Monday, September 15, 2014

Working Writer's Retreat

By Susan J. Berger

Retreat anyone? The opportunity to spend two and a half days at the beautiful Holy Spirit RetreatCenter in Encino  reading in small groups with an acquiring editor or agent?  The 2014 SCBWI Southern California Writer’s Retreat sold out four hours after enrollment opened. 
I put myself on the waiting list. I attended the WWR in 2007 and 2012 and was dying to do it again. I got lucky.
Saturday Morning: I’m on break. Yesterday the entire group divided into two first pages sessions. We each had three minutes to read our first 250 words. Our critiquing panel, authors Stephanie Gordon Jacobs, Judith Ross Enderle and Ann Whitford Paul gave us feedback. This was a practice session for Sunday’s first pages read. Sunday morning, editors Ariel Richardson, Bethany Strout, agent Karen Grencik and a surprise guest editor will be are critique panel.
Waiting to read first pages.

Our small breakout groups took notes for each other so we didn’t have to remember what the panel said about our work.  It’s nerve making getting up there, knowing you’re being timed.
I heard so many wonderful first pages.  My only regret is that I couldn’t hear all of the stories that went with the first two hundred and fifty words.
I read the first 250 words of a non- fiction picture book.  How They Wrote It.  Judy’s, Ann’s , and Stephanie’s responses made me realize I had better use a bit of my three minutes to explain what I intended to picture book to be.
After a stretching session with Lynette Townsend, we went to dinner and on to our first sessions with the acquiring faculty.  We had twelve minutes each for reading and critique time. It was up to the individual to decide how to divide the time between reading and feedback.

Sarah Laurenson
The evening had two sessions for each of the acquiring faculty. Regional advisor Sarah Laurenson worked out a spreadsheet worthy of a military maneuver. We writers were divided into two groups: Best Sellers and Award Winners. Then these groups were subdivided into groups of five
Roommates were in opposite session. This gave us an hour alone in our room to write and revise.

My group of five met with Little Brown’s Bethany Strout.

Bethany Strout, Kim James and ????My mind blanked It's Late I need bed.
I loved my group’s work. Katharyn Sinelli read from her YA fantasy chiller. Maria Johnson and Lynn Becker had terrific picture books. I read Chapter 1 from my mid-grade novel. (Lynette Townsend, our fabulous Stretch Queen, chose not to read. She said work had kept her too busy to do the revision she’d wanted to do. I’ve loved Lynette Picture books in past retreats and I regret not hearing her work.) Bethany Strout’s critiques on all of our work were insightful and encouraging.
Karol Silverstein

Friday night I chose not to revise. I stayed in the main building waiting for the Wine and Cheese party and got into a great conversation with terrific story teller and West side Schmooze coordinator, Karol Silverstein, about our secret love for the  Twilight books, religions and toads.

Karen Grencik came out of her second session and remarked that the level of writing here at the retreat was so much higher than those she heard at conference. I felt all warm, fuzzy and nervous. Karen is the last person my group will read for. I’m praying we’ll all measure up.

Lynette, the stretch queen, Angela and Lynn
The last event Friday was the wine and cheese party. I contributed a solid chocolate salmon. I hope to be remembered as the chocolate bringer.  Although I’d rather be remembered as the writer whose work they decided to acquire. I loved meeting and talking to my fellow authors and getting to schmooze with the staff.

Saturday morning started at 7:30 with a stretch session for those who chose to attend. I love Lynette’s sessions.  Breakfast was from 8:00 – 9:00.
Each group had morning sessions with one of our resident authors. I got some great feedback from Stephanie Gordon and rushed back to my room to make changes. I remembered I had a blog post due and began it.
After lunch came pictures. Nutschell Windsor, the staff photographer posed us in straight and zany groups. She hasn'tposted these yet, or I would show you.
Melody Mansfield, The grant winner, Me and Catherine Modesitt
At 2:15 Best Sellers all had their second session with acquiring Faculty. Ours was with Chronicle Books’ Ariel Richardson. Ariel gave great advice to each of us in the nicest way possible. I can’t wait to revise chapter 2 of Tasha incorporating her advice.

Karen Grencik and author
Tonight’s program is Stretch at 5:00, dinner at 5:30, followed by our last acquiring faculty sessions. Ours will be with Red FoxLiterary agent, Karen Grencik. 
After that, Karaoke!

Ariel and Bethany choosing a song. Nutschell photographing.

