Those Austin SCBWI folks sure know how to show a girl a good time! From the moment we arrived, to the moment the post-barbecue dinner ended, we couldn’t have had better hospitality. We were greeted at the airport by Texas Sweethearts, Jessica Anderson and P.J. (Tricia) Hoover. Their bright smiling faces started everything off on the right note. Jessica was our driver and since we made good time into town, she took us up to Mt. Bonnell for a chilly but spectacular view of Lake Travis and downtown Austin. (We have a photo to prove it which I’ll add as soon as Jessica emails it to me.)
We freshened up at the hotel and then headed downtown to the historic — and haunted!– home of Cynthia Leitich Smith and her husband, Greg. The house is so lovingly restored to its 1920s glory that the original owner’s ghost stops in from time to time to show her approval. And it was full to the brim that night with Austin area writers and illustrators, all enjoying yummy food and drink. We made it a rather early night as I was Tricia was set to pick me up at 6:45 the next morning.
A bit weary but armed with a latte Neil had found for me in the hotel coffee shop, I was ready to go when Tricia arrived. I rode over with Lisa Graff— for whom Thursday was her last day at FSG and on Monday will begin her life as a full-time writer (be sure to read The Umbrella Summer; a favorite of mine) — and Stacy Cantor, the sharp, savvy and articulate Walker editor. After a light breakfast at the conference site, and a quick tech-run through (Jim Seippel is a saint!), the festivities were ready to commence. With outgoing RA Tim Crow emceeing the conference, the air was festive indeed. (I understand he lends his gorgeous voice to many charity events when he isn’t busy with SCBWI activities and his 6th grade class.) Mark McVeigh kicked off the day as agent provocateur, raising my blood pressure with his predictions that books are going the way of the music CD. I know he’s a savvy guy, and I admit to being a dinosaur but I hope, if he’s right, I’m dead and gone before such a thing happens. He won back my affection, however, by reciting Emily Dickinson’s “Will There Ever Be a Morning?”
The day was so full and such a blur — I overheard one woman comment that she was attending a 2-day workshop in 1 day — that I can’t fill everything in. But I can share my highlights, beginning with Anne Bustard, former co-owner of the much beloved and now gone Toad Hall bookstore and currently teaching at the College of Education at the University of Texas. I happened to sit next to her and while rummaging through my bag, realized I’d forgotten anything to take notes in. I no sooner said it aloud than she popped out of her chair, returning minutes later with an SCBWI Ideas and Images journal — which she gave me! Is that not the kindest thing you’ve ever heard? She explained away my thanks with the comment she’d been born in Hawaii — what a tribute to the spirit of Aloha.
During the day, I learned from Scholastic Senior Editor Cheryl Klein — who I think stays thin as a rail by talking as fast as a New York subway. Brilliant sound bites from Cheryl included, “A good picture book is like a silent film,” and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Law, “Plot equals compulsion vs. obstacles.” Cheryl also reminded us that we’re not our characters’ mother. For the last bit of her talk, she was joined on stage by author Sara Lewis Holmes, whose Operation Yes Cheryl edited. In a fascinating exchange, they shared what the editing process had been like for each of them.
It was a treat to meet her in person as she is my dear friend, Mary Nethery’s agent. Agent Nathan Bransford spoke, too, about finding the right agent and I loved him for giving us permission to engage in “productive procrastination.”
Marla Frazee always gives me food for thought; she said she feels the words and the illustrations of a picture books should “dance together.” She talked about puzzling out manuscripts in order to illustrate them to the best of her ability and said something that really spoke to me as a writer: “The way in is to mine the scene for emotion.” I’m going to write that out and pin that to my wall as I begin the forthcoming revision. She and Liz Garton Scanlon joined forces to create the amazing, and Caldecott Honor Award winning, All the World, and they joined forces at the conference to give a hilarious and poignant behind the scenes look at how that book came to be.
The last “panel” of the day featured local authors and illustrators who shared their favorite tips for success. It was the best one of this type of panel I’d ever heard! Tricia Hoover urged us to think outside the box by throwing away the first couple of ideas that come to mind; go deeper to get beyond the cliche. 2010 Newbery Honor awardee, Jacqueline Kelly, told how a challenge to look at how she used her time made her realize she was frittering away a lot of it. She now writes on a computer not connected to the internet and has unplugged her TV.
Shana Burg (A Thousand Never Evers) said to “have a daredevil attitude when it comes to revision,” reminding us that daredevils don’t “tinker on the edges.” Chris Barton (The Day-Glo Brothers) revealed that his 2010 Sibert Honor award winning title was rejected 23 times! He said being hard-headed is essential to getting published.
Liz Garton Scanlon encouraged us to find our community, since writing was such a lonely profession and Patrice Barton (no relation to Chris) said she shakes off a creative slump by getting back to basics (for her, as an illustrator, that means lots of sketching), stretching in some way (like taking a class) and getting messy — she highly recommends making homemade marshmallows. Jessica Anderson shared a wonderful acrostic for dealing with rejection, but I couldn’t get it down fast enough. I’ll ask her to share it with us all soon.
I was rummy by the time the 6 o’clock book signing rolled around but got my second wind talking to all the attendees I hadn’t chatted with so far. Then Jessica drove Neil and I to the barbecue at Meredith and Clay Davis’ stunning lake front home — we saw a shooting star and a gray fox enroute! –where we prolonged our good-byes to this amazing, talented and big-hearted group of folks.
For the next few days, Neil and I are playing in Austin (brunch at the South Congress Cafe this morning, boot shopping — successful!–, touring the State Capitol and the LBJ library; dinner at Vespaio tonight) so I may not make any more posts until I arrive home. Y’all will forgive me, I’m sure!