Conferences, Workshops, and Retreats!

When it comes to the kids’ writing community, I can honestly say that I’ve never been to a bad conference, workshop, or retreat. I’ve always met cool people, learned new things, and given my writing a jump start.

But now that I’ve been to a good many of them, a quick summary of the highlights:

New England SCBWI conference: I’ve attended this conference about three or four times, and have always loved it. They get top-notch presenters, and a good mix of established authors and new writers attend. Great workshops and the opportunity for individual critiques.

Smaller regional conferences: I’ve been lucky enough to attend a few smaller conferences, including a small one in Connecticut and two in Europe (one in Madrid, Spain, and one in Munich, Germany). The European ones are awesome because, um, they’re in Europe, but in general, I also really like the feel of a small group where you can get to know more attendees and get to chat with agents, editors, and authors in a more relaxed setting.

Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature (RUCCL): RUCCL is a great opportunity to meet up with other serious writers. All writers are assigned mentors who will critique your work and you also get together as groups of mentors and mentees to discuss writing trends. It’s just one day, and you have to apply and get accepted based on your writing sample.

Highlights Founders Workshops: These small workshops, held in Honesdale, PA, offer a great opportunity to focus on your WIP with an expert and other serious writers. I attended a non-fiction Biography workshop with the amazing Carolyn Yoder, but they also offer workshops on novel writing, plotting, and more. Another bonus to these workshops: you have an individual cabin to yourself with some time to write, as well as amaaaaaazing food prepared by an on-site chef.

Falling Leaves Retreat: This retreat is organized by the Eastern New York SCBWI chapter, and offers a great weekend with other serious writers and a group of editors. Time is divided between writing, group and individual critique, and lectures by the editors. You can also sneak in time to write and socialize with a great bunch of people.

Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) Novel Writing Retreat: The VCFA retreat is another great intensive weekend. The attendees choose between the writing and critique track, and everyone benefits from focused lectures and workshops led by the authors and editors who attend.  It’s a great place to share your work (including out loud in front of the group!), to have time to write, and to make new writer friends.

I would definitely attend any and all of these again, and I still look forward to going to many others I haven’t gone to yet: SCBWI NY, SCBWI LA, Chautauqua, Whispering Pines … the list goes on! What is your favorite conference or retreat?

Failing Better

Today on her reading and writing blog, Kelly Hashway shared her thoughts about good not being enough in her own writing:

I totally identified.

As I told Kelly, I’m always trying to improve my writing too, and I listed a few of the things that I routinely do to get there:

  • Reading great books (that “This!” moment when you see what an author has done so well). Recent a-ha moments have come from these amazing books:
    • Plain Kate by Erin Bow – poetic beauty in the sparsest of language
    • Love, Aubrey by Suzanne LaFleur – amazingly authentic voice
    • Matched by Ally Condie – a masterpiece of conflict and tension
  • Getting feedback on my work (critique partners, beta readers etc.). Everything from “I don’t think you’re starting this manuscript in the right place” to “You know, you use this word way too much.”
  • Attending conferences/retreats and reading craft books (learning from great authors/editors about how to succeed). Separate post on my favorite conferences/retreats to come!

Then I realized that this whole thing reminded me of Samuel Beckett’s words: “Fail again. Fail better.”

It’s the writing of course. My writing. The time, the effort, the work. The only way to get better is to continue to do it.

Outlining Using Agile

Bear with me, peeps.

I realize that writerly types might not be familiar with Agile Software Development.

And I realize that software types might take offense at my attempt to apply their iterative software development methodology to creative writing.

But I’ve been thinking a lot about the benefits of outlining, while realizing that I’m not very (*cough*) good at outlining. Recent events that brought me to this realization:

  • Reading a critique partner’s detailed 10-page outline. The novel was already written, but needed revisions. My reaction to reading this outline: Wow. Now that you have this, writing in all these changes is going to be easy.
  • Attending Claudia Gabel’s amazing lecture on plot at the Novel Writing Retreat at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her example outline (also approximately 10 pages) took us through the three-act novel structure. She advised that we don’t think of the outline as a prison, and reminded us that things will certainly change along the way as we begin to write.
  • Getting some very helpful feedback on a full WIP that still needs some work on the overall character arc and plot. My conclusion: a detailed outline at this stage will keep the big picture in mind before I begin to get bogged down in the details of revision.

So what does all of this have to do with Agile Development?

I know that I personally would not be able to write a juicy, detailed outline just from my original idea. This got me to thinking about Agile, and how I could borrow some of its principles and apply them to outlining:

  • Agile is iterative. It’s not set in stone. Things can change. (*sigh of relief*)
    • For me, this means I start with a “straw man,” a very rough outline. I use the 9-point-plotting technique found on my friend Cyn’s blog:
    • This also means that with each major milestone (completion of first draft, feedback from beta readers etc.) the original skeleton should be changed and beefed up!
  • Release often. My release cycles look like this:
    • Run idea and 9-step outline by critique group and begin writing.
    • Send chapters to critique partners. First chapters will probably receive multiple rounds of feedback.
    • (Keep updating outline along the way.)
    • Keep writing until draft is complete.
    • (First draft of detailed outline.)
    • Send full draft out for critique.
    • (Update detailed outline.)
    • Major revisions.
    • Send manuscript out to beta readers.
    • (Update detailed outline.)
    • *Final* revisions.
  • Hold daily scrums! As a writer, daily meetings are probably with yourself (or a critique partner if you’re lucky), but I find it’s really important to at least check in with my manuscript every day.
  • Responding to change. What I love about Agile is that if something’s not working, that’s OK. Throw it out. Change it. Embrace change!

