Don’t bring this to the writers’ conference

A fellow writer on Twitter last week was looking for advice on how to make the most of  their first SCBWI conference. Plenty of folks had good suggestions. My contribution: Bring a shawl, it’s cold in hotel conference rooms. Because I focus on the logistics of things. And seriously, it’s cold in those conference rooms (even in June!).

But the question got me thinking, especially since registration for NJSCBWI’s conference is coming up this weekend. There are plenty of lists and tips out there about the many things you should bring to a conference (business cards, printout of your workshop schedule, notepads, money for the inevitable book-buying spree), so I thought I’d focus on what not to bring. Here’s what to leave at home:

  • Heels. Unless you’ve found the one miraculously comfortable pair of them in existence. You’ll be speed-walking from workshop to workshop to critique session to group critique session to roundtable to the book sales area to lunch to dinner to whew. Ditch the fancy unwalkable shoes.
  • Adorable small bag. It will adorably fail you. You’ll be toting around notepads, your schedule, manuscripts, workshop handouts, books, business cards, phone, possibly a laptop or tablet, definitely at least five pens, and—as I mentioned—a scarf, sweater, or shawl, in addition to whatever things you normally carry around with you. Which is why you need a tote. But even a tote can’t accommodate the following baggage …
  • Preconceived notions. You don’t know ahead of time how the weekend is going to go. You might get a manuscript request from an agent or editor, but you might not; there are no guarantees. You might see some familiar faces, or you might make some new writer and illustrator friends. You might find the inspiration you’ve been seeking to finish your work-in-progress, or you might inspire someone else to finish theirs. Be prepared for anything.
  • Unhelpful comments. You know the ones. “Oh, I’ve got a great idea for a children’s book! I’m just going to sit down and write it some weekend.” “So you ever going to make any money at this?” “That’s cute you write for kids! But when are you going to write a real book?” “But writing is just your hobby, right?” They’re not useful, they’re not true, you don’t need them. Leave them home, in the trash.
  • Imposter syndrome. Writers, artists, all manner of creative people—no matter their level of experience—play this awful mind trick on themselves: I’ve never done this before, I don’t have an MFA, everyone else has been published or they’ve been writing/drawing longer than me, I’m such a newbie, I’m not successful enough, I don’t belong here. Stop. If you’re taking your craft seriously enough to want to work on it and improve it and connect with other people working on their craft, you belong. Grab your tote and get in there.

If you’re attending a conference this year, I hope you have a wonderful experience and learn many things. And if you’re attending one with me, say hello.

Read Across America Day

I visited my daughter’s school for Read Across America Day, because I will take any opportunity to read to kids. They’re good audiences, and then I get to share picture books I really like. IMG_3285.jpg This year’s selections are to the right.

The kids enjoyed both books.  Their reactions weren’t necessarily what I was expecting, though. For “After the Fall”—a book I absolutely love—I thought the kids would be amazed by the two-page spread at the end, and some of them were, but we also had an entire conversation about egg physics. As in: How come Humpty didn’t totally shatter in the first place? How were they able to put him back together? When I drop an egg, it breaks and you can’t put that back together. If you drop an egg even from this high, it totally breaks. …

I suggested that perhaps Humpty was a stronger egg than he thought he was.

The adorable talking lion statues in “Lost in the Library” were apparently not a problem, from a scientific standpoint. And on the page showing the classic children’s books that one of the lions was reading, the kids correctly guessed the book titles (okay, they needed a little help with “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble.” But they got the others).

It was a reminder that you can’t predict readers’ reactions to a book. All you can do is read it, and hope they like it. And not knowing what kids are going to say next is actually half the fun of being around kids.

This might have been my last Read Across America Day. My daughter will be in fifth grade next year, and they might think they’re too old for someone’s mom to come in and read to them.

But who knows? Everyone likes a good story.

Get the details right

In drawing class this week, we were working with a model—my first time in years doing so—and I was sketching away, delighted at how shading here and here was turning a collection of lines into a face, trying to capture the right angle of her lips, when my teacher strolled by and pointed out that the shape of her head was wrong. Mentally I said aarrrrgghhh, because of course he was right.

Drawing, says my teacher, is 80 percent looking and 20 percent drawing. In other words, taking the time to really see all the details and contours of your subject, whether your subject is a bowl of fruit or a person, instead of immediately throwing your pencil (or charcoal) at the page.

I have been thinking about details since people on Twitter this week have had complaints about others getting their names wrong. This has happened to me my entire life. Not until college did any teacher ever pronounce my name correctly on the first try. When I email people for work-related reasons—even though my name is right there in the email signature—I frequently get replies addressed to Marlena, Marianna, Marlene, or this recent gem through LinkedIn: Marlins. Nope, can’t explain that one either.

I figured out the truth a few years back, while helping read out the names of student scholarship winners at a New Jersey Press Association luncheon. The woman I was alternating with was mangling every other name, and as I watched her I realized: She wasn’t really reading the names. She was glancing at them and then reading what she thought the name should be, without paying close enough attention to confirm it. And I think this is what most people do with names. They glance at it way too quickly, type something totally wrong, and get on with their day.

That sort of carelessness as a reporter, incidentally, earns you a giant warning sign on any newsroom copy desk. Because if you can’t be bothered to get the source’s name right, what else did you get wrong? Those were the reporters whose work I fact-checked even more thoroughly.

