Thursday, August 11, 2011

Farewell & Thank You from TEAM BLOG

TEAM BLOG supporting its captain

On behalf of SCBWI TEAM BLOG (Martha Brockenbrough, Lee Wind, Jaime Temairik, Suzanne Young, Jolie Stekly, and yours truly), thanks to everyone who visited to read our conference coverage. (I encourage you to continue to peruse the blog--there's tons of great info here!)

Thanks also to all the conference-goers who stopped by our table to chat and stopped us in the halls--we appreciate all the great feedback. And we truly appreciate the opportunity to bring the extraordinary 40th Annual SCBWI Summer Conference to you.

We'll see you in New York for the Annual Winter Conference January 27-29, 2012! (Check for details closer to the event).

Go TEAM!! (l to r: Jolie, Lee, Martha, Jaime, Alice, Suzanne)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

My Experience at Arthur Levine's Monday Intensive: Chapter One: The Great First Date of Your Novel

Arthur Levine, out-of-this-world editor and award-winning author, took twenty-seven authors out on a most-amazing first date. For Arthur this date was blind, not knowing who he'd meet until our first chapters hit his inbox. For us, we knew we were getting ready to meet the hottest guy around. I'm sure it's safe to say there was a whole lot of first-date jitters as we gathered and made eye contact with Arthur in the Pacific Room.

Thankfully, as soon as Arthur smiled and made us laugh, we all relaxed into the experience. And what an experience it was.

Arthur shared, with his many dates, ways in which a first chapter is like a first date. It really all boiled down to the question: Does your first chapter lead with, "This is what you're going to love about this me [this book]"?

Then things got personal. Very personal.

It was amazing to watch Arthur at work, as we all shared our beginning pages. The way he pinpointed what was working and what was not was a treat to listen to and learn from. We were then all asked to state what was our "best foot forward." Did we lead with it? Or something else? Did we begin in the right spot? Should it have been earlier or later? And Arthur gave us his own take on each and every beginning.

As the date came to a close, I know none of us wanted it to end. The sign of a most successful date. It went so well, I'm really quite sure it ended with a hypothetical kiss.

MWAH, Arthur! You certainly led with what we love about you, and you delivered to the very end.

Monday, August 8, 2011

My Experience at the Monday Intensive for Illustrators

L-R Kadir, hidden David, Paul, Richard, Marla and Jerry. Denise was looking for her acorn. The black and blue goody bags are not full of booze, I asked.
It's not hyperbole, Monday was the best day of my illustrating life. I didn't spend four years, or even one, in a traditional art school, so I don't know if this is standard procedure, but Monday was unlike anything I've every experienced.

The seven artists tapped to do this first-ever live demo format, I am beyond thankful they so freely shared their talents and thoughts with us. I am bowing down to our SCBWI Illustrator Committee and SCBWI headquarters for making this happen. Compared to other conferences and conventions, SCBWI internationals are cheap. And I happily admit I'd pay a bazillion more dollars to see another live demo day. Don't hesitate to fork over big bills to attend the next live-demo illustrator intensive. And if any of these people are teaching a class near you, be sure you sign up.

Other attendees are going to blog the crap out of today, I'm sure, but I can't do it justice. My brief notes are below:

Each artist answered technical and philosophical questions while they worked for about an hour on an art piece.

Paul showed us how he does a monochromatic/grisaille underpainting in watercolor before adding oil glazes on top.

Marla showed us how she gets her amazing dark lines, she also started one of her fifty color washes, and talked to us about problem solving in final art.

Richard made a mess. But then he made a beautiful painting out of it full of energy and color and a bit of egg tempera.

Kadir did a portrait of Dan Santat while we got up in his business. Lots of talk about the importance of making personal art and loving life.

Denise forgot her acorn. This is not a euphemism. She painted with paper pulp and did a teensy bit of swearing, but we were all completely mesmerized by her process and loved her and her final piece.

David sketched art director/Penguin Putnam VP Cecilia Yung before doing a sketch of himself and showing us how he retains life in his lines when moving from the exuberant pencil sketch to the finished ink drawing.

