NESCBWI 2021 Part II: virtual goes live

Cherished moments from the weekend!

<A continuation of Part I: pre-conference planning>

It’s Friday afternoon, April 30th, and the countdown begins. Last minute frantic text messages and emails fly: “I can’t access the Zoom account!”; “Where’s my password?”; “I never got a reply from the presenter!” We remind ourselves: take a deep breath, we’ve got this. The clock ticks closer, the minutes run out like sand in an hourglass. Seven pm EST arrives. We’re on. This is it. Showtime. A Virtual Voyage: Finding Joy in the Journey is live.

After introducing ourselves and the New England SCBWI regional team, the spring conference began on a high note with A Conversation with Two Legends: Jane Yolen and Nikki Grimes, moderated by Heidi E.Y. Stemple. (All of our main presentations and workshops were run as webinars, keeping chat open for attendee participation.) Nikki, Jane, and Heidi were amazing, and I loved all the comments in the chat, and getting to ‘see’ everyone’s reactions.

Among the many wonderful moments, a couple of favorites: Jane Yolen reminding us that “if you don’t write it, it’s not going to get written”, and that writing is about “hard work and joy”. And Nikki Grimes celebrating her love for poetry: “it’s my first language.”

The first night ended with our Open Screen event, hosted by Matt Forrest Esenwine, who usually hosts the open mic at our in-person conferences. Everyone got a chance to share their work, and the readings were delightful.

Saturday opened with a quick welcome from my co-director Casey Robinson and a moment with two of our Equity & Inclusion Committee members, Valerie Bolling and Lisa Stringfellow, who talked about the Committee’s work in New England and about open opportunities for participation. Then it was time to start our workshops which, thanks to our fantastic volunteers and impeccable management by Christy Yaros, ran pretty smoothly from start to finish. There were twenty-one workshops in total, held over four hours, too many to mention individually. Luckily, we decided to record all workshops, so attendees (and busy conference staff!) will be able to watch them later at leisure. I’m so glad we opted to do this, as I personally have many, MANY workshops I want to watch.

Throughout most of Saturday we kept our social Zoom open, and it was lovely to see so many attendees, faculty, and team drop in for a chat. Between 2:00-3:30 pm we held scheduled socials by theme, and these were well attended.

Saturday afternoon brought the Crystal Kite awards! The SCBWI, besides its annual Golden Kite awards, organizes a regional peer-voted version. Due to the timing, which never quite lines up with our spring conference, New England presents its Kite award a year later. Of course, our 2020 conference got cancelled, so we had two awards to honor. It was an intensely emotional moment, watching acceptance speeches from the 2019 winner, Brian Lies, for The Rough Patch, and the 2020 winner, Padma Venkatraman, for The Bridge Home.

Awards presented and accepted, it was time for our first Keynote Speaker, author and illustrator Mike Curato. Mike’s speech was a nice mix of funny and serious and had us alternating between laughter and tears. At one point, when talking about remembering to find joy in your work, Mike said: “I was so busy telling other people’s stories, I wasn’t making time for my own.” He was, of course, referring to the moment he began working on what was to become his best-selling Little Elliot series.

We reopened the social Zoom after the keynote, so attendees could chat a bit to Mike and to each other and then, after a joyful but screen-heavy day, we all left to rest our eyes and brains and get ready for the last day of the conference.

Hanging out in the Social Zoom

Sunday morning brought a new programming item to the New England conference: the ask-a-mentor sessions. Ten faculty members offered their time for a moderated Q&A session, answering questions on topics ranging from writing and illustrating to the business of book publishing and the agent process. I hope this was useful to everyone; I certainly found the sessions I attended to be insightful and interesting!

Following the ask-a-mentor sessions, our last Keynote Speaker was Padma Venkatraman. Padma is, like Mike Curato, a long-time SCBWI member. She’s also an active local member, and everyone who attends New England events — both virtual and pre-COVID — knows her cheerful smile and uplifting presence. Padma’s passionate keynote talk was the perfect ending to our virtual voyage, as she urged us to pour our hearts and selves into our creative work. “We are creators because we create. Don’t get too focused on publication; focus on creating.”

