To conference, to conference to meet Bruce Coville

Last Saturday was the Seattle area SCBWI writers’ conference. After attending a lot of conferences, you wonder if it's worth it going to yet another. But it was great. Lots of big names including Bruce Coville and Paul O. Zelinsky 

What impressed me most about Bruce was his passion for children’s literature. Not only does he do tons of his own writing and tons of speaking, he’s also deeply involved these days with his recording company Full Cast Audio. As described on the website:

Full Cast Audio (FCA) has a simple mandate: to produce unabridged recordings of fine children's novels using a full cast rather than a single reader. Whenever possible, we invite the author to serve as narrator.

Wouldn’t that be fun! He says he looks for books that are dialog-driven and include fun, distinct characters to really take advantage of that full cast. I managed to hand him a copy of Holbrook: A Lizard's Tale to consider for Full Cast. I didn't have to be obnoxious or anything it just happened very naturally... hope he enjoys!

What impressed me most about Paul was the way he re-imagines his own style with each story he illustrates. Check out the difference between, say, Rapunzel and The Shivers in the Fridge  Creating the Shivers included a visit to the local grocery store to find likely food items that could make for good “architecture” in the city of the Shivers. He had a lot of fun with background details such as a towering can of whipping cream that spills its cream into the air, ala an industrial chimney.

There were also a number of agents and editors.

Word from the marketplace is: most everyone is pretty full up with fantasy and your story would have to be majorly fresh to cut through these days. Several editors are the lookout for non-fiction, especially biographies—but they emphasized wanting the writing to be entertaining using fiction techniques. Everyone wanted “voice.” That indefinable something…

Novel approaches

Yesterday, Laura talked about the spreadsheet she’s created for her novel, listing each scene and indicating with xxxs whether various themes and characters and subplots are in the scene, so she can make sure all the threads are woven correctly.

 I do something similar, but not as a spreadsheet. For some reason, it’s one of the few things I do by hand. I jot down the scenes sometimes down a page, sometimes across several pages turned horizontal. And I’ll redo this list over and over. If I change something then everything ripples out in a slightly different way, right? So I constantly need to chart the new ripple and see what that affects and so on. As Laura did, I do this only after I’ve written most or all of the book—which is probably a slow and backward to do this—but I feel too constrained by a set road-map to the story.

 The other big thing I do is note the emotional state of my main character (and others)—maybe that’s the same as Laura’s theme notation. Here, broadly, is the emotional arc, I look for:

 I’m usually looking for unhappiness in the beginning—something’s wrong with my hero’s life. Then a spark of hope or desperation that sets them off on their story journey. I especially want to see varying levels of hope and despair as they move along. This is the middle and there should be both victories and defeats here that keep affecting my character’s feelings and convictions. Otherwise there’s no suspense.

 Toward the end, there’s a “last straw” emotion that means they have to deal with the the thing they’ve feared or avoided or been unable to reach for most of the story. And then a moment of realization, conviction, decision before they can finally take up arms to defeat the antagonist.

 At the end, I return them to the world we saw them in at the beginning, but now their emotional state has changed for the better. If each scene isn't doing something to my main character's emotional/inner journey--well, I start tinkering!

Poetry Slam

I had no intention of participating in the Poetry Slam at the Whidbey Island Writers’ Conference. But everyone kept saying how fun it was, so I thought I’d at least sit there and be entertained.

 Part of the reason, I didn’t want to do it is I thought a Poetry Slam meant getting up there and spontaneously coming up with a poem—I mean at the mike. (Small aside. My sister-in-law, who is a professional copy editor/proof reader, say “mike” is correct, not “mic.”)

 Anywhoo, that wasn’t the case here. It was held at a local bar/seafood place. Timbered and funky and casual. Perfect spot. The MC was funny and kept things moving along. We were handed paper and writing implements. And were told we had 20 minutes to write a poem. If you didn’t want to write a poem, there was no pressure. But suddenly (well, okay, three glasses of wine into it) it seemed like fun, so I decided to give it a try.

 You were given about 15 words from a word list (don’t know how they were picked.) As the poet you had to use at least 3 of words, but could use as many you liked.

 The poems ranged from making fun of George W. Bush to a long stream-of-consciousness thing that I don’t think included any of the words to a guy reading his poem as if he were Peter Lorre to a 15-year-old girl with a poem that used every word on the list to an 8-year-old boy reading a poem that actually rhymed! I'd say about 20 people read poems. The words ranged from “rat” to “dream” to “broad” to “tickle.”

 I picked the words whimsy, snow, and tickle, and managed to squeeze in flake and dream. I think this is how it went:

 Is snow a whimsy of God?
Think of it. Crystals as clear as glass
that to our eyes look white with refracted light.

 Think of it. Flake on tiny flake,
shavings of ice
pile into towers and spires
as high as the head of a child.

