Highlights & Thoughts from the 2016 SCBWI Golden Gate Conference at Asilomar

I’ve been watching this conference for a decade. I have heard wonderful things about it, but–since it’s not cheap (well, staying at Asilomar isn’t cheap; the conference itself is more than reasonably priced), I felt like I needed to have some work to show before I went. So this year is it. It was a wonderful, wonderful weekend. And, although so many things are still circling around in my head, in no particular order yet, I wanted to get a few randomy thoughts done before I forget them.

  • I wasn’t sure what I needed this weekend to be. Turns out I needed it to be about rejuvenation, recharging, and–most of all–recommitment. And it was. Obviously, I need to sustain this feeling and act on it, but I came away feeling that, yes, my writing is going to land at the top of my priorities list once again. Everybody I met and listened to contributed a lot to this feeling, but Deborah Underwood‘s talk about getting rid of obstacles to our creativity really hit a home run for me.
  • You think you’re ready, and you’re not always ready. That includes the state of your manuscripts, your receptivity to hearing critiques about them, and your understanding of what they need to improve. But if you smile and breathe and give things a few hours to sink in, they usually do, and you find yourself thinking the critiquer much more sincerely later in the day, because you now do have some next steps to follow. AND you can see why they’re necessary and important.
  • Clare Vanderpool is not only a wonderful writer and a speaker with a lot of important things to say, she is very possibly the funniest person on the planet. If you are a conference organizer, invite her. If you have a chance to attend a conference where she’s on faculty, go. And be ready to nod and nod and then LAUGH AND LAUGH.
  • I’m pretty sure I’ve never been to a conference where tears were shed during so many talks. It may have been the theme: Live Your Story, but people shared so openly and honestly, the keynotes and workshops stopped being just about my work and your work and became about our work and our worlds and our lives.
  •  Rhyming picture books DO get me. Who knew? Go get Deborah Underwood’s  and Meg Hunt‘s Interstellar Cinderella and Corey Rosen Schwartz‘ and Rebecca J. Gomez‘ and Keika Yamaguchi‘s What about Moose?, and you’ll see what I mean.
  • We had power outages that faculty laughed and spoke through, even though, literally, the power was going off, on, off, on, off, on, like a badly out of sync strobe light, and must have been driving them crazy.
  • I remembered that calendars have power. Every weekend, I will be calendaring my weekday writing into its after-work time slots. And I will be printing a monthly calendar to check off all the days during which I put in writing time. I have promised myself I get to go back to Asilomar in 2017, IF I DO THE WORK. Guess what? I’M GOING TO DO THE WORK.
  • The deer at Asilomar barely look up when you walk near them. Okay, they look up, but they keep chewing away and just let you ooh and ah at them. Because we are no threat. Now we all just need to work on expanding that safety and peace beyond our relationship with deer and beyond the gates of Asilomar.
  • There was a quilting conference going at the same time as ours. I never did get a chance to sneak past their classrooms and see all their work, but I chatted with some while we were in line for meals, including the cousin on one of my absolutely favorite picture book authors. Yes, I asked her to tell her cousin how much I loved her book. Random and special.
  • I have some work to do with my art notes. Or maybe I should say without my art notes.
  • Some of us had to take off after the last sessions, but some of us lingered, joining each other for one last long talk around the lunch table in the dining room. As the last of us pushed away our chairs and started to head toward our cards, one of us said that it felt like leaving summer camp–making sure you gave and got hugs, exchanged emails, shared good and powerful wishes for the next year. I understood what she met, but it felt different for me. I never wanted to go back to summer camp. I DO want to go back to Asilomar.

And I will.


Carol Baldwin on (Trying to) Make a Long Story Short…plus a giveaway!

Carol Baldwin is the first in my monthly series of guest bloggers talking about critiquing. Carol’s most recent book is Teaching the Story: Fiction Writing in Grades 4-8 (Maupin House, 2008). She has coordinated an SCBWI critique group for over 15 years, blogs at www.carolbaldwinblog.blogspot.com, and is writing her first young adult novel. The three Gs in her life are gardening, grandchildren, and learning how to golf.

