This is the first in a series of posts on the 2008 Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature One-on-One Mentoring Conference. (Because I have 20 pages of notes to share!)

Phew! What a whirlwind day! I mingled with editors, mixed with agents, and milled about with other aspiring authors at the RUCCL mentoring conference. My head is spinning with suggestions. So where to start? Well, I’ll begin at the end, with keynote speaker K.L. Going. The author of Fat Kid Rules the World and The Liberation of Gabriel King wrapped up the event with an inspiring speech about “writing across the lines.”

Agent Linda Pratt introduces K.L. Going

Agent Linda Pratt introduces K.L. Going

K.L. began by telling us what we already know: as writers, we have many, many rules to follow. Manuscript length. Formatting. Submission guidelines. Avoid passive voice. Don’t write didactic tales.

“But writers are creative souls,” she said. “It’s hard for us to color within the lines.”

She stopped her speech and asked everyone to stand up. And then she told us to shake off those rules! So I grabbed my friend Jill by the shoulders and shimmied her around. She returned the favor. Wubba wubba wubba! Boy, that felt good!

“Despite what anyone else says,” she said, “there are times you must step across those lines.” She relayed her early writing experience, sitting on the floor of her sparse employee housing at Mohonk Mountain House, typing away on her laptop. It was the happiest time in her life because she wrote without rules. She didn’t care if anyone read her work, she simply wrote because that’s what brought her the most joy. She wasn’t thinking about marketability, high-concept hooks, or the current list of best-sellers. However, it was also the least productive time in her life since she wasn’t writing with that intention to sell.

So how can writers be both happy and productive? You need to choose which lines you’re willing to cross while staying inside others. With Fat Kid Rules the World, she wanted to create a character that wasn’t familiar. Troy is dirty, smelly and raw. And to some, offensive. That was a line she was willing to cross, potentially alienating some readers. But, she still wanted Troy to be lovable by the end of the book. She could not compromise on that essential rule of writing: creating likeable characters.

“You need to write what you want regardless of whether you think anyone else ‘gets it’,” she said. “But writing what you desire is always a risk.” With Fat Kid, she didn’t necessarily cater to the reader. There’s a hunk of bleeding leg and splattering of fat when Troy envisions the results of his own suicide, and some people may put the book down at that point. (In fact, her book was banned in some areas.) But others will stick with it and read on. If the reader’s journey isn’t easy, maybe it will be more redemptive and satisfying by the end.

She cautioned us further: you need to balance your risks. Troy may be unusual, but his emotional struggles are immediately known in the first chapter. Readers may not relate to his appearance, but they can relate to the critical inner voice we’ve all had whispering in our ears at some time in our lives.

K.L. told us it’s important to know the rules. Because you can only make educated decisions about your manuscript when you have knowledge of the industry. “But don’t forget that creativity has its own demands. Don’t be afraid to try something different. Step boldly across the lines!”

So, where are the lines for you?