Every week or so, Debbie Ridpath Ohi shares new art, writing and resources for those who read, write and illustrate books for young people. The goal of the Inkygirl Word Count Challenge simple: to inspire writers to write.
Nikki Barthelmess is a journalist and author of young adult books. She entered foster care in Nevada at twelve and spent the next six years living in six different towns. During this time, Nikki found solace in books, her journal, and teachers who encouraged her as a writer. The Quiet You Carry is her first novel. You can find out more about Nikki at her website, on Twitter, Instagram and Goodreads.
The Quiet You Carry follows 17-year-old Victoria, who, after she's kicked out of her toxic family, must contend with a chaotic foster home, dodge prying eyes at school, hang onto her college dreams, and somehow protect the stepsister she left behind.
Q. Could you please take a photo of something in your office and tell us the story behind it?
This is a picture of my sister Rachelle and me when we were in college (and when I used to dye my hair blond!):
My sister and I used to fight like cats and dogs when we were growing up. After we entered foster care, sometimes we lived in separate homes. Later, after she moved away for college, our younger brother and I were adopted into a different family. Although Rachelle and I have a lot in common, our relationship continued to be rocky into adulthood, until about two years ago when our brother died. We’ve grown close, which is something I dreamed of as a teenager when all I wanted was to be just like her.
This picture on my desk brings to mind what my sister and I have overcome since all those years ago when we took it. Rather than reminding me to stew over whatever our most recent disagreement was (I’ve been told I hold a grudge!), this photograph makes me think of how special our bond is and how proud we are of each other.
Q. What advice do you have for young writers?
Most writers love reading and writing more than just about anything else. But to be able to write interesting stories, we have to live. So get out there. Do things that invigorate and scare you. Travel. Meet new people and listen to their stories. Doing so can help you learn about others, why they do what they do, and how those actions affect them.
For instance, I once had an Uber driver tell me about how he moved to America at his parents urging, leaving the woman he loved behind. His best friend ended up marrying her and the driver still thought about her every day even twenty years later. This story is tragic, but meeting this man and talking to him about duty, family, regret, and love has stayed with me. Whether or not anything from this encounter ever makes it into a story— as an idea for a book, or that feeling of longing being a character trait or motivation, for example— I am grateful for that moment of connection.
The way we see the world comes from our backgrounds and our experiences, along with the people we meet along the way and what we learn from them. That is what we have to draw from to write our books.
Q. What are you excited about right now?
I am thrilled that my debut novel is going to be published! The Quiet You Carry is about a teen experiencing foster care for the first time. Victoria wants nothing more than to move on, pretend her life is normal, and plan her escape to college. So she’s keeping her painful past hidden from her new classmates in the small town she’s relocated to, and she doesn’t want social services to know what really happened at home with her dad the night they took her away. But she’s also worried about her stepsister, left behind with her father. I won’t give too much away, but there are parts of the story that get pretty dark. But there’s also hope. I couldn’t be happier that it’s going out in the world.
I've posted advice for first-timers before and will post it again at the end of this piece, but now that I've attended other SCBWI annual conferences, here is some additional advice I have for those who have attended more than once:
Don't get offended or disheartened if people you've met before don't remember you.
This is something I've learned from both sides. As a 2nd- and 3rd-timer (and so on), I've sometimes gone up to a person or group I've met and had my confidence deflated when it becomes clear they don't remember me at ALL from the previous year. My inner reactions ranged from embarrassment, humiliation, irritation, frustration and even brief anger ("I guess I'm just NOT IMPORTANT enough for xxx to remember!! Hmph.").
Having attended many times now, I've learned the following:
- I'm terrible at remembering people unless I've had multiple conversations or interactions with the same person.
- Even then, especially if I'm tired or am in a noisy crowd (remember what I said earlier about being an introvert?) or have met many new people in a row just before, I may still forget having met someone before.
I still accidentally re-introduce myself to people whom I've met before, sometimes whom I've met EARLIER IN THE CONVENTION. I'm always horribly embarrassed when this happens.
Make sure your name badge is easily visible.
Also, when I approach someone whom I've met before but with whom I don't have constant contact, I usually try saying something that will help remind them of our mutual context, or remind them of having met at xxx. Until I'm sure they actually do remember me, I try very hard NOT to put them on the spot (e.g. I don't say, "So, what did you think of my most recent post?" etc.).
When someone does this to me (subtly or unsubtly :-) setting the context and helping me remember), I immediately feel more at ease with them and am more likely to want to chat with them in the future.
Another tip: if someone DOES remember you, never assume that they're up-to-date on all your exciting news. I've had the occasional person react badly when they realize I'm not aware of their new book ("?? But I posted it all over Facebook!") I never assume anyone reads all my posts or keeps up with all my news. People have busy lives and different priorities.
