Back from a Great Writing Retreat

I'm back from the retreat, and I LOVED it. It was fantastic.

At work, my boss asked me to write an article for the local newspaper about it, and so I decided I might as well post it to my blog. My facts are as accurate as I'm able to make them. If there are any inaccuracies, they're all my own. :)

This will go into the local newspaper:

Last weekend, I had the privilege of attending a writing retreat put on by SCBWI-WW. That’s the acronym for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Western Washington.

Each spring, SCBWI-WW hosts a conference for writers and illustrators that draws an attendance of about 400 persons. The spring conference is open to anyone, and covers a diverse range of topics.

The SCBWI-WW regional conference is one of many conferences put on by SCBWI chapters each year throughout America. The parent organization, SCBWI, also hosts two national conferences every year. One is held in the summer, in Los Angeles. The other is held in the winter, in New York.

Last year, in 2009, I was both delighted and overwhelmed to be able to attend the summer conference in Los Angeles, which typically draws 1000 attendees. It lasts four days and, like the SCBWI regional conferences, it also covers a diverse range of topics. If you want to hear keynotes, or possibly even to meet, in one location, the largest number possible of luminaries in children’s publishing, it’s the place to go. Yet despite the size, it’s relatively relaxed and a lot of fun. I haven’t attended the winter conference in New York, but I’m told that the atmosphere is quite different. You don’t want to attend that conference until you have an agent, or have signed a book contract, and are well on your way to building a writing career. At that conference, the focus is less on craft and more on marketing.

So, given all I’ve said about the various types of conferences offered to hopeful writers of children’s books, you might be wondering where the retreat I attended last weekend fits into the picture. To start with, it wasn’t open to just anyone, but to people who submitted a writing sample which then underwent a selection process. Of the hundreds who applied, 25 of us had the privilege of attending the cozy workshop focused on craft. Our teachers were two children’s book editors from New York. Jill Santopolo is the executive editor at Philomel, an imprint of Penguin. Nancy Mercado is the executive editor at Roaring Brook, an imprint of Holtzbrinck.

During each hourly session, one of the editors spoke for a few minutes on various writing techniques, and then the participants were given the opportunity to apply the technique to our own works-in-progress. It was assumed that we had all completed at least one novel manuscript, as what we were being taught applied globally to completed works. It was assumed that we were all well past foundational techniques, and eager to learn the skills that are hallmarks of publishable manuscripts.

I returned from the weekend with several possible new scenes for my young adult work-in-progress, as well as new ideas and techniques to implement.

You might be wondering if it’s easy or difficult to be published by a traditional New York publisher. Perhaps this could sum up the answer for you: Nancy Mercado told us to be prepared to rewrite part or all of our work-in-progress seven times before expecting it to ready to be sent to an agent. When you finally find an agent that would like to represent you, expect more re-writing before the agent submits it to editors. When you finally find an editor that likes it enough to buy it, expect it to go through five more rounds of edits before it’s ready for publication.

Jill Santopolo said she receives about 240 agented manuscripts each year. Like almost all publishers today, Philomel does not accept unagented submissions. From those 120 publishable novels, Jill buys only 12, and of those, only two are for young adults.

The whole process sounds daunting, and it is. But for people who love to write, that's not what it's about. It's about putting one word after another on a page to build a story that will--we hope--inspire, empower, and even transform, ourselves and our readers.


  1. Sounds like a glorious time, but those odds are quite daunting for someone hoping to break into the world of "published author". Fortunately, I don't have those aspirations and enjoy my full-time job :)

  2. Hey again --- I just wanted you to know that I shared this entry with my writing classes today. They do not understand the value of revision, and I thought this was a terrific example: even professional writers revise 15 - 20 times! It makes my required 3 revisions sound tame.

  3. Wow, sounds absolutely fantastic. Lucky you for getting to attend!

  4. Wonderful article, Cathy! Thanks for posting it to your blog.

    I rewrote my first novel seven times, just as Nancy Mercado said, before my agent accepted it, and I revised it twice before she sent it out to the first round of publishers! Now I'm facing more revisions before this second round. Writing is such WORK! Good thing we love it, eh?

    Tell us more of what you learned!!! Please! :)


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