A Post-Conference Letter
~ by Amanda Smith
Dear First-time Conference Attendee,
Phew! What a weekend! Is your head still spinning with all you heard and everyone you met? Are you finding yourself alternating between euphoric highs, having walked the hallways with legends, and gloomy lows with whispers of “but do I belong?” haunting your dreams?
Let me assure you, I know the feeling. I attended my first NESCBWI conference seven years ago. I was just returning to writing and not sure of anything yet. The inevitable ice-breaker “What do you write?” stumped me all day long. Because I went to the conference to figure that out! As I shared workshops with seemingly confident people who were much more knowledgeable than I was, I felt my voice getting smaller and smaller. By lunch time I was barely a whisper. Somehow, in my oblivion, I ended up at a table with YA and MG writers who were all either published or on the cusp of getting published. They included me, took interest in my work, encouraged me, gave advice, and showed extreme kindness.
I left the conference knowing this:
So, dear First-timer, here are some post-conference tips for you:
by Francine Puckly
For years I have been revising and polishing one of my manuscripts in order to get it ready for an agent or editor. It’s been a struggle, a journey sprinkled with pockets of both excitement and disillusionment. I’ve had it critiqued numerous times by my critique group members and various other beta readers. I’ve also paid for 10-page critiques, first page critiques, query critiques, more 10-page critiques and back around again. This past weekend I attended a regional conference and had two more industry professionals weigh in on the manuscript. They were in violent agreement. I continue to miss the mark.
I read over their feedback several times. I had a two-hour “therapy session” with a writing colleague who is familiar with the manuscript. Then just this morning I pulled out two files of notes from past workshops and conferences—one on Beginnings, the other on Character Development. The file on Beginnings was a slap in the face. There, dated four years earlier, was feedback about my opening chapters—almost verbatim to the feedback I received a few days ago. Nothing had changed.
So I either A) hadn’t learned a thing in four years, B) don’t possess the skill to fix it, or C) am locked into what has already been written and can’t break out of the word trap to fix the problems with the novel. I’m going with option C.
I’m fiddling, not fixing. I’m tweaking, not writing fresh new prose. I’m trying to force stale, overworked characters to fit a pre-determined plot instead of creating fresh, fabulous characters and then sending them (and the reader) on an exciting journey that incorporates character, voice, and setting.
So I’m following Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s lead. I deleted all of the drafts of that manuscript from my hard drive. (Confession: I’m not crazy. Unlike Lynda, I do have them saved to an external drive. But the drive is packed away in the deep recesses of my office closet and not easily accessed.)
How do I feel after deleting five years of work? I’m scared to death! I’ve consumed every piece of chocolate in the house and thought about opening a bottle of wine at 8:30 this morning. (I opted for a decaf earl grey latte…) But I also know deep in my bones that this was the right move. I won't go back to those drafts on the external drive.
I have work to do. An editor I greatly respect suggested a list of novels to study on character and beginnings. I will. I am. I will go back to the drawing board on creating, sketching and really getting to know my characters. And only after I complete those tasks will I sit down and rewrite the story. With renewed vigor. With soulful characters. From scratch.
Find Your Own Bear
By Kelly Carey
It can happen when you excitedly present your latest work in progress to your critique group, and they take turns rattling off lists of picture books with your exact plot. Or when you are browsing the shelves at your favorite indie bookstore and find your book idea, with a stunning cover face out, written by someone else. Perhaps it was in a rejection letter from an editor that read “sorry, but we already have a similar book on our list”. The results are a stunning hit to your creative energy that can leave you with the niggling feeling that every idea you’ve ever had has already been done.
The knee jerk response could be to delete the manuscript and snuggle under a blanket with a large bowl of ice cream admonishing yourself for ever thinking that you had a unique idea. I mean how could you really think your idea was original?
Take a breath and realize that while similar plots, themes, settings, and even characters can be found throughout kidlit, it’s your unique voice that puts the originality in the work.
Let’s take bears for example.
Winnie-the-Pooh (published 1926), Little Bear (published 1957), Paddington (published 1958), The Berenstain Bears (published 1962) and Corduroy (published date 1968), are all kidlit books featuring an anthropomorphized bear as a main character. But they happily share publishing success and shelf space because each author gifted their bear with their own unique author voice.
Despite these well-known bears, still even more authors have found their own original voice inside a bear main character. Nancy White Calstrom put her creative musings into Jesse Bear (published 1996) and Karma Wilson presented Bear Snores On (published 2002). What a shame if Bonnie Becker had never sent A Visitor for Bear (published 2008) out on submission because bears seemed unoriginal? What if Jory John’s delightful bear in the Already series (published 2014) never existed because John’s was worried about Winnie or Paddington? What if Ryan Higgins had trashed Mother Bruce (published 2015) because…well…bears?
The kidlit world is enriched because all of these clever bears found a home in a book. Their originality comes in the personality the authors and illustrators gave each bear. In the writing, the author’s tone, style and personal touch honed by a fusion of life experience and writing skill offer up a character as unique as a fingerprint. Each author brings to their bear that special voice, their fingerprint, which makes each of these wonderful kidlit bears unique and original.
Worried that there are too many dragon books? Pirate books? Train books? Princess books?
About ten years ago, an Australian comedy group called The Axis of Awesome presented their theory that dozens of popular songs were written with the same four chords. Apparently concerns about originality can stymie songwriters too! https://www.buzzfeed.com/alanwhite/73-songs-you-can-play-with-the-same-four-chords?utm_term=.gdEdQDqBzV#.ncwx93AlD6 It’s an entertaining and fascinating idea and more proof that the same ingredients don’t necessarily produce the same outcome.
In the case of music, the same four chords have produced songs with vastly different outcomes. The same can be true in your storytelling. We can all play with pirates, on a high seas adventure, searching for treasure, and while our character, setting, plot and themes could arguable be identical, like the chords in those songs, we will still produce original works.
The secret original ingredient is you.
So go ahead.
Write your bear story.
Just make sure his growl has your unique voice.
Peruse blogs for advice and tips from KidLit creatives.
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