SCBWI-LA 2013 Working Writer’s Retreat: A Report

[Cross-posted to my Tumblr.]

I just wanted to do a quick write-up on the retreat I went to this past weekend for anyone who might be considering going next year. Sorry gang, I took my camera with me and proceeded to not take pictures, which is actually par for the course for me.

This was my first time, and I went in not knowing what to expect, but like most SCBWI events it exceeded expectations.

The retreat is organized by the Los Angeles chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators every year in September. It’s a three-day event targeting writers who are actively working on children’s book manuscripts, from picture books to middle grade to young adult. Though located in L.A., the retreat accepts applications from outside the area – one writer this year was from Florida! Only forty applicants are accepted, which allows for an intimate atmosphere for sharing work and receiving feedback. It’s very popular; this year the retreat sold out in two days (but there’s always a wait list, so if you miss the registration window, make sure you get on it!).

I’ll emphasize that the focus of the event is children’s books only. No adult, no new adult. If writing (or illustrating) children’s books is your thing though, I’d highly recommend joining SCBWI.

So, the weekend.

The event is held at a quiet little retreat center in the Valley with little to no Internet or cell phone signal. You’re there to work, and work you shall, because there are hardly any distractions. The sounds of the city are far away. The campus is beautiful, with a duck pond and plenty of hidden benches and seating areas to seclude oneself and get some work done. Attendees have the choice to commute, but most choose to stay at the retreat center. You can request a roommate if you have a friend attending – my critique partner and I signed up together – or allow the organizers to pair you up with someone. I live really close to the center, but I’m glad I chose to stay overnight. It meant I could hang out with everyone a lot longer without having to worry about driving home late (it also meant getting to sleep in a bit in the morning!).

We got rolling on Friday at 1 p.m. with an introduction to the faculty. It’s usually a mix of agents, editors and authors. This year our faculty included Allyn Johnston (editor, Beach Lane Books), Liza Pulitzer-Voges (agent, Eden Street Literary Agency), Andrew Harwell (editor, HarperCollins), Stephanie Jacob Gordon (author, freelance editor, Writer’s Ink), and Judy Ross Enderle (author, freelance editor, Writer’s Ink). There was a brief moderated panel where they discussed the importance of revision, and then at 3 p.m. critique sessions began.

The Working Writer’s Retreat is all about revision. It’s an intensive weekend of reading our work aloud to faculty and peers, receiving feedback, and offering feedback. There’s time between sessions to work on manuscripts in order to bring revised materials to the next session. This is a chance to receive feedback from experienced professionals and fellow working writers that you might not receive elsewhere. Attendees go to learn, to work together, and to improve their craft.

Before the retreat the forty attendees are placed in ten groups of four, and the faculty members are assigned rooms. Like in high school, your teachers stay put while you travel from room to room. That means you have a new teacher every session, but your group members stay the same through the whole weekend.

You’re encouraged to bring only your best work, but also anything that you need help with. Everyone gets about fifteen minutes for reading and critique, which averages out to about five pages per session (depending on how fast you read, hah!). For picture book writers, you can usually get a full manuscript into one session. For the rest of us, it’s usually just the first five pages of a manuscript.

I knew I was bringing along my current major project, a young adult fantasy MS. I’m currently in the second draft rewrite process. But while getting ready for the retreat it occurred to me that with the session format, my group would end up hearing the same manuscript through five sessions! To spare them the torture haha, I brought along a few pages from a sci-fi story (also YA) that’s been on the back burner for years. I’d never shown it to anybody and it was a lot rougher than my current MS, so I figured it’d be the perfect candidate for a revision event.

My group members were lovely, and together we had a pretty diverse body of work: a few picture books (primarily non-fiction), a middle grade historical fiction, a YA historical fiction, and my fantasy and sci-fi. I was a ball of nerves when we sat down with Allyn, our first faculty member. Every attendee reads their work aloud. This was my first time reading my own work to a critique group, let alone an editor! How’s that for intense? Luckily I’d read both my manuscripts aloud to myself before the retreat; I had an idea of the pacing and where I wanted to place emphasis on words, though I still got tongue-tied and tripped on occasion.