Thank you to everyone who made #NESCBWI21 possible: our faculty, our volunteers, and our New England Regional Team. Thank you also to all the members and non-members who attended the virtual events and left lovely messages for us in the Zoom chat boxes and online. We do this for you, because we are all part of one big kid lit community. Because we love writing, illustrating, creating. Because you make it worthwhile. See you online, and who knows, maybe even in person in 2022!

Virtual conference kit

NESCBWI 2021 Part I: pre-conference planning

Working on last minute details!

Back in 2019, fresh from the excitement of the New England regional conference for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, I said YES to a very important commitment: to step in as co-director and help plan and run the spring conference for 2020 and 2021.

Little did we know back then that the world was about to be hit by the COVID pandemic, with all its devastating ramifications.

It takes time to plan an in-person conference with as many moving parts as ours — from workshops to critique sessions to sit-down meals for almost 700 attendees. By the time 2020 arrived, we had most of it done. Registration opened amid growing concerns about global health, but we shrugged off the whispers — we’d be fine, right? This wasn’t going to impact New England.

And then, in March, everything began to shut down. We all watched in horror as the death toll worldwide began to rise. This was big; so much bigger than our concerns over a weekend event. By April, it was clear that COVID was everywhere, and that the pandemic wasn’t going to end anytime soon. Even if state mandates hadn’t done the job for us, there was no way we would have put our members at risk. There was nothing we could do except cancel the conference. A few people mentioned moving online, but it was far too late by then to shift a huge event to a virtual platform. We honored the agent/editor critiques that had been booked by holding an online critique day but postponed the rest of the planned activities.

After a hasty phone meeting, my co-director Casey and I agreed to stay on an extra year. To run the 2020 conference in 2021. Because back then, we still thought COVID would be solved by the end of the year, maybe even by summer.

We all know what happened to the rest of 2020. Infection rates dipped, then rose. New strains emerged; studies and data brought terrible insight on the aftereffects of coronavirus. Death numbers worldwide kept climbing. The race for a vaccine was on, and masking up became a permanent and no longer temporary measure. By October, it was clear that there was no way we could plan an in-person event for 2021, due to the amount of time it takes and the uncertainties ahead. We made the call and emailed our membership and our faculty: 2021 was going virtual.

So, how to plan an online conference? How to turn our Virtual Voyage: Finding Joy in the Journey into a spark of light at a dark and difficult time?

First of all, we polled the faculty of our canceled 2020 event to find out who was interested in doing a virtual version of their workshop. We had already decided we would do a streamlined event — there was no way we could attempt the almost 70 workshops we usually do at the in-person conference. There would be no critique sessions; the New England SCBWI already holds 4 virtual agent/editor critique days throughout the year, so there was no reason to add to this. And we would have to cut a lot of the side events that have become tradition, like illustrator challenges and the pitch practice party. We knew what we DID want: to provide a weekend of craft and inspiration, something that would help boost creativity during a time when a lot of writers and illustrators are finding it hard to produce work.

We were delighted to hear back from 21 of our faculty, who came up with alternate versions of their workshops for us. We decided to add ask-a-mentor sessions in place of the agent/editor critiques, and we tossed in an Open Screen to substitute our traditional Open Mic night. We kept the two planned keynote sessions with Padma Venkatraman and Mike Curato, but changed the Friday night opening event to a Conversations with Two Legends, with Jane Yolen and Nikki Grimes, to be moderated by Heidi Stemple. And we came up with the idea of keeping a dedicated Zoom meeting open throughout to double as reception desk for issues and a social space, with themed breakout rooms for drop-in mingling.