 Think of it. Tickles of cold on
tongue and eyelash.

Sheer whimsy.
Who but a god could think of such a thing.
And sometimes, like tonight, this night
It feels like sheer whimsy to live in the dream of such a god.

 For this I won a Billy Bass—a singing bass on a plague whose head turns and mouth moves to the tunes “Take Me to the River” and “Don’t Worry Be Happy.”

 It’s terrifying.


Whidbey Island Writer's Conference

The Whidbey Island Writer’s Conference was great! I gave two presentations, sat on a panel and was part of “Fireside Chat.” The three-hour Fireside Chats are the signature event of the three-day conference. Authors, agents and editors from various genres (picture books, YA, adult fiction, non-fiction, memoirs, poetry, etc.) meet at private homes with no more than 20 attendees.

 The south end of Whidbey Island (in Washington’s Puget Sound) is a retirement haven and island retreat for some seriously moneyed folk who are generous to the arts and artists. The homes are almost invariably big and lovely with water views, and the hosts provide goodies such as strawberries, cookies, cucumber sandwiches, coffee and tea. In other words, everyone feels pampered and you get some casual, intimate time with authors, agents and editors.

 I got to be on panels with the great and powerful Jane Yolen, who has a certain calm and gravitas to her demeanor that I’m now trying to imitate. Although, somehow it’s more convincing when you have 230 books under your belt.

 I also really enjoyed getting to know YA author Anjali Banerjee. She’s a charming, delicate woman with this hunk of a husband… er, not that I notice things like that.

 Ann Tobias was the children’s agent there. I think my jaw literally dropped when she told us she started her career working with the legendary editor, Ursula Nordstrom. Nordstrom worked with authors such as Margaret Wise Brown, E.B. White, Charlotte Zolotow, Maurice Sendak, and Shel Silverstein.

 Somehow this conference--maybe because the authors and industry people are so accessible (if nothing else, we’re all trapped on an island for three days)--doesn’t have that rather desperate energy you find at some conferences. I know when I was trying to get published, I felt as if I was supposed to make something happen at these things, but could never figure out how. I was sure more inventive and courageous authors were finding ways to charm agents, etc. into taking their manuscripts.

 Should I send my manuscript up with room service? Hang adoringly on every word of every speaker until my eyeballs rolled up in my head? Slide the manuscript under the bathroom stall—yeah, I know we’ve all heard that one. Probably apocryphal. And all of us normal, nice, rational people are determined not to be the author who did THAT! What was nice about the Whidbey conference is you didn’t have to. As far as I could tell, most everyone got a hearing with an agent or editor and a surprising number of people were asked to send in manuscripts.

 My talks went well. I didn’t panic. I was unnaturally calm… I didn’t even panic when I accidentally left on my van lights on the ferry ride over; my battery ran down; my van wouldn’t start; I blocked half the ferry from exiting; two overweight ferry guys had to try push my van up a small ramp with me trying to steer with my power steering out, and I got to wait as all the other cars exited past me until finally a perky little yellow truck thing was able to come onboard and push me off the ferry and into some side parking where they recharged my battery. I wasn’t even beet red or sweating or breathing hard or anything. I guess I’ve become shameless.

 Oh, and I won second place in the poetry slam!



Life, you are strange

Sometimes life is just oddly serendipitous. I just got this e-mail. It's not like I get mail about "My Brother the Robot" every day. And, Laura, thanks for your nice words about Robot, too. You two made my day!

Hi Ms. Bonnie Becker.

 My Name is ___________ and I'm 10 yrs old and I was doing a book report on your book called My Brother The Robot. I’m in 5th grade and I go to this new school called __________ in Texas. I thought that the book was really interesting. I liked how you described all the characters like Chip, Simon, and their Dad. You described Chip like he is a cool kid who is on the swimming team. Simon was the perfect son until Chip found out that he wasn’t. Dad is just plain strict. I'm now doing a book report project and it says that you can type or write a letter to the author and I really wanted to do that because it sounded really cool. If I was to rate that book from a 1-10,  I would rate it a 10. It would be really cool if you came to are school or e-mailed us. I think you’re an awesome author.

Going all the way

Today in the paper was a story about a Portland writer whose first novel, Clown Girl, is getting a lot of buzz. And I thought about Laura’s last column about finding ways to make your writing stand out.

 The author Monica Drake says in her earlier drafts, her main character had “clownesque tendencies.”

 “I was erring on the side of subtlety,” she said. She quickly changed her character into a woman who is an actual clown. “I shifted the novel’s focus, playing up the character as a clown, amping up all the clown language and references. That made it funnier, but also played up the sadder riffs, too.” (You can see the full interview in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, here.)

 She pushed her concept to the envelope’s edge and then beyond.

 The other night, there was a re-run of The Simpsons annual Halloween show. In one segment, Bart is replaced by a robot boy, who outclasses Bart in everything.

