Writing Strategy 101: Get Involved!

Turns out putting together a writing conference is harder than it looks. I have two years of proof to back that up.
And yet SCBWI volunteers worldwide do this every day and make it look like it’s nothing. Every minute they take to put on those conferences replaces valuable writing time, and, yet, they plan away. For so many years, I sat on the other side of that, slapped my dollars down on the counter (technically, I hit the PayPal button but somehow that image is not as powerful), sat in the audience, and asked myself the whole time if I was getting my money’s worth.  Those days are gone, much like before I became a teacher and stood in the doorway of my son’s second grade classroom thinking of how “I’d run that classroom.” (I saw those Karmic eyes staring back at me once I had my own class of second graders.)
In the end, though, when it comes together—often in a string of hard-pressed synchronicities—writing conferences are the fertilizer that writers need to grow. Especially conferences like the Second Annual Shasta County SCBWI Workshop.
What of those hard-pressed synchronicities? The first editor scheduled to attend the workshop left publishing after the initial flyers went out. So that author extraordinaire Charlie Price would not need to put on an eight hour workshop on his own (though I know he could’ve done it and done a smashing job), we began trying to find a replacement. Eventually, the initial editor attempted to contact a former colleague at a previous publishing house and, with the angels smiling down on us, Noa Wheeler of Henry Holt Books for Young Readers intercepted it. With an enthusiastic, “She’s no longer here, but I’d love to come!” we had an editor.
Between Edgar-award winning author, Charlie Price, and delightful Noa Wheeler, writers left at the end of the day with a full slew of questions to ask their characters and a technique for envisioning those characters in action. The workshop atmosphere allowed Charlie and Noa to work with writers in the moment on improving writing techniques in the moment. It allowed writers to write. And it gave all the attendees an opportunity to really get to know Charlie and Noa who made a point of connecting with attendees and finding out about their writing.
The next time you attend a writing conference, here’s my advice. If you really want to grow, get involved. We’re all busy, but look for ways to help. It’s a community effort, and the more you actually connect to the community, the more you will evolve as writers–and as people.

SCBWI Pioneers Come to Cottonwood

If we define pioneers as those individuals who go out and explore new lands then Co-Regional Advisers, Erin Dealey and Patti Newman, proved themselves SCBWI pioneers today. They made the trek from Sacramento (two hours south) and landed at North Cottonwood Elementary School’s multipurpose room, a perfect venue to meet local members and children’s book writers and illustrators.

Due to my ongoing camera issues, my camera died immediately after my first shot so I’m lacking on photo support here. In this picture is Patti Newman (left) and Maggi Milton, first timer talk before we get started.

The day began getting to know each other. Beginning, pre-published authors to veteran multi-published authors were represented. Each shared where she is in the process. And it is a process. Nobody learns this stuff in a day. It’s encouraging to hear other’s stories. It makes us realize there are so many paths to publication.

We covered some points from the Big Momma LA Conference like what editors are looking for, how to get your manuscript publisher-ready and how to get to know your character’s voice. Ahh, the mystical voice.

Erin did an awesome exercise on listening, something we can so easily forget to do. She put a bunch of ojects in the middle of the floor and asked people to pick one. My personal favorite was the rainbow-colored mohawk head mask. As you listen to your object, you find voice. (Lou, the bulldog in this picture, was not there, but if you want you can practice with him. He lives at my doctor’s office.) One of the most fascinating parts of this exercise was to see how two different people hear such different story from an object. The point: your voice is unique. Find that.

Erin and Patti represent 33 counties in Northern California, and since Cottonwood sits over two (Shasta and Tehama) they can knock a few more off their list. Thanks, Pioneers. We appreciate your pilgrimage to the great North-North.

In Search of Fall Color in the North State

Last Friday, Mike and I took a day trip. Our goal: soak up the fall color before the leaves dropped. We found color, but oh so much more.

We mapped out our route to start at Burney Falls. I hadn’t been to the Falls in over 35 years, but remembered them being quite majestic. We stood looking at them, channeling John Muir. (Read with Irish accent.) The spray from the white veils of water misted the forest where we stood, knowing this must be one of the wonders of the world.

Near the top the Falls, a doe wandered, giving us a half-stare. After walking to the base of the Falls and back up, we drove further into the park to discover a still Lake Britton. Surrounded by blackberry bushes, fall color hugged the lake. We walked to the end of a pier and soaked up the quiet. With no movemement but the rings in the water from distant ducks, the color of the surrounding trees doubled, reflected by the glassy water.

The solitude was tempting and we could have stayed all day. But alas, the volocano awaited us!

After taking a side street up to Hat Creek and seeing the observatory where the SETI folks from Mountain View base their alien search (and UC Berkeley looks for astronomical discoveries), we drove into Lassen State Park.

