Thursday, August 11, 2011

SCBWI Report: Libba & Laurie

As I mentioned in my previous post, I attended the SCBWI Conference in LA last weekend.  It was a whirlwind, with so many amazing moments that it took a while for my head to stop spinning.

Two of those moments included meeting two authors that I greatly admire - Libba Bray and Laurie Halse Anderson.

My girl crush on Libba Bray started five years ago, when I read the first book in her Gemma Doyle Trilogy (a MUST read for lovers of supernatural YA),  A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY.  I was at a friend's house at the seashore, having a rather bacchanalian visit with a large group of friends - actors, no less.  In the midst of all the cavorting, I found Libba's book on the coffee table.  By the way, I am THAT person - the one who can be found reading in a corner at a party.  So while the others flitted all over the house, I sank into the comfy sofa and read.  When we went to the beach and everyone else went cliff-jumping, I sat in the sand and read.  I was reading late into the night.  I finished the book in two days.

A few weeks later, back in Brooklyn, I happened to see in a magazine that Libba Bray would be on a panel (with Ann Brashares, another favorite YA author) at the first annual Brooklyn Book Festival.  After the panel, I went up to Libba and told her how much I'd enjoyed A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY.  Then I told her that my own novel had been rejected all over NYC.
"What's it about?" she asked.
"It's like a female Huck Finn," I told her.  (This was after my first novel didn't sell.)
"Who's not buying THAT?" she exclaimed.  
Her righteous indignation on my behalf was exactly what I needed to hear at that moment.  She went on to say some encouraging things, to keep writing and hang in there, and I left, buoyed by her encouragement.

Fast forward to this past weekend.  Libba delivered a delicious keynote speech on the first day of the conference, all about writing it wrong.  Let it suck, she said.  Sometimes it needs to suck before it can get better.  It was a wonderful speech on a theme that I often have to remind myself of: you can edit anything but a blank page.

On the second day of the conference, Libba held a session about characters.  She offered up tons of useful information, but one of the points she made was that you discover a lot about your characters through the actual writing.  You can write character sketches and templates and backstory, but until you're actually writing YOUR STORY, you won't truly know that character.

On the last day of the conference, I pounced.

Libba was sitting diagonally in front of me at a panel I was attending.  Afterwards, I stopped her and before she had time to call security, I told her how much her words of encouragement all those years ago meant to me.  That from that sad shadow of a person who had had her book rejected all over New York, I had grown into a more confident artist.  She was extremely gracious and bubbly, and gave me a big hug.  (Omigod!  I got hugged by Libba Bray!)  Later, I had her sign my copy of the third Gemma Doyle book, THE SWEET FAR THING, and we chatted some more.  We used to live in the same neighborhood in Brooklyn and I discovered that she is actually not a fan of the best Thai restaurant in the world (that I still miss and crave everyday).  It's okay - we can still be friends, Libba.

As if meeting Libba Bray and seeing Judy Blume do "I must...I must...I must increase my bust" weren't enough, I also got to meet Laurie Halse Anderson.

In case you've been living under a rock, Laurie is the bestselling author of several YA novels, including SPEAK and WINTERGIRLS.  I haven't read the former, but the latter just blew me away.  You want to see a master with language, read some Laurie Halse Anderson.

Immediately following Libba's fabulous speech, Laurie held a session about crafting a creative life.  So much of what she said was so relevant to my own writing life.  She made several key points, but one of them was that you have more control over how you spend your PRECIOUS time and energy that you want to admit.  And to really account for your time everyday.  She suggested setting a timer every half hour and when the timer goes off, honestly account for how you spent that half hour.  Did you spend it writing?  Or did you spend it surfing the internet, looking for that perfect pair of black pumps that you don't need?

Laurie also gave the closing keynote speech of the conference.  She said so many inspirational things in that speech that it would take twenty blogs to recount them all.  But one of the things she said that has really stuck with me was that we need to take care of our Muse.  Our Muse is like a four-year-old child, a dancing, carefree, happy-go-lucky child covered in daisies.  Would you yell at a four-year-old if she didn't reach her word count for the day?  Would you beat her up for writing a half hour less than she said she would?  You wouldn't, would you?  (And if you would, please get some therapy.)  Be kind to yourself, Laurie said.  Be gentle with your Muse.

