Monthly Archives: February 2011

What Kind of Writer Are You?

Something interesting happened at the conference I attended this weekend. A writer friend with whom I exchange manuscripts remarked to me that she generally has five-to-six manuscripts circulating “behind the scenes” at any given time, and that if one doesn’t work out, she simply to turns to another one. She suggested I do something similar, as I have been feverishly working to make a specific chapter of my story flow more smoothly with the rest.

My gut reaction at her suggestion gave me pause. I balked at the very idea. I, if I’m lucky, have five or six IDEAS circulating behind the scenes—and maybe one comprehensive outline—at any given time. But I am loyal, devoted, faithfully adhesed to one story at a time. My instinct is to see it through till the bitter end. It is to go through fire and water and death with it, kind of like Gandalf and the Balrog. I am not a multi-tasking writer. Sure, my next story is sitting there waiting for me, thank goodness—comprehensive outline, world-building notes and all—but I still want to see this current story through. My challenge with this difficult chapter feels like just that—a challenge. And ALL this feels particularly interesting to me because some of my former teachers would be stunned to hear that I of all people harbor any kind of capacity to marry and remain faithful to a project.

But my friend’s comments made me wonder if this die-hard clutching on to one story is perhaps the best approach. I confess I haven’t come up with any definitive answer; I don’t know if there is one. What she said made sense, after all. We all know how it feels to write what we think is genius, only to return two days later to find it seriously lacking. Return six months later, and you often want to lynch yourself for not deleting your outvomit of “genius” the moment it hit the page. Given that, it makes sense to put entire books aside and let them slumber in the dark before returning to them. I am surprised this never felt like the thing for me to do. I’ll put whole chapters or sections aside and re-visit them, but never the entire book, so far.

The good part of this, regardless of what I decide to do, is that it’s made me take a step back from my story so that I can now much more easily hold the book as a whole in my head. I am more merciless in my editing, more willing to move entire sections around (which previously would have required prying out of my cold dead hands). For which I owe my friend a great thanks.

But it makes me wonder: how do other writers operate? Do you remain obsessed with one story? I know of several writers who toiled away in obscurity, hunched over a single project for years before pursuing publication (and as a result often churning out a masterpiece. Think Tolkien and Patrick Rothfuss.) And then, I guess, others who have the five or six “on the back burners,” safety nets to turn back to.

What feels best to you, fellow writers?

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Austin SCBWI Conference, 2011

So. OMG. The SCBWI conference in Austin this past weekend. Whew. I have never left a conference so bogged down with information. In a good, heavy, need-to-take-several-days-to-sort-through-it-all way.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, please get yourself over to that site and check it out. They’re amazing, and the best possible resource for children’s authors and illustrators. (Hence the catchy title.)

Now, on to the conference. Amazing, I tell you. A note before I throw in some highlights. Undoubtedly I’ll forget to include a few things/books/people, and I’m sorry for that. They were all amazing. I’ll try to mention what stood out most to my information-addled brain:

*Scholastic’s Arthur Levine, American editor of the Harry Potter books, was in attendance. He’s every bit as amazingly kind and unassuming and sweet as I thought he would be. He brought some books to share.

If you do nothing else all year, please check out The Arrival by Shaun Tan.

One of the strangest, eeriest, smartest, most touching, unique books I’ve ever laid eyes on. Made me a blubbering mess of awe when I first read it.

*All the readings on the first night blew us away. Please check out Carolyn Coman’s The Memory Bank.

Graphic-novelish, kind of like Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, also one of my favoritest books ever. The Memory Bank was so brilliant that myself and other conference attendees sat there openmouthed and drooling, I tell you. When my boyfriend read it (in under an hour) he exclaimed, “That book may wind up a classic like the The Phantom Tollbooth!”

What else, what else? So much….this is what happens when you rely on memory. Oh yes.

*Wonderfully attentive agent Emily Van Beek was there. I must give her a shout-out because she seems like a treasure of an advocate—intuitive, empathic, good listener, good eye for talent.

*Social media expert Greg Pincus was there as well. For a super informative post on his talk, check out fellow author Shelli Cornelison’s blog. Also I feel sorry for anyone not in attendance who did not get to hear his radio voice. He could do commercials, if he hasn’t already. It was mesmerizing, I tell you.

