The retreat that pushed me forward

Attending my first in-person writing retreat after the pandemic was like a dream. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators had been forced to hold virtual events for the past two years. This year we were back. A few weeks ago, twenty-five writers, editors, and agents met in the San Jacinto Mountains face to face.

We slept in tiny cabins at Tahquitz Pines Conference Center in Idyllwild, California. Our meetings were held at a lodge nestled in the tall trees. The weather was perfect for hiking, 70s in the daytime, 50s at night. Meals were served in a cafeteria. Staying there evoked memories of childhood summer camp.

During four magical days, I fellowshipped with other writers. Real people like me who sit in front of a computer and type out stories. A few still wore masks, a lingering reminder of the past two years. At first, it felt awkward sitting and talking to people, but as days passed, it seemed like COVID never happened.

The days leading up to the retreat, I was terrified. I was bringing a brand-new story to my critique sessions, raw in its first draft. During Zoom critiques, I could turn off my camera if I didn’t want anyone to see my reactions.  Now I sat at a round table under the gaze of six other writers and an editor. Nowhere to hide. Then I noticed everyone else seemed a little nervous, too. We were all eager to share our work yet afraid it was not enough.

Once we started, it grew easier. We became invested in each other’s characters. We celebrated beautiful imagery and clever dialogue. We discussed how the story could be improved.

Outside the four critique sessions, we had time to stretch our socialization legs. Some worked on revisions in the lodge. Others hiked the forest around us. A few rested in their cabins.

We ate together. We shared. We laughed.

We highlighted. We questioned. We encouraged.

And when our days were completed, I drove back down the mountain to my normal life. Not alone revising my story for the tenth time, but part of a supportive group that lifts me up above the silent negativity that slays books before they’re written.

That’s how a retreat can push you forward.

My first pitch at a writing conference

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Last Saturday was the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Editors Day at Cal State Fullerton. I was excited to hear presentations from the kind of people who would eventually decide the fate of my book. Over the past months I had attended conferences with advice from successful writers that was very practical. But they aren’t publishers.

What do editors and agents really think about writers? I’ve heard horror stories, although my personal experience has been the silence of unanswered queries or generic electronic rejections. Neither of which causes improvement in my writing.

When I received my name tag, my heart stopped when I saw the appointment time for my pitch session with an agent. When did I sign up for a pitch session? I never prepared for a pitch session. All day long, my hands shook as I scribbled notes from the various speakers. Some of the writers won the privilege of sitting with an editor or agent for lunch. However I was not, but later was grateful when my sandwich was spilling over with cream cheese and cranberries. I barely managed to eat it without wearing it for the rest of the day. And I had the opportunity to meet another blooming writer who was just starting down the path.

Much later, in the sleepy hours of the afternoon, it was my turn to walk down the hallway to the small door, and sit down next to the other rustling victims waiting for their turn. A much too cheerful well dressed lady asked my name and checked me off the list.

Then I sat, waiting.

Finally, the group before mine came out, and I noticed that no one was sniffling. I took it as a good omen as I walked in the door.

My interrogator, I mean agent, was a smiling woman with large glasses that made her appear as a young owl. We shook hands, and my story began. What started as an elevator pitch became a complete synopsis, encouraged by her questions. Even though I was a bit rattled, she encouraged me by sincerely seeking to understand my characters and their journey. She made astonishing suggestions that gave me a new perspective on my project. I never felt at any time that she would tell me to stop writing and do something productive with my life.

When I rejoined my newly met companions back in the lecture hall, I couldn’t stop smiling or writing down notes from my interview as fast as I could. It was all I could do to remain in my seat, not jumping up to return home and start making changes to my manuscript immediately. Why had I been so frightened? My new agent friend cared as deeply as I did about stories. Apparently that was the reason she worked in the publishing industry.

Writing needs feedback to grow just as flowers need water to flourish.