Mt. Lassen is the only plug volcano in the Ring of Fire and is currently active. You realize how much is going on under the earth as you pass by portions of mountain with steam barreling out. In some parts of the mountain, large sulfur ponds boil up in a witchy brew like grey matter. We drove through the park, and through the snow splattered mountain, seeing evergreens far beyond the line of sight.

The park is something to see: meadows below the peak, streams running through fields of tall, wheat-colored grass, vast views of the valley extending clear to Lake Almanor, volcanic rock reminders of the explosion some 90 years ago and trees, trees, trees.

As a child, this trip seemed like a long car ride. As an adult, my spirit renewed, I returned home grounded and inspired. The trip reminded me to keep my eyes open to the journey for it is often there that life’s purpose lies.

SCBWI Shasta County Schmooze

I just had yet another conversation with a local writer who will be attending our schmooze at The Elegant Bean on November 15. It’s going to be a party. Here’s the story.

Shasta County (and Cottonwood in particular)is small and rural. Rodeo is big and folks drink the football koolaid, starting their tykes out playing as early as they can hold themselves up while wearing pads. At the elementary school, they have two teams that play at recess: the Eagles (those on the team) and the “Suckies,” those who have not chosen to partake in the koolaid. You get the picture.

When we moved from LA less than a year ago, one of my biggest concerns was small town thinking and the impact that would have on my ability to find critique partners as dedicated as I was, network with other writers, attend conferences, workshops and retreats and so forth. My fear was I would be sitting in the corner reviewing the local practice times (and by default by snack bar shifts) for pee wee football lest my son be ostracized at his new school with no time to write and no writers to behold.

Quite the opposite has occurred.

First, I have written more then I have ever written in my life (and been paid for it as a refreshing change from my pro bono contributions when I started three years ago). The wide open space allows my mind to open somehow, giving me more ideas then I could finish in this lifetime and the quiet to play them out. I am now choosing my projects carefully as to finish revising my YA novel, though did recently have to act on an inspiration from a horse to complete a picture book (my first nonfiction).

Next, I have discovered many talented writers here. They keep a low profile, but have published numerous books and stay true to the craft. I noticed a large number of children’s writers around and not just the kind that say, “Yeah, I’ve always wanted to write a children’s book” (which is like, EVERYBODY.)

When I saw an invitation from local SCBWI RAs Patricia Newman and Erin Dealey to start a schmooze in the local area, I thought, why not? A few of us can meet and network. I sent a response with a venue (local joint where I write sometimes) and time. I got a response saying Linda Boyden wanted to do it, too. Linda and I had met through email correspondence before, and I was fairly certain she and I were the only SCBWI members in the North State. I was happy to work with her to find a time that worked for both of us, and the gig was on. That night it posted on SCBWI’s site.

“At least we’ll have two people there,” I thought. “Three, if you count Carly.”

I serve on the board of Writers Forum, a writers group in Redding with very strong writers. At the Thursday night board meeting, I asked how they felt about promoting the SCBWI schmooze as many members wrote for children and I thought it would be good if Linda and I had company. They were enthusiastic about the idea of cross-pollination and about promoting writing whatever the type. So I gave them some fliers to hand out at the Saturday meeting.

On Friday Carly called from The Elegant Bean. “I have someone standing in front of me who just came over from the library. Apparently, the SCBWI schmooze was all the talk at toddler story time and there are a number of people that want to come. Do you have fliers?”

Who knew?

Next, I got an email from the RAs telling me we had 8 confirmed schmoozers. (This all before the fliers even went out at the Writers Forum meeting.) Then, in my phone call just now with Maxine she said, “At my writing group last Monday, there were five people who said they wanted to come.”

Children’s writers, they are emerging! I am thrilled to know that interest is so high and encouraged I will have new writer friends with whom to drive to the conferences in Sacramento and San Francisco. Who knows? Maybe we might even have a workshop in our own neighborhood?

And, by the way, our son will NOT be playing football.

SCBWI Schmooze: Sunday – November 15, 1:00 – 2:00
The Elegant Bean (or next door at the Eagles Nest if we’re too many)
20633 Gas Point Road
Cottonwood, CA 96022
jamie@jamieweil.net for more info

Cottonwood and San Francisco: What Do They Have in Common?

The city of San Francisco and small town of Cottonwood can both be found in Northern California. Though they are one three hours apart they are different worlds, both unique and charming in what they have to offer.

As I type this from daughter’s apartment in San Francisco where I am visiting, I can see out over a breathtaking Bay. In about an hour fog will billow in, dipping in and out of pine-green Cypress trees and making the ocean in the distance invisible. It’s cool—55 degrees. When I go out, I grab a scarf and jacket.

