It's been months since I've visited my blog.
For years I've blogged and enjoyed Facebook friends, while I avoided the rest of social media. But when I signed with an agent earlier this year, I felt compelled to have a greater online presence. Editors look at a writer's online network when they consider books. I understand. Authors need to sell books or no one in the industry thrives. Today, selling books relies on the internet.
So, I opened Twitter and Instagram accounts and expanded my Facebook friends. At first, it was fun searching for friends and people I admire to follow. In the children's book world, everyone is entertaining. Tweets would pop up that I had to share and photos I had to respond to. I'd see something on Facebook that led to a link that led to more time away from writing which let's face it, is the point. It wasn't long before I was overwhelmed by rapid-fire Tweets, photos and Facebook posts.
I tried spending fifteen minutes a day on each venue. I tried saving social media for nighttime. When I did pause to think about my blog, I didn't have the energy or the focus to compose anything. My agent said, choose one social media outlet, the one that suits you best, and let the others go. I'm an artist. My writing is full of imagery. She thought Instagram might be the perfect fit. But I don't carry my phone everywhere and even when I do, I don't think about taking pictures. For the sake of Instagram, I tried. I've had the account for months and there's maybe a dozen pictures on there, none of them worth an audience.
At some point, I realized I missed this blog. Even if no one read it, it was a quiet place for me to align my thoughts. After conferences and workshops, it gave me a space to analyze what I'd learned. When something profound affected me as an artist and writer, I shared it here. I know there are a gazillion bloggers doing the same thing and this may never attract a single book buyer. But this week, an email landed in my inbox announcing a new writer named Angela had responded to an old post. She related to my experience. That felt more meaningful than all the Tweets and photos. It brought me back here. It made thoughts come out of my head and words land on this page.
I don't know how often I'll post, but I'm not ready to give up this blog. I need this quiet place within the internet madness. I know all writers struggle to find the balance between creating books, networking and promotion. Someday, I hope to find a balance that works for me.
I'm a world-class introvert who, except for college, has been perfectly happy creating art by myself without a soul intervening. But the day I realized I wanted to write books for children, I went looking for people with the same goal. I needed to learn and I wasn't prepared to go into debt for an MFA. So I joined the Society of Children's Writers and Illustrators and found a local critique group.
That was ten years ago. Not only did I discover writers who were willing to share their knowledge and experience, I found people who accepted and supported me. My critique partners, the Skyway Writers, are committed, compassionate women. We're as dedicated to helping each other succeed as we are to achieving our own goals. We share our stories, our hopes, our devastation over hurtful book reviews, or agents and editors who pass on our projects. As our knowledge evolves, our writing grows stronger through honest, intensive feedback. Today, I consider these women great friends and I can't imagine writing without them.
Bolstered by my critique group experience, I fought my reclusive tendencies and dragged myself to SCBWI events. Here in Florida, we have an amazing community of writers. For many years, writing teacher and picture book author, Rob Sanders organized local SCBWI workshops and presentations. No introvert stands a chance when confronted with Rob's charm. He has a smile as warm as Texas and a passion for helping writers achieve their goals. He has now passed his local responsibilities to writing coach Bob Schwartz, but Rob hasn't stopped encouraging writers. At the state level, Florida's Regional SCBWI Advisor, Linda Bernfeld, works year round with a host of dedicated volunteers to support writers. They orchestrate two conferences, gathering some of the publishing industry's best and brightest to teach and inspire Florida writers. Florida SCBWI also provides mentoring opportunities, a website and newsletter, a statewide boot camp, an annual writing contest and a growing list of critique groups. If you visit a conference, you'll see Linda and her team, racing here and there, making sure writers and presenters have what they need. They come to those conferences, determined to make writers' dreams come true.
From the start, everyone, and I mean everyone, has been kind and friendly. I'm not sure what it is about children's writers, but if you sit next to one, you've likely made a friend for life. Some are shy like me, some outgoing and engaging. But they all scoot over to welcome new members. And that feeling isn't contained to Florida. SCBWI President Stephen Mooser answers emails as if he's sitting across from you, sipping tea. He and Executive Director Lin Oliver, travel from their homes in California to teach and inspire at our conferences. They offer a fantastic yearly grant contest, opportunities for members to publish articles, poems and illustrations in their magazine The Bulletin, and a place to interact, ask questions, find and form groups on their website.
