Big Sur on Cape Cod Workshop Review

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No post yesterday since I’m still trying to absorb the experience of the Big Sur on Cape Cod Children’s Writer’s Workshop I attended this weekend. For those who don’t know it, it’s sponsored by the Andrea Brown literary agency, and takes place a couple times per year, usually in Big Sur, CA (hence the name). This was the first time on the East Coast, so I couldn’t resist.

The workshop is unique in that the faculty is a mixture of published authors, editors, and agents from the Andrea Brown agency. Each participant has two faculty over the course of the weekend, and with 4-5 people per group. There are only about 60 people total, so it’s easy to meet people over meals or in general conversation.

The first workshop took place right after the introductions – and since the faculty I was supposed to work with couldn’t attend due to illness, my first faculty was Andrea Brown herself. A woman who’s been in the business for 35 years, and runs the most successful agency for children’s authors? Not intimidating at all…

And she wasn’t. Her comments were incisive, and thoughtful. Honest but not brutal. She treated everyone’s work seriously and gave us great advice not just from the writing but also the business perspective.

I was paired with the wonderful Tara Sullivan as faculty for my second critique group. As an author, she focused on the craft issues of our manuscripts. It’s challenging in this setting because the writer reads the five pages or so from their piece, and the group has to immediately comment on it (unlike an MFA program workshop, where you get the pages in advance and have time to re-read and make notes). Therefore the critique tends to be more general than you get with more time and more pages to review, but Tara had wonderful warmth and enthusiasm as well as insightful comments to make.

There’s a lot of flexibility in what you bring to the four workshop opportunities (two with each faculty). I brought three different openings to my novel, with the fourth as a revision of one of them. I went in wanting to get more clarity on the direction this manuscript should take, and I found that, even though it wasn’t what I expected!

There were also editor and agent panels, where they discussed trends and answered questions from their respective sides of the business. One of the strengths of the workshop was having professional writers as well as people on the business end as faculty. Because like it or not, writers need to take the marketplace into consideration if they want to publish their work.

The participants were a mix of levels of writing and workshopping experience, but they were clearly serious about their work since they spent the time and money to be there. And of course, one advantage of attending a workshop like this is the entrée factor – the ability to submit to the editors of houses who don’t usually accept unsolicited submissions, as well as the “top of the pile” access to Andrea Brown agents (with, of course, no guarantee they’ll take you on).

There were opportunities to meet so many people that I’m sure critique groups will form from it – and for those who lack community and regular critique of their work, this might well be one of the most valuable parts of the workshop.

And of course, the main lesson from all this is that any work you intend to submit to agents or editors has to be as perfect as you can get it. Don’t waste your time or theirs on anything less. If someone gives you valuable feedback, take it and learn from it. Keep making it better. If it takes a day or two to absorb all the info, that’s fine – take the time you need. Then make a plan, and get back to work.

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