Every October, a select group of YA/MG writers, editors, and agents gather on the coast of California just south of Santa Cruz to participate in a weekend-long writing retreat to workshop manuscripts. It is also where writers dream of finding an agent and editor who fall in love with their manuscript. It was at PCCWW, the Pacific Coast Children’s Writers Workshop, where my dream editor, Erin Clarke, Executive Editor at Knopf of Random House first read Lara’s Gift and later acquired it. A BIG thanks to the brain child of PCCWW, Nancy Sondel who devotes a good chunk of her energy to ensure a solid workshop experience for writers hoping to improve their craft. Let’s welcome the director of PCCWW, Nancy Sondel!
AOB: What motivated you to establish the Pacific Coast Children’s Writers Workshop?
Imagination. And the desire to serve children’s book writers—because I am one myself.
Attending writers events over the years, I wished that my peers were not sequestered for one-on-one critiques with faculty. Those peers included friends whose manuscripts I had regularly critiqued. I was hungry to learn, first-hand, what editors and agents revealed behind closed doors. Did they talk about irresistible voice, plot twists, character nuances? Hey, I wanted to develop mine, too. Let me in!
I wondered how others solved the same challenges I faced—and what suggestions did various faculty offer? Also, did my critiquer not get/not like my story, or was she equally unhelpful (obscure, factually incorrect, hair-splitting) about others’ manuscripts? I wanted to be a fly on the critique-room wall. Or Charlotte, the writerly spider. Just give me a peek?
I was dismayed at critique sessions when I couldn’t comment promptly and intelligently on peers’ writing, which I’d never seen before. A seasoned professional can pull that off, but I certainly could not. And if the manuscript was read aloud to me, I was sunk. I’m a visual learner. I needed to see my peers’ manuscripts in advance. To escape being put on the spot, I actually made trips to the bathroom—better than shortchanging a deserving writer, or making a fool of myself!
As I submitted my manuscript weeks before various workshops, I worried. I longed for assurance that the as-yet-unknown faculty would feel an affinity with my story genre and/or theme. Instead, the seemingly-random assignments often resulted in odd pairings. Peers experienced the same frustrations. If this were my event, I thought, I’d make every effort to ensure good matches. And give writers even more opportunities…
My wish list grew. One day I stopped wishing: I envisioned, then built, my dream workshop.
I named it the Pacific Coast Children’s Writers Workshop, so it wouldn’t be tied to a single venue. Then I integrated elements I’d desired but not seen in similar events. Since our 2003 launch—with thanks to the feedback of loyal, enthusiastic alumni—PCCWW has evolved to the success it has become today.
AOB: What exactly is PCCWW; what makes it distinctive?
PCCWW is a collegial-style seminar designed for 16 accomplished and/or published novel writers. Its intimate, intensive format parallels that of graduate-level study—in fact, academic credit has been awarded to some of our enrollees. But, in addition to in-depth craft, we provide real-life experiences in the publishing world.
For example, we offer selected enrollees whole-novel critiques (up to approx. 250 pages) by a seasoned editor or agent. If you apply for this whole-novel critique, you may request one of our faculty (e.g., if you have an agent, you may want an editor critique). In the end, manuscripts are chosen by faculty who generally have interest in, and experience with, your manuscript and/or genre. With a whole-novel critique, you’ll meet with your faculty for 30 to 45 minutes on two different days.
As another option, writers with a work in progress may request a critique on 15 to 30 pages (plus synopsis) by one editor and agent—two professional perspectives.
With either track, you’ll receive both written and in-person critiques. These are presented in an open-clinic, “master class” format. With this setup, all enrollees may observe (and eventually join) the discussion between author and faculty. And you don’t have to be a spider or a fly!
To maximize your benefits, you’ll be emailed peers’ manuscripts approximately three months before the seminar. You’ll select some partials and one or more whole novels to critique. Then at our event, you may compare your observations to those of the pros—an opportunity to hone your self-editing skills, while seeing the innermost workings of editors’ and agents’ minds. This format may also show you how other writers address problems similar to your own.
Additional critiques, partial or full, are available by our faculty author—and (no fee) by articulate, target-audience teens who are enrolled in their concurrent workshop.
At least one more feature makes PCCWW distinctive: our setting. You won’t be in a small hotel room, hearing street or foot traffic at all hours. Instead, you’ll lodge in an attractive, spacious townhouse with full kitchen, fireplace, large living room, and decks. Pajaro Dunes’ two miles of private, pristine coast are unbelievably quiet—the loudest sounds are seagull cries and crashing ocean waves. Treat yourself to a working vacation!
AOB: PCCWW is now in its 11th year. In what ways has it evolved, and how do these changes benefit writers?
After PCCWW had been launched for a few years, I found myself again wishing and what-iffing. Two changes resulted:
1) TeenSpeak Programs: I wondered what “real” (tween and teen) readers thought of my characters—an objective, articulate opinion, not influenced by personal connections with me, the author. So, I created TeenSpeak Critiques Service, in which I trained teens to edit and give feedback to adults who submitted manuscripts. It was (and is) successful, with some authors going on to publish what teens had edited. That program gave birth in 2009 to TeenSpeak Novel Workshop, concurrent with PCCWW. With this setup, teens and willing adults benefit mutually from each other’s critiques—enlightening for all.
2) Whole-novel critiques by faculty: As our enrollees became more advanced each year, it became pointless to offer critiques only on opening chapters. Who can move forward amid multiple critiquers’ suggestions on the very same pages, as if trapped in a revolving door? So, I offered faculty critiques on “later chapters”; i.e., the beginning plus a jump (summarized) to a troublesome scene farther into the book. We still offer this option on partials.
