What I learned at the Autumn Writing Retreat

By Colleen Jones

SCBWI British Isles and SCBWI Ireland jointly organized a weekend writing retreat from November 4th to November 6th, 2011. The retreat was held at the serene Emmaus Centre just outside Swords north of Dublin and near the Dublin airport in Ireland.

The weekend included lots of writing time, delicious meals and an abundance of tea, coffee and biscuits, time to mix and mingle with other writers, and presentations from three speakers: children’s author Steve Hartley, who facilitated the event; illustrator/children’s author, Oisín McGann; and Elaina O’Neill, Managing Editor for Little Island Books.

I arrived early on Friday, so once I dumped my bag in my room. I went outside with my camera and enjoyed the sun, scenery, and squirrels for an hour or so.

Emmaus Centre

Emmaus Centre

Everyone met up for dinner and after a bit of writing and relaxation, we met up for an icebreaker and chat with Steve Hartley. After introductions from all twelve participants, Steve shared some of his writing and publishing experiences with us and what he’d learned that might be helpful for other writers working towards publication.

Saturday came early as we were on the early breakfast schedule at 8:00 a.m. but that meant we had loads of time to get together and share our writing and ideas and discuss any problems we might be having. For example, I was feeling stuck with my current story because I wasn’t really sure what the conflict was. Steve’s advice to me was to figure out the purpose of my book, and that would help me to decide on the conflict or problem. I had feedback from another participant, which was also very useful, and I managed to write several more pages and lots of notes over the course of the weekend.

Steve gave his presentation before lunch, entitled “Keeping Characters in Character”. It was a very useful session as Steve explained how he uses a type of personality/social style analysis and applies it to his characters. I don’t think any of us had ever thought to use it this way, to apply it to our characters. It is quite ingenious, because you have a quick way to determine whether your character is, for example, a Driver, an Analytical, an Amiable, or an Expressive. From this, you can determine how they should react in normal and in stressful situations. It also helps you to determine the conflicts that can arise with other personality types.

Very useful and has probably changed our lives forever. (Wink to Steve.)

After a yummy lunch, we met up to listen to Oisín McGann talk about plot and structure or “What Happens Next” for his session. One point that stood out for me was the three critical elements to make a good story: people, place, and problem. We spent some time coming up with ordinary events and then changing them just a little to make them into problems. It was a lot of fun and quite surprising at times!

A great piece of advice that Oisín says he learned from his brief sojourn as a copyeditor was “If you can take it out, do take it out”.

Oisín finished up with a question and answer session while he did a sketch of his Mad Granddad character. There was only one illustrator in the group, but we were all impressed with his speed and skill.

Oisin McGann

Oisin McGann

We took a group photo before we went off for our next round of tea and biscuits. I think everyone was laughing at the wolf howl setting on my camera’s timer or perhaps it was my mad dash and dive to the floor for the photo.

SCBWI autum retreat 2011

Participants with two presenters

Standing L to R: Barbara, Trish, Steve Hartley, Helen, Oisín McGann, Anne, Lisa
Seated L to R: Benjamin, Jane, Jacqui, Jean, Stephen
Floor: Colleen

We had more writing time before dinner. Most of the group decided to go into Swords for a pint of Guinness then came back for a quiet chat in the lounge. A few of us stayed back to rest or write for the evening.

Sunday started early again with breakfast and some writing time. Elaina O’Neill, Managing Editor at Little Island Books, arrived to talk about her current list. She showed us a selection of books published by Little Island in the last year and talked about why those books were chosen. What came across most strongly for me was that no matter what other issues, like gate keepers, controversy, and marketability, had to be considered, the number one factor in choosing stories was definitely based on the quality of the writing. Elaina was very generous with her time and answered lots of questions from the participants.

Finally, we had time to pack, write, or go for a walk on the grounds before lunch and then we all departed back to our various homes.

The weekend was very enjoyable and the smaller group allowed us time to get to know each other. Steve did individual critiques for participants who asked. He was kind and supportive while also being practical with his advice. Thanks Steve!

Very special thanks to:

  • Benjamin Scott, Assistant Regional Advisor for SCBWI British Isles, Jane Mitchell, Assistant Regional Advisor for SCBWI Ireland, and Jacqui McVeigh, Regional Advisor for SCBWI Ireland, for organizing the retreat and making it all happen.
  • The Brothers and Sisters and staff at the Emmaus Centre for their warm welcome and wonderful facilities.
  • Steve Hartley, Oisín McGann, and Elaina O’Neill, for their engaging, entertaining, and helpful presentations.

For those of you who couldn’t make it, as Steve would say, you missed a cracker of a weekend!

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