Monday, May 5, 2014

Of Car Troubles, Air Balloons and Writers' Days

The Friday leading up to a weekend-long SCBWI Spring Writer's Retreat at South Coast Winery in Temecula didn't start out so well. Troy and I, having procrastinated in getting on the road, were rewarded with dense traffic, scalding sun and -- in a particularly brutal twist of ill-fortune -- "check your oil level" light blazing a stern, red warning that forced us to shut off all air-conditioning for a nearly three-hour-long, snail-paced journey. In a hundred-and-ten-something weather. Eesh. Personally, I think hundred-and-ten-something temperatures are a bit extravagant even for Southern California. No matter. We soldiered on. Like some demented engine whisperers, we tried to coax (even flatter) our car into holding on until we spotted a motor-oil-rich oasis, aka Pepboys, in a landscape of looping freeway ramps thick with glistening car carapaces and long stretches of rolling hills -- shockingly lush, considering the heat.
I didn't think the flattering would work, but our poor, overheated car lurched and wheezed, wearily snorting at our promises of first-grade-oil, but still carrying us to our vineyard-resort destination in time for the check in. Thank you car!

We arrived sweaty, thirsty and cranky. The crankiness didn't last: the South Coast Winery was way too pretty to wallow in any unpleasantness. And a complimentary bottle of chilled Zinfandel waiting in our room miraculously alleviated my thirst. Cheers to SCBWI for having the genius to hold a writers' retreat on a vineyard. Writers and wine were meant go together. Notice how both words start with the same letter? Destiny! Besides, what better to complement a late night brainstorming session with awesomely maniac novelists than a glass of rich, dark wine! (If a chocolate vendor could somehow be worked into the equation, this place would be heaven on earth. Heaven! With hot air balloons! More on that later.)

Female Chocolate Vendor
Paul Gavarni
Here's the weird thing -- having lived in SoCal most of my life, I've never been to Temecula. Only an hour's trip from Pasadena (in good traffic), and I've never even heard of it. Ah, California. One of the coolest perks of calling you home is discovering tiny, hidden gems scattered in plain sight. Living Easter eggs for all those who are willing to wander the land looking for them. Troy and I are very willing. And not a month goes by that we don't stumble upon such a marvel -- a lovely place with character and charm all its own.

Temecula's charm is its verdant hills plaited in green rows of grapevines, its wine, sweet and luscious as ripe, sunkissed cherries, its crisp morning sky studded with hot air balloons. Balloons! I saw them from the patio of our hotel room and did a double take, shouting to Troy, "Baloons! No really, balloons!" in a tone worthy of announcing an alien invasion, and gaped and craned my neck like an idiot, until it grew stiff, and even forgot to drink my coffee (because -- balloons!) They felt like a gift fallen in my lap, unexpected and all the more precious for it.

But awesome as they were, balloons were not the highlight of the weekend-long retreat. It was the opportunity to hear about the latest trends in YA literature from some of the leading editors in the field, a chance to meet them during a get-to-know-you reception, to get the answers to my questions (and to those of my fellow aspiring authors) and learn what made them tick (or request full manuscripts, as were the case.) The editors at my table -- Martha Mihalik, Senior Editor at Greenwillow/HarperCollins and Noa Wheeler, Editor at Henry Holt -- were generous in sharing their experience and thorough in their commentary, both professional and approachable. Friendly. Infinitely patient in hearing everyone out. 

I was especially grateful for the glimpse inside Noa's and Martha's wishlists. So many genres, so many possibilities! Noah wanted to see well-though-out fantasy, historical fiction, original sci-fi, strong, contemporary voices and a good ghost story. No gross-out factors. Check. No tales about horses. Check. Martha sought epic fantasy and well-constructed literary fiction. The fact that Noah's house published Leigh Bardugo's Shadow and Bone Trilogy and Martha's -- Ray Carson's The Girl of Fire and Thorns -- the two books I have long loved for their vividly imaginative worlds and unique heroines -- only made the meeting more compelling. I was busy taking notes. Lots of notes. 

After the reception, I met a few of the other first-night attendees and spent the rest of the evening chatting about our common passion -- YA literature. Why YA? Maybe simply because some part of us stubbornly refused to let go of our youth. People came from various neighboring SCBWI regions, their works ranging from steampunk romance to historical fiction to high school crime mysteries to magic realism. One of the benefits of such literary events is listening to the multitude of voices, hearing fresh takes on the seemingly tired, old topics. Also it never hurts to compare notes on writing queries, working with agents, promoting your work on social media and self-publishing. We compared notes well into the night. While sipping that incredible, pale-gold wine.

And the next, very early morning, I sat on the patio resuscitating myself with coffee when, lo and behold, the very first balloon crept slowly overhead. A Scull and Bones pirate balloon. (Did I mention how much I wanted to be an artist-pirate as a very little girl? To lay siege to coastal towns, herd their citizens onto the main square and force them to admire my drawings. My own captive audience. *Cue evil laughter of a five-year-old.*) So... a pirate balloon! The sight of it heralded a glorious day. And so it was. Gloriously busy.

