Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Table Talk – any excuse for women to get together and talk

Yesterday was this year’s Table Talk luncheon, organized in aid of the University of Houston Friends of Women’s Studies.  Over 500 women (and a couple of brave men) came together to talk over a lovely lunch – what could be more fun than that?  

My great friend, Vilma Allen, invited me to join her table at the luncheon which had been organized by another friend, Susana Monteverde.  Each table had an invited speaker to lead the discussion, and we were lucky enough to have Dr Monica Perales¸ associate professor of history at the University of Houston.  Her book, Smeltertown: Making and Remembering a Southwest Border Community focuses on the way a community could develop around a large and filthy smelting plant near El Paso.   She told us it not only focused on the men who worked at the plant, but also on the women who supported them and the cottage industries these women created within their community to develop the economic prosperity of the town.

Over a delicious lunch, we ten women talked with Monica about how food and family are inevitably intertwined. She asked each of us for a memory of food in a family setting, and the discussion led off from there:  the child who made herself sick in her Italian grandmother’s kitchen by eating half a pan of uncooked and unsupervised gnocchi mix, and the sisters who made orange marmalade at home with their mother on a wintry afternoon and strawberry jam on a summer one;  the girl and her mother who bought fish straight from the boatman on a quayside and vegetables from farmers market and the woman she became who could still smell the ocean in her mind when she recalls that day; and the Jewish mother who secretly made matzo balls for the other housewives in her neighborhood because hers were the best and they wanted to impress their husbands with beautifully light dumplings.  

Monica had done a similar exercise with her students at UofH, and was astonished to hear some of them say that they had no particular food memory from their family - that they had a working mother or were from a family who didn't really cook much.   But Monica rightly pointed out to those students that the food that means so much to our nostalgia in later life does not need to be home-made – the memory of a working mother tearing open a packet of commercial cornbread mix resonates as much with a child as the memory of picking vegetables from the garden to peel and cook.

It was a fascinating event and set off so many triggers in my writing mind, the books are just waiting to be written…

Monday, February 11, 2013

Kicking it up a notch at the SCBWI Austin conference

What a great weekend I’ve had at this year’s Austin conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.  The theme this year was Kicking it up a Notch, and it certainly inspired me to do just that.
"You cannot compete with a child's imagination - but you can foster it, support it, extend it and, most importantly, give it space."  EB Lewis
Undoubtedly, the highlight of the weekend was the amazing illustrator, EB Lewis, who opened the proceedings with a fantastic keynote speech about mastering visual language, but also spend two hours or more in the Sunday workshop painting watercolors in front of us as he talked about his art, his storytelling and his approach to both.
 As you can see from the photos, his work is so beautiful and his words were so wise - I was amazed at how much of his illustrator’s wisdom was directly relevant to me as a writer too.  One of EB's pearls which really struck a chord with me was this, "Enjoy playing in your sandbox while you are in it - don't yearn to finish too soon."  

As a new writer desperately hoping to be spotted and published, it does seem sometimes that I can't get my writing done fast enough so I can get published, that I am not really enjoying the process, I'm not any more sitting having fun in my sandbox.
"Kids don't care what you know until they knew that you care."  EB Lewis
 We had a fascinating session on the magic of picture books by the indomitable pair, writer Shutta Crum and illustrator Patrice Barton.  Their new collaboration, Mine!, is a beautifully crafted pre-school picture book that has only nine words in at – all “Mine!”  Oh, and there’s one “Woof!” too!  Their fun presentation to us gave us an amazing insight into how much deep thought goes into writing a “simple” boo, and how clever the illustrator can be in creating a full visual narrative to surround those nine words (and one woof).  This is a truly beautiful book, and I just wish my pre-teens were pre-school again so I could read it to them.

"In picture books, every book has to have a plot, even one with zero words.  And every page must have a level of excitement to make a child want to turn the page."  Shutta Crum

Patrice was awarded a coveted SCBWI Crystal Kite Award for her illustrations during the conference.  And well deserved too.  Congratulations!