By the time mid-April 2021 rolled around, we were set. We had our platforms prepared, thanks to Assistant Regional Advisor and tech goddess Christy Yaros. We had our programming in order, thanks to my co-director Casey Robinson. We had our Zoom hosting and moderating volunteers lined up and waiting (that one was my job!). And we had our Regional Advisor Kristine Asselin to do all the number crunching and behind-the-scenes bureaucratic wizardry. We were ready to make Finding Joy in the Journey a virtual reality.

<See also Part II: virtual goes live>

NYC SCBWI and Boskone 57 Schedule

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Con bags at the ready…

It’s February tomorrow, and February brings ALL THE CONS. Or, well, two at least.

I’ll be in NYC next weekend for the SCBWI Winter Conference, which runs from February 7-9. I’m not part of any official programming, but will be wearing my ‘NESCBWI Regional Conference Co-Director’ hat (not literally. I own no fancy conference hats, alas), so come and find me if you want to talk about all things books, writing, and kid lit, or just to hang out and have a cup of tea in the hotel lobby. Hit me up on Twitter! @jspinkmills

From February 14-16 I’ll be in Boston for my yearly pilgrimage to Boskone. I’ll be on three program items, which leaves me plenty of time to catch up with people and make new friends. Planning to go to Boskone for the first time? Already a regular but we haven’t met yet? Come and find me — let’s chat!

Besides hanging around the lobby bar or attending other people’s panels, here’s where you can find me at Boskone:

Blood-Curdling Science Fiction

15 Feb 2020, Saturday 11:00 – 11:50, Marina 2

Where does the thin (red) line between science fiction and horror lie? Why does science fiction horror fascinate us so much? What is it about horror in SF that is so absolutely terrifying? What examples do we have of science fiction that will make your blood run cold? And is it getting harder to make SF fiction that is truly scary?

Errick Nunnally (Moderator), Juliana Spink Mills, Julie C. Day, Nicholas Kaufmann, Darrell Schweitzer

Books That Get Kids Reading!

15 Feb 2020, Saturday 18:00 – 18:50, Harbor II

Hundreds of new children’s books are published every year. Yet recommended reading lists still include the same old children’s classics, with only a few new titles. Our panelists share some of their favorite new children’s books and authors from recent years that should be added to the lists.

Juliana Spink Mills (Moderator), Michael Stearns (Upstart Crow Literary), Julia Rios, Adi Rule, Trisha J. Wooldridge

Broad Universe Group Reading

15 Feb 2020, Saturday 20:00 – 21:20, Griffin

Join members of Broad Universe — a nonprofit association dedicated to supporting, encouraging, and promoting female authors of science fiction, fantasy, and horror — as they read tidbits of works and works in progress. Readers will include LJ Cohen, Marianna Martin, Roberta Rogow, Juliana Spink Mills, and Trisha J. Wooldridge. Moderated by Elaine Isaak.

NESCBWI 19 Conference Roundup

From my conference bag…

Two weeks ago, close to seven hundred writers and illustrators — attendees, faculty, and staff — gathered in Springfield MA for the yearly regional Spring Conference of the New England SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators).

I missed last year’s conference, exchanging it for the Eastern PA SCBWI region’s Poconos Retreat instead (see posts here and here). I had a wonderful time in Pennsylvania, but I must admit it was nice to be back in Springfield this year! I only attended two of the three days, but going to the NESCBWI conference always feels like coming home. There are so many friendly faces — both old friends and new ones — that time zips by, and I was sad to see Saturday come to a close and end another year’s get together with my New England kid lit family.

