2017 SCBWI LA Summer Conference Highlights – Part 3

Welcome to Part 3 of the conference highlights. To catch up on previous posts, you can view Part 1 and Part 2 before continuing.

DAY THREE

The final day always comes too quickly, and yet is still somehow packed with a ton of literary goodness. We started off the day with the Picture Book Panel (which included our very own SCBWI Oklahoma star PB author Tammi Sauer!) and ended with an inspirational send off by the amazing Laurie Halse Anderson followed by the always fun autograph party.

Did I mention that there was dessert with Judy Blume in the middle? Crazy, I know! What a fabulous day!

PICTURE BOOK PANEL

PANEL DISCUSSION WITH RAÚL COLÓN, LEUYEN PHAM, JAVAKA STEPTOE, AND TAMMI SAUER. (MODERATED BY LAURENT LINN)

Laurent Linn led this awesome discussion about picture books. He had each panelist introduce themselves first before the questions began.

Leuyen Pham — She’s worked on about 90 picture books and she said picture books are the closest you can come to whispering in a child’s ear. The search for characters is always a lot of fun for her. She does background and research on the characters before starting. There’s an emotional move from line drawing to art – analytical turns off to the imaginative.

Javaka Steptoe — He said he’s not just trying to create art, but an experience. He’s trying to feel what the character is feeling when he’s creating. He thinks back to when he was a child, when he was drawing, making noises, to create that moment on the paper, the experience.

“I don’t want to just draw a picture.”

When he uses found objects, he’s using things that have had a life. That brings a richness. It’s there, it’s alive. For kids, when they see something they identify – like, wow, I have that in my house – it’s a bridge.

He’s always thinking, “How can I bring you into my world?”

Learn the details of a moment; it’s about the subtleties and how it creates the big picture.

Tammi Sauer — (Tammi may have received a giant shout-out of ‘OOGA!’ from her Oklahoma SCBWI fan club when she was introduced. Maybe.)

 

She then flawlessly went on with her stellar presentation and gave her three favorite writing tips for creating relatable characters readers will care about. Make sure to follow her ARF formula:

A – Active

R- Relatable

F- Flawed

Raúl Colón — For his latest picture book,  his editor told him that the pictures were telling the story. She told him to get rid of the words. That’s how DRAW! become a wordless picture book.

When beginning a new manuscript, he starts with sketches. Vision of pictures have to come to him as he’s reading or he won’t be interested in working on it. He plays music while working, He gets lost in the work, especially while doing the final art.

Question #1: What’s the first step in a new creation?

Tammi Sauer — Come up with a fresh idea. Celebrate the weird. Ideas are everywhere. Your job is to capture them.

Raúl Colón — I agree. I was inspired by an exhibit I came across.

Leuyen Pham — My first step is hard. Every book is a reinvention of myself. I freak out. I have to leave my studio. Take a sketchbook and just start sketching. While actually working, I can’t look at others’ work.

Javaka Steptoe — I agree with what everyone just said. You have to find some idea that sustains you. Ideas can come from anywhere. From life. You shouldn’t force a story. It should be fluid. I think about the background materials – asphalt for Swan Lake, wood for Jimi Hendrix.

It looks effortless, but it takes lots and lots of work to get there.

Question #2: Picture books can seem simple. When you have something to say, how do you balance this?

Raúl Colón — In the book ALWAYS MY DAD (by Sharon Dennis Wyeth) a story about divorce, it could’ve been tricky, but we made it as joyful as possible by showing all the things they could do together – focused on hope.

Leuyen Pham — I tend to stay away from stories like that. My approach tends to be more subtle. I’ll find a way to work them into the pictures. For example, two lesbian mothers pictured that are not mentioned in the story.

Her favorite writers are those generous enough to let some words go.

Tammi Sauer — I try to keep the 4 year-old version of my son in mind. Something kids connect with, something with humor. He would either give two thumbs up or say, ‘Wow, that’s a dud’.

Keep it subtle – don’t beat people over the head with a message.

Javaka Steptoe — The story is the most important thing. If it’s not a page-turner, take it out. The writer can show you the road, the illustrator can show you the beauty of the road.

Question #3: What is your purpose?

Tammi Sauer — Something kids can connect with – humor and heart.

Raúl Colón — Something they don’t see every day.

Leuyen Pham — Making another one of me. Feeling an intimacy with a book that will touch that kid.

