Blueprinting Your Novel, Evel Knievel, and Why Sympathy Is Not a Positive Attitude: the NESCBWI 2016 Conference

At the annual NESCBWI conference, surrounded by writers and illustrators and editors and agents, it’s easy to think about community. Writing can feel like a solitary job, and it’s good to spend a weekend with people who really get it. And being around people who get it was just what I needed.

Due to scheduling and budgeting, I didn’t get to go to any writing retreats in the last year, and I didn’t realize how much I needed that time with my writing community until I got to Springfield. There’s something about being surrounded by people who share your passion and by setting aside time to remember that, no matter what the struggles, you are a writer.

A few favorite moments from the conference:

  • BSoS crit group NESCBWIGetting to spend time with my critique group, including two members who no longer live in the New England area and make the trip out for the weekend.
  • Showing off our love for The Bitter Side of Sweet by crit group member Tara Sullivan.
  • Wendy Mass‘s touching and hilarious keynote, including gems like “It’s easy enough to write what you know. Write what you want to know about,” her giant scroll of rejection letters, and how she takes magic lessons.Swings
  • Also, Wendy Mass’s blueprinting/outlining method that might legit change my writing process for the better.
  • Tara Lazar on how picture books need to be the more exciting narrative roller coaster.
  • Patrick Carman’s keynote about being inspired by Evel Knievel and how we are all entrepreneurs.
  • Amitha Knight and Padma Venkatraman‘s thoughtful and engaging workshop on writing disability, with tons of helpful resources and frank discussions about things like how “sympathy is not a positive attitude.”
  • An awesome panel about working with booksellers and educators, including shoutouts to graphic novels as legit reading.
  • Winning a copy of Jumping Off Swings by Jo Knowles in her fabulous NESCBWI bookstore‘improv’ writing workshop.
  • Seeing The Chance You Won’t Return in the conference bookstore alongside so many wonderful books (and so many wonderful books by friends!)
  • Spending time with lots of my favorite local writers and illustrators (even though there were still people I somehow didn’t run into all weekend).

I headed into May feeling inspired and rejuvenated and ready to write. No matter what you’re working on now, I hope you can find a chance to connect with your fellow writers and remember what we’re all in this together.

NESCBWI Prep: My Dos and Don’ts for Conference Newbies

One of my favorite annual conferences, NESCBWI, is this weekend, and I’m so psyched to see lots of wonderful writer and illustrator friends for a weekend of bookish inspiration. But only a few years ago, I was a total NESCBWI newbie, and was headed to Springfield equal parts excited and nervous.

In case you’re a newbie to the writing conference experience, here are my tips for getting the most out of your weekend and having a blast.

Do: use the conference hashtag
Intimidated by how everyone seems to know everyone else? Joining in on social media can be a great way to connect with a lot of people at once, and it’s way easier to meet people in real life if you’ve already interacted on Twitter. This weekend, follow along at #NESCBWI16.

Don’t: be scared to talk to people
I know, it’s hard to be the new kid. But everyone’s there because they love the same thing you do, and that means you already have something in common. Ask what they primarily write/what kind of media they use in their art/what book they’re totally fangirling over/how their last session was.

Do: take notes
It’s easy to think you’re going to remember everything from that amazing session on outlining, but details get fuzzy a week later when you’re diving back into your WIP. Bring a notebook or your laptop/tablet and jot down a few helpful points in each session.

Don’t: stress about remembering everything that was said in every talk/workshop
The stuff that really resonates with you will stick with you. Sometimes it’s more important to be present than to feel like you’re going to have to recite the workshop verbatim next week.

Do: get your time and money’s worth
Conferences can be expensive and take you away from your other responsibilities for a weekend. (Sorry, laundry, see you Monday!) Take part in workshop exercises, listen to the keynotes, join in on open mics, get a critique from an agent or editor. This is your weekend just to be a writer, so you might as well get the most out of your time that you can.

Don’t: get conference burn-out
Getting the most out of your weekend is one thing, but you don’t want to be so drained by it all that you end up zombie-walking through your last four workshops. Take some alone time when needed, or hole up in your hotel room and grab an hour of inspired writing time.

Do: dress comfortably
It’s a writing conference, not a fashion conference. (Miranda Priestly will not be there to judge you.) Modcloth-cute outfits are appreciated, but you’re also going to be walking from room to room and floor to floor and dodging people to get a seat at lunch. Comfortable shoes are key, and a lot of people wear jeans.

Don’t: forget to bring a few essentials
I like to have a notebook, a few pens, my cell phone charger, some business cards/bookmarks/other swag to hang out with my name and book on it, cash for the bookstore, and a reusable water bottle. Your essential items list may vary, but I think these are good basics.

Do: ask questions that benefit everyone
Most sessions have time for Q&A, but nothing’s worse than someone taking up 15 minutes on a question that only applies to their very specific situation. Think about questions that might apply to lots of other people in the group. If you have a specific question and the workshop presenter is available to talk after, bring it up individually.

Don’t: network all the time
We’re writers/illustrators, but we’re also people. You don’t have to be pitching your book or bragging about your daily word counts all the time. Remember that your fellow conference-goers are also people who have families, other hobbies, favorite movies, etc. The best ways to connect with your colleagues are when you remember that they’re regular humans, too.

Do: have a pitch for what you’re working on
This one is still hard for me, too. At some point over the weekend, someone will ask, “What do you write?” Instead of mumbling “Oh something about people and feelings, but it’s funny” like I do, think of a one or two sentence pitch for each of your projects.