Friday night’s ‘Fireside Chat’ with Patricia MacLachlan and Heidi Stemple

A few of my personal highlights:

  • Patricia MacLachlan’s ‘Fireside Chat’ with Heidi Stemple was a delight. I’m actually new to reading Patricia’s work — I picked up my first of her books earlier this year, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Seeing Patricia speak helped understand a little of the writer behind the pages.
  • The branding workshop with my writing pal Jessica Southwick. Jess talked about treating our author and/or illustrator selves as brands when it comes to visual presence — website, business cards, social media etc. Her workshop included a practical feedback session where she looked at our material and gave us a handy list of pros and cons. I have so much website ‘homework’ to do now!
  • Lisa Yee’s revision intensive. Lisa is so much fun to be around, and her hands-on workshop was a really good glimpse of how revision techniques can be put into practice. She guided us through a series of short writing exercises that really helped understand how we can tighten and improve our work. Thanks Lisa!
  • Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s keynote talk was both inspiring and emotional, and had many of us in the audience wiping away a discreet tear or two. Lynda is amazing, and I’m looking forward to reading her brand new book, Shouting at the Rain.
  • The volunteer dinner! Volunteering at NESCBWI is a great tradition; volunteers help out with set up, registration, at workshops, in the book signing line, and in many other capacities. If you’re new to the conference, it’s a fun way to feel like you belong while you’re finding your feet. In exchange, the NESCBWI graciously invites all volunteers to a dinner on Saturday night — delicious tacos this time. It’s always a nice moment, held in a smaller and more intimate setting than the huge ballroom meals of Saturday and Sunday lunchtime.
  • People, people, people. Too many to list: some were friends from other events, some were local to me, some were online buddies I was finally meeting in person. And some were absolutely 100% new, and that’s just the way I like it: meeting amazing kid lit folks and expanding my circle of awesome. To all of you I connected with this year — thanks for making the conference one of my absolute favorite places to be!

Yesterday evening, a group of us who are local to the Hartford CT area met up to talk about all of our own highlights from Springfield and compare notes. I’m always happy to see that I’m not the only one who leaves the conference with a big smile and a fresh batch of inspiration. I hope the NESCBWI keeps up the good work for many more years to come. And for those who live in New England and write or illustrate for children and teens: see you next spring!

Post-conference catch-up at That Book Store in Wethersfield, CT

Resources For Writers

Our meeting place for April: the Beekley Community Library in New Hartford, CT

Last week, our local group of SCBWI members (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) got together for our monthly meet up with a very particular theme in mind: to share our favorite craft tools. Books about writing, websites, podcasts… There are so many resources available nowadays — both free and paid — that sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. Hopefully, the list we compiled will help!

Disclaimer: I’m only familiar with a few of these resources. These are not personal recommendations, but a group effort that I’m sharing because it may be of interest to other writers.

Books:

Writing Children’s Books for Dummies – Lisa Rojani Buccieri

The Anatomy of Story – John Truby

Take off your Pants – Libbie Hawker (a short CliffsNotes-style book on outlining)

Second Sight – Cheryl B. Klein

Story Engineering – Larry Brooks

Story Genius – Lisa Cron

Rules for the Dance/ A Poetry Handbook – Mary Oliver (on writing poetry)

The Ode Less Travelled – Stephen Fry (on writing poetry)

The Practice of Poetry – Robin Behn and Chase Twichell

The Artist’s Way – Julia Cameron (on creativity)

Writing Down the Bones – Natalie Goldberg (on creativity)

Also, one member recommends learning lessons directly from published books – if you want advice on characters, for instance, or chapter openings, pick up a pile of books and flip through them to see how the authors did it.

Podcasts: (many of these websites also have blog posts on writing)

Nina LaCour https://www.ninalacour.com/podcast

88 Cups of Tea https://88cupsoftea.com

Literaticast (by agent Jennifer Laughran) https://www.jenniferlaughran.com/literaticast

Writing Excuses https://writingexcuses.com

Helping Writers Become Authors https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/podcasts/

First Draft https://www.firstdraftpod.com/sarahenni

Secret Library https://www.secretlibrarypodcast.com

The Narrative Breakdown (site was down when I was writing this post but you can find direct links to episodes online)

Websites:

Debbie Ohi http://debbieohi.com (picture book resources)   

