Write Like Yoda

A few weekends ago, I attended the Eastern PA SCBWI Poconos Retreat, which had as its theme ‘May The Force Be With You’. All attendees were set homework: to prepare a short piece about the Force to share with everyone on the first night. It was a lot of fun hearing all the different takes on the subject, and made for a great ice breaker!

Since this is opening weekend for Solo in the USA, I thought I’d take the opportunity to share my own scribblings on the subject…

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As a Seventies baby, I grew up on Star Wars. Luke Skywalker was my first screen crush. I have an X-wing fighter on my writing desk, and tend to repeat Yoda’s famous words when I need a kick to get things started: Do, or do not… There is no try.

Back in 2012 when I first started writing ‘for real’, I lived by Master Yoda’s words. “I will finish this first novel,” I told myself, and I did. I quickly found that if I allowed myself any room to think about it, the doubts crept in. “I’m going to try and finish this by…” was a sure recipe for procrastination and disaster. But if I gave myself concrete goals, and deadlines, then things got done.

I love the concept of the Force in the Star Wars universe. But just believing in yourself (or in a mystical Jedi power) isn’t enough. Luke, Han, and Leia didn’t beat the evil Emperor on belief alone; they worked hard to get there. There is no try. There is believing you can do something — like complete your novel — and then sitting down and making it happen.

I think that people who aren’t in creative fields often have this idea that writers and artists sit down at their workspaces and produce beautiful things without breaking a sweat. Piece of cake, right? Wrong. It takes a lot of effort to produce something, whether an illustration, a novel, a picture book, or any other creative piece. It’s far from easy. But without those two things — belief and perseverance — it would be impossible.

So may the Force be with all of you, but remember, no one gets things done on the Force alone. I believe in you. Now go do it.

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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.

Boskone 55 Round-Up

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I’m back from Boskone, aka “New England’s longest running science fiction convention.” Boskone is big enough to bring in great guests/panel participants, and yet small enough so that it still feels relatively cozy. This was my fourth time at this event — second as panelist — and probably my favorite year so far.

A few thoughts about Boskone 55:

  • Being a panelist is fun! Last year, I was terrified at my first couple of panels. This year, I knew what to expect, and managed to relax and enjoy myself. Our moderators did a great job, and conversation flowed easily. If you’ve ever thought about being on a convention or conference panel, but weren’t sure if it was for you, here’s my advice: give it a try. Cons like Boskone are happy to mix up established and beginner writers, and to give a chance to new faces and voices. Keep an eye out for calls for participation. Boskone has a nice little survey you fill out, which lets you tick all sorts of boxes and tell them what you’re comfortable talking about.
  • Kaffeklatsches are still one of my favorite things to attend. Unfortunately, this year I only managed to go to one, with agent Joshua Bilmes. Joshua answered publishing and agenting questions, and gave the table all sorts of great advice.
  • I’m also sorry I only managed to get to one reading. I love having a chance to see an author engage with their own work. Jane Yolen’s reading was a nice mix of poetry and prose, and thoroughly enjoyable.
  • Informal conversations are definitely one of the highlights of going to events like this. I caught up with old friends, got to meet a couple of online friends in person, and made some new friends. Just perfect.
  • Dogs, dogs, everywhere. The Westin was full of furry companions this year. A shout out to the Mega Floof who sat politely through panels and was a very well-behaved con-goer.
  • From the Writing For Children panel: stories don’t necessarily need a happy ending, but they need a hopeful one. Also, a great debate on what to do with those pesky parents and other responsible adults in middle grade fiction…
  • From the Feminist Fairy Tales panel: a huge list of great book recommendations!
  • From the Marketing Uphill panel, lots of ‘don’ts’: Don’t overmarket; Don’t be boring; and many more… *gulp*
  • Downtime is crucial! At my first Boskone, I exhausted myself trying to cram in as many panels, readings, and events as I could. From the next year on, I realized it’s equally as important to take breathers, chat to people, and just enjoy the con atmosphere. Or maybe take an actual break from the whole thing and go for a walk or read a book in your room for a while. My husband and kids came along to get some use out of the hotel room and pool this year, and I think being able to step away from the con every now and then for family dinner or some much-needed downtime made a key difference.
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Grabbing some family time at Boston’s Seaport

SF/F conventions and writing conferences can be a lot of fun, especially if you’re willing to get out of your comfort zone and talk to people, or try new things you wouldn’t usually do. If you haven’t been to one yet, you can always start small: look for local events and meet-ups, and ease your way in. But don’t let fear hold you back! Going to cons has brought me a whole new world of writing friends, including the lovelies who became my local critique group. Who knows what it will bring you?

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Making new friends! Author and bookseller Marc Vun Kannon, who stocked my books for the con…

 

 

 

Boskone 55 Schedule

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I’m really excited to have been invited to Boskone 55 as a program participant. This will be my fourth year at “New England’s longest running science fiction and fantasy convention”, and my second taking part in panels. Boskone runs from February 16th to 18th in Boston, MA, so if you’re in the area, stop by. Not only is this a really friendly con, but it has great guests, panel themes, author readings and kaffeeklatsch opportunities. This year, there’s even a Regency Dance! Check out the Boskone 55 website for the full event schedule.

Here’s my own schedule:

Stories Before the Apocalypse

16 Feb 2018, Friday 14:00 – 15:00, Marina 4

We’re familiar with post-apocalyptic futures, from Max’s desert hellscape to Katniss’s dystopic districts. But what about right before the cataclysm — as doom and destruction loom large? How do people live? How do relationships change as we shift into survival mode? Let’s share our few existing “must-read” favorites, and discuss stories we’d like to see.

James Patrick Kelly (M), Juliana Spink Mills,  Julie C. Day, Alan Gordon, John Chu

 

Curse Your Inevitable Romantic Subplot!

16 Feb 2018, Friday 16:00 – 17:00, Burroughs

Just when things are getting good, somebody has to go and fall in love. Are romantic subplots required? And what makes them work or fail in the larger storyline?

Heather Albano (M), Suzanne Reynolds-Alpert, J. Kathleen Cheney, Kevin McLaughlin, Juliana Spink Mills

 

It’s Not Always About Sex

17 Feb 2018, Saturday 12:00 – 13:00, Harbor III

Speculative fiction is filled with friendships that turn into romantic entanglements. Is that all there is? Can’t our characters just have friends, of whatever gender, without hookups and/or heartbreaks? How about we rescue the world from the odd apocalypse or alien invasion, and forget about the sex for a change?

Darlene Marshall (M), Tamora Pierce, Juliana Spink Mills, E.J. Stevens, Steven Popkes

 

NESCBWI 17: Expand & Diversify Your Portfolio

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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.

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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.’

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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!

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Relaxing on Sunday evening with peppermint tea and Melissa Sweet’s biography of E.B. White