Javaka Steptoe — I just want to talk with people. Write children’s books like a letter we send back out into the world and we keep going.

 

STEPHANIE GARBER SHARES SAGE ADVICE

 

 

 

 

 

Stephanie Garber, who already gave an outstanding breakout session, now dazzled the entire conference with her keynote address. She shared some sage advice she’s learned along her journey as a writer thus far.

 

The story of her overnight success took seven year. Seven years and five novels. Yes, it wasn’t until the fifth complete novel she wrote that she started to see positive responses to her writing from queries. That fifth book is the one that landed her the agent. And the sixth book was the one that finally sold – CARAVAL.

There was a lot of doubt and questioning of life choices before that book sold, so what helped her keep going and get through that sixth book?

Stephanie said these things were key to her success:

  • Write the book you’re brutally obsessed with — After all, your readers won’t feel something you don’t. (Please don’t write a book that’s safe.)
  • Deal with the things you’re afraid of — (She wanted to get an agent, but she didn’t want to go to a conference to get one – she was terrified of conferences.) There’s something very powerful about confronting fears and it’s better to do it before you’re published. Make your mistakes now. Besides, once you publish, things don’t get easier.
  • Let Go — Great things come from letting go. A manuscript can be salvaged, and it can be good to persevere. But it can also be a good thing to let go of ideas. It’s dangerous to latch on to the idea that you know everything. There’s always something to learn, especially about craft or the industry.
  • Read Widely –Don’t just read, read deeply. Make a personal list of what inspires you. What books do you want to emulate? (Your Cannon) Write the kind of books you want to read.

 

GOLDEN KITE LUNCHEON

The Golden Kite Luncheon and Awards Presentation was beset by a wee bit of a crisis this year when by some twist of fate, the kitchen only prepared place settings (and meals) for half the number needed. Our group was lucky enough to acquire a table, and reparations were made to those who didn’t, but they sadly missed out on a fabulous conversation between Lin Oliver and Judy Blume that took place during dessert.

Stephanie, part of our Oklahoma group, at our table at the luncheon.
Yes, that is a salad on my plate, but my eyes are already on that dessert…
Lin and Judy in conversation.

For most of the conversation, I sat there mesmerized. Judy cast us all under her spell, as she is prone to do. I do remember that Judy talked about how writing saved her life, literally. And how it changed her life. Lin asked her if she’s retired from writing. Judy said that she’s written everything she’s wanted to say, “But there’s this one little thing…”

That got the whole room very excited!

Now that she’s (semi) retired from writing, she’s still surrounded by books at Books and Books, the independent bookstore in Key West she and her husband George have opened. She also invited everyone to come visit – but maybe not all at once.

She also talked about how much an organization like SCBWI would have meant to her when she was a young writer, which is why she is such a big supporter of it now, and why she’s on the board.

One quote I came away with was when she was talking about determination – “You can have all the talent in the world, and if you’re not determined, you’re going to let something stop you from doing it.”

*Sigh*

How much do we love Judy Blume?

 

BREAKOUT SESSION – KWAME ALEXANDER AND ARIELLE ECKSTUT TALK ABOUT THE BUSINESS SIDE OF THINGS

Kwame Alexander and his agent, Arielle Eckstut, gave a fascinating talk discussing business tips.

Kwame and Arielle were wonderful and shared so many fantastic ideas. My absolute favorite thing that Kwame said was that a big part of his success was starting local. Embracing local bookstores and developing relationships with local owners long before you’re published should be a priority.

He was also very creative when it came to marketing. He once had 50 friends call a bookstore and ask for his book before he called them himself to ask if they’d like for him do a signing there. SMART!

He also called anybody he knew connected with morning radio shows and read poems on the air. (And I can only guess how effective that must have been, because when you hear him read his poetry, it is really something.)

Always have a plan that has reach – stretch goals. Constantly create opportunities.

Remember, you are the main driver of your book’s publicity.

So many great things, I could have listened to them spout off ideas for another hour or two.

 

CLOSING TIME – FINAL KEYNOTE LAURIE HALSE ANDERSON

 

 

 

 

 

 

Laurie Halse Anderson greeted us and gave a special shout out to any introverts who were present (no small task!). She acknowledged how difficult it was to carry the bubble of love, the place of acceptance and understanding, we’d created in our conference back home with us after the conference ends.

