led a thoughtful discussion with this fantastic panel of authors.

Question #1: What led you to express the experience in your own life in novel form?

Alex Gino – Middle Grade is a big part of my heart. The only time I experienced any instance of transgender as an adult was as a joke. “I knew GEORGE was the book I wanted and needed to write.” It took 10 years.

Aisha Saeed – She never saw herself in books with the exception of the role of the bad guy until she went to college. She knew she had to tell her story. She wrote her debut novel about forced marriage because she had many friends who were going through this experience. If they said no, their parents would disown them. She writes to make sense of the world. She wanted to understand why parents who loved their kids would do this.

Ruta Sepetys – “Much of my identity is wrapped up in being an immigrant’s kid.” Not a lot has been told about Stalin and what happened in Siberia. She wanted to bring this story to young readers because YA readers are deep feelers and deep thinkers. Books we read as kids have the potential to make a profound effect.

Kim Turrisi – When she was 15, her sister committed suicide. Her story is about the aftermath of suicide. She didn’t see herself in any books like this back then. She wrote about the experience to help.

Question #2 – Glimpse into choices you had to make to stray away from the truth to serve the story.

Ruta Sepetys – She was interviewing human beings condemned to death who then survived. “There’s a tension between history and memory.” She will interview 100 people and interweave the stories to create a single one – very different from nonfiction. This will hopefully be more representative.

Kim Turrisi – She used notes from 25 different people to cobble together the backgrounds of the secondary characters.

Alex Gino – Many people assume that my book is autobiographical. The way my character is transgender is not the same way that I am. My main character isn’t much like me, but the way people respond is.

Question #3 – Talk about the process of going deep into the story.

Kim Turrisi – I had the suicide letter. I put it on the wall to challenge me. My editor challenged me by saying some things that actually happened may not feel authentic. Give more. It was tough.

Ruta Sepetys – As writers, we should go there. Emotionally we need to get in the trenches. If I feel loss, I have loved. If I feel it, hopefully my readers will too. Amplify the hope in the hardship. Someone has to make it out.

Aisha Saeed – She did the emotional digging. What would it be like to go through this? Why would she run away? Her editor helped her bring out the nuances.

Alex Gino – You have to have a balance between optimism and realism. My responsibility was to provide a mirror for kids who are Trans. We get to have nice stories, too. Then my editor had to remind me that bad things have to happen, so we feel better when there’s redemption.

 

NOVA REN SUMA – QUEEN OF THE UNRELIABLE NARRATOR

Break Out Session, “The Power and Possibility of the Unreliable Narrator”

POV is one of the most exciting tools you have as a writer. Make good use of it.

What is an “unreliable” narrator?

  1. Withholds information from the reader
  2. Breaks your trust (We expect to trust the narrator)
  3. Drives the plot

Should be unreliable for a reason – an important mechanism for the plot.

Unreliable Narrator often has a surprising, unexpected secret.

WHY is your narrator not telling the whole truth?

WHY is the big mystery.

You as the author need to know the answer.

Favorite example: Mary Katherine Blackwood from WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE by Shirley Jackson

More Unreliable Narrator examples:

Mica from LIAR by Justine Larbalestier

Julie from CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein

Mary from Allegedly by Tiffany D Jackson

Whim from CHARM & STRANGE by Stephanie Kuehn

Caden from CHALLENGER DEEP by Neal Shusterman

Nova went on to explain how using craft choices can help you show your unreliable narrator to your readers and ways to create an unreliable character.

This was such a helpful session! Nova really is a fantastic teacher.

 

DINNER

After a full day of amazing keynotes and breakout sessions, our SCBWI OK gang met up for dinner with a former member who recently relocated to LA. She may have moved to California, but she’ll always be a part of us, too!

(Almost) our entire SCBWI OK gang after the first day of the conference.

 

Jerry and Britt (our wayward member) doing their best Oh My Disney! pose – Aren’t they just too adorable for words?

 

Hope you enjoyed the first part of my conference experience highlights. Stay tuned for Part II coming soon!

 

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SCBWI LA Summer Conference Impressions

Artwork by Liz Wong
Artwork by Liz Wong

 

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.

 

Biltmore Hotel Gallery Bar

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

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Our Oklahoma SCBWI gang is ready for the conference to start!

