~ by Amanda Smith
Encore is a yearly event where some speakers from the NESCBWI Spring conference are invited to present their workshops. Two Encore events are offered to provide opportunity for more writers to learn from these excellent teachers. This year’s Encore II was held at Devens on Saturday, October 21. Because of the nature of Encore, the event is not themed, yet, somehow, every year, in the subtext of what the presenters are saying, a theme emerges. This year the common thread was PLAY.
Dana Meachan Rau, author of over 300 books, including Robot, Go Bot! and books in the Who Was? series, presented a workshop about injecting emotion in characters to encourage empathy from readers. She led us through writing exercises where we played around with writing a character’s emotion through a setting or an object. When we play to explore emotions, we connect deeper with our character’s emotion. “First we feel, then they [the readers] feel,” she said.
Molly Burnham, author of the Teddy Mars series and 2016 Sid Fleishman Humor Award winner, talked to us about humor and writing funny. She implored us to play for a minute, to horse around with ideas, to do seemingly silly three-minute writing exercises, like matching different animals with human actions, and finding the funny in it. Sometimes we get so bogged down in the work of it all. The deadlines, the goals, the next chapter. Playing is freeing for the exact reason that it is not a work in progress. And yet, playing accesses a different part of our brains, which sometimes leads to breakthroughs in our current work. She said, “It’s great just to play, we are artists after all.”
Under the direction of sticky-note queen and author AC Gaughen (Scarlet, Lady Thief, and Lion Heart) we played around with character traits. We scribbled pieces of identity on sticky notes. She then urged us to discarding the go-to traits, the comfort zone, and go with the unexpected, which leads to the development of more interesting characters. AC also had us play around with our character’s central traits. Through play we discovered how changing what is central to our character changes the conflict.
Chris Tebbetts, whose books include the Middle School series and Public School Superhero with James Patterson, as well as the Stranded series with Jeff Probst, presented on Improv and Play. He reminded us that “purpose should not be more important than play” and encouraged us to sometimes throw out the rules and just write. Write without thinking, don’t get logical, and see where it leads. “Improv helps limber up one’s creativity.” He also challenged us to sometimes “play with a limited set of tools.” Setting our own rules and staying within those rules help us think outside the box. Play off-screen, with visual techniques such as story-boarding and maps.
Erin Dionne (Models Don’t Eat Chocolate Cookies, Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking, Ollie and Science of Treasure Hunting and more) rounded the day off with quirky revision techniques. Revision lends itself to play, as not one technique works for every project. The revising writer needs to play around with a variety of hands-on techniques including story-boarding, spiderwebs, grids, calendars and maps, until they find what works for that particular project. “Problem solving is an act of creativity,” she said.
The presenters reminded us that every activity connected to our characters and story is considered work. So even when you are playing, you are still working. Playing is just more fun! We are writing for children after all.
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