She gave us a few secrets to help carry this feeling home:

  • “You are the boss of your brain, and your brain is the boss of your emotional state.” She’s done the research. She then suggested we take a cue from the country of Denmark and embrace the idea of “hygge”. A warm, pleasant, and comfortable atmosphere. Void of annoyance or distraction, at total ease.  
  • Get Started! You have to give yourself permission to suck. Revision is about clarifying. If you can just get started with your suckage, doing your art makes you feel better! 
  • Creating books for children is a tremendous privilege and responsibility. We create for the luckiest audience who will ever live.

Choose to make messy art whenever you can.

It was a wonderful way to send us off. What a fantastic conference!

 

AUTOGRAPH PARTY 

I may have gone a little overboard with buying books, but I actually showed some restraint and stopped myself way before I had to buy a second suitcase. I may not enjoy the mad dash and waiting in long lines takes to get all of these treasures signed – honestly, it’s the closet thing I come to experiencing Black Friday, and I barely survived it – but dinner with friends is at the end. And along the way, I do get to meet and thank these authors who have written books I enjoy. Worth the suffering of crowds and long lines? I think so.

The books I bought at the conference, and then lugged around the ballroom to get signed.

 

The dynamic Vanessa Brantley Newton, who also illustrated our own Tammi Sauer’s book, MARY HAD A LITTLE GLAM – I forgot to bring my copy with me (and it was sold out at the book store).
Our darling Tammi Sauer was so busy with her faculty duties that we barely saw her! I did meet up with her a time or two. Once in passing here…
…and once when I had her FINALLY sign my copy of her book CARING FOR YOUR LION. I had to bring it all the way from Oklahoma with me because we kept missing each other (or I’d forget to bring it with me when I’d see her). Mission Accomplished!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kwame Alexander was just as charming as could be. I absolutely loved THE CROSSOVER as I knew I would.

 

The wonderful and ever-so-sparkly Alex Gino signed books earlier in the conference. I was so happy I was able to meet Alex and get my copy of GEORGE signed. What a fabulous book!

INTENSIVES

For the first time ever, I was able to attend the Intensive workshops following the conference on Monday – so worth it!

Morning Intensive was SCENE: THE BUILDING-BLOCK OF FICTION with Linda Sue Park where we explored working in scenes rather than chapters. It was fascinating and very helpful.
The Scene Intensives Class! Don’t we look inspired?

 

Afternoon Intensive was TIP SHEETS with Arianne Lewin. I learned how much I didn’t know about this invaluable marketing tool and then I  learned how to use it.

 

FINAL GOODBYES

After all the workshops were over, our group had our final meal together and the staggering flights back home began. Before we knew it, it was time to say goodbye to LA…until next year!

Eating the best Greek food. What a great way to end the weekend.

 

Catren and Brenda taking in the sights.

 

Heading home! Bye LA!

Hope you’ve enjoyed the highlights of the summer conference! I thoroughly enjoyed attending!

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!

 

How to Make Your Words Count – a TGNA Post

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It’s Writing Wednesday over at The Great Noveling Adventure and I’m discussing ideas to help you make every word count.

Here’s a preview:

There comes a point in the revision process where you can no longer see the verbs for the the clauses. You lose your perspective, along with the will to slash and burn unnecessary words. You may even go slightly mad.

Have no fear!

Newberry award winning author Linda Sue Park has some fantastic ideas to help you change the way you see your story and how to make every word count. I was lucky enough to hear this first-hand at the SCBWI LA summer conference during her keynote speech entitled “The How of It: Making Every Word Count”.

Here are a few of those great ideas that might just save you from setting fire to that beloved manuscript:

To read the full post click here.

TweetRemember to join me every week day morning if you’re an early morning writer and you’d like some motivation to get your writing day started or if you just want some company. I host AM #wordsprints on Twitter @Novel_Adventure.

And you can always  browse through our new forum section to find a critique partner, get your first five pages workshopped, or have your query critiqued.

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.

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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.

