Monday, September 26, 2011

2011 NOSCBWI Conference Recap

As I mentioned in my last post, I attended the super-awesome 2011 Northern Ohio SCBWI conference this past weekend.  This was my fourth time attending the yearly conference and, as always, they put on a great event!  (The NOSCBWI conference was the very first conference I ever attended back when I still didn't even have a full draft of my manuscript!)  In case you couldn't be there, here's a recap of the breakout sessions and keynotes I attended.

Keynote 1: Bruce Hale "Warrior's Mind, Writer's Mind"
Author Bruce Hale got our conference off on the right foot with the Friday night keynote address.  He talked about how writing is a war we fight with ourselves, and I couldn't agree more!  He had 6 steps for writers to follow.  My favorites were:
-"Start a 'good habit' habit" (Make small goals and steadily eliminate distractions--like checking email 50 times a day!  Just think how much you'd get done...)
-"Face the Iron Tiger" (A funny story about his dog taking baby steps to face her fears of a lawn ornament.  If she can do it, we can do it, too!)
I don't want to spoil all the surprises, so you'll just have to make sure you see him at a conference someday to hear the rest!  I must say, Bruce Hale is simply hilarious and even ended his keynote with a sing-a-long.  What a great way to start the event!  :)


Keynote 2: Andrew Harwell "Hard Work Pays Off"
HarperCollins Associate Editor Andrew Harwell gave the Saturday morning welcome address.  He shared success stories from writers who kept at it, often over many years.  He also debunked the notion that "overnight success stories" are the stuff of fairy tales and that no one usually hears about all the hard work authors put in before they landed on the New York Times Bestseller list.  It made us all feel like maybe we will see that light at the end of the tunnel someday... 


Breakout A: Bruce Hale "7 1/2 Secrets of Humor Writing"
Bruce Hale was so funny, I just had to attend his first breakout session.  In it, he discussed how writers can find humor in everything if they look closely enough.  He also went over the "Rule of 9"--that for every 10 jokes you write, 9 will stink (badly).  Lastly, he recommended simply writing what you think is funny, and hopefully other people will laugh, too.  (My goodness we laughed a lot in this session!  I worked off all those muffin calories from breakfast!)


Breakout B: Andrew Harwell "Keep Your Eye On The Arc"
Andrew Harwell's breakout session focused on arcs of novels--both the plot and character kind.  He said both arcs should closely relate to each other and end with the reader feeling satisfied.  A fun thing he recommended was to set up details that would "pay off" later (i.e. like the Basilisk fang in "Chamber of Secrets" showing up again in "Deathly Hallows").  He also reminded us to never stop moving our story forward.  If something in our stories brings the movement to a halt, it needs to go!


Keynote 3: Mary Kole "3 Things That Separate An Aspiring Writer From A Published Author"
Agent Mary Kole gave our lunch-time keynote address.  (She presented at our SCBWI chapter's fall mini-conference last year and is such a delight!)  Mary discussed changes in the the Picture Book, Middle Grade, and Young Adult markets, emphasizing how "High Concept" work is highly sought after.  It's important for writers and illustrators to be mindful of these changes so they can give themselves the very best chance for success.  Her "3 Things" she encouraged us to pay special attention to in our own writing were:
1) Character
2) Voice
3) Authority
So, if you can write a book with multifaceted characters, an "extra-oomph" voice, and craft it so that the writing simply melts away, then you're golden.   (Piece of cake, right?)


Breakout C: Bruce Hale "Becoming An Authorpreneur"
Yes, I attended ANOTHER session with Bruce Hale, but how could I not with a session title like that?  In this session, Bruce talked about how authors need to take the bull by the horns and accept responsibility for their book's (and career's) success.  This was great for all authors--whether published or not.  He talked about how (tasteful) self-promotion is not a dirty word and that writers and illustrators need to learn how to celebrate their achievements and strive to make themselves seen.  He also recommended finding your "niche" (i.e. humor writer, outdoorsy writer, dog-loving illustrator, etc.) and to take advantage of social media (hooray for blogs!)  Lastly, we all worked on our "elevator pitches," and Bruce reminded us that it's nice to keep our spiel conversational so we don't end up sounding like robots to agents and editors.


