Thursday, May 19, 2011

Some takeaways from the 2011 NESCBWI Conference

These are generally in order of my attendance at things, since I'm skimming my notes in order to prepare this particular post (goodness, but that was alliterative!). Also, my notes only cover speeches and breakout sessions, so while I had a blast at dinner on Friday and Saturday evening, at lunch on Saturday and Sunday, and hanging out in the lobby with friends (at various times), I shan't try to summarize what happened then

Jane Yolen is a goddess.

That is a remark that would have been made about her by someone else, but that someone else didn't get to make it, so Jane shared it herself, to many laughs. It was repeated more than once during the conference, and seems as good a place as any to start, since Jane was the first keynote speaker. Her speech was about figuring out how to read rejection letters, and it was witty and wise. What really stuck with me was something she mentioned almost in passing: that in the year in which she first got serious about submitting her poetry, she received 113 rejections. My reaction to this was immediate, and goes like this: "Holy shit! I'm not submitting enough!" I am quite possibly singular in that response, since the intended takeaway, which I also appreciate, is that one must keep going in the face of rejection. Still, I'm going to up my submissions significantly.

Loree Griffin Burns on getting dirty.

Loree's workshop was on research for nonfiction writing, and she was quick to note that there's no one "right" way to research nonfiction projects. She talked about finding sources and such, but I especially liked her advice about getting dirty - a phrase she uses to describe doing the fieldwork when it's possible. Here's a quote from Dinty W. Moore that she shared that really resonated with me: "If you are writing about the world of whitewater rafting, you should probably get into a raft." Ain't that the truth?

J.L. Bell is a savvy plotter.

The handout John gave us contained what appeared at first blush to be the world's most confusing flow chart, but which proved to be readily understandable once he talked us through it. I have a sort of teacher-crush on John, who breaks things down and explains them extraordinarily well (and rather in the manner I'd do it myself, which is probably why I get so much out of his sessions). He quoted from Aristotle's Poetics and from Alan Moore (creator of the Watchmen comics), and I found gobs of things to help me (a) write my own novel and (b) critique for friends. I cannot pull a particular quote out for you, but man, what a useful session!

Tomie de Paola is a genius.

A genius is "someone who comes up with something unique and special and memorable". I can't remember if that's something Tomie said, or something that was said about him, but either way, it fits. I enjoyed listening to his keynote, which told how he got involved in illustrating. Like so many illustrators I've met, he's known he wanted to be (or was) an artist since the age of four. In response to the question, "what comes first, the image or the words?", Tomie said, "The words, the words, always the words."

Lin Oliver's keynote was fabulous.

I chose the adjective purposefully, since Lin presented us with a series of ten "fables" - each of which was a true story of an SCBWI author's journey to publication. She would first read a letter from the artist, then provide us with morals for each story. Most (but not all, although I think it's because she decided to stop repeating herself, and not because it didn't apply) had the first moral of "Do the work." Isn't that the truth? Other morals had to do with toughing out rejection, not worrying about how long it takes, and keeping going. It was inspirational and motivational and more, and I really wanted to give her a hug afterwards, but alas, it will have to wait until next time.

Sarah Aronson helped me with my sagging middle.

I took Sarah's workshop on subplots and found it extraordinarily useful. It overlapped slightly with John Bell's plot seminar earlier in the day, building on what had already been discussed. Not that they planned it that way. Heck, not that I planned it that way - I took John's workshop because I'll take anything he teaches, and I took Sarah's because of the topic. (They fit nicely with the final workshop I took, Erin Dionne's, but I'm getting ahead of myself.) I look forward to using what I learned in my own writing and in critiques, and to doing some of the exercises Sarah suggested.

Steven Mooser is tech savvy.

I really appreciated Steve's take on literacy in America. Where some people bemoan the death of reading, he sees plenty of hope: kids who are texting so much are learning to read, the same as kids who play computer games and more. He also spoke about the future of the publishing industry, using a rap group called Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All as a model for what's needed for success - talent, hard work, and a commitment to all aspects of their intellectual property.

Stacy Whitman knows how to build a world.

And she's not afraid to share what she knows. Her world-building workshop was a double session, and a fine way to spend a Sunday morning. Stacy maintains (rightly, I think) that world-building supports characterization, and not the other way around, and that it's important to focus on world-building as it touches our characters. There were some interesting exercises and I've got plenty to think about one of these days when my big Fantasy Novel Idea turns up. For now, I've got nothing.

Harold Underdown has a split personality.

Not. But he pretended to for purposes of his keynote speech about the state of the market for children's books and the world of e-books. Now, I have to confess to having heard a slightly earlier version of this same speech at the Eastern PA Fall Philly last September, so I didn't take nearly as many notes this time around. However, I applaud (and am therefore repeating) his closing exhortation to all of us to talk about the importance of stories and reading with everyone we can - friends, family, schools, states, Congress . . . you get the picture. He said we have a duty to CREATE and to ADVOCATE. Amen, Brother Harold.

Erin Dionne put the spotlight on minor characters.

I have a confession to make - I took Erin's workshop on humor last year, so when I saw the official title of her workshop this year (something about Frankenstein's Dog), I signed on up. I believe I was under the impression that it was about humor. *hangs head* Instead, it turned out to be about creating memorable minor characters - some of what she said overlapped a bit with what Sarah Aronson had taught, but most of it carried forward. Erin reminded us all that "minor characters are only minor in the context of this story - they are the stars in their own stories", and she passed out an exceedingly helpful worksheet that asked questions to help you figure out whether you really knew your minor characters or not. Again, I found it 100% applicable to my YA romance novel project, and to critiquing the work of friends. And I'm so pleased I got to attend it, even if my reason for being there in the first place was flawed. (My fault, not Erin's!)

I feel really fortunate with my workshop choices, since they were all good, but I totally lucked into a really useful primer on plot and characterization with the Bell/Aronson/Dionne trifecta. Those three workshops alone justified the cost of the conference, and that's before all the benefits I got from my other two breakout workshops and all the inspiration I derived from the keynotes, to say nothing of the fabulous conversation with other writers, agents, and editors. I thoroughly enjoyed each and every conversation I had while there.

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