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

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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.” crayonsquit

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

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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!

 

LUNCH!!!

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!

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Never-ending line for the café. Blerg.

 

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Food trucks to saved the day!

 

 

 

 

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Me squinting in the ever-so-bright California sunshine while trying to capture the constantly moving reflective sculpture/canopy thingy behind me. (NOT a professional photographer.)

 

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Over head shot of the full floaty art sculpture canopy. Looks like a school of shiny minnows. You can peek through it and see the high rise buildings above.

 

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More floaty sculpture and lunch date, my daughter. Notice the enormous shadows this thing casts on the ground.

 

Sara Sargent Cuts to the Edge of YA Fiction

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Sara Sargent speaking in the very intimidating Crystal Ballroom
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The room was packed and I felt way under-dressed for the décor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Excellent point.

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.

DINNER!!!

Only way to top the first day of great speakers was with dessert…

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Chocolate with chocolate sauce and more chocolate inside? Heaven!
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Me and one of my writer friends from our Oklahoma group, Ginny. (Yes, of the infamous spooky photo.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

DAY TWO

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

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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.” la-scbwi-16-jon-klassen-quote

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

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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 la-scbwi-16-me-and-marie-ludelight! (And I can’t wait to start reading this next series!)

LUNCH!!!

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.

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Neal Shusterman Struggles with Chaos

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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 the 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.me-and-neal-shusterman

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.

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OFF TO THE BALL!!!

Saturday night means party time!

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(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!

 

2015 TBR Challenge – MOON OVER MANIFEST Review

2015tbrbuttonMy seventh review for the Official 2015 TBR Pile Challenge is MOON OVER MANIFEST by Clare Vanderpool.

The goal of this challenge is “to finally read 12 books from your ‘to be read’ pile within twelve months”. To qualify for the challenge, books must be read and reviewed before the year is over, and all selections must have publishing dates from the year 2013 or older. (Here are the books I’ll be reading this year.)

I first heard Clare Vanderpool speak at the SCBWI LA Summer Conference a few years ago. When she gave the keynote address, she discussed the universal need for stories. She said, “We learn more not by dissecting books but by immersing ourselves in stories. We all have this need for a connection to story. It is through stories that we find our bearings.”

I loved that.

This belief really comes across in her own writing – connection and emotion. After all, if I don’t feel something as a reader, I’m not going to care about the story.

Needless to say, I did feel and I did care.

On to the Review!

PDF Creation in Quark 7MOON OVER MANIFEST by Clare Vanderpool

Published by: Delacorte Books for Young Readers

Release Date: October 12, 2010

Genres: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Mystery

Plot Summary:

The movement of the train rocked me like a lullaby. I closed my eyes to the dusty countryside and imagined the sign I’d seen only in Gideon’s stories: Manifest—A Town with a rich past and a bright future.

Abilene Tucker feels abandoned. Her father has put her on a train, sending her off to live with an old friend for the summer while he works a railroad job. Armed only with a few possessions and her list of universals, Abilene jumps off the train in Manifest, Kansas, aiming to learn about the boy her father once was.
Having heard stories about Manifest, Abilene is disappointed to find that it’s just a dried-up, worn-out old town. But her disappointment quickly turns to excitement when she discovers a hidden cigar box full of mementos, including some old letters that mention a spy known as the Rattler. These mysterious letters send Abilene and her new friends, Lettie and Ruthanne, on an honest-to-goodness spy hunt, even though they are warned to “Leave Well Enough Alone.”
Abilene throws all caution aside when she heads down the mysterious Path to Perdition to pay a debt to the reclusive Miss Sadie, a diviner who only tells stories from the past. It seems that Manifest’s history is full of colorful and shadowy characters—and long-held secrets. The more Abilene hears, the more determined she is to learn just what role her father played in that history. And as Manifest’s secrets are laid bare one by one, Abilene begins to weave her own story into the fabric of the town.

Powerful in its simplicity and rich in historical detail, Clare Vanderpool’s debut is a gripping story of loss and redemption. (Plot summary from Goodreads.)

