The battle of emotions for writers, as told by Rapunzel

Isn’t this the truth? I swear, sometimes I go through all of these in one day!

Rapunzel Writing

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2014 SCBWI Florida Conference

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I love writing conferences. I’ve been attending them for about five years and SCBWI ones for the last three, when I decided to focus on writing for kids. Writing conferences offer a unique opportunity that’s equal parts inspiration, craft, and networking. And there’s something special about those that specialize in kid-lit. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s a collective embracing of everyone who’s new, an inclusion into this fabulous clique. Kid-lit writers are some of warmest, nicest people I’ve ever met.

(NOTE: I’ve met wonderful writers in all the conferences I’ve attended. And I know some pretty amazing writers who don’t write for kids, writers who’ve been instrumental in guiding my writing career. It’s just that when strictly speaking about conferences, I seem to find more camaraderie at SCBWI conferences. Maybe it’s because I’m more “seasoned” now and more comfortable in my own writing skin. Maybe it’s because I know more people. There are many variables, of course.)

This past January 17-19, I went to the 2014 SCBWI Florida Conference in Miami. Third year in a row. Fifth SCBWI Florida conference. And it didn’t disappoint. In fact, if you read my I Have An Agent post, it rocked! But that’s not why I loved it (well, okay, it was part of it, but the truth is, I’ve loved every single SCBWI FL conference I’ve been to, even those where my work didn’t elicit such positive feedback–and yes, I’ve had many of those moments.) I loved this conference because of the people I met and because the workshops offered some great talks on craft and the business.

I attended the Friday Novel Intensive with agent Jen Rofe of Andrea Brown Literary, editor Stacy Abrams of Entangled Publishing, and author Chris Crutcher. It was intense (pun intended), and the topics ranged from the market, to germinating ideas, to execution and beginnings. Then the trio tackled first page critiques, and for the first time since I’ve been attending, everyone who submitted an anonymous first page received feedback. Mine offered an “aha!” lightbulb moment, which I executed right away–and it was that missing link I couldn’t figure out. During the course of the day, we learned that right now, editors are looking for:

  • Commercial and fun picture books
  • Character-based chapter books
  • Fun middle grade, especially for boys
  • Well-written, high concept YA
  • NO paranormal or dystopian
  • Nonfiction, especially narrative nonfiction (autobiographies/biographies)

There were some awesome gems during this intensive, too.

  • “Write that thing that scares you.”–Jen Rofe
  • “When you’re sitting down, writing your story, tell it in the most raw, intimate way you can tell it.”–Chris Crutcher
  • “Now is an awesome time to be a writer because there are so many ways to market.”–Stacy Abrams

I didn’t get to attend the Picture Book Intensive, but all the talk I heard said the same: Deborah Warren, Laura Whitaker, Andrea Pinkney, and Toni Buzzeo were fantabulous. If I could’ve cloned myself, I would’ve!

Friday evening was kicked off with the first-book’s panel, which is always wonderful. And this year it was even better because my writing friend Vivi Barnes was up there with her debut novel, OLIVIA TWISTED. So it was great to know one of the cool kids on the panel! All four of the authors were fabulous: Nancy Cavanaugh, Steven dos Santos, Cristin Bishara, and Vivi. Check out their books!

Then, attendees gathered at Books & Books for snacks, mingling, and a mystery panel of experts: a group of kids ranging from 6 to 16 who answered questions from the moderator, Gaby Triana, about all things books. This panel elicited many awww’s, and it was wonderful to see how eloquent the experts were at verbalizing what they read, their preferences, and what they wished there was more of out there in the book world.

