Keynote speaker SHERMAN ALEXIE made me think, Wow, I would have paid the $450 just to hear this talk! He was passionate, funny, and (deliberately, I suspect) more than a little nuts. It's not the kind of thing I can recreate here, but hearing him prompted me to retrieve The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian from slightly lower down in my massive To Read pile and move it to the top. He joked around about the banned book elements in his work and the odd friendliness of our crowd, as opposed to the world of publishing for grown-ups. (That world is cannibalistic; the world of Young Adult literature, he said, is still a little ruthless, but you'd only come away with a pinkie toe missing, not your whole body.) By telling the story of a poignant personal experience with a reader, Alexie reminded us that if, as authors, our books touch only one kid, we've done our job and it's all worth it. He also pointed out (sharing examples from two groups of readers who sent him fan male, one from a rich prep school and the other from the Crow reservation) that most teens, rich and poor, sound a painfully common theme: "My choices are being made for me."
The second speaker was brilliant picture book author-illustrator DAVID WIESNER. He started with some video from the old movie, Frankenstein, in which Igor cries, "It's alive." Using this as a repeated theme about how inspiration strikes, Wiesner walked us through the genesis of his ideas for key books. It turns out early science fiction films and books are major inspirations. 2001: A Space Odyssey, particularly its match cut from the thrown bone to a spaceship, is one such influence. Match cut-style illustrations and worlds within worlds appear over and over in Wiesner's work. It was fascinating to see how the bits and pieces of Wiesner's visual inspirations came together to help create his unique work. For example, Flotsam was originally the story of a round piece of crystal shown traveling through time till it washed up on a beach, but the boy who appeared late in that draft came to dominate the story, as did a single sketch of a girl holding a picture of another child holding a picture of another child. We learned that Wiesner painted each of the children in the series of photos-within-photos separately and inset them using the computer rather than painting them with what would have been an increasingly rough brushstroke relative to the size.
Naturally, I couldn't attend all the workshops. To start with, I chose INGRID LAW, curious to hear from the woman whose debut book won a Newbery Honor award earlier this year. Law's topic was supposed to be "Writing a Strong Voice in a Willly-Nilly, Namby-Pamby Way," but someone accidentally typed it up as "a Strange Voice," so she incorporated the error into her presentation with panache. The most important thing I can tell you about Law is that she loves and collects words. As she told us, "Words sort of rule voice for me." Law recommended a book called Spunk and Bite (a parody of the classic Strunk and White); she also encouraged us to have a piece of cake (which she brought on the plane as part of an object lesson) and to take creative risks. Law said she was unhappy with the manuscript she was working on one day, so she took out a piece of paper and just put down the craziest sentence she could think of: "When my brother Fish turned thirteen, we moved to the deepest part of inland because of the hurricane and, of course, the fact that he'd caused it." With a minor word change, that sentence became the first sentence of Savvy; it also contained the seeds for much of the book. I am happy to report that Law is nearly done with a companion book, tentatively titled Scumble. It's about a boy in Wyoming (cowboy country) named Ledger Cale. Let's hope for a 2010 release!
Next I went to RICHARD PECK's workshop on the topic of setting because I had heard one of his presentations a few years ago and knew he was an amazing teacher. Peck walked us through various examples of setting, helping us see that setting details have to earn their pay by telling us things about character and plot instead of just lounging around. He told us that a story always works from the idea of an epiphany, "a sudden new awareness that is acted upon" by the main character--unlike in real life, he quipped, where we generally run from epiphanies and the thought of change. In addressing authors' tendency to "overdress the set" with too many details, Peck observed, "Happy writing makes for sad reading" and encouraged us to cut back. "I'm not fifteen; I don't want credit for everything I write," he noted. The author also gave us a look at his next book, a YA ghost story called Three-Quarters Dead. It's due out in 2010 and sounded wonderfully creepy, so put it on your list. One more thought from Richard Peck: "Setting is the exterior landscape that reflects the interior of our characters."