What I Learned at the SCBWI LA Conference – Part 2 Editors Discuss What Books Need and What They Don’t

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There was a very lively Editors’ Panel this year, and the discussion was all about what you should have in your manuscript and what you shouldn’t. The dynamic panel included:

Alessandra Balzer, VP and Co-Publisher at Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books

Mary Lee Donovan, Editorial Director at Candlewick Press

Allyn Johnston, VP and Publisher of Beach Lane Books, a San Diego-based imprint of Simon & Schuster

Wendy Loggia, Executive Editor at Delacorte Press/Random House Children’s Books

Lucia Monfried, Senior Editor at Dial Books for Young Readers

Dinah Stevenson, VP and Publisher of Clarion Books, a small imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Julie Strauss Gabel, VP and Publisher of Dutton Children’s Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers

 

Editors Panel w/Lin Oliver moderating. Pic from Official SCBWI Conference Blog
Editors Panel w/Lin Oliver moderating. Pic from Official SCBWI Conference Blog

 

 

The first question addressed to the panel asked for one good thing they looked for in a manuscript.

Overwhelmingly, the answer was voice.

Mary Lee Donovan expanded on this: Voice is what you bring to your manuscript automatically. Don’t try to imitate, or echo another writer or style. Make sure you are writing authentically as yourself so your voice comes through. “If you are writing authentically, you are writing in your voice.”

Allyn Johnston added that she wanted the unexpected; something that gives her goosebumps. And no elaborate cover letters, for her. She would rather you spend more time developing your manuscript.

Lucia Monfried said, “Originality. It’s a rare quality that grabs you.”

Dinah Stevenson said she’d like to see a beginning, “Not only an invitation into the story, but something that contains the seeds of the ending, so it sets up a satisfying journey.”

Julie Strauss Gabel echoed the importance of voice, and then mentioned for her personally, she’s very attentive to fit. As in fit for her imprint and for her as an editor. And she said this isn’t just a surface fit, it’s about that unique one-on-one relationship. Never write to general masses or trends. From your voice to your manuscript, you have to be able to stand by it. “I’m looking for something I can champion.”

Others echoed this and the importance of diligent research before submitting. Suggesting writers look over editors’ lists, read interviews, and find other useful information that is available on the internet.

Alessandra Balzar, Mary Lee Donovan, and Allyn Johnston. (pic from Official SCBWI conference Blog)
Alessandra Balzer, Mary Lee Donovan, and Allyn Johnston. (pic from Official SCBWI conference Blog)

 

Second question asked editors to discuss things they did not want to see in manuscript submissions.

Allyn Johnston said, “Don’t be weird.”  Don’t send your manuscript inside a green plastic fish (which she held up for all to see) or with a satin eye patch.

Boring manuscripts was another common theme.

Alessandra Bray added that she sees some writers, in an effort not to be boring, overload the start their manuscript with so much action or sex drama that it is overwhelming. She suggested we as writers should, “introduce us to your characters” and leave out the “dark and stormy night bits”.

Wendy Loggia gave this insight on how to know if you have a boring manuscript: If only you get excited about your work, it’s probably boring. When you practice pitches, if others show interest, that’s good. If not, that’s bad.

Julie Strauss Gabel added that If she doesn’t get engaged or see the voice or if it’s pedestrian, she’s out. She then said that the very best stories come from very personal places. Always think about why this story has to be told.

Allyn Johnston, Wendy Loggia, and Lucia Monfried (pic from Official SCBWI conference blog.)
Allyn Johnston, Wendy Loggia, and Lucia Monfried (pic from Official SCBWI conference blog.)
Dinah Stevenson and Julie Strauss Gabel (pic from Official SCBWI conference blog.)
Dinah Stevenson and Julie Strauss Gabel (pic from Official SCBWI conference blog.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Third question asked each editor to discuss what they looked for in a fresh, snappy manuscript.

Many reflected on ideas of craftsmanship and dealing with a writer who understood story structure. An emphasis on educating ourselves as writers was expressed over and over. Too many manuscripts come in that read like first drafts. Writers are not taking enough time to edit.

Lucia Monfried stated, ” There’s no speeding up how to get better as writers. Take your time; learn your craft.”

Dinah Stevenson said that a manuscript screams out first draft when a writer has thrown in everything and the kitchen sink. “Craft means making choices. It’s part of the process.”

Wendy Loggia added that she looks at the overall structure of the manuscript. Paragraph structure, sentence breaks, chapter endings, etc. “I love to step in and make suggestions, but it’s great when I can tell that a writer has an idea of how they want the manuscript to look.”