Read through Carol’s great post to see all the steps critiques can take you along. Take the time to leave a comment on the post. As with all the posts in this series, I’ll be picking one commenter to win a copy of my book, The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide. Enter by Monday for a chance to win. Make sure you leave contact info in the comment, so I can get hold of you!

And…here’s Carol!

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When someone asks why I decided to write about two girls in Charlotte in 1950—one white and another light-skinned black—I tell them it’s a long story. A story full of critiques, re-vision, and rewriting.

Half-Truths started as a picture book. About 15 years ago, I visited Wing Haven, a bird sanctuary in Myers Park, NC.  The garden’s history is full of stories about animals which the founder, Mrs. Clarkson, rehabilitated. When I visited I thought, Someone should write a picture book about this place! I tried, but there were too many stories to fit into (what was then the acceptable) 2000 word limit.

Elizabeth Clarkson with one of the birds she nursed back to health

Since the market wouldn’t support my original idea, I re-visioned the story.  The new book would be a fictionalized account of Mrs. Clarkson rehabilitating a baby robin. I created a young boy protagonist to make it a “boy book.” When I shared the idea with my son-in-law he scoffed, “Boys aren’t going to read a story about a bird! They want blood and guts!”

His off-the-cuff “critique” made me consider my audience. Maybe this was a girl story? I started playing with different ideas.

At that time, I met Joyce Hostetter and read BLUE. She repeated the advice that Carolyn Yoder gave her: “Look for the story in your own backyard.” Although I had moved to Charlotte, N.C. 22 years earlier, I began observing many instances of the same last name belonging to both blacks and whites. What was the connection?

As I looked at pictures of light-skinned African Americans and listened to local stories the seed of my story started to root.

Thad Tate was a prominent African American businessman from the 1890’s-1940’s. Picture courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. I heard stories of his granddaughter passing.

Since I’m a transplanted Yankee writing a Southern story, I surfed the Internet hoping to figure out how my characters spoke “Southern.” The result was a disaster. A member of my SCBWI critique group, Miriam Franklin, read one of those first attempts and said, “No character in Myers Park talked like that!” Her critique was another wake-up call.  I didn’t know who my characters were or where they came from. Their diction should flow from characterization, not vice-versa.

My next significant critique intervention came from Harold Underdown, my critiquer  at the 2009 Highlights Writer’s Workshop. His most helpful question was simple, yet pivotal: “What does your character want?” I have repeatedly wrestled with that question, and have actually found not one–but layers of answers as I continued to write.

Carol Baldwin and Harold Underdown in Chautauqua, NY

I joyfully marked New Year 2011 by finishing my first draft. I read the entire manuscript and then buckled down to what I naively thought, was a chapter-by-chapter revision. I participated in Kidlit4Japan and won a critique from Ann Manheimer.  Among other helpful recommendations, she suggested that I didn’t open my story close enough to the inciting event. As a result, I revised the first five chapters.

Fast forward to September, 2011 and the SCBWI Carolinas conference. Mary Kate Castellani, an associate editor with Walker Books, read 10 pages and offered the biggest book-changing critique of all: since my story featured two main characters–one white and one black–I should write it from both girls’ points-of-view.

Total shock. Rewrite my entire book? Write as much from the black girl’s POV as the white girl’s? How could I, a white author, do that?

That is when I learned how a good critique enables you to re-vision your work.

I laid out my book using different colored note cards representing the alternating chapters. I suppose that means I’m a plotter; I had to visually see how to make the story work from both girls’ point-of-views. (picture of my dining room table)

The result? I’m thrilled that the finished product will be more accessible to a wider audience and am enjoying the new places my manuscript is taking me. But, my critiquing and re-vision hasn’t stopped.

My local SCBWI group reads each new chapter and provides helpful feedback.  I love their thoughts about my characters. “Kate wouldn’t act like that,” or, “Do you really think Lillie would say that?” Their comments make me see my characters through new eyes and help ensure that my characters are both consistent and original.

