Seriously. They’re even worse than vampires.
Author Libba Bray, recent winner of the Michael Printz award for Going Bovine, gave the opening keynote at the SCBWI conference. She is also the author of the bestselling Gemma Doyle trilogy – a semi-historical fiction series featuring a beautiful Victorian teenager who discovers her “special” powers at a tightly-wound English boarding school (is there any other kind?).
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Libba’s speech since it was my first national conference, but one thing is for sure and that is that I did not expect to be belly-laughing about unicorn erotica (“feeling horny?”) and hot pterodactyl boyfriends.
Let me explain. Libba has spent a long time in the sphere of publishing and tells us, “You’ve never really lived until you’ve written jacket copy for unicorn erotica.” She continued with these wacky tales to the point of making us practically pee our pants (luckily it was the first session of the day). In fact, Libba is probably the quirkiest, funniest, most entertaining speaker I’ve heard at a conference in ages. The whole speech felt like she was putting us in a headlock and giving us a big noogie while saying, “Don’t take yourself or your writing so seriously!” This is children’s book writing after all.
I loved her so much I ran to the conference bookstore to buy Going Bovine – a tale about a teenage boy, recently diagnosed with mad cow disease, who pals up with a punk angel, a dwarf best friend and a talking garden gnome. I kid you not. I started reading it on the plane home and guess what? I LOVE it. I’m not sure what that says about me, but that’s a topic for another post…
Here is some of the witty wisdom she passed along.
1. Be the giraffe. She recounted a very sweet story of a conversation she held with her son when he was young. She was, believe it or not, distracted and impatient and trying to rush through the proceedings (anyone ever been there?). To make it seem like she was engaged, she asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” She was already preparing responses to doctor, fireman, astronaut, when he said “I want to be a giraffe.” That answer floored her and forced her to pay attention. That answer launched them into a wild, crazy and unexpected conversation. Do that with your writing, she says. “Be the giraffe.”
2. Find the cracks that let in the light. Characters need flaws in order to be redeemed. This sentiment echoes Jane Yolen’s Rule # 7 – Nobody outside of a fairy tale expects a happy ending.
3. Just say “no” to the hot pterodactyl boyfriend. Follow trends at your peril. Pterodactyl boyfriends might not work in your story. What about those narrow doorways? “I love you,” she says. “I love you too,” he says. Then WHAP – his wings smack into the doorway and he needs to turn sideways to get in. Not so hot anymore. Write what matters to you and you alone. Hot pterodactyl boyfriends may indeed be hot, but not necessarily for you.
4. First you jump off the cliff; then you build the wings. If you don’t scare yourself with your writing, then there are no stakes. If there are no stakes, it is not a story worth telling. Write like it matters, and it will.
This comedienne-writer, who crafted an award-winning story about a hallucinogenic road trip between a mad cow disease-riddled teenage boy, a dwarf, a punk angel and a talking gnome, left us with a plea to make this “The Year of Writing Dangerously.” I will certainly drink to that!
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