Posts Tagged ‘writing’

This is the second installment to my report on this year’s SCBWI Conference. After tanking up on some java, I was revved and ready to go for what promised to be a jam-packed second day. First up was KAREN CUSHMAN, author of a number of successful historical fiction novels, including , Lucy Whipple, Will Sparrow’s Road, and Newbery award winner The Midwife’s Apprentice. Karen said there are three rules for writing; unfortuntely no one knows what they are, so make your own rules, or better yet, have no rules at all. That may not sound very helpful, but I think the point was that you have to give yourself permission to try something different and then figure out how to make it work. She also suggested that we separate the editor from the critic.

What I took away from the panel of agents that followed was that authors should be open to and have the ability to revise. When asked  by Moderator Lin Oliver what would be the one thing you would tell authors to do, or not do, Neal Porter said, “Please yourself, don’t follow trends.” Elise Howard and Laura Godwin warned against accepting too much advice from others. And Jordan Brown said to be aware of the market so that you can create something new.

Following an inspiring talk by BRYAN COLLIER, author and illustrator of the Coretta Scott King Award-winning book Uptown, I attended a session on Renewal and Revision by EMMA DRYDEN. She coached those present, many of which were well-published authors, to learn how to manage our expectations in a rapidly evolving market. Putting our words out into the social network, doing a sketch a day, changing genre’s, and setting new goals were all methods for reinventing ourselves when the tried and true  no longer works.

CLARE VANDERPOOL spoke on the Power of Quiet for creative pursuits. Her suggestions were to:
1. Make quiet a priority.
2. Look for an opportunity for forced quiet.
3. Limit input.
4. Look for the resting points in a day.

Next up was a high-energy session with CAROL TANZMAN, author of the YA thrillers Circle of Silence and Dancegirl, who offered acting tips for readings. We watched and listened as she used eye contact, constant movement, volume changes, a different inflection for each character, and strategic pauses to enhance  and energize a reading from her book.

Perhaps the most moving presentation of the day came from RUTA SEPETYS, author of the New York Times bestseller “Between Shades of Gray.” I had met Ruta at this year’s ALA convention in Anaheim and was immediately struck by her openness and warmth. She is the perfect example of an SCBWI success story and credits the Work-in-Progress Grant she received plus other support from the organization for her success, but  honestly, it is her passion for her subject matter that makes her writing so moving. If you ever have the opportunity to hear her speak–do it. You will walk away loving her.

The final presentation of the day was an overview of the current children’s book market by DEBRA HALVERSON. I learned that for the first time in a long while there are signs of improvement. There is more optimism among agents, book sales have risen, and the picture book glut has been corrected.  So what are publishers looking for? Fresh voices and character-driven books that dig deep, but what else is new?

Then it was party, party at the Hippy Hop where revelers surprised SCBWI’s founders Lin Oliver and Stephen Mooser with a Flash Mob to the song Aquarius. We all got our groove on and had a great Rumpus of a time, to borrow from Where the Wild Things Are.

Me, Alexis O’Neill, Tina Nichols Coury,
Yuki Yoshino, and Allison Crotzer at the
2012 SCBWI Conference Hippy Hop

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Hey Diddle Diddle

Animals are often associated with very specific characteristics. We all know cheetah’s are fast, sharks are dangerous, dogs are loyal, monkeys are mischievous. But how do you choose the right animal for your story?

To begin, determine the primary characteristics of your story’s main character. Then examine which animal species best exemplifies those traits OR, to make the tale even more interesting, the animal which is completely the opposite. Let’s look at a few examples to show how this might work.

Let’s first look at an animal that fits the character’s arch-type.

Typically the main character in a story must  change or grow. If the protagonist  in your story starts out meek and timid, you might choose to make the protagonist a mouse.  Mice are particularly popular in children’s books because children can easily identify with them. Mice never grow beyond small. They are familiar. They are considered to be shy and mischievous. And mice are easy prey making them appear vulnerable. The great thing about working with a mouse as the main character is that it is the perfect foil for overcoming large obstacles.

Next, we’ll look at using an animal that is the anti-archtype.

If our story was centered around a character that is foolish, but must learn to think for itself, we might choose to use an owl. Typically owls are thought to be wise. In Western folklore, owls are commonly associated with studious scholars and wise elders. Perhaps the earliest known link between owls and wisdom is their association with Athena. The Greek goddess of wisdom is often depicted holding an owl. By using an owl as our protagonist we go against these common assumptions, but we also make the challenges for our protagonist greater and in effect make the story more interesting.

I.Q. Goes to School

Some animals are definitely more popular than others. My picture book I.Q. GOES TO SCHOOL was nearly rejected because my main character was a young rat and  the editor had a strong dislike for rats because so many inhabit the subways of  New York where she works. In the end we let people think I.Q. was just a mouse.

