At the SCBWI conference in Miami, I sat in the sub-zero meeting room, staring up at the row of ceiling lamps glowing like spaceships. Just above my head, I noticed a dragonfly stuck in the glass. The bug looked prehistoric, as if trapped in amber. Beside me sat a couple of slouchy teenagers--a boy and his (sister? girlfriend?)--hunched over a Wyndham hotel memo pad. They slid the pad back and forth across the table, giggling as they scribbled messages in cyber shorthand: "LMFAO." After a while, they started messing with the mints in a flower-shaped dish across from us, then a half-empty bottle of "agua purificada". I kept stealing glances at them as I listened to the speeches. Later, the boy raised his hand. He wanted to know if age mattered to publishers "if the writing is good." The answer?
Scholastic editor, Arthur Levine, figited behind the podium, trying to flick off the lights before his PowerPoint presentation. He turned to the audience and grinned. "Everyone think dark thoughts." He encouraged writers to remember that editors' tastes are subjective. The key to success is knowing: Who am I? He chuckled. "No, you're not witnessing the tragic mental deterioration of a children's editor." He posed the question: Does who I am limit what I write?
The novelist, Lisa Yee, took the stage with her travel companion--a stuffed Peep. She stuck out her arm and propped him up for a picture with us. "I'm going to do a backup because some of you guys blinked," she said. Lisa spoke about expanding your imagination beyond the borders of your upbringing. "But you better get it right," she added. Laughter is the same in any language. If viewers can identify with a talking sponge who wears square pants...why can't the identify with an Asian girl from the suburbs?
Linda Sue Park channeled the mythologist, Joseph Campbell, who believed there are only two stories in the world:
1. going on a journey 2. a stranger comes to town
She said, "Some people hate this idea because they find it limiting." Writing is so intensely personal, there is no secret to success. You can't find the magic formula by attending a conference. The so-called formula is different for every writer...and every book.
Liz Waniewski, an editor at Dial, reminded us that "voice must penetrate the entire story." And it must be there from the beginning. She listed a few outworn ideas that have crossed her desk far too often:
The new kid in town. The social outcast vs. the popular crowd. Divorce. The ordinary kid with superpowers. The hero with a secret.
Alexandra Cooper, an editor at Simon and Schuster, spoke about how a manuscript is acquired at a publishing house. She compared the experience to shopping at a mall. "If I want a feathery pink boa and you're sending me penny loafers...it's not going to work out." She encouraged writers to use the internet for research. It's also a good idea to check the acknowledgement page in the books you've read and loved.
During lunch, I had the chance to hang with cyber-pals (many I've never met in person). Jodi Turchin was my conference-buddy, cracking me up with her notebook (adorned with the words, "I am my own evil twin!") Mindy Alyse Weiss swooped me into a hug at first glance. So did Flora Doone, sneaking up behind my chair and announcing, "Hey! I know you!" (Can't count how many times I heard the phrase, "We're friends on MySpace/Facebook/Blueboards/LJ". It always takes me a split-second to place a face to the name. (instead of "the-girl-with-the-dancing-bunny-in-her-profile-pic.") That was the best part.
I also met up with my fellow Florida authors: Alex Flinn, Christina Diaz Gonzalez, Debbie Reed Discher, Gaby Triana, and Marjetta Geerling, (who signed books beside me with her feather-pen) and our literary fairy godmother, Joyce Sweeney ("We look like Christmas ornaments," she joked, wearing a bright green sweater beside my red dress). Rock on!
While waiting in line for my sandwich (What did I order? Oh yeah. I flipped over my tag...with my name printed on one side and "turkey" on the other), I met Faran (with two A's) and told him, "I'm thinking about a new character with the same name." Only I wasn't sure how to spell it (until now). Everybody drifted out to the patio and soaked up the sun. I stuffed a cookie in my purse...thank goodness...because I got recruited for the role of "room monitor" during the one-on-one critiques.
"Um...what do I have to do?" I asked Adrienne Sylver.
"Basically, you're playing bouncer." She smirked.
Every fifteen minutes, I marched around the room and announced, "Time's up," to those waiting for a chance to chat up an agent or editor. A few years ago, I sat in the same spot. No doubt, quite a few happy endings have sprung from these chance encounters. As I perched on my chair, plugged into my iPod, I closed my eyes and sent out good vibes to everybody.
On the way out, a man grabbed my sleeve and asked, "Where can I recycle this Coke can?"
I shrugged. "You can't."
I missed the Big Top party because I had another obligation--my brother's toga-themed birthday party. No way could I skip out. Back when Tim turned eighteen, I was just a "little blonde thing," as one of his buddies put it, toddling around a room filled with guys in bedsheets. They blasted Zeppelin on the radio and scarfed foot-long subs from Steve's on South Dixie Highway. Mom took a picture of me perched on my brother's shoulder. (For some reason, I'm clutching a Valentine pillow on his head and wearing a Santa hat).
Somebody transfered that photo to a Publix cake and covered it in candles. I took a new picture this time--me and my nieces, Corin (who spraypainted gold leaves for her corsage) and Corie (in her Spiderman bedsheet). We rocked out by the pool to 70s anthems that hit the charts before they were born.
Another old-school toga-dude (with a Dolphins baseball cap, Tevas and cigar) came up to me and said, "You probably don't remember the first toga party."
"Hell yes, I do," I said.
My brother said, "She'll probably write about it."
I kicked my sandals under the table and said, "Maybe."