Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Jennifer Represents...: Conference Wrap-up

Jennifer Represents...: Conference Wrap-up

Cabin Fever Conference Boost

Last Saturday I woke at 5:00am to meet up with my critique group to drive to  the Western/Central Upstate NY SCBWI Cabin Fever Conference in Syracuse.  The roads had not yet been plowed and the snow drifted across the lanes making me think that if the plow guys weren't up yet, then I shouldn't be either.  But that is how much I wanted, needed a mid-winter writing boost, to mingle with other writers and learn something new.

The first speaker was writer Linda Oatman High, who I admire for her ability to take historical anecdotes and create compelling picture books like Cemetery Keepers. She shared how she uses her own experiences and weaves them into fine fiction.  I liked her advice for dealing with annoying siblings -- "Don't fight'em, write 'em." Put them in your stories and you can turn the tables to make them do anything you want them to do. 

Illustrator Jonas Sickler spoke about self promotion, and although his advice applied mostly to illustrators, I learned that each time you update your website Google elevates you in their listings.  I also learned about associates and why it might be a good idea to have a fan page on facebook.  Although there is nothing lonelier than a fan page with no fans.  Or is it one of those "build it and they will come" phenomena?

For me the highlight of the conference was agent Jennifer Laughran.  Her frank humor was refreshing. "There is no point in this process," she said, "when someone won't be mean to you -- so if you can't handle that, please stop now."  Yet she patiently provided answers to beginner's questions and demonstrated why any writer would want her on their side. Laughran has a wonderful enthusiasm for championing her client's stories, and I felt a pang of envy, which I promised to turn into resolve in my own search for an agent. 

After lunch where I chatted with another writer and a future librarian, I sat in on the first page critique.  I didn't submit anything, but learned a lot listening to each page read and then the comments of Laughran and an "Anonymous Intern"  who spent her summer as a first reader at a major publishing house.  What sparked comments? Overdone leads like watching the character wake up in the morning; too many similes in one paragraph; a passive voice; starting too early in the story; starting too late; and leads that are meant to be mysterious and intriguing, but to a reader are just vague and confusing.

Back in the car, we rehashed the day and each of us wondered how we could revise our work based on the new bits of information we acquired.  I bet everyone at that conference was back at their desks the next morning, reenergized and ready to work.  And that's what a great conference can do -- give you the boost you need to elevate your work to the next level, so, someday an agent will lift your books high. As Jennifer Laughran said, "There is always a market for amazing." 

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Writing Truths Wrapped in Fiction

Anyone who has ever lost their muse or found themselves unable to write will identify with Helen the main character in Elizabeth Berg’s novel Home Safe (2009). Although it is fiction and the blurb on the dust jacket never once mentions writing, it is a story about writing -- why a writer writes. How a writer works. How stories are found in everyday life. As Helen reminisces about her ‘old life’ when she could write, she remembers going on errands and people watching. “…into her writer’s basket would go snatches of conversation, the sheen of someone’s long black hair, an exaggerated limp…. Natural events that she witnessed – furious summer thunderstorms, the oblique flight of migrating birds,…, the formation of fuzzy stars on frost against her window – all these seemed rich with potential for metaphor.”

From the opening – “One Saturday when she was nine years old, Helen Ames went into the basement, sat at the card table her mother used for folding laundry, and began writing.” – to the ending, which I will not reveal, the main plot, at least to me, is how a writer can resurface from the depths of despair to breath fresh ideas again.

Okay, so the book jacket emphasizes a stressed mother-daughter relationship and the discovery of her late husband’s secret withdrawals from their retirement account, but I still think that this book is more about writing than anything else. All her life Helen coped with difficult situations by writing about it. “Nothing helped until the day she took a tablet and pencil into the basement and moved the event out of her and onto paper…” How many of us can relate to that?

And when finances bottom out, who among us hasn’t thought about getting a “real” job? Instead Helen ends up teaching a writing class. As we sit in the back of the class, Berg lets us hear the throat clearing voices of a diverse group of new writers, which include a scary looking mechanic, an older man from an assisted living residence, a middle aged woman from the ghetto, and a Latino TV anchorman. It is a great lesson in voice and style as you listen to each student’s assignments, and I had to restrain myself from grabbing my pencil to make corrections.

Helen’s (or Berg’s) writing prompts are ones that you can tuck away for a day when your brain needs a jumpstart – Write two pages about a room that has special meaning for you. Write about your first kiss. Eavesdrop on a conversation and then use it to inspire a fictional conversation between two characters. Using only dialogue, let the reader see what each character looks like.

And if you really want to know what Elizabeth Berg thinks about writing, check out her nonfiction title, Escaping Into the Open: The Art of Writing True (2009).

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Warm Winter Read - Russell Freedman's Lafayette

The only way to stay warm this winter is to wrap yourself up in a good story. That’s what Lafayette did during the long bitter winters of the American Revolution. His coat spent months aboard ship carefully wrapped in newspaper, which eventually stuck to the wool fibers. Rather than pull it all off, Lafayette wore the coat with its extra layer leading his frost-bitten troops in battle.

I’ve taken my cue from Lafayette whose motto was “Why not?” Although I have upgraded to a fuzzy blanket, I’m spending this freezing winter wrapped up in good stories. And Russell Freedman’s biography, Lafayette and the American Revolution is one of the best. As Freedman said, “A teenager who defies family and king, runs away from home, joins a revolution, fights courageously and helps found a nation. I’m always looking for a good story, and this one was hard to resist.”

It is hard to resist because Freedman writes it that way. Through his careful research, he picks out details that make Lafayette come alive -- like the wool coat and his personal motto. Freedman lets Lafayette tell his own story as much as possible with a text packed with quotes. And his descriptions put the reader beside the young Lafayette when he meets a much older Washington for the first time, and when they ride into battle at Yorktown.

Anyone eager to learn the art of nonfiction should put Russell Freedman at the top of their reading lists. I know I do.