Josh Funk https://www.joshfunkbooks.com (picture book resources)   

Tara Lazar https://taralazar.com (picture book resources)   

Writer’s Digest https://www.writersdigest.com (articles on all sorts of subjects)

Jim Butcher https://jimbutcher.livejournal.com (posts on writing – start with the oldest post at the bottom)

One Stop For Writers https://onestopforwriters.com (paid and free resources)

Janet Reid’s Queryshark https://queryshark.blogspot.com (query letters)

Mary Robinette Kowal http://maryrobinettekowal.com (debut author info and reading out loud lessons)

Publisher’s Marketplace https://www.publishersmarketplace.com (a bit pricey but good up-to-date market info on publishing deals and agents)

Reedsyhttps://reedsy.com (self-publishing tools)

Book Baby https://www.bookbaby.com (self-publishing packaging)

The Book Designer https://www.thebookdesigner.com (self-publishing)

CAPA https://www.aboutcapa.com (CT Author’s and Publishers)

Additionally, one member recommends YouTube for tutorials on self-publishing.

Events:

Most of the group recommends attending writing events for networking and inspiration. There are events of all sizes and for all prices — find one that fits your personality and bank account. Large conventions and conferences are wonderful, but can be overwhelming. But there are smaller events, like retreats, or places such as the Highlight’s Foundation which offer space to just hide out from the world and write. Alternately, many organizations such as the SCBWI often hold webinars. Webinars can be a low-cost and low-key manner to get involved.



Crossing the Streams: reaching across writing communities

Anyone who has watched Ghostbusters will remember that, although ‘crossing the streams’ was supposed to be a Terrible Thing, ultimately it vanquished the Big Bad and saved the day. Likewise, for writers, learning to cross-network between different writing communities can enrich our lives and take our work to a whole new level.

In 2012, I joined my first writing community, the SFFChronicles.com — an online science fiction and fantasy forum with an active writer’s section. At the time, I had just made the decision to get back into writing and was working on my first novel, a middle grade fantasy. While researching children’s fiction resources I found the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), but back then I lived in Brazil, and we had no regional chapters I could look into.

A year later, following my husband’s job relocation, I moved to Connecticut. As soon as I arrived, I joined the SCBWI. Six months later, I went to my first SCBWI conference in New York. I was making connections, online and in person, and my writing world was growing. At the same time, I continued to be an active participant in the sci fi and fantasy community. Both were equally important in teaching me about how publishing works, and in honing my writing skills.

From the kid lit community I learned how to craft middle grade and YA; the SF/F world taught me about genre fiction. The first was invaluable in helping me understand traditional publishing; the second showed me how to navigate anthology submission calls and other short story markets. The SCBWI brought me my wonderful local critique partners; the SF/F community gave me my first beta readers, and eventually a second online critique group. The SCBWI encouraged me to volunteer at conferences and events, and to get involved at a local level, organizing meet and greets for my area. SF/F brought participation opportunities for convention panels, my first public reading, and an opening to write interviews for a genre website. Both groups have nurtured me and cheered for my successes along the way, and expanded both my horizons and my circle of friends. I couldn’t keep moving forward without both of these communities at my side.

When I go to SCBWI events I’m always intrigued by how few members seem to even consider reaching beyond the kid lit community for connection and knowledge. The SCBWI is a wonderful place to call home, but there are many other thriving organizations out there to be explored. The Romance Writers of America is a busy and inclusive example, with many small local chapters throughout the USA. The Mystery Writers of America is another great society with active chapters in different regions. And those are only two among many. Broadening our worlds and cross-networking between communities can be a wonderful way to gain further insight in our work and widen that support web that is so crucial in the difficult world of publishing.

Whatever you chosen ‘home’ community, consider stepping outside and looking for others to connect with. Have a look around, both online and in your local area, and see what you can find. Take a chance on adding a whole new side to your network by joining additional writing organizations — either official ones, like those mentioned above, or unofficial ones such as the forum I’ve been on since 2012. Getting involved with a new community may be scary at first, but by casting that net a little wider and crossing those streams, you may find your creativity shines bigger, and brighter, and bolder than ever.