Like most things, the anticipation was a lot worse than the actual thing. When each group member was done reading, we critiqued the work, led by Allyn. Everyone got a chance to speak, and we shared what we liked about the piece as well as what we thought would make it better. These are not bash sessions, nor are they about fluffing egos. You want critique, you want comments that you can use. No one’s perfect, and the goal of the weekend is evolution. You want anything that can help you make your manuscript the best it can be by Sunday…

My group members and I discovered that we all had the same insecurities. And since we stuck together the whole weekend, we got comfortable with one another pretty quick, so every successive session was a little better – though still nerve-wracking since we were meeting a new faculty member!

My fantasy MS was my main focus, but I broke out the sci-fi MS at a couple of sessions for a bit of variety. Our PB writer had several manuscripts along, and at nearly every session she read something new. At our Saturday morning session with Liza I decided to try something different – I gave her a brief rundown of the first four pages, and then launched into the next five. We’d discussed this during Allyn’s session. I’d read the first five pages at various critique events in the past. It’s always been kind of a bummer to me that I get so much feedback on the opening but never move past that. The next five pages were never before read by anyone, and I really wanted to get notes. My other group members had already begun doing the same thing. We made sure to give our faculty member enough information to go on so they weren’t completely lost.

Our critiques were not too focused on spelling and grammar (though I did make notes when the mood struck me). We discussed such things as first lines, characterization, voice, pacing, scene transitions, and description. We discussed details that confused us – like a character’s age – and when and where that information should appear in an MS. We discussed how to find the story arc in a non-fiction biography that spans decades. We discussed character motivation and agency. We discussed whether Christopher Columbus ever met Queen Isabella of Portugal (and due to lack of Internet or encyclopedia access reached no conclusion).

Sessions were staggered – while half the groups were in session, the other half were on break, allowing us time to compile notes and revise our work. Revisions could be done by hand, but most people brought laptops, and a printer was available to print new pages. Meals and break times provided a chance to socialize with faculty and other attendees. We also had periodic exercises led by Lynette Townsend to stretch, walk, and take care of our bodies. After the last session of the day a bit of fun was scheduled to give us a chance to unwind: Friday night was wine and cheese, Saturday was karaoke.

We got rolling Sunday morning bright and early. We packed up our things and returned our room keys. Then we headed into the main meeting room for the First Pages Panel. The critique sessions were over now. All forty attendees would be reading their first page – roughly 250 words – to a panel of acquiring agents and editors. This included three of our faculty members and two bonus agents: Jill Corcoran (Jill Corcoran Literary Agency) and Richard Florest (Rob Weisbach Creative Management). They wouldn’t simply be listening to our work as faculty, but as working agents and editors, looking to acquire the right manuscript. It was the moment of truth.

The panel sat at the front of the room. Every attendee went up to the podium and got three minutes for reading and critique. Ideally you read for a minute or a minute and thirty seconds, and then the rest of the time was for feedback. Someone watched the time and signaled when you hit those markers, but no one stopped you if you read too long: if you used up the full three minutes, there would be no critique.

The big question for the faculty was, “Would you want to read more?” Based on that they offered their brief notes. Personally, I was very impressed by the quality and diversity of the pages that were read! The faculty who had heard these pages over the weekend frequently noted how much improved they were.

Overall it was a worthwhile weekend. I got a lot of useful feedback and made some new friends. I’d been floundering a bit on my MS and hadn’t written as much as I was hoping over the summer, but by the end of the retreat I felt I knew how to move forward. In fact, I managed to write 3,000 words in the days following! I’m not sure if I’ll go again next year because it is a bit pricey, but I’d recommend it to anyone who is looking for feedback and camaraderie in what is often a lonely journey.