*One of the most heartening bits of information (for me) was brought to us via Stephen Roxburgh, brilliant editor of he’s-worked-with-Madeleine L’Engle-and-Raold Dahl fame. As he does in this interview, he demystified the E-book revolution and the upcoming state of publishing for us authors. What I gleaned with my non-technological brain was that the transition is inevitable, may be slightly traumatic for the industry, but that we as writers are “golden,” he said. I realize people have blogged endlessly on this topic but hearing it firsthand was nice.

*And, OMG, I must just say this. When I was brand new to any of this, and when being published was a faint glint in my starry 22-year-old eye, I attended my first SCBWI conference in Pittsburgh. To say I was ghetto isn’t the least of it. I walked in clutching Kinko’s copies of my artwork in a manila envelope. I almost fled at the sight of everyone’s portfolios laid out gloriously in the display room, complete with fancy fliers and business cards and book dummies. Shamefully, I wrote my info on a prescription pad someone left laying around, scribbling my name right under the name of some local pharmacy.

Yes, we’ve come a long way, baby.

But the highlight of that conference—and the reason I was ushered into the industry in such a grand, spectacular, unexpected way—was because of one of the speakers. Her name is Elizabeth Law (thanks to our own lovely Cynthia Leitich Smith for the link). At that time Elizabeth was an editor at Viking, and she’s now a publisher at Egmont.

Can I just say? Back in that big, otherwise scary room in Pittsburgh, I laughed till I cried. For an entire hour. As did everyone else. Elizabeth needs to go into standup comedy. She’s friggin’ hilarious. When I found out she was coming to our Austin conference, I was giddy to see my fellow writers react to her. And react they did. We were in hysterics. (Please bear in mind—especially if you are Elizabeth and you are reading this—that we all know you are incredibly professional, passionate and talented. It’s just that your humor is an unexpected perk.)

So anyway. Still cross-eyed with information, options, ideas. I didn’t name all the speakers, but they were all brilliant. On to some merciless revisions for yours truly.

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A Word About Rushing Things

You would think after six plus years of being relatively familiar with the publishing industry, I wouldn’t fall prey to one of the most dastardly errors a writer can face—Rushing Things. The things everyone tells you NOT TO DO at conferences. It’s truly an awful temptation. And deserves such a big shout out when you catch yourself at it.

I don’t know about you, but I prefer to get things done, quickly. Usually this doesn’t translate to my stories; I could happily pore over one of my own worlds for the rest of my natural life, probably. But when it comes to Important Things like meeting an agent at a conference—something that is scheduled to happen this very weekend—I go slightly haywire. I don’t think I’m the first writer ever to go through this, mind you. I just wanted to share my surprise and pride in being able to reverse the horrible spiral before it got too dark.

My thinking was as follows: oh God I’m meeting an agent, and must edit this darn manuscript (YA I’m working on) within an inch of its life before I meet her (never mind that in the great scope of things, this is somewhat unrealistic as the book isn’t even finished yet). How can I live with myself if I have only a ridiculously unfinished project by the time this conference happens? How could I live, period? I must remedy this! NOW!!

The result is that for this brief week I have lost all joy in the story and can hardly see straight when I look at it. The scenes have become cardboard backdrops, rather than rich with life and depth. My anxiety was such that I hardly CARED about the story anymore, while scrambling to perfect it in time. It was not until my sagacious boyfriend said, “What’s the worst that can happen? The very worst?” and I said, “Everyone will hate my story, or worse, be indifferent to it, and that will therefore prove to me that it is nowhere near ready to submit to agents, like I wanted it to be.” And he said, “OK, so what then? What would you do if all those things were true?” and I stopped, and dropped back into my body, disappointed and relieved at the same time. “I would just keep plugging away at it. For another twelve years if I have to, to make it the story it needs to be.”

And I meant it. I’m like that. This story needs to be what it needs to be.

I mention all this because I wish I’d had the sense to take a step back and remember all this before the conference, and in the event you’re in the same boat, perhaps it can be of some help to you.

I had planned on having the book ready for sub by March or so. But my story, in its wonderful unwieldy way, has changed in that it has begun to ask More of Me. It has gone from a thing that I relentlessly polished with my internal Mental Editor to something that is now ready to breathe its own life, its own soul, and is telling ME what it wants. It doesn’t give a diddly about conferences. It’s like a full circle back to the glorious moment that an idea pops out of nowhere into your head, and then you spend months/years writing and revising it, trying to keep the marriage between your heart and mind alive so they can produce the healthiest story-child possible. And you sweat and sweat and then think you’re finished, but… it’s different again, wild and new like in the beginning, and back to the heart of things. It’s very similar to when I’m drawing, and the drawing looks finished, but something is missing until I deepen the shadows in it. The story wants its shadows.

