Friday, August 30, 2013

WriteOnCon 2013

WriteOnCon 2013 came and went earlier this month. As always, the organizers of this FREE annual online writing conference did an EXCELLENT job organizing the two-day event.  It'd be hard to name all my favorite sessions. So I will just mention some of them here:

-Author Jean Reidy offered a useful checklist of questions for PB writers to consider before diving into a picture book writing project in Does Your Picture Book Premise Have Power? Jean generously offered a free PB critique to a winner who commented on her post. 150+ people, including myself, left a comment. I was over the moon when I learned that I WON THE CRITIQUE! I sooo look forward to polishing up a PB manuscript in the future for Jean to critique. 

-Author Ellen Oh addressed concerns writers may have about incorporating diversity into their work and offered some tips in Diversity in Writing.

-Author Dianne Salerni gave a witty commentary on the stages a writer can go through when they get challenging feedback in How to Handle Editorial Feedback. 

-Author Deborah Diesen gave a lesson on Rhythm and Rhyme.

-Author Lenore Appelhans talked about how writers can bring the reader closer to the character and plot by Adding Emotion to Your Writing. 

I didn't post in the forums or pitch in any of the live sessions this year. But I'm learning A LOT by visiting the live sessions where publishing professionals assessed writers' story ideas. Right now, I can't recommend any one session or forum because I haven't finished going through them all yet.  But so far, everything I've seen has been very enriching. If you want to know what agents and editors are looking for and how they process your story ideas, you should really check out the live sessions and forum comments posted on WriteOnCon. Because again, it's all FREE!

Did any of you participate in WriteOnCon? 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Author Interview with Stephanie Kuehn

Recently, I read CHARM & STRANGE (St. Martin's Griffin), Stephanie Kuehn’s debut YA novel. From the beginning, I was sucked into the world of Win, a troubled student at a boarding school, and Drew, his alternate identity who exists in fragmented memories of his childhood. The complexity of the main protagonist, both as a child and as a teen, kept me very intrigued. The question of why Win doesn’t go by his birth name contributed to the suspense. The conclusion made me gasp, and it answered all my questions.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Stephanie. She has her own author page here, and she also blogs at YA Highway.

It says on your web site that you grew up in Berkeley. Were you born there too? Where did you go to school?
I was not born in Berkeley. However, I was adopted when I was very young and my parents still live in the same Berkeley house I grew up in. My father was a journalist and editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, so I was around writers and books and passionate people who love words my entire childhood. That was very special and inspiring. For my undergrad degree, I went to UC Santa Cruz, where I studied linguistics.

Tell me about your road to publication.
I think my path to publication was fairly standard and unremarkable. CHARM & STRANGE wasn't the first novel I'd written or queried, and I came up with the concept for it over a snowy spring break in Tahoe. I wrote a very short first draft, then revised it before querying agents. I connected with my agent (the awesome Michael Bourret) through a regular query letter/sample pages and it has been wonderful working with him. One thing to mention about the querying process: if you've read CHARM & STRANGE, you probably know that it's a book that seems to be about one thing, when it's really about something else. When I wrote the query letter for the book, I absolutely spoiled the whole thing in a very upfront way. I was not coy at all about the plot.

CHARM & STRANGE came with a twist, and the story effectively built me up to that twist with the right amount of pacing and suspense to keep me hooked.  What advice do you have for writers working on a story with a twist?
It's interesting, I watch a lot of psychological thriller films, and in some ways I think there is no such thing as a twist ending. For people to buy what's going on, the truth has to have been there all along and it's a matter of when/how that individual reader/viewer puts the pieces together. I also believe there has to be meaning to the twist that goes beyond the element of surprise, which is why The Sixth Sense worked for me, but The Village less so. In order to tell a compelling twisty sort of story, I guess my advice is not to hide things. Instead, just keep telling the truth, page by page, bit by bit. All that being said, however, I never set out to write CHARM & STRANGE as a mystery. I simply wanted readers to go on Win's journey with him, and to experience the world the way that he does, because that is how I believe empathy is created. 