I brought presenters to develop weekend themes on crafting a synopsis and whole-novel revision. Finally, the day came for a metamorphosis: enrollees’ whole-novel critiques by an editor or agent. People advised me that the idea wouldn’t fly, either for writers or overworked faculty. Well, I’d heard that “can’t” song before. Folks had been equally wary of the master class format. But fly, it did. As has our whole-novel workshop—which still has wings.
Another perk: With our increasingly advanced group of writers each year, we have accordingly attracted more top-level presenters. October 2013 will mark the third consecutive year that a VP publisher/executive editor has joined our faculty. These editors present at conferences once every one to five years. It’s an amazing honor and opportunity that they agree to join us. This year’s faculty so far includes Regina Griffin, Executive Editor at Egmont USA, and agent Fiona Kenshole (Transatlantic). Fiona was formerly Publishing Director at Oxford University Press Children’s Books, and an editorial director at HarperCollins. See more details on our faculty page.
AOB: What can writers look forward to experiencing at PCCWW? What’s a typical day like?
Two words: Never dull! Days are packed with novel-crafting sessions, but also offer time to enjoy nature, camaraderie, or personal writing.
Friday activities start at 3:00 PM, with two after-dinner sessions and optional beach bonfire. Saturday runs from 8:45 AM to 6:00 PM, with periodic breaks during the day. Sunday runs from approx. 8:30 AM to lunch at 12:45. (Stay as long as you like.) No raffles, etcetera, at PCCWW, but we do like to help enrollees and faculty promote their books.
If you’re an early riser, you may opt to start your day beach-walking. At your first daily workshop session, you’ll have whole-group activities such as master classes, Spot Critiques (a variation on First Pages), and Q&A. Then, throughout the weekend, you’ll have periods of 30 to 90 minutes in which you either attend a whole-novel consult (yours or a peer’s) or block off free time for yourself. Perhaps stroll among flowers, eucalyptus, a bird-inhabited lagoon or grassy field. Or relax on your beachfront balcony.
Meals are catered in our townhome, providing comfortable, fun opportunities to chat with faculty—inside or outside. The ratio of adult enrollees to faculty is 1:6. Cozy.
Focus sessions: Spread throughout the weekend, these four are are grouped below for a convenient quick glance.
• Scenes, the Building Blocks of Story. You’ll have a pre-assigned exercise, involving critique of a scene—your own, that of a peer, and/or of a brief movie excerpt we’ll view together. Our multi-talented faculty agent (former editor and film executive) will facilitate the topic, showing how fiction and film intersect—using cinematic techniques to bring your story to life. Additional TBA craft session led by our editor.
• Line editing: Style and Such. What choices do editors (and sometimes agents) suggest, and why? How can you enhance your micro-editing to make your manuscript shine? We’ll study writing samples from PCCWW enrollees’ manuscripts.
• TBA re: craft/marketing. Optional, advanced session led by PCCWW published author-alum and/or experienced presenter.
• Teen Panel. First, Q&A: Ask teens your most pressing questions about everything from literature to lifestyle. Then, mini master class sessions: Discover how peers’ words, or yours, are perceived by your target audience. Teens will publicly critique the first page of adults’ manuscripts that they’ve chosen; everyone has access to the pages in advance. Educational and entertaining!
For more details, click on our Schedule.
AOB: How do writers enroll in this workshop? What key deadlines should applicants keep in mind?
Sondel: Review our web page with application and sample questions. We accept applications starting April 1—inquire at any time, via our web contact form.
To receive the Early Bird discount and consideration for your preferred critique option(s), submit your application materials (includes first 30 manuscript pages and deposit) by May 20. Deadline for “first wave” applications is June 20, after which faculty selections for whole-novel critiques will be completed.
We may have additional openings beyond this date (in any category), so don’t hesitate to inquire.
Most final, complete manuscripts must be submitted by June 28 (teens August 28). However, some fulls may be submitted later in summer, per faculty approval. We try to accommodate such requests, but there can be no guarantees.
For more details, visit our To Apply page and Fees page.
AOB: Any closing remarks you’d like to share with Quirk and Quill?
I’m passionate about PCCWW and TeenSpeak for the same reason I pursue writing a novel. It is labor; it is love. And it tickles multiple parts of my brain.
Like my novel, PCCWW started with a vision. The image has been sustained through analysis and organization, decisions and revisions, and, always, inspiration. But, unlike the development of my novel, these two workshops give me an annual marker of completion—a finite, tangible sense that the job is done.
At the end of each event, I see enrollees and myself leaving wiser than when we arrived. I see the next generation of children’s book writers headed back to school, having exchanged gems of wisdom with their adult counterparts. And I see all of us writers one step closer to our respective goals of debut or renewed publication.
Some of our writers have signed with PCCWW editors or agents as a direct result of our workshop. Other enrollees attribute their success to the PCCWW faculty (and peer) critiques they received. For example:
Joni Sensel, author of four novels; her PCCWW agent sold The Farwalker’s Quest and The Timekeeper’s Moon (Bloomsbury); Bobbie Pyron, author of The Ring (WestSide Books), A Dog’s Way Home (Tegen/HarperCollins), and The Dogs of Winter (Scholastic); Tracy Holczer, author of The Secret Hum of a Daisy (G.P. Putnam’s, 2014); Mary Cronk Farrell, author of award-winning Fire in the Hole! (Clarion); Annemarie O’Brien, Lara’s Gift (Knopf, August 2013); and others. See more testimonials on our website.
Quirk and Quill readers: I look forward to welcoming you and your manuscript at PCCWW for a weekend of stories by the sea!
A chair is waiting for you!
Thank you, Nancy!