Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Big Ideas that Stood Out in Miami

Week of January 15, 2012—Reflections from SCBWI Miami
Wednesday, January 18, 2012—Big Ideas that Stood Out in Miami

Any time I attend a conference I leave a bit overwhelmed. There’s so much information—presentations to digest, critiques to ponder, notes to review and decipher, and excitement to harness. This year during the Miami SCBWI, I intentionally tried to note things I heard time and time again, or that registered with me time and time again. I decided these “big ideas” would be starting points for putting what I had learned into action. My BIG FIVE IDEAS from Miami are:

Every conference I attend seems to have a writing craft that rises to the surface. It’s not an intentional, planned thing. Perhaps it’s just what I need to hear at the time. What I heard in Miami made think more about characters.

Of course, I know the important role a character plays in a picture book, but I have to admit I often just let my characters emerge rather than strategically bringing them to life. I like to think I’m intuitive and that this is my approach to writing. But I recalled this weekend that I always used to say I was spontaneous until a friend pointed out that the synonym of spontaneous is impulsive. OUCH! Unfortunately one of the synonyms for intuitive is spontaneous which we already have established means impulsive. Perhaps my approach isn’t so intuitive after all. Ok, enough therapy. Time to take a different approach with characters.

Bonnie Bader (Grosset & Dunlap) told us that even beginning readers give room for character development. She reminded us that characters in these books often have familiar traits. Bonnie led us through a character profile activity. You’ve done similar things before. Bonnie had us list: the name of the character, where he lives, his appearance, best friend, worst enemy, favorite food, special sayings, best thing that’s ever happened to him, the worst thing that’s ever happened to him, and his secret. I did the exercise and quickly thought of a story I would write about my character. Then I looked back at my profile and thought of another idea and then another. Things within the profile (such as an enemy who is an elephant and a favorite food which is a peanut) opened up a whole new story line. Amazing! Try it!

Yesterday I listed a quote about characters from Donna Jo Napoli (linguist and author): “You need to know everything about your character, even if it’s not in the text of the book. This will make the character coherent.” Here’s yet another reason why we need to delve into character profiles when developing our picture book characters.

During the editors’ panel, Bonnie Bader said that one of the things writers often do wrong is weak character development or characters that sound alike. “Characters need to be distinctive,” Bonnie said. When I recently wrote a series of picture books about twin sisters, this was very true. Each girl had to have her own personality (as well as commonalities that held them together). If the girls weren’t distinctive even I got confused by them, not to mention what would happen to an editor or a reader/listener reading the books for the first time.

Tamar Bravis (Abrams) led a wonderful session about friendship in picture books. During the weekend Tamar said that “Plot is about one character’s journey,” and that “the character’s personality drives the story.” Tamar suggested five books to read to understand the relationship between friend characters in picture books:

·        Days with Frog and Toad, “Alone” by Arnold Lobel (technically not a picture book, but a very young chapter book)
·        The Gift of Nothing by Patrick McDonnell
·        City Dog and Country Frog by Mo Willems, illustrated by Jon J. Muth
·        Making a Friend by Alison McGhee, illustrated by Marc Rosenthal
·        Waddles by David M. McPhail

We hear this at every conference. And I’m pretty good at reading books (even better at buying them). But I’m nowhere as good as Lin Oliver challenged us to be when she said: “For every book you write, read 500. Develop your own canon of literature that means something to you.” Then later Lin reminded us to, “Read everything aloud.” I have seven new picture books and a beginning chapter book stacked on a cabinet in my office. My commitment is to read and study all those books this week. Only 492 more to go!

I must add a great quote from Greg Neri. This is especially poignant to me as I think about student writers and readers. Greg said he tells students, “If you don’t like reading, you’ve not discovered your book yet.” Isn’t that a great encouragement to keep reading?

You’ve heard the phrase, “Show, don’t tell.”  I say it to my students dozens of times a day. I write it on manuscripts when I’m critiquing. I discuss the concept with my critique group members at almost every meeting. Still, I catch myself showing and not telling in my writing. That must be why this topic always comes up during conferences.

During the editors’ panel Bonnie Bader said that one of the most frequent mistakes writers make is telling instead of showing. During the first-page critique panel time after time the panelists pointed telling passages in the pieces they were evaluating that were showing and not telling. It happens to all of us. That’s why it’s one of the big ideas.

I think the entire theme of emotions began to surface in my mind when I heard Donna Jo Napoli say, “You must care deeply about what you’re writing or your reader won’t.”

Donna Jo told us she asks students:
1.      Who is your best friend?
2.      What book have you read or had read to you this school year that is your favorite and that you wish you could have your best friend read?
3.      Why do you want your best friend to read the book?

She said the students always respond with feeling answers . . . things they want their friends to feel that they felt—humor, suspense, a heart-tug, and so on.

During the editors’ panel, Diane Muldrow said, “Picture books must have an emotional pay off or resonance . . . or be really funny . . . they have to make you feel something.”
During the same panel Natalie Lescroart (Penguin Young Readers) said, “Write a lot. Not just one story. Keep writing until you find something that resonates.”

Our quote for this week comes from Lin Oliver, co-founder and executive director of SCBWI. Lin concluded her keynote by saying: “Join the tribe! We have optimism for the future.”

You can’t go to an SCBWI conference without feeling the power of the tribe.
This year I was with four of my face-to-face critique group friends and two of my online critique group friends. We quickly adopted two more people into our band. And we learned together, laughed together, shared meals, talked about our writing dreams, and got pumped up to do our work. Add to that all the friends I see only at conferences and new people I met. Not only was I part of the tribe for three days, but I enlarged my own personal tribe, my own writing support system.

If you’re not a member of SCBWI, join today. If you’re not a member of a critique group, find one. (And if you can’t find one, let me know and maybe I can help you find or start one.)

Collaborate. It’s one of my three words pillars this year. And it’s the cornerstone of a successful conference like the one I attended in Miami.


---- said...

I enjoyed reading your posts about the conference Rob, and nice to meet you in person!

Rob Sanders said...

Great to meet you, too, Pascale!

Dana Carey said...

Thanks for sharing that, Rob. Tomorrow I'm going to do the character proflie activity. And I love this quote: "Join the tribe!"