The Magic of the Perfect Writing Retreat

I went to a magical place last month: A three-day writing retreat in upstate Pennsylvania at the Highlights Foundation.

Highlights Writing Retreat

The welcoming view when we pulled up.

I was torn two ways about sharing it with you all on the internet. Half of me wanted to sing from the rooftops that everyone should go to said magical place to experience the spellbinding calm, to rest and write, to snuggle in the adorable cabins, and to chow down on the out-of-this-world menu the nicest chefs in the world serve up. The other half of me wanted to keep it secret, so it was my magical place and tourists didn’t start crowding in. But I like you all a lot (and Highlights publicizes the retreat on their website, so I suppose the secret is already out there anyway), so here we are.

Highlights Writing Retreat

View from my cabin’s front porch.

Highlights Writing Retreat

Inside my quaint cabin.

Highlights Writing Retreat

Views like this on my morning runs.

Highlights Writing Retreat

Views like this on our after dinner walks.

I’ve looked at writing retreats in the past, read the raving praise Nova Ren Suma has given to the several she’s attended, and always longed to go to one. But I always shied away for reasons. They seemed (at least from my casual research) primarily adult literary writer focused, too expensive, too far away (if the retreat was affordable, the flight was not), and too long (I only get so many vacation days a year, taking an ENTIRE week off for a retreat, and extra days for travel, was not in the cards). Writing retreats, I concluded, were for the literary elite, full-time writers with the flexibility to travel as they pleased. Highlights Foundation’s Unworkshops had none of the above deterrents. It’s only 2.5 hours away (or, at least, that’s what Google Map tells me it should have been, if I wasn’t terrible at directions), incredibly affordable (especially when you consider you get your own cabin, three AMAZING meals a day–seriously, gourmet, I would show you pictures but the food was never on my plate long enough for me to take one), access to hiking trails, the most kind and helpful staff you could imagine, and, thanks to its association with Highlights for Children and Boyd’s Mill Press, the Unworkshop attracts tons of other children’s writers in all stages of the writing process and writing careers, all eager to discuss the pains of drafting, the structure of story, and the adventures of publishing. Basically? It was like a spa for writers (minus the massages, but plus lots of wine and cheese hours). I felt like a pampered princess all week. It was the most relaxing, productive, balance-inducing, cheerful “working” vacation I could have imagined. Look how productive I was!!!!

Highlights Writing Retreat

During the retreat, I dove into heavy revisions on the third draft of the WIP and managed to jump ahead about three weeks in my revision schedule with all the time and inspiration Unworkshop gave me! So much progress. Also, those green stars indicate I ran too, two miles a day! (Something that seems impossible to set aside time for in my daily routine at home.)

Conclusion: I never wanted to leave and I’m definitely going back (can I move in, full time, please??)

Highlights Writing Retreat

My very own cabin. I want to go back [sniffle]

March’s Too Few Book Reviews

As I mentioned recently, and for a variety of reasons, I’ve become interested in starting a little blog series where at the end of every month I give a few little book reviews of any books I read that are under reviewed. In this series I want to focus on books that, for whatever reason, haven’t gotten the media attention and book buzz other more popular books did, have less than 2,000 reviews on Goodreads as of my posting, and could use a little bit of love and attention. Also, I’m adding information for each title about how I discovered that book and/author. Mostly because I think this is interesting information, but also in case it helps any authors who have under reviewed books of their own and want to think of creative new ways of reaching new readers.

Book: Kursed by Lindsay Smith

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 3

Date Published: March 3, 2015

Publisher: Roaring Brook Press

How I Discovered this Book: I initially discovered the author Lindsay Smith through the lovely podcast series, First Draft (if you haven’t started listening to this and you are a writer and lover of YA/MG…start with Lindsay’s interview here). As a result, I started following Lindsay on Twitter. She tweeted that the prequel to her YA book/series Sekret was on sale for only $1.99 and I preordered it on the spot! I had been curious about her writing and this seemed as a good a place to start as any!

