Last weekend (September 20 – 22, 2013), I got to attend my favorite writing event of the year: the SCBWI Working Writers Retreat.
WWR 2013 Retreat Attendees
As usual, the retreat was held at the Holy Spirit Retreat Center in Encino, CA. Our faculty this year Andrew Harwell, editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books; Liza Pulitzer-Voges, literary agent at Eden Street; Allyn Johnston, VP and Publisher at Beach Lane Books and the powerhouse duo of Judy Enderle and Stephanie Gordon, who have co-written dozens of children’s books together.
Sarah Laurenson, head organizer of the retreat welcomed everyone to the retreat and did the usual round of introductions.
Afterward, co-organizer Claudia Harrington facilitated a panel on revision.
Panel on Revision
To get us ready for the weekend, our esteemed faculty each gave us tips and techniques for revising our manuscripts. They also shared their take on what the all elusive “voice” really means in a manuscript.
Judy Enderle, author of many children’s books
* Set your manuscript aside for 2-3 weeks so you can go through it as an editor instead of as an author.
* When it comes to revising your manuscript, don’t listen to too many people. Stop and consider where the advice is coming from.
* An author’s voice has to do with her word choices, the rhythm of her writing, her style. A character’s voice on the other hand, refers to the way your character expresses herself in the story.
Stephanie Gordon, author of many children’s books
* Exchange manuscripts. Find someone you can trust to read your manuscript and give you critique.
* Find a writing group in your genre.
* While your main character’s voice is what you’ll work on the hardest, you need to make sure that you use different voices for different characters. Make sure your characters don’t all sound the same.
Allyn Johnston, VP and Publisher at Beach Lane Books
* It’s very important to create a dummy of your picture book.
* Picture book dummies will help you figure out the pacing and rhythm of your picture books.
* I know a main character has a good voice when I’m able to relax and just immerse myself into the story while reading.
Liza Pulitzer-Voges, Literary Agent at Eden Street
* For Picture Book revisions, ask yourselves: do the words sound just right? Do the pages turn at the right time? Pacing is very important.
* When reading through Middle Grade and Young Adult novels, I always look for a consistent voice.
* When revising a novel, try to change your perspective. You might want to write in third person instead of first, or vice versa. Changing the perspective might change the whole tone of the book.
Andrew Harwell, Editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books
* Authenticity and immediacy are very important qualities I look for in novels.
* Make sure you’re writing as the MG/YA character in your novel. When revising, ask yourself: does this feel like a real kid character?
* Also when revising, eliminate sentences with the words “thought”, “wonders”, “remembers”, “think”. See if you can rewrite these sentences in a different way. Show, don’t tell.
The panel on Revision was immediately followed by a 20 minute stretching routine with our Stretch Guru Lynette Townsend. Lynette taught us some stretching exercise we could use to keep us relaxed and fit during the weekend retreat.
Stretching with Instructor Lynette
As with last year’s retreat, the group was divided into two major groups : the Award Winners and the Best Sellers. All five teams belonging to the Best Seller group had their first critique right after the stretching routine. It was the best time slot, I thought, since we were all wired and ready after the stretching exercises with Lynette.
Dinner was at 5:30pm, and it was followed by our final critique session of the evening. And to cap off our stellar first day, we had the Wine and Cheese Social.
Faculty Members Lisa Pulitzer Voges, Lynette Townsend & Judy Enderle with Organizer Sally Jones Rogan, at the Wine & Cheese Social
Day 2 of the retreat began with breakfast at 8am, followed by a morning walk and stretching exercises with Lynette.
Going for a morning walk after breakfast
Wide awake after our morning exercises, we headed to our assigned faculty member to begin the first critique session of the day.
Since there were four of us in each group, we all had 15 minutes of critique time. Almost all the faculty members that weekend made us read our work for 7 minutes, and left the rest of the time to give their feedback, as well as encourage feedback from our group mates.
Lunch came soon enough, and after that we gathered at the quad to take our class and group pictures.
Two more critique sessions followed after that, with breaks in between so we could go to our rooms and revise our manuscripts. The organizers made sure that an Award Winner always roomed with a Best Seller. This was so that we each could have the room to ourselves while our roommates were out for their critiques. This brilliant arrangement was what helped make sure that we all had time to revise our manuscripts in peace–or even take a power nap if necessary.
And because it was going to be our last night with each other, we ended it with a bang. Or more like a song.
Saturday night was Karaoke night.
The wine and drinks available that evening certainly helped us all let loose. There were a few brave souls who sang solo, but most sang in groups of three or more. We discovered many new talents that evening.
Karaoke night felt like the calm before the storm.
Day 3 was our most intense day yet. The room was filled with a nervous energy for the First pages reading session. Sarah introduced us to the panel of acquiring agents and editors who would listen to our first pages. Faculty members Lisa Pulitzer-Voges, Allyn Johnston and Andrew Harwell were joined by literary agents Jill Corcoran and Richard Florest.
Agent Lisa Pulitzer-Voges, Publisher Allyn Johnston, Editor Andrew Harwell, and Agents Jill Corcoran and Richard Florest
Each participant was given 3 minutes. We read for a minute or so, and the rest of the time listened to what the panel had to say about our first pages.
Although I was a veteran at the first pages reading session, I was still nervous as I stepped behind the podium for my turn. The past two years, I always slept late the night before, agonizing over my first page rewrites. This year, I actually spent a total of 10 minutes revising my first page. I didn’t want to cobble together a completely new first page as I had the previous times. I wanted the panel’s frank opinion on the first page which I had revised over the weekend.
After reading my 250 words, I readied my pen to take note of all their comments. I was expecting them to give me some helpful feedback and to tell me what parts worked for them and what didn’t. I was extremely surprised when they all said they liked my first page and thought it was well-written and intriguing. I heaved a big sigh of relief and was all smiles when I went back to my seat.
The First Pages Reading Session soon ended and we all gave each other a round of applause for surviving. We all thanked our panel for their helpful feedback. To end our retreat on a high note, the organizers held a drawing and gave away some prizes for lucky winners to take home.
The retreat ended with some fond farewells and promises to keep in touch.
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