Don’t: feel bad if you leave a critique without an offer from an agent or book deal
I’m not gonna say getting signed by an agent or editor can’t happen, but instead of worrying about getting that contract, try to focus on what’s working in your story and what you should consider in revision. And remember that not every agent/editor is the right one for you–maybe the one doing your critique could offer helpful suggestions, but ultimately isn’t the one who’s the best match for you or your book.

Do: have fun!
Conferences like NESCBWI are a great opportunity to meet people and learn more about your craft, but they should also be a chance to enjoy yourself among your peers. Writing is hard enough, so when we’re all together for a weekend, we might as well celebrate.

And if you’ll be at NESCBWI this year, copies of The Chance You Won’t Return should be available in the bookstore. I won’t be doing an official signing, but if you have a book and find me around, I’ll totally sign it for you (and give you a hug/high five).

Other conference tips? Share them in the comments!

Links Galore

Lots of links I’ve been saving:

Friday Fifteen

Happy Friday, guys! Thanks to some support and enthusiasm from my crit group, I managed to power through the first few chapters of a new project, and I’m heading into the weekend with a good writerly vibe. Here’s a look at what I’ve been reading and writing in fifteen words or fewer:

ReadingDreams of Gods & Monsters by Laini Taylor
Not my favorite of the series, but writing was still gorgeous and I love Karou/Akiva.

Writing: “…it’s surprising Lily’s managed to keep her limbs in tact as long as she has.”
I’m glad that writing isn’t a contact sport.

Links Galore

A few links I’ve been saving.

Happy Book Birthday to THE BITTER SIDE OF SWEET!

Being part of a critique group means that you see drafts way before they hit the shelves, which means that you spend a while wishing that you could tell absolutely everyone about this amazing book that they have to read right now.

Fortunately I don’t have to hold back my enthusiasm any more, because The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan, because it is available today! That’s right, you lucky readers you–you can now own your very own copy of one of the most powerful, touching books I’ve ever read. There’s totally a reason why this book has four (yes, four!) starred reviews.

The official Goodreads summary:

For fans of Linda Sue Park and A Long Way Gone, two young boys must escape a life of slavery in modern-day Ivory Coast

Fifteen-year-old Amadou counts the things that matter. For two years what has mattered are the number of cacao pods he and his younger brother, Seydou, can chop down in a day. This number is very important. The higher the number the safer they are because the bosses won’t beat them. The higher the number the closer they are to paying off their debt and returning home to Baba and Auntie. Maybe. The problem is Amadou doesn’t know how much he and Seydou owe, and the bosses won’t tell him. The boys only wanted to make some money during the dry season to help their impoverished family. Instead they were tricked into forced labor on a plantation in the Ivory Coast; they spend day after day living on little food and harvesting beans in the hot sun—dangerous, backbreaking work. With no hope of escape, all they can do is try their best to stay alive—until Khadija comes into their lives.

She’s the first girl who’s ever come to camp, and she’s a wild thing. She fights bravely every day, attempting escape again and again, reminding Amadou what it means to be free. But finally, the bosses break her, and what happens next to the brother he has always tried to protect almost breaks Amadou. The old impulse to run is suddenly awakened. The three band together as family and try just once more to escape.

In the Boston area and want to celebrate this powerful book in person? Come to The Bitter Side of Sweet’s launch party tonight at Porter Square Books!

This is a book that gives voice to the tragic reality too many children face today, and deserves to be on everyone’s reading list. Get your copy of The Bitter Side of Sweet today!

Friday Fifteen

Happy Friday, everyone! This weekend is Valentine’s Day, and I am a big Valentine’s Day fan–red, hearts, chocolate, bring it on. So for today’s Friday Fifteen, I’m going to change it up a little and make some book recommendations.

When I was a teen, I never dated anyone. I had a ton of guy friends, but there was never anyone I was interested in dating, so my closest relationships were with my friends and family. And I’m guessing I wasn’t the first nor the last teen to feel this way. When people get down on Valentine’s Day for being all about couples, I want to remind them that love exists in all kinds of relationships, and that love is just as real as romantic love. Today, I want to share fifteen favorite YA/children’s lit book recommendations that put the focus on friend and family love.

  1. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery: the ultimate book about kindred spirits and sometimes you have to find your family.
  2. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: in case you didn’t cry enough at Anne of Green Gables.
  3. A Greyhound of a Girl by Roddy Doyle: four generations of women come together to help one move on in this beautiful portrayal of family.
  4. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell: about being sisters, being friends, and learning how to grow apart and together.
  5. The Off Season by Catherine Gilbert Murdock: DJ Schwenk is my favorite, and this is the Dairy Queen book that focuses most on her family; so genuine and so touching.
  6. This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki: a touching, beautiful story about growing up and realizing your family is more complicated than you thought.
  7. Feeling Sorry for Celia by Jaclyn Moriarty: forever my go-to book about how friendships form and grow and change.
  8. How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr: love Zarr’s look at grief and loss and hope and how families can evolve.
  9. Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma: the complicated and dangerous devotion of two sisters who can only rely on each other.
  10. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein: a devastating story of bravery and friendship and all my feels.
  11. Just Visiting by Dahlia Adler: even when their paths may be diverging, Reagan and Victoria’s supportive friendship rings so true to me.
  12. Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt: this story about the messiness of grief and love and illness sticks with me.
  13. Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta: this layered story of generations of friends wrecked me in the best way.
  14. The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth: I got to the end of this book and thought, “Oh my gosh, this is a family love letter.”
  15. Beware the Wild by Natalie C. Parker: fighting for your family with a creepy Southern gothic style.

Other favorite non-romantic love stories? Share them in the comments. Happy Valentine’s day, everyone!