Jan 22

Day 1 Advanced Writer Weekend Workshop with Agent, Alexandra Penfold

Alexandra Penfold

Alexandra Penfold

Our 2013 Advanced Writer Weekend Workshop Series officially kicked off at The Writing Barn last weekend. We welcomed long-time S&S editor Alexandra Penfold for her first appearance in her new role as a literary agent with Upstart Crow Literary Agency. Alexandra is interested in representing the range of children’s lit: from quirky picture book texts, to humorous and touching MG, to edgy YA (though no high fantasy). As a foodie and cookbook writer herself, Alexandra is also interested in seeing a select few lifestyle and cooking projects.

Cocktails at The Writing Barn

Lecture and workshop participants get to know each other.

The weekend’s workshop, with participants from Texas and beyond, mingled at a Cocktails & Conversation Meet and Greet on Friday night. The Friday night opener is designed for participants to get to know one another so that when the lecture and workshops get started, writers feel bonded and free to ask questions and express opinions. We played the ice breaker Two Truths and a Lie and learned that one of us had named a street after Emily Dickinson, one of us had ridden an elephant in the Barnum Bailey circus, one of us had headed up an Inspector Gadget regional fan club, and that one of us had NOT been Miss Alabama.

Saturday morning, after registration, where we welcomed additional writers for the lecture only portion of the weekend (held both Saturday and Sunday mornings), we got down to business.

We had all gathered to discuss Worlds Without End: Deconstructing Classic Characters in Children’s Literature. Alexandra walked us through her career beginning in publicity, up through her editorial years, and now her career turn as an agent.

Alexandra Penfold Workshop

I introduce Alexandra to an eager crowd

She spoke about character development and serial storytelling, and together we dissected the opening of a book we all know and love: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Some tidbits from the morning:

  • Learn early on that our characters are not puppets, we cannot force them to do things
  • When scenes feel stifled, access why it is not working on a character level
  • Readers enjoy the engagement of figuring something out without being TOLD
  • When we “tell” a reader, we push up against automatic resistance (IE: no one, especially a reader likes to be told what to do, how to think, etc.)
  • A lovely quote from Madeline L’ Engle: “With each book I write I become more and more convinced the books have a life of their own outside of me.”

The quote illustrates the point that readers should have a connection to what is not on the page, the lives of the characters before the book starts and the lives of the characters after the book ends.

My favorite quote from Day 1 came from Alexandra herself: “Some of my very favorite people live in books.”

Advanced Writer Workshop

Lecture participants do the worksheet for their characters.

Incorporated into the lecture was a Putting the “Care” in Characters worksheet. We first completed the exercises using Harry Potter, which we had been discussing at length from the way J.K. Rowling begins the first book in her series, setting up the setting, tone, situation, and circumstances of Harry, whom we do not meet until Chapter 2. Then we completed the exercise using characters from our own works-in-progress. Some of the discovery questions included:

  • Who is your character’s best friend? Why are they friends?
  • What is your character’s greatest fear?
  • Greatest wish?
  • What is the first thing your character thinks about in the morning and what is the last thing they think about before going to bed?
  • If your character found $20 what would they do with the money?
  • What is your character’s deepest secret? What don’t they want anyone to know? What do they want everyone to know?

An integral part of the exercise was sharing the ah-ha moments we learned about our characters and what it revealed to us about plot problems we may have been struggling with in our novels. Each participant, lecture and workshop, shared their insights.

Advanced Writer Workshop Lunch

Jenny Peterson and Karen Langford share what they learned over lunch.

After the lecture it was lunch break where we had an hour to chat about the morning and look forward to the work yet-to-come.

Then 14 of us huddled around a table and dug into our workshop booklets to discuss what was working and not yet working in the 15-page submissions that had been turned in ahead of time.

The workshop followed the formal rules with a few changes. Each writer introduced their piece, sharing the arc of the story, where they were in drafting, and what they hoped to get out of the workshop feedback, and then it was time to remain silent. For the next 30 minutes, the writer whose piece was being discussed took notes on what the group thought was working before moving into critical comments shared in the efforts to strengthen the pieces and clarify reader questions. When the iphone alarm went off (a dog barking Day 1 and a duck quacking on Day 2) the discussion was over. Then the writer had 5 minutes to respond and ask questions.

During the workshop, Alexandra and author and Writing Barn owner Bethany Hegedus helped to facilitate the discussion and referred back to moments from the morning lecture or points of discussion in earlier workshopped pieces.

Day 1 came to a close with writers having made new friends and groups breaking off for dinner to keep the conversation going.

Join us tomorrow for the insights Day 2 brought.

And, for those interested in the series, we are currently accepting applications for the April workshop with National Book Award nominee Sara Zarr, where the focus will be on Emotional Pacing (Application deadline: Feb. 7th) and for our November workshop with award-winning author Francisco X Stork, where we will focus on Thoughts, Gestures, and Dialogue (Application deadline: Sept. 1st). To attend, fill out an application.

For those traveling, The Cabin at The Writing Barn is available for rental, as well as referrals to nearby lodging, including an area B&B.

Here are some more photos from the Friday night cocktail party and Day 1 lecture and workshop:

Advanced Writing Workshop Cocktails

Samantha Clark and Varsha Bajaj catch up at the Friday night cocktails.


Advanced Writing Workshop Registration

Attendees register.

Brian Anderson

Brian Anderson listens to Alexandra.

Vanessa Lee

Vanessa Lee goes over notes.

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