Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Kim: Conference Expectations

Great! You registered for a writer’s conference. It might be your first, or your twenty-seventh. Maybe it’s a regional SCBWI event, like the one I’m helping to put together in Seattle next month, which explains why I’ve chosen to blog about conferences. My brain is filled to the brim with conference. I’m so distracted thinking about conference tasks, I just splashed my own face with coffee. For everybody’s safety, we'll just stick with conferences as our topic.

You’re signed up, you’re excited, you’re ready for the most part— but why are you going? Do you know?

I attended my first writer’s conference in 2005. I didn’t really have any purpose other than seeing what it was all about. The faculty intimidated me and I remember talking to only two attendees. One asked if I was published and turned away when I said no. The other pushed postcards of her illustrations into my hand. I learned things about craft and the publishing industry in the sessions, but I walked away uncertain if I would invest in a conference again.

Why did you sign up for a conference?

Really think about your expectations. Think about whether they’re realistic, and if they’ll help you to gain what you need from the experience. I know. We’re writers. It’s hard to be realistic. Our brains go off on “But, what if…” tangents that color everyday activities. If we’re preoccupied with an upcoming conference, there is the potential to come up with some doozies just short of glass slippers and winning lottery numbers. But, what if (you ponder) Editor X stops the proceedings to proclaim that your prose made her weep, she was writing up a contract, and could everyone just rise for a spontaneous standing ovation? Alas, that is something that would only happen in our overworked imaginations.

Even if the conference stars aligned for the perfect ingredients to give your career the boost it needs, your serendipity would probably be such a gossamer web of small events and lumps of knowledge, you may not even be able to recognize it even in hindsight.

I (well, you know, Sara) sold my debut middle grade novel last month. I strongly believe that would not have happened if I hadn’t attended the writing conferences that I did. Not even if I had kept plugging along with classes and craft books for years and years. I’ve gained a ton of knowledge at conferences that I haven’t found anywhere else about the craft of writing, as well as the market. I’ve been looking back at all the wonderful fortuity and opportunities that brought me to this place, and a great deal of it came from attending writing conferences.

I signed up for manuscript consultations that offered critiques and constructive feedback. Sometimes editors and/or agents request to see more of your manuscript after a consultation, and sometimes they don’t. It’s a great confidence boost (and what writer doesn’t need that?), but the editors who asked me to send them the whole thing weren’t the one who wound up with the manuscript. And I’ve had critiques with authors that were just as, if not more, helpful.

I got to know my critique partners at conferences, and some of my best friends. Writing is lonely! Most of the time, I don’t mind. I’m an introvert at heart. People never believe me because I spend a lot of time up at the podium at our conference, and running around chatting at the others I attend. But, I am indeed an introvert. I hid under my bed at my own birthday party. It was my fifth birthday, but still. I wanted to hide under my bed at a few of my grown up birthday parties, too. But something about being around a bunch of people that get jazzed about books for kids the same way I do…that charges my batteries.

Let’s operate under the assumption that you are going to get published, if you haven’t been already. Congratulations! The market is not a place you will want to be in isolation when your book goes out of print, or your option isn’t picked up, or your cover gets whitewashed. When you’re stuck and discouraged? You need your writer friends. Who can help workshop ideas? Writer friends. Our non-writer friends are supportive, but they don’t really get it.

I considered quitting writing altogether last December. The thought hurt my heart, so I don’t think I would have gone through with it. I was just stuck on a revision and feeling frustrated. I went to the annual SCBWI Winter Conference in New York that January and really listened to the keynotes. I went back home inspired and wanting to write again.

So, what is your primary reason for shelling out the registration fee and signing up for a conference? Is it a book deal? Save your scratch and stay home. If it’s inspiration, community, or honing your craft that you are after, you are on the right track. And if you just want to be surrounded by a bunch of likeminded book loving neurotics with big dreams and weird ideas, you will be in the right place!

Make a note and remind yourself while you’re there what makes it worth it to you. Don’t waste an opportunity like I did my first time.