But even with that army of goodwill permeating a decade of SCBWI membership, the child inside me who moved too many times to make friends, hesitated to believe I belonged.
Until two weeks ago.
It was the weekend of the SCBWI conference in Miami where the results for Florida's 2018 Rising Kite writing contest would be announced. I wasn't able to attend, but encouraged by writing partner Augusta Scattergood, I entered my middle grade book in the contest. Sunday afternoon, my phone pinged. Fellow Skyway writer Teddie Aggeles texted "Look at your email!"
I did. There in my inbox was a message from two more Skyway Writers, JC Kato and Janet McLaughlan. They were at the conference, cheering and accepting my award for first place in middle grade fiction. My phone pinged again and I pulled up Facebook to see a photo and congratulations from author/illustrator Fred Koehler:
More cheers followed, many, many cheers, from people I knew and people I didn't. I cried happy tears off and on all afternoon. Winning was a great honor and a thrill, but it wasn't the award that overwhelmed me. It was the kindness and love from writing friends. It went straight to my heart and broke that rusty, old lock that chained me to the belief I didn't belong. So, thank you Rob and Dorian Cirrone, for your special efforts to support this reticent writer. Thank you Janet and JC, for cheering my win, accepting my award and pitching my book to an agent. You are the most awesome writing pals. Thank you Fred and Teddie for elevating my Sunday afternoon by announcing my win. Thank you Augusta for always, always encouraging writers to reach for the dream. And last, but in no way least, thank you Linda, Dorian, Linda Shute, your brigade of volunteers and every person who scoots over to make room for shy people. You are a powerful force for good in this world.
So Nerdcon: Stories, October 9 and 10 at the Minneapolis Convention Center. Will you be there? Because wow, oh, wow.
First it's hosted by Hank Green of Vlog Brothers and Nerdfighters fame. Second, it includes authors like Rainbow Rowell, Jacqueline Woodson, Maggie Stiefvater, Lev Grossman, M.T. Anderson, Holly Black and John Green.
Whew. I need to sit down after that.
Then there are performers, Harry and the Potters, for example, and storytellers who are also actors, rappers and comedians, plus lots more authors you don't want to miss.
Nerdcon Stories was created to bring book lovers and authors together to celebrate storytelling. It's another brilliant idea sprung from the Green brothers. John and Hank also started Vidcon in 2010, the first ever conference focused on internet video. It's now the largest event of its kind in the world.
This is the first year for Nerdcon Stories and according to the website, they're expecting around 3000 participants. Will you be one of them? Imagine twenty years from now, telling your children you were there. Of course, they'll be dedicated readers just like their parents, and they'll sit at your feet and ask, "What was it like?"
If you go, please, please come back and share your experience with the rest of us who are stuck at home with OCD dogs.
NOTE: Nerdcon Stories is not to be confused with Nerd Con in California. That one involves Cosplay, comics and video games. Nothing wrong with that, just a different crowd.
One Potent Teacher
A cup of super organizers
Nearly two dozen passionate writers
Directions: Mix well in a cozy Panera's room; season with a spicy lunchtime presentation and two bean ceremonies. Sprinkle with goodies.
Saturday before last, I was privileged to participate in my second Joyce Sweeney workshop. Joyce is the author of fourteen young adult books, plus short stories and poetry. Fifteen years ago, she began blessing Florida writers by sharing her knowledge through classes and workshops. This past April, she came to Tampa Bay for the first time to teach a character workshop. Many of the people from that workshop attended the recent event so we had already begun to bond. Then Joyce spread a fairy godmother spell on the room, transforming us to entranced children in the best kind of school.
Joyce focused on Voice this time. She broke it down to tone, diction, detail, imagery and syntax and she used the first pages we brought to illustrate good examples of each. As someone whose first pages have been used for examples of problems, it was gratifying to hear mine praised for strong imagery. I applaud Joyce for taking this positive approach and I sensed I wasn't the only one who appreciated it. Writers need critical feedback to grow but I'm not sure we grow from public humiliation, no matter how sensitively it's delivered. The room glowed as Joyce pointed out the strengths in the pages. The writing was fantastic and the examples goaded me to reach higher. I thought I wrote pretty good detail until I heard the description of a bus scene that provoked all five senses. Joyce asked us to explore our strengths and weaknesses. My greatest weakness is syntax. That's prompted me to pull Strunk and White off the shelf. Joyce also recommended Eats, Shoots and Leaves.