Bethany and Karen were both at our table at breakfast. I’ve really enjoyed getting a chance to know them as the delightful humans they are. I want a chance to talk to Ariel and find out more about her. She too feels like a kindred spirit. We are all people who love books and want to see more of them.

Sunday: Breakfast, checkout and three hours of first pages.
Sunday's surprise panelist was Nephele Tempest from The Knight Agency.

Sunday's Panel Bethany Strout, Karen Grencik, Ariel Richardson and Nephele Tempest
I heard lots of revisions in these first pages and the panel gave some wonderful feedback. I left feeling some hope for Tasha, my mid grade multicultural.Sarah will email us the list of submission instructions for each panel member. I don’t know what will be acquired this weekend. Those of us who aren’t, will rewrite and try again. I can tell you, that acquired or not, I had a wonderful weekend. 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

To Die or Not To Die...

When a Character Must Simply Go.
by Hilde Garcia

I have been working on my young adult novel for a few years now and just when I thought I was at the finish line, something tugged at me, but it was hard to pin point exactly what it was.

I began a major revision, knowing that I would be happy with the outcome even before I started.  As I played it out in my mind, it was really sharp and strong, except for this one small problem.

A character that simply would not die. 

In fact, I teach 5th and 6th grade and during our Language Arts class, I showed my students older drafts of my novel. They all marveled at how long I had been writing some of my stories and some noticed that it was longer than they had been alive.

We also noticed an old synopsis that stated that my main character’s father died in an earlier draft.  Hmmm…  so I had been down this road before and how I got lost and ended up back at this point, I have no idea, but it helped solidify my resolve.

I pulled the trigger.

In a very teary scene, my character’s father dies while on a dangerous journey on the ocean with his daughter, leaving her to survive by herself. That’s quite an obstacle for her, but as I wrote the chapter where she finds out he is dead, it wrote itself.  It flowed and it felt right. The chapter read the way I had originally envisioned it, but somehow convinced myself that HE, the dad character, had to be in the story.

I was taking an intensive writer’s workshop with MaggieStiefvater during the SCBWI Summer Conference and she struck a chord.  “If you don’t find a character interesting, don’t write about them.”  And I had been forcing myself to like the father, write about the father, give him a backstory, but in the end, he didn’t need to be there, it wasn’t his story.

Also, Linda Sue Park, during that same day, pointed out that sometimes you have to see what is necessary.  In an exercise, she had us delete an entire chapter- well a section of a chapter- and then try to recreate it from memory. 

“If it was really important, you will be able to recreate it,” she said to us.  When I tried it, I couldn’t recreate it. It made me wonder just how much of my novel didn’t need to be there for me to tell my story.  In fact, one editor on a panel during the Conference said, “If it’s over 100,000 words, I am not going to read it.”  This made me think a bit.  Could I say it with less words, less scenes, less characters?  Maybe I had characters duplicated and they could be morphed into one. 

Of course, we had all saved our precious chapter elsewhere, as a security net, just in case, but the exercise was beneficial.  Sometimes we are redundant in our writing, duplicating characters, adding details and “stuff” that doesn’t need to be there.

These authors enlightened my way of looking at my novel.

Editors look for a tight manuscript and many of the techniques these authors shared at the intensives were extremely vital when you get to that level of polish before you send your work out into the universe.

SO I killed him. The dad. He is gone, caput, rode out into the sunset.

Now what?

Well, time to revise every chapter that followed and erase his existence.

The pen is the mighty sword after all.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Dispatch #26: Day of Labor

by Lupe Fernandez

Today marks the 120th observance of Labor Day, first established as a Federal Holiday in 1894, after decades of labor union members getting their heads bashed in for striking for better working conditions.

Last Saturday I attended a social function with my wife's co-workers. Many of them didn't know each other and thus were introduced and asked, "What do you do?" The same was asked of spouses. "What do you do?" Most of the attendees were engineers, programmers and various managers.

No one asked me what I did for a living?

What would I have said? "I'm a writer" and then get that look of "Have I read your book?"

Answer is no. I'm still looking for an agent.

Is writing labor? Do I work under hazardous conditions? I work near the kitty door to the garage and I can smell the kitty box when Sugar takes a dump. She's a sweet cat, but she lays some stinkers. I'm probably inhaling minuscule kitty litter particles as I type.  I eat my scrambled eggs over the key board and a crumb or two spill in between the keys. Will I create a bacteria hazard?

