Conference Insider: Big Sur Children’s Writing Workshop

Need a boot camp for kidlit authors? Look no further than this bicoastal conference.

Years ago, author Jeff Stone attended the Big Sur Children’s Writing Workshop with the beginning of what would become his The Five Ancestors series for middle-school readers. At the workshop, he met literary agent Laura Rennert as well as an editor at Random House.

Photo of Big Sur Writers Workshop
Big Sur Writers Workshop

Then, he landed a six-figure book deal.

“He’s our biggest success story,” says Andrea Brown, executive director of the workshop and president of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. “But we have an enormous number of success stories.”

Participants are asked to bring polished drafts of their manuscripts to the three-day event, which is geared toward intermediate – rather than beginning – children’s writers. Those interested in attending are asked to email three sample pages of their work for faculty review before registering.

The workshop, which takes place once a year in both Cape Cod and Northern California, caps at 100 participants who spend a long weekend in groups of no more than five writers at a time, guided in critique and revision by a professional author, agent, or editor. “There’s a warm, congenial feeling all weekend because a lot of the same writers and faculty attend each year,” Brown says. “We’ve created a writing community.”

What you’ll learn

In between critique group sessions, participants listen to panels made up of literary agents and – separately – editors, who offer insights into writing, publishing, and marketing children’s literature. “Editors talk about what they’re looking for and how acquisitions work at their house,” Brown explains. “One of our regular faculty, Eric J. Adams, does a wonderful workshop on structure, and sometimes we teach about query letters.”

However, the focus of the weekend is critique and revision. Brown says this rigor and focus leads to little “miracles” by the time the weekend is over.

“Some people come in on Friday thinking they’re picture book writers and leave Sunday thinking they’re middle-grade writers,” Brown says. “Some have been writing in first person, and they realize their story is much better in third person. They experiment during the weekend, and then go home and concentrate on what they have to do in order to make their work more publishable.”

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Featured Presenters

The Cape Cod workshop, held in May 2020, features New York Times bestselling author David Elliott, series author Debbi Michiko Florence, young adult novelist Sarah Darer Littman, and author/illustrator Anne Sibley O’Brien, among others.

Editor Nikki Garcia from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers and editor Jennifer Ung from Simon Pulse/Simon & Schuster will attend, as will Charlesbridge editorial director Yolanda Scott and Page Street Publishing YA editor Ashley Hearn. 

Agents Jennifer Laughran, Jennifer Mattson, Kelly Sonnack, and Jennifer March Soloway will be on hand, along with Brown. Each agent represents picture and chapter books, middle grade, and young adult fiction.

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In December 2020, the workshop takes place in Monterey rather than in Big Sur. Brown suggests that writers leave time before and after the weekend to take advantage of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and beaches and shopping. “We want writers to come and hole up for the weekend and focus on their writing,” she says. “Most people take the revising time really seriously. In the evenings, we end by 8:30 so that they can write at night, and then there’s time to revise on Saturday afternoon. That’s when we see the miracles,” she says.

 Brown urges first-timers to show up with an open mind and to focus on craft and revision rather than on finding an agent. “We don’t want you to be there to pitch,” she explains. “This is boot camp for writers. Here, you find out what you still have to do to make your manuscript publishable.”

She cautions writers to avoid being defensive during critique sessions. “We’re not here to pat you on the back but to tell you what your weak spots are in your manuscript,” she says. “Then, you can spend the weekend working on a few pages, or a particular character, or dialogue.”

Brown asks attendees to bring a laptop and a thumb drive with works in progress, as well as three picture book manuscripts if available, or four to six chapters of a novel. “I like everyone to start Friday’s two-hour critique group with just the first two to four pages of a manuscript,” she says. “That first page or two is so important; that’s what hooks an agent or editor. If you don’t knock our socks off on page one, we’ll never get to see how great page four is.”

 

Contributing editor Melissa Hart is the author of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens (Sasquatch, 2019). Twitter/Instagram @WildMelissaHart.

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