2016 SCBWI Writing Retreat by Katya Bozukova

Bluebell Woods
You have a story in you that nobody else can tell. No-one will write your book because nobody can write your book. It is already unique by virtue of being created by you. 

If there were two words that capture the essence of this spring’s SCBWI writing retreat, they would be “nurture” and “generosity”.

We were a diverse bunch, each of us on our own individual journeys, and each of us dedicated to encouraging the others and helping them to grow. I don’t know if it’s unique to children’s authors or scoobies in particular, but it was one of those weekends where everyone seemed to get something out of.
It started on a bright Friday afternoon, as we congregated in the White Horse pub in Haslemere, with people shyly introducing themselves and becoming more and more animated as the conversation veered off towards writing. The sun was out, and so were our summer kicks - you’d have thought the train took us accidentally to the South of France, or even Malaga. 
Once all suspects were accounted for, we headed up to Dunford house, a beautiful YMCA in the South Downs in Sussex. (Shout out to the incredible staff who looked after us that weekend - from the moment we checked in, they were there for us for anything we might need.) The schedule left loads of time before the first talk, which we took full advantage of - setting up the snacks table, grabbing a coffee or a cuppa tea, and then chatting until our throats were sore. 

This was my first writer’s retreat and I had very little idea what to expect; but I found it a great balance of workshops and one-to-ones, leaving plenty of time for socializing and writing. Rachel Mann, Commissioning Editor at Simon & Schuster, spoke to us first about what editing means to her, and the collaborative effort that goes into any book before it is published. She showed us what we might expect from working with an editor, and stressed the importance of sharing a common vision with an author, in order for the book to be the best that it can be. It was an excellent talk, and (for me, at least) went a long way in demystifying that aspect of the publishing process. 

Rachel Mann, Commissioning Editor at Simon and Schuster

There was no reading after dinner on Friday - just a lot of lively discussion, as well as swapping reading recommendations over wine and snacks*. That brain food** paid off, because Saturday morning found us hard at work - on laptops, in notebooks, or deep in brainstorming conversation with one another. All before breakfast! 

That morning was designated for one-to-ones with Rachel Mann and Melvin Burgess leaving everyone else to their devices. Some used that time to find a good writing spot (and we were spoiled for choice). Some set out on a quest in the woods to discover the bluebells - I’m happy to report that only a few of us got spirited away, and we all found our way back. Coffee break brought on more excited chatter, and by lunchtime, we were all buzzing with excitement, full of things to tell each other. 
Katy's one to one with Rachel Mann.
Indeed, one of the most beautiful things that came out of this retreat was the enthusiasm it seemed to generate in all of us. Forget Newton’s third law - that weekend, we trumped entropy, because with every second, our energy grew and grew and grew, until the walls positively vibrated with the excitement we all had for our projects. Previously, I’d always associated productivity with lots of sentences on the page - inflating my word count and worrying about editing later. This retreat made me appreciate all the other ways in which you can progress your work as a writer - the quiet time you spend, contemplating a plot; the satisfaction of editing a messy section; the unexpected joy of discovering a character’s motivation; or the particular pleasure derived from spending an hour on a good sentence. I’ve got the sneaky suspicion a lot of people found similar joys in their work - to paraphrase Dani Shapiro, happy writers are those who write. 

Saturday afternoon brought Melvin Burgess’ talk, which was split into two parts - the writing craft, with a focus on working methods, followed by the practicalities of school visits. The latter turned out to be one of the more overlooked aspects of the life of a children’s writer and illustrator. There was so much said, so many evocative images brought up - and Melvin is very, very quotable - but to me, some of the most vital takeaways from those 90 minutes are to do with respecting one’s craft, treating it with care, and giving your audience something they can relate to. Melvin reminded us of the importance of finding out a work schedule that works for us, experiencing life so that we can connect with our readers. Similarly, the second half of the talk focused on making sure everyone gets something out of a school visit, and reminded us that while there are things we can do in order to work better with our audience, with teachers, and with librarians, it is also vital that we figure out the things that work for us. 
Melvin Burgess taking the class
That evening brought the first set of readings - some contemplative, some happy, many very funny ones. Witches seemed to appear again and again, which was a testament to the spirit of the place. It was preceded by a wonderful musical performance by Chris, who sang us a song that could be applied to any fight in life, but in this case served to remind us to keep on writing. Bravo! 