Thoughts: WWII Russia. Plus scientists. Plus PSYCHICS. Using mind powers to bend enemies to their will and have Nazis expose their research secrets and proceed with general bad-assery, I picked up this book soon after I finished binge-watching the Marvel/Captain America TV spin-off, Agent Carter, which was so perfectly spies meets superheroes meets awesome 1950s outfits and heels. I could TOTALLY imagine this little novella taking place in the exact same universe/time period as Agent Carter, but half a world away. What else could you ask for?! This taste definitely got me interested in picking up the first full book in the series.

Book: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 1,830

Date Published: September 30, 2014

Publisher: Harlequin Teen

How I Discovered this Book: Similar to Lindsay Smith above, I discovered this author and book through the podcast First Draft. If you’re interested in Robin’s interview that got me hooked on picking up her book, try here.

Thoughts: Segregation-era Virginia, telling the story of the first black students who attend the previously all-white–and still very much wants to be that way–prestigious local high school. The scenes in this story were so interesting because though I studied segregation in a variety of history classes in my academic career and have experienced a lot of museum exhibits on the topic, I don’t think I’ve ever read a fictional account of the experience, the horrors big and small, from the perspective of children and young adults. Add to that complex situation the fact that one of the black and one of the white students start developing feelings for each other…and they’re both young women. Perfect book to pick up if the We Need Diverse Books campaign has you itching for something different.

How the Writing is Going

A thing that I’ve heard many writers say many times before is that every book you write teaches you something. I like that idea. It’s a concept that’s always appealed to me. For a long time, though, I was having trouble figuring out what, exactly, each of my failed manuscripts was trying to teach me. There was a lesson there, somewhere–there had to be!–but I just couldn’t find it.

Now that I can look back on a sequence of several shelved manuscripts, tucked away in the dark corners of various flash drives hidden in dark desk drawers, I’ve realized that they were mostly just teaching me the same thing: You’re not ready, not yet. I’d write this pile of words that had a few glimmers–some good writing, a few characters I became particularly fond of, a place definitely worth setting a story in–and I’d look at it once I had typed “The End” and just know with this heart-sinking feeling that this wasn’t it. It wasn’t a book, it wasn’t a story–just a few random events with the same cast of characters strung together in chronological order–and I wasn’t capable of making it into something book-shaped. I would think on it for months and wouldn’t be able to think of a single idea that would salvage this not-book-shaped thing I had worked on for months, maybe a year. I wasn’t ready, I wasn’t there yet. So I’d start again.

With each passing failed manuscript, it was getting harder and harder to admit that I still wasn’t ready, this still wasn’t the book that was worth showing to beta readers, would get me an agent, would make it on bookshelves. It was particularly hard for me to admit that fact with the last manuscript, the one I spent all of 2013 writing. My writing was definitely getting better. There were some fleshed out scenes I could see so vividly, certain snatches of dialogue (and let me tell you, dialogue for me is HARD!) that would catch me on a reread. It sounded, a little, like a book. And the characters were the most real human creations I had ever been able to make with my own words. I wanted this book to work. I needed it to work. So, for the first time ever, I went back into a manuscript and tried to revise it–not petty line edits and sentence restructuring, not just adding flowering words here and there–real revision, moving around events and adding things and changing motivations. I spent months trying to revise that could-maybe-be-book-shaped thing and I was frustrated to the point of tears. I wasn’t having fun. I wasn’t enjoying writing. I hadn’t enjoyed drafting the book–I’m just not the type of writer who enjoys drafting–but I had assumed all those years that I would really like revising, once I finally got to experience it. It was the polishing point of the process, where all the good ideas came together. It was the part I had loved the most about giant academic papers in college, taking that raw material I had dumped on the page and making every single word right, making them the right words in the right places in the right order. Shouldn’t some stage of the writing be fun, if I’m a writer?

But revising this manuscript was no more fun than drafting it had been. If anything, it was worse. The plot just wasn’t working and it felt like the characters were glaring out of their world at me. If you could just figure out this revising thing, if you could just do this thing right, you could do us justice, they seemed to be saying. It took me a while to realize that it wasn’t that I was broken–it wasn’t that I was completely incompetent at revising–it was that the story was broken. And it was also partly because I wasn’t the same person who had written that first draft. I still cared about the characters, but I didn’t care about the plot, about what the book was about, anymore. I wasn’t as excited about answering the questions I had been so eager to find answers to the year before. I had, for all intents and purposes, outgrown the story. So I shelved it.