One final thing I’d like to discuss is attitude. If you go into this retreat thinking it’s going to solve all of your writing problems and lead to a book deal, then unfortunately you’re going to go away disappointed. That’s not what the retreat is about. You’re there to work and you’re there to learn – that’s all. It’s not about selling your manuscript or yourself. Sure, some people do get lucky and find their future agents and editors through this retreat, it’s not unheard of. But the real goal is to improve; to acquire the tools to make your manuscript better and become a better writer. And it’s not just about you, either: you’re also there to help your fellow writers. You’re all traveling the same road, and you’ve come to this retreat to help each other along.

And so, there’s a bonus goal: to make friends. If you’re open and willing to give as much as you get, this part will happen naturally (bring business cards!). So relax, work hard, and enjoy yourself!

Edit 09-27-2013: Fellow attendee Nutschell posted some lovely photos from the weekend. Check them out!

Shut it down!

You know, I created a banner for this blog and never got a chance to use it. I didn’t have time to figure out the coding. So now’s as good a time to post it as any.

So I’ve given this a bit of thought, and I’ve come to a decision. I’m retiring Foxes and Grapes.

You’ll have noticed that my posting here has slowed down considerably. And actually, I do have one more blog post I’d like to make, but I’m still getting materials together for that and it might not appear for a while longer. But in the meantime, I really haven’t been using this space. It started as a place online to chronicle my journey to, and through Ringling College. I graduated two years ago. Those days are done, and I’ve moved on. I have other places where I post my artwork. I was trying to use this more as a journal for posting my thoughts, but I find myself feeling more and more reserved about making certain observations. And now, with simply trying to make it as a working artist, I don’t really have the time or focus I once did.

The thing is, with Foxes and Grapes just sitting here, I feel a nagging obligation in the back of my head to do something with it. So rather than allow a distracting thought to persist, I’m simply letting it go.

I’ll leave the blog up for the time being because there are still some good posts and pages that people may like to reference. I might try to archive them one day, maybe.

I’m not leaving the Internet, I’m just devoting my attention to other places. So if you have questions about Ringling, art school, animation, whatever, or if you want to see more of my work, or just want to keep up with what I’m doing, here are some links for you.

Vanilla Waffles: This is the blog I now call home. Yes, I’ve been unfaithful… but it was so worth it. My Tumblr is actually a more laid-back place than this blog was. I’ve been a serious art student and job candidate for a long time, but now I’m trying to embrace that inner kid that just drew for the fun of it. If you’re on Tumblr, or even if you’re not, you’re welcome to follow.

M.F.K.: My webcomic, and what takes up a fair amount of my free time nowadays. I wrote a bit about it in my last blog post. This is still my main gallery. My storyboards, senior thesis, other finished art – it’s all there.

Twitter: Do you Twitter? I Twitter. If you like thoughts and resources about art, animation, film, writing, publishing, comics, Japanese RPGs (the two that I’ve played), and whatever super random observations I might make at any given time, then follow away!

And of course, you can reach me for questions at n.magruder [at] gmail [dot] com.

Thanks for the last five years, everyone. It’s been fun!

So I started a Webcomic, or Reasons My Friends Never See Me

O hai gaiz. I think I only mentioned it in passing before, but I thought I’d talk at you a bit about this thing I’m doing in my free time.

But first. If you’re on Twitter or Tumblr, feel free to follow me on either. I post a little more frequently there than I do here.

Okay now.

So I’ve got this webcomic going.

It was a New Year’s resolution to myself – and I rarely do those, but I figured hey the world’s ending (Ghost Rider 2 was released this year so you know it’s true), so why not? I’ve been working on MFK on and off for foreeever, but I just never got around to actually doing anything with it. But I was out of school, unemployed, and had nothing else to do with my time, so I decided this would be the year I bring it to life.

And then three days later I got a job. Funny how that happens. Now I’m super busy and never go out, which I guess is all well and good since I have no money.