I’m about to put this whole outlining plan into action with these WIP revisions I have coming up in April. Anyone else want to give it a go? I’d love to hear reports on if this works for others too!

Creating Colorful Characters in YA

Whether reading or writing, we all want colorful characters. People who will jump off the page and make us care. When writing for young adults, the extremes seem to be:

Typical, everyday teens = not so interesting

Teens with supernatural or paranormal skills = not all that likely

There’s more to it, of course. For instance, most of Sarah Dessen’s characters seem pretty typical on the surface. And everyone knows how successful Stephanie Meyers has been with her vampires. Yep, they attend a regular high school.

But if you look closely at Dessen’s characters, they aren’t all that typical. They have special skills, unique problems, and/or interesting challenges.  And the Twilight vampires are also firmly grounded in a very real love story.

So where’s that middle ground? Think of it like a college application. Not that all characters need a 4.0 or top SAT scores (boring!). But what they need is passion. For something. Or several things. They need to be colorful, and interesting.


Anna, from Stephanie Perkins’ ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS: passionate about films (and about a certain cute guy with great hair)

Lucy, from Cynthia Jaynes Omololu’s DIRTY LITTLE SECRETS: passionate about covering up an incredible family secret

Andi, from Jennifer Donnely’s REVOLUTION: passionate about her music and about the history she escapes into

These teens are definitely far from typical.

But it doesn’t mean they need to be vampires.

Why I Wish I Spoke Japanese

There are lots of good reasons to learn Japanese. A few have hit me over the years. I wish I could see the original versions of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, for instance. It’d come in handy at the sushi bar. And it just sounds pretty cool.

But the main reason is the literature. Some of my favorite authors are Japanese: Haruki Murakami, Banana Yoshimoto, and Yoko Ogawa. The images are so crisp, so unique. They stun me with their prose.

And the food – the food! How can you read KITCHEN and not immediately call your favorite Japanese restaurant to order up some pork katsudon? And who doesn’t crave grapefruit marmalade after reading PREGNANCY DIARY? I made it – it is good.

But of course I might be deluding myself. I don’t speak Japanese  – except “the girls are eating” and similar variants. It might just be spectacular translation. But somehow I don’t think so.

Preparing for March Madness

No, not the basketball kind – the writing kind:

I’m in!

I did a similar complete-your-draft challenge in September, clocking in more than the 25K-word goal over the month. My goal this time around:

Write 15K words on new WIP. This is 500 words/day for 30 days. Totally doable. The 25K was clearly also doable, but in a painful, studying-for-finals kind of way.

That is all. Anything else is butter.

Looking for Suspense?

Being more of a “quiet” writer, I’ve been looking for ways to add suspense to my writing.  And no, it doesn’t have to be action-suspense, like a hungry lion showing up at your wafer-thin apartment door like it did in one of my dreams last night (no joke).

Instead, one of the greatest suspense vehicles I’ve seen in the novels I’ve read this week is making your character zip it. Examples:

Jade in Helene Boudreau’s REAL MERMAIDS DON’T WEAR TOE RINGS: can’t tell anyone but her dad about her slippery predicament

Aubrey in Suzanne LaFleur’s LOVE, AUBREY: can’t tell her new best friend about her grief because she isn’t ready

Evie in KL Going’s THE GARDEN OF EVE: can’t tell her practical dad that she sees a dead boy in the graveyard every day

Awesome, awesome, awesome. So my advice, if you’re looking for suspense?

Don’t tell a soul.

book review: StarCrossed (Elizabeth Bunce)

StarCrossed is a wonderfully-told story that already has me itching for the sequel. Ms. Bunce pulls the reader directly into Digger’s world with a fantastic voice that never had me doubting anything she told me – although it was certainly helpful to have the glossary in the back!

Digger is a lovable heroine with great weaknesses and a boatload of secrets. She (and Bunce) give us some bones along the way, making for an exciting read, but they also manage to hold some inside until very near the end, where she spills to exactly the right person.

The secondary characters are likewise completely believable and intriguing, each with his or her own set of issues that interact so perfectly with Digger’s. The action leading up to the climax had me turning pages to the exciting and satisfying ending.

Well, almost satisfying. Because all I can say now is: “Pox! Now I have to wait for the sequel!”

complete-your-draft (YA) contest!

Today is the last day to enter the second annual CYD contest for Young Adult manuscripts, hosted by annemariewrites on livejournal:

She’s got a ton of cool prizes, plus the additional incentive of having a finished draft at the end of the month. Word requirement for the month of September is 25,000. Totally doable! (assuming you have something started of course)

Happy writing!