The last speaker I heard was BETTY BIRNEY. She's the author of a middle grade series about a class hamster named Humphrey. Her sense of humor made me want to take a look at this series for younger readers, which sounds clever and appealing. The first book is called The World According to Humphrey. Fun facts: Birney worked at Disneyland for years, and she does not own a hamster. She's pretty sure her dog wouldn't like it!
I wasn't going to mention yesterday's panel of editors, but I've realized that JENNIFER HUNT from Little Brown offered us a nuanced categorization of the best kinds of books on what she calls (beautifully) a publisher's "well-curated list." Hunt spoke of (1) A backlist gem, a book which just seems to quietly stay in print, year after year--e.g., Wendy Mass's A Mango-Shaped Space, (2) The great debut, a book which quickly acquires a solid fanbase looking forward to the next book from that author--e.g., Sarah Ockler's Twenty Boy Summer, (3) A book in which an author noticeably finds his/her voice, creating a true and unique style in comparison to previous publications--e.g., Julie Anne Peters's Luna, (4) A career changer, a book which solidly puts a previously less-noticed author on the map and off the midlist--e.g., Sarah Zarr's Story of a Girl, (5) [A work with] Vision, a book which may be unconventional, a risk on the publisher's part, but which is a unique success--e.g., Peter Brown's The Curious Garden, and (6) The phenomenon, a book which shoots meteorically to the top, not only of the list, but of the national/international consciousness--e.g., Stephenie Meyer's Twilight and J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books.
I missed most of a panel on picture book collaboration with Melinda Long, Eve Bunting, and Kadir Nelson, conducted by Arthur Levine, because I was upstairs having breakfast with a group of fellow fantasy writers from the Enchanted Inkpot. (It's always nice to eat scrambled eggs while watching famous authors like Richard Peck stroll by.) What I caught at the tail end of the panel was that illustrators don't mind talking to authors as much as editors seem to think they might, and that the illustration process truly is a separate creative endeavor--most of this from the great KADIR NELSON (see We Are the Ship and Abe's Honest Words, among others).
KAREN CUSHMAN, creator of Newbery honor winner Catherine, Called Birdy, and Newbery Medal winner The Midwife's Apprentice, was up next. She shared some great quotes, including this one from W Somerset Maugham: "There are three rules for writing. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." She went on to caution us, "Don't listen to advice. Even mine, which of course I am going to give you anyway." Cushman then talked about the ways in which her own writing process bucks conventional wisdom. I was surprised to hear how late her own writing career started--she said she had been telling her husband story ideas for years, and he always listened. When she was about fifty, she came to him with an idea, and he refused to listen. "Write it down," he told her, "and I'll read it." She was irritated, but she did it, and the book became Catherine, Called Birdy. Cushman scoffed at the idea of "writing what you know," pointing out that if she did that, she'd write this: "Got up this morning, made stuff up, went to bed." Instead, she told us, "I say, write what you want to know." The author said that she is concise to a fault. Her first drafts are usually only fifty or sixty pages long, prompting her editor, Dinah Stevenson, to call one such manuscript "a bouillon cube of a book."
I attended HOLLY BLACK's workshop on "How to Be Good Critiquers and Critique Partners" mostly because I like her writing and wanted to hear from her. I won't give you a lot of what she said because it's pretty off topic for this blog, but she did say she thinks that by working with a critique group or partner, you can learn things from watching someone else go through the revision process. She also mentioned "The Envy Test," saying that if someone's work makes her a little envious and angry, she figures it's ready to go out to the publisher. Speaking of generosity, Black said, "You have to believe that there will always be more ideas." The author was delightful! This may sound obvious, but one of the nicest things about attending an SCBWI Conference is finding out how fun, funny, smart, and kind the author presenters are, almost without exception.
ELLEN HOPKINS then addressed the entire conference. She was self-effacing and light-hearted, in contrast to her books--young adult (YA) novels in verse about extremely difficult topics, or rather, teens in extremely difficult situations. She explained that her first book, Crank, came out of a painful personal situation: Ellen was forced by a judge to send her bright high-school age daughter to spend time with her drug dealer father. The girl took up with a bad boy and became a drug addict. Hopkins talked about getting as far as she has in the world of children's books by "sheer stubbornness," explaining that while people like Stephenie Meyer take a helicopter to the top of the mountain, most of us are in for a long, hard climb.