Strangely, I don’t think I ever really saw myself as a comic artist, but I’ve always been interested in producing a webcomic. I have a folder on my computer full of ideas, many of which I began when I was still in high school, and I’ve just saved the files, scripts and artwork and added to them over the years. I was head over heels for animation too, but I didn’t know how to animate. Comics were a little more attainable for me.

Oh, right. So MFK.

This is a huge first for me – not only starting a comic, but writing a long-form story and sharing it with the world. There was my senior thesis of course, and a couple of short stories, but nothing of this magnitude. So I’m approaching it all as an exercise. I’m just going to cut loose and see what happens, and hopefully I’ll pick up a few lessons along the way.

…Oh, and! It’s still a wee babe as far as webcomics go, but you can read it online at The regular update schedule is Mondays and Thursdays.

Art Schools and Creativity

First of all, my friend Yezi, Ringling grad like me, wrote a blog post about choosing art schools. It’s full of great insight on selecting an art school, Ringling, and the animation industry. If you’re looking at going to school for animation, it’s worth a read.

Secondly, I was thinking of writing an update post, but I’m probably not in the best mindset for it, so instead here’s a video of John Cleese talking about creativity. It cheered me up a bit today and maybe it will do the same for you.

Day 10: Favorite Candy

As I’ve gotten older, I find that I don’t care for candy like I did as a kid. But there’s one love that will never die.

Peanut Chews.

The wrapper of my childhood.

I don’t even know how I got hooked on them. It seems that Peanut Chews have always been in my life. Legend has it that when I was born, I thrust my tiny fist out into the world, fingers wrapped around a Peanut Chew bar, and the doctor clutched the bar and drew me out. (Note: may be an exaggeration)

They actually got to be pretty hard to find. You don’t see them much in grocery stores, and for a while I thought they were discontinued. Then I met Kelly, who also loved Peanut Chews, and had some magical way of making them appear. I still don’t understand. All I know is that if you want Peanut Chews, go to Kelly.

Or Rite Aid. Rite Aid seems to carry them. (Note: only in Maryland though? Still haven’t found any here in LA.)

Also… wow, apparently this is my 99th blog post. I feel like I should do something special to commemorate 100! …But alas, I’m pretty bad at celebrating things. o__o

Day 9: Favorite TV Show

A year or so ago, my answer to this probably would have been 30 Rock. But maybe not, cuz around then was also when I decided to give Parks and Recreation a try. I was tuning in to NBC on Thursday nights for 30 Rock anyway, so why not?

Ho man. It took one episode and I was hooked. If you are not watching Parks and Rec, you are doing yourself a disservice.

The exciting thing about Parks and 30 Rock both is that they star two strong career women in comedic roles. You don’t see that often in American TV. I love Leslie Knope, who’s always upbeat and optimistic, tirelessly dedicated to her job, and a huge nerd. Ben Wyatt is also a huge nerd, and that makes him pretty hot (and the perfect match for Knope).

Not to mention the best supporting cast ever to grace primetime television. “You had me at meat tornado.” Need I say more?

And I love how they portray Pawnee as hilariously (and creepily) flawed, but hey, it’s home, which makes it a great place. With an extremely racist history.

And now, my friends, I leave you with this. Watch at your own peril, for if you begin, you may not be able to stop.

Day 8 (lol): Favorite animated character

Whoops, got a little behind on the challenge! Time to play catch up.


…Seriously though, it just took me a week to decide who my favorite animated character is. I was set to go with Sailorjupiter. I’m pretty sure she was my very first animated girl-crush. But then I realized there’s another character I’m totally in love with at the moment: Naoto Shirogane from the Persona 4 game and anime.

Naoto, the Detective Prince. Aside from being a badass teenage detective, he’s terribly adorable, and has a pretty awesome backstory. I loved his dungeon in the video game, and what they’re doing with Naoto and Kanji in the anime is just… giving me all the feels.

This also happens to be one of very few animated characters that I just want to draw. Naturally I can never get him looking exactly right, which makes me want to draw him all the more. Alas, one day I’ll figure him out.

