Virtually, a Conference

Virtually, a Conference

Ruth E. Walker

To suggest that this year, in particular, has been a challenge for all of us is an understatement. Disappointments, detours and disruptions govern all aspects of our lives, from the mundane to the extraordinary. And in some weird way, that upside-down-ness is becoming ordinary. Perhaps that’s why more and more, people are finding ways to deliver what we once took for granted.

I signed up for this fall’s Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performer’s annual conference, Packaging Your Imagination. It’s been a few years since I attended my last PYI, so I was ready to learn what’s new. But with a switch to virtual, I confess to wondering if sitting all day in front of my laptop was going to be worth it.

I was not disappointed

Beforehand, I worried about video quality. I was at the cottage where our satellite internet is not always great connection-wise. But the cyber gods were smiling, and I had almost no issues on that front. Each of the sessions – from the opening remarks through to the final sign off – were presented from the homes and/or offices of the speakers. Overall, they were delivered issue-free through a live-streamed broadcast.

The day before, I was sent links for each of the sessions I’d registered for as well as links for the opening and closing keynote speakers, the after party and the trivia game. There were no glitches.

The one-to-one I booked with an editor was scheduled in advance, and Katie Scott from Kids Can Press and I chatted privately over the Zoom platform at the end of the day.

I learned

photo by John Fredericks

Each session presented me with new ideas and a couple were absolutely inspiring. Children’s author and journalist, Monique Polak’s dive into research had me scribbling like mad to capture everything she offered. And that was between laugh-out-loud moments because Monique is, frankly, hilarious, engaging and slightly off the wall.

And I learned:

  • Get excited and engaged when interviewing & sometimes quiet people open up
  • Be like a buzzard on roadkill – real life situations can be ridiculous but also inspire your muse
  • When people drink something warm (tea, coffee) they’re more likely to reveal more than when they’re drinking something cold – when we can return to in-person interviews, I’m going to test that one out

Multiple award-winning author and senior editor, Shelley Tanaka focused on finding the theme in our book. She started with exploring what many of us face when we sit down to write a book.

We start strong and in love with our story, and we go merrily along, writing with our authentic voice. We’re on a roll, we’ve sorted out all the wants, the obstacles and the stakes in our story, it’s going great.

And then…thud.

We’ve lost our way, lost interest and admit to ourselves that the story is simply not working. She suggests this is a good time to sit back and ask ourselves: What is this story about? In writing for children, she says we should consider the following when thinking about a story’s theme.

And I learned:

  • Theme is not a “message” or moral
  • It’s also not simply entertainment
  • Whatever it is, it should inspire kids (and adults in my opinion) to ask questions about themselves

Industry insights

The professionals’ panel shared what three different publishers were looking for. They discussed the pleasure of seeing a growing market for BIPOC books and they briefly discussed trends. Forget about trends, they encouraged – write the story you want to write. By the time you finish writing to a trend, readers have moved on.

From a focus on Nadia L. Hohn‘s Malaika series, I learned what goes into an illustrated picture book that is linked to another: collaboration. Between the author, the illustrator and the editor/publisher, they build on each other’s ideas and artistic qualities to connect the books in the series while bringing in freshness with each new publication.

Beginnings and endings

Both keynote presenters were perfect for their respective tasks: storyteller and author Adwoa Badoe brought the music and literary flavours of her birthplace Ghana into her opening remarks. From her welcome song to the consistent thread of “Story is an Old Woman”, we were shifted in time and place, ready to absorb what the rest of the day offered.

by Matthew Wiley

Teresa Toten, on the other hand, took us through her journey of ups and downs, sharing rejections and personal difficulties but always offering a counterpoint of touchstone music and joyful celebrations. An award-winning author of 10 books for young adults, Teresa was remarkably candid and inspiring at a time when many writers are facing challenging times. It was a perfect closing keynote.

Virtual is not in-person

Of course, there were so many conference elements that couldn’t be replicated. Networking with colleague writers, chatting directly with industry professionals over lunch, and browsing the book tables were sorely missed. While we could post questions online, the energy of a live Q&A in the same room with others wasn’t there.

Pixabay

Bio breaks, on the other hand, didn’t mean a rush down crowded hallways to the cafeteria or standing in line outside the bathroom. Nobody cared if I brushed my hair or had spill stains on my homestyle attire. And yes, I could stand up, stretch, pace the room for exercise and not miss a single detail. And I didn’t disturb a single soul.

I look forward to more conferences and gatherings with real live people in the same room with me, breathing the same air and no one wearing a surgical mask. As I said last week to my six-year-old grandson: When this is over, Reid, I’m going to hug you for 27 hours straight. He just grinned but he knew exactly what I meant.

In the interim, I’m sticking with virtual. Gwynn and I are dipping our toes in as presenters next week with our Find & Fix editing masterclass. Sponsored by The Writers’ Community of Durham Region, you can find out more about it here.

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