And Jerry sketched and painted me! No. It was a wild bird. Wait, that could still be me... Anyway.

He showed us how he uses photo reference to make his amazing animals and we watched his light watercolors build up to brilliant gorgeousness.
Jerry's painting in progress. I thought it was me he was painting— that bird and I use the same eyeshadow.
 The day ended with a brief group Q&A. It was a bonhomie love fest.

One way we can say thank you to the seven artists who gave so much to us is to go out and buy a buttload of their books.


My Experience at the Ellen Hopkins Writers Intensive: Writing Novels In Verse

Every one of Ellen Hopkins' seven young adult novels in verse have hit the New York Times Bestseller lists, and there's a reason - they're powerful, compelling, and masterful. Every word seems perfectly chosen. Every poem is laid out on the page in a way that draws you in and then beyond the words. Every character is bared through their mind's lens.

And you can't stop reading because you have to know what happens next.

I didn't enter Ellen's intensive thinking 'I want to write a novel in verse,' but Ellen achieves intensely powerful emotions and her stories grab you and don't let go - and she does it with such economy and artistry. I had to see what I could learn, and then apply, to my own writing.

With worksheets and examples from her own work, she guided us through exercises that pulled out of us things about our characters that we'd never before considered. A few attendees read their poems out loud after the writing, and the level of accomplishment across the room was inspiring.

For one of the exercises, I re-worked the opening scene of my current MG work in progress, taking it from prose to verse. It was magical. Excess detail and repetition fell away, and character motivations leapt forward. The scene had so much more emotion and impact this way.

I raised my hand to share. As I read, the words felt so right. Spare, and still funny. Filled with emotion and conflict. So much more what I was hoping for. I was heartened by the laughter (in all the right places) and the kind encouragement from Ellen and my fellow workshop participants.

Now, I'm inspired to dive into my rewrite with this new way of telling my characters' story. Will it become a novel in verse? I'm not sure, but I do know that for me, this workshop was a huge creative breakthrough.

Thank you, Ellen. And thanks SCBWI for giving me - and the rest of the class - this incredible opportunity!

First Time Conference Attendee Renisha Ricks

At the end of the Monday of intensives, I caught up with first time conference attendee Renisha Ricks to ask her about her experience...

Writing intensive: Lisa Yee on bullies and antagonists

Lisa Yee, the hilarious and wonderful author of 10 novels for kids and young adults, made me cry during her session on bullies and antagonists.

But it wasn't on purpose.

She was just talking about the story she wrote for the DEAR BULLY anthology due out next month.

Her entry perfectly illustrated the importance of creating dimensional bullies: characters who have wants and needs, and who have reasons for harming those around them--getting as specific as identifying the day our antagonist was hurt badly enough to want to hurt others.

So, yes. Tears. But also lots of laughs as she walked us through the paces.

Lisa Yee
We started off with a rather thrilling promise: "We're going to tap into your evil side," she said.

And then we identified our favorite literary villains. Lord Voldemort, we love to hate you. The British press, meanwhile, really loves to hate Satan. They identified him--and not Camilla Parker Bowles (kidding! she's real!)--as literature's foulest villain. Which, when you think about it, seems kind of stereotypey.

We moved on to some key definitions:

A bully is a person who uses strength or power to harm or intimidate those who are weaker.

"Bully" started out as a good thing, she mentioned. Over the years, the definition morphed and it changed.

A villain is a person guilty of capable of crime or wickedness.

That word, she said, is French. A villain worked in the fields in a time when everyone wanted to be a knight. When bad things happened, they blamed the farm people. “A villain did that.” Mon dieu!

An antagonist, who could be a bully or a bad guy, is a person who actively opposes or is hostile to someone or something.

"Your antagonist in your story is going to be working against your protagonist," she said.

She shared with us seven story archetypes we writers use, from "man vs. himself" to "man vs. society," and we came up with examples of stories that fit each archetype.