After Ellen spoke, we heard from a panel of agents, who agreed that even if these tough economic times, children's books are doing fairly well. That is, the publishers have had lay-offs, but they are still buying and selling books. A few factoids: YA is going strong, especially since more adults are reading them. Brenda Bowen, a senior editor who was laid off and switched to being an agent earlier this year, said she looks for strong voices; confident, assured writing; creative language; and humor in acquiring books. All six agents--BRENDA BOWEN, SARAH DAVIES, STEPHEN FRASER, DAN LAZAR, KELLY SONNACK, and MARIETTA ZACKER--said that they usually work with authors on editing manuscripts before sending them on to editors. As Sonnack concluded, "All of us here want to fall in love. We want to fall in love with your work."
I then attended a workshop with EVE BUNTING called "What Makes a Good Picture Book Better." The author had some good advice, but best of all was hearing her talk about her books. In case you weren't aware, Bunting has written a number of picture books about serious topics like the Vietnam Memorial, the Holocaust, and homeless people living in airports. However, Eve Bunting is not a somber person, and even though she looks like a dear grandmother type, she is nice and feisty. Perhaps the best thing she said was during the Q&A at the end, when someone asked her "When do you do your thinking?" (Bunting had said that she spends a lot of time pondering her ideas before writing anything, which she considers part of the writing process.) The author's answer? "While my husband is talking." Perhaps her best advice was "Never be boring." She pointed out that parents will have to sit through repeated readings of picture books. "You can escape this pitfall with a little humor and a fresh idea." She also advised us that if someone asks us what we do and we say we write for children, and they get a condescending look on their faces, "Slap them!"
Wow, I am so running out of gas... Conferences are rewarding, but draining. I will try to add to these notes in a few days. Meanwhile, I've posted a book review!
Author-illustrator-animator DAN YACCARINO spoke to the group on Sunday morning. His theme was "Yes!" After years of hard work and training in illustration (doing pieces for newspaper editorials, for example), he broke into children's illustration and animation partly because if anyone asked him whether he could do something, he'd say he could, even if it was new to him. I like this line, which belies a lot of misconceptions about creating for an audience of children: "You can't be precious about this stuff." He later added, "Kids can smell it on you a mile away when you're insincere."
Yaccarino is inspired by things like robots, cartoons, Mad Magazine, and toys and packaging from his childhood. He showed us a page from his first book, My Big Brother Mike, with the comment, "I still haven't forgiven my big brother for breaking my toys." Later in his presentation, he showed us a picture of his art studio, which is filled with cool gadgets and toys. "This is my studio. So I got back at my brother." Yaccarino showed us that he works on personal art projects on the side to fuel his work; some of the styles he tries end up appearing in later projects.
Asked if he knew how to do animation, Dan Yaccarino said, "Yes!" He ended up creating multiple TV shows for children, including Nickelodeon's terrific program for preschoolers, Oswald. Yaccarino did the initial character design for the Backyardigans, another well-known show. His newest animated program will appear on cable this fall: Willa's Wild Life. He is very proud of his work re-envisioning the Little Golden Books for a new audience; for example, take a look at his urban Mother Goose. I'm interested in reading his biography of Jacques Cousteau, as well, and the book he has coming out next spring sounds hilarious: Yaccarino described Lawn to Lawn as "The Incredible Journey meets lawn ornaments."
HOLLY BLACK addressed the entire conference on the topic of fantasy writing, "Examining the Strange." It was very fun to hear that she grew up in a decrepit Victorian with a mother who believed in the supernatural. Black said that as a child she asked her mother, "Mom, are there things out there like vampires, werewolves, and witches that might come get me?" Her mother's response? "Well, probably not." Black's mother also warned her never to astral project because if she left her body empty, something might come and take it over before she got back!
The author of Tithe and the Spiderwick Chronicles told us, "I believe that all writing is a conversation with what came before," so we should "Read enough that we are part of the conversation." She had an interesting take on the audience we write for: "As children's book writers, we are in a genreless genre." She said that since children don't know a lot about categorizing books by genres, we can invent things that are entirely new, and the kids won't know that. They're a wonderfully fresh audience.