So it’s not done after all, or maybe not even close to done. And though I am disappointed about the timeline I’d imposed on myself and have had to abandon, I am learning the very, very hard lesson that a story will tell you when it’s finished (or at least ready to sub. I don’t know that we ever feel “finished.”) And that I can trust my story. And so now I am sitting here having to mentally adjust to this new, open-ended way of thinking about things, but so happy that my story had the heart and wisdom to speak up.

The result is that I am with the story again, it’s not a cardboard backdrop anymore, and I’m telling myself that if this story does not feel compelling to people, it is because it is not finished. And that’s OK.

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Young Authors and Illustrators

So I presented at the awesome Young Writers and Illustrators Conference in Belton, Texas today. Yep, it’s as amazing as it sounds—a bunch of kids who are sincerely interested in writing and illustrating show up in a big room to hear professionals speak. Most of the kids come accompanied by their encouraging parents, which is doubly awesome.

I must send a shout-out to some key folks: the Central Texas Reading Council and the Harker Heights Public Library, of course; the lovely Teresa Hough for putting it together; librarian Lisa Youngblood, who is the hippest, cheeringest, getting-a-crowd-goingest librarian you’ll ever meet; and her awesome daughter Sheridan, who helped with everything from madly scrambling to get a computer set up to procuring ever-important dry erase markers. Sheridan is in seventh grade and is a writer herself. We all expect great things from you (no pressure) someday, Sheridan.

I did a big, general presentation about being an author/illustrator, and then two smaller breakout sessions. During my opening presentation, I had some intimidatingly intelligent questions posed to me, both by people under 11 years old. The first was: “How do you feel about formulated writing?” I admit I paused a moment, stumped. Eventually I was informed that the student was partially referring to the way the curriculum teaches writing for the *TAKS tests.

Now that I’ve had time to think about it, I would have loved to have said, “I think it depends what you’re writing, of course. If formulated writing helps you learn to think about the structure of a piece of writing, that’s something you’ll have to learn anyway, especially if you want to be a storyteller. But free-form writing, where no one is judging you and you’re not judging yourself, and there is NO right or wrong, is just as important. Critical, even. That’s where you learn what you really think and feel about things, that’s where you learn to love words and the way they’re put together. It’s where you discover that you can make things up on your very own. Your imagination needs just as much practice as your technical skills do. Those two things don’t always work gracefully together, even for adult professional writers. But sometimes, once you know how to trust your imagination, you can soar easily through a standardized test, because you already love and care about words.”

What I did say was considerably less eloquent, but if you attended the conference yesterday, please know that’s what I meant.

The second awesome question (also posed by an 11-year-old) was, “What’s your advice on writing a memoir?”

This one I think I answered a bit better: “Well, as always, reading a lot and practicing writing is key. But as for the memoir genre, believing that what you have to say about yourself is very important. That you are unique and special and no one sees the world quite the way you do.”

Whew. These kids were on it. They were delightful.

During the breakouts the kids and I collaborated on creating a picture book. I drew their suggestions on the board (hence the need for markers) while they created dynamic characters placed in various moral dilemmas. Featured were Icenberg the Evil Ice Cream Cone, Farmer Bob the Mouse, and Nimbo the Ninja Banana. (I will say that this is not the first ninja banana that has ever appeared in an interactive presentation. They seem to be in vogue this year.)

I had one earnest young boy come up to me before presenting to tell me that he didn’t want any remedial art lessons. He quite literally said, “I don’t mean to offend you, but I already know how to draw a circle. I want something more challenging.” So we adjusted the art accordingly and I made Farmer Bob a rather sophisticated mouse, rather than the Mickey-type. Wrinkled overalls, hat, pitchfork and all.

Afterward, several young artists came up to show me their incredible art and writing. Kids who’d been sitting there DOODLING came up with characters so detailed I thought they were going to amble off the page. Kids with sophisticated vocabulary suggested things like, “Mr. Mittens deviously rubbed his hands together, and Farmer Bob sensed a dark ploy.”

I am super impressed. It looks like our great-grandchildren will have plenty to read and look at.

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