The setting and the voice of this story were just fantastic. I love the way Vanderpool weaved the past in with Abilene’s present so seamlessly. You felt her heartache with the absence of her father, and you felt that same heartache for the town that had lost so much years before. The way Abilene’s journey through the past leads to her own understanding and to the town beginning to heal itself is rich and beautiful – just what you’d expect from a Newbery winner.

Learn more about Clare Vanderpool here.

 

2015 TBR Challenge – I WILL SAVE YOU Review

2015tbrbuttonMy sixth review for the Official 2015 TBR Pile Challenge is I WILL SAVE YOU by Matt de la Peña.

The goal of this challenge is “to finally read 12 books from your ‘to be read’ pile within twelve months”. To qualify for the challenge, books must be read and reviewed before the year is over, and all selections must have publishing dates from the year 2013 or older. (Here are the books I’ll be reading this year.)

I was introduced to Matt’s work a few years ago while attending the SCBWI LA summer conference. His keynote speech and then his break out session on exercising patience made me an instant fan. (Read the post about my introduction here.) I brought home a few signed books and read the first one, MEXICAN WHITEBOY, right away – which I loved. This book slipped slowly to the middle of my TBR pile as I kept accruing more books to read. I’m so glad I finally had the chance to read it.

On to the review!

saveyou_bgI WILL SAVE YOU by Matt de la Peña

Published by: Random House Children’s Books

Release Date: October 12, 2010

Genres: YA, Contemporary, Realistic Fiction

Plot Summary:

 

Kidd is running from his past and his future. No mom, no dad, and there’s nothing for him at the group home but therapy. He doesn’t belong at the beach where he works either, unless he finds a reason to stay.

Olivia is blond hair, blue eyes, rich dad. The prettiest girl in Cardiff. She’s hiding something from Kidd—but could they ever be together anyway?

Devon is mean, mysterious, and driven by a death wish. A best friend and worst enemy. He followed Kidd all the way to the beach and he’s not leaving until he teaches him a few lessons about life. And Olivia. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

Many of us probably had a toxic friend like Devon growing up; that one bad influence that brought out the worst in us or dampened our spirits and made us feel worthless. Yet we couldn’t seem to stay away from them or tell them “no” when they came around. And they always, ALWAYS dragged us into something we knew deep down would end badly.

Or maybe that was just me.

I could really relate to the characters in this book and the struggles they went through. One of Kidd’s big struggles is keeping the people he cares about safe. Sometimes that means from himself.

Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of the book:

And I saw it…

Devon sitting with Olivia at the top of the stairs, talking close like flirting people talk.

I choked on breath.

I almost squatted down on the not-yet-silver sand ’cause my knees went wobbly and I couldn’t tell which way was up, like when a wave takes you underneath and spins you around the ocean’s washing machine.

Olivia and Devon.

Together.

The beach sky was black except for a moon oval that lit up their position on the cliff like a stage spotlight in some romantic play, and I set right off for them, my heart knocking in my chest and stomach and even my neck. My philosophy of life book shaking in my hand. I walked at first like everything was normal ’cause I knew if Mr. Red thought something was happening he’d call me back and take off his old sombrero and fire off question after question (“What’s going on, big guy? You all right? Somebody stressing you out?”).

When I made it around the bend I jogged, then ran up the stairs, two at a time, thinking I had to get to her before something happened and what if something happened.

I saw them through the bushes and stopped cold…

Devon slowly tracing the mark on Olivia’s cheek, the one she showed me, and her just letting him.

“You can’t do it,” I said under my breath.

Olivia didn’t turn to look at me.

But Devon did.

Devon stared and even got a tiny grin on his face and I told him: “Get away from her!” But he didn’t get away from her. Instead he ran his fingers through her long blond hair and leaned in to whisper something in her diamond-earringed ear and then kissed her a real kind of kiss, like two people who were committed together as a couple.

She kissed back.

Intense and powerful, right? Makes you want to read more.

Just as he said in his talk, Matt holds the reader in the palm of his hand and makes them suffer.

I’ve heard Matt refer to this as his “sad” book and make no mistake, the ending will leave you wrecked. Still, it is well worth reading, well worth being wrecked by this fantastically talented author.

Learn more about Matt de la Peña here.

Follow Matt on Twitter here.

Follow Matt on Facebook here.

