Writing for Fun: Reflections on a Workshop with Jo Knowles

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When was the last time you wrote just for fun? I have to admit I haven’t for a long time. It’s hard to squeeze writing time in around the rest of life, so when I get it, I feel pressure to be productive: write the next chapter, deepen a character arc, start on revisions. Something needs to get checked off the list.

So when I saw that Jo Knowles was leading two workshops at the New England SCBWI (Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference, I let out a SQUEE, put the workshop on creating memorable characters down as a must-have, and eyed suspiciously her second one titled Improv for Writers: Reinventing Your Approach to Writing “Just for Fun.” Jo writes “feel all the feels” books, like See You at Harry’s and Read Between the Lines, so part of me wanted to take the workshop, whatever it was. Another part of me wasn’t sure. I signed up anyway.

This was a Sunday afternoon workshop, the last time slot in a three-day conference. I was exhausted and my mind buzzed with overstimulation, so I couldn’t imagine being able to sit and focus on writing. But Jo, over two hours, challenged us with writing prompts on settings, characters and conflict, pushing us deeper as we transitioned from one topic to the next. She asked for volunteers to read their pieces, all words dashed off in five minutes or ten, and always found something special to highlight.

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Two things struck me about “writing for fun.” First, it was easy. I’d been entirely prepared to forgive myself for not coming up with much from the workshop except for brilliant insights collected from Jo. But spending just a few brief minutes envisioning a character or a setting let me take them farther than I would have imagined. I realized that this would be a great exercise for getting to know settings or characters when I got ready to draft a new story. Thinking about them freely before they needed to be fit carefully into a scene could make them deeper and more real.

Second, I realized everyone in the room was very inspired by the exercise. By just the act of writing for fun, writing something that they may never use in a project. Jo always had several volunteers willing to share their response. At the end of the workshop, she made a recording of everyone in the class saying, in just a sentence, why they write. If you listen to it here, you’ll hear the inspiration in the voices.

Coming out of the workshop I felt “writing for fun” was something I should fit into my everyday routine. I can afford to spend ten minutes on a writing prompt before I dive into the revision list, or on the weekend when I’m not doing “serious writing.”  Since, in the back of my mind, I’m still thinking about the “to do” list, I plan to start by directing my “writing for fun” to pieces that I may use in future stories.

When I asked the Pennies if they write just for fun, I found that most want to, but seldom have time. I did find a couple free writers. Julie Artz said, “I love free writing and would like to do more! I almost always start a new story by free writing everything I can think of about the story idea (this grows into my long form synopsis). I also free write when I get stuck (often poetry).”

Laurel Decher said, “Freewriting helps me to process life and catch funny incidents. It’s like Dumbledore’s Pensieve. In my Scrivener ‘spare parts’ file I have a folder for free writes so that I can easily move pieces to a project or a blog post.”

We’d love to hear how you fit writing for fun into your writing routine in the comments! Do you do it never? Sometimes? Always? Do you focus it on things that might be useful on a future project or just write about whatever’s in front of your eyes or on your mind?

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REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade and young adult stories that blend mystery and adventure. Her best story ideas come from her two crazy kids.

Unlike many writers, Rebecca did not write her first story at age eight…at least not fiction. She was the editor of her high school yearbook and wrote for her college newspaper. But her first fiction course scared the bejeezus out of her! Having overcome her fear of fiction, Rebecca loves see how much trouble she can get her characters into, and sometimes back out of. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.

Wisdom from the New England SCBWI Conference

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Some fellow Pennies and I recently attended the New England SCBWI Conference. New England’s is the largest SCBWI regional conference; this year there were 699 attendees. Despite its size, the conference had the feel of a family reunion, punctuated with many shrieks of recognition and tackle hugs. When individual members were honored with awards, the collective joy and pride in the room was palpable.

In addition to the good feelings, the conference was filled with fantastic advice. I had many epiphanies, and found myself furiously scribbling so as not to lose these pearls of wisdom. It turns out my fellow Pennies were doing the same (as was honorary Pennie Wendy Leiserson, whose awesome sign is above). Here is what we took away.

Karin LeFranc

Rebecca Podos: Maximize every small moment in your story. Every single choice your character makes contributes to us understanding them.

Jarrett J. Korsoczka: Remember to be bored! This sparks creativity.

AC Gaughen: An antagonist is just someone opposing your main character, and in your story they cannot complete the arc of change.

Jen Malone on School Visits: Make a 3-5 minute YouTube video of you presenting to schools and make sure you have link of this on your website and on your flyers. This way teachers and administrators get to see you in action!

Rebecca Smith-Allen

Jarrett J. Krosoczka: Don’t do a $50 job like it’s a $50 job. Do it like it’s a $500 job or you’ll always get $50 jobs.

Patrick Carman: You need to be as bold with building your audience as you are with writing your book.

Aubrey Poole: If your MC could accomplish their goal without changing, then why didn’t they do it on page one?

Gita Trelease

Jo Knowles: Try filling in these blanks for your work in progress: This is a story about a girl/boy who wants _______________. But underneath that, it’s really about a girl/boy who wants _______________. Then go further: underneath that, what does s/he want? And underneath that? Keeping asking this question—quickly, without thinking too much about it—until you go five levels deep, until you get the “sad chills.” This is the emotional core. This is what will make your readers love and root for your character.

Jo Knowles on how you know when your work in progress is done: It’s when the journey the character goes through is ultimately satisfying—true, in all senses of the word, but especially emotionally.