Writing isn't the same as digging a ditch. I went camping last month and it rained for three days, so I dug a trench around the tent, thinking of that old adage, "If you don't go to college, you'll end up digging ditches."

My wrists and fingers ache sometimes after a long stint at the keyboard. I slam the keys hard when I type, a habit leftover from ye olden days of the typewriter.

Is my labor valuable? No one has ever tried to steal my work. I've been mugged, but Senor Mugger was after my wallet. He didn't say, "Gimme your YA Contemporary manuscript or I'm gonna stick ya!"

To which I would have responded, "The word 'gonna' is not grammatically correct. You could say, 'I'm going to stab you with my sharp knife, thus damaging your liver and inflicting bodily pain. Therefore, you should yield to my demand and hand over your manuscript.'" Though I imagine by this time, I'd be lying in the street bleeding to death sans manuscript and wallet.

I do feel pride in my work. I study the craft. I learn from others. I have joined an organization and networked with others with similar interests. I read about author success stories. I've read about writers arrested and murdered for their work. I recall reading a warning, "At the beginning of a dictatorship, poets and writers are the first to be arrested."

I haven't had my head bashed in for protesting for better working conditions, though my daughters bought me a keyboard tray for I wouldn't have to type on my lap. My wrists feel better, thank you ladies.

But I always think about stories. Yours and mine. Well, mostly mine. I struggle over nouns, verbs, adjectives, character, misspellings, plot, metaphor, and the question "Will this damn thing ever sell?"

Back to work.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Crystal Kites UK/Ireland, Middle East/ India/Asia and Canada

By Susan J. Berger

The annual Crystal Kite Award is a peer-given award to recognize great books from 15 SCBWI regional divisions around the world.

This 5th Crystal Kite post covers the finalists and winners in three regions: UK, Ireland, Middle East, India, Asia and Canada. It's interesting to note that most of the Crystal Kite finalist's books are available on Kindle. 
Some first lines weren't available online. I tried contacting some of the authors, but was unsuccessful. I used the SCBWI Blurb in place of the first lines for those book. All links are to the SCBWI page. You can follow the page links to purchase sites. If I saw that SCBWI didn’t have a buy link, I substituted links where you could get the book.

Again: The Crystal Kite is a rather odd award in that there are no Categories. Therefore a picture book may be competing against a young adult novel.

UK, Ireland

Fractured by Teri Terry

Rain has many uses.

            Holly and beech trees like those around me need it to live and grow.

It washes away tracks, obscures footprints. Makes trails harder to follow, and that is a good thing today.

But most of all, it washes blood from my skin, my clothes.


Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein (Code Name Verity, Book 2)
Rose Meyer Justice
August 2, 1944
Hamble, Hampshire

I just got back from Celia Forester’s funeral. I’m supposed to be writing up an official report for the Tempest she flew into the ground, since she’s obviously not going to write it herself, and I saw it happen. And also because I feel responsible. I know it wasn’t my fault – I really do know that now. But I briefed her. We both had Tempests to deliver, and I’d flown one a couple of times before. Celia hadn’t. She took off ten minutes after me. If she’d taken off first, we might both still be alive.



 Shine by Candy Gourlay

“Are you listening, Rosa?”

I stared at Yaya. Her eyebrows were knitted on her yellow forehead and her face was suddenly smaller, her eyes hard and burning like black coals.

I am going to add the Amazon link for this book so you can read the first few pages because those first lines don’t give a good idea of the story. And I thought it was rather wonderful. Link to Shine on Amazon


 Middle East, India, Asia

The party had just started and Jet stood in Amy William’ kitchen wearing the two-dollar dress she’d bought at the thrift store.
            “That’s such a cool outfit,” Amy told her, pushing a drink into her hand. The girsls gathered, staring as if trying to remember whether they’d seen the dress in a catalog or a store window. Still, Jet knew it would’ve been cooler to have a date or to buy clothing that hadn’t belonged to someone living in an old folks’ home.

The Language Inside by Holly Thompson
 Chapter 1

Third time it happens

I’m crossing the bridge

Over a brown-green race of water

that slides through town

on my way to a long-term care center


to get my courage up


This is a story about Spider, who was born with seven legs. His friend, Ladybird, discovers what Spider can do and is amazed by his talents.

Tibby the Tiger Bunny by Emily Lim, Illustrated by Jade Fang

Tibby was an unusual bunny,

Sometimes he pounced.