What I Learned at the SCBWI LA Summer Conference – Part 4: Maggie Stiefvater Character Thief

 

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photo courtesy of Official SCBWI Conference Blog, photo by Marquita Hockaday
photo courtesy of Official SCBWI Conference Blog, photo by Marquita Hockaday

Maggie Stiefvater (or steve·otter, as she pronounced it) author of the NY Times best-selling SHIVER series gave an excellent workshop on character at the SCBWI LA Conference. Her novel THE SCORPIO RACES was a Michael L Printz Honor book. Her most recent series is THE RAVEN CYCLE.

She’s also a Character Thief.

This came about because she discovered that she could not create anything unique from scratch, the least of which was a believable character that could actually walk and breathe on their own. To create her own unique characters, she has to start with real, live human hearts. She moves on to create what she calls people portraits. Using her background as an equestrian portrait artist, moving on to people just made sense.

She wanted to create characters that you’d still be able to recognize as Stiefvater characters, not unlike pointing out master painters’ pieces, just from their style, from across a gallery floor.

Before she tells you how she creates her characters, she tells you some basic rules. Although she’s not big on rules herself, she did know the rules first. If you break the rules after you know them, then it’s experimenting.

Character Rules

  1. The narrator should be the character who shifts the plot the most.
  2. The narrator should also be the one who changes the most – a more intriguing character is one where the change is both internally and externally symbiotic.
  3. Characters have to be sympathetic/relatable – Maggie doesn’t actually believe in this rule, herself. She feels you should understand the motives of your characters, but you don’t have to agree with their choices.
  4. Writing as if you are the character – it’s bad writing to write self into a character. Especially if it’s accidental or if you’re having a character deal with a problem you yourself are facing at that moment. Ex: “When I’m angry, how do I react?” You should be wondering, “When my character is angry, how does my character react?” However Maggie also disagrees with this rule to a degree– if you accidentally do this, it’s bad, if you do it on purpose, then you’re creating a portrait of yourself.

 

How she steals characters is she begins with first impressions – like how you meet a person for the first time in real life. What you first notice about them.

Look past the first observations; look for something that contradicts your idea of who you think that person is. “Look at the moment when you change your mind about a character.”

She’s not a fan of character questionnaires – they don’t really tell you anything important about them. What they physically look like is mostly irrelevant. Doesn’t tell you WHY.

Character interviews can be helpful for voice. “I learn about my characters by moving them through the plot. I may throw out the first 10,000 words because I’m just using them to get to know the characters.”

Everything should be a character. This includes the setting, which can even have its own character arc. The forest in THE RAVEN CYCLE series, for instance, is a distinct character. It is sentient and plays a vital role in the series. The weather/setting arc in SCORPIO RACES mirrors the character arcs.

You want to lie as little as possible when creating your characters. The more fantastical you settings, the more realistic your characters should be.

Villains often have very clear motivations. Most people aren’t like this – not as clear-cut. For villains, whatever they want in life gets in the way of what the protagonist wants.

I had a chance to get a book signed by Maggie at the end of the conference, and true to her artistic roots, she had a little something extra for her fans who bought SINNER, the stand-alone companion to the SHIVER series. An original Stiefvater artwork book cover. Sweet, right?

Learn more about Maggie Stiefvater here.

Follow Maggie on Twitter here.

Follow Maggie on Tumblr here.

Sinner Cover 1Sinner Cover 2Sinner Cover 3

What I Learned at the SCBWI LA Summer Conference – Part 3: The Perks of Being Stephen Chbosky, with a Superb Side Order of Jay Asher

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Stephen Chbosky PicStephen Chbosky wrote and directed the feature film adaptation of his novel PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER. That’s quite an impressive feat. He also gave an exceptional keynote address, giving away his top tips on how to write your own timeless classic, at this year’s SCBWI LA Conference.

Before that, I sat in on a breakout session he did with Jay Asher, author of 13 REASONS WHY. Their talk dealt with how to write realistic page turners. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to hear what these men had to say.

Chbosky stated his background was more screenplay-based and that he learned more about the page turn from watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer (created by Joss Whedon) and reading Alex Cross books (by James Patterson) than anything else. “It’s all about what happened or what happens next.”