Jarrett Krosoczka: Make magic. Preserve wonder.

And here are mine.

Anna Staniszewski: To keep your character from sounding whiny, give him a goal, something to work toward.

Tricia Leaver: Empty your character’s pockets. What a character chooses to carry at all times has meaning and significance to them. What’s covering the walls of her room? Know this, even if it doesn’t enter the story.

Patrick Carmen: Collaborate. Helping someone else’s dream come true can lead you to something you never dreamed of.

Wendy Mass: There are downsides to this career, but the roller coaster goes up when you least expect it.

Kate photo Spring 2014Katharine Manning lives in D.C., but was happy to return to her Smithie roots for this conference. She is a middle grade writer and mom of three. You can find her on Twitter or at www.katharinemanning.com. She pushes books on people at Kid Book List.

Insider Tips To Get the Most Out of Your Next Conference

woman with suitcaseYou’ve signed up for the conference. You’ve chosen your workshops. You may even have signed up for a critique.

Now what?

You tweak and revise your MS yet again. What else? I asked the Pennies to share their insider tips on how to get the most out of your conference. So without further ado, here are their wise, funny, practical and inspirational tips!

Julie Artz: I make a list of professionals who will be there (authors, agents, editors) who are of interest and jot notes about them. Very important tip–don’t let them see this list on accident, especially if you’ve written SQUEE, or fangirl, or dream agent by their name! Also, business cards!!!

Jennifer Brister Park: Agree on the business cards! Everyone at my table had them but me at SCBWI, and it never occurred to me to bring them! Also extra paper for notes. Some of the presenters didn’t pass out copies of power points and I was writing on the back of others. If you are meeting with an agent/editor, I would have a list of questions to ask if you have extra time to kill once critique is over.

Kate Manning: To bring: A copy of the sub you’re getting critiqued, granola bar, Advil, water, gum, tissues, cough drops, your phone! (I forgot mine once), a good notebook, and pens. For prep: have a one-line description of your work at the ready, as well as a slightly longer version; I agree re info on the professionals you want to meet – even a picture so you realize if you’re standing next to them in line for coffee; map out the route ahead of time and give yourself time to get lost; I give myself a few goals for the day (e.g., introduce myself to three people) to keep myself focused on the things that really matter – building connections, honing my craft, having fun!

Kristi Wientge: A cardigan and breath mints… Oh yeah, and all that other stuff everyone else mentioned.

Rebecca Smith-Allen: What was I planning to bring to my first New England SCBWI conference? A friend (and it was Karin)! I’d recently moved back to Connecticut and was quaking at the thought of walking into my first writers’ conference, so went to my first meeting with the local critique group hoping desperately that someone planned to attend. Going to the conference with a friend is great because you have support, reports from the workshops you couldn’t fit into your schedule, and someone to sit with when you need a break from all the new faces. Just don’t use this friend as an excuse to avoid meeting new people!

Jessica Vitalis: I like to bring water and paper and dress warmly (because the conference facilities are usually freezing). As to preparation, I try to read the most prolific and/or most recent book(s) by the speakers I’m the most interested in. I also do a little research on those speakers (read a couple of their online interviews, check out their websites, etc.) so that if I have the occasion to speak with them, I can engage in topics of mutual interest. I also agree whole heartedly with Kate‘s advice––I always make sure I have prepared a short description of my work. Most of all, I remind myself that while I’m an introvert at heart, I’m bound to have a great time because I’ll be surrounded by my people––readers and writers of children’s literature.

Laurel Decher: I agree with all of the above things. Like Kate Manning I have a “goal” for every conference: to find some way to “take a risk” and stretch my writer self. Sometimes it’s pitching or signing up for a critique or something that takes me by surprise once I get there. I always tell myself that I’ll be proud to tell my family how brave I was when I get home. I like to bring something to show and tell about my work. Some conferences like “one sheets” and some like business cards or pitches.

Michelle Leonard: I usually prepare like crazy, rehearsing a pitch in the mirror and everything. Then if I see an agent, I avoid getting on an elevator with them or go find someone to talk with that I know. This year, I’ve told myself I’m going to plop down beside an agent at lunch. I’ll probably be too nervous to eat/or speak so I’m taking extra granola bars!

Karin Lefranc:  1. Volunteer if you can, as it’s an excellent way, especially if you’re shy, to connect with other writers and presenters, including agents and editors. 2. Find out what the conference hashtag is and start making connections before the conference even starts! 3. Instead of asking agents and editors the same old questions about books and publishing, ask them something completely different. If you know an editor loves knitting, ask them what they like to knit. If you read they like to travel, ask them where the strangest/most exciting/oddest place they’ve been. This way you’re really connecting as it’s not about you asking them for something. Speaking from experience, this has a much higher success rate of them asking you what you’re working on. And, if they don’t, you’ve made a real connection that you can build on whether it’s on social media or the next conference!

Good luck! Hope that these tips will make your next conference a big success!

pic of me2KARIN LEFRANC is from nowhere and everywhere. Born in Sweden, she moved at the ripe old age of three to Lebanon. After then it was onto South Africa and then England before coming to the US to attend college. She now lives in Connecticut with her French husband and four kids. She self published her first picture book A QUEST FOR GOOD MANNERS. Her first traditionally published picture book I WANT TO EAT YOUR BOOKS came out in 2015 by Sky Pony Press. She’s currently stopping through the dark ages in a middle-grade novel about trolls and giants. You can find her on Twitter