NE SCBWI Whispering Pines Retreat-2011

Memories of attending the NESCBWI retreat in previous years stir as I turn left into the entrance for Whispering Pines, one hour from where I live. I pass houses, a farm, a cabin sheltering a pile of wood, ponds, and of course, rows and rows of pine trees. I slow my car down to fully enjoy my return to this place of beauty, where anything is possible if you follow your dreams with conviction.

Arriving at Whispering Pines feels like coming home. Home to a place I don’t often visit, but upon my return, the forest wraps around me: a well-worn blanket, rich with memories, and sweet with the scent of pine. I welcome the embrace.

I check in at Sycamore, find my room, and snap a few pictures. Then I head out to greet those familiar places, the ones I want to snuggle up to: wooden chairs on a porch overlooking the lake, pine trees reaching for the sky, and the circle of Adirondack chairs, which for me symbolizes the group of writers and mentors soon to arrive. The pictures I take lack color, resembling the winter that persists in hanging around. It will pass soon; colors will burst forward. Flowers will stake their claim, as will the leaves on the trees. But for now, the day is grey, though not for long.

The family of writers arrives, with Lynda Mullaly Hunt leading the way. I cannot imagine a weekend without Lynda. She is a dedicated leader and one who roots for all. Lynda’s essence comes through in the pictures I took of her and the people who assist her in running this event. The smiles are infectious, as is Lynda’s excitement for the weekend. Truly, I would follow her anywhere, if she were running the show.






There is the annual parade of baskets, all donated by the attendees. Pink baskets, yellow baskets, blue baskets, all filled with books and toys and chocolates, and anything else you could imagine. Soon, our meeting room is lined with these enticing treasures. The countdown has begun. The attendees decide which baskets catch their interest, and then make strategic plans as to when to drop their tickets in the corresponding buckets.

Our process of picking and choosing comes to a halt. The mentors are ready to join us for the social hour in preparation for the first of many award-winning meals. The hour goes quickly, and though the time is short, I can see that all the mentors (Cheryl Klein, Cynthia Lord, Ammi-Joan Paquette, and Mary Lee Donovan) are truly there for the writers. Accessible and willing to share all they know, they genuinely want to help the attendees, and they do, every step of the way, beginning with First Pages.


Time constraints do not allow every first page to be read, though every writer learns from the session. In this case, we gained more knowledge than anticipated. The four mentors were thoughtful, honest, and educational in their responses. I found myself taking notes, as did many other attendees. Key notes: (1) The first page should hint at where the story is going to take you, and reveal your main character. (2) Let the information unfold. Trust that the reader will get it. (3) Don’t manipulate the reader. (4) Ground us in the place so that we know where we are. (5) Don’t start the story with The Dreaded Dream.

Saturday begins with A Breakfast to Die For. (I would need to do an entire post on just the food that we were privileged to consume.) I think almost everyone said they needed to hit the gym hard after Whispering Pines.

After indulging our stomachs, we head out the door  . . . past the lake . . . over a quaint bridge . . . and into Laurel, where once again the baskets catch our eyes; the sun bounces off the glistening cellophane, highlighting all the wonderful goodies. Thanks to our leader, Lynda keeps us in line and on schedule.

Mary Lee Donovan addresses picture books. She reads us exemplary examples, and has us all laughing and appreciating her selection of well-written picture books. Using one example, she demonstrates how a particular story upholds the basic elements for a picture book, and carries these elements across thirty pages. Then she gives us a fun challenge: an exercise that will influence my future writing. It was clear she enjoyed this exercise, at least how it made us sweat. Thank you, Mary Lee! You rock the art of picture books!


Cynthia Lord follows, and is captivating as always. She gives us more than a glimpse into how she revises, using Touch Blue as an example. (Touch Blue is her second novel, and just as good as her first, Rules. If you haven’t read them both, I highly recommend that you do!) At the end of her session, I have a detailed list of tips for revision. Thank you, Cindy, for your insight, and for sharing your knowledge and experience with us. You are one of the best!

Cheryl Klein continues the discussion on revision, and weaves in her own story about a blanket, and how she is determined to finish making it.  I loved this story, and I am rooting for that blanket to meet its deadline. You can do it, Cheryl! Every writer needs to buy Cheryl’s book, Second Sight. I repeat: every writer. The book is a master class taught by a master of literature. I could go on and on about Cheryl, but my word count for this post would be ridiculously long. Thank you, Cheryl!

After another indulgent meal, the afternoon continues with critique groups, alone time to write, the book sale, raffle ticket sales, and one-on-one critiques with mentors. (Some of this I addressed in my previous post on Whispering Pines.) Having Cynthia Lord as my mentor was the highlight of my weekend. Kind and thoughtful, she gave me clear advice on how to wrestle my beloved character who wants to do many things. Sorry, E. B., your trip to Jupiter is now cancelled. We will negotiate later.

