by Jennifer Rawlings, 2019 Sue Alexander Grant Award Winner
I remember where I was sitting, red club chair in my living room, when I opened the email from SCBWI-L.A. letting me know that I had won the Sue Alexander Grant. I cried when I read the email. I was so happy that someone liked the words that I had typed in secret. I had not told anyone, not even my husband, that I was writing a YA novel.
Needless to say, he was pretty surprised when I told him I had won an award for a book he knew nothing about.
1) The prize for winning the Sue Alexander Grant is attending the SCBWI-L.A. Working Writer’s Retreat for free!
I had no idea what to expect.
I didn’t know a single person that was going to be at the retreat. In fact, on Friday morning as I sat at every red-light from Studio City to Encino, I counted the number of people I knew in the children’s book world — three.
Maybe this was mistake, I thought. Maybe there is something wrong with me and I don’t belong in this group of children’s book authors. Writing children’s books has been my secret dream ever since I learned to read. A dream set to the side for decades, a dream that I was afraid I had to let slip through my hands.
2) The first time I heard of SCBWI
It was 2017. A friend called asking if she could stay at my house while she attended the SCBWI conference. I told her she could stay, on one condition — she needed to send me the link to the conference. I wanted to go too. I went to the 2017 conference but spent that first year hanging around the edges.
At the SCBWI conference the following year is when I decided to jump into the deep end. I promised myself I would write children’s books no matter what.
Part of my commitment to myself was submitting my work for the awards and grants available at SCBWI. This was not easy for me to do. I have the same fears you do “what if no one likes it. What if it stinks?” My stomach was in knots as I read and re-read the guidelines for the Sue Alexander Grant. I knew that pushing “send” was part of the job description. So, I submitted and to my surprise — I won.
3) The Retreat
The retreat is not a slow unwinding, guiding you toward a more productive path. It’s an intense, packed schedule of information, guidance, and encouragement.
You are placed in critique groups in your genre for the retreat. Five writers in each group with alternating faculty of agents and acquiring editors. The sessions are 65 minutes. As my fellow writers read their work aloud chills ran up my spine. I was blown away by what I was hearing.
My roommate and I became instant friends. The first night in our room, after enjoying the wine and cheese reception, we put on our PJ’s and read parts of our manuscripts to one another. She’s an incredibly talented middle grade writer- I hung on every word wanting to hear more.
Saturday was mentally exhausting with three critique groups. Karaoke was a welcome release. It was so much fun to see writers, whom were strangers 30 hours ago, break out of their shell, don a hat or feather boa, and sing Bon Jovi or Nancy Sinatra.
Sunday morning was one of my favorite elements of the retreat. Each writer read their first page aloud with a brief critique from the faculty. It was exciting to hear all the diverse and inspiring stories people were working on.
When I left Encino, I had increased the number of people I know in the children’s’ book world by twenty-fold. I exchanged emails and phone numbers with many of my new friends. My only regret is that I waited so long.
Thank you SCBWI.
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Jennifer Rawlings grew up in Salina, Kansas, went to college to study biology, and decided to become a stand-up comedian instead. In addition to cooking, cleaning, pleading with her kids to do homework, nagging her husband, and telling jokes at theatres and comedy clubs around the globe, Jennifer is finishing a new book and touring her critically acclaimed solo show “I Only Smoke In War Zones.”
Images provided by Jennifer Rawlings.