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.
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