I just have one question. Who approved this kid carrying a gun? I know Inaba’s a small town but, you do know he’s a first year in high school, right? (j/k though he’s more badass with a revolver I wanna buy a PS Vita just to play P4 Arena asdfghjkl)

Day 7: Favorite Word

You know these feels.

You’re reading a book, or watching a TV show or a movie, and whatever, right? It’s just a story. Who cares? But wait. What are these feelings? Why are you crying?? It’s just a stupid story, it’s no big deal, why are you so emotional??

Those, my friend, are feels. At times it’s the best thing in the world, and as a writer, I aspire to one day bring out some feels in my audience.

It was pointed out to me that technically “feels” isn’t an actual word, but I have seriously been rocking it lately, so whatever. I honestly wasn’t even sure where to begin with drawing it, though. This comic sums up “feels” better than I ever could.

Day 6: Favorite Book Character

This book isn’t a movie yet, so that counts, right?

I was stuck between a few beloved characters. I was going to go with Hazel from Watership Down, but that was adapted into a movie, and the directions said it couldn’t be a movie (wasn’t sure exactly what it was implying, but I took it to include adaptations). Then I thought of Arya or Jon Snow from A Song of Ice and Fire, but eh, it’s been done. And then there’s Neef of Delia Sherman’s Changeling, but I couldn’t decide if I liked or loved her.

But Finnick Odair? Oh, I love Finnick Odair.

Finnick is from The Hunger Games series. He’s introduced in Catching Fire, so I’ll refrain from spoilers for anyone who hasn’t read the books yet. The fanart I see of him never fits my head canon… and neither does this entirely, but it was fun to take a crack at drawing him. I don’t do fanart very often, especially not of characters I really like because I don’t want to screw them up. He’s got the obnoxious pretty-boy thing going on when Katniss meets him, and for some reason it appeals to me.

Next is a tough one, folks. Favorite word? I don’t even…

Day 5: Best Friend(s)

I spent entirely too long on this, but they’re worth it. I suppose.

Let me tell you how I met these clowns.

I met Melanie in sixth grade. We had Language Arts (English) together. She wrote a short story about a homicidal blade of grass. It was love at first sight. A couple of years later, we bonded over Sailormoon.

She lived on one side of the district line and I on the other, and while she went to one high school, I went to another. We lost touch until she called me out of the blue one day, and spent a long telephone call gushing over our favorite anime.

When I was sixteen we went to Otakon together. It happened that one of Melanie’s classmates was there, and she introduced us. Her name was Kelly. When we parted I promptly went to work forgetting she ever existed and saying “Who?” whenever Mel brought her up in conversation.

Senior year, I wanted to go to Anime Central but I didn’t want to fly to Chicago alone. Mel and I had gone through enough “Kelly who?” scenarios that she finally had etched a presence in my brain, and so I e-mailed her and asked if she wanted to go with me. We’d never really hung out before then. It was one of the best trips of my life.

So we graduated. Kelly worked at Suncoast, and as I recall Mel and I took every opportunity to go visit her there. Suncoast was loaded with anime you see, and at really good prices. But Suncoast was failing around this time, and in the fall Kelly and Melanie got jobs at Circuit City. One of Kelly’s coworkers from Suncoast also got a job there (I was the odd one out, working at a nursery and crafts store down the road). I think Kelly might have introduced us before, but I didn’t know her – she went to Kelly and Mel’s school and was a year behind us. But one night Kelly and Melanie got us all together to hang out.

And with Rachele, our group was complete.

There are two takeaways from this story.

1. Anime is magical. I’ll not hear a word otherwise. Speak against it in my presence and I’ll have you drawn and quartered.

2. I love these guys. We’ve gone to lots of cons together, ate a lot of crap and drank a lot of booze together, conspired and plotted against the world together. They annoy the hell out of me sometimes, and I’m sure I annoy them (and if I don’t, I should). But this is one of the few relationships in my life that I consider worth working to keep.

Also, do you like how I arranged us in order of skin complexion? #racist