Saturday was full of inspiration. We had fabulous speakers: Chris Crutcher, Augusta Scattergood and Andrea Pinkney, Sarah Pennypacker,Peter Brown, and Lois Duncan. We cried. We laughed. Our heart strings were tugged and twisted. And like with Friday’s intensive, there were beautiful, inspiring gems:

  • “Go find those fundamental things (like grief) that are so human, they’re universal. We have to be willing to go there, be embarrassed, tell it all.”–Chris Crutcher
  • “Grief– you do it ’till you’re done.”–Chris Crutcher
  • “When you’re telling a story, just sit down and tell the hell out of it.”– Chris Crutcher
  • “There are readers you will never meet but whose lives you will impact. That is what matters.”–Andrea Pinkney
  • “A book connects the reader to the rest of his tribe through time and space.”–Sara Pennypacker
  • “Everyone needs their stories reflected back at them. Not just those in extraordinary circumstances.”–Sara Pennypacker
  • “Stories allow for empathy.”–Sara Pennypacker
  • “Never give up. Learn from your mistakes and keep going…Never burn your bridges…Don’t be afraid to take chances.”–Lois Duncan
  • “Every life is a story.”–Lois Duncan
  • “The only thing stronger than law enforcement is the power of the pen.”–Lois Duncan
  • “Don’t let yourself be crushed with rejections of a book today. If you really think it’s a good book, keep it.”–Lois Duncan

The agent panel featured agent extraordinaires Deborah Warren, Jen Rofe, and Ammi-Joan Paquette, while the editor panel included stellar editors Stacy Abrams, Kat Brzozowski, Laura Whitaker, Andrea Pinkney, and Aubrey Poole. Both panels were enlightening and so fun to listen to. It’s always eye-opening to hear what agents and editors are looking for in manuscripts, what entices them to keep reading. What did I learn? The time for problem novels is over. Instead, agents and editors are looking for work that contain “issues” without being about the issues,  for diverse characters whose stories aren’t (only) about being diverse. Paranormal and dystopian are out… for now. The market and editors’ lists are completely full for now. Tuck those PNR and dystopian manuscripts for a later time. Agents and editors also looking for writers to have an online presence, but as Ammi-Joan Paquette pointed out, “an awkward [online] presence is probably worse than no presence” at all. And it certainly shouldn’t come at the expense of your writing! Others wish list items mentioned: country song in a book, boy books, dirty dancing YA, book about singing, multicultural books, picture books, exotic/overseas settings, books about food/eating/bakeries, experimentation in format, LGBTQ, diversity, piercings/tattoos.

Saturday night ended with a Steampunk smash. The Clockwork Ball was a huge success and showed just how well South Floridians like to party. The costume contest was fabulous, the food was good, and the company was even better–which means there were many sleepy, groggy conference-goers the next morning!

Sunday’s workshops were varied and timely. They included topics from voice in YA, to picture books, to romance, character development, and nonfiction–and everything in between. I wanted to split myself up so I could attend them all! I sat in Kat Brzozowski’s workshop on voice in YA and Laura Whitaker’s editor/writer relationships, and both were enlightening. Kat brought in some very cool acting exercises to illustrate how important it is to know our characters’ voices, and she had us dissecting published pages to do the same. Laura’s talk on what editors want in their writers, along with the current state of publishing, was enlightening and hilarious.

We said our final good-byes after the workshops. It was bittersweet. This was perhaps one of the best–if not the best–writing conferences I’ve attended. I’m looking forward to see what our Mid-Year Workshops (June 6-7 in Orlando) will bring. SCBWI Florida Regional Advisors Linda Rodriguez-Bernfeld and Gaby Triana, along with the rest of the SCBWI Florida crew put together some pretty awesome conferences! And check out this lovely slide show, put together by our Assistant Regional Advisor Curtis Sponsler.

Happy writing, everyone!

Friday Five

My writing Friday has returned, and to start it off, I thought I’d delve into a “Friday Five” kinda post.

1. My son graduated from preschool. And he’s now registered for KINDERGARTEN. Yes. I am warring with myself. On the one hand, I’m so excited for and proud of him. On the other, I want to throw myself down, pound my fists on the floor, and cry, “I don’t want him to grow up! I don’t wanna!!” But I won’t. Because I’m, you know, an adult. Now we have to work on getting his uniform, school supplies, AND we have to work on a summer reading project which is due by the third day of school. EEEK! Let the homework begin.

