Sunday, May 13, 2012

More SCBWI Poconos- Building Character

So many things happened after the SCBWI PA Poconos conference to delay blogging about my experience, but I still wanted to cover my "what I learneds." Meaning: I'll be sporadically posting about the conference over the next few days or weeks. The added benefit of time and distance means that, if the message stuck, it really, truly resonated with me.

I'm going through all of the workshops and events based on mood, in no particular order. Today, I'm in the mood to talk about: Character!

(Confession: when I first signed up for the conference, I had a major brain fail and, instead of signing up for "It's all About the Characters," I signed up for "Getting into Character." Luckily, the awesome conference organizers *THANK YOU, Francesca!* were able to fix this for me. Otherwise, I'd be blogging about doodling character stick-figures in my notebook for two days. Whew!)

The 2012 SCBWI Poconos conference will always be about character for me. My own character as a person/writer  (in the personal sense of the word) as well as bringing out and understanding my characters' voices (in the fictional sense.) I was exposed to character-building moments from breakfast to dinner, in peer critiques and workshops. A lof of this was covered in my first conference post and will probably be covered again in a wrap-up post. Until then, this post is all about...

It's All About the Characters-- Stacy Cantor-Abrams (Entangled Publishing)

The workshop started out with Stacy Cantor-Abrams listing some facts about a girl named "Stacy."  These Stacy-facts were basics that didn't leave much of an impression. We didn't feel a real connection to this Stacy. Then, she told us some more information about "Stacy"-- funny stories, tidbits about her life, emotionally impacting details... and suddenly, we had a "connection" to "Stacy" (BTW, those stories? All true!) She used this exercise to show us how fleshing out a character can help the reader become emotionally invested in him or her. Details and background make a character real to the reader.

From that example, she went on to tell us about what strong characters mean to her, as an editor. Two main points stuck out to me:

1. Teen readers really want to relate to the characters in your novel. Characters are not extraordinary, it's the plot that should be extraordinary.

2. But...sometimes, the character doesn't feel special enough. She'll pass on the MS if she doesn't feel a connection to the main character.

So... how do we DO that connection/special-but-not-too-special thing?

Stacy pulled out a copy of Pretty Amy by Lisa Burstein:

*TOTAL aside here... I had seen a few "Waiting on Wednesdays" about this book and between that and  following Stacy's twitter feed's tweets with the most awesome ugly prom dress moments at RT to promote the book... well... I was kind-of dying to get my hands on this book. A girl gets locked in prison on her prom night? Awesome! I had to keep from jumping up and down about the fact that we were going to have her read from an early copy... and restrained myself from begging for a prom dress prison moment. And, no, this has nothing to do with any of my inner geek/mildly gothy/loner girl anti-promness. Not at all :) ANYway...

She read... 3?... excerpts from Pretty Amy, stopping after each excerpt to explain why the scene did a good job of fleshing out Amy's character. She talked about how Lisa Burstein had written backstories about the character relationships-- some that made it into the book, some that didn't, and even how Lisa wrote short bits to audition different types of pets for Amy before deciding on a bird (BTW, I so want to read those, though I do love, love, love her bird.)

And then she handed out a sheet of writing prompts. We were supposed to pick one prompt and put our character into that scene, free of the constraints of the plot of our stories. The idea was to learn more about our characters and how they would react to (sometimes outlandish) different situations. The person whose little bit of writing she liked the most would get that advanced copy of Pretty Amy.

I kind-of wanted that book. Like, grabby-five year-old want for that book. I really LOVE motivation.

Book-hungry, I picked "Your character falls in love at first sight" and set to work on a mini Phoebe-story. Feebs' personality and traits are still in their early stages for me. Right now, her character can very easily become a caricature or (worse) blah if I don't get her voice right, and playing with her like this really seemed to help me learn a little bit more about her. Writing that scene was fun and magical. I'm not exaggerating when I say I was grinning most of the time.

At the end of the fifteen or so minutes, not only did I end up with a scene that may slide nicely into my nebulous semi-plotted mini- sock-boy story (a bit more plotted thanks to tips from Sara Sargeant's Tension Headache workshop), but I also won the book! *throws glitter and confetti into the air* Considering how awesome some of the other pieces read aloud were-- we laughed and clapped and some felt so emotionally, wonderfully immediate-- I'm happy that Feebs made an impression.

*Issy dances around with her copy of Pretty Amy, does a twirl* It definitely lived up to my hopes. I was nothing like Amy when I was a teen and couldn't really relate to her situation, but I still cared about her. That's what makes a book great for me.*throws more glitter*

I'm glad that I was able to squeeze into this workshop. The lessons are still resonating with me weeks later. Since the conference, I've carved out "stress-free" writing times in the morning before work. Sometimes I edit or "really" write, but other times I play and learn about my characters. As emphasized by almost everyone in every workshop, just writing and working on the craft of writing-- including character development-- is necessary. (And it's just plain fun!)

Next installment for my SCBWI Poconos posts: Let's talk Tension!


  1. It sounds like an awesome time! I absolutely need to get myself to some writers' conferences! I'm so glad you're sharing what you learned--I'm always looking for new writerly advice to stew over. :) And CONGRATS on winning the Pretty Amy contest!!!! That's so exciting! :D

    1. I loved both conferences I've been to so far. SCBWI NY was huge and a little bit overwhelming (but awesome) but the Poconos conference was just the right size. Everything was a bit cozier and less formal- I didn't feel like a number and my conference-goers all became familiar, like one giant writerly and artist-y family. If you can find a smaller super-powered conf like the Poconos, I'd recommend it wholeheartedly! And thank you-- Pretty Amy definitely lived up to my hopes!

  2. Wow, what a great recap of the talk. I love playing with my characters :) Sounds like you walked away refreshed and energized to write. Woot!

    1. Thanks :) Stacy gave a great talk and the writing exercise was just plain fun! It's like we were in a giant writerly sandbox with unlimited possibilities. I'm just so thankful that the conference was as amazing as my friends promised!

  3. Congratulations on winning the book! And great tips - your character is probably the one constant for readers so they should definitely like her!

    1. Thanks! It's funny, though... there are some MCs that I hate, hate, hate, but they still snaked under my skin and made me want to read their story. Sam from "Before I Fall" was one of those characters (until about halfway through,) so she's proof that likeability isn't totally necessary. How amazing authors like Lauren Oliver do that, though, is magical and I'm still trying to figure that out!