Allyn Johnston said, “When I’m in the hands of a professional, I can relax.” She then shared a quote from Mem Fox to share what she’s looking for: “When the emotional temperature of the reader has changed through the experience.”

Julie Strauss Gabel expressed ‘sharability’ as something she looks for. “Word of mouth is the key to this business. We’re here because we care about who is going to read this book.”

Alessandra Balzar said she wanted to see a hook – that thing that makes a manuscript fresh, unique. “What hook really means is the ability for the book to stand out.” What’s going to make someone say, ‘Oh, you have to read this book.’ – and that book is yours?”

Allyn Johnston and Mary Lee Donovan both commented on wanting books that fulfilled this golden moment when they become a reader. When they let go of the editor part of themselves and just enjoy the story. That is the golden moment and that’s when they know they’ve found something special.

Overall, a fabulous panel with lots of great insights and pearls of wisdom from these experts in the field of publishing.

 

 

 

 

What I Learned at the SCBWI LA Conference – Part 1 Meg Rosoff, the Queen of Weird and Champion of the Imagination

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This week has been incredibly busy with the relaunch of my group blog, The Great Noveling Adventure, and hosting all those AM writing sprints, but what fun! I’m going to continue doing them as it gets me up and writing every day. I didn’t want September to start without beginning my LA conference recap posts, so here’s the first one. I had hoped to bring back some extra signed copies of some books, but due to another sold-out conference, this one with record-breaking attendance, the bookstore was pretty picked over by the time I got around to it. Still, I think I may just have something up my sleeve to give away later in the month.

MEG ROSOFF SPEAKS ON IMAGINATION

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Meg Rosoff, author of Printz Award book HOW I LIVE NOW and THERE IS NO DOG, opened the conference with her keynote entitled “Warning: Peter Rabbit May be Hazardous to Your Health” where she discussed how some psychologists and other “experts” were telling parents not to allow their children to read fairy tales. Why? Because fairy tales were dangerous.

Yes, dangerous.

They teach children an unrealistic view of the world. She quoted from an unnerving number of sources, which stated things like this jewel of wisdom:

“Even fairy tales, the ones we all love, with wizards or princesses turning into frogs or whatever it was. There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it’s statistically too improbable.”(This was from a Telegraph article.)

Who can argue with such logic?

In Rosoff’s opinion, they were all missing the point. Imagination is not a dangerous thing for a child to develop, in fact, it is essential. To prove her point, she began her talk with a retelling of GOLIDLOCKS AND THE THREE BEARS and she gave it a realistic bent, as these experts would have us do.

(Me paraphrasing extensively.) She entered a house, actually it was a cave. And instead of finding three bowls of porridge what she actually found were three rotting rabbit carcasses. “This is disgusting,” she said.

She went to lie down after this, but instead of beds, there were piles of leaves mixed with bear excrement. When the bears came home, they growled at her – “if they could speak a language, it would probably be French-Canadian” – and then they disemboweled her and ate her.

The End.

Not exactly warm and fuzzy. And quite nauseating, to boot. But hey, it’s more realistic, and according to the “experts”. exactly what children, today, need in their stories. Can you imagine a childhood devoid of imagination? A world where children grow up learning only to think in rational ways? THAT is a truly terrifying tale.

When her own child went off to college and shared fears of not being as good or as smart as the other kids in the physics department, how_i_live_now_3-125x200this is what Meg said to her:

“You may not ever be a genius, but you read books. You know about plot, character, stories. You know about letting your unconscious mind follow things to new conclusions. Reading books strengthens imagination and lateral thinking. A good scientist needs imagination. Reading books may even make you a GREAT scientist.”

Imagination is essential to great thinkers, to creative minds. It’s not something one should outgrow or overcome.

“Imagination and the ability to tell a story will make anyone better at anything, with the possible exception of politicians and accountants.”

Reading about the fantastical, the improbable, allows kids to imagine the what ifs. It’s our job as writers is to try to understand the world and take risks to write the strongest, fiercest, most subversive tales. This means not being afraid to engage with the darker parts of ourselves. That’s where some of the really important stuff can happen. Break the rules, be subversive. Write a book no one else may want to read.

In one review after her second book, it said, “Meg Rosoff is the queen of weird.” She took it as a compliment.

“Imagination is very dangerous. It can change the world. And that’s why we write.”

Learn more about Meg Rosoff here.

Follow Meg on Twitter here.