Then she walked us through a couple of writing exercises: one in which we outlined a variety of characteristics we'd need to know about our antagonists (everything from their age, outward appearance, self-perception, wants and needs, as long as one word that best described them). We used that as the basis for a revealing paragraph about our antagonist.

My favorite part, and not just because I played a teen thief, was doing a Q&A with participants to figure out the characters' backstory and motivations. We then wrote a murder scene from three points of view--a third person, and first person from both the teen thief and her rich-lady murder victim. The effect was stunning. By having well developed characters with clear motivations, we ended up with richer writing that was more nuanced and compelling.

Lisa Yee
Follow Lisa on Twitter

Peepy looks scared because some participants did not survive Lisa's class.

Michelle Parker-Rock is the 2011 SCBWI Member of the Year!

Regional Advisor for Arizona, Michelle Parker-Rock is the author of over a dozen books (including her most recent series, Authors Kids Love), a contributing writer to the SCBWI Bulletin, a tireless advocate and powerhouse volunteer!

Here we talk about her being honored as SCBWI Member of the Year:

Diane Muldrow: pacing the picture book

Diane Muldrow
Diane Muldrow is the editorial director at  Golden Books/Random House, editor of Little Golden Books, a sweet, classic line for preschoolers, and the author of the smart and elegant WE PLANTED A TREE (as well as many books about Barbie, Bambi, Pinocchio and other favorite characters).

She started off our intensive session on picture book pacing by sharing a little of her background, including the fact that she was once a professional dancer who performed au naturel on a famous New York stage.

“Anything is a cakewalk after you’ve performed naked,” she said.

Anything, perhaps, but picture-book pacing. During the three-hour master class, she shared a terrific list of tools we can use to make sure our manuscripts unfold in the right way on the page.

Pacing is a central challenge of picture books.

"You have to fit information and good storytelling and beautiful pictures into a very specific format."

Trade picture books are usually 32 pages, while Little Golden Books are 24, for example.

She encouraged us to take a trip to the bookstore or library and really study the formats, taking ownership over what we're writing.

“This is your lump of clay when you’re working on it. It belongs to you because it’s your idea. What I want to see more of … is when writer hopefuls don’t take enough ownership of their idea, let alone their manuscript," she said.

Once you've figured out your format, think in pictures, and don't be shy about including art notes that are essential to conveying your vision. (Non-essential ones are coincidental details, such as the color of a character's shoes when that is not of thematic significance.)

The best picture books come from thinking visually, she said--something most writers don't really do.

In addition, keep the page turns at the top of mind. “In a picture book, it’s all about the turning of the page,” she said. That's what gives a story its building sense of suspense, and what keeps the child on the lap--the one we're writing for--engaged.

As you work, consider using these tools:
  • Start your story with an opening spread (putting all the title information on that right-hand page).
  • Consider paging the story out as you go. Tip: The illustration should be of whatever is the first line of text on the new page.
  • Have images in mind and write to them. No talking heads. If you can't see the art, that's maybe a cue there's not enough happening visually in your idea.
  • Write in a way that reaches a very young ear.
  • If you get stuck as you're writing, figure out your last line? You want one with impact: beauty, humor, or some other thing.
She handed out the text for a Golden Books story called THE MERRY SHIPWRECK and gave us 45 minutes to paginate it and make thumbnails using a 24-page dummy. The task was hard enough that I had to give myself a little break for blogging, lest my eyeballs melt down my cheeks.

But it was challenging as the exercise was, it's a revolutionary way for writers to take their work to the next level. If you have a chance to take a master class with Diane, do. She's a master of the format and a compelling teacher as well.

My Experience at the Bruce Coville Writing Intensive: Making Room For Magic! The Art Of Writing Fantasy

Bruce Coville is a remarkable storyteller and author, and when you read his books, like "Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher," and "My Teacher Is An Alien," and any of the other fantasies among his nearly 100 published titles, you can see his mastery of the Art of Writing Fantasy.

Bruce shared from his heart and expertise, giving us some amazing tips and advice and techniques that I can't wait to try. He answered our many questions in depth, and even did a number of first page critiques of the attendees' fantasy projects.

For me, listening to Bruce read my first page and a half out loud was remarkable. See, Bruce doesn't just read, he weaves a magic spell.

When they're his words, it's as if he's chanting them.

Enchanting his listeners and readers.

Re-enchanting our world.

And for the first time, listening to Bruce read my story opening aloud, I could hear how my words fell so far short of what I had hoped they would achieve.

And when I asked for more insight about when to start a fantasy story, what Bruce shared really resonated:

You don't have to start with the fantasy, but you might want to start with the character's problem in this world.

And it was an epiphany for me.

I may not know exactly HOW to solve the puzzle of my opening pages, but now I understand the problem with the starting point I had chosen.

Everyone finished Bruce's session energized and inspired. And as for me, I'm all fired up to do some of the brainstorming exercises he suggested to figure out how I'm going to meet the challenge, and start my story in the right place!

I'm so grateful to Bruce, and to SCBWI, for this amazing opportunity to really sink my teeth into craft and learn from a master.

Because I'm going to keep working at it until my words chant. Enchant. And re-enchant my readers, and our world.

SCBWI Poolside Pajama Party Pix

We sneaked out of the morning Intensives to post a few photos from the Saturday night 40 Winks Poolside Pajama Party. If you were captured on film in your PJs, feel free to post a comment about your costume!

Pajama pants were at de rigueur at the event
There were lots a sheep to count, but no one got sleepy
A princess and a pea!
Jon Scieszka with three books come-to-life
Mom, I've got my headgear on!
Nathan Hatch, Aaron Hartzler (ready for bed), and Arthur Levine
Someone get this lady another cocktail. Wait, that's no lady!
Colorful jammies keep party goers awake
These ladies are monkeying around
Rita Crayon Huang's PJs have won numerous Newberys
SCBWI's Chelsea Mooser and Steve Mooser with Sally Crock
Jim Averbeck, his pecs, and Linda Sue Park
Conference-goers dances late into the night before getting their 40 winks!

Book Signing at Once Upon a Time Bookstore

Yesterday a few SCBWI members got together for a book signing at Once Upon a Time bookstore in Montrose for a YA Rising Stars event. Other SCBWI attendees made the trip out, and it was all a blur of books, laughs and cake pops! It's great to take the opportunity to visit local independent booksellers when you travel for other events.

Note that Nova Ren Suma is on the conference faculty and Suzanne Young is a member of TEAM BLOG.

Nova Ren Suma, author of IMAGINARY GIRLS (Dutton)
Suzanne Young, author of A NEED SO BEAUTIFUL (Balzer & Bray)
Cindy Pon, author of FURY OF THE PHOENIX (Greenwillow)
Holly Goldberg, author of I'LL BE THERE (Little, Brown)

The author with an bookstore staffer
A bouquet of cake pops decorated the YA author event

Tina Wexler: Hook, Line, and Sinker!

On a day of intensives, I got a chance to stop by and listen to agent Tina Wexler. Tina is a literary agent at ICM, representing authors in both the children's and adult marketplace. Her intensive was: Hook, Line, and Sinker! How To Catch An Agent With A Perfect Query Letter.

Tina started by explaining some basics of the query letter, including how she personally reads them. She prefers her queries to be in email format, and not business letter format. She also likes to hear the reasons an author thinks she'd be a good fit for their manuscript.

Your query should only be a shadow compared to the brilliance that is the manuscript. And once you've figured out the mechanics and structure of your letter, go back through and work on word choice--interjecting authentic voice when you can.

Tina made a great point about trying something different with your query when you can. It doesn't have to always start with your character. It could be the bigger theme. Play around and see what you come up with.

Attendees were then broken up into groups where their queries were critiqued by both Tina and other writers. Very informative with great energy!

Writers Intensive Panel: Making the Most of the Critique Experience

l to r: Aaron Hartler, Allyn Johnston, Alessandra Balzer, Jennifer Hunt

SCBWI's Aaron Hartzler moderates a panel of editors offering advice on critiques to a room full of writers awaiting them. Allyn Johnston (Beach Lane), Alessandra Balzer (Balzer & Bray), Jennifer Hunt (Dial) are the panelists.

