Sunday, December 12, 2010

Mega Long Big Sur Recap

As I sit here, watching the Bears get walloped by the Patriots (sigh), I find that I have a moment to reflect on the Big Sur Children's Writing Workshop. Before I start, let me clarify the purpose of the post. I wanted to relay my personal experience in order to inform anyone looking for a workshop like this. I had an incredible time and want to spread the word.

Big Sur
For those of you unfamiliar with it, the workshop is hosted at the beautiful Big Sur Lodge in Big Sur, Ca. Agents from Andrea Brown Literary Agency and a variety of editors and authors (who is there depends on when you go) are in attendance. By keeping the amount of attendees below 100, the format is able to function unlike most conferences. You work in small rotating critique groups that meet twice over the weekend. You also get to meet with a member of the faculty for fifteen minutes to work on query letters or your synopsis. There is time built into the weekend to revise based on the feedback you receive. In short, this workshop is worth every penny.

Let's start at the very beginning...
I attended SCBWI's L.A. Conference this past August for the second year in a row. At the Golden Kite Awards I had the fortune to sit next to a fellow writer named Anji. She started telling me about this workshop she had heard about in Big Sur that she was really excited about. We exchanged contact cards and parted ways. A month or so later Anji gave me a call.

I had actually forgotten all about the workshop since the start of a school year is always so hectic. If Anji hadn't taken the chance to call me and see if I was still interested I would have missed this amazing opportunity. I registered, sent in my materials and found out I was accepted a couple weeks later. Then I started searching the couch for pennies.

My Yacht
The workshop started on a Friday, which meant I had take an early flight out of Chicago that connected in Phoenix. From there it was a short trip over to Monterey where I picked up a car in order to drive down the California 1.

They gave me a boat. I'm used to driving a car that doesn't have much width. This Impala forced me to drive like my grandma going to K-Mart. If you've ever driven along the California coast you know that it twists and turns a bit. So if any of you driving on that road that day remember getting stuck behind a Nervous Nellie in a yacht, I apologize.

I docked my boat to take a picture

The coast is gorgeous. I also saw that California Happy Cows do exist. They're hanging out along the 1 eating grass and napping.

The Lodge was easy to find and lived up to the pictures I had seen online. A nice big fire constantly runs in the Lodge's sitting room where you can sit and write in one of the comfy couches. There were so many trees I almost O.D.'d on oxygen, but in a good way. The rooms are set up like cabins and circle the conference center which made it really easy to commute between rooms and panel discussions. There was no wifi access (the horror!) and spotty cell phone reception. Being disconnected is the point. Without distractions, can you be more productive?

Conference Center
Things were kicked off in the conference center, where the faculty introduced themselves and told us a little bit about what they do. Agents talked about what they like and their recent client books. Editors spoke about their histories and what they were looking for. Authors let us know what they have published and what they were working on.

After that we got straight to work. My first critique group was with Jennifer Rofé from Andrea Brown and I read my first chapter of my YA WIP. I received AMAZING feedback that basically challenged me to rewrite the whole chapter. I was also so impressed by the writing of the members of my group! Jennifer was spot on with her comments and I knew that by heeding her suggestions I strengthened my first chapter. 

One of many trails
Friday night was capped off with a cocktail party and dinner where we were serenaded by Magnus Toren, who made sure we knew the difference between Henry Miller and Arthur Miller. It was a wonderful atmosphere to meet other writers and faculty and the food was fabulous. Jennifer Laughran sat with us and showed us her great sense of humor.

There was a panel after dinner that responded to random first pages that Andrea Brown pulled from the submissions. It was a great inside look for us to see how agents and editors view the first page and what catches their attention.

Saturday was busy. Right after breakfast was our second critique group. Again there were great writers and a wonderful faculty leader. Allyn Johnston of Beach Lane books led our group and gave us all insightful feedback. I was able to share one of my later chapters and get comments. I walked away feeling good about the direction of my story.

I then had the opportunity to sit down with author Elissa Haden Guest and work on my query letter for fifteen minutes. She was lovely and helped me figure out what essentials must be in the query. 

Oxygen makers!
We were given lunch and four hours (yes four whole hours) to revise before meeting for the second time with our first critique groups. I had rewritten my first chapter and based on the reactions, it was for the better. I'm very happy with the changes and so thankful for the feedback that led me to them. 

After dinner we heard a panel of editors tell us how they acquire manuscripts. Another valuable look inside the industry. 

On Sunday I had the luck of sitting at the same breakfast table as Andrea Brown and Jennifer Mattson, the latter being based in Chicago. After our bellies were full we met with our second critique groups again and I was able to share another chapter from later in my WIP. I picked a part that was crucial to the story and was able to get feedback on whether or not it was effective. The workshop closed out with an Agent panel where they took questions and handed out business cards. 

I had a flight out of Monterey around dinnertime so I relaxed at the lodge with other writers until I had to leave. By this time the coast was taken over by a storm. Now I was driving up the coast in my massive rental car while streams of rainwater cascaded down the highway. I went from Nervous Nellie to OMG-PANIC Nellie. I made it to Monterey with gray hairs. 

Sweet home Chicago
Flight from Monterey to San Fransisco delayed two hours. Flight from San Fransisco to Chicago delayed an hour and a half. I arrived in Chicago around 5:15 am and had work at 7:30 am. It was hard to be upset about getting no sleep when the trade off was such a valuable experience. 

As I sit here looking out at the swirling snow, I find myself missing the beauty of Big Sur. The bottom line of this massive post is that this is a workshop worth your money if you are ready for in depth critiques of your work. They hold it in twice a year, the next one being in March. Check it out here. If you have any questions I didn't cover about the experience feel free to ask!



  1. Oh, wow, what a wonderful experience for you! As I read what you wrote I could see myself right there with you. I know what you learned about your first chapter will help you in the rest of your WIP.

  2. Kelly, I just posted a link on my blog to yours about this post because you made me want to sign up for the next one!

  3. Thank you Catherine! It was a wonderful experience and I'm glad you're interested!

  4. Sounds wonderful. I've been to Big Sur many times and absolutely love the area. I would imagine a writer's conference would be awesome there.

  5. Thanks for the follow Rena. This was my first time to Big Sur but it really was an amazing place to write. There was even a babbling brook!