It was hard, shelving that book. There are parts of it that I believe might be the best stuff I’ve ever written. And at that point, one year ago this month, I had been trying to write a book for a long time. I’m one of those people who wrote books in elementary school, middle school, high school, college. Has always dreamed of being a writer. I fell in love with children’s literature and never really left it. I’ve been devouring it, studying voice and trends and watching the young adult branch of publishing grow and boom. I’ve been reading about literary agents and publishers through my favorite author’s blogs for nearly ten years now–since I was a little public school baby writer–all with one goal in mind: sharing a quality book worth reading with readers. How wasn’t I there, yet? Why were other people, who had just randomly woken up one day last year and decided they wanted to write a young adult book get it done right on their first try? How was it possible that this most recent not-book-shaped thing was still telling me You’re not ready?

Every time I try out a new idea, type up the words “Chapter 1,” for the first time, I try something different. It’d always be young adult, but it’d be a different genre: young adult fantasy, young adult dystopian, young adult historical, trying to find the right fit. I’d try different tenses, pants vs. plot, and different formats, like a book told completely in journal entries. When I set down to write the new book of 2014, it was really different for me. Third person. Middle grade. Male protagonist. I had never done any of those things before.

The drafting, as always, was hard. I kind of hate drafting, I’ve realized. It’s painful for me. I want things to be good–I derive a lot of pride and joy from good sentences, good writing, great characters, from writing I enjoy reading after I’ve written it–and first drafts are just by nature mediocre at best, nothing to ever brag about. And somewhere in the middle of every story I always get completely lost, whether I have an outline or not, and the quality deteriorates even further from there as I write in circles, just throwing words at the page trying to see what sticks. Stuck somewhere in the middle of my story, for a lot of weeks this summer, I didn’t write at all.

I was feeling more confident about this book, though, towards the end of 2014. I felt like I had a better handle on all the things–story, characters, dialogue, scene structure, tension, and that ever-elusive creature “voice”–than I had ever had in the past. I would read over passages and knew that, at the very least, I was definitely becoming a better writer, I was definitely better than I had been a few years before and that was a relief. At least I was getting somewhere.

When I reread the full draft last month, the whispering was a little different than it’s been before. The whispering was, this could work. It doesn’t work yet. But it could.

As I said before, I dislike drafting. I certainly can’t make myself do it every day, as so many people claim “real” writers do. It’s too draining and if I force myself to do it every day, I end up tossing the words usually anyway, and I end up hating writing, avoiding it, even more than I already want to do during the dreaded drafting stage. During the 2013 manuscript, I finally understood that writing every day just wasn’t something I could do while also balancing everything else–exercise, friends, family, reading, full-time job. And I forgave myself for that.

So that’s why how I’ve been reacting to revising this book has surprised me so much.

I’m 22,000 words in now and I’m not slowing down. I put myself on an idealistic 5,000 words a week schedule…and I’m actually a little bit ahead, which I’m pleased about for now. But the way that I stay on schedule means I have to dedicate a decent chunk of hours to consistently revising every week. I originally gave myself the goal of three times a week, totally reasonable. The thing that’s really been surprising me, though, is that three times isn’t enough…not hours-wise, but emotionally. I WANT to revise this story every day, all the time. I’m driving somewhere and I’m thinking about tackling the next scene, diving back into my little fictional neighborhood. I’ve started carrying around a dozen or so pages in progress in my purse all the time (I print out the first draft and pretty much rewrite every sentence by hand and then revise even further when I type it up that night) and edit a half an hour here or there, in-between doctor’s appointments, on lunch breaks. There’s a momentum building with this story as I nail down each chapter that I’ve never experienced before. I feel like there’s a little train, like the miniature one that circles around Christmas villages, in my head, plugging away to the tune This could be it, this might be it, it’s finally sort of working, I think this is working.

This is what revising looks like. Lot's of words in the margins and arrows and cross outs.

This is what revising looks like. Lot’s of words in the margins and arrows and cross outs.

