Saturday, August 10, 2013

Dispatches from LA: Random Notes, Inspiring Nuggets, and an Unexpected Brush with the Sharknado Set

Back from my whirlwind trip out to LA to attend the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators International Conference and I am still trying to decompress.

Short version of the trip: I laugh. I cry. I get sunburned. I gulp down coffee. I gape at famous writers and editors in elevators. I schmooze. I gush. I feel immense love for all writers and readers and everyone who has anything at all to do with putting stories out into the world.

Longer version:


I am up at 4:15 a.m. The Starbucks at the hotel does not open until 5:30.

Many hours later my best writing friend Donna and I make our way into the auditorium. Fun fact: 1200 conferees are in attendance, representing 46 states and numerous foreign countries. Lin Oliver, one of the founders of SCBWI, kicks off the conference by telling us that we're all nut balls.

First of the many inspirational and thought-provoking speakers is Laurie Halse Anderson. I write in my notes: Laurie says, be brave. Embrace the sanctity of silliness. We are an antidote to the disappointing grown ups in the world.

Speaker number two, Jon Scieszka, orders us to be subversive and to support subversiveness in kids. Our books should not put kids to sleep, he says. Wake them up, for God's sake!

I go to a break out session on self publishing where I realize it's 4:00 Ohio time and all I have eaten so far are almonds that I've scrounged off the bottom of my purse.

Lunch: I eat a yicky, over-priced sandwich and have a cool conversation with a guy who is my son's age. He pitches me his book idea and I realize that I'm probably conversing with the next Rick Riordan.

Back in the auditorium for more sessions. I don't know if it's the jet lag mixed with the coffee and hunger pangs, but I cry during the next speaker's talk. Later, an editor gives a presentation on digital publishing and all I can focus on is her idea about doorbells. Apparently, the finger we use to press a doorbell indicates how old we are.

I use my index finger. Therefore, I am old.

A session on marketing and a kick ass session on world-building from 5 brilliant and cool YA authors: Veronica Rossi, Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Tahereh Mafi, and Ransom Riggs.

Night: Donna and I sneak mixed drinks into a wine and cheese party.

The evening ends with me looking like a total goofball. I am alone in an elevator with Arthur Levine and am so flummoxed I forget to press my floor button.


I am up at 4:45! and first in line at Starbucks!

First inspirational talk that makes me cry of the day: Middle grade author Kirby Larson compares writing a book that gets overlooked to bringing a tofu casserole to a potluck.

The creative life can be hard and we should adopt a grandma--a mentor to help us navigate through the low points. The "grandmas" can be other books. She mentions the book of a writer I met at a previous conference, One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt. I start crying. It just kills me to think about Lynda, this lady I sorta know, sitting at home wherever and not knowing that her book meant so much to Kirby Larson that Kirby Lawson is giving a shout out to it to 1200 people in LA.

Illustrator Mac Barnett is freaking awesome and hilarious and brilliant. Also, he makes most of the audience tear up over his true story about whales.

I go to a break out session where Printz Award winner John Corey Whaley and his editor Namrata Tripathi talk about the process behind the author/editor relationship. Takeaway: when you get the first detailed critique of your manuscript from your editor, give yourself a few days to rage and grieve before responding.

Presentation by Matt de la Pena where he asks us what our POV as writers is. He tells a story of a girl who knows what everyone wants to hear but doesn't know what she wants to say.

I go to Brodi Ashton's session on world building and take pages of notes. Best insightful nugget: The world must be in service to the story and not the other way around. She shares advice about prologues that makes me break out into a cold sweat:

1.Write a prologue with everything the reader needs to know about the world.
2. Write the book as if the reader has read the prologue.
3. Delete the prologue.

I meet my agent for the first time and we have a lovely chat down by the pool and the whole time I keep thinking: Hey! I am having a lovely chat with my agent down by the pool!!!


I sleep in until 5:30. The Starbucks guy, Angel, knows me by name and order.

First panel is a group of high-powered agents. Lee Wind moderates and has the most tweetable bits of wisdom. There are other ways to define success besides money, he says. Like, the impact of a book on a single reader. Also, having your voice out there in the world.

David Wiesner gives us a glimpse into his creative process. His advice: always follow the story. Also, you can't just sit around and think about it. You have to do the work.

Lunch is a big lunch with everyone. Including Henry Winkler. Awards are given out and speeches are made, and I alternate between laughing and fighting back tears.

Richard Peck calls us to action. There are always survivors, he says, and we write their biographies.

The final speaker of the conference is Jarrett Krosockza. He cracks us up by reading a few of his bad reviews. His favorite: "Your book is clever and dumb," which Jarrett decides would be a good blurb for the back of the book.

On a more serious note, he reminds us that our stories can give kids an escape from an atrocious world.

That night I attend a party thrown by my agent in a cool bar on the 17th floor of some hotel. I look out at the smoggy LA skyline and I chat with other writers and artists and editors. I hold my wine glass and pass on scrumptious-looking hors d'oeuvres because I realize that it is impossible to drink wine and hold a plate and eat hors d'oeuvres at the same time. I have no idea where I am and I realize that I have no idea, in many ways, how I have made it to this cool bar on the 17th floor.


The conference is over but I've got an extra day to hang around. I write by the pool. I read. In the afternoon my brother, who lives in the area, picks me up and takes me down to the Santa Monica Pier.

He asks me how things are coming along with my book launch. I give him a rundown--the marketing, the signings planned, the party my neighbors are throwing--and the whole time I am thinking in the back of my head: I'm walking around Santa Monica Pier talking about a book I wrote--this dream I've had pretty much for my entire life--this dream that for years has been so clear, right down to the kind of pen I would use when I sign my books, is about to come true.

We eat dinner and look out at the ocean. I can't shake the hazy, jet-laggy, fish-out-of-water feeling that I have had the past few days. I've never been to the Santa Monica Pier but everything about the place feels familiar. The mountains, kind of Impressionistic-like in the distance. The beach. The Ferris wheel.

I've seen this place before, I tell my brother. I know it. And yet, I know that is impossible too. Until this trip, I have never even been to LA.

Maybe it's the set of a movie, my brother says.

It must be.

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