Of course, his being bigger now is causing me to seriously think about camp during the summer. At least for part of it. I have work to do–I’m still teaching, and I have to finish this draft…I’m THISCLOSE to finishing the first draft and I’m so ready to begin the serious revisions– and he’s got a ton of energy. I’ve been keeping him busy during the day with pockets of quiet time so I can get work done, but it’s been really hard getting that balance…it hasn’t been working too great.

2. The SCBWI Florida mid-year conference was AMAZING. Not only was it held in Disney’s Yacht Club (which was beautiful and a hop-and-a-skip away from Epcot!), but I also met so many fabulous people and the intensives and workshops were great.

I attended the Novel Intensives on Friday, with agent Josh Adams from Adams Literary, author Gaby Triana, and author Nancy Werlin. What I loved about this intensive, was that it focused on strategies that will help me now as I transition from first draft to serious revision. I have the skeleton down, but now comes the real work: reshaping, adding layers, removing fluff, and working on (fixing?) characters, pace, motives, tension, stakes, and language. I’m adding layers, people! Layers.

I recently tweeted this about revision: “What I love about revision is witnessing how each round molds the story, adding yet another layer that works toward making it whole.” I know my students come to revision with groans and excuses. They hate it (most of them, anyway). I think I used to as well. But there’s a moment of clarity that happens, when I watch what I’ve written be transformed into something so much more beautiful than when it started. A butterfly emerges from its cocoon. That’s what revision does to writing, and I’m loving witnessing this transformation. So yes, revision? Bring it on!

Gaby Triana and Nancy Werlin had great suggestions and exercises for working on plot and characters. I’ve already started implementing some of these, and they’re beyond useful. They also talked about time management, which, as you can see from my number 1 in this post, is tricky! Josh Adams gave us a wonderful view into the current YA market, which writers need to know! It’s daunting and harrowing thinking about the after. After the manuscript, now what? After I finish my story, how do I do this? After the story is finished… the query letter *shudder*–I think most newbies probably follow a similar thought pattern, and that’s why knowing the market is important! (I’m still working on my feelings toward the query letter…) It doesn’t mean going out and writing into a trend (no! Though if that’s the story you must tell, then tell it. Don’t force it into a trend); it means understanding the way it works. Writing is an art, but publication is a business; writers need to know this. All three also read great first lines from current and past books, and it reinforced the importance of a great first line/page.

Then came the first page critiques. These are done anonymously and are exactly what the name suggests: critiques by the panelists of the first page of your manuscript. I submitted mine and when they started picking them at random, holding my breath, vacillating between “please pick mine” and “no, don’t pick mine.” And then they picked mine. I swear I heard nothing by Nancy Werlin reading my first page, and it was scary and nerve-wracking and all I could do was wring my hands to keep them from shaking while I waited for her to finish and for the critiques to begin. But guess what, they loved it! I must’ve sat there with an idiot grin plastered on my cheeks from the feedback I received. It was such a confidence boost, such a shock of electric excitement. I think my favorite compliment was that it sounded “lyrical.” Granted, I know it’s only one page–one out of maybe two or three hundred– but it means that what I did with the first page, and probably chapter since those have been worked and reworked so many times I’ve lost count, works. And it means I can do it. So yeah, that was pretty cool.

On Saturday, I attended the YA track with Nancy Werlin and Noa Wheeler, editor at Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Macmillan. It was also a great workshop, with the focus on characters. Again, we got great exercises that I’m keeping handy now as I start transitioning from first draft to revision. Then, Sat afternoon, I had my first chapter critiqued, only…it wasn’t my first chapter anymore (though it was one character’s first chapter). Still, it was good because I saw some major flaws with that character’s chapter/motivation, so I know it’s something I have to work on. Donna Gephart was sweet and insightful and gave me some really good notes.

It was a great experience, and I’m so happy I was able to go. Another pretty freaking awesome thing happened, but I don’t know if I can say much about it, so for now, I’m keeping quiet. Suffice it to know that I was excited and terrified all rolled up into one sticky ball, but that which doesn’t scare, isn’t worth pursuing! Regardless of how it turns out, the fact that it happened had me grinning, again, like an idiot for a long, long while.

