Canned green beans, head-kisses, a leather jacket and Bootcamp: Audrey and Deborah remember what they can
by Charlie Barshaw
Audrey Glassman Vernick
|Audrey and Deborah|
photo supplied by Deborah
I honestly don’t remember anything about you at the 2013 writing retreat. But you were there, weren’t you? What do you remember?
I was definitely there. I remember nuns on the elevator, canned green beans at dinner, a fairly bleak winter landscape outside, and Ruth serving as a merciless timekeeper/bodyguard to keep my tightly stacked sessions from running long. I also remember very nice people.
Water Balloon was your first mid-grade novel. You had a few picture book titles out then, too, so you were lucky enough to qualify for our 2013 SCBWI-MI writing retreat. (I Won a What?) Which books had you published by 2013, and what do you remember about the book-selling process ten years ago?
I had published Brothers at Bat, She Loved Baseball, Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten?, Teach Your Buffalo to Play Drums, So You Want to be a Rock Star. My sense of the book-selling process is that it’s always hard in different ways. And that luck plays a bigger role than you’d think.
In 2013, were you already doing school visits? Those who’ve done them know the students can be the toughest audience you’ll ever face. Next toughest, 40 hungry children’s book writers? How were your presentation skills in 2013?
I was doing visits then, but I have a feeling that I wasn’t doing great ones—or at least not ones I was confident in. That confidence, and the ability to do it better, has developed over time. I think I still got scared before presenting in 2013 and I rarely do now. One thing I’ve learned—which should have been obvious—is that I’m only a nervous presenter if I don’t fully know/understand the subject matter. When I’m talking about my own process, books, etc.—that’s easy stuff these days.
Did you run into any nuns during the weekend? Ruth was always drawing into a sketchbook, but we haven’t been able (yet) to find the 2013 one. Do you remember Ruth drawing the retreat?
|A sketch of Deborah|
by Ruth Barshaw
I did! On the elevator, more than once. I was raised Jewish and I still felt a stirring of unfocused guilt! And when I remember Ruth, I remember her drawing, always, but I can’t say I specifically remember it from that retreat.Is there anything else?
|The kissing culprit|
I met Kristen Remenar for the first time at that conference. And within the first 24 hours, she was kissing me on top of my head whenever she passed me. I can't think of her or that conference without thinking of that, very warmly.
You had been an editor for a big publishing house, you’d written and gotten published a picture book and novel. But how much presentation practice had you experienced in those early days of your career?
photo credited to Wikipedia
My first experience presenting to writers was 2001, a Texas SCBWI conference with a crowd of 300, keynote speaker Richard Peck. It was a month or two after 9/11, and a New York editor dropped out of speaking slot because she and her family did not want her flying. I was nervous to speak to that many people, but I did my best. When I sat down next to Richard, he leaned over and said, “Ya did good.” What a confidence boost! I imagine I’ve gotten better at it, and I’ve sure presented a lot since then, but that was a formative moment for me as an editor.
I didn’t know who you were when I typed a google search for “children’s book authors who wrote picture books and novels.” It was kind of a random thing all around on my part. What was your initial reaction when you received an email from someone in the upper Midwest, who wanted you to lead a weekend writer’s intensive?
I never knew how random my invitation was! You and your team were so kind and inviting through the whole process, and joining Audrey as a presenter that weekend was a pleasure. I’m sure I was flattered, and I guarantee I jumped up and scuttled to my boss’s office and declared, “I need a Friday off!” I was going to Michigan!
|Audrey, Deborah and Ruth|
photo supplied by Deborah
You arrived at the conference, late October in Michigan, wearing a black leather jacket, looking like a no-nonsense biker. Turns out, it was the closest your wardrobe got to winter apparel, you living in Paradise (check out #mobileeditingoffice on Deborah's FB page). Was that your first live experience in The Great Lakes State?
Since the event was mostly inside, turns out it didn’t matter that I was woefully unprepared for Weather. That’s been my only visit to Michigan so far. I’d gladly return. Everyone there was incredibly nice.
And who did you leave behind? In the professional arena you’d had some successes. But you had achieved what few people anywhere have: triplet boys. How old were they (they’re off to college now) when you hopped on a jet plane with their greasy hugs leaving prints on the bomber jacket?
|The early days with triplets|
My sons were six at the time. Just as I loved my busy house growing up, I loved my busy house with triplet boys—but I was glad to have time away, I will admit. Talking to grownups all weekend, about books and writing… yes, that was for work, but it was also Vacation.