Revision happens on the small, microscopic level, as well as on the “big picture” level. Recently, to prepare an application for the SCBWI WIP grant, Joyce Hostetter went through my first ten pages and showed me how I could cut 400 words. Meanwhile, Rebecca Petruck looked at the big picture of these same pages and gave a cogent argument for opening the book with a different scene.  Re-vision time again!

Many years ago I created this graphic organizer “The Writing-Revising Cycle” for my book, Teaching the Story: Fiction Writing in Grades 4-8. Feel free to print out a copy and hang it near your workspace; it’s still a good reminder to me of the work I have ahead of me.

Friday Five: SCBWI Spring Spirit Conference

Okay, here’s the last of the posts about my trip up to Sacramento and the 2011 Spring Spirit Conference. You’ve got a couple more days to enter my contest for a signed copy of Bruce Coville’s The Monster’s Ring, by leaving a comment at last Monday’s post about Bruce’s keynote speech.

For today, a few conference highlights:

1. The conference basically rocked. The energy of the whole day was wonderful, partly because of the great speakers and workshops, partly because I just love hanging out with kidlit writers. I have to say, though, I think a lot of that energy came directly from the coordinators and volunteers. So thanks to everybody, including the main organizers: Erin Dealey, Patti Newman, and Genny Heikka. We are lucky to have you guys!

2. I sat in on some excellent workshops, particularly Susan Buckley’s talk about writing nonfiction for children and Christy Webster’s session on what else we might be writing for young kids, than picture books. Both speakers sparked ideas and goals in my head, even if I don’t know exactly where those are going to take me. Both Susan and Christy clearly love what they do and get how challenging and fun writing for children can be. If I had to summarize both workshops really fast, I’d say Story, Story, Story!

3. I dropped the first page of my picture book into a basket for Quinlan Lee’s first-page critique session. Let me tell you, when I hear people ask, “How can anyone tell if something’s working or not on the first page?”–they can! No, they can’t tell whether the story is great after that page, they can’t tell if the story is seriously “close” and just needs a bit more revision, but it is possible to get a strong idea about what might/might not be ready and even a little bit about why. Quinlan is incredibly sharp–her critiques were fast, spot on, and always respectful and kind. Oh, and her lunchtime keynote speech had a picture of herself at nine-years-old, sitting on a hillside, reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond for the fourth time. In other words, a picture of why we write. Perfect.

4. I met Bruce Coville. I shook his hand, thank him for his books, and–oh, yeah–gushed a little. (Oh, you would have, too!) Then I watched and listened to him give a keynote speech that had him leaving his microphone behind, climbing onto a chair, brainstorming a make-it-worse-for-your-character with voices, and basically reminding us with humor and conviction who these kids are we’re writing for and what they want to read.

5. The day was filled with meetings–people I’d met before, people I’ve gotten to know online (every third conversation started with, “Have we met, or do I know you from Facebook?!”), ate and hung out with new and old friends (Thanks to Catherine Meyer, Cheri Williams, Tiare Williams Solorzano, Nancy Laughlin, & Claudine Rogers!) I bought books, talked writing and critiquing, and just soaked up all the creativity and motivation.

Wonderful day. I highly recommend a dose of conference time for you all!

Friday Five: Out of Town

As you read this, or shortly after, I’ll be on the road (or many roads) on my way to the SCBWI Spring Spirit conference in Rocklin, California. For us non-geography experts, that’s right up in/near Sacramento. To get there, I head out of my mountains, through the heart of Silicon Valley, up into some lovely green hills (really green, this week!), and over toward the tip of the Central Valley. Not a long drive, but long enough that I’m taking an extra day, rather than rushing up and back the same day.

Road Trip!

Here are a few things I expect to do this weekend:

1. Drink “my” drink: Nonfat, decaf, light caramel macchiato. Just so you know. Yes, I do get that all out at the order station, and, yes, it’s worth the embarrassment. I’m not a big coffee drinker in every day life, but there’s something about sipping hot coffee from behind the wheel of a car that seems to work. And don’t push me to get the “hard” stuff–you don’t want me driving around on a full-caffeine hit!

