Since they met during a UCLA writing class in 1979, Stephanie Gordon and Judy Enderle have led prolific careers as writing partners, publishing more than 20 picture books, middle grade, and young adult novels like Smile! Principessa! and Where Are You, Little Zack? They have also published books individually and under the joint pen names Jeffie Ross Gordon and J.R. Gordon.
They were also the co-editors of the Fox Broadcasting Children’s Network magazine, Totally Fox Kids, and story editors and writers for the first season of the Fox children’s television program Rimba’s Island. They have been lecturers, teachers, and editors for Boyd’s Mills Press, and are still famous for saying, “yes.” Today, they also run the manuscript critique and editing business Writers Ink.
Enderle and Gordon have crafted writing communities, founding SCBWI’s Southern California chapter (which would later be segmented to include the Los Angeles Chapter) and were the first Regional Advisor Chairpersons, taking SCBW(I) from six chapters to sixty and international, as well as launching the Working Writer’s Retreat. The retreat returns this year, Sept 15-17, with Enderle and Gordon again serving as faculty.
We asked them about their careers, working with a writing partner, and making the most of a critique.
Erlina Vasconcellos: When and why did you start the Working Writer’s Retreat?
Judy Enderle: We started the retreat when we thought it would be good to have a smaller event focused on creating books.
Stephanie Gordon: I remember we were speakers at the Pennsylvania SCBWI retreat and we loved it. We came home and began planning. Bruce Coville was also a presenter at the Penn retreat and told that fabulous hairy dog story about the Giant. He might remember when that was.
EV: What was the first one like and what was your vision for its future? Does that vision line up with what it’s become?
JE: The first one was at a Holy Spirit Retreat Center no one but those early attendees would recognize. The Holy Spirit remodel improved things a lot. What do you remember, Steph?
SG: In the beginning, we wanted a place for working writers to meet and exchange ideas. But we also wanted to have a great time, and we did. We had crafts get-togethers for several years with Anita McLaughlin, and a mystery-themed retreat called “Who Killed Kitty Lit?” There were hilarious talent shows a few times, and a white elephant auction. We still did critiquing and panels and had meals with word games for each table in the mess to solve, and a lot of just plain fun stuff.
EV: At what stage should a manuscript be in for a writer to fully benefit from the retreat?
JE: I’d say at least first draft. For a novel, opening chapters would be okay, but it helps to know where you are heading, so bring along a synopsis or outline. Sometimes brainstorming on parts where you are stuck can help, but you have to know where those parts are. Picture books need a full draft. And nonfiction should have early chapters, an outline, and some research in place. Ultimately, each person has to decide what will be most helpful and bring along that material. More than one manuscript is fine: your best work or the one that’s making you want to take up a new career is good, too. Like alligator wrestling, maybe we can save you.
SG: You forgot to say it should be typed on paper.
EV: What are your tips for giving and receiving critiques?
JE: Giving: Listen for what works and what doesn’t as manuscripts are read. Lead feedback with a positive comment. Be constructive when discussing areas of the writing that don’t work for you. If you are confused about something, say so. Authors can get surrounded by their words and unable to see what they thought they wrote but didn’t.
Receiving: Listen and take notes. Try not to defend your work and wait until the end to ask or answer any questions that are raised. You don’t have to like what you hear, you don’t have to make any changes you don’t want to (your name goes on the book), but when you get home weigh what was said, take time to think about comments that came up more than once, and revise what makes sense to you. This last is important. Too often authors take every critique to heart so much so that they change and change and change and revise the manuscript to the point that they end up with a mess instead of the work they set out to create. You know what’s right for your work. Be confident in that.
SG: Yeah…what she said, exactly.
EV: Why is a writing community so important for writers who are usually introverts and happy to work alone?
JE: Besides not always being able to see your work, a community of authors knows what it’s like to face that computer screen and try to get pages written. They know the struggle and they know the joy of completion. They can sympathize with you when rejection comes along and best of all is the celebration of your success. Your success gives hope to the whole community of authors.
SG: Someone once said to me that they thought I was a little crazy, especially about writing for children. Then they came to the national conference for one day and sat with my writer friends for the luncheon. Afterward, they admitted that I only sounded sounded crazy in their world; in the world of children’s book writer I sounded as normal as everyone else.
EV: How did you decide to become writing partners?
SG: We were in a writing class at UCLA and decided the teacher was stealing ideas from the writers. So, we started writing an adult, horrific, gory, murder and mayhem story together. No way we were going to share our genius ideas for our genius children’s book in that class. That story we wrote still scares us.
JE: It was a dark and stormy night on the UCLA campus…
EV: What’s the process of writing a book together? Who writes what and at what stage?
JE: For picture books and novels, we brainstorm. For a picture book, one of us will write the first draft. For novels, we divide up the chapters (not in any special order). And after that comes lots and lots and lots of revision.
SG: We always sit on a couch together with the hard copy and read and read and read and read the manuscript out loud. I like to yell out the changes I want. Judy likes to tell people that whoever types the final draft can do what they want. We are very symbiotic. We think alike. And when we don’t I try to get my way!
EV: What happens when you don’t agree on a plot point, or character, or another element in a book?
JE: I’m only going to say, it pays to be the last one to type changes.
SG: Told ya so…. We never disagree, hardly ever, and when we do…read the answer to last question.
EV: Any advice to writers looking to partner up?
JE: If you both agree, give it a try. We bring different strengths to our writing and our blended style is different from our individual writing. Expect to do lots of revision to make your writing smooth.
SG: I have said more than once that I thought a particular line Judy wrote was superior and Judy has said that I wrote it. And vice versa, of course.
EV: What’s next for you two?
SG: We are revising a middle-grade novel…slowly. Judy is being very patient with me. Patience, something Judy has and I most certainly do not. Lucky me, Judy is the partner everybody dreams of for writing children’s books. And an amazing best friend.
JE: We are also sorting rejected manuscripts (yes, we have those, too) and trying to decide if we want to take the plunge into self-publishing some of those.
SG: It looks like whatever comes next, we will be doing it together. Right partner?
JE: Yep. And next comes the SCBWI Southern California WWR!
SG and JE: Get ready. We’ll see you there.
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Erlina Vasconcellos is the Kite Tales assistant editor. When she isn’t working as a journalist, she is writing — and rewriting — a picture book and a middle grade novel. Find her on Twitter: @noterlinda
Images provided by Stephanie Gordon and Judy Enderle