Poconos Retreat, Part II

(Continued from Part I)

IMG-2520

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.

2018-05-04 19.11.35-2
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!

IMG-2524
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!)

IMG-2503
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.

2018-05-05 09.52.38-2
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.

IMG-2504
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.

IMG-2512
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.

Why Kid Lit?

Sometimes I get asked, ‘why write kid lit?’ The short answer is probably ‘why not?’ The long answer is a little more complex…

2017-08-04 14.19.45
My 10th birthday cake – perfect for a book lover

This week I renewed my annual membership to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, an international non-profit organization for authors and illustrators producing work for children and teens. I joined the SCBWI in 2013, just after we moved to the USA. I began writing ‘for real’ a year before that, and knew from the very beginning that I wanted to write stories for young people.

I consider myself primarily a middle grade* and YA* author. Occasionally I write short stories that fall under ‘adult fiction’, too, like my tale In Plain Sight, in the Aliens – The Truth Is Coming anthology, or Fool’s Quest, in Journeys. Sometimes it’s fun to write about certain themes without stopping to think ‘would I let my kids read this?’ (The answer is probably yes – I’m pretty liberal when it comes to reading. I tend to be of the ‘if you’re interested and think you can handle it, go ahead’ school of parenting.) When it comes to novels, however, all my work so far has been within the realm of kid lit.

I moved from England to Brazil when I was eight, brand new set of Narnia books in my hand luggage as my going away gift. With no handy English-language bookstores or libraries in those pre-ebook and pre-Amazon times, I slowly built my own shelf collection, which I read obsessively over and over in my preteen years. My little personal library had plenty of classic children’s authors like Arthur Ransome, E. Nesbit, and Frances Hodgson Burnett, as well as the ubiquitous Enid Blyton books all us 70s British kids devoured.

In my teens, I explored my parents’ bookshelves, reading other classics like Bradbury, Austen, Asimov, Brontë, and Tolkien, besides my mother’s large collection of Agatha Christie novels. But I always had time for my childhood favorites, and there was nothing quite like the beauty of those kid lit lovelies. “One day,” I whispered to myself, “one day I’ll do this too.”

A good children’s story has a streamlined elegance to it, very different from the longer, more intricate plot lines that adult novels by necessity demand. The sheer beauty of something like The Secret Garden or Charlotte’s Web is a gift that endures. What makes children’s books so special? Perhaps it’s due to the limits on word count/novel size, forcing authors to pare their stories down to the absolute essence. Or maybe the target readership (especially in the case of middle grade fiction) demands not a simplification (children have proved over and over again to be able to handle far more complexity than we give them credit for), but a directness that brings writers very quickly to the core of a tale.

Whatever the reason, I’ve always loved kid lit in all its shapes and forms. Young people today have a tremendous amount of choice in reading matter, with hundreds (probably more like thousands) of new books published each year. It’s an exciting and invigorating field to work in, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.

*A loose definition: Middle Grade – fiction for 8-12 year olds/ Young Adult (YA) – fiction for teens.

2017-04-21 13.48.58
From the 2017 New England SCBWI conference

NESCBWI 17: Expand & Diversify Your Portfolio

2017-04-21 13.48.58

This past weekend, April 21-23, some 700 kid lit authors, illustrators, and industry professionals got together in Springfield, Massachusetts, for the yearly Spring Conference of the New England region of the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators), which this year was named Expand & Diversify Your Portfolio.

This was my second time at this event, and it has definitely established itself as one of my favorite places to be. Not just because of the interesting panels, workshops, and keynote presentations, but because it tends to be a friendly, laid-back sort of thing, where everyone chats to everyone else, and new friends are made all the time. There is always lots of catching up to do with writer buddies I usually only see on social media, and time flies by all too quickly!

So, what were my highlights for 2017? To start with, this was my first time at a SCBWI event as a published author. I loved seeing Heart Blade up on the big screen with all the other attendee’s work, and it was great spotting it in the con bookstore.

This year, I attended several workshops on social media and marketing. Jess Keating encouraged us to brainstorm our platform with adjectives and images to get a feel for ourselves, and for the tone we want to set on social media. She urged us to think about who we are, rather than who we think we should be, and to remember: ‘you are the expert at being you’. Anika Denise suggested that an author platform is a stage where you connect with your audience, and reminded us that author platforms aren’t built in a day, nor should building them eclipse putting time and effort into the actual writing. For those who were unsure what to blog or tweet about, she suggested mining your book’s content for underlying themes you can dig into. Allison Moore showed us examples off her own Twitter feed, and reminded us (as did everyone lecturing about social media) that promoting your own book has to be something done in small and sporadic doses. To top it all off, Jen Malone gave us great tips on public speaking, and told us that “speakers who are real, honest and can share their passion have the greatest impact on their audience.”

One of my favorite workshops this year was Dana Meachen Rau on injecting characters with emotion, something I find my plot-focused brain often struggles with. She reminded us that plot elements are great, but without emotion, who cares? The plot provides the external story arc, but emotion provides the internal story arc, and becomes the engine that moves your character forward. When a reader reads a book, they go on the same emotional journey as the character, and it is this shared experience that makes a story unforgettable.

For a fun learning experience, Friday night brought Pitchapalooza, the now-traditional event hosted by The Book Doctors, Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry. Names were drawn, and contenders got to pitch their story for a minute, on the clock. Then a panel of agents and editors critiqued each attempt, explaining in a positive manner what worked, and what didn’t.

2017-04-21 19.28.52
The crowd at Pitchapalooza

There were three amazing keynote talks, by authors Barry Lyga and Jane Yolen, and author/illustrator Melissa Sweet, who had the prettiest PowerPoint presentation I’ve ever seen. Jane urged us to “listen to the work, not the fears”, a sentiment I think all writers can relate to on the dark days. On the writing the rainbow panel, Kevin Lewis reminded the audience that we should always endeavor to create environments in our work that ‘are as diverse as the world we live in.’

2017-04-23 08.48.36
Jane Yolen inspires us over breakfast

I headed home on Sunday happy and exhausted, bearing pages and pages of notes, a pile of business cards and bookmarks from people I want to keep in touch with, and a ton of fresh inspiration to give my work a much-needed boost. Thank you to all the hard-working volunteers at the NESCBWI for putting together a great event, and see you next year!

2017-04-23 17.45.14
Relaxing on Sunday evening with peppermint tea and Melissa Sweet’s biography of E.B. White