Wednesday, January 30, 2013

My 5 Tips for Attending Conference

I have to say, I am quite excited about the SCBWI Winter Conference this coming weekend.  The funny thing is that I was very close to NOT attending this year.  I had reasons...mostly financial.  But now that it is only days away, I am so happy I decided to go.  (It helps, of course, that it is right in my backyard!)

If you have never been to an SCBWI conference, I recommend going at least once.  Many regions put on fabulous fact, I am HOOKED on the NJ chapter's.  Its amazing. 

But before you go, here are a few of my tips....
  • Find your Tribe. One of the MAIN reasons for attending conference is to mix and mingle with others who share the same passions as you.  Therefore, make sure to create opportunities to meet people.  Its really not that difficult.  Conference is filled with such opportunities.  So take advantage of them!  You might be a "in your pajamas and in bed by 9pm" person, but for this one weekend....embrace the fun! I met some of my bestest kidlit gals when I wandered into the hotel bar after a Critique Session instead of heading to bed.  It was 11pm, but I have never regretted it.  Be bold and have a blast!
  • Bring business cards.  You are going to meet a lot of people and when you get back to your writing cave on Monday you are going to want to find them on Facebook, subscribe to their blogs or shoot them an email.  So, business card swapping is HUGE at conferences.  I designed mine (with my picture....because its easiest to remember my hair than my name) on Vistaprint. 
  • Be realistically open-minded.  You are about to rub elbows with some of the best and soon-to-be best.  And although you might be one of them, you might also have a lot to learn.  Ask questions.  Take criticism.  Its part of the journey. 
  • Practice your pitch.  A question I was not prepared to be asked at conference last year was, "What are you working on?"  My answer was "picture books"....until I realized that I was actually being asked to pitch my manuscript.  You are going to be practice.
  • Take notes to share with others afterward.  You are going to be listening a lot and be given a lot of little nuggets of wisdom, tips, etc.  And by Monday it might all seem to run together and you might not be able to remember any of it.  So, do yourself a favor, and take notes.  What helps me is then to blog about a particular session or write up notes for my critique group.  That way I don't just stick my notes in my desk drawer and forget about them.  In retelling and summarizing for others I am actually making sense of the info for myself.
So here's to giggling cocktails with my kidlit chicks and fangirl moments with Mo Willems and Julie addition to loads and loads of knowledge.  Hope to see you there!  And of course I will be blogging my highlights next week.  :)

Monday, January 28, 2013

Got Skills?

You've probably heard a zillion times that the best writers are well-read people.  Why is that?  Bottomline is "skill".  Twyla Tharp addresses this in Chapter 9 of "The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life".

"The better you know the nuts and bolts of your craft, the more fully you can express your talent."

She goes on to state that with absolute skill comes absolute confidence.  Therefore it is important to build skill to build mastery, and continue to practice to keep and hone your skills. 

Then, when you have gained mastery in one area, move to another.  Concentrate on your imperfections.  Do not become satisfied with being skilled in one area of your art...move on, stretch yourself.  Take a break from the confidence.  Afterall, when you are inexperienced in something it erases your fear and everything is possible.  Basically, you do not know the rules or expectations, so you just create. 

This is a perfect week for me to be blogging about skills because I am not only completing the "Writing Wonderful Character-Driven Picture Book" e-course tomorrow, but I am also attending the SCBWI Winter Conference in NYC this coming weekend.  Both are good examples of investing in the nuts and bolts of my career.  Even writing a blog and working my way through Twyla's book is building skills.

I know it takes time to work on your skills.  And it also takes money. But its quite a worthy investment.  You won't be sorry.

Ways to build skill
Attend a conference
Take masterclasses and workshops
Participate in an online writing community and/or challenge
Find critique partners

And I leave you with a quote from Twyla to sum it all up:

"We all need breadth and passion if we're going to keep perfecting our craft, whether or not there is approval, validation or money coming from it.  Without passion, all the skill in the world won't lift you above craft.  Without skill, all the passion in the world will leave you eager but floundering.  Combining the two is the essence of the creative life."

How do you plan to practice skill-building in the coming weeks?

Friday, January 25, 2013

Your Spine: Telling the Story YOU Want to Tell

This week has been a good week for me.  After 13 drafts of a manuscript that I have been working on for exactly ONE year and ONE day, I think I finally have it "right"!  What a great feeling.  But what a long and winding, sometimes totally wrong, path it took.  And when I say I finally have it "right", I mean that it is the story that I want to tell.  That's the key.

This particular manuscript idea came to me through a friend's Facebook status one day.  Immediately I set to write the story.  I was so inspired.  I loved the idea and thought it to be totally original and fun.  I was excited by it.

Fast forward several months and several critiques later.  I looked at my manuscript, and although it was still a cute story, it had .lost something.  It had lost my original idea and any thread of the inspiration.  It was no longer the story I wanted to write, but completely different...created from the various critiques and comments I had received from many teachers and colleagues.  It was no longer the story that I wanted to tell.

Enter Scott.  He's a member of my Critique Group and had heard me speak of the original idea behind this manuscript and had even read some early early drafts.  Upon reading a later draft, he told me that he liked the original idea and felt that I had gotten way too off-base.  I needed to hear that.  He was right.  Thank you, Scott, for being honest and setting me right.

That night I got home, pulled up one of the early versions of the manuscript on my laptop (and yes, I do believe you should keep all versions of your stories...maybe for this reason) and I set to work on rewriting and getting back on track.  Phew!

Twyla talks about this exact thing in Chapter 8 of "The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life".  She calls it "spine". 

Spine, to put it bluntly, begins with your first strong idea.  You were scratching to come up with an idea, you found one, and through the next stages of creative thinking you nurtured it into the spine of you creation.  The idea is the toehold that gets you started.  The spine is the statement you make to yourself outlining your intentions for the work.  You intend to tell this story.  The audience may infer it or not.  But if you stick to your spine, the piece will work.

What a great feeling to have found my spine again.

What are you currently working on?  Re-visit your original spine.  Are you telling the story YOU want to tell? 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

"What If?": shaking up tired characters

Unlike some professions or industries where new technology and advances are always changing the playing field, storytelling is an ancient art.  For centuries it has always been the same.  And every class, lecture or seminar I have EVER attended basically teaches the same information.  Which makes me laugh because for some reason it seems that I need to keep hearing it over and over again, just the same. I guess the difference is in the way in which this knowledge is delivered to us and where we are in our writing process to use that knowledge.

As you all know, I am in the middle of Marsha Diane Arnold's self-paced e-course on "Writing Wonderful Character-Driven Children's Picture Books".  Well, yesterday I did Session #3: How To Write Your Great Character and WOW! Talk about helpful.

Perhaps it was because I was neck-deep in revisions of a certain little penguin story.  Perhaps it is the way in which Marsha presents the information with the many examples from existing picture books.  Or perhaps my muse just decided to give me an extra push toward enlightenment.  Who knows!  I am not going to complain.

Session 3 is chock full of a TON of useful information regarding character arcs and plot arcs.  In fact, I will be returning to this session time and tiem again for sure.  (Thank goodness for this self-paced e-course format!)

But there was one bit of information that really spoke to me yesterday.  Thinking about the "What If".

It is often said that there are no original stories.  That we just keep recycling the same premise over and over again.  But I think the secret to fresh storytelling lies in the "What If".

What if the bears in "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" were not bears, but dinosaurs who really want to lure Goldilocks to their home and eat her?  (Mo Willems rocks!)


What if the Gingerbread Man who escapes from the old couple is ACTUALLY made of stinkey cheese and therefore no one wants to chase him? (thank you, Jon Scieszka)

What if its a selfish Wolf who cries boy instead of the other way around?  (hilarious, Bob Hartman!)

And even though I used fairy tale examples, the what if can be used for any story.  You have a story about a kid who refuses to be potty trained.  Well, if its been done many times, what if the kid loves the toilet so much he refuses to get off of it?  Silly example, but you get my point.

So, shake it up!  Twist it up!  Have fun with the what if.  And if you get a chance, check out this e-course!  It truly is great!

Visit the Picture Book Academy for more information on "Writing Wonderful Character-Driven Picture Books". Its a self-paced e-course so registration is always open!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Inspiration Walks In: where characters come from

Its cold and rainy today.  I sit in my local coffee shop and will my muse to be kind and give me just a smidgen of inspiration.

I have had many conversations this week with writers about where we work best.  Its always interesting to me to hear those conflicting opinions regarding working in silence vs with music, working in public vs in complete solitude.  If anything these last few weeks of working fulltime on writing really have open my eyes to a few truths about me as a writer. 

I prefer to work in public.  I like to people watch.  I like to be a part of life as I am creating.  It generates ideas for me.  Characters walk by, sit down, peer into the window, drive by. 

Today, I "attended" the second session in Marsha Diane Arnold's self-paced e-course on "Writing Wonderful Character-Driven Picture Books" (Picture Book Academy).  This session focused on "Where to Find Your Great Character."  The cool thing is that I felt like I was totally just having coffee with Marsha and she was giving me all of this amazing inside information about where her characters come from.  Its a fun feeling.  Not many of us have the opportunity to hear such a highly-successful author dish (but in this course, we can be so lucky!)

Marsha's character exploration varies from mine.  In fact, I have never really looked closely at where those ideas come from.  I know a few have come from NPR stories.  Others just pop into my head.  But bottom line is that we need to look, listen and watch.  If we are lucky, a good character "will come and sit on your shoulders".  The key is to be receptive.

And then its our job to write a story about this character.  A former teacher of mine used to say your story needed to be about the characters BEST or WORST day.  I like that.

Now if you'll excuse me...I am off to write.  This little girl just walked in...and I think she is sitting on my shoulders right now. 

Visit the Picture Book Academy for more information on "Writing Wonderful Character-Driven Picture Books".  Its a self-paced e-course so registration is always open!

Monday, January 14, 2013

"Creative Habit": #7 Accidents Will Happen

The best laid schemes of mice and men / Often go awry  ~ Robert Burns, To a Mouse

Since starting to work through Twyla Tharp's "The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life" I have been stressed, perplexed and at times obsessed with routine and finding the creative routine that works for me.  It is this obsession that fuels my January, as I take time off from "work" to focus on writing.

The funny thing is, that as I looked to these weeks as a fulltime writer, I had many many plans.  I had my days mapped out.  I had my projects laid out.  I had my location spotted.   But, as the Robert Burns line says, these plans "often go awry". And they did.

And then I came to Chapter 7: Accidents will Happen. 

It seems that even Twyla knows that we cannot plan out every aspect of our creative work...that very planning can be the death of our creativity.

A plan is like the scaffolding around a building.  When you're putting up the exterior shell, the scaffolding is vital.  But once the shell is in place and you start work on the interior, the scaffolding disappears.  That's how I think of planning.  It has to be sufficiently thoughtful and solid to get the work up and standing straight, but it cannot take over as you toil away on the interior guts of a piece.  Transforming your ideas rarely goes according to plan.

Your creative endeavors can never be thoroughly mapped out ahead of time.  You have to allow for the suddenly altered landscape, the change in plan, the accidental spark -- and you have to see it as a stroke of luck rather than a disturbance of your perfect scheme.  Habitually creative people are, in E.B. White's phrase, "prepared to be lucky."

On the morning of January 3rd I set out for the main branch of the Brooklyn Library to work fulltime to be a writer.  To be creative.  What I encountered were some disturbances:
  • The entire area I was looking to work in was occupied by a large group of mentally challenged adults.  I got the feeling that they spent every day there.  So it was not as quiet as I hoped.
  • I planned to pack my lunch and eat as I worked.  But my salad exploded in my bag and I had to spend the first part of my day cleaning it up.
  • I got hungry and mentally tapped by 1pm.  I needed a break.
  • I had my day broken into 3 parts...but the first part took longer and I was quickly off schedule.
It was less than perfect.  I kinda felt defeated.

Today I sit at my local coffee shop.  Its closer to home.  I can take a break for some fresh air and lunch at home.  Serendiptiously I met a local (very accomplished writer) last week!  I've been able to get work done.  And for today its good.

Perhaps what makes us creative people is not just the work we create, but the way in which we are in a constant state of learning to go with the ebb and flow.  Life is in a constant state of change and so are we.

So today I am in total agreement with Twyla.  Surprising, right? 

Let go of your perfectionism.  Trust your preparation.  And then....who knows.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Scratching Away: Taking Class

Some time ago I made a list of everything I wanted to try and accomplish in January when I would be "in between" jobs.  Keeping in mind that I wanted to best use this time, I contemplated taking another writing class.  It has been awhile.  And I was not interested in taking another Picture Book 101 class or another class that lumped all Childrens Books together into one.  Alas, I was at a loss and really thought that a class was not going to happen.
Enter the Picture Book Academy's newest e-Course.

1)  It focuses on writing character-driven picture books. (Who hasn't heard that phrase used by an agent and editor in the last 6 months?!  I swear I have probably heard "character-driven 30 times!)

2)  Its four sessions.  (I have 4 weeks in January!)

3)  Its self-paced!  (As I struggle to figure out what my routine is this month, I can easiily find time that works for me to "'attend".)

4)  Its taught by the utterly fabulous Marsha Diane Arnold!  (Its like having a highly-successful, award winning author visit you in your jammies or in your local coffee house to privately tutor!)

Anyway, this week I took Session 1:  Understanding the Characters Kids Love. 

This session is billed as, you’ll explore what makes certain picture book characters so appealing to children. You’ll be introduced to a wide variety of characters that capture readers’ hearts, from a dancing cow to a garbage truck. When you finish this session, you will understand more clearly what makes certain characters so loved and relatable to children.

Perhaps the best "take away" for me was to look at my own characters and put them to the test.  Are they the kind of characters that someone would choose to spend time with if they were "stranded on a deserted island", as Marsha says.  What a powerful question. 

Anyway, I totally recommend the class and will be blogging about all four session as I take them.

Thanks, Marsha and Mira!  Scratching away...

For more info on the Picture Book Academy and Writing Wonderful Character-Driven Picture Books, visit

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Scratching for Ideas: Bottling Lightning

Monday I blogged about Twyla's 6th  Chapter on preparation in which she outlines ways to "scratch for ideas.  So, with the agenda to revise one of my "problem" manuscripts, I set out to scratch yesterday.

Scratching = preparation.  Its just that.

Twyla writes that a lot of this scratching can be done through reading.  Of course, for a writer this is pretty obvious.  But I love her concept of "archeological reading".  Basically she says that we need to do two things: 1) read the masters and 2) read chronologically to get deeper and deeper.

I made a list of all of the concepts in my manuscript.  I made a list of similar stories.  I made a list of influences of this story.  And then I started to dig.  I read book after book after book.  I looked at style and plot arcs and resolutions to conflict.  I read the newest of self-published stories of unknown authors.  I read modern classics by Oliver Jeffers.  I read the mastery of Beatrix Potter.  I was on a mission.  I was scratching and gathering ideas.  I kinda look at it like I was filling up my well from which I would draw ideas.

And then I looked at my manuscript again...and I wish I could say that magically all of the problems went away and the manuscript was revised and is perfect now.  But you know what?  I was still stuck.  So I packed up my laptop for lunch and I continued to marinate the ideas I had gathered throughout the rest of the day.

Today while sipping my morning coffee.  Before my morning run.  I got a visit.  Not from the "problem" character in my "problem" manuscript.  But from a character I had thought of during PiBoIdMo.  He had something to say.  In fact, I had his whole story written within 15 minutes.

You see, the work I did yesterday was preparation, but with creativity there is sometimes no way to tell the lightning when or where to strike.  Perhaps we just bottle the lightning for use later.  And in that bottle it simmers and sautees.  It transforms and melds.  It builds and builds til the pressure can no longer be contained and it erupts

Every blog entry.  Every book.  Every challenge.  Every conversation.  Every class.    Its all scratching.  As are the museum visits and conferences and critique groups. 

And someday....BAM!

Join me Friday as I continue to scratch.  I will be blogging about the first session of the fabulous new self-paced e-Course from the Picture Book Academy --  "Writing Wonderful Character-Driven Picture Books" (taught by the lovely Marsha Diane Arnold. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

"Creative Habit": #6 Scratching

Happy New Year, everyone!  Its good to be getting back to a more "normal" life after the travel and hub-bub of the holidays.  And of course, for so many the new year means setting new goals and aspirations...or resolutions, if you will.  I hope that 2012 if looked on fondly by you and that 2013 has started off to your liking. 

For me, 2013 is starting off with a little "experiment", shall we say.  After ending my job on December 21st, I have decided to spend at least January...if not longer...being a "fulltime writer".  I figure its the best time to do it seeing as I am in-between jobs. 

Its been interesting so far.  I returned from vacation last Wednesday and started my "new job" on Thursday.  I went to the library for a day of work...and the atmosphere was not what I hoped.  It was hard to get work done.  And then on Friday I was so tired from traveling that I worked a half day at a coffee shop and then went home to "do work" which equated to napping!

There is definitely going to be a learning curve.  In fact, I have joked that I will probably FINALLY figure out what routine works for me and then start a new job the next day.  :)

But hopping back into things, I am pleased to be able to return to Twyla's "The Creative Habit" and be able to further put  into practice some of her advice about living the "creative life". 

The way I look at it, working at being a fulltime writer includes: blogging, my Teacher's Guide business (which is flourishing, btw), creating my website to hopefully launch soon, maintaining presence in online writing communities, and taking some courses.  This stuff I find easy to schedule time for because there are concrete results that I can measure and deadlines to work toward.  What I have a really hard time with is my creative manuscripts. 

I currently have 2 manuscripts that I know are good but not good enough.  I need to revise.  They need some real overhaul and attention.  But I have a hard time figuring out where to begin or how to work on them.

Last night I picked up Twyla once again looking for some direction.  In Chapter 6: Scratching, she talks about this struggle with beginning and developing ideas.  Twyla calls it "scratching". 

"You know how you scratch away at a lottery ticket to see if you've won?  That's what I'm doing when I begin a piece.  I'm digging through everything to find something.  It's like clawing at a side of a mountain to get a toehold, a grip, some sort of traction to keep moving upward and onward."

She goes on to list the many shapes that "scratching" can take:  reading through books, museums, people watching, etc.  Its all stuff we have heard before...but it really is about allowing even the smallest microcell to inspire us.  Its being hyper-aware. 

But my problem is that I become way too passive in this pursuit.  I expect ideas to just come to me in due time, so I am not actively doing something daily to "scratch".  This is what needs to change.

Twyla refers to improvising as a way to scratch and create new ideas.  I know I have writer friends who sit down to write everyday even if what they write is "I have nothing to write" over and over again.  They say that the act of actually writing and keeping at it helps ease them into creation.

I think my problem lies in the short form that I work in.  As a Picture Book writer I am looking to revise two of my manuscripts that are only 300-500 words each.  I know they need revision (one needs a whole new climax and conclusion, the other needs some cleaning up).  But I really have a hard time understanding how to DAILY work on these pieces.  Maybe I need a daily assignment.  Maybe the size of the projects make them feel too restrictive to me.  I am not sure.

Anyone have any great daily "scratching" ideas that you use to work?  I would especially love to hear how you scratch at those existing pieces which need revising.

Throughout this week I will continue to blog about this idea of "scratching".  Be sure to stop by!