Thursday, August 5, 2010

Dazzled, Daunted, and...Determined

Dazzled: That's how I felt at the SCBW&I Conference in LA this week-end. I took a picture of the overhead ceiling chandelier in the main auditorium where all the keynote speeches were given; but the photo didn't do justice either to the chandelier or to the luminaries that distilled such wonderful inspiration and wisdom from the stage about writing, illustrating, and the book industry in general. (So -- no photo for this post.)

I can't begin to condense into one post the richness of these keynote speeches and panel discussions. Instead, I will probably be pulling out snippets from my notes from time to time and blogging in terms of what the conference meant to me. There were professional bloggers who blogged about every address and every session, including those I missed. (Interested persons can go to: to get the highlights.) In the meantime, one insight was much repeated, whether from an illustrator like Loren Long, who advised "readers must feel the book; search for your own emotional hit", or a fiction author like Marion Dane Bauer, who advised that "stories begin where the heart beats, where your heart beats," or the advice of biographer, Deborah Heiligman, who wrote, Charles and Emma, that you have to be passionately involved in your project: The key to any work of art is the true and honest emotion that drives it. Illustrator, E. B. Lewis said it another way: You recognize that first mark that captures what the right picture will be.

Daunted: So... the emotion. Advice I heard over and over again in various sessions as well as keynotes was that if you want to know what will resonate with kids, tap into the kid you were, and how you felt. Hah. Well, the kid I once was felt a lot of misery. My family moved a lot, for erratic reasons, and my childhood memories are full of pain: the pain of loss, of uprootedness, of abandonment. And in a life that turned out well (I have a happy adulthood), I notice that I try to wiggle out of painful scenes in my writing. I tend to over-protect my characters. You might say I run interference for them, and sometimes glide past where the real power of a scene might lie. Sometimes tip-toe past. But, as they say, "no pain, no gain." So I came back from the conference

Determined: I'm determined to be a braver writer than I've been in the past. I know from real life outside of story pages, that tracing a nerve of pain can turn it into a vein of gold. Young readers are coping with pain of their own. It's a good lesson for them to stumble on when reading a story that matters to them. They don't identify with the character who has it too easy, who has no worry or fear or ache. To be human is to experience the dark as well as the light and to turn the encounter into some lasting wisdom, something that made the journey worthwhile.

So... no more running interference for my characters. It's time for them to learn their own lessons and make it on their own. With a supporting nudge from me, of course.

How about you? Do you avoid the more difficult emotions and try to slide your characters by them? Or are you already brave enough to let them learn what only they can learn?


Rachna Chhabria said...

Hi Elizabeth..looks like you had a great time at the conference.
I let my characters feel all kinds of pain, I never try to avoid the difficult emotions because thats where all the lessons are learnt and maximum growth happens.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Well, what I've noticed is that I let my characters experience them to a degree, but then I pull back. I don't dig deeply enough. After reading some wonderful books recently, I can see the difference. So that's my new commitment in writing: Go deeper.

Nancy Herman said...

Mitty, I'm glad the conference was all that you hoped it would be. That is such valuable advice about letting your characters experience difficult emotions--the strongest scenes in my book in terms of what readers connect with deal with the emotional experiences of the protagonist. I think I've been trying to protect her (and my young readers) from them. Time to "go deeper" and rethink some other scenes.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Yeah, that is so hard to do... go deeper. It's always such a temptation to think you're finished when there is more to be explored!

Lia Keyes said...

What a brilliant post, Elizabeth! I completely relate to your instinct to hide from the very thing that will make our books worth reading—conflict and pain! We need the intensity of that experience in order for our readers to feel catharsis when the protagonist reaches the end of his or her journey. It's the necessary spice and heat without which the story would leave a bland taste in the mouth. :)

Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

For those who'd like to find all the SCBWI info gathered in one hub of information and updates, try out the official SCBWI fan page on Facebook, run by yours truly!

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Lia, that is so true. It is so worth joining! As is Scribblerati. Can't say enough for the friends one meets there and the good advice.

Elizabeth Mueller said...

Elizabeth! I used to feel that way at one point. I have this book that I wrote about a prince who gave up the throne so that he could avenge his mother's death along with all the women of his country. But I held him back. I hadn't realized this until I passed it around to my crit group.

The told me that he wasn't believable. I nodded and thought, they are right. I know I held him back.

Even though he is hardheaded, and arrogant as it was, I didn't let him bite along with the bark. But now, things have changed. I am going to let him loose and my book will be all the better for it.

(My current WIP are tense because I let them do their thing without my grubby fingers poking them away from it!)
Thanks for the wonderful post! :)

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Thanks, Elizabeth. I really am trying to be true to that insight now that I'm back at work on my book. The one I'm working on now started out as an adventure (and it continues to be), but I realize the protagonist is sadder and lonelier than I originally envisioned her, and I think she's a more interesting character for that.