Better Books Marin 2015: A Writing Conference to Remember

A couple weeks ago, I attended the Better Books Marin 2015 conference for middle grade & YA writers in Petaluma, California. Organized by Darcey Rosenblatt and her critique group, this was an amazing 3.5 days of intensive critique sessions and deep craft seminars. Most of the 25 attendees were local to Northern California, but a few of us crossed state lines (Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Virginia).

Here are some highlights:

Critique Sessions with Faculty Mentor

Everyone submitted 25 pages of their novels-in-progress and were placed in a 6-7 person critique group with a mentor. This year's faculty were agent Susan Hawk from the Bent Agency, freelance editor Emma Dryden, former children's editor Lisa Cheng, and Senior Editor at Penguin/Putnam Books for Young Readers Stacey Barney.

The faculty: Emma Dryden, Susan Hawk, Lisa Cheng, Stacey Barney

We had a couple of months to read our fellow writers' submissions and spent the first full day critiquing each other's works. At the end of the conference, we met again for final thoughts.

My group's leader was Susan Hawk, who gave really insightful feedback and suggestions. Everyone in the group had something useful to say as well. Each of us went back home with at least one epiphany that will help us shape the next draft of our works.

My critique group: Shells Legoullon, Susan Hawk, Ali Berka, Jennifer Gennari, Ann Gronvold, and Teresa Robeson
Discussing work while being lit dramatically from behind

Writing Craft Sessions


In most conferences, one or two workshops will really resonate with me. At this conference, each session was a master class. I took copious notes but here are just a few golden tidbits:

Emma Dryden, on Voice & First Impressions
  • You can't write your best first page until you have finished a complete draft.
  • Your first page should include your story question, tension, and echo the last page.
  • Voice is the combination of (A) your word choice, sentence structure, cadence, vernacular, style, and (B) the emotion, motivation, doubts, fears, desires, and tone of your main character
  • Think in layers: find out what your character wants; interview your main character

Stacey Barney, on Dialogue ("Chit Chat & Jibber Jabber")
  • Dialogue should be both extraordinary & ordinary
  • Each bit of dialogue should be designed to reveal character (corollary: do not use dialogue to advance the plot, info dump, or fill space)
  • Don't clutter dialogue with tags ("he said," "she said")

Susan Hawk, on Setting as Character

  •  To make setting come alive, show the emotion it creates in your characters.
  •  Tips: Use all your five senses; details are important (but don't overwhelm, let the reader fill in the rest); put characters in opposition to the mood to highlight the emotion (e.g. a happy character in a gloomy setting)

Lisa Cheng, on Building Tension

  • Build tension through secondary story lines and subplots
  • Every chapter should answer three questions: (1) What does the MC want? (2) What are they doing to get it? and (3) How are the stakes being raised?
  • A useful exercise: take a secondary character or subplot and change it. How does that affect your story? the MC?

Emma Dryden, on World Building
  • Nothing is generic. My here and now is different from your here and now.
  • Treat your world as another character - an element that is woven throughout your story

Emma Dryden, on Revisions
SOME TIPS (of the many Emma provided)
  • Finish a complete first draft before you revise. "Write your first draft in lust and not in love."
  • Put it aside to distance yourself from it
  • View it differently (read it out loud, change the font, read it in a different format)
  • Use Post-Its to lay out every scene, its purpose, and what the reader feels  
This was a tip I used to great effect when I came back. I wrote each chapter on a Post-it and used a different color for different POVs. I could immediately see what my critique members told me, that I was using POV inconsistently:

  • Good writing reminders (show don't tell; watch those body parts; avoid clich├ęs, check POV, dump the info dumps, vary sentence length, use active verbs, avoid repeating words)
  • Identify both your action and emotion plot 


Rolling vistas, morning fog, and a meditation labyrinth--need I say more?

My good friend Teresa Robeson at the labyrinth

Teresa and I spent some time chatting and sketching


For some pictures of the organic, fresh, copious, and delicious food, check out my friend Teresa Robeson's blog post.

New Friends

The best part of the conference was meeting a bunch of talented and fun people, all dedicated to children's literature. Lots of great conversations around food and wine.

A cool, small-world connection: one of my critique-mates, Ann Gronvold, and I discovered we both worked for the Environment & Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice when we were lawyers. We weren't there at the same time but we reminisced about one of our favorite co-workers, Quentin Pair (if you're out there, hello!).

You will never look at children's authors the same after a game of Cards against Humanity

If you're a serious writer of MG or YA, you must check out Better Books Marin!

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