August 8th, 2011

Best Things I Heard at the Best-Ever SCBWI Conference

After a year’s hiatus, this weekend I returned to the SCBWI annual conference. Due to a combination of absence-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder and the evidently frenetic (and fruitful) planning that went into the fortieth anniversary conference, I came away feeling not only refreshed and invigorated, not only newly inspired to continue a current project, revise an existing project, and start a new project that—just last Thursday—had barely been a twinkle in my eye... but I also feel like I am a better person. (Will I behave like a better person? Well, probably for a good chunk of this week, at least.)

Because of the overwhelming spectacularosity of the whole thing, I may have to extend my traditional Best Things I Heard at the SCBWI Summer Conference into multiple posts. Fair warning.

But anyway, here’s the first installment.

“Obssession can be tiring.” –Bruce Coville

I didn’t even note why he said this—I was laughing too hard. As a veteran obsessor, I can assure you that it’s true.

“I enjoy chaos.” –Donna Jo Napoli

I am a big fan of Donna Jo Napoli’s work. Not only is it wonderful to read—it’s exactly the sort of thing I like to write (retellings and re-imaginings of fairy tales). But the real person far exceeded my daydreams about her. In her workshop about amping up tension in a manuscript—a topic where I can use a little amping myself—I found myself nearly in tears, I was laughing so hard. Because she is so soft-spoken and has such a sweet face, it is just hysterical to hear her make remarks like, “Dying, for most of us, sucks.” Of, “If you knew the hurricane was coming, that could be your opportunity [for murder]. What an amazingly wonderful thing.” Or “Okay, good—because I want them to be able to be electrocuted. ... Don’t you?”

“If I’m writing a sexy scene and I’m not turned on, it’s not working.” –Judy Blume. Yes, the Judy Blume.

Fodder for thought for anyone who’s ever felt embarrassed as they struggled to write a love scene. Or any other kind.

“Spend a large part of your time out of context.” –Norton Juster. Yes, the Norton Juster.

Most of my time is spent out of context, trying relentlessly to puzzle things out. (See Bruce Coville re: obssession.)

So I took this comment to heart. It’s easy to get too wrapped up in your plot, or in your worries re: the publishing industry, or your characters’ motivations. This is a business as well as an art—but isn’t it also supposed to be fun? And if we’re not playing, if we don’t at least briefly depart the land of Context to explore new territory, where’s the fun?

Another favorite NJ remark, uttered while caressing the cover of my childhood copy of The Phantom Tollbooth, having just autographed it: “This is an old one!”

“All you have is your taste in publishing.” –Brenda Bowen

A point that can’t be reiterated too often. Each person in the process—agent, editor, reviewer, critique partner—is just one person. The challenge is knowing how much confidence your  work merits. JK Rowling and Stephen King both received many rejection slips before selling their first novels; their confidence endured. Is your manuscript at the level of Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone or Carrie?

Hatchet was bounced three times—rejected three times... It must really sting.” –Gary Paulsen

It’s a pity that I was so caught up in Gary Paulsen’s keynote speech that I was unable to take many notes. From a harrowing childhood during which he voluntarily lived in the Minnesota woods in winter rather than risk staying with his parents (his mother once tried to stab him), to the realization that he had to write—which led to quitting his job, divorcing his wife, and moving to Hollywood—to a 20-book contract that brought him no money, to riches that he eventually earned... and then lost, to the Iditarod, the moose that chipped his tooth, and the comparative protein merits of beaver, rabbit, venison, and beef—he was remarkable. (But his talk was about writing, too—I swear!)

Life is complicated, confusing at times. Not everything has a rosy ending. But let there be a ray of hope.” –Beverly Horowitz

Every time I listen to this editor speak—with her combination of professional knowledge and maternal attitude—I yearn to work with her.

Interesting side note: at least three speakers that I heard said that same phrase—“Life is complicated”—at this year’s conference. I guess 2009-10 has been a doozy for more people than little ol’ me.

“If you’re not risking, you’re not writing.”—Bruce Coville

This quote is from a different presentation—plus it’s just so pithy and wonderful, I can’t help but quote Bruce Coville twice.

Along those same lines:

Writing forces you to be alive—and being alive can really, really hurt. To write is to terrorize yourself.” –Laurie Halse Anderson

I was unable to squeeze into my saved seat at Anderson’s workshop because I’d been having a manuscript critique, and by the time I arrived the back of the room was so crammed with sitters and standers that I couldn’t clamber to the empty chair waiting for me. Thank God she had the closing keynote, so I could enjoy some of her insights and experiences firsthand, instead of from davidbeall ’s careful notes!

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