Thursday, October 27, 2011

Processing a Conference -- Or, Unspinning Your Head, Part 2

In which we continue some random thoughts from the SCBWI-WI fall retreat, with the goal of both sharing and organizing them. :) Scroll down one for Part 1 of this post.
  • One of the excellent parts of a conference is traveling back and forth with a friend and talking about writing plus whatever, all the way there and back.
  • Three ways to strengthen a character, according to Cheryl Klein, are by giving her an unusual desire, giving her some sort of expertise, and making that character liked by other people in the story. Make the people who dislike your character people the reader will also dislike.
  • Writers aren't necessarily as quiet as we might think, based on the buzz of conversation during the late-night socials.
  • One of my favorite quotes from the weekend, by Marsha Wilson Chall, is this: "Editors raise questions. Writers answer them." This is why I raise a lot of questions when I edit my ICL book course students' work. :) 
  • Another tidbit from Marsha: In a picture book, text is nouns and verbs, pictures are adjectives, and page turns are transitions.
  • When presenting at a conference, and probably anywhere else, speakers must use Power Point. We've reached that, ahem, Point. Audiences expect visuals. And when you find funny pictures to use with your points, you have a great way to build humor into your talk without having to say funny things.
  • Every single one of our speakers was animated, entertaining, and organized-yet-off-the-cuff, along with having an excellent visual presentation. They were great! Frankly, I've been to conferences where people read their presentations. That didn't happen here.
  • Beach Lane Books wants to publish books that are truly for kids, not their parents. Refreshing, much?
  • According to Andrea Welch, along with having a strong narrative arc, lovely language, and memorable characters, a story will do well to address an emotional or cognitive developmental need in the child.
  • As an agent, Tracey Adams values communication with clients. This is great to hear, as we have all heard stories of communication breakdowns. What a writer needs to be able to do when signing with an agent is to trust that agent to submit to the right editors, negotiate the best possible deal, be knowledgable, and be accessible, and Tracey nailed it -- to me she came across as, above all, trustworthy. 
  • While reading craft books is necessary and helpful, studying published books for technique is just as important. Whether you're going to try a POV you haven't used before (first person, multiple, omniscient), explore using an unreliable narrator, or give wacky humor a shot, you can probably find a published book that has done it. Study it. How does it succeed? Is there any respect in which it could be better?
  • Conferences are a shot in the arm!
  • Conferences couldn't happen without all the dedicated folk who head statewide SCBWI chapters and do all the work of helping us meet, network with, and learn from industry professionals. We are so blessed to have these people, and in Wisconsin they abound. Thank you!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Processing a Conference -- Or, Unspinning Your Head, Part 1

I spent last weekend at the SCBWI-WI fall retreat, and what an excellent three days! Thank you to the wonderful, dedicated SCBWI leaders and the top-notch faculty, which included agent Tracey Adams of Adams Literary, editors Cheryl Klein of Arthur A. Levine (Scholastic) and Andrea Welch of Beach Lane Books (Simon and Schuster), illustrator LeUyen Pham, and authors Laura Ruby and Marsha Wilson Chall. For reasons that I hope will become apparent, I'm going to dive right into some thoughts that I took away from the weekend:
  • Illustration is cool, but I only halfway get it. LeUyen Pham gave a wonderful visual presentation about how images affect us and how we "read" them -- where the eye goes first, where it goes second, and so on, and how the artist controls the path of viewers' eyes through a picture. But I only agreed with the majority audience opinion of where the gaze falls first, second, third, etc., maybe half to two-thirds of the time. The rest of the time, I saw something else first.
  • Photos don't turn out so hot when the lectern is right in front of a light. :( Of course, I knew this, but the result is still no photos. Oh well.
  • There are three kinds of plots, says Cheryl Klein, but they aren't simply the "man vs. man," "man vs. self," and "man vs. nature" plots we may have learned in HS English. These, she groups into a broader category called the Conflict plot. The other two plots are Mystery, in which the character must gain information or answer a question, and Lack, in which the character feels something is missing and must be gained or attained in order to achieve happiness.
  • The content of a speaker's talks belongs to the speaker; it is her or his intellectual property. Speakers, frankly, plan to give their talks multiple times, and if they want to write and publish that content, that right belongs to them, as Cheryl Klein has done with her book on revision, Second Sight. Therefore, I will not be blogging extensively about any one person's presentation.
  • Conference food is generally awesome, and this weekend was no exception. My jeans are feeling a mite snug, to tell the truth. 
  • I got the opportunity to be part of the critique faculty for the conference, and loved it.
  • Doing your research works! By that I mean that though conferences are wonderful (am I using that word too much?) informative and networking events, for the writer who immerses herself in learning the craft and the industry they are a supplement to and an affirmation of many things she has already learned. Though she will pick up new tidbits, no question, and her head may spin with the best of them trying to contain it all, if she's done her homework she's not drowning in new information. It's more like she's watered by it.
  • I'm going to stop here and post more about the conference next week, and even into a third week if the content -- or my random processing process -- warrants.
Have you been to any good conferences lately? How did you process them?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

October Book Pick -- The Trouble With May Amelia by Jennifer Holm

Twelve-year-old May Amelia Jackson is the daughter of Finnish immigrants and lives on a farm in Washington State in 1900. This makes her only two years younger than my paternal grandmother, who told me stories of growing up on a Wisconsin farm during that time. Though the details are different, the tone of the times in the book matches what Grandma told me, so I was primed to enjoy this book and connect with May Amelia, whom I met earlier in Jennifer Holm's Newbery Honor prequel Our Only May Amelia.

