Words in the Woods Retreat Experience
I attended the Words in the Woods retreat near Springfield, Illinois on June 20 - 22, and it was more than I could have ever hoped for. My creative juices flowed, my imagination soared, and my mind wrote stories. Seriously, I woke up at 6:30 a.m. on the last morning of the three-day retreat and wrote a rough draft of a picture book, revision ideas for my YA novel, and a picture book idea. Can you believe that? And all before breakfast. So, let me try to explain why this retreat was so amazing, and why if you have the chance to go for a weekend retreat (or one that is even longer), you should do it!
An Illinois chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) put together this event and invited some funny, knowledgeable, and honest speakers. Agent Barry Goldblatt, Senior Editor Namrata Tripathi (Hyperion Books), and believe it or not, yes, this is so exciting—Holly Black—co-author of the Spiderwick Chronicles. Also speaking were two gracious and intelligent picture book authors, Julia Durango and Alice McGinty.
Let me explain how this retreat worked. It was held at a Lutheran Church Camp, and we stayed in large cabins with dorm-like rooms. When we arrived on Friday evening, we ate pizza, which is always the best way to win writers’ hearts—through their stomachs. The speakers did a session introducing themselves and reading some query letter don’ts, and then we met with critique groups. We had submitted a manuscript to a group of writers before the retreat, and this was our small critique group for the weekend. We supported each other throughout the retreat and offered help with one manuscript.
The next day, we ate a delicious breakfast of pancakes and sausage. Make sure, if you go to a retreat, you are offered meals. This is one of the best parts of a retreat. Someone else is cooking and cleaning, and you are spending your time either talking about writing, thinking about writing, learning about writing, or even actually writing. You have to admit, that is worth the cost alone.
Back to what we did on Saturday. We had three sessions with the three main speakers. One was about plot, one about characters, and one about voice and the submission policies and desires of Barry and Namrata. Another great thing about a retreat or a conference is that sometimes closed houses and agencies will take a submission from conference attendees for a period of time after the event. I received two golden tickets (in the form of Words in the Woods stickers) that I can place on my envelopes to send in to the speakers. This is not the first retreat or conference I’ve attended where manuscript submissions have been allowed, so this is definitely a perk of retreats.
Photo: Barry Goldblatt, Namrata Tripathi, and Holly Black
Holly Black said amazing things about plot. She explained how she often uses a time-limiting factor and a personal plot line woven together when she writes her novels. This was my A-HA moment. I wanted to bow down and maybe even offer my first born child because this simple explanation, which took maybe five minutes, solved the entire problem I was having with my novel. (Well, hopefully.)
Namrata shared a fantastic picture book with us called Dinosaur vs. Bedtime. This book will be out on September 9th. She talked to us about how picture books do not have to have a complex wrapped-up ending, and I had another A-HA moment. When Julia Durango showed us her very funny and cute picture book, Dream Hop, I understood what they meant. The wheels in my brain couldn’t stop after this session. Julia also gave an informative talk on promotion and school visits while Alice McGinty covered the basics in submitting manuscripts. There was something for all levels of writers at this retreat!
In between sessions, we ate, met with our critique groups, and had open mic sessions. Open mic sessions are unbelievably nerve-wracking, but they are so valuable. The first page of my YA novel was read aloud to Barry, Namrata, Holly, and Julia (and all the attendees), and then the speakers told everybody in the audience what they thought.
Now, I knew the first chapter of my work-in-progress was a “big, hot mess,” as Mr. Goldblatt would say, so I purposely sent this page in to get feedback and some help. But it was still hard to take when he said he wouldn’t get past the first page. OUCH! But I have thick skin and have already started revising my first chapter based on their suggestions and the suggestions from the audience members. I knew there was something wrong, but I was too close to my own work to figure it out. Thanks to the retreat—I think I am on the right track now.
This Words in the Woods event even had camp crafts. This was important quiet time to focus on what I had learned about my craft and mull over ideas that were stirring in my head. I painted a rock for my garden. You could also make a voodoo doll critic to stab with a pin every time your inner critic came out and said nasty things like, “You’re too old to be a writer,” or “Do you really think anyone is going to publish this junk?” and so on. Unfortunately, I ran out of time to make a voodoo doll, but I loved the idea.
Saturday night ended with the scent of bug spray and smoke while we sat around a campfire, roasting marshmallows, and eating s-mores. We even threw handfuls of Cremora (yes, Cremora) into the fire while we announced what we loved about the weekend, what we were no longer afraid of, and what we were grateful for. Did you know Cremora causes a huge spark in the flames? Be careful if you try it at home. (Although, it’s really not dangerous. I always feel like there should be some sort of disclaimer when dealing with fire.)
Sunday morning, everyone seemed exhausted, and I felt like my brain was done, especially since I had gotten up so early to write. We listened to one more session about setting, talked with our critique groups some more, ate (of course), and received door prizes and our valuable out-of-the-slush-pile stickers.
So, what was the best part about the retreat? Well, I can’t seem to pin down one best part. But here are a few closing thoughts. It is a very rare treat to spend an entire weekend around people who totally get you and want to talk about your characters and your books. The second was meeting Holly Black. If you ever get a chance to hear her speak or read or even meet her, do it. You will be inspired by this gracious and wonderful author. Third, I admit it, I am motivated, I am inspired, and something good will come out of this experience. I can just feel it.
Margo L. Dill is a freelance writer and elementary school teacher, living in Mahomet, Illinois. Her work has appeared in publications such as Grit, Pockets, Missouri Life, ByLine Magazine, and The News-Gazette. Her first book, Finding My Place, a middle-grade historical novel, will be published by White Mane Kids in 2009. When she's not writing, she loves spending time with her husband, stepson, and two dogs—Charlie, a boxer, and Hush Puppy, a basset hound. You can read more about Margo at www.margodill.com.
Margo is a columnist for WOW! Women On Writing.