I was so inspired by Shutta and Patrice that I place a successful bid in the Silent Auction for a picture book critique with Shutta, so now I am busy dusting off some old pic book ideas from years ago, and my mind is spinning with some new ones too.

As part of the Sunday workshop, I was one of a dozen writers who gave five-minute readings of their work.  What a fascinating mixture of formats – full poetic picture books for pre-schoolers, rhythmic early readers, opening chapters of dramatic young adult and middle-grade novels.  There was even a play, with the finale scene performed as a rap.  In the audience were the editors and agents who had been speaking and critiquing during the conference, and they were kind enough to scribble helpful notes to us all.  I was thrilled to receive such positive feedback to the first five minutes (about 1,000 words) of Aberlady, my YA novel-in-progress set in Scotland during World War Two.

It was also wonderful to meet up with friends I had made last year, particularly Samantha Clarke who also gave a fantastic reading of the opening pages of her YA novel.  I also met some new friends this year, Lisa Matthews, Sue Cleveland and Chad Rackowitz.  Conference organizers, Debbie Gonzalez and Carmen Oliver did a wonderful job yet again - thank you!

The Houston SCBWI Conference is coming in April, and I can’t wait!  Hope to see you there.

"Art all starts with one mark - one stroke, one step, one frame, one word..."  EB Lewis

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

I'm on my way to Austin!

Whenever someone I meet for the first time asks me “So, what do you do?”, my heart sinks a little.  In the olden days, I would have given them my job title and the organization I worked for, explained a little about my main roles and that would have given us something to talk about for a while.  Nowadays, I have two choices:  I can tell them I am a full-time mother, at which point they will either look disappointed and the conversation will quickly close, or they will talk to me about the children and their lives, and their initial interest in me as a person will be forgotten. 

Alternatively, I can tell them that I am a writer (trying not to blush or choke as I say it), knowing that their next question will undoubtedly reveal me as a fraud, “So what have you had published?”  Much as I can stutter out an explanation of magazine articles published years ago in the UK, or a glossy coffee table book (which at least shows up on Amazon if you put in my name), they are still disappointed to find out that I am not a real writer.  But they smile nicely and pat my arm and say “well, I look forward to reading your first novel, whenever it’s published,” and I wish I’d just told them about my children instead.

So can you imagine therefore how wonderful it is to go to an event where no one will doubt you when you say you are a writer?  The leading question is not, “So what do you do?” but “So what do you write?”.  If you say picture books, or young adult, or middle grade, no one looks at you sideways as if doubting the truth of your words.  Simply because you have put yourself into that group of people, sharing their ideas and paths to and beyond publication, then that must make you a writer, or an illustrator.

And if they ask you “So have you been published yet?” it is not because they you to prove your talent before they will believe you, but because they want to hear your story, to compare it to their own, to offer support and encouragement and perhaps to pick up tips from your experience too.

This will be my second year at the Austin conference of the Society of Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), and I can’t wait.  I know that this time, it will not be a room full of strangers, as it was last year.  I will be an old hand, able say hello to people I met last year, and I’ll be on the look out for those newbies who are sitting alone or looking out of place.  That was me last year, and I know I can extend a hand to them and say hello, as people did for me a year ago.  And when I introduce myself to them as a writer, they will not doubt it.

It is a liberating feeling, so know that I am with like-minded people, who have spent as much time writing as I have before they feel strong enough to call themselves a writer.  It is wonderful to absorb so much information and accept wisdom from those further down the writing road than me.  While there are inevitable pangs of envy when I hear of someone else being asked for their manuscript by a critiquing editor, or being signed up by an agent they met during that morning’s discussion groups, it is swiftly overtaken by the delight I feel to know that a new friend of yours has had a success (no, honestly, it is!).  It certainly gives me hope and inspiration that it will only be a matter of time (and lots of effort) before the same will happen to me.

So if you are trying to become a writer, please make the effort to join a writer’s group, the SCBWI or another writing organization, and go along to meetings and conferences.  Don’t be held back by shyness, or a lack of conviction that you can call yourself a writer.  If you go to one of these events, by the end of the weekend, no one will doubt that you are entitled to call yourself A WRITER, least of all you.