This past weekend was a long one. I spent Friday through Sunday at the New England chapter of the SCBWI’s (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) 2013 conference in Springfield, Mass, catching up with friends and fellow writers and filling my cranium with knowledge and inspiration. It was a fun time, but very educational, as always; unfortunately, three days of picture books, chapter books, and YA novels goes by extremely quickly.
Against this backdrop of serious discussions and goofy conversations, slick PowerPoints and old-fashioned pens & papers, door prizes, open mics, and wine & cheese socials…all of us who attended learned a great deal about the industry, our craft, and ourselves. Listing everything I gleaned from the conference would be impossible; however, I thought I would share a few choice tidbits that stuck in my mind.
Here, then, are one dozen of the many things I either learned – or was reminded of – at the 2013 NESCBWI Conference, “Word by Word: The Art of Craft:”
1) It’s OK if your first draft sucks. Yes, we all know that first drafts will go through innumerable changes before they ever become final drafts…but this is good to remember. Just because you don’t like your first draft doesn’t mean it’s destined for the circular file; revise, revise, revise!
2) Having an intimate knowledge of the rules is important if you want to break them. Author Chris Eboch (The Eyes of the Pharaoh, The Ghost on the Stairs) taught a workshop titled, “The Elusive Voice” and outlined some ideas and methods for giving your characters their own unique voices. During the course of this 2-hour intensive, she reminded us that once one learns the rules, understands the rules, and masters the rules…one can break the rules. Good advice for poets, too!
3) Every story has a voice. Chris said that it doesn’t matter who the narrator is. It might be a strong voice, a poetic voice, or an awkward or clunky voice – so remember that just because your story has a ‘voice,’ doesn’t mean it’s a good one!
4) If you realize you forgot to bring your business cards 20 minutes after you leave for a conference that is 2 1/2 hours away…take the time and turn around and get them! Still kicking myself over that one.
5) Becoming an overnight success takes a lot longer than you might think. So many published authors had such similar stories: it took five years to land the first contract, took 10 years to write the first manuscript that was sold, it took over 50 rejections before getting an acceptance. Knowing this doesn’t really make things any easier for people like me, but it is a little reassuring to know I’m not the only one beating my head against the wall, trying to find an agent or publisher.
6) Bacon is like sex. Even if the bacon isn’t all that good…it’s still bacon! (This came from one of those “goofy conversations” to which I alluded earlier. And no, we weren’t drinking.)
7) Love means swallowing your heart. This was perhaps the coolest thing I learned all weekend, thanks to author/illustrator Grace Lin (Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, Ling & Ting). She explained that the Chinese language – which, of course, consists of characters representing complete words – is actually made up of multiple words or concepts. For example, the Chinese character for “peaceful” is a combination of the characters for “house” and “woman,” and literally means “woman in the house.” Similarly, the Chinese character for “love” is made up of characters representing three separate concepts: “to swallow,” “heart,” and “person walking.” Literally, love means swallowing (or taking in) one’s heart. Very poetic, yes?
8) It’s OK to sell your soul to corporate America to pay the bills. Well, Grace didn’t exactly say that – I’m paraphrasing – but that was the takeaway. She admitted that, while she was struggling to make her path as an illustrator, she designed kitschy products like coffee mugs and T-shirts that declared, “World’s Greatest Dad!” and that sort of thing. She said she was simply doing her part to help keep America’s landfills full!
9) It’s also OK to not write poetry in syllabic verse. Aspiring writers like Yours Truly are constantly being told to write poetry in perfect meter and rhyme, but that’s not necessarily true. Children’s poet/author Leslie Bulion (The Universe of Fair, At the Seafloor Café) shed light on this during her 2-hour intensive workshop, “The Art and Craft of Poetic Form.” Perfect rhyme…yes. Unless you have a really good reason for a slant rhyme, it better be perfect. (See Rule #2, above!)
Meter, however, is something else. Leslie writes in accentual verse, meaning she concerns herself with the stressed beats per each line, but not the specific meter. This means that, for example, a line she writes in trochaic tetrameter may or may not have four precise metrical feet of two beats (stressed/unstressed) each. I’ve always tried to be very tight with my metrical syllabic verse…but thanks to Leslie, I feel I can lighten up a little!
10) Just because hotel beds are uncomfortable doesn’t mean you won’t oversleep. I tossed and turned all Friday night, yet I still woke up with barely 15 minutes left before breakfast ended. I made it there with 5 minutes to spare, not because I was wide awake and full of energy – but because no one messes with my breakfast.
11) Verse novelists are not mentally unstable. If you are a verse novelist, this may or may not come as a surprise to you. Padma Venkatraman (Island’s End, Climbing the Stairs) had one of the best lines of the conference when, during a panel discussion on historical fiction, she announced that verse novelists, like many writers, hear multiple voices in their heads. The only reason they are not clinically diagnosed with schizophrenia, she said, is because they only listen to the voices and don’t start up conversations with them.
12) If a hotel is going to serve lunch to hundreds of people all packed into one large ballroom, serving black bean soup is probably not the best choice for an appetizer. Good thing they opened the doors. Just sayin.’
My thanks to everyone at NESCBWI for their hard work and success with pulling off another terrific conference, and I’m already looking forward to next year’s! I had a chance to chat with old friends and meet new ones, and am eager to get working on a couple of new projects…which I’m predicting will be written in accentual verse. Thanks, Leslie!