There’s a whole wide world outside that window…

Have Book, Will Read #20

Hard to believe the year is almost over! I could swear it was October just the other day… Anyway, it’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, and I thought I’d start with a quick reading round-up. 2018 has been a slow year for me, book-wise. There are SO MANY novels sitting on my bookshelf or in my e-reader waiting for some love, and I’ve barely made a dent in the pile. Hopefully 2019 will find me more inspired!

2018 was the first year I ever kept a book log, which proved to be an interesting experiment, and one I think I’ll continue next year. So, what did I actually read? I finished 35 novels in 2018. They were pretty evenly spread out in terms of age category: 11 were Middle Grade, 11 were YA, and 13 were adult fiction. As for genre, Fantasy (and sub-genres) was the big winner, with 25 titles against 3 science fiction novels, 1 horror tale, and 6 that fell into other categories (thrillers, a mystery, and a contemporary YA). 15 of those books were written by men, and the other 20 by women.

My resolution for 2019? Step up my reading game and catch up on that TBR pile!

Recent Reads: Earth shakers, world breakers. 

I followed up my earlier read of Akata Witchwith the sequel, Akata Warrior. I absolutely love Nnedi Okorafor’s vivid worldbuilding and crisp storytelling syle, and the second book definitely lived up to the first. The novel continues Sunny’s saga as she keeps up her training in Leopard Society, takes her magical abilities further, and finds an even bigger battle to fight with her friends.

I recently picked up an ARC for an October release that had been gathering dust on my shelf since spring. Monstrous Devices by Damien Love is a nicely paced middle grade novel with a dark side and a hint of teeth. It has a vaguely clockpunk feel to it, and mixes toy robots, ancient golems, blood magic, and a breathless chase across half of Europe. Good stuff.

Moving away from kid lit, First Interview by CT Grey is what happens when you mix a zombie apocalypse, a vampire warrior, a high-tech portal to a secret off-planet colony, and whispers of a supernatural underworld. To be honest, when I read the blurb, I was skeptical. But Grey pulls it off with style, and this fast-paced genre mash-up was an entertaining read. Book 2 comes out in 2019, so stay tuned for an interview with the author on my blog.

Now Reading: Space capers galore!

I’m in the middle of The Scalpel, by James Worrad, and thoroughly enjoying it. There is plenty of action-packed intrigue to keep things moving, and a great cast of colorful characters.

To Read: The fantastic and the familiar.

I have a copy of Kelly Robson’s Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peachon my Kindle just begging for attention. I’ve liked everything I’ve read of Robson’s so far, and this one promises to be just as good.

Juliet E. McKenna is an author I’ve had on my to-read list for a while, and now I have two signed books of hers I got in the last Pixel Project fundraiser: The Green Man’s Heir, and Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom. Looking forward to these!

I haven’t read anything by children’s author Patricia MacLachlan, and I have at least two writer friends who claim she’s been a major influence in their lives. So I was delighted to be given a copy of My Father’s Words during a Holiday Book Swap held by my local SCBWI group. I think this will be one for my Christmas break…

Wishing you all a wonderful book-filled end of year!

With All Your Heart

Adapted from a guest blog I originally wrote for fantasy romance author Suzanne Jackson.

Anyone who’s been hanging around the Twittersphere lately will have seen writers sharing their ‘rules for writing’. Now, I’m not that big on ‘rules’ (what works for one person might backfire splendidly for another!), but here are a few things I figured out early on and which keep me going. Hopefully, they’ll help you too!

Three things I’ve learned about writing:

1. Take Your Time. As the saying goes, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. When I started writing ‘for real’, one of the first things I did was read a lot of bios and websites of authors I admired. To my surprise, there were very few true ‘overnight success’ stories. One author took ten years to be published, another five. Another more than that combined. Some writers didn’t become household names until their third, or fifth, or seventh book.