Something else I've learned: even so-called Big Name authors and illustrators can be insecure. I am faaaar from being a Big Name, but having had a bit more experience at conference-going now, I also realize how some of the Big Name types who seemed standoffish to me actually weren't.
Be gracious, be forgiving and try very hard to assume the best about a person rather than the worst.
And I apologize ahead of time if I don't remember your name or re-introduce myself. :-\
And here some tips for first-timers who feel nervous about attending for the first time, or are normally very shy or introverted and dread the idea of having to meet a lot of new people:
1. Be brave and make the first move. You'd be surprised at how many other attendees feel exactly the same way as you do. Introduce yourself to people you sit beside, stand in line with, notice standing alone.
2. TAKE BUSINESS CARDS. Yes, even if you aren't published yet. We're all going to meet a lot of people over the weekend, and taking away a business card from an encounter or introduction will help the people you meet remember you. If you're an illustrator, take postcards or make sure a sample of illustration style is on your business card.
3. Have realistic expectations. Don't expect to be "discovered" at the conference.
4. In my experience, you're much more likely to meet new people if you're alone. If you're always chatting and hanging out with the same person or people, you're not as approachable. I'm not saying that you SHOULDN'T hang out with people you like, of course! Just keep in mind that as a group, you're probably not going to meet as many new people as someone who is by themselves.
5. If you're on Twitter, write your Twitter handle on your name badge somewhere.
But most of all: TRY TO HAVE FUN.
***** A CHALLENGE TO THE "MANY-TIMERS" OUT THERE ****
Try to remember what it was like when you attended your very first event, or how insecure you felt in the beginning. Then make it a personal challenge to find at least one lost-looking or nervous conference newbie who is sitting or standing alone. Introduce yourself, chat with them, find out what they're working on, perhaps (if appropriate) offer some advice.
Give good karma and it WILL come back to you.
Here are some other tips offered by others about attending SCBWI conferences:
Now that my eyes are fixed (woohoo!), I have started reading print books again, in addition to other formats. I'm also reevaluating my reading habits. I love to read but sometimes I find that reading gets put on the back burner more often while other activities take priority. Sometimes these activities, especially family-related and work-related, NEED to take priority, but I find there are still ways to find more time to read.
I've updated my post in case one or more tips might help others.
1. I have multiple print books on the go, and keep them around the house. I usually have print books that I'm in the midst of reading in our bedroom, my office, living room, dining room, etc. Print books have the advantage over ebooks here in that just SEEING them reminds me to read them.
2. I read books on my iPhone. Yes, the screen is small but I enlarge the text to make reading comfortable. This is super-handy for reading when I may only have a few minutes, like when I'm in a line-up or waiting for someone. Or when I'm in a super-crowded subway train and am holding onto a support pole with one hand....but I can easily reach into my purse, pull out my iPhone and flip through pages with my other hand.
3. I read books on my iPad. I have an iPad Pro and find it a bit too heavy to hold for reading unless it's propped up somehow, but I find that using a pillow or my knees works fine. I prefer print books for the esthetic experience (turning print pages, feel of of a physical book etc.) but I do find that the backlit screen on my iPad enables me to read even in places with dim lighting. Some are ebooks I've bought, some are borrowed from the Toronto Public Library.
4. I read books on my Kindle. Because the Kindle is lightweight and loaded up with a lot of my ebooks, I can avoid angsting over what book to take on out-of-town trips ("I'm 3/4 of way through this book so if I finish it on the plane, what do I read next? Should I bring an extra just in case? But I'm trying to travel with just carry-on augh" etc.), I just take my Kindle and I have access to many books-on-the-go.
5. I listen to audiobooks. I remember avoiding audiobooks in the beginning because I never considered it REAL reading, plus I didn't think I could really enjoy a book by just listening to it. Then my husband played an audiobook (I can't remember the title...something about divers and scavenging in deep waters) on a long car trip and I was surprised to find it an immersive reading experience. The narration is important, though -- a bad narrator will totally turn me off a book, so I make it a habit of always listening to a sample first. I have an Audible subscription but I also borrow audiobooks from the Toronto Public Library. Whenever I'm at certain stages in book illustration, I listening to audiobooks as I draw.
As long as the story is good, I am willing to read it in any format. I do make a point of buying books from indie bookstores but I have found that my appetite for reading makes it impractical (from a budget standpoint) to buy all my reading material. The Toronto Public Library is a wonderful resource, with print and ebook and audiobooks available.
Also, I squeeze in reading whenever I can. While I'd love to save my reading stints for when I have an entire afternoon to curl up on the couch with a good book, reality is that if I always waited for The Perfect Reading Day, I wouldn't be reading nearly as many books as I do now.
OTHER RESOURCES ON HOW TO MAXIMIZE YOUR READING TIME: