Monday, February 9, 2015

Sitting on Talent

My title is a terrible pun. I literally spent the weekend sitting, along with over 1,000 other writers and illustrators, who presumably have some talent, at the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators Conference in New York City. I know it's terrible, but while I was doing all that sitting--often quite early in the morning--lots of exciting things were happening, things that set off a hurricane of thoughts and possibilities in my brain. Consequently, I was simultaneously sacrificing a great deal of sleep. Which is all to say: please do not blame me for my terrible title. I am exhausted.

Will that exhaustion stop me from blogging about the conference? Of course not.

Let's just do highlights, though. So much information was packed into one weekend that I'd need three blog entries to cover it all. 

Friday morning I had breakfast with Destiny Howell, the undergraduate winner of the SCBWI Student Writer Scholarship, and with the judges of the contest--Bonnie Bader, Editor-in-Chief of Penguin Young Readers/Early Readers, and Ellen Hopkins, author of several books for young adults including Crank. Conversation topics ranged from travel abroad to the merits of law school, but they were also extremely helpful in terms of explaining the ways in which we could benefit from the conference and from SCBWI as an organization. I'm so grateful that they thought my work was worthy of recognition. 

I went to lots of panels and breakout sessions about working with agents and editors, and one on the craft of YA writing. As I suspected, I found the the panels about agents and editors to be more enlightening; my professors and classmates are able to help me with craft at school, but I rarely receive insight into the business side of writing. 

Which isn't to say that the panel about craft wasn't helpful--in fact, it was probably the most helpful part for so many other conference attendees, who aren't currently in an MFA program and don't have anyone to work with them on their writing. I'm fortunate enough to be surrounded by a community of writers, but most people aren't. One thing that was so amazing about the conference was the kindness and openness of everyone there. Nobody closed themselves off. Old or young, published or not, we all talked to each other, traded business cards, celebrated each other's successes and commiserated over each other's rejections. Nobody seemed competitive or jealous. It was, perhaps, one of the friendliest atmospheres in which I have ever been immersed. 

Thanks to the scholarship, I was also fortunate enough to participate in the Writers' Roundtables. The day was divided into two sessions. You were assigned tables at the beginning, and each session you would join seven other writers and one agent or editor at a table. It was like a mini-workshop. One person would read the first 500 words of their manuscript aloud, and then we'd all spend 15 minutes critiquing the piece. Then it would move on to the next person, and so on. Even in such a short time, I received heaps of feedback--some confirming problems I knew were there, some opening my eyes to new issues that I hadn't noticed. 

Here's a weird thing about me: I love receiving critique. I know most writers don't want to hear their baby called ugly, but I love it. Point out each and every flaw, positively trash it--my baby is too young to understand language, and therefore you can't injure its self-esteem. I can't raise my baby properly until I know all the ways in which I've been a terrible parent. (How's that for an extended metaphor?)

Considering all this, I found my morning session with an agent to be far more useful than my afternoon session with an editor. The agent was more blunt in her feedback, which was perfect. I need to know what to change so that one day, she (or someone similar) will offer to represent me. The editor was very nice and supportive, but not particularly straightforward in terms of criticism. I don't doubt that she's an excellent editor--in her bio she had some famous titles on her list. But I have a hunch that since agents are constantly browsing through manuscripts that haven't been professionally edited, they have to be more honest. Agents normally work as gatekeepers for the editors, so editors aren't often faced with dozens of unpolished pieces. The editor may have wanted to be encouraging rather than critical, since she knows it's unlikely that she would ever professionally see any of our pieces in their current states. That's my theory, anyway.

The keynote speakers at the conference were fantastic. One of my favorites was Anthony Horowitz. Because I only found out I was attending the conference in January, I didn't have much time to research the speakers. I knew Horowitz's name sounded familiar, but I assumed it was probably because I'd sold his books when I used to work at Borders. How wrong I was! He wrote The House of Silk, which is one of my favorite Sherlock Holmes spin-off novels. Too many people try to add love interests for Holmes, or send him to ridiculous locales like St. Paul, Minnesota. Horowitz captures the nuances of the characters to a T. His rapidfire talk was filled with hilarious quips and useful tips, and he even read an excerpt of the brand new James Bond novel he's been commissioned to write. On Sunday I was able to purchase his new novel Moriarty, and have him sign it for me. 

Surprisingly, I loved Kami Garcia's talk as well. I haven't read Beautiful Creatures--somehow I got it into my head that it was a horrible Twilight rip-off--but her charming speech about its creation made me realize that it is no such thing. In fact, I am tempted to download it on my Kindle and devour it right now. Alas! I have so much reading for school to do first. 

The best talk was easily (brand new Newbery Medal winner) Kwame Alexander's. I can't imagine it was as improvised as he claimed--if that's true, he may be the public speaker of the century. His speech was funny and heartfelt and inspiring, and somehow he managed all that in a way that was not cheesy or overly-sentimental. He walked around and interacted with the audience. His poetry was interspersed throughout. He demanded that we Tweet the various gems that flew from his mouth, which were never didactic or condescending. The talk culminated in the story of how he learned he won the Newbery, and then everyone was on their feet, cheering.

Other delights:

The first day, I ran into none other than Shayne Renee Taylor--wife of Jed Taylor, lead singer of The Fortunate Sons, Chicago's finest Creedence Clearwater Revival tribute band. I knew she was an amazing artist, but it hadn't occurred to me that she wanted to illustrate children's books. We had dinner and reminisced about my gogo dancing days, among other things.

On Saturday night there was a gala, featuring a mashed potato bar. You heard me: mashed. potato. bar. It's exactly what you think it is.

Sunday afternoon, when Lin Oliver, Executive Director of SCBWI, began talking about sundaes with a cherry on top, I thought we were going to be treated to a surprise ice cream social. The surprise was, in fact, much better: Henry Winkler. The Fonz himself--or Barry Zuckerkorn, if you prefer Arrested Development to Happy Days. He and Oliver have written several children's books together, and he came to tell us to try hard, even when we doubt ourselves.

I am so happy I went to this conference, despite the lack of sleep. I learned a ton, and I am thoroughly impressed with the quality of SCBWI--so much so that I'm planning on checking out the Nevada chapter. Thanks again to the organization for choosing me to come!

And now I must try to write instead of immediately falling asleep. The pen stops for no mere physical needs. 

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