Beginner-writer-me found this hugely reassuring. If other people could do it, so could I. If I had to put in the time to learn the craft and get it right, then so be it. I wouldn’t be the first, or the last, to take a deep breath and tell myself, “As long as it takes.” I knew this was something I loved, and that I was prepared to be in it for the long haul. I just had to jump in, and keep going.

2. Make Mistakes. Also known as: you have nothing to prove. When I was younger, I’d always planned on becoming a writer ‘someday’. Perhaps when I ‘grew up’. But somehow, I never got around to it. Probably because I had this weird notion that writers sat down at their perfect writing desks and dashed out the Next Big Classic all in one go. Yes, I really was that naive! I knew nothing about messy first drafts, or that it takes rewrites, revisions, and a whole lot of elbow grease to produce something halfway decent. So of course, with that sort of self-inflicted pressure, inevitably I was terrified of starting and failing.

When I figured out that the writing business was a long-distance event (see number 1), this led to the realization that nothing had to be perfect right away. I could allow myself time to work things out, to back my story into corners and fall into plot holes. I could get it wrong, and dust myself off, and rewrite, and get it wrong again, as many times as necessary. The only thing I couldn’t do, was let the fear of failure hold me back from trying.

3. Have Fun!  Along with realization number 2, came the awareness that I didn’t actually want to write the Next Big Classic. I wasn’t fussed about literary immortality, or having my books on required reading lists. I couldn’t care less whether my prose was gorgeously poetic. Instead, I wanted to enjoy my writing. I wanted to fill my pages with fight scenes, and daring escapes, and fireballs. Maybe a breathless first kiss or two. I was an 80’s teen, and all those hours spent watching the likes of Star Wars, Die Hard, Back to the Future, and The Goonies had to impact my writer’s soul somehow. Once I figured out the sort of things I enjoyed writing, the stories took off and the words just flowed. I was having fun, and I never ever wanted to stop.

Of course, these discoveries may have worked for me, but may not work for you. Find the small bits of wisdom that inspire you, personally, and use them to keep going on the dark days. We all have those days – beginner writer or seasoned pro – and sometimes you just need to remind yourself of why and how you got started in the first place. And then get up, dust yourself off, and jump back in with all your heart.

Poconos Retreat, Part II

(Continued from Part I)

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Our last day dawned soft and gray, drizzle misting in from the hills around us. Luckily the weather had no impact on everyone’s enthusiasm, and after another amazing breakfast (seriously, Highlights, do you not want us to ever leave?), we gathered once again in the main room in the Barn to watch the faculty talk us through some of the (anonymous) first pages and illustrations that attendees had sent in. I’m always fascinated at these events to find out just what an experienced editor will pick out of a fragment of text.

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Mealtimes at the Barn

We broke up into workshops after this, and I chose to hear agent Kira Watson talk us through scene development. We looked at the difference between ‘core’ scenes and ‘bridge’ scenes, and how to avoid the so-called ‘fluff’ scenes. Kira told us that each scene should make a difference, even if it’s a bridge scene, and not just be there to fill space. I’m looking forward to trying her flashcard exercise!

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Kira Watson talks us through scene essentials

The final keynote was given by picture book author Tara Lazar. Tara’s speech was joyous and uplifting, even when talking about personal obstacles, and was just right for sending us home all fired up to get back to creating. She both began and ended her talk by reminding us that “there is no divide”, and that authors are just people like anyone else.

We sat down for a last lunch (with a huge round of applause for chef Amanda and her staff), and then said our goodbyes to all our new (and old) friends, and then it was time to take off my name tag, grab my bags, and drive the three hours back to Connecticut.

 

Our printed schedule ended with Master Yoda’s words: “That which you seek inside you will find.” That may be true, but all of us at the 2018 Poconos Retreat found plenty in each other, too, and in the inspiring words of our weekend mentors.