So that’s where I am, in case you were wondering. 22,000 words into a 65,000 revision/rewrite, with the plan to finish the second draft by April 1st (no joke) and get it out to some beta readers. Barring any really awful, unanticipatedly drastic feedback, I think that should take about two months. So…the plan is to seriously start querying in June, then I guess.

Fingers crossed this manuscript keeps liking me and I keep liking it and my beta readers like it after that…

End of an Era

It’s come time to retire my little old laptop. It overheats, turns off and on on its own command, is the equivalent weight of a pile of bricks, and despite multiple battery replacements over the years it can last only about fifteen minutes when not plugged into an outlet. I want to retire it now before one day it just decides not to turn on any more and I have a major melt down.

I’ve been thinking this for a while, but with NaNoWriMo looming, my fear that the computer would just call it quits in the middle of a massive write-in session has been keeping me up at night (I kid you not).

My little old computer was a Christmas gift in December 2008 when I was a sophomore in college. That was very nearly SIX years ago! As I’m sifting through the computer, making sure everything is exported and archived to an external hard drive, I started keeping tally of how many books I wrote on this old keyboard and I realized something:

I wrote my very first novel on this computer.

I mean, the first novel I consider my “real” novel attempt. There were of course novels in middle school and high school I muddled in and a few I even finished, but the book I wrote for independent study, a MG historical, in spring 2009 was the very first experience of me sitting down with a plan and a novel-writing goal, the first time I produced something (nearly) novel-length worth sharing with others.  All told, I’ve written nearly five books on this thing:

1. 35,000-word historical MG (spring semester, 2009)

2. 54,000-word YA (2011; first 4,000 written as college creative writing capstone final, 50,000 to completion for my very first NaNoWriMo win!)

3. 15,000-word non-fiction (2012; my published Byberry State Hospital book!)

4. 66,000-word YA dystopian (started in NaNoWriMo 2012, finished in December 2013)

5. 12,000-word YA (NaNoWriMo 2013 attempt)

6. 40,000-word current WIP, MG (started in January 2014)

We’ll just combine #5 and #6 together and call it one full book, shall we?

Let’s not even mention all the short stories and extremely lengthy history papers written on this thing. It’s seen a lot of miles/accrued a huge lifetime word count! [pats affectionately]

And may the new computer, a slim, sleek MACBOOK AIR (I am fangirl dancing inside…it is SO LIGHT) last as long and help me write the next five awesome books! Anyone want to join me for NaNo for the first 50,000-word stretch on this new keyboard and cheer each other on? :]

How many book-shaped things have you written on your current computer?

 

August’s Too Few Book Reviews

As I mentioned recently, and for a variety of reasons, I’ve become interested in starting a little blog series where at the end of every month I give a few little book reviews of any books I read that that are under reviewed. In this series I want to focus on books that, for whatever reason, haven’t gotten the media attention and book buzz other more popular books did, have less than 2,000 reviews on Goodreads as of my posting, and could use a little bit of love and attention. Also, I’m adding information for each title about how I discovered that book and/author. Mostly because I think this is interesting information, but also in case it helps any authors who have under reviewed books of their own and want to think of creative new ways of reaching new readers.

Since the 48-hour reading challenge in June, I’ve read three books that qualify.

Book: The Chance You Won’t Return by Annie Cardi

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 414

Date Published: April 22, 2014

Publisher: Candlewick

How I Discovered this Book: I discovered Annie’s blog when trolling WordPress for young adult writers blogs years ago, started following it, and have been looking forward to the release of her first novel ever since!