Black explained that she doesn't think fantasy is more escapist than any other kind of literature. "Fantasy is the language of metaphor; it actualizes metaphor." This lends itself to working with themes in rich ways. For example, "When we write about something alien, we will also write about alienation." Black expounded on this idea, saying that fantasy gives writers and readers a safe place to deal with difficult issues such as anger. "You can't be mad at someone for being a werewolf. You can't say, 'It's not nice to be a werewolf.' You have to say, 'Okay, now what?'"
The author differentiated between horror and fantasy, saying that the latter may evoke both awe and fear, but the former only evokes fear. With fantasy, "You get the sense that the world is bigger and stranger and greater for having those strange things in it." And she quoted adult fantasy writer Gene Wolf as saying, "All novels are fantasies. Some are just more honest about it." She went on to say that Gene Wolf had said that realistic fiction made him feel like something was missing--the spiritual, the mysterious, the divine. Then she quoted from a rather caustic essay from Ursula LeGuin which stated, "A writer may use all the trappings of fantasy without ever imagining anything." Black added that we have to believe in Elfland when we read fantasy. It has to feel real. Like historical fiction, good fantasy convinces readers that they've been somewhere they've never actually been.
Holly Black then told us about "closed fantasy" with "day logic," or fantasy which has predictable spells and rules, e.g., Harry Potter. She contrasted this with "open fantasy" that has "night logic," where the rules are seldom spelled out and magic users must work more intuitively. The example she gave for this is Charlaine Harris's Southern Vampire series (Sookie Stackhouse/True Blood).
I next attended a workshop about the current children's book market given by agent (and former editor) STEPHEN FRASER, who said, "I think this is an era of no mediocre books." He explained that in tough economic times, publishers are unwilling to buy books that don't have strikingly fresh plots and voices supported by amazing craftsmanship. The bar has been raised, which is good news for readers! Picture books are the part of the market that is shrinking the most, while middle grade books are holding steady and YA is on the upswing. On the whole, children's books are doing better than most adult genres in terms of sales these days, the exception being mysteries and thrillers. I liked what Fraser said of middle grade kids: "They're really fervent readers." He said something thought-provoking about YA, as well. He talked about the increase in edgy books, but said that he didn't mean edgy in terms of shocking topics. Rather, the newer books are edgier when it comes to authentic writing, humor, and over-the-top drama. They're "extra special," he said. (Printz winner Jellicoe Road is an example that came to my mind when he said that.) Asked about the effect of publishing house mergers on the market, the agent said that yes, it has an impact on writers. He quipped, "There's this little corporate quirk called greed."
As far as trends, Fraser predicted that the current vampire fad (prompted by the success of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight) will end soon. He sees a need for books about boys, especially by male authors, and really good books about Latino and black characters.
At the GOLDEN KITE AWARDS luncheon, we heard from the following:
BONNIE BECKER, winner for A Visitor for Bear for picture book text, quoted E.B. White as saying, "All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world." Becker changed the quote for herself, saying that she would end it, "I love people." Hence her lovely characters, the bear and the mouse in her book.
HYEWON YUM won for best illustration with her lovely book, Last Night. SCBWI president Steve Mooser introduced her with a quote from editor Arthur Levine, "We're looking for books that show unmistakable originality." Yum was very soft-spoken, apologizing for her limited English--which kind of matched her wordless winner! I did look at her book later, and it's a darling read for 2- to 5-year-olds.
PAMELA S. TURNER is part of my group over at Enchanted Inkpot, since she's currently writing a fantasy. But she is best known for really terrific nonfiction. Turner spoke about her winner for nonfiction, A Life in the Wild: George Schaller's Struggle to Save the Last Great Beasts. We were touched to hear that she's donating her royalties and her winnings to George Schaller's wildlife conservation foundation. It turns out George Schaller is the father of the modern conservation movement, and the first to suggest studying live animals in the wild (as opposed to their corpses!). He went out in the wild all alone and showed that it could be done, and that it was highly effective, studying gorillas, lions, and pandas, among other animals. His work with gorillas inspired Diane Fosse. Well, anyone who studies animal behavior in the wild is following in his footsteps. (Turner's new book The Frog Scientist also looks fascinating--plus the scientist is black, which I appreciate as an educator. I picked up a copy at the conference.)
