Just for you, dear loyal blog readers, I am offering a special feature this week. I am going to report, moment by moment, on my experience at the BYU Conference on Writing for Children. You’ll get the agony of rubbing shoulders with hundreds of hopefuls, each of whom wants to manipulate every conversation with the editors and agents in attendance. You’ll get the ecstasy of hearing your name (well, mine) called out as the winner of the door prize. All this without leaving the comfort of your own home (or paying for that thankful of gas to get down to Happy Valley). So buckle up—here we go!
I arrived in time for the “mingle,” in which we get to spend 15 minutes huddled in a group around one of the featured celebrities. (These are the editors/agents who flew in from New York to speak to us and pick up some promising manuscripts, as well as local authors who have been conned or bribed into speaking or conducting workshops.) For my first session, I sat down with Cheri Earl and Carol Lynch Williams, who organize these conferences and teach workshops at them as well. The conversation wasn’t all that interesting to me, though, having gotten off on “how do writers earn a living while they’re waiting to make money on their work” and kind of got stuck there. I did get a chance to ask Carol how her writing program (Vermont MFA) was going but she was reluctant to give details, saying only that it had been a bad year, both for her personally and for the college/program. She recommended that I ask Martine Leavitt, another writer/presenter in attendance, for her opinion on the program.
For the second rotation I sat down with Carmen Deedy, who was being inundated with questions by very novice writers (“Do I have to make illustration suggestions for every page?” “Will people publish my picture book if I don’t have an illustrator yet?”) I realized while listening to the conversation that I have become a writing snob. I couldn’t believe my uncharitable feelings for people who were asking legitimate questions. I was ashamed at myself and tried to repent. I can forgive those people asking things we’ve all wondered at one point or another. But I really struggle with forgiving the conversation manipulators: the people who jump in to tell the speaker all about THEIR book. Hello?!? There are fifteen of us here? And we all want to hear from Ms. Deedy? Not you, OK? Even though it’s obvious you have the next Harry Potter on your laptop there, sweetheart.
Excuse me. I don’t sound humble and repentant, do I?
I was really happy to run into some AML people during the mingle. I saw Stephen Carter, Scott Bronson, Laura Card, Darvell Hunt. Probably some others I’ve forgotten (sorry). It was fun to see these people, none of whom I had known before as being writers of children’s stuff. I also saw a few other people that I’ve met before (at last year’s conference, mostly) like Kerry Spencer and Lisa Hale.
Then we all moved into the auditorium for the plenary session. First there were the prizes. My friend Scott Bronson won a writing prize for the daily prompt. (It’s the same one I won on the first day last year, only his prompt was different.) Not wanting to break my tradition of winning a prize on the first day, I also won a prize today—the drawing. (I was one of three or so whose names were drawn.) I like this tradition, I think.
Then Rick Walton and Ann Edwards Cannon read some of their work. I enjoyed their readings but I would have preferred if the organizers had repeated last year’s feature of having different presenters simply field questions.
Then we had the plenary speech by Margaret Miller, an editor from Harper Collins. Her speech title was “Editors Love You.” She spent a while talking about what happens to a manuscript from purchase to publishing. One thing I noted was that editors often consider the future potential of an author in addition to looking at the ms itself. That is, “it may not be a fabulous book, but if you can tell by reading it that the author has a fabulous book inside of her, you might be more likely to purchase it.” Or, on the flip side, it might be an ms from a previously-published author who seems to be on the downside of her career and so an editor refuses it.
The next hour we went to breakout sessions. I attended Martine Leavitt’s called “How Not to Write a Boring Story.” She began by stating that the things she was going to talk about applied to when we already have a draft done and shouldn’t be considered before we’ve written the first draft. She listed eight questions we should ask when we feel like our stories are floundering, or they need more structure, plotting, or suspense. Here are the 8 questions:
1. What does my main character (MC after this) want? She read a long quote that was good by someone whose name I don’t remember but here’s the gist: “Each scene and action and word should have some aspect of the protagonist’s desire. . . Unconscious desire drives the story but MC may repeatedly change his conscious desire.” We need to see that desire in action. It should be communicated, somehow, from the first page. What does happiness look like to this character?
2. Why can’t my main character have what she wants? What keeps her from it? Don’t make how her character will get out of it obvious. It’s OK if even you (author) don’t know at first.
3. What will happen if MC doesn’t get what she wants? This has to be big. RISK is important. What’s at stake? Stakes need to go up and up as the story progresses.
4. How does the MC struggle to get what she wants? This is the bulk of the book, probably 90% of the story. This is where plotting comes in. One common structure is to have the character try and fail three times, then succeed.
5. What additional hardships does this character face? One common weakness of novice writers is that they fall in love with their MC and then can’t bear to make them hurt; they go easy on them.
6. When is it hopeless? You’ve got to bring it to that point. This is the part in the movie where nobody leaves for popcorn.
7. When is the tension relieved? (Don’t relieve it too soon.)
8. What is surprising about the ending? Make sure the surprise has been woven in from the beginning.
My final session of the day was with Jeanette Ingold. She wasn’t really my type of speaker—a little too melodramatic or overly polished, as if she had every physical movement she made choreographed. She gave a list of “fixes for when your writing goes wrong.” Here it is:
1. Write the jacket blurb of your book, something that would sell the book. This helps when you have lost focus of what the book is about. It forces you to think about what’s interesting or grabbing about your story, and what it’s all about.
2. Write your story as a poem. This is a good way to capture the mood and gist of what you’re trying to do. “When I’ve begun to get off track, I go back and re-read the poem.”
3. Let your characters tell you about them. Find some quirk about them and ask them about it. Then brainstorm and freewrite the answer in your character’s voice.
4. Free write. Turn off your inner critic.
5. Analyze your main character: is she acting like a heroine or a victim? Avoid victim. You need an ACTIVE MC, someone the reader wants to be or at least can imagine being.
6. Is the MC believable? Do things feel forced? When a scene feels wrong it’s often because it is not something the character would do, no matter how well-written.
7. Bump up the stakes. Something must be at risk.
8. Make things harder for your protagonist.
9. Have a villain.
10. Make him more villainous. Make him stronger. The stronger he is, the stronger you have to make your protagonist. (He should be complex and logical, too.)
11. Get the story into visual form (diagrams, charting).
12. Do your research.
13. Haul out a writing book and work on craft.
14. See if your dialogue is worthy. Try this: pick a book whose dialogue you think is great. Highlight all direct quotes. Notice how few words are actual dialogue. Good dialogue gives you the illusion of lots of dialogue with minimal words. There shouldn’t be anything in your dialogue that doesn’t carry the story forward.
15. Play with your writing. Switch the POV. Switch the tense.
16. Do something else for a while.
17. Turn the problem over to your subconscious. Sleep on it.
18. Know when it’s time to move on. Sometimes we just outgrow our stories.
19. Don’t be afraid of new things. Take some back roads and detours.
More tomorrow . . .