Lessons from Big Sur

Last weekend I attended the Big Sur Children's Writing Workshop. Ever since I got home, people have been asking me to sum up my experience, and it's been hard. But as I've answered this question over and over, my answer has gotten better, and I think I can sum up the experience in a few key points.

Clockwise from top left: jellyfish, view from the PCH, sardines, a sea dragon, trees at the conference center, and a seagull who tried to steal my breakfast

Clockwise from top left: jellyfish, view from the PCH, sardines, a sea dragon, trees at the conference center, and a seagull who tried to steal my breakfast

I met wonderful people.
The workshop was arranged so that each writer was part of two critique groups. You met with your groups twice, and each group had five writers and a faculty member, who was either an agent, an editor, or a published author. These critique sessions were what the weekend was really about. Getting feedback on my work was the primary benefit, but there was also a surprising secondary benefit in simply getting to spend time with other aspiring authors. We read each other's work, explained our histories with writing, and bonded over the shared misery of synopses. Before I even got home, I had emails from fellow writers. I now have several brilliant people I could ask to read my MS once it's ready, and I'll happily do the same for them.

My book is on the right track!
At my very first critique session, I brought copies of the first three chapters of Vix. We only got through the first three pages. It became a running joke with that group because nobody got through more than three pages at a time. My group had some great suggestions, but nobody said any of the things I had feared, e.g., you should start over, your protagonist is despicable, nobody will read this, I have no idea what's going on, this is offensive, etc. I was expecting much more criticism, but I happily traded that expectation for affirmation.

My synopses and query letters got some much needed help.
I brought querying materials for both Vix and for my last book, Safira. I queried Safira last spring but I wasn't able to attract an agent's attention. I've never fully understood why. With my first book, Mina, I knew a few weeks after I had finished that I could do better. As the criticism for the book began to came in from agents who requested it, I agreed with everything they said, and I'm happy to keep that book on a shelf forever. But with Safira, it was different. I still adore that book. I love the characters and the world I built and I feel like that book somehow defines me, even though my current WIP is more directly related to my worldview.

I think 90% of why Safira failed was because I made mistakes during the querying process. I shared my synopsis and query for the book at the workshop and got so much feedback that I struggled to write everything down. This was wonderful. It might not sound like it, because nobody likes to hear that something they wrote sucks, but the thing is, I already knew these things sucked, and I was thrilled to finally understand why. Not only that, but my group members gave me suggestions for fixes, things I can actually do to make the querying materials better. Despite the fact that I left with my pens half-drained, I felt extremely hopeful.

I remembered something important about querying.
Back before I ever sent my first query letter, I had a confident attitude toward the process of finding an agent. I was as concerned with finding an agent who suited me as well as I suited them. But after getting so many rejections, it was easy to forget about the partnership and fall into the mindset that I was at the mercy of agents.

There were several panels regarding querying at the conference. The agents there supported the idea that an agent is a partner, and that writers need the right agent just like agents need the right writer. (Say that five times fast!) Hearing this took some of the pressure off my shoulders. Now, when I query Vix, I'm going to say, "Here's a little about my book. Here's why it's great. Here's why I think we might work well together." And I'm going to remember that I have to accept the agent just as much as they have to accept me, so there's no place for apologies or excuses or kissing up. I wouldn't approach my spouse, my neighbors, or my co-workers like that, so I won't approach an agent like that either.

I got to go to Big Sur.
I say this without reserve: Big Sur is the most beautiful place on Earth. The trees and the ocean and the rugged cliffs - it's so overwhelmingly lovely that it defies description. (Stupid thing for a writer to say, right? I'm probably just being lazy.) I'm already working on convincing Derek that we should go there for our next anniversary. Luckily, our anniversary is not in December. I didn't mention this yet, but despite my awe for Big Sur's beauty, it tried to murder me. Sheets of rain, strong winds, narrow roads, rock slides, and waves so big they washed over the freeway - this was my path to the conference. I got to appreciate the trees once I got there, but I think I'll return when the sky is clearer and the atmosphere is less hostile.

After the conference, I drove up the coast to Monterey and visited the aquarium. Derek tells people he could leave me at the Monterey Bay Aquarium for days and I wouldn't notice. He's probably right. I spent almost five hours there this time. I wore earplugs to tune out the screaming kids whose parents are apparently deaf, and I spent a large chunk of my visit just sitting in front of the Open Sea tank. I don't have a good picture of it, but this tank has a million gallons of water, floor-to-ceiling windows, and the most graceful creatures in the aquarium - sharks, rays, turtles, shimmering schools of sardines, yellowfin tuna, and my very favorite: the Mola mola.

The Mola mola, AKA the Sunfish, is the pug of the sea. It is a huge, slow, dopey-looking fish that's basically the biggest joke natural selection ever played. (The pug has the excuse of being bred by humans.) One of the great things about the aquarium is that a lot of their animals aren't permanent residents. They pull them out of the bay, keep them for a while, study them, then set them free. (They believe - and I agree - that caging mammals is inhumane, so you'll never find dolphins or orcas there.) This rotation means that you never know what's going to be in the big tank. There was one sunfish this time, but it lingered down at the bottom, so I didn't get a great shot. You can see a few of the pictures I did take in the collage above.

UPDATE (7/10/17): Can you tell I had just learned how to use PicMonkey when I made the collage for this post? The lens flare is pretty incriminating.