Big Sur Children’s Writing Workshop means a big leap forward

redwoods by zachary jean paradis on Flickr taken by ErikHaving re-discovered the astounding wonder of a full night’s sleep, I’m determined to catch a few insights from the Big Sur Children’s Writing Workshop I just attended in California, while they’re still fresh. But if you read no further, read this: it’s a workshop you will love if you’re serious about a career in children’s writing.

The redwood forest surrounding the Big Sur lodge is enough to make anyone feel like a kid again: the trees are so fat and tall, many with crooked, skinny arms, you’d swear it was a LORD OF THE RINGS remake, and you were on the verge of being scooped up by the Ents. Or maybe that was just me, and my ridiculous level of sleeplessness, after flying 5,099 miles from Scotland to Monterey for what I’d been reliably informed is the single retreat a children’s writer must experience.

I wasn’t disappointed, thank goodness! The workshop is organized by the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, and despite a solid dread as I listened to the ABLA organizers clarify the rules of the weekend (no pitching at the Friday cocktails; no being late for your crit groups; no being mean in your feedback; and definitely no crying when you get constructive feedback), I told myself all would be fine, as long as I could stay awake and focus. Like a lot of attendees, I was drawn to Big Sur for the chance to meet not just seven ABLA agents (only two of their agents couldn’t come), but also great authors, and amazing editors from Chronicle, Viking and HarperCollins, who’ve produced exactly the kind of books I’d love to create one day.

Meals and mixers — and the steep walk from the cabins, down through the gigantic trees to the restaurant — gave plenty of time for chats and networking. There were also agents’ and editors’ panels, and a query letter workshop, where Andrea Brown memorably stated the ideal length of a query: “It’s like a skirt: it should be long enough to cover everything but short enough to be interesting.”

Sheila Averbuch and redwoods at Big Sur Children's Writing Workshop

But the critique groups are the five-star attraction of this retreat, and the best opportunity to give your writing a big push forward. Andrea (who began the agency 35 years ago) told me she wanted to do something different with the retreat, and her crits are definitely different: you experience the same crit group twice, over two days, and in between you’re encouraged to edit your pages using the group’s feedback.

Two crit groups become four. That’s right!

And that’s not all. You have TWO crit groups — led by two different industry professionals — so that gives you the chance to workshop more than one project. I brought two books: my middle-grade science fiction manuscript that’s on submission right now, which I’ve been working on for two years; and my first draft of a middle-grade fantasy. (Interestingly — perhaps? — I drafted both manuscripts for NaNoWriMo, in 2013 and 2014. Edinburgh is one of the most active cities in the world for NaNo…lots and LOTS of words being generated up north here every November).

The remarkable, remarkable idea of Big Sur is these critiques: and because the retreat is an application-only process, you’re (virtually) guaranteed to get insightful comments from crit group participants. My two groups were led by super-agent Kelly Sonnack (yes, THIS Kelly Sonnack) and author Mitali Perkins (whose RICKSHAW GIRL was named one of New York Public Library’s 100 best children’s books in 100 years).

How did I love these crits? Let me count the ways!
  1. Kelly has x-ray vision for stories. With just a few pages, even if they’re from the middle of the book, she could diagnose strengths, give a view on character, and highlight places where the reader may get a wrong impression — one the writer hadn’t intended. And Kelly kept the discussion on track: the chat wasn’t allowed to digress or drift, which kept a focus that benefited everyone.
  2. Mitali had the sandwich down pat. The sandwich is a crit style that ensures constructive feedback is always bracketed with strong, true statements about the manuscript’s strengths. Mitali left us all having a better sense of where we show natural ability, and that’s priceless as an author enters the confidence-testing business of revision.
  3. Participants rock. I met no one who wasn’t committed to the crit process, and to the important, wider business of supporting each other as writers. There was no snark, grumbling or bad-mouthing, just constructive positivity, and real enthusiasm for re-working their own pages. It’s hard to explain how inspiring my crit groups were. People were revising! Overnight! One author-illustrator team brilliantly rewrote all copy and hand-edited the pictures in all six copies, making their story so much stronger.
  4. MG, PB and YA, oh my! I don’t (although I aspire to) write picture books, so it was invaluable to watch this revising process unfold for that author-illustrator team, and to hear the agent’s guidance on narrative arc. And while I had no YA in my crit groups, I had brilliant chats over meals with two writers who are also counsellors working with teens, which was an eye-opener.

Next up: Big Sur East, May 13-15 in Cape Cod 

Let us not calculate how many fewer miles I’d have had to fly if I’d just waited six months, but hooray! Big Sur is coming to the East Coast! Andrea announced this Big Sur retreat on Cape Cod in May 2016, and I know one or two zillion MG writers who will probably stampede to apply to this. Go check it before it fills up. There’s also a smaller workshop, for advanced writers, at Big Sur in California in March.