I found the main protagonist’s first person perspective, as both the troubled young Drew and the hard-to-reach adolescent Win, very honest and raw. What tips do you have for nailing a distinctive first person voice?  
In my mind, a distinctive voice is a confident voice. In real life people don't qualify their points of view and I don't think they need to in literature either. If a character doesn't like eggs, there doesn't need to be a long internal monologue about why they don't like eggs or what the backstory behind their distaste is (unless it's plot relevant). They would just think: "Eggs are gross." 

I also think, especially in the first-person present-tense point of view, that self awareness can sometimes detract from authenticity. While insight and observation can define a voice, characters who are able to consistently and astutely reflect on their own in-the-moment experiences don't always ring true to me.

As writers, we can often get sucked into our own stories. Because of the dark subject matter of CHARM & STRANGE, did you ever feel overwhelmed while you were working on this? If so, how did you overcome this?
I was very often overwhelmed by it. It still overwhelms me every time I read it and I don't think you can overcome being upset by something like that. However, I definitely found personal meaning in sharing Win's story because I think it's one that is easy to overlook or dismiss. The topic of the book is not something people want to talk or think about, but it's real and it's painful, and I believe that without compassion or conversation or awareness, people will continue to suffer in silence and people will continue to feel alone.

What books/authors did you enjoy reading from as a child?
I read a lot of animal stories as a child. As a teenager, I loved Robert Cormier, Joyce Sweeney, Gordon Korman, and Peter Straub.
Would you like to discuss any upcoming projects?
My second young adult novel will be out next year. It's called COMPLICIT and it's about a teenage boy whose life gets turned upside down when his estranged older sister comes back to town.

Thank you so much!

You're welcome, Stephanie!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

SCBWI's Summer Conference 2013/IWSG

Today is Insecure Writers Support Group day, a monthly blogging event hosted by the wonderful Alex Cavanaugh. On the first Wednesday of the month, participating writers are supposed to share about an insecurity they have on their blogs. 

I'd just attended the 42nd Annual SCBWI Summer Conference. This was my first big SCBWI conference; 1,000+ people came. I actually didn't have any writerly insecurities about coming to the conference.  But I did feel some uncertainty about how I would pull off a nursing/pumping regimen during the intensive, event-packed long weekend.

So before stepping into LA's Hyatt Regency Century Plaza, I established some DOs and DON'Ts for myself, which I'm happy to say that I stuck to:

1. Don't neglect my milk supply. I prefer nursing to pumping. But being away from my baby, I had to pump through most of the conference. To make this work, I skipped an event or two and occasionally showed up a little late to stuff.  In spite of the hassle that came with all that pumping, I want to tell nursing mothers who want to come to this conference that they can do it!
2. Do observe agents and editors. I wanted a better feel for who the gate keepers of the kidlit world are. So I attended keynotes and breakout sessions featuring such industry folk.
3. Do make the effort to initiate conversations. I didn't order all those business cards just to keep them sitting inside my name tag pouch the whole time. I had as much fun giving away my cards as I did receiving the cards of colleagues.
4. Don't pitch. Nothing against the idea, but I decided I didn't need to put that kind of pressure on myself.

The conference was well-organized and the keynote speeches and breakout sessions were very informative. My consultation also went well. Right now, my brain is a heavy and wet sponge dripping with tidbits of industry wisdom. Here's some of that wisdom:

From author Laurie Halse Anderson's keynote speech: "We are the antidote to the disappointing grown-ups of the world."  (I tweeted this, and my specific tweet was mentioned in a recent SCBWI blog post!)

From author Jon Scieszka's keynote speech: "I don't write books to put kids to sleep. I write to wake them up."

From editor Donna Bray's breakout session: "This is the most subjective business in the world."

One more thing. I got to meet my blog buddy and fellow kidlit writer Gina Carey in person! We sat next to each other at a couple of events and hung out at the Black & White Ball on Saturday night. It was loads of fun to connect with Gina.

For anyone who is on the fence about attending a big SCBWI conference, I just want to say that this was a very worthwhile experience for me.

Have you attended an SCBWI conference?  Which writing conferences have you attended? If you haven't attended any writing conferences, which one(s) would you like to attend?