Sunday morning came, bringing more lively discussions and writing. Melvin’s workshop on connecting with our inner child unearthed a lot of feelings for us - some of which were happy, some of which were sad, and, in this one’s case at least, led to the sharing of things that hadn’t been ever shared before. (Freud would have had a field day with us, and so would Jung, Kristeva, and quite possibly Turkle and Cuddy (link to the article on the former in Brain Pickings: https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/01/28/amy-cuddy-presence/)). Afterward, people seemed more shy to discuss what had come out during the exercises - arguably, as expected - but we all appeared as though emerging from a deep, contemplative dream…

 …which turned out to be an excellent set-up for the rest of the day, and the afternoon, during which people continued to work, explore, and have one-to-ones with Melvin and Felicity Trew, of the Caroline Sheldon literary agency. While I haven’t asked everyone about their experiences, those I did talk to shared my feeling that the 20-minute chats we had with the speakers were beyond and above everything we expected. In my case, I left the room feeling refreshed and invigorated, more optimistic about a story than I have been in six months. As anybody who has ever received feedback on a piece of writing can attest, it is scary, and it takes a special kind of skill to deliver a critique that is true, but also kind, and helpful (yes, I’m quoting Dani Shapiro again). I cannot express how grateful I am for those 20 minutes - and I think everyone else shares my sentiment. 
Sunday evening was once again dedicated to readings, and we heard a great selection of stories for different ages. Though it was our last evening (or maybe because of it) the chats ran well into the night, with, admittedly, the occasional packing break. 

It occurs to me, as I write this, that I was wrong - there is another word, in addition to “nurture” and “generosity”, to describe this year’s retreat. A word that is perhaps not one often associated with writing, but crucial nonetheless: “grounding”. Writing is a varied experience - it can be exciting and energetic, but it can also be isolating, scary, doubtful, personal, bizarre. Mind-bending, even. You can sometimes lose track of your goals, and think yourself the only person to become lost in a feeling. This is why the weekend of the retreat was so important - to spend some time with people who not only understand where you are emotionally, but also give you perspective by sharing their experiences - as it grounds you into the present, and makes you more aware of the world. 

And aware of the world is definitely one way to describe the last morning of the retreat: breakfast, packing, loading up of cars, paying the bar tab (and wincing). Felicity’s talk on the role of the agent seemed like the perfect way to close the event. Like the others, it was accessible and practical, a down-to-earth description of the wonderful (and difficult) world of the agent. It was also a mini-masterclass in writing query letters, with exercises that were useful for everyone present. Indeed, what was striking about all the talks and workshops throughout the weekend was how much value they brought to participants, regardless of the stage they were at with their manuscripts. 
Truly, the entire retreat was an exciting immersion in the world of children’s stories, and when we gave that last round of applause, the overall feeling was one of immense hope.

 *BONUS: Reading recommendations that came from the retreat (big thanks to everyone who commented on the Facebook post with their own discoveries)

  •  Teri Terry, Book of Lies
  •  Melvin Burgess, Cry of the Wolf Junk; The Hit 
  •  Julie Day, The Railway Angel 
  •  Meryl Pugh, The Bridle 
  •  Alex Mellanby, Tregarthur’s Promise 
  • Natalie Yates, Michiko and the Match Girls 
  •  Kathryn Evans, More of Me 
  •  Peter Bunzl, Cogheart 
  •  Sarah Alexander, The Art of Not Breathing 
  •  Lisa Heathfield, Seed 
  •  Lisa Cron, Wired for Story 
  •  Patrice Lawrence, Orangeboy 
  •  Joan G. Robinson, When Marnie Was There 
  •  Emma Caroll, In The Darkling Wood; The Girl Who Walked On Air 
  • Chris Vick, Kook 
  •  Frances Hardinge, The Lie Tree 
  •  Lucy Christopher, any book 
  •  Gareth P. Jones, The Considine Curse; Constable and Troop 
  •  Dani Shapiro, On Writing 
  •  Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones 
 **quote Melvin Burgess

Katya Bozukova is a Ph.D. candidate at Royal Holloway University of London, a writer of "weird fiction" for teens and adults, and a blogger. She's currently working on a project exploring the inter-generational perceptions of risk and trust in social media technologies. You can find her blog at:https://intothequicksandswego.wordpress.com/ She is also currently raising money for the NSPCC, the organization that has been running Childline in Britain for the past 30 years: https://www.justgiving.com/K-Bozukova"


  1. Thanks for a brilliant write-up, Katya! I'd like to add another book recommendation - Infinite Sky by CJ Flood - Rachel edited it and it's fantastic.

  2. I am totally and utterly jealous! What a great retreat. I loved the one I attended two years ago, and in fact, I see a couple of familiar faces and names in your post, because I've stayed in touch with some of the people I met on that weekend. It really does create an amazing bond that can last a lifetime!

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