Breakout D: Linda Gerber "Storyboard Plotting--Visualizing the Four-Act Structure"
Awesome author Linda Gerber (I know her!) gave a session about plotting stories in a Four-Act Structure using elements of the "Hero's Journey."  (A good term to Google if you're new to the concept.)  While writing, she plots her story on one of those science fair tri-fold boards to make sure the ups and downs of the action are where they need to be.  Each of the four acts is divided into sequences with turning points in each (i.e. "Everything seems to be going well when SUDDENLY...")  It was really neat to see a three-dimensional plot structure and the format is great because you can you move your plot points around on sticky-notes.  I'll definitely be trying this method sometime on one of my own WIP's!


Keynote 4: Gayle Brown "The Creative War At The Heart Of Children's Books"
Art Director Gayle Brown gave our closing keynote to end our day of fun and education.  My head was already stuffed to capacity by this time, so props to her for managing to cram some more info into us all!  Gayle discussed the battle between following our hearts and filling our wallets--a battle most writers are familiar with.  Sure, writers can write to trends and try to make the big bucks, but when writers write from the heart, their work is more meaningful and lasting.  She spoke about many of the Newbery Award books and how we should strive to write "timeless" books, too.  Gayle really left us all with something to aspire to.

And with that, I went home, bored my hubby to tears as I spouted off everything I learned, and fell asleep before my head hit my pillow.

Of course, there were many other breakout session and presenters, but this is just how I spent my time at the conference.  It was a fun (albeit exhausting) weekend and now I have so many new tips and tidbits to try out on my own writing!  If you're an Ohio writer or illustrator and you've never been to Cleveland to attend this conference, you should definitely try to make it next year.  I know I'll be there!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

2012 N. Ohio SCBWI Calendar Contest

This weekend while attending the Northern Ohio SCBWI conference, I received some great news: my illustration was chosen to be in their 2012 calendar!

My submission: "A Brave Voice Conquers The Beast"

The news was a bit unexpected--prior to the judging, I had no idea how I would fare in a contest with actual illustrators.  I hoped I'd be considered one of the 12 best entries who made it into the calendar, but I've never competed in anything like this before.   This whole thing started a few weeks ago when I heard that the Northern Ohio SCBWI chapter was holding a calendar contest for illustrators during their conference.  The theme was "Discover Your Voice" and anyone could enter.  The prospect made me go, "Hmmm....I would very much like to be an illustrator!  This could be fun..."  Then again, that little voice of doubt in my mind said, "Who are you kidding?  You're not an illustrator.  You can't compete with professionals.  You're a cotton-headed ninny-muggins!"  And so, I internally debated but ultimately decided, what did I have to lose?  (Remember my favorite 80's song motto by the Psychedelic Furs?  "You can never win or lose if you don't run the race?")  Well, boo-yah voice of doubt!

It took me a while to decide how the heck I was going to depict the "Discover Your Voice" theme.  (Voice can hardly be defined as a writing concept--it's even harder to draw!)  Ultimately, I thought up the idea of a mouse reading a lion a bedtime story, calling my piece (with a hint of irony), "A Brave Voice Conquers The Beast."  (Apparently, drawing those 30 Simbas in 30 Days this month rubbed off on my subconscious!)  But the idea was only one piece of the puzzle; if I was going to pull this off, I was going to have to actually create it--and that meant learning Photoshop FAST.

Over the past week, I taught myself Photoshop and worked non-stop on my entry.  (Hence the lack of blog posts recently--many apologies!)  I made a lot of stupid rookie mistakes (a word of advice: LOCK YOUR LAYERS), but learned so much along the way.  I also found a lot of great Photoshop tutorials on deviantArt and doubt I would have gotten very far without those great resources.  In the end, I lost a lot of sleep (and meals, and patience, and my sanity), but I'm quite happy with how it turned out.  Are there things my inner perfectionist wants to fix?  Of course, but I'd say it's not too shabby for my first Photoshop piece.  :)

Now that I've dipped my toe into the illustration pool and found it didn't get bitten off by sharks, I'd really like to dive deeper into my art.  It may be tiring and full of frustrations, but it makes my heart happy in the end.

The other contest entries were all great, too, and I can't wait to see everyone's art in the finished calendar!  Just a few more months until 2012!    

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

An Unexpected Furry Friend

Yesterday, I made an unexpected friend in a little lost calico kitten.  Everyone in my office saw it hiding beneath our Head Accountant's car first thing in the morning.  For some unknown reason, it took a fancy to me and scampered over as soon as I set foot in the parking lot.  Mewing, "Help me!  Help me!" incessantly, the kitten tried to follow me into the office.  It then spent the morning pawing at the window by my desk, squishing its face against the glass and meowing pathetically.  As much as I wanted to let the poor thing inside, it's out of my jurisdiction to allow strays into our building.  Fortuitously for the kitten, one of our nicest clients saw it, brought it in, and plopped it on my lap saying, "I think it wants your help."  And even the Head Accountant won't say "No" to our clients!
 