 

 

High points for the weekend:

  • Location, location, location. And did I mention location?
  • Star Wars references everywhere!
  • Great faculty choices: everyone was kind, generous, and friendly, full of wisdom to share.
  • Good attendee vibes. Everywhere I turned I was met with a smile and a friendly face. I returned home with lots of nice memories, and plenty of new Twitter and Instagram contacts, too.
  • My awesome roommate, Tina Holt. I was a little worried about sharing a cabin with a stranger, but Tina was a star. #TeamCabin20
  • Okay, I won’t mention the food again, but I loved the ‘help yourself’ hot/cold drinks stations set up all over the place. And the baskets of snacks, too. (Oops, did I just mention food?)
  • The Eastern PA SCBWI crew: Kim Briggs, Alison Green Myers, Lindsay Bandy, and Virginia Manning. You all rock, thanks for organizing this tremendous weekend.

 

Poconos Retreat, Part I

(In two parts, because it was just THAT great!)

 

Ever since I met the ray of sunshine that is YA author Kim Briggs, five years ago at my first ever SCBWI conference (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), I’ve wanted to go to the annual retreat organized by her region, Eastern PA SCBWI. This year I finally made it down to Pennsylvania, and I’m so glad I did!

Around thirty or so writers and illustrators gathered with faculty and staff at the lovely Highlights Foundation center in the Poconos, for a weekend of workshops, critique sessions, good food (so much good food!), and lots and lots of creative chit chat. The theme? May The Force Be With You, of course. What else for a start date of May 4th?

The magic began on Friday evening. After appetizers, the illustrator showcase, and dinner, we were all invited to go to the podium and present our homework. Yes, homework: to prepare a short presentation of what the Force means for you and your work. A great opening for the weekend. (I’m saving mine to share in another blogpost; wait and see!)

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Wookiee Cookie from Saturday’s lunch

Saturday, after a generous breakfast in the Barn (seriously. So. Much. Food.), we were treated to an opening keynote by YA author K.M. Walton, who encouraged us to trust our goals and dreams; to know our dreams and do the work to make them happen.

Next, I headed up to the Lodge for a workshop on Plot Meets Character with Kate Prosswimmer, editor for the Sourcebooks Fire and Jabberwocky imprints. Kate went over some of the key approaches for breaking down plot and character in stories, and then suggested we chart our own novels with the tools she introduced us to.

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Plot Meets Character workshop

After lunch (more REALLY GOOD food; I was feeling thoroughly pampered by that point!), it was time for the keynote by author/illustrator Angela Dominguez. Angela talked about the difficulties of growing up bilingual — something that most people in my family can relate to! She also gave us an important reminder: that there’s a lot of waiting in publishing, and it’s okay to get frustrated.

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Keynote by Angela Dominguez

It was time for a break and a group photo, and then onto the keynote by editor and author Harold Underdown. Harold walked us through a selection of children’s books for all ages and talked about the importance of beginnings and endings: of making a promise to your reader at the start of a story, and following through on that promise at the end.

The afternoon was set aside for peer critiques (and one-on-one critiques with faculty for those who had signed up for one), but as I had been deep in revision mode when the deadline came around, I hadn’t sent anything in. Instead, I snuck off to my cabin for a bit of tea and quiet time. With so much information bouncing around in my head, it was a perfect way to unwind.

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Some much-needed downtime

Saturday evening brought nachos on the patio while the faculty signed books inside, followed by dinner and the silent auction. There were lots of amazing items to bid on, and I’m pleased that one of my bids made it to the end: a 15-page manuscript critique offered by agent Kira Watson, along with a signed ARC from her client Naomi Hughes’ upcoming release, Afterimage.

We closed the night on a high note: with s’mores on the patio by the open-air fireplace under twinkling lights. And then it was off to our cozy cabins for our last night in Writer’s Paradise.