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On taking refuge

Chasing rainbows

Chasing rainbows

Trying to get a novel traditionally published can feel just about as foolish as chasing rainbows. As a child, I actually did try to catch them - and not just for the fun of pelting across a field. I really wanted to see if there was anything at the bottom. Believing in the possibility felt like it just might pay off - even though I knew deep down how unlikely that was.

This past weekend, I attended my first SCBWI conference, where the SF South members (and a few others) gather annually at the gorgeous Asilomar conference grounds in Pacific Grove. Perhaps the most provocative question of the entire event came right at the end, in the keynote by Molly Burnham. If you knew you would never get your work published, would you keep writing?

Instead of answering that, since the whole point is to ponder your own answer, I'm going to tell you the story of what really surprised me this weekend.

I promise you there is gold at the end of this post (hah...happy March), but for the TL:DR folks, I'll give you a free pass: here are some of my main takeaways from the SCBWI Golden Gate Conference at Asilomar:

  1. No matter how smart, prepared, and willing you think you are, the emotional work of writing can really kick your ass...
  2. And that's a good sign that you're taking enough risks to really get somewhere!
  3. I need to change my perspective in order to see the whole arc of my story
  4. Omens are actually pretty awesome
  5. Leprechauns are real


Okay, I'll back off on the leprechauns thing. And yes, it's a coincidence that on the last day of the conference, just when I was feeling most daunted by the huge overhaul my book needs...I took a walk to the beach and saw a scrap of rainbow peeking through grey clouds.

Metaphor, anyone?

Backing up, let me establish that self-doubt is not my thing. I deal more in vague, stoic impatience. Although I try not to let it get in the way of my creative process, I'm quite cognizant that neither of my novels are done yet. And there's no end in sight. I'm used to the slow burn of frustration, so it was completely disorienting when my experience at Asilomar took me to a darker place.

Initially bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and dressed to impress, I was so ready. The rampant squirrels had nothin' on me. Here in the invigorating ocean air, I would boost my community connections, my writer's toolbox, and my inspiration for Moonchild. 100% confidence and preparation - that's my style.

On day one, Tim McCanna's charming Nintendo-themed powerpoint envisioned emotional challenges as video game levels. He warned about the inevitable Dungeon of Depression in the writer's quest. I chuckled at the whimsical pixel art and dutifully took notes, never expecting them to be relevant so soon. Maybe when I went on submission, I thought, they might be more applicable.

Sure, I was facing a daunting amount of work first - starting with a massive restructuring of my YA fantasy. I've known that for a long time. However, while I might have been mentally okay with the idea of surgery, I wasn't expecting to roll up my sleeves and start right away.

On day two, agent Carrie Howland changed the game and made us actually workshop our plot instead of continuing to passively absorb advice and inspiration. Ugh. I literally wanted to just lie down instead. What was wrong with me? Didn't I know my own story? Why couldn't I just do the friggin' assignment?

It was disappointing to find that I was totally unready on an emotional level. Numb, drained, I tried to face the demons.

What was my central conflict, and how did each story element link back to it? What did the magical battle have to do with the oppressive temple Luna escapes at the beginning? How did her romance work with the updated female empowerment theme? Was there even room for the Fae Folk at all?

Last year, I backed away from my hot mess of a manuscript and worked on a totally different book, hoping I would have the heart to "kill some darlings" when I came back. But here I was, pen hovering like an axe, terrified of sacrificing precious scenes and characters for the greater good.

Reader, I failed. I made a few scribbles that only confirmed how stymied I felt. I tried not to let it get to me - this was a good thing. Or it would be, once I tried harder. I'd clearly been keeping myself too safe, protecting myself from this deeper work.

So many of the faculty members took care to relate their tales of failure. Nothing special about failure! Evelyn Skye even did a keynote on how hard she failed, over and over again for years. But at that moment, I was just limp and devoid of vital brain juice. Or maybe heart juice (uhhh blood technically?)

bleeding heart

The third and last morning of the Golden Gate Conference, I felt a little better. They say one of the best things about being in Kidlit is that everyone involved is just the nicest, and I really enjoyed getting to know my fellow attendees and faculty. I was having a good time, and I would leave with some great challenges to think through.

I reminded myself how Tricia Lawrence took pains to tell us that feelings of failure are totally normal as we practice new techniques. Delving to the bottom of your characters' pain - that's not really work for the intellect. It's far more comfortable to hide from the emotional depths of your story and just write on the surface level.

It was time to level up. The theme of this year's Golden Gate Conference was "Finding the Heart of Your Story," and I had the resources to do just that - once I mustered the courage.

link gets a heart

I decided to squeeze in a quick photowalk to the beach after breakfast. Even though I live in Santa Cruz, directly across the Monterey Bay, I really don't take enough advantage of our gorgeous surroundings.

And what did I just happen to spot?

rainbow patch

A tiny little patch of rainbow, gleaming in the grey. Just an eensy piece of the full arc that could spring into being if conditions - including my perspective - were just right.

I think you see where I'm going, here.

It may seem silly to read a lot into rainbows, but it happened to be just the image I needed at the moment. It got my energy going again. Let's walk through the metaphor, just for giggles.

You can't plan your way to a rainbow, you can only pay attention when just the right mix of elements is present. You have to come at it from all kinds of different angles until you're standing in exactly the right spot, and even then it can be hard to see the full arc. But sometimes, you're rewarded with something that feels like pure magic.

When the conference wrapped up, I hung out at Asilomar a little while longer, just to brainstorm a bit. Lo and behold, a few fresh ideas on the page that didn't involve removing what I really loved. That felt pretty amazing, and I have high hopes for Moonchild's chances.

And guess what I saw on the way home?

end of the rainbow

Yep, a FULL rainbow, with a hint of a double (series potential, haha...) planted right where I was headed. It may be foolish to take pictures while driving (seriously, do what I say, not what I do...) but I'll try my luck and keep chasing rainbows.


Thank you so much to ALL the amazing faculty, the organizers, and the plethora of super cool talented interesting writers and illustrators that I got to meet! And hey, you heard Evelyn - the email list is king, so fill in that "subscribe" field on my home page and get...uh...exclusive content! Yeah! :-) I'd love to follow you, too <3 <3 <3 Keep in touch.

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Photo sources:
No source available for the heart in a jar :-(