jayellebee's Blog

March 5, 2013

The 2013 Big Sur Writers Workshop

007This may be hard for young readers to believe, but there was a time when cars did not come equipped with flat screen TVs. We had cigarette lighters but no jacks for MP3 players. The concept of satellite connections for “e” gadgets like iPads and iPods was pure science fiction. Texting didn’t exist and phones were not even mobile, much less smart.

Road trips in that dark age depended on radio, cassette tapes and conversation to pass the miles. When my family tired of listening to Bert and Ernie sing “Rubber Ducky,” and didn’t feel like hearing the soundtrack from Disney’s “The Rescuers” for the 57th time, I often read to my sweet little boys, thereby short-circuiting their verbal and physical outbursts of sibling rivalry.

As the boys grew, so did their taste in reading material.  We graduated from picture books to Stuart Little and Ramona the Pest.  Then we moved on to pretty much anything written by Roald Dahl.  (All these Oompa Loompayears later I can still do a reasonable rendition of the Oompa Loompa song.)  Somewhere around 1985, traveling the looong road from San Francisco’s East Bay Area to Truckee in the Sierra Nevadas, an important truth dawned on me.

This world needs more contemporary, realistic adventure books for boys.

We passed a cement truck emblazoned with the slogan, “Find a need and fill it.”  The possibility of writing what I would come to know as “middle grade” novels jarred me like a blow-out in the fast lane.  But, I ask you, how long can a woman hit her head against the same wall before wondering, is the hope of becoming a published author really worth the pain?

Twenty-eight years of rejection letters, writers club meetings, rejection letters, conferences, rejection letters, workshops, rejection letters and critique groups have delivered me to the era of self-publishing — a new-ish wrinkle in the fabric of the literary world.   I’ve asked myself,  do I want to go it alone with neither agent nor editor to help me navigate the pitfalls and typos of the do-it-yourself world?  For me, the short answer is, no.

Or, should I dust off that pair of tap shoes hiding on the top shelf of my closet and re-visit an old hobby?

Welcome to the Embassy Suites Monterey Bay - Seaside Hotel!Enter the Big Sur Writers Workshop, co-sponsored twice annually by the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur and the Andrea Brown Literary Agency.  In December the BSWW is held in Big Sur; in March the venue shifts to the Embassy Suites Monterey – Seaside.  I’d heard rave reviews of this workshop for years, but was intimidated.  REAL writers attend the BSWW, paying big bucks for the privilege.  What if I applied and wasn’t accepted?  How embarrassing would that be?  Even worse, what if I was accepted and made a fool of myself?

A friend’s encouragement and my husband’s support tipped the scales.  The friend and I loaded up and headed south at 7:30  Friday morning with fingers crossed and manuscripts packed.  The workshop began promptly at 2:00 that afternoon.  Once schedules, name tags and critique group assignments had been distributed, Andrea Brown herself (an impressive personality in a petite body) admonished us to make the most our time.  This was Writing Boot Camp, not a three-day two-night vacation.

My friend and I took Andrea’s words to heart.  We abandoned our comfort BSWW 015zones and reached out to introduce ourselves to the thirteen agents, editors and published authors who comprised the faculty.  We stayed up late revising critiqued pages.  We never left the confines of the hotel, ignoring the lure of Carmel, Monterey and, hardest of all for me, the Pacific Ocean.  These temptations must have been even harder to ignore for those among the 55 attendees who traveled to the workshop from faraway places like Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts, Florida, Texas, Kansas and Arizona.

BSWW 017Four wannabe authors and one faculty member comprised each critique group.  Each of the groups’ four sessions lasted two short hours.   The serious mindset of my fellow students made for productive interactions.  But the humor inherent in some stories also led to riotous bursts of laughter.  Some of my new friends’ phrases and scenes have stayed with me:  an eighth grade couple “cupcaking;” a sock monkey refusing to behave for the crown prince; boys at a public pool “drowning in love” to capture the female lifeguard’s attention.

Panel discussions, one by the editors and another by the agents, were informative and entertaining.  A group session to share and evaluate query letters shed light on that mysterious art.  Magnus Toren, curator of the Henry Miller Library, shared Miller’s own words about writing and even serenaded us with a song about why Marilyn Monroe’s picture is not in the library.  (Hint: Think Arthur Miller, not Henry Miller.)

Exhausted and exhilarated, my friend and I drove the 250 miles home Sunday.

Was the BSWW worth the price?  Oh, yeah.  Every penny.  Will I break out the tap shoes?  Maybe some day, but not yet.  I’m anxious to begin yet another revision of my manuscript, armed with new insights and a pinch of self-confidence, giving the process my best shot.

A number of the writers I met over the past few days are sure to succeed.  Their stories and talent are too special not to win acclaim.  I look forward to seeing their volumes gracing the shelves of my local book stores in the near future.



  1. What an adventure! Your descriptions inspire me to crack open my own ms. and revise, revise, revise. Thanks, Joanne, for another delightful piece of writing.

    Comment by Jean Georgakopoulos — March 6, 2013 @ 11:20 pm | Reply

  2. Congratulations Joanne on your wonderful experience and for living your dream.

    Comment by Nina Bucchere — March 9, 2013 @ 2:00 pm | Reply

  3. Wow! That sounds like fun! … and of course work. I’m so happy that you did that. I feel as you (and many others) that the boys are underserved. Thus my chapter book series called “Ethan Blecher.” First installment out this year– “Ethan Blecher Braves a Bully.”

    Comment by Chris Pedersen — March 15, 2013 @ 5:53 pm | Reply

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