Sometimes he hopped.

And sometimes he didn’t know if he should roar or squeak.


 managed to contact Emily and she sent me the first page.
She also sent me the rest of the fold-out cover.


Bonkers! by Natasha Sharma

‘I’m home . . WAHAAAAT? WOW!’

My father is standing before me holdng a wriggling, squirming mass of brown and white fur,

‘Pant! Pant! Pant! Chuuueeeee! Chuuueeeee!’ squeels the furball.

I’m sure it can’t be . . but it is! Eyes wide, I drop down on my knees, as Papa puts down my long awaited puppy. In a flash the fur ball shoots forward and Bam! rams into my face. My spectacles go flying off my nose. I fumble for them.

Lick! Lick! Slobber! Slobber!
I couldn’t contact Natasha Sharma. When I looked on Amazon, I saw that the Kindle edition was 2.00 and bought it. Bonkers is either a short mid grade or an easy reader. In either case I loved the first chapter and plan to finish it,


Brothers at War by Don Cummer

February 1811

I have been chosen first. M. Jacob Gibson. Hero-in-waiting.
Shoulders back like a soldier, Snowballs in my mitts. My faithful attack dog by my side, (Well, Ginger is actually romping about with the new boy.) And beneath my coat and shirt, my magic medicine bag to protect me,
First. Bravest. Best. 

Hoogie in the Middle by Stephanie McLellan, Illustrated by Dean Griffiths

Pumpkin was the first.
Tweezle is the newest.
Hoogie’s in the middle.


How I Lost You by Janet Gurtler

BFFs Grace and Kya, friends ever since Grace first moved in next door, are closer than sisters. Grace's dad, a former police officer, runs the town paintball center; the two girls are passionate about paintball and seeking coveted spots on Seattle University's Lady Grinders team. But not all is certain and assured, and when a terrible secret is reawakened from her past, Kya spirals beyond Grace's reach. Kya indulges in self-destructive behaviors: drinking, promiscuity, and hanging out with the wrong crowd. Their mutual friend, James, distances himself from Kya and rebuffs any of Grace's attempts to have them reconcile. Grace, who has always put her own needs second to Kya's, is torn between seeing her own goals realized and trying to save Kya. Gurtler, 

Stained by Cheryl Rainfield

Sarah thinks she knows what fear is--until she's abducted. Now she must find a way to rescue herself.

Seventeen-year-old Sarah Meadows covers the walls of her bedroom with images of beautiful faces she clips from magazines--and longs for "normal." Born with a port-wine stain covering half her face, all her life she's been plagued by stares, giggles, and bullying, and disgust. Why can't she be like Diamond, the comic-book hero she created? Diamond would never let the insults in. That's harder for Sarah.

But when she's abducted on the way home from school, Sarah is forced to uncover the courage she never knew she had. Can she look beyond her face to find the beauty and strength she has inside, somehow becoming a hero rather than a victim? It's the only way Sarah will have any chance of escaping the prison--both seen and unseen--that this deranged killer has placed around her.

Winners. (It’s a tie!)

I Dare You Not to Yawn by Helene Boudreau

Yawns are sneaky. They can creep up when you least expect them.There you are, minding your own business, building the tallest block tower in the history of the universe or dressing up the cat when suddenly . . .

Sounds like my kind of book.

Skink on the Brink by Lisa Dalrymple, Illustrated by Suzanne Del Rizzo

Stewie was a very little skink with a very blue tail.

That was the only sentence in the Amazon Canada preview. But they show material on the life cycle of a skink and some gorgeous illustrations. I wish we got more Canadian books in the US

 I hope you find some reads here that interest you. Happy reading and writing.
You might also like Crystal Kites  Atlantic, Mid South and Southeast
California Hawaii and the West



Sunday, August 17, 2014

That's Amore!
The 43rd SCBWI Summer Conference!!

by Hilde Garcia

This year's theme for the 43rd Annual SCBWI Summer Conference. This year, Tomie dePaola turned 80 and in honor of our successful flash mob from 2012, we serenaded Tomie on Saturday night with That's Amore.

Happy Birthday Tomie!
Tomie was ill and couldn't fly out to see it in person so a video was sent to him. He Skyped the closing Key Note with Lin Oliver as his moderator to a crowd of 1200 fans!  To conclude the incredible weekend, we had none other than the one and only Judy Blume give us an inspiring farewell.

