A Solitary Life..? Cate Whittle gives us a recap of the SCBWI Author and Illustrator Retreat

A Solitary Life..?

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That’s the trope isn’t – the starving author, alone in the garret? Well, certainly, the time when pen comes to paper (fingers to keyboard) is almost always a solitary pursuit, and without a ‘day job’ many authors would starve, but there are also times when creatives come together and magic happens (plus not a lot of starving).

Thus such an event took place at a beautiful country retreat in the Illawarra last weekend, and magic did indeed happen. Carried on a wave of energy and goodwill, about forty writers and illustrators for children and young adults worked, laughed, and, yes, cried through a series of presentations and critique group workshops to grow their craft and make new friends and contacts. It was amazing. Awesome. And I do not use that word lightly.

Day 1:

We arrived on Friday, moved into our rooms in the beautiful grounds, and convened for our first session to be welcomed by Susanne Gervay and the rest of the regional team, get organised, and set goals. This weekend was to be all about getting to the essence of our story and working together collaboratively.

After our first dinner together, we then heard from the ever generous author illustrator, Tania McCartney, and the lovely Zoe Walton from Penguin Random House, who held a conversation on how to crystallise your idea.

Key Points:

  • write about something that you care about
  • take inspiration from everyday things
  • ask what if?
  • let the crazy ‘out there’ ideas out – have lots of ideas and then judge them
  • think about genre and shift if you need to
  • once you have an idea, brainstorm that to find a direction and explore lots of options
  • create a mood board or notebook, or compile a play list that gets you in the zone
  • find a way to bring a unique perspective to your story
  • be passionate, create a vision, and know your audience

Then we got together in our critique groups to introduce our work to each other and share our concerns and talk about how we could help each other achieve our goals for the weekend. Arranged into groups by genre: picture book, junior fiction, middle grade, and young adult, and with creators from right across Australia, we all found our ‘spots’ and settled in to immerse ourselves in each others’ worlds. It was, although perhaps we didn’t know it right away, the beginning of the magic. The first ingredients were simmering gently in the cauldron.

Day 2:

An intrepid group rose bright and early on what turned out to be a much cooler morning and joined Reena Balding, who led us through a peaceful but energising yoga session to start our day. This was followed by an opportunity to engage in some guided meditation, a time for stillness before our day began in earnest.

And begin in earnest it did, after a hearty breakfast, when we reconvened in the main hall to listen to Nancy Conescu from Walker Books, who led us through ways to plot a story for every age group from concept to conception.

Key Points:

  • start with a simple idea
  • ask yourself why? What is the story really about?
    • for a picture book this will be all about figuring out a solution
    • for a junior fiction series this will expand to include information about the character: why would we want to follow their story?
    • for stand alone fiction the issue becomes more important and we need to think about more plot threads and how the character will grow.

Nancy also talked about looking for writers, not just projects, and the role of children’s books being far more than entertainment, needing to have humour, heart, and hope.

When we met with our peer groups after this, we focused in on our story synopsis and how we were meeting these criteria. By now we were feeling more comfortable inside our groups, delving deeper into each others’ stories, and the magic was starting to waft about the room(s) as we asked questions, made tentative suggestions, and began to rethink how those stories could take wings and fly.

After morning tea there was free writing or drawing time while Zoe, Nancy, Tania, and Bruce Whatley held private critique sessions. Many of the peer groups stayed on and worked on their manuscripts where they could support each other through developing new directions and stronger ideas. The magic was taking shape.

Afternoon:

How are we going so far? Nancy, Zoe, and Bruce came together to give us their take on how the critiques were going, what was being done well, what needed work, and what to focus on when developing our work. It was all very encouraging.

Peer groups then got back together to focus on the opening page, or their first pages of text or images for picture books. In reality, the synergy meant that we were getting much deeper than this, and by now strong bonds were forming and we were all becoming highly invested in each others’ work. We were being wrapped in the magic (or perhaps rapt?).

Once again the lines were blurred between peer group time and free writing/drawing time, and, well, time was just flying by.

This then morphed into the chance to share a page of writing or a drawing at the Bush Reading before heading into dinner, which was followed by sharing some fun with half an hour devoted to each of us standing (if we so wished) to deliver our 30 Second Pitch.

Then Bruce Whatley took the stage – despite still being in recovery from surgery only the week before – with his lovely wife and collaborator, Rosie Smith, for support. At this point, I was a bit spellbound and totally failed to take any notes as we travelled the journey of Ruben with them. This was an emotional and inspiring story in its own right, and I can only say that Ruben truly is a Masterpiece!

After a book signing and a few last words, we all fell into bed exhausted but inspired after a long and fruitful day.

Day 3:

The day once again began with the option of participating in some yoga and meditation, and, while the intrepid group was a little bit smaller, it was still highly enthusiastic.

After breakfast Tania and Zoe led us through a session on getting to know your character, providing us with an exhaustive (exhausting?) list of questions to help us bring our characters to life. This is particularly important at the moment because the trend is away from plot driving the story as the focus is heading more towards the character arc.

Key Points:

  • ask yourself why the reader would care about your characters
  • think about the psychology of the age group you are writing for – what is important to them, eg:
    • primary students – family and pets
    • teenagers – friends and issues
  • tension! Your characters need to be flawed and have conflicting emotions
  • characters need to be active – making decisions and solving their own problems
  • both the inner and outer identity of characters need to be developed
  • make your descriptions active (he pulled at his wiry beard rather than he had a wiry beard)
  • NO mirrors!
  • conflicts can be drawn from inner turmoil, nature, other characters, society’s values, a dilemma, being under stress, or a desire for something (or a combination thereof) and needs to be solved in a way that is true to your characters

and so much more!

There was then one last session with our peer critique groups honing in on characters, followed by some free writing/drawing time before the BIG finale where the winners of the 30 Second Pitch were announced and lots of thank yous (and some of the most sustained and loudest clapping ever) occurred.

After lunch there were many heartfelt goodbyes and promises to keep in touch, and off we went, the magic complete. Through sharing this amazing weekend, we have all come away with a clearer vision of where our stories are going, and a feeling of nurture and support from our fellow creators, proving that, although the actual writing may be something we get done in quiet solitude, but we are not alone. The magic lives on.

 The small group of leftovers after most of the participants had already headed homewards...

The small group of leftovers after most of the participants had already headed homewards...

Many, huge, and enthusiastic thanks to everyone who worked to make this weekend so wonderful – organisers, presenters, participants, and hosts. Bravo!!

—Cate Whittle