In the sleepy small, rural town of Cottonwood at the top of the Central Valley where I live, my son is practicing soccer in 110 degree heat. The weather man is talking of the sought-after cooling trend, while the Bay Area weather people report that all regions (coast, bay and inland) are below record temps. The 55 degrees difference in weather amazes me.

The differences don’t stop with the weather. The City is packed with tons of people and tons of stuff—cool stuff, and lots of it. You can find a Whole Foods on every corner. People like to talk and are helpful. Farmers Markets are a dime a dozen. You can find Power Crunch Bars. And Gloomaway. And anything you want. You can take the BART straight into Bristol Farms at the Westfield Mall and then go to Burke Williams for a massage when you are done shopping at one of the 8 million stores there. (But just try and find a comfy pair of black sweats!) You can go to the food court and get silverware and real plates and 8 different kinds of veggie burgers at one stop. Diversity of all kinds surrounds you, a kaleidoscope of choice. People from all over the world come here as evidenced by the open tour buses flagging Union Square and singing, “Honey, Ahh, Sugar, Sugar” at the top of their lungs in varying accents. You are surrounded by the most entrepreneurial homeless people I’ve ever seen. There are six billion people on the planet and each person is unique. Here, they gather.

Cottonwood, a town of around 2,000, reflects a slower pace. You never have to struggle for a parking spot or pay for one once you’ve parked. You can count on a friendly wave as you drive by another even if you don’t know them. When you go into the store, people chat with you, and are always intrigued by another area code as there is only one area code there (and you don’t have to add a one and dial it.) Neighbors bring you cookies, or pecans, or cherries when you move in, depending on the season. And the seasons are clear. Hot summers. Colorful Autumns. Freezing winters with the occasional snow dust. Fragrant, blooming spring with its unpredictable spring showers and wonderfully predictable lilacs. There are no Whole Foods here, but the Trader Joes (the first and only 25 minutes away in Redding) caused quite a stir and people are still talking about it even though it’s been open 7 months now. The land swells with Native American heritage, rivers and lakes swell with fish, and forests offer beautiful hikes. The independent movie theater uses real butter. The public schools are supported by community pride. Our yard smells like horses.

What I find these two places have in common is that each is beautifully unique. Yet most people I speak with only like one or the other because they are so different. I often wonder why it is hard to appreciate these differences.

Similarly, I wonder what kind of world we would live in if each person could appreciate the differences in each person they meet for it is the differences that add such color and interest to our world. After all, wouldn’t life be unbearably dull if all places and all people were the same?

They call it that because come late spring God drops down buckets of cotton from the April skies that pass through the branches of the trees and cover the newly awakened grass with millions of Whoville cotton pluffs.
It’s a town where Front Street is the main street and Main Street is just a path to Front Street and where, come next Friday, there will be a Farmer’s Market on Main Street…or is it Front Street?
It’s a town where the sidewalks on Front Street are raised and accented by welded rings, horse-tying rings, and a proud wooden Chieftain salutes passersby in front of where the old courthouse used to be. And the Old Town Eatery.
It’s a town where my old next door neighbor owns the Holiday market, and the checker remembers who we are when we stop by for freshly baked sourdough flutes.
It’s a town with one area code—and a town where you don’t have to dial 1 and put it in when you call people around town.
It’s a town with cowboys, and ranchers and those who rebel against all that that stands for.
It’s a town that plays country music proudly in almost every store—guaranteed.
It’s a proud town.
It’s a town that loves its schools and holds a mean Education Foundation fundraiser with the auctioneer straight off the Friday Auction Yard sale who handles the live auction in fine style, auctioning off hay, gravel, fly fishing trips and a pig mount to earn over $100,000 for local schools.
It’s a town where my son’s first teacher is the best teacher he’s ever had, better than the private school teachers we paid thousands and thousands of dollars for.
It’s a town committed to seasons; in Fall leaves fall, in Spring wild Red Bud shows off big time, in Winter you dare not pour water on your frost-laden windshield and in summer the relentless sun reaches down and pushes you toward the local lakes.
It’s a town where Spring brings fresh stawberries, picked that morning that sit in local stands where you leave your money in the basket.
It’s a town where my mom drops by with fresh strawberries, fresh bread from Moore’s or fresh Lilacs from her garden.
It’s a town where the Little League Park fills full in the Spring and looks like a Ford Dealership.
It’s a town where neighbors bring you fruits and nuts when you move in, and welcome you to the neighborhood with a smile and a nod.
It’s a town where neighbors look out for each other.
It’s a town where you can go for a walk and be back in the woods with wildflowers galore and ponds that spring up from winter’s rain.
It’s a town I’ve missed.
I’m happy to be home.