My grandmother's family had been in America for a generation or two more than I suspect May Amelia's has, yet the emphasis on the mother country (in May Amelia's case, Finland) rings true.  So does the emphasis on hard, unrelenting farm work. So, I have to add, does the parents' sternness; in that era, that a child might need self-esteem wasn't even on the radar. MA's pappa proclaims, often, that girls are useless. Truth to tell, he has little regard for the passel of brothers that precede her, either, except for the oldest.

Not all of my book discussions contain spoilers, but this one does.

The book has plenty of funny moments, such as when Friendly the bull knocks over the school outhouse when MA is using it. A subplot in which every eligible bachelor for miles around courts the pretty teacher is sweet and amusing. Yet the author paints a clear picture of how hard life was. A baby sister has died. One brother is nearly deaf from an illness, and apparently cannot be helped. A second brother loses a hand working as a logger.  MA shares not only a room but a bed with one of her brothers. All of this is routine, but life changes for MA when a businessman-type visits area farmers selling stock in the development of a new town. Suddenly Pappa finds MA not quite so useless after all. He uses her as his English/Finn translator, and on that basis buys into the project. But the man is a charlatan and fleeces the Jacksons and several of their neighbors, and Pappa flies into a rage and tells MA that losing their farm is all her fault. "You're the one who read the papers! You are the reason we have lost everything. You useless girl!" He even says that she is not his daughter anymore.

This part of the story angered me on MA's behalf. Her mother says nothing. Not one of her brothers intervenes or will even look her in the eye. No one says a word to the effect that Pappa himself was the one hoodwinked by a scam. And I understand that this fits the era and the supremacy of the husband and father. But I still hate that this could happen, and hate it worse because I believe it. What happens next is that Pappa's brother, a kind man who somehow made the decision not to live like his and Pappa's own mean mother, takes MA into his home. And not a single one of her family members even says goodbye when she leaves.

After several months, one of her brothers shows up and tells her she has to come home. The farm is lost, and Pappa and the able-bodied brothers are all working at the logging camp, which now includes room and board, he says, and Mamma's working in a cannery. MA agrees. I didn't want her to go. I wanted her to stay with her uncle and never return. I started thinking about how she, how anyone, could do this while making sure they weren't falling into the trap of unforgiveness and bitterness.  But, really, the bottom line is that MA had to go back. In 1900, you went back. I was pleased that she asked them whether they just needed a cook, and the answer was no: the brother who lost his hand was doing the cooking with a spoon tied to his stump. You're like a flea, is what they tell her. Annoying, but it wouldn't be home without you.

Based on quite a bit of Holm's family history, The Trouble with May Amelia is hard to forget. Definitely recommended.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

What? Fiction Requires Research?

When I was a child and a teen, I did all my writing at white heat. (I can almost never do this anymore; however, I still create plots on the fly.) I didn't stop to labor over much of anything, such as revision. Or research. I didn't know research was needed. Oh, when I set one of my teenage-era novels in Chicago, it niggled at me that maybe I needed to know something about Chicago. But I figured, Nah. It's a big city. I can make it up. Because with fiction, the belief goes, "you can make it all up." I hear this from students fairly often. Research and facts are important for nonfiction, but fiction sets you free in that you can write whatever you want and nobody can say it's wrong.

Well, no.

Fiction requires research. Big time. Historical fiction may spring to mind as the most obvious example. Here, research is required not only to portray the historical period and events accurately, but to help you with character motivations (what events shaped these people?), the zeitgeist of the time (were people optimistic? pessimistic? religious? freethinkers? altruistic? looking out for #1?), and finding exciting plot events. If you begin your research by reading two or three good general histories of the period, that may be where you find your real story. And fascinating  primary sources such as diaries, newspapers, and letters can give you the voices, everyday details, and priceless anecdotes that breathe life and veracity into your story.

But historical fiction is far from the only genre that requires research. Really, all genres do. From police procedurals to legal thrillers to multicultural books to books set in foreign countries, to stories featuring figure skating, lacrosse, coin collecting, wilderness survival -- any specific pursuit or setting, they all require research if you're to make your story honest, plausible, and worthwhile to those readers who know more about these topics than you do. Writing, even fiction writing, is actually a wonderful way for the writer to remain a lifelong learner.

So...does loving research (call it loving LEARNING) give one a serious leg up in becoming a good writer? Yes, I believe it does.

What about high fantasy? Suppose your story is set in a world wildly different from Earth, and your characters aren't of any recognizable earthly species? Can you make "everything" up in that case? I have two thoughts. One is that even if your characters aren't human, your readers must be able to relate to them. Fiction is an emotional/soulish/spiritual experience, and your protagonist's emotional progression must be comprehensible to your audience. Which means, if your characters are experiencing conflict and loss of certain types, and you need help in understanding the stages people go through in these situations, yes, you need research. Research into humans will help you with your not-human-but-relatable characters. My second thought is yes, you can make up your entire fictional world -- BUT, if you want readers to understand and feel grounded in your story, you have to create a world that has its own facts, organization, society, and ways of life. A world that makes sense and is consistent on its own terms. You may be the creator of the facts in this world. But facts there will be, and you'll need your own record of them so YOU can look them up when necessary!

I'm glad that if I ever need to research contemporary fifth grade, there's an elementary school right down the block. :)

Do you like research? What's the biggest or most unusual thing you've ever researched? The smallest?