 “Hey, that’s my story!” I protested. And it was. My book, My Brother, the Robot, which is now out of print, is all about the main character getting a robot for a brother and how much cooler the robot is than he is.

 In The Simpsons, Bart tries to show up the robot by squirting milk out of his nose. The robot promptly dispenses soft ice cream out of his nose and distributes cones to all the kids (chocolate and vanilla swirls even!) I have my robot do cool things—like instantly read and memorize a book in seconds, play the radio through his ears, clean up a room with laser like precision. (Hey, it’s funnier in the book!)

 The thing is he’s supposed to be like a real kid, only better. As Simon, the robot, says their programming is deliberately “fuzzy.” “This gives our new family the joy of ‘teaching’ us, as if we are not actually perfect, which we are, but still there is the illusion that we are like human sons, who, of course, need a lot of instruction.”

 Not being able to fly and things like that was part of the idea, but even so, maybe my robot just had “robotesque tendencies.” Maybe he should have dispensed Oreo ice cream with sprinkles out of his nose.

 Maybe it would still be in print.


Because it's there

Speaking of why we write, my daughter (who is a huge Tom Waits fan) showed me this clip the other night. The song is a Waits’ song played by a German musician and set to an animated clip from I don’t know who.

 It has cool look and feel, but the creative angst seems over the top. But when I told my daughter I couldn’t quite relate to such despair, she said, “Don’t you know that feeling of having something beautiful in your mind and you just can’t get it on the page?”

 I know that feeling well, actually. My frustration always lies in that gap between the story in my head and what comes out of my fingers.

 But back to the clip, even so, if it’s THAT painful. If the gap is that huge—sheesh, take a walk. Eat a corn dog. Go watch “The Office.” Most of us, no matter how good, aren’t Shakespeare. It’s a rare few where it will matter a hundred years from now. Oh, I want success. But even more than that I want to be good. That's the fun of it. That's the challenge.

I'm glad, glad, glad to be published. I'm even happier to have something in my life that has held my attention my whole life long.

SCBWI booth at ALA

Here I am (that's me in the middle) promoting my mid-grade Holbrook: A Lizard's Tale at the SCBWI authors booth at the ALA meeting in Seattle. I'm sandwiched between authors Maureen McQuerry (left) and Randy Powell. Maureen writes poetry and non-fiction and recently published  her first children's book, Wolfproof. Randy has written a number of awarding-winning books for teens, including Tribute to Another Dead Rockstar and The Whistling Toilets (which the librarians snapped up.)

Just to prove that we actually did get visitors...

And because I can't stop playing with my new toy--namely the ability to upload images, here's another one:

Also, thanks to Jen Robinson for the link to a heart-felt and touching post by Cynthia Lord, author of the Newbery Honor book RULES, about receiving The Call.

Librarians satisfy depraved cravings at ALA

Yeah, I know, just a completely bogus come-on of a subject line. But Carmen Oliver confessed to her book habit in comments to my last ALA post and I suddenly remembered the drawn faces, the shaking hands, the unnatural hunger in librarians' eyes at this week's ALA. (Well, maybe it was just jet lag and the sheer enormity of three conventions halls full of books and vendors, and some 6 days of meetings and the 20-minute line at the one, ONE Starbucks on the convention floor. Come on, people, this is Seattle.)

But ALA is the ultimate book junkie's fix. Librarians already weighted down with giant bags of advanced readers copies and review books could not resist the siren call of yet more free books.

We took complete advantage of it at the SCBWI booth. Various SCBWI officers acted as shills, standing out in the aisle luring unsuspecting librarians in with the promise of a raffle drawing for a bundle of books (also featuring local authors). Then we authors would suck them deeper into our web with our own free books, exacting business cards and promises to read our books from them.

It was fun and even though the booth was small and fairly tucked away, I think about 150 librarians ended up visiting. Maybe more because this morning there was a big crowd because Seattle author Laura Kvasnosky, who had just won the second-ever Geisel Award for her book "Zelda and Ivy: Runaways", happened to be scheduled to sign there right after the announcements.

ALA: Billions of books

I’m ala’ing here in Seattle, my hometown. Hundreds of books, thousands of books, millions and billions and trillions of books. I don’t see how librarians could hope to focus on actually buying books. Fortunately, I didn’t have to figure out anything. It was heaven to simply wander.

 I’m probably way out of it, but the coolest thing was a card they give you when you register. All you have to do is swipe it in the machines at the various publishers and vendors and it records your address and the information you want sent to you. Much easier than lugging around giant catalogs. Even though they were supposedly forbidden, some naughty librarians had sneaked in rolling carriers.

 As a writer, it was rather disconcerting to see the booths stacked with this season’s crop of books and then hundred-page catalogs listing the Spring 2007 releases. Waaah. My baby isn’t even walking and already they’re talking about the new kid!