During breaks, we were honored to be part of two ceremonies. Joyce presents a magic bean (from Costa Rica, don't you know!) to writers she mentors when their first book is published. The day of the workshop, she honored the thirty-seventh mentee, Shannon Hitchcock, author of The Ballad of Jessie Pearl. In turn, Rob Sanders honored Joyce's mentorship by presenting her with a can of beans (pinto, I think) and a copy of his new book, Cowboy Christmas. At lunchtime, Dr. Joan Kaywell thrilled us with a presentation about the Hipple Children's and Young Adult Literature Collection at the University of South Florida. That deserves a blog post by itself and I'll try to get to it soon. Then there were goodie bags, owl folders holding workshop material and chocolate-covered owl pretzels. It was impossible not to feel like a kid again!
By the end of the day, the writers in that room had risen like a yeasty loaf of bread, stuffed with new knowledge, commraderie and appreciation for the hard work of others. Rob Sanders and his crew (you know who you are!) organized this do and it cooked like teflon. To top the day off, there were numerous drawings for books. I won Freedom Summer by Wiles and Lagarrigue.
If you ever have a chance to attend a Sweeney workshop, I urge you, go! If not, you can still benefit from her mentoring through critique services at her website.
The last few weeks I've been neck deep in picture books. I've been trying to learn to write one for over a year and I've come to believe the two most valuable assets for PB authors are imagination and a child's voice.
By imagination, I mean the mental flexibility that leaps past the real world into a limitless one where animals and inanimate objects talk, ships sail on deserts and monsters are tamed by peanut butter. The youngest readers or listeners (as many aren't reading yet) don't know laws of gravity. They don't distinquish between reality and fantasy. They are learning good from evil but they also believe their parents can protect them from everything. So almost anything goes in a PB. The more outrageous the better.
The ability to access a young child's voice is gold. To re-experience the love of sounds, giggle at funny words and delight in rhyme. To play with language, rearrange it in ways that speaks to children. The youngest book lovers don't need to understand every word. They have adults to explain if they feel they must know. But the words must mesmerize. Young minds have very short attention spans. If the words don't entice them, they wander off to find something that does.
Illustrations are the other half of the PB story and they should be equally imaginative. They aren't simply pictures illustrating the author's words. They are a separate part of the story, shown in art. Picture book illustrators are masters of expression, exaggeration and whimsy. They set the tone with line and color.
I, sadly, have neither a flexible imagination nor access to a young child's voice. But I'm trying to find them and I'm having a fabulous time hanging out with writers who are as witty and playful as the books they write.
I recently tried to explain voice to a non-writer. I mangled the subject badly, prompting this post . . . an attempt to clarify my understanding of the term.
Publishing pros call for books with strong voice, a voice readers can relate to. For me, that voice is the narrator in my head that begins each story (for simplicity, let's assume the main character is always the narrator). The MC whispers a scene. One scene leads to another and as the story develops, so does the character. Their voice grows stronger, more distinct. By the end of the book, I know their history, their quirks, their secret dreams and greatest fears. I know how they talk and move. Most importantly, I know how they view and react to the world.
The challenge for writers is to translate the MC's point of view into words. From the opening sentence on the first page, the narrator is on stage. Joan Bauer's Hope Was Here starts: Somehow, I knew my time had come when Bambi Barnes tore her order into little pieces, hurled it in the air like confetti, and got fired from the Rainbow Diner in Pensacola right in the middle of lunchtime rush hour. That sentence defines the narrator as a keen observer and gutsy optimist who's looking for opportunities. I also sense she has a sense of humor from her colorful description of the ticket-shredding incident. Hope's personality, her voice, comes across loud and clear and I know from the opening, I'll love seeing this story through her eyes.
