Having 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.”
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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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