Yes, it turns out the planet is rather large, and traversing it for a three-day workshop borders on lunacy, but I have no regrets. Like The Hook at the SCBWI conference in November, Big Sur in December came at precisely the right time in my writer’s journey. And what a journey it was zzz-zzz-zzz [loss of signal]

Big Sur on Cape Cod – details here! Go see! 


Redwoods photo by zachary jean paradis on Flickr taken by Erik

How to get the best from a critique

hear no evil by SoCal Photo DesignCritiquing is never comfortable for a writer. Your ego and your dreams for the manuscript are on the line when you pass your work-in-progress to another person and ask for constructive feedback. But it’s a necessary evil – and, if you think about it, it’s not evil at all. Critiques are the route to making your story as clear and compelling as it can be. And that’s what you want, right?
Continue reading “How to get the best from a critique”

Psst, are you writing a children’s book? Meet SCBWI

SCBWI mass book launch 2012 with Lin Oliver photo by Candy Gourlay

Eight years ago, I wrote a children’s book, but I didn’t get my happy ending. I shopped it around to a few literary agents, had my confidence punctured by two rejections in quick succession, and put away my dreams (and the unfinished sequel) while I got on with family life.

Eight months ago, I jump-started those dreams again: what set me off on my journey was discovering a dusty copy of my novel in my mother’s attic. In the intervening years I’d given birth to my target market, and with a five-year-old and a seven-year-old at home, I had consumed enough modern children’s literature to know that the story I’d written wasn’t so bad — the story, mind you, not the book. I’m learning what a big gulf there is between a good story and a saleable book.

I’ll spare you the details of what else I’m learning, but in sum, it turns out that being a skilled journalist is a lot different from being a skilled fiction writer. And I have so much more to learn about pace, character and voice. But I was lucky enough (thanks to a pointer from artist and writer Debi Gliori) to discover early on the supportive community of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. The organisation is one you must investigate if you’re working on a children’s book (and I’m finding that many people I know are closet novelists with a children’s book at some stage of development). SCBWI will help you: it is overflowing with successful, published professionals who help each other and newcomers navigate the unsettling terrain of a career in children’s books.

I had just one quibble upon joining SCBWI (and it wasn’t the acronymn, which features fewer vowels than most Bosnian villages and which, in the British Isles, is imaginatively pronounced “Scooby”). My complaint is that I didn’t understand how much SCBWI had to offer until I experienced its riches in person at the annual conference near London last autumn. The talent and generosity of both its new and established members, the calibre of teaching in its seminars, the horse’s-mouth insights from publishers and editors…I just didn’t get it until I’d seen it myself.

Words and Pictures shows you what it’s all about

That’s why I’m delighted that the exciting new blogzine for SCBWI British Isles, Words and Pictures, has just launched. You don’t have to be a member to read and enjoy the interviews, articles and video how-to’s (I’m contributing some instructional social media beginner videos, which they’ve let me call Sheila’s Videos). The blogzine’s openness is a super way for SCBWI to showcase what it offers members, and I hope it will encourage more members in the UK and other regions.

When joining, I was surprised to learn the Society is Los Angeles based, co-founded by Lin Oliver (thanks Candy Gourlay for this photo above of Lin and the others, taken at last year’s mass book launch), and there are SCBWI chapters worldwide. The heavy pack of member resources that ker-thumped through my mail slot after I joined, posted all the way from LA, was almost worth the membership fee all on its own.

Take another look at the picture of happy authors above, launching their hard-won books at the SCBWI British Isles annual conference 2012. This has been the best discovery of all for me: children’s book writers aren’t just names on a bookshelf, they’re living, breathing, typing, tea-drinking, cake-eating, dream-dreaming people like me, who want nothing more than to make books that take a kid up, up and away.

You’ll learn a little more about these wonderful folk at the new blogzine. Why are you reading this? Go read Words and Pictures!

How NASA sent my question about kids’ books to space


When not writing kids’ sci-fi, my day job is to help organisations use social media more effectively. I have to say, the way NASA and its international space agency partners use social media is teeth-chattering impressive – and I’m not just saying that because I got to participate in their most recent social media outreach to the public (my question was selected to ask the astronauts live in space; see video above).

What NASA is doing is simple: using social media to let the public, especially children, feel closer to missions and the scientists who carry them out. If, like me, you feel your spine turn to jelly when you see a rocket take off, or catch sight of the famous “big blue marble” picture of Earth taken during the Apollo missions, you will be delighted to discover the steady diet of thrilling content NASA and its partners are offering up on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google Plus and other social platforms.

Reach out and touch space

Here’s just some of what I personally have been able to do over the past six months thanks to social media:

Not just NASA

One of the brightest stars in all this activity is of course not a NASA astronaut but Cmdr. Chris Hadfield from the Canadian Space Agency, who is on board the ISS currently and has gathered a huge following due to his regular tweets, including pictures, sharing what he sees out the window and inside the station. Hadfield’s tweets and pictures regularly make the front page of national newspapers and he also, quite wonderfully, answers children’s questions whenever possible, like this beautiful exchange about spacewalking.