Aaron asks about the anxiety that can come from critique situations.

Alessandra stresses that editors are on your side. Jennifer says that there is not a writer in the world who couldn't use some critique. Allyn confesses that editors are nervous too--it's pressure for them to have to deliver something helpful to writers on the spot.

Voice, characterization, dialog, pacing are the types of things that you'd see in an editorial letter and those are areas writers should be considering, Jennifer says. Those are the kinds of things that she listens for. With a short critique, she focuses on voice and characterization.

Alessandra stresses that, in group critiques, you listen to others, pick out the positive elements, and balance out the positive and negative when offering feedback. When you're taking feedback, again, listen and be open to the comments--they might not all be relative but they're all worth considering.

Jennifer says that is you're the person getting a critique, you shouldn't spend your time talking when you could spend your time listening. She also recommends after a critique meeting or group session, you think about your suggestions for a week before making changes so you have sufficient time to soak them in and consider them. She says that editors are your allies, and it's better to hear about something that doesn't work from an editor than later, down the line, in a revieiw. Editors are like the good friends who tell you, you have a beautiful smile, but there's some spinach in your teeth.

First Time Conference Attendee Liliana Erasmus

Liliana Erasmus is a member of SCBWI from Aruba (Dutch Caribbean) and was a first time attendee at the 40th Anniversary SCBWI Summer Conference. I caught up with her after the three day conference before we both attended the Bruce Coville intensive (more on that in another post.)

Here's what Liliana had to say about her experience:

Sunday, August 7, 2011

First Time Conference Attendees Chris Riley and Sean Son

Just before Sunday's booksigning party, Chris Riley (from New York) and Sean Son (from Korea) tell us about their experience attending SCBWI's 40th Annual Summer Conference!

Laurie Halse Anderson: Daring the Universe

Laurie Halse Anderson

Awesome author Laurie Halse Anderson closes the non-Intensives portion of the conference with a keynote address.

I would not be a published writer if it was not for SCBWI, Laurie says. Lin and Steve has created a sanctuary for writers with SCBWI.

Her first bit of advice: You should all move to central New York. Land is cheap and the weather is crappy--there's nothing to do but create. (Note: her website is

Giving scary speeches is very much like writing books, she says: The only way out is through.

Laurie quotes a questions from T.S. Elliot's  Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

Do I dare disturb the universe?

Art disturbs the universe she says and artists dare to create.

She feel like American culture exists to make rich richer and rob the rest of joy and dignity. People feel tired and defeated; melancholy.

In her 30s, she had done everything she had been told to do. She went to college. She got married. She has babies. She had taxes. She didn't run with scissors. And she was sick and depressed and miserable (much like Judy Blume). At that point, the seed of her art was spinning in her sole. The straighforward pathway had been lost for her. She knew she had to change something.

She started to write, she says, badly. Things like a 7000-word picture book about the tooth fairy with nothing original in it. And it made her feel better. And she found friend at SCBWI where she learned:

The study of craft

The art of revision

Laurie quotes Bruce Coville: If you don't jump, the wings never come. For her, the wings were there. She found light and love. And, she says, she also worked her ass off because a creative life demands dedication and discipline.

Writing, she says, forces you to be alive, and being alive can really hurt. Writing stirs up demons, memories and dust.

Laurie says we sometimes seduce ourselves into thinking that writing-related activities are writing. It's easier to blog about writing than to actually...write. It's hard to write because writing disturbs the universe.

Your chances of predicting the next trend is slim to none. But your chances of writing a story that someone wants to read and publish are very very good. You have little control over the publishing world; you have all the control over yourself.

Lauris says your muse is you--it deserves love and tender care. Know that a very good portion of what we do is magic. Hold onto that magic and remember to have fun (and that discipline can be fun). And remember, writing is not about the destination or even about the publication. It's about walking the path. She urges the crowd to go forth laughing and disturb the universe.