Sunday winds down with a presentation by Ammi-Joan Paquette, an agent for Erin Murphy Literary. Who doesn’t love Joan and her books? Until Whispering Pines, I had not yet read The Tiptoe Guide to Tracking Fairies. What a delight! I wanted to melt into the story and run with the fairies. After listening to Joan’s presentation, I realize, more than ever, that having her as an agent would be a dream come true. I hope that a number of you will see that dream to fruition. Thank you, Joan, for enlightening us on your role as an agent. May all your clients find much success!

Lynda always invites an illustrator to give a presentation on Sunday, and this year we are graced with the presence of the talented and down-to-earth Jennifer Thermes. I always look forward to the  illustrator session. Thank you, Lynda, for finding this gem of an artist. I hope you all have the chance to see Jennifer’s work, and to read her wonderful books. Thank you, Jennifer, for sharing your art with us.

Lastly, there is the infamous Jeopardy game. (I suspect this is one of Lynda’s favorite events of the weekend.) Knowing us all too well, Lynda throws us off guard and switches our seating arrangement. We count off, go to our designated tables, and prepare to win. Or lose. All in the name of fun.

All too quickly, the weekend comes to an end. We say our good-byes, exchange hugs, and then return home, ready and anxious to revise. None of this could have happened without Lynda, her assistants, and our marvelous mentors. Thank you all, and see you next year!

Lastly, for those who follow my weekly post on Kathy Temean’s blog (Free Fall Friday), the inspiration for this week’s writing challenge comes from our own Carlyn Beccia.

I will be back next week with more photos from Whispering Pines, and my own process of revision.

Free Fall Fridays and My Approach To Prompts

In the past month, I have won two first-page contests. One for Searching For Big Meanie, and the other for Majestoral Dragon. The contests were ultimately judged by two editors and it was exciting to have my pieces stand out. But in truth, I had already won something. I have two new story beginnings, actually, more than that. I have characters with voice who I long to follow. Would they have risen to the surface without the prompts? I don’t know. People have asked me whether I will continue writing past the first pages, and I will, in time. But until then, I keep these characters close at heart, protecting the energy surrounding their stories, even though I know what lies ahead for them.

The prompts which led me to these pieces, and many others, came from Kathy Temean, and for this, I thank her. In the beginning, her challenges terrified me, particularly when I was in a room with other writers and writing cold.  But then, I put aside my doubts and let go. I made a commitment to believe.

I believe in prompts. I believe in plunging into cold water from fifty feet above, even if I do not know how to swim. Even if I am terrified, and filled with self-doubt.

I believe in falling on my face and writing words that make no sense; in filling a page with crappy writing. I believe that out of this, good writing can blossom.

 I believe in practice and patience and pushing myself beyond the safe zone.

I believe in the challenge of following a prompt.

Once I have stated my beliefs, I read the prompt at hand. If there is an accompanying picture, I study that, looking for details and specifics, which might propel a story. If the prompt starts with a particular sentence, I repeat this over and over. And then I wait, allowing time to pass, so my mind can chew on the inspiration while I go about day-to-day living. Other times, I lie on the floor of my writing room, turn on some music, close my eyes, and concentrate on breathing. I try to picture the characters starting to develop in my mind. How do they relate to the prompt? What do they want, and who, or what, gets in their way? Are they in an active scene? Are they alone in their head, thinking? Where are they?

As I drift to the place of imagination, my two cats find me lying on the floor. They hiss. They shove each other. Tails whack my face. Finally, one claims a spot on my chest, while the other plops on my belly. Breathing becomes more challenging than thinking about the prompt. Within minutes, the dog appears. He licks me uncontrollably. My concentration gone, my face coated with slobber, I get off the floor and . . .  go for a walk or play catch with the dog or  do the dishes or start a load of laundry.  All the while, I think about the prompt. I ask myself questions, such as the examples below.

When you study the photos for this week’s prompt ( consider:

  1. Is your mc alone or is there someone walking ahead of them up the stairs?
  2. Does your mc want to return to the ground level to engage the child?
  3. Does your mc want to ignore the child and the man?
  4. Who is the man? Is he the child’s father? Are they working together or separately?
  5. How does your mc feel about seeing the young boy beg?
  6. Will the person with your mc (if there is one) create conflict, and why?
  7. Are there other people around, reacting to the child?

Typically, within a few hours, ideas begin to spark. Energy flows through my veins and propels me to write. Once I start, I do not stop until the one page is completed. This is how Majestoral Dragon and Big Meanie evolved. Both were total surprises to me, once I read what I hadwritten.

The more you let go and think of plunging through the air towards the page, the more you will surprise yourself with what you can write. Sometimes for fun, I respond to a prompt immediately after reading it, and then go through my regular routine (as stated above).  It is always interesting to see how similar or different the two pages are.

I look forward to hearing from you, and welcome any suggestions for Free Fall Fridays. May you have fun!

If you would like to read my winning pages, go to

Thanks for stopping by!