STEVE WATKINS won the Golden Kite award for fiction. His book, Down Sand Mountain, is set in the late sixties. I didn't take a lot of notes, but the author was very personable, and his racism-themed coming-of-age YA is obviously a troubling and touching work, intended to make readers think about what it means to be human.
DONNA GEPHART won the Sid Fleischman humor award for her book, As If Being 12 3/4 Weren't Bad Enough, My Mother Is Running for President! Sid Fleischman was unable to attend, but Steve Mooser quoted him as saying, "The author knew the secret of comedy: it's tragedy wearing a putty nose."
Then RICHARD PECK spoke, and I have to tell you, he's the most quotable person on the planet. What a way the man has with words! I'm trying to think of the male equivalent of the term grand dame, but the closest I can come is grand master, as in chess. Here are some of the lines I caught on paper:
--"You have to read 1000 books to write 1."
--"J.K. Rowling never attended Hogwarts, and Beatrix Potter was never a rabbit."
--"J.K. Rowling never attended Hogwarts, and Beatrix Potter was never a rabbit."
--"A story is always about going forward because you can never go back."
--"Nobody ever grows up until he has to, and in our stories, everyone has to."
--"Boys do not wish to make imaginative leaps; boys like to make clear connections."
--"You can teach children, or you can fear their parents; you cannot do both."
--Speaking of writers, who have become today's most powerful teachers of children: "We can't be fired; we're unemployed."
--And "We are a subversive counterculture."
--At the airport, "The checked bag is the badge of the amateur."
--"We write in a time when maturing itself has become an elective."
--Speaking of despair, "...when the self-pity comes in like the tide..." and "in a world of sexting and Twitter and the communal stupidity of MySpace." Later he added to his description of "a world disfigured by sorrow and chatrooms... and the double-barreled despair of Barnes and Noble."
--"We're growing older every minute while our readers stay mysteriously the same age."
Near the end of his talk, Peck recounted visiting a group of eighth grade writers at a middle school and telling them, "All stories turn upon epiphany." He then asked the class for a definition of epiphany, and one boy responded with "An epiphany is when everything changes and you can't go back." Peck said that that was the best definition of the word he'd ever heard. After the students filed out, the teacher explained to Peck that the boy had discovered his father in the bathtub two years earlier, dead of an accidental overdose. The mother was already deceased. With great tenderness, Peck told us that as an author, when you meet a boy like that, a child in a dark place, "You wonder if story can help, and give him a little companionship." (Aha, I've got it! Peck is an elder statesman. But I still like grand master.)
Speaking of epiphanies, after that I went to a workshop on voice given by ELLEN HOPKINS, who introduced us to several teens by showing us their MySpace letters to her, their profile descriptions, and their pictures. She wanted us to understand that each kid has a unique voice, one affected by his/her experiences. Hopkins also asked us how many of us loved high school, and how many hated it. She gave us some pointers about using a YA voice, then asked us to write a few paragraphs describing a life-changing moment in our own high school experience. I have to say, the piece I wrote felt pretty epiphanic to me. It also shook me up: I cried when I read it to the group. Although I do cry easily--blush blush. But hey: I walked out of there thinking differently about teens, let alone voice! (Note for Worried Parents: Hopkins's books are not for the faint of heart, as they're about topics like drug abuse, mental illness, abuse, and teen prostitution. Yet she is really meeting the needs of her readers, many of whom are themselves struggling and clearly feel understood and connected when they read her work.)
Egmont editor ELIZABETH LAW ended our day with her address to another full session. Like many of the other editors and agents at the conference, she emphasized the need for unique, powerful premises/plots. She cited Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games, Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me, Ingrid Law's Savvy, and Laurie Halse Anderson's "spectacular, terrifying" Wintergirls as examples of striking books that stand out in a crowded market. I have to say, Richard Peck also talked about Wintergirls, saying how superb it is! I tend to shy away from the darker YAs (because I'm a big softie), but these endorsements make me curious. One interesting observation from Law: She pointed out that although people gripe about the awards process (Newbery, Printz, etc.), the awards encourage publishers to continue to acquire literary works in a business that is increasingly oriented toward more commercial books.
Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt editor DINAH STEVENSON opened the last day of the conference with a talk about "The Four C's" required for a successful book. She included numerous brilliant quotations from various literary figures. Her Four C's are:
1. Creativity--"an essential strategy for writers" and, she noted, "something you do."
2. Craft--She talked about creativity growing in the garden and craft happening in the kitchen; you grow creativity like vegetables, then apply craftsmanship to them to turn them into something delicious. Craft is "artistry, skill, insight, and how to use language."
3. Community--although writers are naturally competitive, we must support and nurture one another. Through helping others, we help ourselves.
4. Chocolate--or some other kind of treat or celebration. Writing should be a joyful act.
Another good piece of advice from Stevenson was "Make yourself indispensible by writing what only you can write."
INGRID LAW addressed the conference next. Her talk was titled "Writing Magic: From the Head to the Heart." She told us, "Don't be too careful, because that is part of the magic that you create.... All of you are enchanters, and all of you are potion-makers." The rest of her talk was a story, an allegory about writing in which a man aspires to make magical potions but goes about it all wrong, or rather, learns a lot along the way. It is only when the aspiring potion-maker includes the shards and tears from his own years of pain and worry that he is finally able to create a true potion. The story was touching and a little funny, like Law's book Savvy.
After the two keynote speakers finished, I went to a workshop by agent SARAH DAVIES, who has one of those wonderful Gaiman-esque accents. She told us that a love of language had created the path for her life, and went on to give us five (actually six) ingredients for creating a breakout novel:
1. Unique--an inspired concept; "I see a lot of very similar stories."
2. Larger-than-life characters--A main character must be vivid and true, must leap off the page into our hearts and minds. Get to know your characters very well.
3. A high-stakes story--e.g., Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games, though in realistic fiction, the stakes may be emotional rather than physical.
4. A deeply felt theme--a moral or spiritual message delivered without preaching or teaching overtly. It's something that stays with the reader after the last page is turned.
5. A vivid setting--one that is imbued with emotion, almost becoming a character. E.g., the setting in the movie Slumdog Millionaire.
6. That special alchemy called voice--"You need to develop a musicality about language."
Davies quoted Anthony Trollope as saying, "There is no way of writing well and also of writing easily." She also quoted an anonymous person who stated, "What I like in good author is not what he says, but what he whispers." Davies noted that "[publishing] is so hard because we are at that painful interface between creativity and big business."
Then I attended a panel on cross-genre writing given by Simon and Schuster editor ARTHUR LEVINE (filling in for Sid Fleischman) and authors LINDA SUE PARK and LISA YEE. One of the points they made is that different arts and genres cross-pollinate: Sid Fleischman started as a magician and a screenwriter, Linda Sue Park was originally a poet, and Lisa Yee worked in copywriting. All three built on strengths from their previous creative endeavors when they began writing children's books. Writing across genres seemed like a natural extension of this practice. The funniest moment in the workshop came during a Q&A at the end, when someone asked the panel, "Have you ever thought about writing under a different name?" To which Lisa Yee responded immediately, "I write under 'J.K. Rowling.'"
The conference concluded (no, really!) with a talk given by KATHLEEN DUEY, who said that she revised her remarks that very day so as not to cover the same ground as the other speakers. She spoke of the need for having a reentry strategy after attending the conference--specific techniques for maximizing the ideas learned during the course of the weekend. Duey is the author of the YA fantasy Skin Hunger, which I confess is languishing in my gigantic To Read pile. The sequel, Sacred Scars, was just released. Duey wrapped up her talk by saying, "I want to talk about this thing we do, this story thing we do.... I think stories are the connective tissue for lots of things, for many things... stories don't only teach, they also shield." She added that stories "can serve a thousand, thousand, thousand uses every day of our lives."