Lessons learned at the 2011 SCBWI WWA retreat

I had such a great time at SCBWI West­ern Wash­ing­ton’s Week­end on the Water retreat this year. Nes­tled in a cozy lodge-style resort on the Hood Canal, 49 oth­er writ­ers and I had the priv­i­lege of learn­ing from super­stars Arthur A. Levine and Lin­da Sue Park. I want­ed to cap­ture and share just a few of the nuggets of wis­dom I gleaned from their talks, so here goes…
Arthur A. Levine
From Arthur:

  • First chap­ters are like first dates. You need a spark, but also must estab­lish trust if there is to be a long-term rela­tion­ship. You must choose an appro­pri­ate set­ting for the mood you wish to cre­ate. Choose the right outfit—don’t write to trends if they don’t suit you. Don’t give too much away in the beginning—keep a few sur­pris­es for lat­er. Be hon­est. Don’t rush in.
  • Think about your story’s “best self,” the most impor­tant aspect of your book and hope­ful­ly, the one you are best at. Is it char­ac­ter? Plot? Voice? Set­ting? Yes, you need them all, of course, but one prob­a­bly stands out as the key ele­ment or your best trait. Be sure to lead with that com­po­nent in the first chap­ter, both to make a good impres­sion and set the stage for what comes next.
  • Make sure your story’s “beat­ing heart” is revealed in the first chap­ter. What’s the emo­tion­al theme?
  • You can’t start writ­ing with a moral or theme in mind. Go back to the char­ac­ters and find out  why it matters.
  • Main char­ac­ters will have thoughts and feel­ings about the facts you need to present. Reveal char­ac­ter through descrip­tion to get two for one.
  • When receiv­ing feed­back, be sure to ask WHY cri­ti­quers are mak­ing their sug­ges­tions. Don’t just make the changes they pro­pose with­out under­stand­ing the real rea­sons behind them.
  • Enjoy the journey!

Linda Sue Park
From Lin­da Sue:

  • Young chil­dren are learn­ing about THEIR WORLD. Mid­dle-grade chil­dren are learn­ing about THE WORLD. Young-adult read­ers are learn­ing about THEMSELVES. “Read­ing is prac­tice for life.”
  • With­out show­ing the where and when of set­ting, you only reveal part of char­ac­ter. Tell read­ers how your char­ac­ters inter­act with their envi­ron­ment, not just what the envi­ron­ment is.
  • Every sen­tence should do dou­ble-duty (plot + char­ac­ter, plot + set­ting, or set­ting + char­ac­ter). Look for this dur­ing revision.
  • Try it! Instead of just think­ing about some­thing, (1st per­son POV vs. 3rd per­son, present vs. past, dif­fer­ent struc­tures and time­lines, dif­fer­ent set­tings, etc.), try it both ways and see what you like bet­ter. Don’t be afraid of wast­ing time! This is the work of writing.
  • Using present tense for what is hap­pen­ing right now is tech­ni­cal­ly incor­rect. Present tense is for things that hap­pen every day or are rou­tine. Present par­tici­ple (-ing) is for what’s hap­pen­ing right now. “I sing” vs. “I’m singing.” But it’d be awful­ly cum­ber­some to right a 1st per­son present nov­el this way!
  • Use line breaks to see the rhythm and length of sen­tences in a pic­ture book. Edit it as free verse, then put it back togeth­er for man­u­script form.
  • Act out the parts and try read­ing your work out loud AS your char­ac­ters! This helps you catch things they wouldn’t say or do and guar­an­tee authenticity.
  • Write one scene at a time. In every scene, you only have to choose if there will be progress or imped­i­ment, and which quest will affect, inter­nal or exter­nal? Now make it MOVE—every scene needs some kind of action.
  • Even if you don’t believe in your­self, believe in your STORY.
  • The only way to know what’s good is to read—a LOT!

There was so much more from each of them that my note­book (not to men­tion my brain) is full! If you ever get the chance to hear either one of them speak, don’t let it pass you by. They are both phenomenal.
Anoth­er great com­po­nent of the retreat is learn­ing from the oth­er tal­ent­ed writ­ers in atten­dance.  We had peer cri­tique groups, net­work­ing and social time, and work shared aloud through­out the week­end. So, with all of that feed­back and learn­ing in mind… back to revisions!

4 thoughts on “Lessons learned at the 2011 SCBWI WWA retreat”

  1. Try­ing not to feel too jeal­ous about your retreat — how excit­ing! Thanks for shar­ing these ter­rif­ic sum­maries from Arthur and Lin­da Sue!


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