Friday, August 14, 2015

#LA15SCBWI Conference Round-Up, Part I: The Nitty Gritty

I came home from the #LA15SCBWI Summer Conference last Tuesday morning, and I slept basically all day, all night, and for part of the next day. I was essentially a walking bag of skin and bone and muscle with a jumble of sluggish goo for brains for a few days. That’s what “processing” looks like, I guess.
The conference was amazing. It was inspiring and exhausting and wonderful. There is nothing like being surrounded by people who write, and having a solid chunk of five days to think and talk about nothing other than the craft of story. It crystallized my understanding that what I need right now is to create for myself the space to write - both a physical space, and mental space from my everyday responsibilities, where I can focus on nothing but story.
There were too many key moments to share them all, but here are a few highlights:
Mem Fox read her books to us, and it was awesome. You are NEVER too old to be read to. On writing, she said, “It is the emotion generated from an original felt event that drives a book to be born. The readers will feel a certain emotion because the author felt it first.”
Also from Mem Fox: cadence and rhythm are vital. She said this in reference to picture books, but really, I think they’re equally important in novels. Cadence and rhythm are what make the story’s voice distinct; they’re what make a book beautiful.
Speaking of voice: VOICE. Voice, voice, voice, voice, voice. Voice is more important than basically everything, because it’s the hardest thing for an editor to fix. (Although a strong voice with no story to tell is still going to get a “no” from most editors.)
Dan Santat had a wonderful thing to say for those of us still struggling to find our “voice”, which is this: “Be aware of your tastes and interests. This will become your voice.” I had never thought of it this way, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. Because who are we, apart from our tastes and interests? Those are the means through which other people come to know us.
Meg Wolitzer gave an excellent keynote that held more one-liners and tweetable quotes than I’ve ever heard contained in one keynote. Among them was this thought that I think holds within it the reason that so many publishers say that they want a book that sits at the intersection between literary and commercial fiction: “The thing you love about a book isn’t plot; it’s character.” And if you think about it, it’s true. A book with a rollicking plot is a fun read, but the books that grab you and hold onto you and worm their way into your soul are the ones with great characters.
Varian Johnson talked at length about the importance of placing a higher priority on our work, on dedicating time to the pursuit of the creative life. It was a good reminder for me, that the people who get things done are the people who prioritize getting these things done.
Molly Idle reminded us that creativity can only happen in a safe space.
Dan Yaccarino reminded us that “Good work is never perfect.”
Stephen Fraser reminded us to let joy spill out into our work, because, as he put it, “Joy is the soil in which books are grown.”
Kwame Alexander - KWAME ALEXANDER, who is one of the great orators of our time and who you all need to go hear speak - reminded us that “A loss is inevitable, like rain in spring. True champions learn to dance in the storm.”
And everywhere, everywhere, I heard two themes:
One, that diversity is vital, and that representing all characters as complicated and deep and imperfect human beings who don’t easily slot into stereotypes is essential to writing not only diverse books, but all books.
And Two, that teamwork is key: not only between an author and an editor, but between an agent and an editor and an author and an agent. Communication among everyone, from the outset of the project, is an important part of what determines whether a book will sink or swim. Someone once told me that an author has to have the guts to stick up for what they think their book should be, even when the editor disagrees. But I think it’s actually more important to find an editor who won’t disagree to begin with, who truly shares your vision for the book, and then to trust that person when they say that your book isn’t achieving that vision yet and this subplot or character point might be the reason for that.
There was so much more than this. SO MUCH MORE. The conference was amazing, and I kinda-sorta-almost want to only go to this conference every year for the rest of forever. (Except I love my SCBWI CanadaEast friends, and they run good conferences too, and going to NYC to see my agent and go to a conference at the same time is probably a good idea, so I’m probably NOT going to only go to the LA conference every year forever...)
Of course, I was able to see many friends at this conference. Like my brilliant and amazing critique-partner-for-life, Lindsey Carmichael.
Lindsey at the Awards Banquet on Sunday.
Even geniuses have to eat.

But I’m going to have to save the “friends” portion for another post. I have a novel to write.


  1. Hi Ishta, thanks for sharing this post. I have also heard that its all about voice, voice and voice when it comes to MG fiction. And critique partners are gold.
    Dan Santat's advice “Be aware of your tastes and interests. This will become your voice," is super!

    1. Voice is important in all writing, in my opinion. I loved Dan Santat's advice! I'm glad this post was helpful. :-)