After the Tennessee Writer’s Workshop, I was eager to go to the Big Sur Writers Conference. I wasn’t excited about the long trip to California though. The ladies at Andrea Brown Literary Agency (ABLA) recently announced they were branching out with a new conference in Denver. So it’s a little closer, but I hope one day they may make it to the East Coast. The reason why I care is because the conference was great. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Big Sur is located about 150 miles below San Francisco. When the paperwork told me it would take 3 and a half hours to get there, it was 100% accurate. While California’s highway/Interstate system is no reflection on the conference, California could use a bit of improvement to speed things along. In Georgia, 150 miles means 2 hours.
Because of available flights, I arrived at the conference exactly one hour late. I missed much of the introductions. However, Magnus Toren noticed me walk in and immediately caught me up on what I needed to do and where I needed to go. Within ten minutes, I was ready.
Immediately after the introductions, we are all sent to our first group meeting. Big Sur schedules two groups of four to five authors that you will meet with two times over the course of the conference.
Fr Ex: You will be assigned to a Group A and a Group B. (There will likely be Groups A-M) Group A may have 4 authors and Group B may have 5. You’ll meet with Group A for 2 hours after the introductions but before dinner. For me that was Friday at 3:30PM til 5:30PM. After dinner, you’ll return to your room to perform rewrites or just enjoy yourself in whatever you like. (There is no TV, WiFi, or Cell Phone Signal, so bring a book. ;-) ) The next morning you have breakfast, meet with Group B, have lunch, improve your work, meet with Group A again, then Dinner and more writing. On the final day, you meet with group B in the morning, have lunch, then depart. Twice there were other one hour programs where you could ask the editors who were a part of the conference questions and/or ask about query letters.
Each of the groups will have one professional person in them: an agent, author, or editor. I had one author and one agent. In the sessions, you’ll read from your work approx. 3 to 7 pages because of time. Then for 15 to 20 minutes the group and the professional will discuss the work. For me this was extremely helpful. While I’m a part of a writer’s group and I’ve had my work read by over 20 people, I had never had a professional give me feedback. There is a huge difference in vision. While a beta reader/group reader has insight (generally into the story), they are also patient. I’ve learned that an average beta will give me over 10 chapters to get into the story (my chapters are small for MG). But an agent makes up their mind in 3-5 pages most of the time. So I needed to know what I was doing wrong and how to fix it.
Unfortunately, your group members may not be writing in the same age group. This is where the largest problem for me personally came where one PB writer just couldn’t get into my story and had major problems with it while the other MG and YA writers had no problems at all. For the same PB writer, I had little to no words of help because I don’t write nor read PB. So we clashed slightly, but not in a way in which either one of us was rude, just that we didn’t have much helpful advice. (The groups encourage everyone to comment about everyone else’s work. So we both felt compelled to say something.)
I personally took every opportunity to improve my manuscript. So after each session I spent at least 90 minutes updating my first 3-10 pages. You don’t have to do this. Many writers did no updates at all and just reread their unchanged work in their Group B to make sure that Group B had similar opinions to Group A. Remember, you’re getting the opinions of both fellow authors and professionals. So depending on how much weight you give one of your fellow authors vs the professionals will determine how you may want to precede. You can also bring multiple projects which some people did. In that way you can read one project to your Group A and another to your Group B.
All of the meals were prepared in a restaurant which is a part of the Big Sur Campgrounds. The food was good. The food was prepared buffet style and care was taken to make sure there were Gluten Free options. Most of the professionals were friendly, but I’ll admit it was like being nine years old again and trying to find a place to sit on the bus. At the first meal, the guy authors crowed one side of the room while the women were on the other side. (Very preteen of us) By the time we made it to breakfast, friends were starting to develop, and I could tell groups of people had come to the conference together. The professionals don’t come up to you and make sure that you are okay. They look for places to sit like everyone else and if there is a vacant spot they sit with you. Sometimes they sit with their friends, but not always. (There did seem to be two “agency tables” though. Back to middle grade. LOL) I sat with three authors at one meal, and two agents at two other meals. Everyone was super nice. So there weren’t any issues, just a few awkward moments that can’t be helped.
The accommodations consists of cabins, either one room or two rooms. Some authors chose to save money by signing up to share a two room cabin. If you do decide to share, the cabins are huge and the rooms are more than large enough. I decided to pay extra for my own cabin because for one I was coming from the East Coast which means my morning would be different than an another author who may be coming from the West Coast. Also I’m a light sleeper and I didn’t want to have someone making coffee, stomping around, and typing in the morning or late at night when I would be sleeping.
Each cabin feels like a tiny townhouse complete with a kitchen, pots, and dishes (cups, silverware, plates). I barely used the kitchen except to make Breakfast Tea to wake me up. (I don’t drink coffee) If you are going to drink Coffee/Tea grab sugar/creamer/tea bags at the meals at the restaurant because the kitchen only has a few items and mine had no real sugar but sweet-n-low and Splenda. I was lucky I had some sugar in my bag from the trip up. Also bring a few snacks to have in the room. You won’t have time to go shopping, so if you get the nibbles you’ll need something to tide you over. And for me, I was waking up 3 hours before everyone because my brain was on Eastern Standard Time.
The cabins had one central heating source which seemed to be gas. If you turned it on, a small furnace like thing would ignite and heat the area around it. It heats up slowly. If you want to have a warm cabin turn this on before dinner. If you like it cold then adjust it accordingly. There was no air conditioning that I could find, but there was a fan in my room. Many of the Group meetings are also done in the cabins and for cooling the Group professionals just opened the doors and windows. For the time of year, it was comfortable. At night it was cool, so I found myself doing my writing three feet from the furnace.
My cabin also had a great sky light. When I lay in the bed I could see the stars – beautiful.
As I said earlier, there is no WiFi or Cellphone signal. In some areas around the campsite, I was able to get one bar out of five. This caused many people to be distressed as family members may have not known that you have made it safely, especially if like me, you’re coming from far away. I encourage you before you get to highway 1 to stop somewhere and make a phone call to let your family know you are safe. The lack of cell signal helps you focus on your writing which is not a bad thing. You’re not going to get random calls in the middle of the night or check email. I did find that in times when few people were up (mornings) I could send texts easily as long as they were short. My phone also received most of the reply texts around that time, even if they were a day old.
The conference is geared more toward those with complete projects or near complete. I was able to get a lot of great feedback because my project is technically finished. Many budding authors had portions of a manuscript some as small as ten pages in total. Several had a rough draft but hadn’t sent it to Alpha or Beta Readers yet. This was a costly mistake for them since the conference is not cheap and while the professionals were helpful, it would be impossible for them to fix all the problems with such a young manuscript within the timeframe.
The only conference improvement would be to extend the time from 48 hours (Friday midday to Sunday midday) to 72 hours. I don’t think a weeklong conference is needed especially for authors who are following most of the “undefined” rules of writing. But having an agent’s listening ear is not an easy thing to come by. And while many retreats do give you this option, the size of ABLA gives you more opportunity to have an agent or a professional that works closely with these agents. I’ve read about a few retreats were agents show up only for half a day or less which is much different than having an agent read the work, allow the chance for revision, and have them read it again with comment. For me, that alone was worth the price.
All in all I loved the conference. I would encourage everyone I know to go without hesitation. The only thing I’d warn anyone about is just making sure that you are ready. But if you are solidly on Draft 2 of your PB/MG/YA book then the ladies and friends of ABLA are a great gem among the conferences and writer’s retreats.