Words in the Woods 2012

For those Illinois Children’s Writers who haven’t been to the Words in the Woods Retreat, you need to go.  This year was the intensive schedule of speakers, critique groups, and social activities.  Next year will be the quieter retreat, more focused on individual writing time.  But in any year, this event brings together an amazing network of women and men (yes, three men did attend) who are equally as passionate about children’s literature as you are.  Some are published, others such as myself have an agent but no publishing contract yet, many are in the querry process, and a few are still working toward a completed first draft.  No matter where you fall in the writing process, you’ll encounter others in your position and many generous writers a few steps ahead of you, eager to share their experiences and encouragement.

I lucked out and was placed in the rock star of critique groups: The Fictionairies.  Special thanks to Toni Leahy for designing this amazing group logo and printing t-shirts for everyone!

It’s never easy to sit quietly and listen to others critique your work, but after a great hour of group discussion and several more hours sitting alone by the lake pondering their suggestions, I made the risky decision to cut my entire first chapter and take a completely different approach to starting my YA novel.  The new direction inspired me to frantically type right through the pajama party and well into the night.  The Fictionairies opened my eyes to a problem I hadn’t realized existed: the tone and teenage concerns in the first two chapters of my manuscript really didn’t match my character’s strong personality or her kick-butt action to follow.  Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU ladies for your invaluable insights.

Of course I also absorbed countless other pearls of wisdom throughout three days of sessions from our fabulous guest speakers.  To prevent myself from rambling on for days rehashing the entire conference, I’ll limit myself to my favorite bit of advice from each speaker:

Author / Publisher Marrissa Moss offered a great character building exercise.  List the biggest wish, biggest secret, and biggest fear of each of your characters (not just the main character).  She suggested keeping these in mind as your characters act throughout the manuscript to keep them consistent and realistic.  But also consider what might happen if that secret is revealed or if that fear comes true to help add subplots to your manuscript.

Agent Kristy TY King, who we learned very early on LOVES outlines, recommended making a scene index of your novel which identifies the purpose of each scene.  If the scene doesn’t move the action forward, teach the reader about your characters, or reveal a key piece of information, it needs to be cut.  Once that index is compiled, she suggested using it to analyze the pacing of the plot and determine where scenes can be added or rearranged during the revision process.

Editor Alexandra Penfold made the astute observation that not every person in your life is there supporting you and cheering you on at every single moment in your life.  Therefore, the same must be true for the supporting characters in your manuscript.  They must have their own desires, agendas, and reasons for either helping or hindering your main character to ensure they are realistic, well rounded characters.  And their unique desires and schemes can make for excellent subplots in the manuscript.

Thank you, ladies, for the awesome advice.  Thank you to the Words in the Woods committee for planning such a great event.  See you in the woods next summer.

About Jennifer Kay

Jennifer Kay is a KidLit author and Structural Engineer. She has a VCFA MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, is an SCBWI Rockford Network Rep, edits the SCBWI IL Prairie Wind, and belongs to Mystery Writers of America. Jennifer works as a writer, freelance editor, literary agency reader, and creative writing teacher.
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