This year, the method for choosing Whispering Pines attendees came down to the luck of the draw: a lottery. As long as you met the deadline, you had a chance at having your name pulled from the hat. But within a few weeks, I received a sympathetic e-mail from the lovely Mary Pierce. While I felt a sense of loss, I quickly moved on. I spent more hours writing each day, finished another novel, and wrote two new picture books. Writing fills my soul, but I kept flipping to the month of March on the calendar, yearning for the pines that whisper in the early morning, for my friends, and for the opportunities to improve my craft.
Why is the Whispering Pines Writer’s Retreat so special? In an intimate setting, it is one of a kind. Yes, the food is fabulous, the setting breathtaking, but in truth it comes down to the mentors. Because of Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s efforts, attendees spend the weekend with welcoming, generous, and astute editors, agents, writers, and illustrators. So when Lynda announced a few openings (provided you wrote picture books), I received a “Yes, you’re in!” e-mail. And on Friday, March 23, I bid my family farewell and headed to West Greenwich, Rhode Island.
As soon as you turn down the road leading to the retreat center, your body relaxes. You open your car window to suck in the fresh air. The pine trees pull you further along, welcoming you. Come, they whisper. You are a writer. Come be with your kind.
This year, our fabulous mentors included Michelle Poploff, Vice President, Executive Editor at Delacorte Press; Yolanda Scott, editorial director at Charlesbridge; Andrea Carcardi, Agent at Transatlantic Literary Agency; Suzanne Bloom, Author/Illustrator; Alexis O’Neill, Marketing/School Visits Expert/Author; and Jo Knowles, YA Novelist. When not critiquing individuals, they were available to attendees, always offering encouragement. Their first pages panel offered honest opinions, and ultimately a mini-class on how to craft a first page and grab the reader’s attention from the get go. . Even though my work was not included, I learned so much. I always do.
Attendees indulged in the finest of foods, had one-on-one critiques, blocks of individual writing time, and critique group sessions. Our annual basket raffle turned into a successful silent auction. Our mentors gave hour-long presentations on both Saturday and Sunday, while the weekend ended with another lively game of Jeopardy.
Alexis O’Neill shared her tips for giving school presentations, and always, you knew the feelings of kids were foremost in her mind. I highly recommend you visit and study Alexis’ website: www.schoolvisitsexpert.com. As she told us, “My assembly is always about the kids. What can I do for them?” I could not have asked for a better mentor that weekend. Alexis critiqued one of my picture book manuscripts and helped guide me in the right direction. (We both realized during my session that our names were familiar. Alexis was a judge for the 2011 Barbara Karlin Grant. My picture book manuscript, Norman and Rose, won the runner-up grant. A small world, indeed.)
Andrea Cascardi also spoke to my heart. With 20 years of editorial experience, she is a hands-on agent, offering an editorial eye. She told us to trust our gut, and listening to her, I felt as if I had found my way home. Andrea discussed the importance of moving the human heart and offering hope. One must dig deep, but also know when to take a step back. Thank you, Andrea! I am digging deeper because of you.
Yolanda Scott discussed picture books, an absolute love of mine. She shared Charlesbridge’s unique qualities, and then discussed the vital elements of picture books: character, plot, and voice. Whenever an editor gushes over their love of picture books, I am spellbound. Thank you, Yolanda! Your words drive my current revisions, keeping me focused on the importance of structure, and picking the stronger emotional path.
Michelle Poploff addressed setting, how it has a life of its own. Details are what bring a book to life, as long as it is all for the good of the story. What struck me the most about Michelle is how she champions her authors. An enthusiastic editor is a dream editor. I also loved being introduced to novels she has worked on. Some I was not familiar with, though that will change. Books have been ordered. Thank you, Michelle!
I have met Jo Knowles before, having attended her workshop at an Encore Presentation though New England SCBWI. Jo has a way of making you less afraid to reach deep inside, knowing it will stir emotions and memories. She addressed the importance of first pages, citing a number of examples. Jo reminded us that our job is to compel the reader early on, so to keep them reading. As a volunteer, I won an arc of See You at Harry’s. This is a beautiful story, and one that obviously came from deep within Jo’s gracious spirit. Thank you, Jo! www.joknowles.com
I think about Suzanne Bloom, how she shared some of her artwork from childhood, and I smile. Watching her draw was magical. Listening to her read A Splendid Friend, Indeed was sheer delight. Suzanne talked about making choices, her love of peeling back. “It is all about what is going to work out there,” she said. And Suzanne is right. For picture books, children need fun words, juiciness, flow, and rhythm. Like Alexis, she stressed how she is all about the children, telling us to fall in love with our characters. And in the end, she reminded us how lucky we are. We are doing our art. I am grateful for this gift. Suzanne’s words stuck with me as I drove away from the retreat. They still stick with me now while I write and revise: “You do it for the children.” Thank you, Suzanne! www.suzannebloom.com
This weekend would not happen without the dedication and hard work of a number of volunteers, but mostly two people: Lynda Mullaly Hunt and Mary Pierce. Mary took on more responsibilities this year to help Lynda, whose first novel, One for the Murphys, comes out in May. www.lyndamullayhunt.com I cannot wait for my copy to arrive, for if it reflects even a small amount of Lynda’s essence, the book will be a gift to the world of children’s literature. When I think of Lynda, a single image comes to mine, one that has beckoned to me in previous years, but more so this time: the rock in the lake. In the way that Lynda supports us, humors and cares for us, she is a rock. She is our rock, and the Whispering Pines Retreat reflects who she is as a human being. Thank you, Mary! Thank you, Lynda!
As I drove away from the weekend, leaving my friends, feeling a bit sad, I realized this year’s message: It is all about the children. What can we give them? How can we shape the future through our stories? How can we offer hope? Laughter? Encouragement? How can our characters, who breathe life onto our pages, be examples of strength through their own struggles? How can we introduce more heroes to this world?
You must take a vow to give your very best. Make writing your profession, even if you work elsewhere. Carve time in your day to write. Carve time in your busy schedule to attend writing workshops or retreats. Seek out mentors. Become a mentor. Children deserve our best.
Yes, writing can be lonely. It takes conviction and courage to spend hours in solitude. Yet it is a gift. As Suzanne Bloom says, we are doing our art. So open your heart, dig deep into that place of aching, and let the thought of giving something back to the children of this world lead and inspire you to revise, and revise, and revise, until you reach a level of excellence. But do not stop there. Continue to learn and grow as a writer for the rest of your life.
It has taken me several weeks to blog about Whispering Pines 2012, and then I realized why. I have a tradition of calling my father after every conference or retreat. He would relish in my words, wanting to know what I’d learned. Always pushing me to dig deeper. Since he passed in September, this is the first Whispering Pines Retreat I could not share with him.
So before I finalize this post, I sit on my porch, admiring the clouds. Visualizing my father’s spirit, somewhere in the blue sky. Surrounding me. Watching over me. Encouraging me.
I tell him what I learned at Whispering Pines.
I promise to never give up.
I remind him that whether he is on this earth or not, he will always be my rock. And I am grateful.