Saturday morning before the sun rises, I'm driving with a writing partner to the Society for Children's Writers and Illustrators conference in Orlando. The first thing I tell new writers when they ask for advice is join SCBWI. Without them, I suspect many children's writers and illustrators would give up before their books reach the hands that are meant to hold them.
The minute I realized I wanted to write for children, I Googled writing groups, found a meeting nearby and joined. I was a woman with a dream and no skills. Who knew there were writing rules? I spent a year learning the basics and I'm forever grateful to the woman who had the patience to pass them on without a single groan or eye roll. But she didn't write for children and even though others in the group did, we were all struggling to understand what that meant. Sometime in that year, I discovered SCBWI and thought why not, I'll join that, too. When I attended my first SCBWI critique group, I knew I was in the right place.
At the national level, SCBWI offers a website that caters to the needs of members. There are blogs, resources, grant contests, a message board where you can get any question imaginable answered, find online critique groups and get your query letter reviewed. SCBWI hosts a summer conference in Los Angeles and a winter conference in New York. They also publish a quarterly magazine called the Bulletin and an online newsletter.
SCBWI is represented in every state by volunteer-run groups. Florida's chapter hosts two conferences a year, a mentorship program, a newsletter, local workshops and an annual contest. It also facilitates the ongoing need of members to establish critique groups. Which leads me back to my weekend. When you go to a conference, expect great things, like learning from agents, publishers and authors of admirable books. Saturday, I'll be attending a middle grade fantasy workshop with author Henry Neff and senior editor for Scholastic, Matt Ringler. How wow is that?
Expect to leave conferences inspired and motivated. Even better, expect new friends. I've never met a friendlier crowd than SCBWI. They share your dreams, understand your trials, and they'll celebrate your success. If your new to the writing world and you're attending your first conference, you might make connections that lead to a writing group. For sure, exchange emails. Writers need support. Even if you're an introvert like me, you don't have to do this alone.
Saturday morning, my writing partner and I will probably chat all the way to the conference about our stories, the workshop and what we hope to learn. When the sun dips below the trees, we'll turn the car towards home, our heads filled with what we learned and our hearts filled with renewed dreams and the encouragement of friends.
Authors are often asked where their stories come from and they give a variety of answers: dreams, memories, an event that rattles the insides of their brains and demands to be honored, like the bombing of New York's twin towers.
Kelly Barnhill, who recently won the Newbery Award with her middle grade book The Girl Who Drank the Moon, talked about the book's origins in Publisher's Weekly. She said an image of a swamp monster spouting poetry sparked the story idea. That image percolated and mixed with her interest in how people see the same thing differently, and her setting was inspired by a trip to Costa Rica.
I think most stories evolve like that. A seed's planted, then another and another, growing a jungle of words in our heads. They have to get along at some point, come together in a cohesive way and they have to make us ask "what happens next? That's when our fingers start typing.
The book I'm working on now started with drawings I did of fantasy figures I saw in the wood floor of an old house my husband and I were restoring. I imagined a lonely girl finding those figures and the story was born. Another book grew from a longing to commemorate the days I spent riding and training horses and the last book sprang from living in a dynamic urban neighborhood.
I like to hear the main character's voice in my head before I start, but I'm not always that lucky. Sometimes, I have to write for a long while before that voice emerges. Since I'm a visual person, setting is vitally important. I need to see the world first, to understand the geography, the buildings and environment. If I try to write without that, the world doesn't feel real.
My critique partners and I have discussions about describing our characters. Should we be specific, so readers have clear visuals, or should we be vague so more people can identify with the characters. I rarely know much about my character's physical description at the start of a story. For me, physicality is not nearly as important as personality.
Let's not forget plot and conflict. It's what drives the story and I've learned the hard way not to start a story without knowing the protagonist's goal. If you have a story screaming to be written and you don't know the main conflict, take a deep breath, take a walk, take the time you need to figure that out. Explore issues that are important to you, like Kelly Barnhill's interest in the way people's perspectives color their world. Ask yourself how your interests and concerns might shape your character's world. Then ask what your character wants and what's the worst thing that could happen. Now, you have the start of a solid story.
What are you waiting for? Start typing!
I write middle grade and young adult books with a magical twist. And creatures, always creatures. I'm represented by the fabulous Leslie Zampetti of Dunham Lit.
Lorin Oberweger - Freelance Editor