What A Week

All week, I've been meaning to write about my experience at the annual SCBWI conference in New York. Though days leading up to the conference, I was unsure I wanted to trek to New York for the weekend, I was well-rewarded for waking way too early for a Saturday. The conference opened with the inestimable Libba Bray who was recently granted the Printz award for her book GOING BOVINE. Libba is funny, irreverent and motivating and she was one of my reasons for attending the conference; I was not disappointed.

Her talk, titled 'Writing As An Extreme Sport', challenged us to the Year of Writing Dangerously. She told us to take risks with characters, discover what had not been known before, find the cracks that let in the light. She warned us not to fall for the hot pterodactyl boyfriend. In other words, don't be seduced by trends, don't dive into stereotypes and especially, don't try to please others. (These points would be echoed throughout the day by other speakers.) Her talk was sprinkled with quotes and one of the last was from Ray Bradbury: "First you jump off the cliff, then you build the wings."

When I left Libba's talk, I was jazzed and excited. She made me think that I can do this crazy thing called WRITING. Since I write young adult fantasy, it was easy to choose the three sessions I would attend during my day of conferencing. The first session on Writing Fantasy was led by Ari Lewin, Senior Editor at Disney/Hyperion. Ari shared the different areas within the genre of fantasy and talked about her guidelines for evaluating fantasy. The bottom line is that every book needs to have a baseline of good quality writing. Even the most original idea won't come off if the writing is poor. She also looks for strong character development, good dialogue and a fresh plot that works.

Ari spoke at length about world-building, often the most challenging aspect of writing fantasy. The world must have rules and the characters need to follow those rules consistently. She noted that Holly Black has excellent resources on world building on her website under Writing Resources. Ari highlighted authors Phillip Pullman and Margot Lanagan as gifted world builders. Details should inform the reader about the world through showing rather than big chunks of exposition. She ended her talk by taking questions on queries, series and fairytales. (She thinks fairytales spinoffs are good).

The next session I attended was on literary young adult fiction and was led by Alvina Ling, Senior Editor at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. It was clear that Alvina had taken time preparing her talk and I appreciated her hard work. She went so far as polling colleagues on literary versus commercial fiction and located illuminating quotes on the topic. Alvina shared that she has a preference for literary fiction. For her, those are books that make her think or make her cry. She noted that literary fiction tends to be more character-focused with the climax of the story often a quiet moment of internal struggle. Commercial fiction is more plot-focused and includes more action. Alvina admitted that while she looks for literary fiction, she also enjoys a commercial hook. (NB: In fact, this seems to be the winning combination.)

Alvina referenced Nathan Bransford and David Lubar on this topic, concluding by stating that one is not better than the other and that as editors, publisher and readers, we need both.

During the lunch session, we were treated to a keynote by Jacqueline Woodson, author of both picture and young adult books and multiple award winner. Jacqueline's talk, titled Locking the Door on Ourselves, directed us to lock the door on critics as well as the time-stealing areas of our lives. She encouraged us to tell our stories because we have a right to tell them. Fear, she said, is what stops us from writing. She does not believe in writer's block. It's fear of rejection, fear that we'll be seen as imposters, that we are illegitimate, that prevents us from creating. The highlight of this session for me was hearing Jacqueline read from her works LOCOMOTION and SHOW WAY. Her writing, poetic and beautiful, brought tears to my eyes and brought the room to a standing ovation.

In the afternoon, I attended the final of my three break-out sessions. The session was on Writing for Teens and was led by Ben Schrank, Publisher of Razorbill, an imprint of Penguin. Ben shared that when he receives a full manuscript, he's often ready to move on after thirty pages. If the book keeps his attention, it's special and he'll consider it. He highlight several Razorbill books that are out or are coming out soon and in describing each of them, it seemed to be the voice that grabbed him the most.

Ben outlined some common mistakes for writers to avoid. He said it's not a good move to write for the market. As an editor, he looks for what he hasn't heard before, not for what's been done already. He also warned against trying to mimic the voice of the teenager. It's more effective, he said, to emphasize a voice that's unique. A third point was not to introduce the character in an on-the-nose way. Start the story in media res and pinpoint the essence of the story. Ben suggested that writers try to tell old stories in a new way. And last, he suggested that writers BE NICE.

The conference energized me so much that even though I'd planned to write this blog for the past week, I've been focusing on revisions to my manuscript. I'm motivated to ensure that it's the best writing it can be - despite the daunting statistics on publishing. So that's what I've been doing this week (in addition to my regular life, of course). What's energized you recently? How did you spend your week?