The guitar-playing commander also participates in Reddit AMAs (“Ask me anything”), where he gives insights into everything, from how to shave in space to what space smells like — he’s even done live music collaborations with the Barenaked Ladies and the Chieftains, singing “Moondance.”



(pic from Commander Hadfield on Twitter)

Incidentally after my question about kids books, Commander Hadfield contacted me on Twitter to say he’d actually reread his most inspiring childhood space book, Michael Collins’ Carrying the Fire, just weeks ago while he was in quarantine prior to launch. (You can imagine my deep thrill at being contacted by the Commander – I think I spoke only in exclamation marks for the following two hours.)

Going direct, and spreading the word exponentially, with social media

I’m old enough to remember the later Apollo launches, and the fact that broadcast television had lost some interest in what was becoming rote: rockets go into space; astronauts do missions and come home. Social media has given international space programs the chance to be their own broadcasters, conveying live images on platforms like YouTube without relying on mainstream media.

But their use of social goes beyond self-broadcast. NASA brilliantly exploits the viral, tell-your-friends power of social media, most effectively in last Friday’s Google Plus long-distance hangout with the International Space Station. The hangout was the first of its kind for NASA, and allowed us earthlings to post questions directly to in-orbit astronauts. The event, directed by NASA’s tireless social media manager John Yembrick, was publicised across all social platforms, with the help of a dedicated hashtag (#askstro) that NASA promoted for some weeks before, gathering questions, including video questions recorded and uploaded to YouTube.

For a social media geek like me, what was probably most interesting to witness was the morning of the event, when the NASA social media team put up a new Facebook post where anyone could comment, suggesting a question for the astronauts. Refreshing the page every few seconds, I watched as thousands of new “likes” accumulated on that Facebook post: each of those likes spread the message about this live event across thousands more Facebook friends, replicating the message instantly and exponentially.

NASA knows exactly what it’s doing on social media — it even has a fascinating program that allows influential social media users to apply for full press accreditation to visit NASA (at their own expense) during launches, and tweet and share what they experience under the dedicated #NASAsocial hashtag. That’s like the equivalent of the White House press corps suddenly opening itself up to any really great tweeters who can prove they should be there. That’s what I call enlightened.

What does all this mean?

I hope it means that the space program is starting to inspire kids again, thanks to the marvellous accessibility now possible over social media. Twenty years ago, who’d have thought it would be so easy for kids to chat with in-orbit astronauts, and hear those astronauts describe the childhood experiences — the eye-opening books, the inspirational physics teachers — that set them on their path to space? The space program really is alive and well, and it’s all good.


Do writers need to plan their route?

640x425px road by Desmond Kavanagh on Flickr

I am reading the ever-fascinating “Write to be Published” by Nicola Morgan, which argues – rather cleverly in light of the title – that no writer actually has the “right” to be published. Rather, we as aspiring writers must be realistic about the market who would buy our book, the ability of the bookseller to figure out ( literally ) which shelf to put it on , and crucially whether we are writing our book in the right way.

I’m still in the middle of Nicola’s book, but the section which really caught my eye, and inspired me to put down the book for a moment and write this blog, was the bit on planning. When I was writing my first book in 2003, “SPACE KIDS AND THE PLUTO PLOT,” I simply mapped out the series of bullet points that I wanted to be the key sections of my narrative arc, and then wrote to them, like steppingstones I was aiming for in crossing a stream. I tried the same thing for my second book, SPACE KIDS AND THE SPY FROM PLANET 12, jotting down a list of bullet points and, again, writing towards them.

The interesting thing is, I used the bullet points for my second book about eight years after first writing the bullet points down. I’d received agent rejections on my first novel and simply shelved the second one in discouragement, and then was waylaid by several years of giving birth. When I rather poetically discovered book one and the bullet points for book two last summer in my mother’s attic, I thought, why not give it go?

Even though the structure was old for book 2, it still gave me a kind of scaffold I could work with.

“But doesn’t planning ruin the spontaneity of my writing?”

I hear you. But planning works for me, and my characters still surprise and impress me with the turns they take within the confines I’ve given them. My day job for years was working as an IT and business journalist, and feature stories demand this kind of organization. Now I’m working as a commercial copywriter to develop people’s websites and marketing brochures and the like, and the same kind of planning is critical.

Clear writing is clear thinking, and having something to aim towards as I “let it flow” during my fiction writing gives me the combination of freedom and structure I need: like an improvisational actor being given a few facts (“in the park…holding a shovel…taking to your brother,”), or like a hitchhiker, who knows what city he’s aiming for, but has no idea who’ll bring him there.

How do you write? Do you work towards milestones that you like to tick off as you go?