Thoughts: This was, no exaggeration, the best (and most realistic) contemporary YA book I’ve read in a long time. I feel like most contemporary YA falls into one of two categories: either the characters experience something Truly Terrible and Horrifying–like a drug addiction, a violent life-changing car accident, or cancer, etc.–or the conflict of the novel is developed out of a few high-school specific obstacles like “my boyfriend dumped me,” or “I’ve lost my best friend and I don’t know why.” These, of course, are all valid plotlines that appeal to many readers. But, personally, I don’t strongly relate to these experiences and don’t enjoy reading them as a general rule; as a result, I haven’t really enjoyed that subgenre of YA for a few years now. I didn’t realize what was MISSING in my life and what I WANTED DESPERATELY from a YA novel until I finished this book and was like, YES. THIS. YES. While main character Alex deals with some normal high school troubles–liking a boy, driver’s ed (which, by the way, isn’t discussed ENOUGH in YA, learning to drive is a huge momentous moment and stresser in the teenage years), etc.–the focus of the book is on her mom’s mental break down. She thinks she’s Amelia Earhart and nothing and nobody will convince her otherwise. Alex’s home life is in shambles as the family tries to struggle through this hardship. While a common complaint I have about YA is that the parents simply disappear from the story, the family is the front and center of this book. Which is so accurate to the actual teen experience! I don’t know about you, but the drama and events of high school were a minor portion of my life during those years. I spent most of my lifetime at home with my family, on weekends, after school, during the summer. What they did and what happened at home dominated my life and colored my experiences out of the home. Family problems just don’t dissipate when you walk out the front door–my freshman year, my dad had a massive heart attack and later was diagnosed with an aggressive form of skin cancer; my concerns about his health were constant worries for me. For personal reasons, I really appreciated and related to this book. It is beautifully written, the relationships complicated and artfully drawn. It’s gritty, honest, heartbreaking, true. An absolute must read.

Book: Summerfall: A Winterspell Novela by Claire Legrand

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 14

Date Published: August 26th, 2014

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

How I Discovered this Book: I won an ARC of Claire’s first book, The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls, through YA author Nova Ren Suma’s blog a few years ago as a giveaway. I loved the book and started following Claire’s blog, and kept informed of each new book release. Her first two books were middle grade fiction, which I love, but I was particularly excited for her first YA book, Winterspell, due out September 30th, and jumped on this prequel as soon as it published.

Thoughts: I loved the world–it’s the land of Cane, where fairies, humans, and mages all coexist…though not peacefully!–and the descriptions of the fairy culture were tantalizing. The clothing, dress, hairstyles, etc….loved it. However, it seems that this prequel was the origins story, sort of, of the main character in the forthcoming Winterspell. This prequel was therefore the story of how the main character’s parents met, fell in love, etc. Personally, I didn’t really like their love story, though, so I’m glad that Winterspell will have the world I like so much but a whole new set of characters for me to meet and enjoy their new adventures. Can’t wait for the full-length novel in less than a month!

 

 

 

Book: The Cabinet of Curiosities by Stefan Bachman, Katherine Catmull, Emma Trevayne, and Claire Legrand

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 78

Date Published: May 27th, 2014

Publisher: Greenwillow Books

How I Discovered this Book: By following Claire Legrand’s blog, I discovered that she had started a new blog with other writers (I had read co-creator Katherine Catmull’s Summer and Bird prior to this and LOVED the writing, so was extra excited about this collaboration effort) called The Cabinet of Curiosities where they weekly post creepy little short stories. This book developed out of that.

Thoughts: A collection of short stories for a middle grade audience, this collection appealed to me right away because I like short stories, but there are almost never collections of them focused on a YA audience, let alone a middle grade one. The book ended up being a fun collection of a huge variety of story ideas, full of an impressive amount of imagination, a variety of monsters, unpleasant magic, and horrible things, perfect for readers who like stories that don’t end happily ever after!

 

The Books I Loved in Seventh Grade

Even though I moved out of my mom’s house and into my own place about eighteen months ago, there’s a moderate-sized pile of stuff still lingering in her basement: A half-dozen boxes full of glitzy prom shoes, a childhood shell collection, hard copies of a few papers from high school I was particularly proud of,  faded Girl Scout projects, and other things that managed to survive the severe bedroom/drawer purge that I always conducted the first week of summer.

It finally came time this past weekend to begin sorting through it all, in a final purge, deciding what tiny artifacts of my childhood would be kept, tossed, or shelved in the garage for a yard sale. My favorite thing I unearthed, though, was my end-of-the-year portfolios from elementary and middle school–fifth through ninth grade–each folder containing my best writing samples and a few with recorded lists of all the books I had read during that school year.