Dogs, on the other hand–or paw, pop up in many children’s books, but why? One reason is that people already treat them as human making it much easier for the reader to connect with the protagonist. Dogs crave attention and depend on  humans to provide their needs–much like children depend on others. They are as varied in breed as people are in looks. If you choose to adapt a dog to your story even the breed can alter the reader’s perception. A pit bull is going to be seen as a much different character than a poodle or a chihuahua. All of these associations come as baggage which you as a writer can use to your benefit or will have to at the very least acknowledge when writing. The fact that dogs are so common in children’s literature also means that you will want to make your character more original.

Also recognize that different people might see the same animal differently. It might be a cultural thing or the result of experience. Someone from Alaska who frequently has to deal with wild moose might see that animal in a way that is much different than someone from the city who has only seen them through popular culture (Bullwinkle, for example). It is not ever enough to simply plug an animal into your story in place of a human. You must understand how that selection will affect the reader’s perception of that character and then use that to your advantage. The important thing is to remember that in children’s fiction the animal is always the proxy for the child.

Which animals have you used in your stories, and why?

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Wish You Were Here

Ever feel like your creative system has crashed? I do. Sometimes I need to sit down and be inspired, but nothing is coming. The day to day grind is the way to get things done, but it eventually saps every last bit of creativity. So how can you reboot your creative self? Here’s some suggestions.

1. In her book , The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron suggests that instead of trying to think something up, we try to get something down. In other words establish a connection with the ideas that are already out there, just waiting for us to listen and discover.

2. Look a different way. Turn the piece you are working on upside down. Look at it in the mirror. Read the sentences backward. Do anything that puts the piece in a new light. For that matter…change the lighting. If you are inside, go outside or vice a versa. if you are working in your office, try working in a noisy cafe. Do it differently and you will see it differently. Often that is all it takes to get that new idea that will make it sing. Why settle for the ordinary.

3. Do something that makes you feel insecure. Take a risk you might not have considered. Maybe you don’t work at all. For some of us that may be terrifying, present company accepted. When you turn your computer off in a crash, you should let it set a moment before rebooting. Why should your creative self be any different? Let the dust settle before giving your project another try.

4. Ask for insight. Sometimes we are so locked in on our goals we lose perspective. Have someone else read your work aloud or comment on what they see in your work. This isn’t about critique so much as translation. What is it you are saying to others? Can you say it another way, in a fresher way?

These are just a few suggestions. Do you have some of your own? I would love to hear them.

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With the time pressures we all face, there is a tendency to want to get to a favorable conclusion as quickly as possible. But muses can be procrastinators. Great ideas come at their own convenience. They have to be nurtured, cajoled, possibly even bribed.

For me, getting my muse to open up usually requires some one on one time — a swim, a walk, painting a wall together. What do all these things have in common? They all involve repetitive physical activity. Hey, but that’s just what works for me.

How do you woo the muse? Chocolate? Long walks on the beach? A favorite chardonnay? I would love to hear your best tricks for soliciting those soft whispers of inspiration.

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Writing is like gardening. You have to start with a few seeds, ideas in this case. They’ll need some  nurturing if they are going to thrive, and nurturing means time. Some will spring right up and blossom, others will send out shoots that sprawl in all directions, (the little creepers,) and others will languish, eventually succumbing to their ill-suited environment. And, yes, there are going to be weeds, those phrases, pages and chapters that need to be plucked out and cast aside. Yes, the weeds are alive, but they need to go so the others can thrive. In the end a well-tended story will yield the fruit to sustain you for years to come. So gloves on and get to work.

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This morning I was thinking about the day ahead, and like most people realized I had an endless list of things I needed to accomplish and too few hours to probably get it all done. I needed to check all of my emails, write a post for my blog, feed a small zoo worth of animals, work on the an illustration for my current picture book, read a manuscript from a friend, continue painting a Tuscan countryside mural for a client, and oh yeah, cook three meals, drive and deliver one of my sons to work, grocery shop, yada, yada yada. The list was more than a little daunting.

The point is, writing and illustrating for children requires more than passion. It requires discipline–lots of discipline. There’s no boss who is going to fire me if I don’t show up for work, no time clock to punch, no life and death decisions to be made (so far) to help me set my prioroties, but I know that each minute of each day is packed with potential. All I have to do is show up.

So if you are reading this and wondering how you’re going to manage your life and still find the time to write the next Great American Kids Book, keep the faith and make an appointment with your work.  Many drops of rain are needed to fill the pond.

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Faced with the blank page, we all feel a shiver in our boots from time to time. The decision is whether to work through it or let silence be the order of the day. But there are two reasons to write. One is to communicate, but that implies you have something worth spouting. The other reason to write is to perfect your craft. Both are sufficient reasons to, as Jane Yolen puts it, “put your butt in the chair.” What we have to remember is that it is the practice that is important and not our words. Setting a goal helps. Maybe the goal is to simply write one brilliant sentence, one to make you proud. Maybe you’re up to the challenge of an entire paragraph or, heaven forbid, a whole page! That kind of committment is the difference between writing as hobby and writing as profession. When it comes to craft, silence is never golden.

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