Kitten says, "Oooh!  I want to play with the camera!"
 
This is not the first time a lost animal has latched onto me.  Last summer (and to my terror), a big Pitbull followed me home while I was walking my dog.  Thank goodness, she turned out to be really sweet and did not want to eat my little Cavapoo or myself.  We gave it water, called some shelters, and brought it to a rescue center (where she was ultimately found by her owners--hooray for happy endings!)  Likewise, I put the kitten in our spare conference room, gave it part of my lunch, and took it home at the end of the day.
 
I think animals must be able to smell my bleeding heart from a mile away and know I won't turn them down.  This little kitten sparked an interesting conversation with the other employees in my office.  Like I said, everyone saw it, but I was the only one it chose to beg for assistance.  One person said they saw it and thought, "Ew--a mangy cat is hanging around the building."  Another said they had hoped it would go away so they wouldn't have to think about it.  A third employee said his wife was just like me and would have wanted to help it--or made him help it!  And one not-so-compassionate person said they couldn't have cared less if it was run over in the parking lot.  (The horror!)  Apparently, that nice client and I are in the minority of people who opt to help a critter in need.  This rather surprised me.  My insides turned to mush at the sight of an adorable, helpless kitten; other people welcomed its extermination.  All I can say is there must be a pheromone or vibe or something that makes animals run to me instead of someone who happily envisions them as roadkill!
 
So what happened to my kitten friend?  If it weren't for my allergies and the fact we already have a dog and two ferrets (one of which is quite possibly the world's most expensive ferret), we would have kept the little guy in a heartbeat.  (Even my hubby melted for it--and he doesn't like cats!)  I made a few calls to see if any of my friends would possibly want it, then hubby and I took it to the Capital Area Humane Society to check for a microchip.  Since they had room and we didn't want to risk our ferret, Link, picking up any unknown germs (now that he is FINALLY healthy again), we decided to leave the kitten at the shelter.   Hopefully, some sweet little girl will call looking for her lost pet.  (Wouldn't that be nice?)  If not, it will go up for adoption pending a health and temperament exam.  The darling was so cute and friendly, we know it will find a home in no time.  (If you want an adorable calico kitten, you should keep your eye on the shelter's website!)
 
Hubby had a grand time making fun of my bleeding heart all night long, but I feel better knowing the kitten is in good hands.  It only took a portion of my lunch, a few phone calls, and a drive to the shelter to make a difference in one animal's life.  I probably won't learn what happens to it from here, but at least I know it wasn't smushed by a car, swept into a storm drain, or eaten by a hawk.  And that, to me, is worth it.
 
Do you have a bleeding heart, too?  I'd love to hear your rescue stories!
 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Book Review #5: The Carnival of Lost Souls

This week's book review is Laura Quimby's wonderful novel, The Carnival of Lost Souls: A Handcuff Kid Novel.  It isn't an animal fantasy, but I wanted to review it anyway.  This is one of the rare instances where I can squeal, "I know this author!" and gloat about how I've basked in her awesomeness.  Quimby was in my group at the Highlights Fantasy Novel Workshop back in May and is one of the nicest authors you will ever meet.  Here's what her website has to say about her debut novel:
  
Jack Carr has been shuttled from foster home to group home to foster home his entire life. The only constant has been his interest in magic, especially handcuff escapes like those mastered by his hero, Harry Houdini. When he's placed with the Professor, however, he feels like he's finally found a home—but his new guardian is hiding a dangerous secret. 

Years ago the Professor bartered his soul to the undead magician the Amazing Mussini, and when the payment is due, he sends Jack in his place. Jack must travel with Mussini to the Forest of the Dead, a place in between the real world and the afterlife, where he's forced to perform in Mussini's traveling magic show. If he stays in the Forest long enough, he'll die himself. To find his way home, he'll have the help of Mussini's other "minions"—kids stolen just like Jack—and his wits, nothing more. Can he follow the example of his hero, Houdini, and escape the inescapable?

