Falling Leaves Retreat 2010

Every November the New York chapter of SCBWI offers a weekend writing workshop: Falling Leaves. Last year the group concentrated on picture books, and this year, middle-grade and young adult novels were the focus.

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending, and arrived one day early to work on a novel revision. After getting lost in Lake George (a booming summer town which seemed to be in hibernation mode), I found one store with its lights on. A woman welcomed me inside and took pity on me, printing out directions to where I needed to go. After four hours in the car, there was another twenty-five mile drive up a winding road in the dark. The woman warned me to drive carefully; watch for sudden turns and drivers traveling in the opposite direction.

The two-lane road twisted and turned, and after forty minutes, I wondered if I had missed my street. It was pitch black. I was starving. And then, I saw a small sign to my right for Silver Bay.

At the end of this road stood a majestic white building with a wraparound porch lined with rockers. Mine was the only car. Once I discovered an open door, I entered what looked like a living room with a stone fireplace. Few lights were on, and besides the clunk, clunk of my clogs across the wooden floor, the only other sound was a grandfather clock, chiming.

“Hello? Anyone here?” I said, wondering if I had been transported into The Shining, where Jack Nicholson might jump out at me from around the corner. “Hello?”

After a minute, a woman appeared holding a flashlight instead of a hatchet. Clearly, my imagination was working over-time.

The image of The Shining aside, I woke up the next morning and discovered I had indeed been transported to a different place. Not the Overlook Hotel, but a magical place. A world filled with serenity and inspiration, best captured by the photographs I took on my many walks.

While the setting alone was worth the trip; the retreat, organized by Nancy Castaldo, made the weekend unforgettable. The thirty-five writers in attendance were treated to the company of five editors: Kendra Levin, editor at Viking Children’s Books; Julie Tibbott, Senior Editor, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children’s Book Group; Noa Wheeler, editor at Henry Holt Books; Wendy Loggia, Executive Editor at Delacorte Press; and Mary Kate Castellani, associate editor at Walker Books. These five women were accessible to us throughout. Charming and reachable, funny and honest, they all gave unique, inspiring presentations.

Noa talked about beginnings. Using examples from published works, she identified how to grab our readers on page one. The Wizard of Oz as an example, Kendra addressed characters and how motivation drives story. She led us through exercises to help us learn more about our characters. (I must say that this was my favorite part of the weekend. Through Kendra’s exercise, I discovered the truth behind what gets in the way of one of my protagonists.)


Julie Tibbott had all of us sweating for the week prior to the conference. We were instructed to bring a one-page synopsis. 250 words. Some writers had rewritten their synopsis over fifty times. Others painstakingly edited their synopsis until the length was not 251 or 249 words, but exactly 250. Working on this assignment was the topic of conversation throughout the weekend. Synopses are not easy. They can be more painful than writing the novel itself. And if you can’t succinctly describe your story in 250 words, than you may need to rethink the plot. Or other aspects of the work. Julie worked long after her presentation to help each of us. I will always have the image of Julie, head bent over at a table, reading and writing notes, while the rest of us toasted marshmallows at the bonfire.

Mary Kate Castellani also gave an invaluable presentation, discussing how she presents a project to acquisitions. ‘Handle’ is now a part of our vocabulary. We learned the importance of being aware of the market, and that knowing our selling points is a plus. It is essential that you stay current with today’s market, and to be aware of which novels might be similar to yours.

The weekend ended with Wendy Loggia’s presentation on revising step-by-step, where we had the opportunity to hear a selection of her editorial letters, which can range from one to eight pages in length. The editor/author relationship is the heart of the publishing business. Appreciate your editors, who are the true champions of your work, once you receive a contract.

In addition to the editor presentations, each writer had a thirty minute one-on-one with an editor. On Saturday morning, we broke off into groups of seven for peer critiques. These sessions were highly praised by all.

The food was exemplary, the setting breathtaking, and the company of other writers–all of us different–was inspiring to say the least.

Thank you, Nancy and your loyal assistants, the editors who gave so much to us, and my writing peers who opened their hearts and let me in.

I wanted to share some of the beauty of this location, which caught me off guard. I attended Falling Leaves Retreat with one hope: to learn something new. To find a nugget. One nugget I could use to improve my writing. And with this retreat, I experienced so much more, simply because I had no expectations, except to be diligent about my own writing. Being surprised and swept off your rocking chair is much sweeter.  

For what drew me in at this beautiful location, in addition to the writing, here are a few of my photos. I hope you enjoy!



Whispering Pines Is Well Worth The Trip

Five days after leaving Whispering Pines, where I attended a writing retreat, I am still reeling from the high quality of the NE SCBWI event.

Lynda Mullaly Hunt was a stupendous leader. Caring and funny, she kept us to our schedule like the best of ringmasters. She always goes above and beyond what you would expect of an organizer and does it with her unique style!

Lynda, I thank you!

Our mentors also went beyond all expectations, offering the best first-page panel I have ever attended. Their thoughtful comments necessitated endless note-taking on how to craft a first page and beyond. Throughout the two days, we were privy to hear each of the mentors individually. Award-winning author Cynthia Lord, editors Connie Hsu and Alexandra Penfold, agent Rebecca Sherman, and author-illustrator Carlyn Beccia offered advice, shared their tools for crafting, and allowed us glimpses into their worlds. Beyond their presentations, the mentors all gave thorough and thoughtful critiques. I walked away with new tools to use and a way to tackle improving one of my manuscripts. Of course, the advice I received is applicable to all of my writing, which I find thrilling.

