When we packed up the car Wednesday afternoon, I was wound up tighter than a trussed turkey.
Suitcases? Check, check.
Family? Check, check, and--miraculously home early--check.
Brain capable of forming a complete sentence? I think it left without me. Twenty-one weeks of anticipation had taken its toll.
We were headed for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Conference in Bologna--or at least I was. Kirk and the girls were on a quest to find Italy's best gelato. A small part of me wanted to play hooky and join them; the rest of me knew better--I was about to have an incredible learning experience not to be missed.
Saturday morning found me traveling south on the 28 bus praying I was, indeed, headed for the Bologna fair grounds in the far north-east corner of the city. The conference schedule was packed with lectures and workshops running from 8:30AM until well into the evening. And then there was Sunday morning's manuscript review with a mystery faculty member and the agents' First Pages/First Impressions session that afternoon. Gulp! My knees were bouncing under my backpack and my breakfast cappuccino wasn't to blame. A few stops later, a pair of English-speakers boarded, both writers, also headed for to the conference. If I was about to get lost, at least I was in good company--one of them was among the faculty.
Thankfully, we all made it to and across the labyrinthine fair grounds in time to hear illustrator-and-sometimes-author Paul Zelinsky's kick off session on the making of a picture book. The time and effort involved in the creation of something that will undoubtedly be torn, coloured or drooled on is staggering. I had wrongly assumed that, with the advent of computers, the work of making picture books had been greatly reduced. Making a picture book is, indeed, a labour of love and it pains me to admit that the writing is the easy part.
The second speaker was journalist, children's writer, and website designer, Candy Gourlay. She spoke about the inextricable role of the internet in the lives of our target audience. "The internet is a requirement for writers," she says, "because our audience takes it for granted." She highly advocates blogging to give readers a chance to interact and to feel as though they are contributing to the creative process. She does warn, however, that one shouldn't put the cart before the horse. "Write the book before the blog," she said.
Gotcha, Candy! Now, what was I saying?
Jana Novonty Hunter, a picture book writer and editor, closed off the morning by talking about the relationship between image and text in picture books. She presented innumerable classic tales to illustrate her points, reading excerpts and discussing the subtle skill behind the magic of their success. As far as I'm concerned, all any half-decent picture book needs is for Ms. Hunter to read it aloud. What a voice! She can read me to sleep anytime.
Young-adult novelist, Susan Fletcher, launched the afternoon with her workshop on writing fantasy and historical fiction. I adore reading historical fiction but the thought of writing something so labour-intensive is daunting. Where to begin? Susan's exercises confirmed my suspicion that the writing is within my reach. Now, if I can just get over my aversion to research... That may take a while. The afternoon closed with discussion regarding the resurgence of the graphic novel and comic books. When we finally left the fair grounds it was just past 7pm and was already dark.
I made sure to set my watch ahead on the way back to the hotel. I wasn't going to risk missing my manuscript review on account of Daylight Savings Time. I set my alarm, too, slightly earlier than I had risen that morning as the buses ran less frequently on Sundays. True to form, I woke up every hour on the hour all night. Stress management is not my forte.
I was showered, dressed, and out the door by 7AM, at the coffee shop by 7:05 and pacing at the bus stop five minutes later. The posted schedule promised the bus would arrive at 7:25, but I wasn't taking any chances. As luck would have it, the bus was on time, even by Swiss standards. I smiled at the driver as he approached, then broke eye contact to take out my ticket. As I quickly pawed through my wallet, the bus, which had been slowing down, sped up again and began to pull away.
"No! No! No!"
I sprinted after it, gaining enough ground to pound on the back door with my fist. Then, suddenly, the ground went out from under me and I was sprawled in the gutter. The sidewalk had ended. Oh, joy. The upside? The bus had stopped. I hobbled on board and took the first available seat. A little old lady across from me said something in Italian that sounded like, "That must have hurt." I smiled and nodded, showing her my black and bleeding palm. She frowned and shook her head at the driver, mumbling something that sounded like, "Putz."
I couldn't agree more.
My mystery faculty member was waiting for me when I arrived: Kathleen Duey, 2007 National Book Award nominee for children's literature. I was nervous, bleeding, bruised, and my ankle was beginning to swell. As she fished my manuscript out from her bag, I smothered a wince with what I hoped was a receptive smile. Here goes...
Her primary concern was formatting. I had not indented my paragraphs, instead leaving double returns between them. Apparently a mistake like this screams, 'numskull'--my words, not hers. She assured me, however, that the writing was very strong, as was my synopsis. Did I have any other questions?
I was stunned. I know I asked her something, quite a few things, in fact, but for the life of me I can't remember what. It was good! It was strong! Even the !@#$ synopsis! Yippee! My independent review was swiftly followed by Ms. Duey's large group session entitled, The Wordsmith's Secrets. It's a good thing I took copious notes as I'm a little sketchy on it, as well.
One hurdle was over. Only one to go. First Pages, First Impressions would begin after lunch.
Months ago, all participants were invited to submit the first page of a current work-in-progress. The page would then be read aloud and a panel of six agents would give their first impression, the key question being, 'Would they want to read on?' It was unlikely that all the pages submitted would be reviewed, but they would cover as many as possible in the time alloted.
One by one, the pages were read. Few met general approval; most garnered a mixed response. About half way through they came to Gone. I held my breath as the first agent reached for her mike.
"See, this one is short--only three lines, but it's great. I would definitely want to read more."
The agent beside her took the mike from her hand. "And when she was done, I'd want it." The rest of the panelists nodded in agreement. Gone had made a good first impression across the board--one of only a few!
The day rounded out with the second half of Susan Fletcher's workshop, after which I headed to the bus stop where Kirk and the girls were waiting.
So, what does all this great feedback mean? Is publication around the corner?
Let's not get ahead of ourselves. The only person who has read the whole manuscript is Debi, my conference informal critiquing partner and, as she would agree, work remains to be done. Let's just say I'm highly motivated to persevere.
For now, that's more than enough.