In case you hadn't noticed, The Carnival of Lost Souls is a creepy, ghost-filled story.  I'm a big fat pansy when it comes to scary stuff, but I found Quimby's novel to be "all in good fun" scary not, "this is going to give me nightmares for a week" scary.  Two of my favorite elements of the novel are Quimby's use of setting and pacing.  The story takes place predominantly in the Forest of the Dead--a purgatory-like place where ghosts "live" until they chose to move on.  It's full of unsavory folk--like murderers and thieves--as well as the ghosts of people who have something to regret.  Although the endless forest, villages of the dead, and underground Labyrinth are all drawn from Quimby's imagination, they feel very real.  The cold mist and spooky trees chillled me to the bone and I half-expect to find hatches to the Death Wranglers' realm next time next time I go for a walk in the woods.  But the setting is colorful and whimsical, too, particularly with the carnival show Mussini and the gang bring with them from town to town.  With the mix of fun and eerie settings, there's never a boring place in the book.  And with Quimby's vivid details, it's easy to imagine the Forest of the Dead may be just beyond your backyard woods or favorite park.

Quimby's use of pace is also superb is The Carnival of Lost Souls.  Because Jack has a streak of mischief in him, he tends to find trouble (and trouble finds him) wherever he goes.  His story moves along swiftly with plenty of cliff-hanger chapter endings that force you to keep reading.  Pick any chapter--any chapter at all--and I guarantee you won't find a single dull moment.  (I kind of sounded like a carney just then, didn't I?)  With tight scenes and tight action, I felt like I was right in the middle of the story with Jack.  This sort of pacing is hard to accomplish, but very important in Middle Grade novels.  If you write for this age group, you'll definitely want to study how Quimby's magic fingers makes this feat look easy.

I could go on and on about all the things I enjoyed about The Carnival of Lost Souls--from the characters to the emotional depth to the fantastic elements of magic--but I'll let you discover those things for yourself.  If you're writing an action-packed Middle Grade story, you should certainly check out this book.  And if you just love a good, spine-tingling adventure, then this book is definitely for you.  I know I want to see more "Handcuff Kid" novels in the future, so go pick up this book and demand, "More!  Now!" to those publishing bigwigs.  :)

You can check out Quimby's website and blog at: http://lauraquimby.com/ 

And do let me know if you read The Carnival of Lost Souls--I'd love to hear what you think.  (Halloween is just around the corner!  What a good book to cozy up with on a dark and stormy night.)   Happy reading!
  
Note: Summary blurb and cover art are both from Quimby's website.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Unspeakable F-word

It's that time of year again--the time when one terrible, chilling, soul-crushing word rises up to overthrow summer and destroy the world: FALL!  (And you thought the f-word was going to be the adult version of "fudge," didn't you?) 
 
Just the other day, I was minding my own business when I saw this horrifying sight:
 
 
Panic gripped me.  Where did summer go?  Didn't I just pack up my winter sweaters, like, yesterday?  I wanted to grab my paintbrushes and paint that red leaf green again.  I wanted to run screaming to the nearest beach.  I wanted to shake my fist at Mother Nature and say, "No!  I'm not ready yet!
 
Since the onset of fall is no new occurrence, you'd think I'd be used to the changing seasons by now.  But, I'm not.  I loathe fall.  Each year when summer starts slipping away like grains of sand in the palm of my hand, I get a little crabby.  I'm a summer girl through and through.  I LOVE the heat; my pretty flowers; trips to the beach; my summer jammies; ice cream, lemonade and cookouts; and how the daylight lingers long into the nighttime hours.
 
But fall--fall is the antithesis of all that I love.  Things I don't like include:
-It gets colder
-Football
-Raking leaves
-My flowers die
-It gets colder
-School starts, commute time doubles
-Flu shots
-Halloween
-It gets colder
-Tax season #2
-The trees get naked
-The days get shorter
-IT GETS COLDER
 
I could go on, but that would bum me out even more.  Instead, let's play the "Glad Game."  To battle my post-summer blues, hubby and I have tried hard to come up things that are fun about fall.  Things I do like include:
 
-Going to the pumpkin patch with my mom and sisters
-Hot apple cider and pumpkin-flavored everything
-The Ohio Renaissance Festival
-Dressing up my dog for the trick-or-treaters
-Curling up with a book and a blanket
-Thanksgiving (especially my mom's scrumptious stuffing!)
-The autumn litter of squirrel babies I get to watch from my office window
-One extra hour of sleep with the Daylight Saving Time change
-The Nov. release of Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (woohoo!)
-Christmas is just around the corner
 
This is a good start, but my animosity towards fall runs deep.  I'm definitely going to need a lot more reasons to like the season!  What do you like best about fall?
 