So, three days of intensives, with 20 each intense novel and picture book writers. We hired you and Audrey Glassman Vernick to switch off on the tracks, doing picture book things with the PB writers, and novel things with those other guys. Writing is writing, right? How did you approach this challenge?
We liked the balance you created. There was something for every attendee. Audrey and I worked to keep the creative juices flowing and the enthusiasm stoked. A three-day intensive is indeed intense, so we had to foster a space that made writers feel safe to share or not, to contribute or to listen as their personalities and energy dictated. There was group work, but there were also individual writing exercises and times to just listen and ponder. Plus, hanging out in that unique cafeteria was great fun.
You and Audrey, from two different coasts, thrown together in this cloistered arena with 40 hungry writers. You both survived and thrived. Have you met since? Or followed each other?
Audrey and I connect now then, mostly through Facebook. It’s been fabulous seeing her career thrive. She’s so talented.
By Sunday, you’d earned yourself an up-North cold, miserable in unique ways. You were not a tea drinker then, but the curative powers of Earl Gray became a topic of conversation. What is your beverage of choice these days?
I do remember the tea talk! Nowadays I stick to hot cocoa.
(In subsequent emails, Deborah added):
(Deborah also included all of the following information, even before I asked her any questions):
- The retreat was called "Revision Bootcamp: From Monster Mash to Model Manuscript"
- I presented a 45-min Keynote called “The State of the Children’s Book Market”: Deborah Halverson provides an up-to-the-minute analysis of the market for picture books, middle grade fiction, and young adult fiction, based on interviews with editors, agents, and sales and marketing experts.
She's still talking
about the market
- I presented a 2-hr Workshop called “Channeling the Teen Sensibility: Writing Techniques and Revision Strategies for Crafting a Youthful Sensibility for your MG/YA Fiction”: This workshop teaches techniques for creating a narrative sensibility that reflects the way teens and tweens think, and arms you with strategies for analyzing and revising your own manuscript’s sensibility. Includes lecture with examples, group revision exercises, and individual revision exercises. The first hour will be a discussion of what it means to “think like a teen”, and the second hour will focus on class and individual writing exercises designed to teach you how to identify a adult sensibility and then revise it to sound youthful. It started with an hour of instructor-guided group exercises and ended with individual exercises involving short passages.
- I presented a 2-hr Workshop called “Setting, the Reviser’s Secret Weapon”: With today’s heavy emphasis on plot and characterization, too many aspiring teen/tween novelists are ignoring setting—and sacrificing storytelling depth as a result. Enrich your novel in ways you never expected by rediscovering the benefits of strong settings and learning successful ways to mine the setting you’ve already chosen. Includes lecture with examples, group revision exercises, and individual revision exercises. I designed this as a one-hour lesson with examples, then spent the second hour working on samples with the class.
- There was a BOOK SWAP: "And don’t forget to browse through your bookshelves and look for a book(s) you’d like to bring for the book swap. We have a very creative person in our midst, (Anita Pazner) who is coordinating the swap and she has lots of things up her sleeve and promises it will be a fun event you won’t want to miss. Only those who bring a book(s) can participate."
- There was a HAT/COSTUME PARTY: "And you also might want to start thinking about our costume party. It also promises to be lots of fun. But don’t worry, you don’t need to bring an elaborate costume – just a fun hat. It’s a dress up your brain party! Bring or make a hat that speaks to you. Maybe it relates to your WIP, maybe it reflects a favorite hobby, a fun childhood memory, or represents absolutely nothing, but fun. It’s all up to you." I do not remember my hat.
- I still have the schedule for the weekend:Friday
- peer critiques
- post-dinner keynote: Deborah
- 2 two-hour workshops for Deborah
- post-Dinner keynote: Audrey
- post-dinner 1.25 hour “track wrap-up” (final opportunity to clean up any unfinished business.)
Thanks to Deborah and Audrey, and all who shared their memories.Carrie Pearson added: Charlie, I'm sorry I flamed out on this. Just had too many things on my plate but it was an inspired idea, and I LOVED reading the piece. Brought back some fantastic memories. And, you didn't do it for this reason, but I hope it encouraged folks to remember how it feels to be together at a conference as we move into Marvelous Midwest '24 in April!
- Morning: face to face critiques (5-7 min, they rec’d written critiques on Friday and now will go over changes etc as a result of weekend’s workshops)
- Afternoon: Deborah does pitch session, Audrey does revision problem busters