2. Stop at the California Automobile Museum to do research for my WIP. I’m (hopefully) going to see a 1908 Model T, a 1911 Pierce-Arrow (think back to the car the dad bought in Cheaper by the Dozen), and a lot more. I’m going to figure out how you accelerated a car back in those days, which (if not all) had cranks to get things going, and–most important–what you might possibly bang your head against…hard!

(Note: I’ll be there on April 1st. I’m SO tempted to walk in, say, “Which one do I get to drive?!”, watch their faces fall, and then shout “April Fools!” Honestly, though, no chance I’ll have the courage.)

3. Hang out with kidlit writers and illustrators.

4. Meet Bruce Coville. Wait, let me say that again. MEET BRUCE COVILLE!!!!  He’s the keynote speaker at the conference, and I pretty much think he is brilliant in his ability to understand what makes kids laugh and what gives them the perfect world of fantasy to escape into.

5. Get back a critique from some professional (not sure who yet) on my picture book. Stick the still-sealed envelope in my bag and don’t open it until I’m somewhere quiet and safe? Tear it open upon receipt and block everybody else in the registration line until I’ve read it? Sneak a peak at lunch? What would you do?

Can you tell I’m ready to go? Have a great weekend, everybody!

Guest Post: Constance Lombardo on Growing a Critique Group Over Time

I hear a lot about groups that didn’t make it–where meetings trickled away, or people weren’t submitting, or the group was just the wrong fit for too many members. That’s why, when Constance Lombardo sent me this guest post about her group that DID make it–with all the ups and downs and persistence it took to get there, I was thrilled. Read on to see the work that Constance and her critique partners put into keeping this group alive and, ultimately, a strong, supportive place.


Four years ago, I moved to Asheville, joined SCBWI and decided to form a critique group. I found another writer/illustrator with the same goal. We scheduled and advertised our first meeting. Asheville is full of artists and writers, so I shouldn’t have been surprised by the amount of people who showed up– ten, I think. A mix of picture book to YA writers and illustrators. Wow, I thought, this is going to be easy!

We worked out some logistics: we’d meet twice a month at our favorite local bookstore, Malaprops, we’d read our work and offer feedback at meetings, leaving the first 20 minutes for chatting (hopefully on book-related subjects!) And we would use the ‘sandwich’ rule – a positive statement about the writing first, then discuss what might need work, close with another positive statement.

Four years later, the last survivor from that first group to our current configuration is me.

People moved away. One of us had twins. Someone else had surgery. Others decided they didn’t have time for the group. Change is part of life, right?

Over the years, we’ve had people show up once, after being told that a commitment was required to share work for feedback, and then never return. (We now have a rule that you must attend at least one meeting before you can share.)

We’ve had people show up only when they wanted to share their own work. (New rule: you must attend at least one of our twice a month meetings regularly to remain in the group.)

We had one woman who left the group, saying we were all mean. (More conversation on keeping things positive.)

We’ve had some intense chatters. (I’ve been guilty of this at times. Reminders about staying on-topic.)

And we’ve had some serious personality clashes. New York personalities (myself and others) vs. Southern personalities. We’re still working on that one.

What have we done best over the years?

About a year ago, when our group hit nine committed writers and illustrators who attend and share regularly, we decided to close the group. Most of us are SCBWI members and it’s a requirement for any new members, when we do have an opening. We wrote down a list of Intentions and Rules, including some previously mentioned. We now post our work (especially longer YA or MG chapters) the week before we meet.

We’ve had local authors (Allan Wolf, Alan Gratz) and a local illustrator (Laura Bryant) speak to us about their journeys. A local editor (Joy Neaves) also spoke to our group. We’ve learned a lot from these meetings.

And we picked a name. That was interesting. As we threw out ideas, I realized that I am attached to my concept of the group and that some of the names were just not acceptable to me. (New rule: any major change had to be ok’d by all members.) We made a list of potential names:

  • Monkeys with Typewriters
  • Make Way for Madeline
  • Wonderlanders
  • The Inksters
  • The Secret Gardeners

We all voted and happily agreed. We are now The Secret Gardeners.