My daughter sat in the front row, sketching Judy at the podium. She then walked up to her after her speech and gave her the illustration.  Judy was touched. I had no camera and I wish I had a photo of her drawing to share with you, but I will never forget the image of that moment when my daughter, brave enough to be in a room with 1200 people, walked up to Judy Blume and said, "I drew this for you.  I loved Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing."

Judy Blume
That to me was the quintessential moment of the conference.  Judy graciously took it and shared it with other noteworthy people who were gathered around her at that moment.  She was genuinely touched.  Considering how many books of Judy's have inspired me over the years, it was quite amazing to see my daughter make Judy smile.  Then Judy shook her hand. I was so glad I have taught my kids how to shake a hand!

I have attended this Conference regularly for the last 6 or 7 years and I must say that this year, I was inspired more deeply than in past years. Maybe it was the right mix of key notes, break out sessions, socials, piña coladas, and Judy Blume, or maybe it was that I was ready for a break through with the revision of my novel.  And when you are ready, the universe embraces you.

Either way, I was in the zone and the weekend proved to be worth the time, money and effort to attend. (Communicating my crazy schedule to my husband who agreed to be Mr. Mom was nothing short of miraculous).  The intensives on Monday shook loose the problems with my plot, giving me a way out of the darkness.

The break out sessions that stayed with me included Maggie Stiefvater, Sharon Flake, Adriana Dominguez, and Linda Sue Park's Key Note.  (For full conference schedule, go to

Linda Sue Park
This year, I also participated in the Intensives that take place on Monday.  I went to Linda Sue's on Revision and took away fabulous techniques for tightening your novel and really finding the heart of the story.

                 Maggie Stiefvater
I also attend Maggie's intensive on Character - Specifics vs Details.  It was an eye opener and I noticed what is necessary and what is not in my story.

Meanwhile, during my intensives, I was getting calls from the twins' summer camp of a possible lice outbreak and a fractured finger- each kid with one of those problems, but yet, I managed to have a break through despite the joys of motherhood and was able to stay without darting to save either one!  (By the way, all was clear in the end, but talk about impeding your Main Character!)

Here are some highlights of advice and suggestions from some of the key note speakers and the inspirational words that they shared with us on the first morning of the Conference!
Meg Rosoff

Imagination has the possibility to make everyone better at everything except for politicians! -Meg Rosoff.

Young Judy Schachner
Bienvenidos, Benvenuti, Now, Chocolate, Fluffernutter, Reinvent, Heart, Rebel, Ready, Willing, and Able.

Become a collector not just of things, but of experiences too. -Judy Schachner

Challenged, Hashtagselfie, Stretch, Be, You, Wonder, Agog, Hutzpah, Serendipity, Diversity, SCAT, and Endure.

Everyone is a product of where they came from- they are either running away from it or running to it. -Maggie Stiefvater

This industry is cyclical. You cannot write to a trend. Write the book you are inspired to write, the minute you don't you loose your voice. -Justin Chanda
Justin Chanda

Patience, Focus, Botanical, Community, PLAY, and Supercaliforniaisterrific-I hope you get published.

The voices that first influence me were my family.
-Sharon G. Flake

Sharon G. Flake
Epiphany, Class, Overcome, Classic, Splinter, Astonishment, Common Core, Imgaination, and Gumba- just do it!

Diversity is your point of view! -Adriana Dominguez

Relationships, Friends, Entrepreneurial, La Cuna, Fierce, Visualize, Library, Authenticity, Eccentricity, Feel, Skyfarm, and Optimism

Don't bore the editor- make every word count. -Linda Sue Park

Persevere, Empathy, Unputdownable, Start, Hands-on, Deal, Awesome, and CONVICTION.

Memores are nothing until they turn into blood within you.  -Meghan McDonald

First line is the promise, last line is the payoff.
Lisa Yee


One technique discussed by Linda Sue Park was to re-write a line every which way you can.  Maggie discussed that the more realistic the characters' specific characteristics are, the least likely they are to become a duplicate in your story.

The biggest take away from the weekend seemed to be echoed by every key note and break out session-  what motivates us to write the story is the crux of the story that inspires us to tell it.

I guess the words that stayed with me the most came from Judy Blume, "Don't let anyone discourage you- if they try, don't get depressed, get angry. Writing didn't just change my life, it saved my life."

So go and let it save yours. Write the story that only you can write. And if you haven't attended a conference yet, make it a mission to do so.

It's a weekend that stays with you long after the autograph party is done.