Saturday, September 28, 2013

SCBWI Meeting: Presentation by Joyce Sweeney

I joined SCBWI (the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) back in May, but I had yet to go to a meeting until today because, well, I don't drive, and most of the Tampa Bay Area meetings are pretty far away. But because of some construction issue at the group's usual venue, a last-minute change ended up bouncing the meeting to a bookstore near me, and I was able to go! Hooray!

The speaker today was Joyce Sweeney. She's an author as well as a workshop leader, editor, and all around book-helper-type-person, and she spoke to us about making novels (and picture books!) succeed as page-turners.

I thought this would be a pretty good topic for me to check out, because I tend to keep a lot of the story in my protagonist's head. I've learned a lot recently about reinforcing the thoughts with external clues and cutting down on the "pause action while character thinks" type narration, but I can always use an expert perspective with extra hints. I'm glad I attended because the ideas Joyce presented were quite helpful and I can see applying her principles more directly in my other developing works.

Joyce talked a lot about concepts such as delay and escalation, picking apart scenes in both fiction and picture books, explaining how choices the authors made helped pull the reader in and set them up for getting invested in what's happening on the page. She discussed how to hint at feelings and show, say, tension, rather than saying "she was tense" or "the atmosphere was tense." And she also touched on how authors often think the reader isn't as perceptive as they are, and how important it is to plant recognizable elements so the reader will "feel smart" when they see where you're going and realize they're right during the payoff.

There were plenty of interesting nuggets during the presentation, but I thought I'd share with you some stuff I scribbled down regarding hints on keeping the pages turning--elements you can include to keep your action moving along and keep the reader's interest.

  • A ticking clock: Literally or figuratively, have the story moving toward something that is counting down. Time is running out, or a big event is getting closer. Keep reminding the reader about that ticking clock as the end approaches.

  • Foreshadowing: You have to be delicate with this, but plant in early echoes of the major action that will go on later so the reader is associating images and building connections with the important aspects of the climax.

  • Include seemingly unimportant details that are important later: This goes back to making the reader feel smart. Reinforce the story's forward motion by scattering hints of where it's going that will fall into place for the reader when they get to the high point of the action.

  • Use chapter endings to build tension: Find the best places to break so you're either satisfying or tantalizing your reader. Stopping the action and going somewhere else temporarily can make a good plateau for readers to digest and appreciate your forward motion. Both literal and figurative cliffhangers can work here.

  • Threaten the protagonist's most precious thing: This can be literal--as in, you can threaten something or someone that matters to the main character, through making the story put a person in danger or threaten to take away an object that is important--or it can be figurative, such as building stakes for the protagonist to win or gain something and then twist the story to threaten their success.

  • Establish a problem and then escalate: Once you know what the problem is for the protagonist, keep building to make it worse or increase the stakes.

  • Manipulate the setting: A good climactic scene or escalation can be enhanced by introducing thematic elements that play up the mood or in some way make the action more significant. Symbolism and imagery can make your scenes more visceral and increase your reader's connection.

  • Let the main character fail: Even if they will eventually succeed at their goals, letting them have a small failure or making it seem like they can't win or actually having them lose before they win is a great way to keep people invested in the story, because they'll realize how much they want the protagonist to get what they want. (Yeah, I use this one a lot. Every one of my books has this.)

  • Withhold information: You shouldn't dance around revealing what the main character knows just to drive your reader up the wall, but refraining from babbling all the interesting information into the narration will help keep your reader interested in finding out the answers to the questions they're developing.

  • Flashbacks and dreams: Pulling the reader into the character's head where they relive something related to the current story or express their fears and fantasies through dreams can show the reader something other than what's happening right now, helping to flesh the character out and naturally show their inner landscape. (For the record, nearly all of the flashbacks and dream sequences I've seen in amateur writing were somewhat painfully shoehorned in and felt lazy, so be careful here.)

And that's it! Besides the presentation and its several examples, we also had a door prize giveaway (though I didn't win anything, boo-hoo), and I got to chat with a couple lovely folks who were sitting near me. I wish I could go to more of these meetings, but being limited by where I can ride on my bike is a bit of a problem. Maybe before the next one I'll figure out if there are other Tampa-area authors who might be interested in carpools. . . . 

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