Emma Dryden and Harold Underdown's PAL workshop: Social Media for Authors & Illustrators

Harold Underdown is the man behind The Purple Crayon website, one of the first online resources in children's literature. He posts great links and articles about things going on in this industry and also tweets.

Emma Dryden has a website describing her Drydenbks business, and is very active on twitter and facebook and she's even moving into google+ as well.

They are sharing a virtual handout with amazing resources to check out and a paper handout that reviews a large number of the social networks for readers that are out there.

The first thing they suggest to do is to get a website.

Think about your website as a living document - a forum for you as you grow, with new artwork, new sketches, but not everything - you want to give a sampling, a showcase of your writing, your illustration, your interests, your links, song lists, book titles. (But don't give away the store.)

Some great pieces of advice:

Think about who your audience is going to be. The audience for picture books are not going online. But if you write picture books, you could have resources for parents and teachers.

Don't put your unpublished manuscript on your website, but once it's published, put up a few chapters - people love to preview.

Do not post photos of your children: be careful of the presence that you have online - it's totally public. Keep your boundaries in mind from the very beginning.

Own your own domain name (and don't let it lapse.)

They're explaining and discussing the pros and pitfalls of facebook, twitter, and twitterchats, myspace, LinkedIn, and Google+, sharing strategies for how to manage the flow of information.

You can also have a blog as your website. Emma mentions the article Alice Pope wrote about starting a blog in the recent SCBWI Bulletin, and recommends it. You can also use your blog as your website. One way to take the pressure off is to be part of a group blog - a Glog - (like INK)

Some authors doing social media RIGHT that Emma and Harold suggest you look to as inspirations:

Ellen Hopkins

Laurie Halse Anderson

And another example of an author doing an excellent job with twitter is Maureen Johnson

There are even publishers and authors who are tweeting AS characters!

Of course, you can't do everything. (Emma likes twitterchats, Harold doesn't...)
"Social Media is not something you HAVE to do, but maybe you can find one part of it that does work for you." - Harold Underdown

And the attendees of this session are now armed with loads of practical information to help them figure that out!

Abigail McAden: Creating Popular Fiction

Abigail McAden is the Paperback Publishing Director of Scholastic and Editorial Director of Point.

One of the best ways to hone your genre talent is to read, read, read.

Read deeply into the genre you’re drawn to.

This will give you the knowledge of the rules. Then you can bend them, subvert them, etc.

You can really do anything as long as your reader believes you.

Question: How do the badly written books end up on the shelf?

-Some are bought on proposal and the book doesn't deliver.

-Some times a book is bought because it fills a need.

-Sometimes it's means taking a look at why the book is doing well (not necessarily for the great writing).

-Readers also have very different tastes.

Sometimes you run out of time.

It can be really disappointing if a book isn't what you're expecting.

On submissions: A lot of people have a fabulous set up but then the rest of the manuscript doesn't deliver.

Steve Malk - Making the Most of Your Illustration Career: How to Break In, Stay In, and Thrive

Steve looking for a transom he can shimmy through
Originally, I was THRILLED to attend Writers House agent Steve Malk's session because I thought it was about how illustrators should consider moonlighting as cat burglars. So I sat through the whole dang workshop waiting for ANY REFERENCE to jimmying locks or muffling your getaway car's muffler. Nothing helpful about breaking in AT ALL. It's really not worth posting what he said, but I'm contractually obligated to do so:

Steve: People say picture books are down, but I've signed three new illustrators since this time last year. There are no shortcuts in this field, you have to go the extra mile. You just have to work harder, the jobs are out there.

Steve's slideshow contained not diagrams of safes and how to crack them, but quotes from his clients:

Push yourself to the edge in terms of working hard and creating the best images you can. Don't let anyone else outwork you." -- AG FORD

Cover of AG's latest book

You can't be a dabbler, you have to be 100% committed. Certainly, work in the other parts of the arts, Steve even encourages that, but committing fully to your children's book illustration career is going to make your success much easier going.

Well, this next quote could actually apply to thieves. Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours rule:
The people at the very top don't just work harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.