Protagonist's voices rise from a writer's experiences and you could say, each are versions of the writer's personality. But in order to fully realize the MC, writer's must be willing to face their own fears, prejudices, and fantasies; to explore unknown territory. The narrator should be free to have habits we dislike and think things we wouldn't. Their voice should speak the story without interference. Writers can't be cowards. Last year, a contemporary book I was working on stalled when I faced scenes I wasn't ready to write. Skimming through them with a watery version of the MC's point of view would have been a waste of time. I've restarted the book and I'm gathering courage. If I can't be true to the voice, I won't have a story worth telling.
In children's books, voice must be age appropriate. Many picture book writers capture the youngest readers with lovable characters who do laughable things. Middle grade readers are still dependent on their parents but they expect protagonists who solve their own problems without adult assistance. Middle grade voice is my favorite . . . straddling vulnerabilty, awkwardness, and the edge of maturity. Older teens are strongly influenced by hormones and the need to forge their own path. Most MC's in young adult books deal with love on some level and independence. The young adult voice runs the gamut from sweet to dark and gritty. Unlike those who write for adults, children's writers must tailor their story through a voice authentic to the intended reader.
One last thing about voice. Once the book is published, readers bring their voice to the page and how they experience the story is out of your control. At an SCBWI conference, author and creative motivational speaker Lisa McCourt shared her poem about the reader's voice. In it she says :
. . . It is your voice
saying, for example, the word barn
that the writer wrote
but the barn you say
is the barn you know or knew.
Students are counting minutes until the last school day and daydreaming about summer adventures. Some kids will find those adventures in books. So for the next few months, I'll review books that lead the mind on fantastic journeys. And for non-readers, I'm only covering books available in audio form. Listen to them on that long car ride to Aunt Ethel's (or some relative who lives hours away and pinches your cheek). I promise you won't be sorry.
My first pick is packed so full of wondrous tales, I'm surprised it doesn't spontaneously combust! The Chronicles of Harris Burdick is introduced by Lemony Snicket who begins, "Is There any author more mysterious than Harris Burdick"? Who can resist reading on? Lemony says Harris appeared over twenty-five years ago in a a publisher's office with a stack of titled drawings. The publisher was intriqued and Harris promised to return the next day with the stories behind the art. That was the last anyone saw of him.
The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by author/illustrator Chris Van Allsburg (of Polar Express and Jumanji fame) was published in 1984. To this day, Harris Burdick's drawings continue to inspire writers, animators and songwriters, all featured on Van Allsburg's website. Last year, the drawings hatched The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, a collection of fourteen stories by illustrious writers, including some of my favorites: Kate DiCamillo, Lois Lowry, Gregory Maguire, and M.T. Anderson. The irresistable tales flex the mind with titles like ""Uninvited Guests"" by Jules Feiffer, ""The House on Maple Street"" by Stephen King and "'Just Desert"" by M.T. Anderson. My personal favorite so far (I'm savoring them!) is ""The Harp"" by Linda Sue Park. Imagine an old magician who isn't quite ready to retire, two bickering sisters banished outdoors by annoyed parents, and a boy, mourning his mother and facing a miserable summer with an "off the grid" grandfather. The stories tickle the mind, raising questions that will linger long after the last word is read. We found Burdick's chronicles in the middle grade section of the library but the writing is sophisticated enough to entertain older teens and adults. You'll want to check the book out even if you prefer the audio version. The unseen drawings will trouble your sleep if you don't!
You can't escape children's writers this time of year. Schultz' A Charlie Brown Christmas and Dr. Suess' How the Grinch Stole Christmas are TV staples and every year, a new child-themed holiday movie appears. This year, DiMarco's War Horse and Hugo (adapted from Brian Selznick's book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret) are also playing on the big screen. Then there's the hot books, print and digital, perfect gifts for young readers. If you haven't found the right picture book, a good place to start is the 2011 Caldecott winner: A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Erin and Philip Stead; for middle graders, the 2011 Newberry winner: Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool; or for young adults, the 2011 Printz winner: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi.
By Saturday, no matter what holiday you celebrate, I hope the gifts are nestled under the tree or around the menorah and you're sipping a warm drink and laughing with loved ones. We're visiting family and friends through Christmas eve and starting Christmas day in a small town church where we'll seek the spirit of the season.
Here are pics my husband snapped this week.
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