An illustrator from our group (Holly McGee) was pulled from the slush pile to illustrate her first picture book from Kane/Miller, Hush Little Beachcomber by Dianne Moritz. (Hooray!) Author/illustrator Kit Grady has a new book out, A Necklace for Jiggsy (Hooray!) Megan Shepherd’s articles have been in Faces, Calliope and Appleseeds magazines (You go, girl!) And we recently had another published author join us, Karen Miller (Monsters and Water Beasts: Creatures of Fact or Fiction?)

And the rest of us have made great strides in our writing and/or illustrating. We are:

We’ve been published in our Carolinas chapter newsletter, The Pen & Palette, and in the SCBWI Bulletin, cheering each other on all the way. We celebrate each other through our successes and commiserate over our (numerous!) rejection letters. We share knowledge (agent lists) and ask questions (how to write an effective query?) We attend conferences together and hang out in the hotel bar talking late into the night.

We’ve come to know each other, our work, our writing/illustrating styles, our strengths and weaknesses, and our dreams. We’ve come to appreciate each other, to understand what we’re each trying to accomplish, to be encouraging, and to offer the kind of feedback that makes us all work harder to deliver our best.

And we have fun! We went to see Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix. And we’re planning to see HP and the Deathly Hallows together. This year, one of our scheduled meetings fell on my birthday, so I requested that we meet at The Chocolate Lounge (which is as wonderful as it sounds!) We ate chocolate, drank dessert wine, and talked about books. Then I knew, this isn’t just a great critique group, these are my friends.

Friday Five: A Random Version

1. I’m meeting with a young writer today to talk about her novel. I’ve started reading it, and it’s fun, and I’m really looking forward to editing and brainstorming with her.  I’m also taking her a copy of my book, because she’s young and she’s clearly going to be a writer all her life, and it’s my decision that she should be know about critique groups.  Not to mention I will begin my indoctrination about joining SCBWI. Mwahaha!

2. I just read Deborah Underwood’s The Quiet Book. I know, I’m a bit behind, but I’ve been wanting to read it and then I found out that Deborah and I will be on an SCBWI critique panel at the end of this month , and then I really wanted to read it. And…wow. Honestly, I’m always hesitant about concept picture books, because I typically need story. Plus, I’d seen some of Renata Liwska’s incredible illustrations, and I knew that those were potentially powerful enough to take over from the prose. Nope. Yes, the art is amazing, but–honestly–so are the words. I read the words first, on purpose, and every single page evoked a sense for me–an emotion. Deborah hit the nail on the head every single time. Beautiful.

3. It’s cooled off. We actually just left the windows open last night, without running the so-loud fans. The car thermometer hit 117 degrees one afternoon this week, while son and I were sitting on an onramp waiting to get through the metering lights. I find it hard to even exist when it’s that hot. So yay for coastal fog and a light breeze.

4. There are colds in the house. Husband woke up with a slight sore throat and son is sneezing and sniffling. Medicine has been given, and I am crossing my fingers that the flu shot I got this week will magically transform into cold-protection. I may have to turn in to Lady MacBeth this weekend, to stay safe.

5. I have to go to the grocery store today. I went to the grocery store earlier this week. I’ll go to the grocery sometime at the start of next week. Am I having hallucinatory nostalgia, or did my mom manage to do a huge grocery run on the weekend & then stop for milk if we ran out during the week? And there were 5 of us then, to the 3 of us here. Was she just more organized (yes!) or more determined (less lazy) to really fill that fridge and freezer to the brim when she shopped (probably)?  Whatever it was, and as nice as the people at my grocery store are, I feel that I am way too familiar with that place. Do you ever find yourself wandering the aisles, “waiting” for something new and exciting and delicious and healthy and simple to cook to just pop out at you? Sigh. At least I’m remembering to bring in my reusable bags these days, and don’t have to ask the checker to “wait just a minute while I run out to the car.”

Happy Friday, everyone!