I’ve always been a voracious reader–I remember sneaking in chapters under the covers after bedtime, checking out the maximum books from the library (according to my seventh grade report, I went to the library every Saturday, the entire school year), and reading them all before they’re due, never going anywhere without a book in my bag–but seeing the numbers in front of me, in my own handwriting, was really surprising. It was like having Goodreads stats from ten years back. I was surprised to see I managed to read more books in a school year back when I was thirteen (and definitely at least a slightly slower reader than I am now) than I can read in an entire year! I feel like I’m reading constantly–I read at least an hour every day, if not more–so I can’t imagine how I managed to eat/sleep/go to school/do homework/be a kid and read that much all at the same time! In hindsight, my time management skills (or, maybe, my mom’s, who made sure I got everything done) were pretty impressive.

The tiny sliver of my brain that loves numbers (this is a very small sliver, and it’s mostly dominated by my interest in book sale stats, WIP word counts, and my own pathetic bank account digits) wishes I had more records. I’d love to know how many/which books I’ve read in my entire lifetime.

So, without further ado, the lists!

In fifth grade, with my lovely reading teacher, Mrs. Neff…(please excuse my egregious spelling!)

Reading List_0001Reading List_0002

These are the only two lists in the folder. I don’t know why there are two separate lists–maybe we did one every semester, or kept a different list for Fall and Spring half years–so the records are a little incomplete. I feel like I must have read more than what’s listed here, but maybe not. Also, I’m disappointed I didn’t rate the books on this list, but it’s interesting to see whether I picked up a book thanks to a recommendation (either through a friend, teacher, librarian, or the Reading Olympics list) or through my own library perusal. Though completely anecdotal, the list seems to reflect that recommendations are important guides for younger readers (at least, it was for this young reader)!

I still remember the moment when Harry Potter was recommended to me in fifth grade that year. I was an after school safety and one of the teachers in charge of the program pulled out one of those Scholastic book fair order packets and pointed out the little blurb and book cover of book one. “Apparently this is supposed to be really good.” I still have the book that arrived a few weeks after my mom offered up the $5 check. Obviously, that set off a reading binge! I begged and pleaded for the second and third books for Christmas and finished both before going back to school in January.

Now this list is more complete: It’s the motherload of book stats. Every single book I read in seventh grade, from September until June 2001-2002:

Reading List_0003Reading ListReading List_0004Reading List_0005

It’s funny to see the series I practically ate for breakfast. (Redwall, anyone? Redwall Minecraft (aka “AbbeyCraft”) is in the works!) And how I bent the rules (ranking was only 1-5) to satisfy my need to express how I really felt about a book. Despite the guidelines, I gave The Red Pony a “negative one”–and I still remember how much I disliked that book, a good indication of how much I would dislike Of Mice and Men in later years, though I did like Cannery Row–and a ten to Ella Enchanted, one of my favorite books of all time. The level of difficulty I gave for Seabiscuit (“Hard!”) makes me laugh because I still remember when my dad gave me that book as a random gift one day and I picked it for that month’s required book report. I had never read a book that difficult before–it was advanced non-fiction–and it wasn’t that it was hard to read, but hard to read on a deadline. I recall panicking to finish the book by the end of the month, struggling through the chapters, needing to look up words I was unfamiliar with constantly. I had never been that challenged by a book before, nor read one so slowly. But the work was worth the effort. I still vividly recall many of the descriptions in that book, though I haven’t opened it’s pages since I read it TWELVE years ago. I remember the descriptions of the rubber suits that the jockeys would run around the track in, in mid-day heat, to lose weight, and the single leaves of dehydrated lettuce that they’d reward themselves with.

I still remember many of the characters and plots of the books on these lists. It’s kind of fantastic, when you think about it, how books stick with us for so long. Mia from Princess Diaries and Grandma Dowdel from A Long Way from Chicago and A Year Down Yonder.

I’ve been interested recently in figuring out my writer DNA, as encouraged by Robin LaFevers and reading through these old lists has been a good way to jog my memory for my favorite and biggest impact books.

Do you remember what books you read in fifth and seventh grade? Have some of them stuck with you, all these years? Were they your favorites, or the ones you really despised?