By Amanda Smith
Last Saturday five fabulous speakers and almost eighty eager writers gathered at Mount Wachusett Community College. Every year NESCBWI offers a one-day mini conference in the fall where the cream of the crop from the Spring conference present their workshops. This year, for the first time, NESCBWI offered two Encore events, to make these valuable workshops available to more writers.
Even though all the speakers’ presentations were excellent and full of practical and eye opening advice, often the most honest, most useful tidbits are shared once the presenters go off script. These bite size bits of revelation are what I would like to share with you.
Anna Staniszsewski (Power Down, Little Robot, Once Upon a Cruise) spoke about finding the emotional heart of your picture book. She urged us to ask the hard questions before we start drafting. Knowing the heart of your story will keep you on track as you write. She also reminded us not to teach a moral. “Your point will get across if you tell a good story.”
Kristine Carlson Asselin (Any Way You Slice It) gave an excellent presentation on query letters. My biggest take away from her talk is that there are rules, and ways to break them, but above all, your query letter should be professional and appropriate. Her workshop connected well with Anna’s in that as writers we have to know the heart of our story in order to pitch our work project convincingly and effectively. She summed it up with this quote by Albert Einstein, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
With humor, music, and some boss handouts, Annie (AC) Gaughen (The Scarlet Trilogy) lead us to discover our antagonist’s story. It was a fascinating exercise to dig into my antagonist’s background, character traits and motivations. Through Annie’s guidance, I discovered that what the protagonist views as his strengths, are often his greatest weaknesses in the eyes of the antagonist. That contradiction lies at the heart of your story and exploring it builds strong conflict.
Erin Dionne (Ollie & the Science of Treasure Hunting, Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking) helped us become better critique givers and receivers. Sticking to the unwritten theme of the day, she challenged us to identify the core of our story. “What is the thing, that if you take it away, makes your story collapse?” she asked. One of her most helpful off script tips was to keep a different note book for every book you are working on. Why didn’t I think of this before? No more flipping through three different notebooks containing conference notes, and free writing, and research on multiple projects to find a hurried note scribbled down in the middle of the night. No more filling through folders with slips of paper flying everywhere. Thank you, Erin! You have changed my life!
To end our full day, Trisha Leaver(The Secrets We Keep) challenged us to bleed onto the pages, to dig deep and discover the emotion behind each action. She encouraged us to explore senses and perceptions, and how they are colored by emotion.
Even though I have a notebook filled with advice from Encore II, my biggest take away is this: Do not underestimate the power of the writing community. I walked into that room on Saturday feeling overwhelmed by synopsis writing and the querying process, doubting the worth of my work. By listening to these presenters, and discussing ideas with my peers, and being in a room filled with creative energy, I was pulled out of my funk. Some workshops confirmed what I was doing right, others gave me the tools to go fix what I was not yet doing right, but most of all I am refocused.
I would like to urge you to get with your writing community. Find a workshop in your area, check out SCBWI’s website for regional meet-ups, have coffee with your writing group, join an online group. It will do your heart good! We cannot be lone rangers in this endeavor.
By Francine Puckly
Beginnings. Everyone loves a good beginning. And, no. I’m not talking about the beginning of your novel or picture book, the one the reader sees. I’m leaving that to Annie.(hook-em-into-your-book.html) I’m talking about when you begin anew: take on that new challenge, go after that dream or bucket list item that’s been nagging at you for months or years, or start that new manuscript that you know, deep in your soul, is what you’re supposed to be writing next.
Launching a new project makes us both a little scared and dizzy with excitement. The energy is electrifying.
For a little while, anyway.
But when the meat of the work begins—when you take inventory of the skills you currently lack, but must acquire in order to bring the project or endeavor to fruition—the energy wanes and you are left with the sobering reality that you don’t have a clue what you’re doing. It takes courage to continue when we inevitably falter along the path.
I began four new and intimidating projects all in the same week this fall. What fanfare! Bands played, banners waved, and confetti rained down on me as I sprinted toward my figurative playing fields. But that only lasted a few weeks. Because what I did was begin a new historical fiction novel (something I said I would never do because "I don’t know how to write historical fiction”); took on a sewing project for which I have no skills, no pattern and no training; started alto saxophone lessons which has included trying out various reeds and mouthpieces, none of which sound like music but rather just ear-piercing noise and squeaks; and signed up for a Ladies’ Tap dance class when I’ve never danced a jig in my life. The “good for you!” enthusiasm from family, friends and other spectators only carries you so far. At some point you realize, “I really stink.” And the next thought might be, “Maybe this was a bad idea.” Followed quickly by, “Maybe I should quit.”
Energy ebbs and flows. And now that it has ebbed big time, I’ve pondered the following questions: How can we sustain projects when we’re fearful of the next steps and doubt our ability to finish? How do we stare down our fear and intimidation and increase our odds of sticking with a project when the going gets tough?
Here are a few suggestions I’ve put into play.
1. Pull the fear into positive action. I’ve become an expert at recognizing my fear. It makes daily appearances in the form of procrastination, edginess or looking for a quick fix elsewhere such as social media, online shopping, chocolate or whatever else will take away what I’m feeling. One of the quickest ways for me to wrestle it to the ground is to set my timer. For 8, 10, 15 or 20 minutes or whatever, I say, “Don’t think. Just do.” I race toward one unsavory task that I’ve been kicking forward with the clock ticking.
2. Care for yourself.
Wait. What did I just say? Yep, that’s right. Take proper care of yourself physically and mentally. You can’t continue a project if you run yourself into the ground with negative self-talk, or by skipping balanced meals, proper hydration, sleep and exercise. Because this is the first thing out the window for me, I have to track it daily in writing. If I stop tracking, I stop doing. “Have you been walking, Francine?” is the first thing my 24 Carrot family asks me when I’m in a mental and physical slump. It’s rhetorical, of course, because we all know the answer.
3. Seek out support from trusted sources.
A shoulder to cry on is essential. Those cheerleaders in life must be sought out and embraced when you are tackling something new. Likewise, don’t trust a naysayer with what little energy you have left on a project. Pause before confiding. Will this person be helpful or just convince you to quit?
4. Sometimes it’s okay to quit.
What?! Yes, it is okay as long as you quit for the right reasons. Sometimes this means quitting entirely, like I did with the afore-mentioned sewing project. After spending nearly 8 hours on it one day, I wasn’t even close to being done. It was going to be expensive from a financial standpoint, and even more importantly, it was going to be costly from a time standpoint. I decided I would rather write than sew. So I called my favorite seamstress and let her take over. Someday she’ll read my book, and someday I’ll happily sit on her cushions. It’s a win-win for both of us because we’re both doing what we love. Other times we only “sorta” quit. Like I did with a novel a few years back. I loved my characters but after three drafts, I hated the actual story. I knew the project didn’t hold enough joy for me to spend another year or more revising and rewriting until it was polished. So I lassoed those characters and superimposed them into a new plot! Problem solved. I kept what I loved and abandoned the rest.
I’m by no means out of the woods with my three remaining projects. Days when my fear is front and center are exceptionally hard. That’s when I try my best to focus on the basics—respect myself mentally and physically, reach out to friends, and set the timer and force myself to complete something. Anything.
Whatever new project you’re venturing into, take your fear with you but be sure to keep it on a short leash. Throw a few of these tools in your hip pocket and keep going!
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