Having to present a keynote or workshop after the award-winning author Judy Blume has spoken could be construed as a daunting task but it seemed effortless for the authors I heard. Perhaps that's because Executive Director Lin Oliver and President Steven Mooser lined up an incredible team of talent for the SCBWI 40th Anniversary Summer Conference. Every presenter had something unique to offer and a different way of looking at things. Isn't that true of us all? What's inside of you? Are you making the most of your talent?
Young Adult novelist Libba Bray knocked it out of the park with her workshop Hello, My Name Is...Getting Past the First Date with Your Characters. Don't make your characters blah. Mediocre sucks. Mediocre characters don't sell books. She asked us to question the assumptions and stereotypes of characters and to try subverting them. For example what if the pretty cheerleader isn't an all-knowing stuck-up snob. What might the opposite be? Play with the stereotypes? Do only good characters do good things? Do only bad characters do villainous things? Remember villainous characters don't think of themselves as evil. There's a motivation behind everything they do.
Is there a sociopath lurking in your subconscious? Would you like to explore realms of humanity that terrify you or confuse you? Do you want to look inside a character and reveal the unexpected? And if so, how do you get there? How do you get to know your character so deeply that you know them better than they know themselves? How do you get to the deeper cuts?
She gave us several examples and exercises to try. But really the sky is the limit if you use your imagination. Use your own talents and interests to help you uncover things about your characters. For example, Libba listens to music when she writes. She loves music. So sometimes she makes a play list for her main character. What would they listen to on their mp3 player? What songs might another character make for the protagonist? What songs does your character refuse to listen to? What songs does the main character's parents listen to? Best friend? Antagonist? You get the picture.
Have you ever interviewed your main character? Wrote them a letter? Had them write you a letter? What would your main character say if they had a microphone and were speaking in front of peers? Adults? A football crowd? Try raiding the refrigerator one day and find all the foods your character loves and hates. There's all kinds of ways to get to know your character. Try keeping a spiral notebook and writing down their thoughts when they speak to you so you don't forget everything. The beginning of a novel and the end of a novel is a long process and you're bound to forget a few things along the journey so don't trust your brain to remember it all.
After lunch, author and National Ambassador Emeritus for Children's Literature Jon Scieszka treated us to dessert with his sense of humor. There really is no one like him. He's real. His opinions -- funny. The way he sees and interprets things -- authentic. His laughter contagious. He spoke to us about The Myriad Possibilities of Form, Style and Genre. His interpretation on the classic fairy tale is fresh. Hilarious. He uses his interests and childhood to create magic on the page and he shows us that ANYTHING is possible. Don't be afraid to experiment people. But above all he knows his audience and who he's writing for. He spent time getting to know his readers before he created TruckTown illustrated by David Shannon, Loren Long and David Gordon. He spent time with kindergartners until he knew every kid in the classroom. He rolled play-doh into snakes. He got down to their level. He absorbed the details. And it shows in his stories.