By Cindy L. Rodriguez
I joined thousands of others in New York City from February 12-14 for the Society of Children Book Writers & Illustrators annual winter conference, which is always an exhausting and exhilarating experience, with every minute of the day dedicated to sessions, meeting new people, and catching up with old friends.
As usual, I was on the look out for fellow Latin@s. On Friday, I had a fangirl moment when shared an elevator with David Díaz, the Caldecott Medal winning illustrator. I lost all composure and gushed, “Oh-Wow-You’re-David-Díaz-I’m-A-Huge-Fan.” He was very kind, and I managed to speak like a normal person after my initial outburst. I don’t know for sure if he was working with the illustrators, but he was not listed in the “Faculty Bios” handout. I will preface this by saying I do not know how each person on the faculty list identifies–so I may be wrong–but I did not recognize any as Latin@. On Sunday, Matt de la Peña joined the event to sign copies of Last Stop on Market Street, illustrated by Christian Robinson, and winner of the 2016 Newbery Medal winner, a Caldecott Honor Book, and a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book.
For those of you who couldn’t attend the conference, I first offer these wonderful quotes from author Rita Williams-Garcia, whose keynote speech, titled, “Tales from the Don’t Side,” was based on mistakes she has made on the road to publication. Although, I think we can all agree that the award-winning author has done a whole lot of things right.
“I loved story. Mom called it lying. Every story is a lie until you dig deep enough for the truth. Why tell the plain truth? Don’t do that. There was nothing I could not stretch into story.”
“Live in the plan. I took every step possible to become what I wanted.”
“Don’t pick your major based on the boy with the most perfect Afro. He is bald today.”
She talked about how she was asked to “de-blackify” her first novel, Blue Tights, about Jamaican girls with “big butts and no self-esteem.” She did not, although her manuscript went through serious revisions before it was published. “I had never seen so much carnage on the page,” she said of her editor’s red pen. The picture on the left is of her marked-up manuscript. The picture on the right is the cover of her published novel.
Other fabulous word to write by:
“Don’t isolate yourself. Find your community. Don’t fear doubt. Don’t not hear criticism.”
“Live in the DO! (not the don’t).”
Now, I offer the following tips from two of the sessions I attended.
Martha Brockenbrough, author of The Game of Love and Death, gave sound advice about how to create and manage an online presence. Remember, one person’s tips, tactics, or advice never works for everyone, so consider the information below and decide what works for you.
Here are her five tips on how to build your social media platform:
- It’s not technology. It’s relationships. When online, remember that you are having conversations with real people: readers, librarians, teachers, booksellers, bloggers, and non-readers.
- Find your audience. How can you make the most of each platform? What’s natural for you? Short bits? Photos? Narrative? Curating?
- Keep it positive. Take cues from real-life manners. You will never regret kindness and compassion.
- Focus on the long term. You are not marketing a book on social media. You are building relationships with readers for the long term.
- Be authentic. Share what you love. Share what fills you with joy and wonder. Cheer on your friends.
And here are her five tips on how to keep it all manageable:
- Consider the group approach. Beat the ick of self promotion by going it together.
- Interact with your tribe. Readers are curious and love watching authors and illustrators interact in a fun and natural way. Like a panel, any time anywhere.
- Think in campaigns. #tothegirls and #ownvoices are good examples of hashtags used by authors that promoted important social issues and books, but were not simply “Hey, buy my book!” tweets.
- Be visual. A picture is worth 1,000 words and usually takes less time to produce.
- Discoverability is key. Remember to use hashtags and crosspost where it makes sense. Interact with others’ social media to spread your own.
Another session I attended was about middle grade fiction, led by Sarah Davies of Greenhouse Literary. She said now is a golden time for middle grade. I do hope there will be more titles by, for, and about Latin@s, as our middle grade book list is the shortest when compared to picture books and young adult novels.
Davies broke her talk down into eight points:
- Know what you’re writing and know the market. Chapter book series are for ages 7-9 and are generally 15,000-25,000 words, illustrated, and either character-led or concept-led. Core middle grade novels are for readers aged 8-12, with protagonists generally aged 10-13. They are longer, from 30,000-60,000 words and usually fall into one of three categories: action-adventure-fantasy stories, focused on an outer conflict, heartfelt-classic-charming stories that focus on an inner conflict/emotional journey, and tween books that are very commercial stories focused on first crushes and friendship.
- Know your reader. The interior world of a pre-teen is different than an older child’s. A middle grade child seeks an identity separate from family, as friends take priority. Don’t talk down to them. Don’t try to teach lessons.
- Voice. The voice of a middle grade child is so far from an adult voice. Work to be true/authentic. Evoke how it feels to be that age, but not with nostalgia.
- A story that does and says something original. Avoid the well-trodden plots and clichés. Your story must do and say something original that hasn’t been done before. How you tell it–your voice–will set it apart. Also, play with structural changes, look at stories through a new lens, and/or blend genres.
- A story that matters and packs an emotional punch. It has to matter. The stakes must be high. The essence of plot is a character yearning for something and being thwarted. If a character doesn’t really yearn, there’s no pay-off. Writers often aren’t tough enough on their characters. What do they stand to lose? The emotional punch/payoff must be there.
- Characters who stand out and dialogue that brings them to life. What is distinct about your protagonist? All good protagonists are in some ways outsiders. We need more diverse books and characters. It’s a no-brainer. Books should reflect the world as it is. Find ways to bring in elements that are diverse and culturally rich if you can do it convincingly. Know your character before you even write page 1. Put us in their head and heart, with authenticity, so their words match who they are.
- Give your reader surprises. Think multi-dimensionally, so every detail matters. Throw in unexpected detail, invention, or plot twists that serve your purposes. Use everything to reveal character.
- Leave your reader with something memorable. What is a great book? One you never forget because it illuminated your life–not didactic lessons, but an unforgettable journey.
Happy writing, everyone. Live in the DO!
Cindy L. Rodriguez is a former journalist turned public school teacher and fiction writer. She was born in Chicago; her father is from Puerto Rico and her mother is from Brazil. She has degrees from UConn and CCSU and has worked as a reporter at The Hartford Courant and researcher at The Boston Globe. She and her daughter live in Connecticut, where she teaches middle school reading and college-level composition. Her debut contemporary YA novel, When Reason Breaks, released with Bloomsbury Children’s Books on 2/10/2015. She can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.