Every year I try to get to at least one writing conference or workshop and this year I’ve made it to three so far! Last weekend the annual NESCBWI conference swept me off my feet. Dazed and groggy from flying a red eye back from my rock climbing trip in Nevada, I dove right in and scooped up buckets of inspiration. And I can’t possibly keep it all to myself!
Four of the keynote speakers had me glued to my seat. First up, 2015 Caldecott Award Winner Dan Santat. I loved Beekle the first time I read it, but after hearing Dan talk about how our books are an amalgam of our life experiences I could appreciate his book and illustrations in an entirely different way. Something about Dan and his life appears on every page. This comforted me. As a writer I find it nearly impossible to write a book without drawing on some aspect of my own life, but up until I heard Dan speak I thought this was cheating. Now it makes perfect sense. Everything has a purpose. How could we not include our own experiences in that which we create for others? Trust your instincts. Thank you, Dan, for giving me the go ahead!
I wished I had a box of tissues for the next speaker, the lovely and talented Jo Knowles. Jo writes YA novels such as See You at Harry’s, and brought us on a journey of her life as a painfully shy child and young adult, to her first writing experience and how one teacher changed her life. Jo touched a nerve for me, both as a writer and as a teacher. Every day that I am with children I remind myself that something I say may stay with them for the rest of their lives. I never know what it will be, but I hope with all my heart that those words are inspirational, not critical. And the odd thing about teaching is that it’s rare that we know who we have truly touched. Sometimes it’s the child we least expect, and we don’t find out about it until they are an adult, if we are lucky. I hope Jo’s teacher knew how much he changed the course of her life, and I thank him. I know she has changed the lives of many young readers.
Next up was wonderful Kwame Alexander. He is this year’s Newbery winner for his novel in verse, The Crossover. Get the tissues out again! Kwame stands over 6 feet tall and has a smile to light up the room. He is a poet and every poem he recited made me cry – tears of sadness, love, joy, and pain. His poems bring you along on an everyday ride and then hit you with raw emotion and truth that you never saw coming. I also had the honor and pleasure of attending Kwame’s workshop on Writing for Boys. While the content was to the point and extra clear, I was impressed by Kwame’s ability to invite conversation and really listen to what people had to say. The heart of his workshop was about being authentic as writers and as people, and all else will follow. This is one man that walks the talk. As a mom of a son and a reading specialist I was bothered by the idea that so many boys are pigeon-holed as “reluctant readers”. This reminds me of how many boys are identified as having ADD or ADHD. Both make me question what we are doing wrong in schools. Why are boys getting this double bad rap? If you are a writer, write the book that all boys will love. Make them prove the adults wrong. Boys are not reluctant to read, they just need a book that is authentic to them. Thank you, Kwame!
And then there was the comic relief – Marvin Terban. Marvin is known as the grammar professor. This kind, personable, supportive and terrifically funny man and author has been teaching for 52 years! If that isn’t dedication and patience I don’t know what is. Marvin spoke about the importance (dare I say the necessity?) of humor in books, and he put a twist on this that had never occurred to me. Humor exists in the presence of tragedy and sorrow. It truly is a medicine and helps us feel better, especially in the most tense situations. So go ahead of put it in your book wherever you can. Your readers will thank you in giggles, guffaws, and groans of appreciation.
The knowledgeable Jane Kohuth taught me about the beauty of poetry and how to sprinkle it into my prose.
Kristine Asselin (the “query godmother”) and literary agent Kathleen Rushall gave an inspiring, clear presentation about how to write a stand out query letter. You can bet I’ve already revised mine to make a stellar hook, book and cook!
Aubrey Poole taught us the various ways to write a book series, considering whether the thread throughout would be character or plot based.
Mark Scott Ricketts and Josh Alves opened my eyes to the world of comics (or graphic novels as we call them today). These lively and talented guys showed me the many layers that go into creating illustrations in this genre, most of which I had never even considered. Did you know, for example, that the simplest things like what shape a talking bubble will have coneys emotion? That white space, zooming in or out, showing movement, and color can all affect the pace and feeling of a story? And most importantly, I never knew that I could write the text of a graphic novel and have an artist do the illustrations. This opens up a whole new genre to consider!
Miriam Glassman artfully spoke about deeply caring about our characters as a the way to finding the heartbeat of our stories.
And last, but certainly not least, Josh Funk gave us an overview of and tips on writing rhyming. Did you know that because of regional dialects squirrel doesn’t truly rhyme with anything? For those of us just trying out rhyme for the first time, this was a terrific introduction to some of the most important basics such as meter, internal rhymes, multi-syllabic rhymes, and word choice to move the plot along. Josh is a debut author and his books are sure to be a hit!
Thank you to one and all for revving up my spirit, giving me tools to bring home to my stories, and reminding me that every day is an opportunity to learn, inspire, and share.
What’s the most inspiring thing you have heard recently? Please leave a comment!