Attention to detail is everything, in art and in writing. Take a breath, stand back: Did you get everything right? Is there anything you need to change? Look again. That’s my job as a writer. It’s my job to help others with as an editor. It’s my job as a (wannabe) artist. Make sure you’re saying what you actually meant to say.

As for that drawing, I don’t know if I can fix it. But the model is coming back next week, so I’ve got another chance to try.

Please buy a newspaper

I’d like you to do something for me next week. It’s simple. It’s cheap. It could help save democracy.

Buy a newspaper.

Doesn’t matter which one. Local weekly? The Times or the Post? Whatever you like. But you have to buy it. Reading one online for free doesn’t count. Buy an actual paper. Enjoy the crinkling sensation in your hands.

Because here’s the thing. Newspapers are still the best way to stay informed—actually informed, with deeply researched information, as opposed to random people’s opinions with a fact or two maybe thrown in. Farhad Manjoo puts it more eloquently than I can in this column (though I disagree on a couple points: The ink isn’t messy, and something you can fold up and shove in a bag is way easier than a screen you have to constantly protect and keep charged. Newspapers are battery-free).

Am I biased? Of course I’m biased. I spent 20 years in newsrooms. Which also means I spent 20 years watching, firsthand, exactly how much stress and opposition and frustration reporters, photojournalists, editors, and graphic designers will trudge through to put a paper together every single night. My colleagues in North Jersey covered 9/11. One of my co-workers in Miami was thrown in jail overnight while covering a protest, because she was mistaken for a protester. A former co-worker, just last night, was in a New Jersey mall with his family when shots were fired; he got his family to safety and then reported from the scene. That’s what it means to be a journalist. That’s why I trust journalists.

There is absolutely no reason to expect anyone to do this sort of work for free. But that’s the expectation you have when you only read news online, for free.

I worry very much about journalists losing their jobs and newspapers shutting down. I worry about what a lack of clear, well-researched information could do to the country.

So please: It’s my birthday next week. Help me celebrate by buying a newspaper. Maybe you’ll like it enough to buy it again.

Feeling grateful

It’s been a continuously busy few months, moving from project to project without pause, a run fueled by caffeine and occasionally chocolate. Things have started to slow down now, just in time for holiday shopping and parties and extra baking and road trips, so that works out pretty well.

As I gear up for wall-to-wall holiday merrymaking, I’m taking a moment to express gratitude. I appreciate the authors who trust me with their words, the editors who depend on me for content, and the people who are willing to share their stories with me for print. I appreciate that I can do the things I love for a living, and still have time to help out at school holiday boutiques and on class trips. And I appreciate my critique group and my writer friends who are helping me on my journey. I hope I’m as helpful to them as they are to me.

Merry everything, and may we all find time to read this month.

Sharing creativity

My kids know I carry tiny purse-sized notebooks around to scribble out my rough drafts. (Moleskines are perfect—they’re the right size and they have built-in bookmarks and elastic closures—though WritersBlok notebooks are nice too.) This means they also know my works-in-progress are available if they get bored in a restaurant, waiting for their entree. Then they’re happy to provide feedback: “I like this. You should publish it.” “I read this part. Didn’t you finish it yet?” “WHAT. Why did you change it? I liked it before!”

Most recently—and yep, at a restaurant—my daughter flipped through the notebook to find a picture book idea I’d never finished. Because sometimes you start working through an idea, only to discover it isn’t working on the page as well as it did in your head. At that point you can 1. start over or 2. ditch it and focus your energies elsewhere, and that particular idea had been ditched. My daughter disagreed with my conclusion. In fact, she thought she knew how to end it, and could she write the ending? I said sure.

So she borrowed my pen and wrote the rest of the story. She got exactly the idea I’d been going for, too. And now I have written proof that she thinks highly enough of my work to want to be part of it.

Of course, she’s already appointed herself editor of all my work and has offered to illustrate it. So she’s a little ambitious.

The other day, I needed to bring my son with me to the coffee shop; he had his magazine and a muffin, I had a scone and revising to do. Once he realized what I was working on, he craned his head to see my screen. Then he moved to my other side to read my notes before I’d even gotten them typed in. Then when I was done, he asked to read something else. At which point I ceded control of my laptop and let him read my novel till it was time to go.

Sharing my work with them has been one of the best things about writing kidlit, not just because they like reading it but because they’re pretty creative in their own right. Both of them create their own comics. Both of them make art, everything from paper sculpture to pottery. It’s such a pleasure to see them expressing themselves. And maybe, possibly, they’re encouraged by watching me.

I don’t know where this creative path is going to land us, but I’m enjoying the journey.

Keep going

I’ve been collecting rejection letters on my manuscript, and it’s frustrating.

I spent most of last week on the phone with the school about my special-needs son’s behaviors. Also frustrating.

The news is, of course, a Dumpster fire.

But I will keep going regardless. On trying to find a home for my story, on helping my son, on being a good citizen, on standing up for what’s right.

It is totally fine to take a break, to stomp around the house, to burrow into a pile of comics and ignore reality for a while (OK, your coping skills may differ from mine). But then you get up and you keep going. You keep trying to do better. You keep working toward your goal. You take the frustration and the rejection and you become stronger because of it, and you keep going. Because you have to, and because it’s the right thing to do.

And that’s what I’m going to do.

My best to all, and may we all achieve our goals.