Steve hands out a list of his top 25 books you should know to be the best illustrator you can be as well as six great online resources for illustrators. I'm picking my top five books from that list:

There's a lot of subjectivity involved in how your work is received. But as a general rule: Your portfolio needs to be specific to children's books. Take the weeks, months, or years needed to make your portfolio specialized. There should be a logic to the way your pieces are sequenced.

From Stephanie Graegin's mini promo booklet
Steve shows us an incredible promotional piece made by Stephanie Graegin. The ultimate in a well sequenced portfolio. Steve said out of the 250 editors and art directors and designers she sent her mini-booklet to, nearly all of them commented on how clever and pretty it was, and it started a work buzz for her that's resulted in a number of books under contract.

The two things Steve says you can control in this business are:
  • How people experience your portfolio
  • Being a pleasure to work with

From Christian Robinson's Writers House portfolio

Another new client, Christian Robinson, demonstrated to me, personally, that he'd be a pleasure to work with. I got to meet him this weekend and he totally laughed at all my bad jokes. And they were total stinkers.

From Marla's book THE BOSS BABY (who Steve modeled for!)
Check your ego at the door. Success doesn't come to us quite as quickly as we hope. Everything is an opportunity. We make our own luck.

"Don't make anyone's job harder than it already is." -- MARLA FRAZEE

And Marla's quote could apply to heists! So at least I can end on a useful note.

Bruce Coville: at the intersection of plot and character

Bruce Coville
Bruce Coville, author of too many books to count, launched our conference with a speech about the ripple effect our writing can have in the lives of children. He helped wrap it up with a talk about plot and character, two elements that work together to create a story.

"You need to discuss them both interweaving with each other," he said.

There is a literary divide between plot writing and character writing, and Bruce has a theory of male and female storytelling energy. Male energy is about action, adventure, incident. "You blow stuff up and boys love it."  Female storytelling energy is about character, relationship and beauty of language. "Many girls will sit still for a story with that kind of energy."

The best stories partake equally of both male and female energy, he said, "in that sweet spot in the center where you have incredible characters engaged in fascinating situations."

Some useful nuggets: 
  • Plot imposes discipline on the disorder of life.
  • A perfect ending is both a surprise and inevitable.
  • Fiction is held to a much higher standard of believability than life is. 
  • On coincidence: it can start a story, but not end one.
What is a good story? 
Bruce loves to find three things in a story when he's reading: the Ha, Waah, Yikes! formula. Ha is a belly laugh. Waah is a tear. Yikes! is a gasp of surprise.

"It's hard to get somebody to gasp when they're reading a story, but it can happen," Bruce said.

The ha: Bruce loves jokes, but this isn't a belly laugh in a story. It's one that grows out of the story itself. When a bully gets his comeuppance, for example.

The waah: It's easy to get the tear. You just kill the dog. If you wake up one morning and you're a dog on the pages of a children's book, run for your life. Your pages are numbered.

What he prefers are the tears or joy of relief, because of what happened that was so true.

There's a third kind of tear that you can't plan for, but can happen: the tears of personal connection. They will ring true for the right person, who needs to hear that thing at that time. "The right story for the right person is like an arrow to the heart."

The yikes!: When the world of the story changes on us and we see the story in a new light. 

Some story and writing fundamentals
"The recipe for story is very simple: Take somebody you like and get them into trouble. The better the character, the worse the trouble, the better the story," Bruce said.

Another rule: The character has to solve the problem. Usually they're making a tough choice.

"Writing is, in many ways, the art of choosing details" Bruce said. "By choosing the right details, you can crank up the emotional drama and make the story more compelling... By asking questions and inventing scenes that answer them, you end up with a story."

For your major scenes, try to engage three of the five senses. Don't do it for all your scenes; that's too much.

* * * * *

Q. How do you write a story for the New Yorker? 
A. It's easy. Just write your story and throw away the last page. Then you have a New Yorker story.

* * * * *

On characters: Make your character face a tough choice: a moral decision, Bruce said. All of the elements in a story should lead to choice, which is the primary character revealer in a story. Generally, people will take the most conservative action that gets them what they want.

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