3. I went on vacation after the conference, but it was the most stressful vacation ever! Why? Because I had to close out session 2 (finish grading and entering final grades) and I had to prepare session 3 (for which I had to finish converting the course to the new learning management system). I wouldn’t have chosen to go on vacation this week, but since the conference was in Orlando, this was the most obvious choice. Still, it was nice going to the parks (sometimes), and working by the pool (much better than working in my desk). I wasn’t feeling great thanks to a small flare-up and difficulty sleeping, but I trudged through and made it. I think another mini-vacation is in order. This time, to the beach. And this time, not during such a critical time in the semester!

Of course, vacation on the beach will probably look something like this:

4. I started a 4-week class in LitReactor with Mandy Hubbard, YA author and agent with D4EO Literary, on writing and selling the YA novel. This class was perfect for the month gap I had between my Novel III and Novel IV classes, and I’m so happy I signed up.  It’s been awesome, and the community of writers in there is unbelievable. Some amazing talent! And Mandy Hubbard is funny and insightful and helpful! We get our first three chapters and a query letter critiqued during the class by both classmates and Mandy, and I’ve gotten a lot of great feedback. This is what I love about classes in workshop settings, like the UCLA classes. They are invaluable for growing as a writer. Critique groups, too. The only way to get better (other than learning about craft and revision and working hard, of course) is to put your writing out there. It’s scary, but it is SO SO SO beneficial. It also teaches how to take criticism. I don’t get defensive like I did when I first started sharing my work. I take it in, let it simmer, and often find truth, which then makes my writing that much better. My first page/chapter wouldn’t be such if I hadn’t listened to suggestions of my classes. In fact, it was a classmate in my UCLA class who suggested starting with my male character! So yes, I’m excited about this class.

5. I’m also excited about starting Lynn Hightower’s Novel Writing IV class at UCLA’s Writers Extension. I received the email that I was accepted into this advanced course in early June, and I registered immediately after! I’m nervous, too, and a little terrified as it’s going to push me more, which is a GREAT thing (even if my first reaction is to bury my head in the figurative sand)! Like I’ve said in the above points, what pushes me in my writing makes me better. So I’ll gulp down my fear and my self-doubt and do it!

“The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”– Sylvia Plath

Happy Friday, everybody!

SCBWI Conference: Love

The thing I love about writing conferences is they provide opportunity–opportunity to improve skills, to network, to meet new people, and to showcase your writing. We’re a group of like-minded individuals, at different points in this writing and publishing game, coming together to talk about the craft and the business.  It’s wonderful! I usually leave these conferences inspired, ready to re-immerse myself into my project at hand.

This has been true in all the writing conferences I’ve attended, but it’s felt even stronger this time at the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators) Miami 2012 Conference. Perhaps it’s because I have specific projects in mind, projects to which I’m totally and completely devoted and about which I’m totally and completely obsessed. Or maybe it’s because, like a fellow conference-goer said, anyone who’s writing for kids has to have a more nurturing composition. Or maybe it was because of the fabulous and inspiring line up of authors, editors, and agents. But it was fabulous. The intensive for Leveled/Early Readers, led by Bonnie Bader and Natalie Lescroart, was informative and it cemented my resolution in finishing/polishing my leveled reader MS. I also got some ideas for new stories, so I’m eagerly sketching outlines and notes. To all those who think writing early/leveled readers (especially the first level) is easy: it’s not!

I also loved Jill Corcoran. I came to her blog this past summer thanks to Catherine Ipcizade (who, I might add, is fabulous. She’s the reason why I’m now in children’s writing!) during a children’s writing workshop I took through UCLA Extension Writers’ Program (which, I might add, was also fabulous. Another post for another time.) Anyway, back to Jill Corcoran–her workshop was great and it reiterated concepts I’ve heard before while giving me new “food for thought.” It actually helped to take a look at my current beginning (for my YA project) and realize, I’m not beginning in the right place! I wasn’t brave enough to read aloud today (or rather, by the time I worked up the courage, it was too late), but hearing her lecture and comments was enlightening.

We also got inspirational talks from authors, agents and editors, and I made some new contacts and met some charming new people.

I plan on going to as many of these conferences as I can–it was that good.