Asher pointed out that his novel, 13 REASONS WHY, had a plot-driven suspense, while Chbosky’s PERKS was more character-driven suspense. Chbosky Jay Asher picstated that he wanted the reader looking in the wrong direction so he waited to introduce elements to allow the reader to make assumptions or ask questions. Take Charlie’s teacher, for instance. He waited to introduce the teacher’s girlfriend to allow the reader to question the teacher’s motives towards Charlie. What’s the relationship here? Is the teacher gay? What’s going to happen to Charlie?

Asher added to this with a quote from Stephen King: “Making the reader guess.” Involving the reader in solving the mystery – making them guess the clues – keeps them reading, keeps them excited. As Asher was writing his book, he was thinking of how he was going to get the reader to guess the clues.

Chbosky said, “And that’s why he’s (Asher’s) so great. He’s making us write his books as we go along.”

Asher said another way to keep the reader turning the page is to write as clean as possible. He wrote 13 REASONS WHY so that the reader would not be able to put it down. He was afraid if they did, they would stop reading it. So, he kept the chapters short, with each leading into the next, and he created micro-mysteries that kept the suspense building along the way that did not allow the reader to come out of the story. He even made his character names easy to pronounce so readers wouldn’t stumble over them as they read.

Chbosky discussed that one of Charlie’s micro-mysteries is what’s going to happen with the sister when she gets hit and Charlie is asked not to tell. Chbosky stated that it’s important to get your readers invested in the well-being of every character. “If you can make your readers care about all of your characters – from the biggest to the smallest – that’s a major accomplishment.”

Moving on to Chbosky’s keynote, he started by pronouncing that, “The next generation of classics are literally in this room.”

He discussed the rejections he received for PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER. It took him 70 pages of writing awful stuff, just to get a fantastic title. As he was writing this awful beginning that wasn’t working, he asked out loud, “Why?” The answer he heard in his head was, “Guess that’s what happens when you’re a wallflower.” He scrapped everything, but the title and started again.

This was the first step in his journey to writing a timeless classic. There are three steps to follow:

  1. Find your Great Idea – He discussed how creative types have difficulty recognizing what’s beautiful or transcendent in themselves. How we as writers don’t always recognize the great ideas we have inside us. That’s why when you’re trying to find your great story, you should write down every idea you have and then share that list of ideas with the people closest to you, who genuinely want you to succeed. Everyone who reads the list will gravitate towards one or two ideas.
  2. Find the Right Genre – There’s one that fits you and your story. Don’t worry about what’s popular. Find what matches your need to tell your great idea.
  3. Study the Classics – Do this to spur you on, to challenge yourself. Because, what the hell, you’re gonna die; you might as well go for it.

Besides these three rules, he encouraged everyone to live a life that challenges you every single day. Find what’s beautiful in yourself. Find the story you’re meant to write. He calls it, “Fuck the market.”

Then take the time to make it great. “There’s no such thing as writer’s block; you’re just editing too early.”

He ended with this: “Books change lives. Books save lives. Books change the world.”

I had an opportunity to meet with Stephen Chbosky shortly after his keynote and have him sign his book for me. He was charming and dynamic. And told me a short, self-deprecating anecdote about having to give a speech shortly after President Clinton at an awards ceremony where he didn’t come off as well. Nothing intimidating about that situation.  His speech was amazing and made us feel, if just for a moment, like we were all infinite.

And then I got to admire Stephen Chbosky for a moment where he told me story about how nervous he was accepting an award right after Bill Clinton spoke - "Yeah I wasn't as good."

Learn more about Stephen Chbosky here.

Follow Stephen on Twitter here.

My Top Five Things for Friday – a TGNA Post

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It’s my turn to post over at the newly relaunched group blog, The Great Noveling Adventure. Since we now have set themes for each day, this is List of 5 Friday. I decided to give everyone a sneak peak at my top five favorite things I learned from the SCBWI LA Summer Conference. For those of you following along with my series of posts here, it’s a nice preview into some of the things I’ll be sharing more in-depth on this blog, coming very soon.

TweetDon’t forget that I’m also hosting AM #sprints every weekday morning on Twitter @Novel_Adventure. Join me if you need some motivation to get started or if you just need some companionship as you work on your own great novel.