Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Long Big Sur Recap

It's been about a month since I went to the Big Sur Children's Writing Workshop, so I figured it was about time to post about a recap.

Big Sur is about a five hour drive north of me, but my family members were all freaking out about me making the drive on my own. Now, I don't really like to drive, and I'll be the first to admit that I'm not the best driver on the road, but the way my parents and my husband freaked out at the thought of me driving by myself for that long really had me feeling self-conscious about my driving abilities. What did they think I was going to do? (And did they all forget that I'm a grown woman? I'm thirty*something*, for goodness sake.) I was honestly looking forward to popping in a Harry Potter audio book and enjoying the drive, but the way my mom was getting the vapors, I figured I would have to figure out a compromise. So I ended up flying into San Jose and driving two hours down to Big Sur in a rental car.

The drive was beautiful, and I pulled over several times to take some photos of the coastline. My phone cut out a good while before I pulled up to the Big Sur Lodge...I didn't really realize that I was going to be in the wilderness like this! No wi-fi, no phone service, NO TWITTER. Oh man, I am never this disconnected, so I knew it was going to be an interesting weekend. I mean, we stayed in little cabins! With fireplaces! And we had to do a little hike down to the dining room! It was all very rustic and awesome.

The theme for the weekend was WRITING, obviously, but I loved that the focus here was on actually working. Not just talking about writing, but getting in there and critiquing and revising and getting ish done with your WIP. The ratio of attendees to faculty (authors, editors, and Andrea Brown agents) was 5 to 1, so it was an intimate group of REALLY talented people. I was floored by the people I came into contact with. More than any other writing event I've been to, this one was filled with people who knew their stuff, and I was so impressed by the talent I came into contact with.

My first critique group was awesome. There were five of us and one agent. There was me with my YA contemporary, a YA time travel romance, a YA murder mystery, a MG mystery, and a YA contemporary. We each read from our pages, and then everyone went around with comments. A setup like this is not for the weak of heart when it comes to getting feedback on your writing. Luckily I LOVE IT. I love getting my stuff written all over, and I love when people have comments and suggestions and any kind of reactions to my work. (I have to admit that the best part was hearing them laugh at the funny bits when I was reading aloud. I have been working on this so long that I have started to wonder if the humor is actually funny anymore. It looks like it is. YAY.) Anyway, I got so many suggestions on how to improve my opening, and, like I said, I was blown away at how talented everyone else was.

My second crit group was awesome, too! This was the same setup, five of us and an agent, but new people and a new agent. In this group we had one MG contemporary, a YA dystopian, a YA paranormal, and a YA verse novel. I brought different pages to this group, but I could have brought the same stuff if I wanted to. The coolest part about these crit groups for me was hearing the perspective of the agents on my pages. I have heard from a lot of writers about my opening, but hearing what an agent's reaction as she read it was pretty invaluable feedback to have, and I paid special attention to what both of them told me about my first chapter.

We had lots of free time to write, so I ended up taking everyone's feedback and revising the pages I submitted to both groups. Some people brought new pages to the second meetings, but I really wanted the group feedback on the changes I made. It was great to hear how everyone changed their stuff based on feedback and everyone really improved their work. It was pretty exciting to read around and hear how much better everyone's writing was after our sessions.

We also got a 15-minute one-on-one session with one faculty member where we could discuss our query, our synopsis, or whatever else we wanted to discuss. My meeting was with one of the authors, and she gave me lots of great feedback on my query. (I still haven't touched that, though. I need to finish my ms first, really.)

Like a lot of writers, I'm a bit more on the introverted side. I have learned to hide it well, and even though it seems like I'm a total social butterfly, I really have a difficult time functioning in new and intimidating situations. I was super nervous about not knowing anyone at this thing and making it through all of the meeting people and small talk that the weekend was going to entail, but I'm glad to report that I made it, and I wasn't a total disaster. This is a huge win for Team Jess. I realized that a couple of people I knew from Twitter were there, which was a really rad surprise. Then I had a totally kick-ass roommate and a nice neighbor, so I usually had someone to eat with or walk up and down the hill with. Then all of the agents and faculty were all so approachable and friendly; I ended up eating with or talking to almost all of the agents by the end of the weekend, which was pretty surprising for me. I may have lurked around like a creeper during some of those meals, but at least I wasn't a total weirdo (I hope). This is a big deal!

It ended up being just the weekend I needed to keep me pumped about my WIP. I got awesome feedback, I made some great revisions, people liked my stuff, I met great people, and I didn't spend the whole weekend being a wallflower.

On the drive back to the airport I had some time to kill, so I ended up taking the 17 Mile Drive through Pebble Beach, which is where a lot of these pictures are from. There was some storming going on, so it made for a very dramatic coastline. I took all of these pictures with my camera (HTC EVO) and I am so surprised at how nice they came out. These are better pictures than my old point and shoot.

Anyway, if anyone is thinking about attending Big Sur in the future (they have another one coming up in March), I can't recommend it enough. You will learn so much and be surrounded by an amazing faculty, talented writers, and beautiful scenery. I wish I could spend every weekend like this!


  1. AHHHH so jealous. Maybe March. If not--probably next December for sure. I LOVE that kind of environment.


  2. so happy that you had such an awesome experience!

    (face-to-face crits still get me nervous even after 4 years of undergrad doing it and now almost 3 years of grad school. the WORST FEELING IN THE WORLD is when there is dead silence or no one has anything to say after you've presented your work, so you're on the right track with loving when everyone comments, even if it means a lot more work ;).)

  3. Wow, this sounds like an incredibly invaluable experience. Big props to you for taking the initiative, this sounds really amazing.
    And wow-these pictures are gorgeous! love the dark blue/gray against the hot pink of your scarf, dramatic!!!

  4. This conference sounds awesome! I really like that you can actually get work done and your work is critiqued. I'd love to check it out at some point, once my first draft is complete. I experienced my fair share of face to face critique in grad school, and it was tough but I miss it!

  5. yay for networking and getting a confidence boost! The cabin looks so cute.

  6. Jessica, those are some really great pictures!

    I really enjoyed my time at Big Sur -- it was great to meet you as well. You summed it pretty well -- it's definitely a weekend to focus and work on your writing. Plus, all of the authors and agents were so approachable and helpful with their comments.

    Good luck with your revisions on your novel. :)

  7. Yay for a great trip!! I'm so happy for you and the progress you were able to make!

  8. Thanks for posting this! It sounds like a great time. I really want to go to the one in March.

  9. I'm so glad you posted this Jess! Sounds like it was an awesome experience. Also, love that photo of you and the background looks so dramatic!

  10. This seems like so much fun! I've never gone to one :( Hopefully I will some day! Glad you had a good time :D

  11. I think it wasn't your driving so much as terrain and weather conditions. You are not THAT bad of a driver!

  12. I'm so glad you had such a good (and profitable!) time! I've been wondering how it went, and your experience lines up with what I've heard from others, but, man, all that reading-aloud and instant feedback and working on it and bringing it back to the same group...that all kind of scares the crap out of me.

    Sometimes it's good to be scared...maybe I should sign up for March.