Saturday was PACKED with presentations from the editors and writers alike. Laura Whitaker, an Associate Editor at Bloomsbury Children's Books, kicked off the morning with a high-energy talk on the emerging trends in PBs. Wow, Laura, I wish for one tenth of your high spirits. (For those of you who write picture books, it would be a great comfort to know that the trending themes range from back-to-school activities to important grownups in kids' lives to obscure holidays to pretty much everything under the sun.) Laura's presentation was followed by a cozy and casual discussion led by Lin Oliver, New York Times Bestselling Author, a discussion that felt very much like chatting with a group of friends gathered around your kitchen table. It focused mainly on MG lit and all the ways it differed from YA.

We had a break to catch our breaths and returned for Laura's presentation on gripping beginnings in YA lit. She gave examples how a strong character voice, a traumatic event, or a dramatic action scene can move us to read on. She had great examples: 
  • Unusual Situations: Frank Cottrell Boyce's Cosmic, Gennifer Choldenko's Al Capone Does My Shirts
  • Death: Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Boys, Melina Marchetta's Jellicoe Road (my absolute favorite book), Emily M. Danforth's The Miseducation of Cameron Post
  • A Question: Neil Gaiman's Coraline
  • Humor: Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Libba Bray's Going Bovine
  • Love: Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor and Park
Later that afternoon, Martha and Noa talked at length about their publishing houses and teamed up to critique randomly selected first pages -- a good way to see what worked and what could use polishing in opening paragraphs across a variety of genres. 

In the interim between the morning and the afternoon events, all attendees had ten minutes to get their first pages professionally critiqued. The da-da-daam moment of the day! Ever since my very first semester at the then California College of Arts and Crafts (I will always miss that lovely "Crafts" bit now dropped from the name), the word "critique" gives me a bright jolt of excitement. Because critiques are all about perfecting one's craft. About highlighting your strengths. About identifying and eliminating your weaknesses. About letting your peers explore your work as its very first audience. Intimidating as they sound, critiques always leave me with a fresh perspective on both my craft and my vision, enable me to see my imagined world through the lens of another's eye and spot incongruities otherwise overlooked. Critiques are immensely helpful, and I wouldn't lie -- a round-table exchange was one of my most anticipated events at the Retreat.

It didn't disappoint.

At first, ten minutes seemed like very little time, but folks at my table weren't shy in contributing opinions and the critique swiftly turned into a lively discussion (as better critiques often tend to.) What struck me the most was the overwhelming feeling of support from my round-table mates. There was a strong sense of camaraderie, of one-boatedness, and the feedback gathered proved invaluable to my on-going revisions.

Soaking up the shade
before the workshops
Those of us most dedicated, returned for another round of critiques-and-revisions later that evening. Alas, I wasn't among them. There was simply too much information to digest, and I already felt like a battery charged to its full-capacity -- a little more and I would burn out. So instead, Troy and I headed to an eatery (I tend to think better while I'm talking, or eating, or both), where we filled our bellies with savories, while sorting through the impressions from the day in a slideshow of notes and memories. And they were all good notes and even better memories.

Sunday saw more of the first pages, this time critiqued by Laura and Agnes, and a fun lecture on crafting scenes from Martha and Noa, complete with a deconstruction of a train carriage scene from Harry Potter. It's always fun learning from Harry Potter. Martha and Noa -- who happen to be real-life friends -- finished each other's sentences, bringing humor and spontaneity to their presentation.You can't go wrong with Harry Potter.

The retreat wrapped up with the announcement of the manuscript contest winners in YA, MG and PB categories -- Congratulations Guys and Gals! -- and a group photo taken on a sunny lawn.

After it was over, Troy and I ventured into downtown Temecula -- a tiny place with wood-paneled sidewalks that manages to conjure up the atmosphere of the Gold Rush era Old West, despite the familiar Starbucks logo greeting visitors at the town's entrance and the snatches of jazz wafting from the open windows of its many shops. These shops lined the four-block long main street and offered anything from ice-cream and sweets, to olive oil tasting and assorted antiques to gluten-free alligator jerky. Ah-huh. Gluten free. I mean -- alligator jerky.

It hung, neatly packaged, next to the bundles of ostrich, venison, and boar meat. For a while, we explored the shop, egging each other on to sample some of its more outrageous offerings -- kangaroo or ostrich. Neither of us had the heart to try those, though we lingered around, intrigued by the gastronomic fearlessness (and iron bowels) of the shop's other customers. Eventually, we settled on a pack of safe and boring beef jerky to gobble on the way home, and so we did. The air conditioner worked flawlessly, the jerky was tasty, and we flew with nothing before us but the wide open roads and all around good karma for keeping promises to our car. 

Some of the Spring Retreat's prettiness:
Just follow the road along the rose-strewn posts...
Grow grapes, grow!

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