Now that the clock is ticking, I plan on soaking up the last days of summer and mentally stockpiling enough warmth and sunshine to last me the next six months.  I suggest you do, too!  (That is--unless you're one of those freakish fall-lovers.  In which case I say, "Traitor!")   
 
Have a happy Labor Day weekend!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Power Of Baby Steps

If you remember all those long months ago, I wrote in my very first blog post that I hoped to blog about a variety of topics.  My months since then have been largely occupied with reading and writing, and thus my posts have reflected my life.  But as I've mentioned before, I think it's important to carve out some time to follow other interests and endeavors.  Yes, I know, I fail miserably at this--but I am determined to break the all-work-no-play cycle!  

Part of the problem with getting back into the swing of my hobbies is that the things I used to be good at, well, I'm not so good at anymore.  One of my lofty goals is to someday be an illustrator as well as a writer.  I used to do artsy things all the time in high school, from painting to graphic design movies, even sketching during my free time at home.  Then, after my senior year, I just stopped.  Literally.  I put down my pencil and rarely picked it up for the better part of a decade.  BUT, like a missing tooth in my mouth, my thoughts always went back to that empty hole in my creative life. 

Determined not to let another chunk of my life go by without art, I asked for a graphic tablet last Christmas.  And then, I froze.  I hadn't seriously drawn anything in so many years that I became rather petrified to pick up that pencil again.  My high school art loomed down at me from my walls, scorning me.  I used to be a not-so-shabby artist; I used to know how to shade sunlight and paint fur.  I don't remember how to do those things anymore.  With great trepidation, I opened my sketch pad, gave it a go, and was so repulsed by what came out of my pencil that I slammed the pad shut and stuck it back on the shelf, cursing myself and the horrific results of my artistic drought.  But after a few days, I realized it's not that I'd become a lousy artist after all these years; it's just that I was terribly out of practice!  Michelangelo couldn't have painted the Sistine Chapel if he doodled an angel only once a year; similarly, I'll never get any better if I let ages pass between each battle with my sketchpad, and I certainly won't ever become an illustrator.  The solution: Baby Steps!

In February, I initiated a self-betterment endeavor: drawing 30 Horses in 30 Days.  The goal was simply to sketch one horse a day for an entire month, forcing me to draw and hopefully resulting in improvement.  Since the sheer thought of drawing had become overwhelming, I returned to the simplest of basics.  The idea wasn't to get it perfect--just to get something on paper.  My first week or so, I drew circles and limbs in various states of horse movement for no more than 5 minutes per day.  When that didn't send me into a downward spiral of shame, I moved on to 10 minute sketches with simple details.  I progressed over the weeks to more complicated horse positions and defined details, allowing just 15-30 minutes per drawing.  The results speak for themselves:

What started out as embarrassing...



...became a little less embarrassing...



 ...became not too bad...



 ...became significantly better...



Until I finished day 30 with something I was finally proud of. 

This handsome, scarred stallion is my very own Ellis!

(And before you yell, "Cheater!"--I promise I drew an extra horse on two days to make up for the short month!) 

Am I Monet now?  No.  But did I improve?  Absolutely.  I highly encourage you to try the same exercise with one of your hobbies or interests that's been forced to the back-burner over the years.  (I know you must have one!)  Just a few minutes each day of piano playing, knitting, juggling, speaking Taiwanese or whatever other activity you sorely miss will make that forgotten skill-set not so daunting anymore.

BUT...this exercise is only beneficial if you keep up with it.  The months since February have seen my schedule stuffed, so I have only managed to sketch a quickie horse from memory a few times a week.  (Hey, it's better than nothing!)  But, I have missed my "unofficial" daily drawing time and would like to expand the program to a new drawing subject each month.  Today is September 1st and I refuse to let another month go by without artistic progress.  And so, in honor of the re-release of "The Lion King," I would like to announce:  

30 Simbas In 30 Days!  (Rawr!)

 I dare you to pick a hobby and try the Baby Step technique, too!  It only takes 5 minutes of your day--5 teensy, weensy, measly minutes.  (Heck, even once or twice a week is a good start!)  I 100% guarantee you'll be glad you did!  :)      

And in case you feel overwhelmed, just remember what the Winter Warlock learns in "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town:"
  
Put one foot in front of the other
And soon you'll be walking 'cross the floor!
Put one foot in front of the other
And soon you'll be walking out the door!  
    
  
Time for me to go draw Simba #1!

 Picture and lyrics from "Put One Foot In Front Off The Other" are copyright Rankin-Bass