To all our mentors, thank you!

The inspiration did not end there. It continued with the attendees. All wonderful and welcoming. The basket raffle, coordinated by Jan Kozlowski, and of course, the food. The endless food. As well as the desserts, which I tried to pass on, but once you’ve seen their desserts, you just let go and dive in. The servers did assure me they contained little or no calories, and I was able to suspend disbelief. Long enough to graciously accept  a serving of dessert. At lunch. At dinner. At . . .

Five days later, I am still left with the images of the grounds at Whispering Pines. The rock in the lake. The bare trees. The empty porch awaiting the presence of writers. Writers thinking. Writers talking. Writers writing. And it seems fitting that a writing retreat be held there. In the dead of winter.

And so, with these images fresh in my mind, I think of the middle grade novel I am revising as a tree. A tree in a forest.  In the dead of winter. This is when you see the tree as it is. Tall and strong. Waiting patiently for spring to arrive. 

As a writer, I must protect my tree. My story. I must allow it room to grow and keep weeds from sneaking up around its base. Slowly strangling the story.

While winter still prevails, I can clearly see the vines, which choke my characters. I sit and visualize the core of my story. Then I chip away at the vines, only to discover how deep their roots go. I will need a shovel to dig deeper. And then I yank as hard as possible, sometimes falling backwards. But I get up. Again and again. And I tackle the vine until every piece has been pulled from the ground and my tree, my story, has room to breathe again. New shoots of clarity appear like green buds on branches.  Leaves bring color and life back to my tree. Flowers spring up. Sun warms the earth. Winter comes to an end.

But still, I must continue to protect and care for my story. Watch for new vine to sneak up through the ground when I am not looking. I trim the dead branches. I give the tree room to expand and reach for the sky, until the time comes for me to let go. The time when my story is fully developed and can stand on its own.

When I know I have done my job as a writer.

The Right Fit

Betsy with Eve Adler
Betsy with Eve Adler
Carmen with Lisa Yoskowitz
Carmen with Lisa Yoskowitz

On my drive home, after attending the NJ SCBWI Mentoring Workshop, I began to think about jeans; how hard it is to find the right pair. And how every time I feel hopeful about discovering the perfect pair, I end up with a pile of jeans in a dressing room, all of which need to go back on their hangers, or folded in such a way that you can never find your size easily among the uniformed stacks on the shelves.  After years of  trying on jeans, I haven’t given up. I can’t. Everyone needs a good pair of jeans. The right pair is out there. Somewhere. A pair of jeans that doesn’t bunch up at my thighs, squeeze my calves, require that I gain three inches in height, need a belt at all times, and are the perfect length and right shade of denim. What shade is that? I don’t know. I’ll know when I see the pair in some store when I’m not even in a jean-shopping frame of mind. Something about the denim will catch my eye. And then, the courtship begins. If the jeans fit in the dressing room, what shape will they be in after being washed? And dried?  After a mini-celebration in the dressing room while my husband is texting to see if I am ready to leave the store–do I realize how my five minutes of “I’ll be right back” has turned into one hour?–I purchase three pairs, and then sit on the decision. I let a week or two pass. I keep the jeans with their tags attached in the shopping bag (receipt included, just in case I change my mind) and ponder this unexpected treasure. Are they really as spectacular as I thought in my moment of celebration at the store?  Had I even eaten that day? Was I being delusional? While I decide whether I truly love these jeans, or not, I test myself. I wait three days. Try them on. Look in my full-length mirror. Turn to the side. Put them back in the shopping bag. Wait another week. I am not fully committed. Not yet. Not until the day I decide to recycle the shopping bag, snip off the tags, and file away the receipt, do I know I’m ready to take the plunge. I need these jeans. They speak to me. I look forward to wearing them, many times over.  Unless the first washing is disastrous, the jeans and I have formed a bond.

Finding the ideal jeans is how I equate an editor’s search for the right manuscript that catches their eye, like a sliver of sun peeking through the branches of the tree, its leaves shimmering in the light. And you want an editor who will flatter your writing and enhance your features.

As a writer, I know how difficult it is to find jeans that are comfortable, fit well, are of good quality, and can stand up to numerous trips through the washing machine. I know how frustrating it is, and exhausting, to spend hours at multiple stores, thumbing through the racks and shelves, only to go home empty-handed and never wanting to see another dressing room. Yet, I never give up. My perfect, or near perfect, pair of jeans are out there. Somewhere.

And so, with the image of hunting for jeans (or the ideal pair of  casual, yet dressy, every occasion, black shoes) I appreciate the challenge of facing stacks and stacks of unread manuscripts.  The joy is in finding the right one.

My weekend with Eve Adler from Henry Holt,  and Lisa Yoskowitz from Dutton inspired this thought process. They are both delightful, encouraging, and enthusiastic about the world of children’s literature.  I am now deep into the magical process of novel revision, guided by their wonderful suggestions.