After her keynote, I waited in line to have Laurie sign the copy of CHAINS I had just picked up at the conference bookstore.  (I just started it but so far it is SO GOOD.)  I told her how much of a Julia Cameron-Artist's Way freak I was too (she had mentioned it in her workshop) and we bonded over that.  (Yeah, Laurie and I are total buds now.)

What I really took away from meeting both these amazing writers was that they are both right there with us in the trenches.  They're both trying to figure it all out, just like we are.  They're both tearing their hair out when they can't get a scene right, raiding the cookies when they're reworking the plot for the umpteenth time, trying to balance writing and kids and life all at once too.

That's why I love conferences.  It's good to be reminded we're not alone.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

My American Idol

I'm fresh off the SCBWI Conference, which was this past weekend in my hometown, Los Angeles.  I'll be bringing you a full conference report, probably in two or three parts, over the next few days.  There were some fantastic sessions and keynote speeches, and much inspiration being doled out by the likes of Libba Bray (who's probably still showering from all the gushing I did all over her), Laurie Halse Anderson, Bruce Coville, Donna Jo Napoli, Gary Paulsen, Richard Peck...and many other worthy idols.

But I'm devoting this post to what was, for me, the highlight of the conference.

The author John Green was supposed to give a keynote on the second day of the conference, but unfortunately he had to have gallbladder surgery.  So it was announced that there would be a "once in a lifetime" surprise in place of him.  I leaned over to my friend.  "Maybe it's J.K!"

"Ooooh!" she said.  "Maybe it is!"

Okay, we didn't really think it was J.K. Rowling.  And it wasn't.  But the surprise speaker was someone who has been an idol for me since I learned to read.  Someone who is even more legendary than J.K., has been writing for decades longer, and quite literally paved the way for today's YA (hey, that rhymes!).  She was writing YA before it even existed as a genre.

Judy Blume.
Judy Freaking Blume, people!  Judy DeenieForeverAreYouThereGodIt'sMeMargaretSuperfudge Blume!

Uh, yeah.  I almost peed myself.

First, let me tell you that I read ARE YOU THERE, GOD? IT'S ME, MARGARET so many times the book fell apart.  Her books shaped my childhood.  I read them over and over again because the characters were just like me.

So when Judy bounded on stage - 73 years old and looking not a day over fifty - I was practically in tears.  Lin Oliver, the Executive Director & co-founder of SCBWI, interviewed her one-on-one, and said that she - like most women writers - had a girl crush on Judy.  I am definitely in that camp!

As Judy (yeah, I'm totally on a first-name basis with her) talked about her life and works, she had this beautiful, childlike awe at the path her life took, a real youthfulness, and a completely unassuming manner.  She talked about being a stay-at-home mom with two babies in the sixties, and how she was expected to be completely filled by that life.  But she wasn't, and the depression started to eat away at her and brought on a series of mysterious illnesses.  So she started to write.

She talked about not having the answers...just like us.  She talked about going through twenty-three (TWENTY-THREE!) drafts of SUMMER SISTERS...and what writer can't relate to that?  She talked about the fear...something we all go through.  In other words, JUDY BLUME IS JUST LIKE US. 

So here are some words of wisdom from Judy Blume:

- Your story starts on the day that something different happens.  (Though sometimes it takes you pages and pages to find that right day.)

-The best way out is through.  Write your way through the whole first draft, no matter how sucky it is.

-It doesn't get easier.  It's *a little* easier for her now because she knows how to do it, but IT (the writing, the process, the editing) doesn't get any easier.

Judy has been a member of SCBWI almost since its inception in 1971 (this year was the 40th Anniversary Conference).  She praised the organization for being a haven for writers and talked about how she wished there had been an SCBWI when she had started writing.  And that was one of the biggest things I took away from the conference: community.  We - you, me, Judy Blume, Libba Bray, Laurie Halse Anderson - are all part of a community of writers.  We nurture, encourage and challenge each other.  There was no WE (published) and THEM (pre-published) at the conference, even from a multi-published, million-dollar, bestselling author like Judy Blume.  She gets up every day, goes to her computer, and opens a vein just like the rest of us.

So yeah.  Getting to see Judy Blume, live and in-person, was a once-in-a-lifetime event.  (Although I hope she comes back to future SCBWI Conferences!)  But you know what was even better than hearing her speak about her writing?  Watching her do "I must...I must...I must increase my bust!"  That will stay with me forever!

(And if you're a boy, you have no idea what I'm talking about.)

More from SCBWI tomorrow!