[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!