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.

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.

Let them read comics

A family member was waiting out the storm with us last week (two snow days, ugh) and noticed how voraciously the kids were reading comics. Before he left, the family member said to them, “Make sure you read books sometimes and not just comics.”

I said, “They can read what they want at home. Also, their grades are good and they both score well on standardized tests, so I’m not too worried.”

He conceded, “I used to read comics when I was their age.”

“I read comics now,” I said. Which ended the conversation.

Listen, I’m all in favor of book-nerdery. But I don’t like snobbery. Reading comics and graphic novels is still reading. It absolutely counts. And the kids and I have read so many good comics over the past couple of years—smart writing, beautiful illustrations, full of heart—that I can’t see why anyone would say that reading them is somehow less valuable than reading a text-only book. (Last graphic novel to make me tear up: “Ghosts” by Raina Telgemeier. Last comics to make me laugh out loud: “Ms. Marvel” and “The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.” On repeated occasions.)

In fact, I might argue that teaching kids to appreciate good artwork is just as important as teaching them to appreciate good writing, and conveniently, picture books and comics have both.

When I was a kid, I read whatever I wanted, mostly because it would have been impossible for my parents to stop me. Shakespeare. World mythology. My dad’s science fiction and fantasy novels. And yes, comics. None of it hurt me. In fact, given I was a gifted student, on the honor roll, and graduated college on the Dean’s List, I’d say all of it helped me. (True story: I once used an issue of “Sandman” for a paper in my Greek mythology class. So helpful, that Neil Gaiman.)

So my kids can read what they want, too. I think it’s all to the good.

Why I freelance

At the end of October, I had eye surgery. I was supposed to be resting afterward.

I did, sort of, until I got a developmental editing project, a bunch of articles to write and edit, a few rush-job editing projects, a health care communications project …

And in the middle of all that, I finished a rough draft of my novel-in-progress.

So, November was busy. My eye hasn’t exploded, fortunately.

I’d always rather be busy than unbusy, so I’m not complaining (but don’t tell my ophthalmologist what I was up to). Theoretically things have slowed down for the moment, but sometimes the freelance life means not knowing what your day is going to look like until you switch on the computer that morning.

Turns out I like that freeform sort of flow, since I can also, say, duck out to volunteer at my daughter’s holiday boutique (she demanded I look the other way while she was shopping for me) or take my son to Cub Scouts, while still meeting deadlines. Or run over to the farm during CSA season to pick up our share of produce. Or meet a friend for lunch and a write-in. None of that was possible when I was stuck in an office for eight-plus hours a day, then stuck in traffic for another hour-plus, so I do appreciate the freedom. (Especially considering how many hours I also spent last month sitting at the eye doctor’s office.)

It’s not the life for everyone—you have no co-workers to gossip with/about, and if you’re having computer problems you can’t exactly call the IT department—but I concentrate better when it’s quiet. This sounds like a paradox, considering I spent 20 years in noisy newsrooms, but I got pretty good at tuning out the phone chatter, TVs perpetually blaring news updates, and other assorted white noise; now, I don’t have to. I can just focus.

So I’m not sure yet what December is going to be like, but it’ll be fun to find out.

What I’m reading: I’ve gotten slightly obsessed with “Giant Days,” the off-the-wall, goofball story of three friends and roommates trying to survive both college and romance troubles, which is both hilarious and beautifully illustrated. (Side note: Apparently I’m going to read every comic book Boom! Box publishes because that’s how it is.)

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I don’t let the kids read this one, because there’s a fair amount of sex- and drug-related humor—the characters are in college, remember—and even though the dialogue does an amazing job of hinting at what everyone is talking about without ever being graphic or explicit, I’d rather wait until the kids are closer to YA-level age. Still, so few TV shows, movies or books really get at the sort of confusion, questioning, and small steps toward adulthood that happen in college; this comic comes pretty close. And bonus, it’s set in England, so you get to imagine all the dialogue with British accents.

And I just finished “Posted” by John David Anderson, which unsurprisingly is amazing, because “Ms. Bixby’s Last Day” was also amazing and made me cry. Anderson is great at detailed, lyrical storytelling that somehow still sounds like it’s coming from a tweenage boy.

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It’s about what happens at one middle school after phones are banned and kids grab sticky notes to send messages to each other instead, and how even that low-tech system spins wildly out of control when kids start to use the notes for attacks and insults. It’s also about how a change in social status can wreck a solid-seeming friendship. Plus plenty of Dungeons & Dragons jokes for this former D&D player. My one note, and it’s a minor note, is that when Frost, the main character, describes himself as “part of the chorus” in the beginning, it’s a little too accurate; he’s a thoughtful observer of everything happening around him, but he isn’t exactly driving the action until close to the end, and the main drama centers around two other characters. Still, the book is well worth reading, especially for kids who’ve had their own experiences with bullying, online, offline, or through mean little notes.