The important thing is being there and being open to all of the lovely (realistic) possibilities. And be careful with the coffee.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Dianne: Adventures in Adaptation

When I was asked to write a screenplay adaptation for my novel, We Hear the Dead, I tried to get out of it. I’d never written a screenplay, knew nothing about them, and frankly doubted I could do it. However, I did want to please the producer who’d just made an offer on a film option for my book, and she did have a point: I was the expert on Maggie Fox and Elisha Kane and Spiritualism. Anybody else would have to start researching from scratch. So, I finally agreed to write one draft, after which she’d find someone more competent to fix it up.

One draft became two; two became three. By that point, I was having fun – and learning a lot. The producer, Amy Green, acted as my crit partner, helping me hammer out revisions over the phone. Eight drafts later, I produced a screenplay which is now on the equivalent of “submission” in Hollywood.

It’s nothing like the novel.

That was the first lesson, and one I learned writing the opening scene. When you tell your story in a different medium, it’s going to be a different story. The novel and movie are based on historical events, so I had to work within certain parameters. But there was no way I could take the novel scene by scene and translate it into a script. If I wanted to retell this story as a graphic novel (assuming I had any artistic talent) or set it to music (an even farther stretch), it would come out different yet again. Maggie in the screenplay is different from Maggie in the book, even though her overall story arc is the same.

I also learned to be more concise, and – heaven knows – I needed it! One page of a screenplay written with the default settings of Final Draft translates into one minute of screen time. The script had to come in under 120 pages; closer to 90 would be better. I pared down lines to their essential elements. I slashed clever, witty dialogue and never looked back. Yet, it still had to be good writing. The screenplay will be read before it’s ever filmed – in fact, it won’t ever be filmed unless I can make a reader visualize it on the screen. I can’t just say: Elisha jumps on stage and rescues Maggie. They escape. I have to vividly portray the scene – her fear, his gallantry, their attraction – and do it in a single paragraph.

When I was finished, I realized I liked some scenes in the screenplay better than their equivalent parts in my novel. Lesson learned again. There’s always an alternate way to tell any story; consider all options when revising your manuscript. In fact, when facing revisions in any manuscript now, I consider how I might do it differently in a screenplay. Any scene that wouldn’t make the cut for a script might not belong in a novel, either.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Veera: Fact or Fiction?

Often friends and family ask me the question that many fiction writers get asked. “How much of the story is true?” I usually manage a vague reply that doesn’t really answer anything. The real answer is complicated and personal and would take a long time to explain, but I’m finally going to give it a go. Because I do think it’s important, for me at least, to answer.

In writing workshops everywhere, students are told to write about what they know. But why? I had a professor during my MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College, the late Jerry Badanes, who was very interested in my background--that I had a Jewish mother from Brooklyn and a Hindu father from India. During our conference sessions, he wanted to know everything about me culturally, which I found sort of annoying. He said I had such great material to draw from and how lucky I was to have such a rich heritage. But really, what did my background have to do with anything? I was writing fiction. That meant my characters could come from any place they wanted to. I had been trapped, I thought, by my confusing cultural identity all my life and if I wanted to escape it with my fiction, well, that was my prerogative. I didn’t believe in all that “write what you know,” stuff.

So I promptly wrote several short stories about ambiguous people with pale complexions going through midlife crises. He happily discussed these pieces with me, but I knew he wasn’t wowed by any of it. Then Jerry died unexpectedly from heart failure several months into my program. It was awful and shocking for everyone. Then over time, sadly, my memory of Jerry faded.

Many years and many stories later, I had my first child. Nothing makes you look harder at who you are when you start trying to figure out who your child is. Jerry’s gentle guidance started to come back to me. I finally began to explore what I was so afraid to do then. For the first time maybe, I started to write about what I knew.

Out came a novel, a novel not for adults, but for young readers who are the age I was when the issues of the novel were most powerful for me. And to my amazement, Delacorte Press is publishing it in 2012! Guess what it’s about? A girl with a Jewish mother and an Indian father trying to make sense of her cultural identity among other things. It’s called THE WHOLE STORY OF HALF A GIRL.

Which is why when I tell people who know me about this book, they ask how much of it is true. Natural curiosity, I guess. Well the part about struggling with cultural identity is true. Some other things are true too. The main character, Sonia, has to switch schools, but for different reasons than I did. Everything else is sort of true and sort of not. The way her father speaks, the way her mother drags her pinky nail along her lips when she’s thinking, the way her sister plays the drums--those parts are taken directly from the people who inspired the characters, but most everything else about my main characters isn’t exactly true. Not exactly. It’s a big collection of fictional threads inspired by facts woven into an entirely new piece of fabric. Isn’t every story? So maybe the phrase “Write what you know,” should really be “start from a place you know.” That place may be in the form of a person, a memory, a sentimental piece of china, I don’t know. You might stay there for a long time, you might not. But it’s a good place to start, a truthful place to start. So that’s my answer. And thank you Jerry--for helping me find my voice. I wish I could have thanked you in person.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Karen: Returning to the Dream: On writing sequels

I very much love what John Gardner said in his On Becoming a Novelist: good fiction is “a vivid and continuous dream.” Now that I’m writing sequels to my debut novel, this quote has sparked a question: What happens when you wake from this dream, only to return to it in a later book?

As a reader, I devour the first book in a series, drool over the not-yet-published sequel, then plunge in and cross my fingers, hoping that, among the flashy new characters and plot twists, I find old friends and kindly reminders of names, family trees, and facts I might have forgotten. And sure enough, my favorite authors lull me into their stories without losing or boring me along the way. Of course, that’s easy for a reader to want. The writer is the one who has to stitch it all together.

With this in mind, I started my second novel a bit nervously. When I wrote my debut, Other, I wasn’t even thinking about a sequel being concocted. But it was, and it was called Bloodborn. More of a companion novel than a direct sequel, Bloodborn takes tertiary characters from Other and makes them primary. Since both novels are set in an alternate America where paranormal people (Others) exist publically, with a variety of cultural effects, I had some of my own worldbuilding rules to abide by.

(I could have played the, “I am the author; I am the god of this story!” card and smote all my old characters, repopulating my world with unicorns and dragons, but I have the distinct impression my editor—and readers—would flog me.)

Most importantly, though, I wanted the two books to feel the same.

If a reader loves Other, I want them to love Bloodborn, or at least feel they are returning to the dreamworld I created before. Of course, Bloodborn features a different cast of characters. There are cameo appearances from the stars of Other, and nearly all the werewolves reappear, but other than that, Brock, our protagonist, is a stranger to the reader. No, it’s trickier than that—he’s actually an antagonist in Other, so the reader should be predisposed to dislike him. Maybe hate his guts for being prejudiced and unkind. Why, Karen, would you be so masochistic? Because I relish a good challenge.

See, while Bloodborn tackles some of the same themes in Other­—prejudice, finding yourself, and being able to go public with your identity—it doesn’t rehash the same plotline. Brock hates werewolves. That’s why he’s a bad guy in the first book, and an anti-hero in the second. Now that he’s been bitten, he’s become the very thing he despised. He must overcome his hatred, or the consequences will be fatal. Before, we see only hints of this brewing conflict, only the beginning of Brock’s struggles to change into a better person. Other isn’t his story. Bloodborn, however, is.

I can’t speak for my readers, and say whether Bloodborn has succeeded magnificently or not. It doesn’t come out until September 8. But I can say that as a writer, I learned this: I didn’t need to redream Other. Sure, one night you might have this fantastic dream, but trying to force it back into being the next time you’re in bed can result only in shadowy disappointment.

While you definitely want to keep the continuity of a series intact—otherwise a reader will have a rude awakening—you, as author, also have the power to explore far beyond the borders of the earlier story. A new novel in a series might star recurring characters, in the same unforgettable world, but it also should dare to tantalize and surprise the imagination with new possibilities. Don’t be afraid to move beyond the conflicts and characters of your earlier story, and delve even deeper in your world.

Sweet dreams.