Friday, May 27, 2011

Upon Reflection of 25 Years

Today I turn the ripe old age of 25.  My sister sent me a text today:  How does it feel to be halfway through your twenties?  Actually, not so bad!  :)  Sure, I could look at this milestone in a glass-half-empty way: If I live to be 100, that means my life is 1/4 over.  If I only reach 75, I've already gobbled up 1/3 of my years.  Don't even get me started on if I live until just 50!  But seriously, who wants to think like that?  

Although it's strange to think I've been alive for a quarter of a century, it's encouraging too.  Looking back on the past 25 years, I feel I've actually accomplished a lot in my short lifetime.  I wrote an entire book (well, probably several books at this point if you count all the revisions) and am actively pursuing publication.  I got married to a wonderful man and bought my first home.  I have a big-girl job and utilize all those math skills I never thought I'd actually need.  I studied abroad in London, graduated from college with honors, and apparently drank enough milk to grow an extra 1 1/2 inches since High School.  I nursed a dying baby ferret back to health, painted a pretty sweet jaguar, and learned how to make one kick-butt peach cobbler.  And let's not forget all those life-skills I learned in my early years, like how to tie my shoes and use the potty.  (Can't tell you how many times those things have come in handy...)

That's a lot for just 25 years; who knows what I can accomplish in the next 25, 50, or 75?  So no, my life is not 1/4 over, but 1/4 accomplished.  Of course there are regrets and "what if's," that linger in the dark corners of my mind, but there are exponentially more hopes and happy thoughts of "what's to come?"  I look forward to discovering what the next quarter century brings my way--and hope it involves a series of blockbuster movies and a Beast of Bannock theme park. ;)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Mini Writing Retreat

As a writer in Columbus, Ohio, I'm fortunate to live near a little piece of heaven called, "The Mustard Seed Retreat."  It's owned by my good friend Pam Hitchcock who decided to turn her old family farmhouse into a haven for writers.  (Go check it out:  Don't worry, my words can wait--they won't scamper off the screen while you're gone.)  Did you like what you saw?  I promise you, it's as scenic and peaceful as it looks--nestled on a quiet road and surrounded by farmland.  Kittens snuggle up next to you on the porch rocking chairs and the kitchen is brimming with goodies to fill your belly.  And best of all, it's close and very affordable.  :)

The lovely Mustard Seed Retreat.  So peaceful...
I paid the retreat a visit yesterday to kick-start my revisions.  Since I've returned from the Highlights Workshop, my writing time has been thwarted by work, responsibilities and, well, more work.  I left Highlights feeling inspired, centered, and raring to get going on my revision game plan.  Then Life rapidly sapped that creative energy away.  I knew I had to do something to get that spark back, so I emailed Pam and she said, "Come on over!"  Her farmhouse is truly a mini-Highlights retreat giving writers the companionship, tranquil atmosphere and nourishment necessary to ensure a productive writing day.

"But can't you just lock yourself in a room in your house and write for 8 hours straight?  Why bother going somewhere else?" naysayers might ask (particularly non-writers.)  Sure, but it can be very difficult with the siren call of neglected responsibilities constantly in your ears.  When I'm trying to write, my pile of laundry says, "Wash me!  Wash me!"  My empty refrigerator says, "Fill me!  Fill me!"  That stack of bills says, "Open me!  Open me!"  And the ferrets say, "Our litter box is stinky!  Clean it!  Clean it!  NOW!"  Who wants to listen to THAT all day?  But when I'm at the Mustard Seed Retreat, the laundry and bills and stinky litter boxes can't yell at me and I am free to do nothing but write.

I feel infinitely better after yesterday's writing day.  The sounds of birds chirping and porch swings creaking provided the perfect soundtrack for tackling some revisions.  I drank tea out of flower pot-shaped mugs, ate pizza and Cosmic Brownies, and didn't have to wash one single dish.  (Though I would have happily if Pam let me!)  And you can't beat surrounding yourself with other writers.  When I'm at home and grumble, "I don't know what to do with this scene!  I want to chuck my computer out the window," my dog just looks at me like I'm nuts.  When I'm at the Mustard Seed, a fellow writer sympathizes back with, "I know!  I want to wring my character's neck right now!"  Or if we're not griping, we're sharing writing tips, bouncing ideas off each other, and just being grateful someone else is with us in our writer's boat, paddling away on that turbulent sea of hope and uncertainty.

I can honestly say The Mustard Seed Retreat is one of my favorite places in the world.  Sure, I'd love to head up to Honesdale, PA for a Highlights Workshop every month, but unfortunately my wallet is not as fat as J. K. Rowling's.  That's not to say you shouldn't apply for a Highlights Workshop and scholarship, but in the meantime, I highly recommend setting your sights a bit closer to home.  I feel extremely lucky to live so close to The Mustard Seed where I can satisfy my writer's craving for friends, food, and the freedom to focus on my book.  So go check out that website again, contact Pam, and sign up for a writing day.  I'd be happy to join you.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

An Unintended Lapse

Hello!  Apologies for my lapse in posting this past week.  The "real world" has been a bit demanding since I've come back from the Highlights Workshop.  Now, instead of letting my muse run wild and partaking in deep discussions on literary matters for hours on end, I am back to work and laundry and grocery shopping and ferret litter box cleaning and...

Well, you get the point.  Hopefully, I've caught up on all those little to-do's and can get back to entertaining you all.  I did finally get the chance to add those pictures to my Highlights posts (just like I promised), so now you can enjoy my workshop summaries complete with visual aids. :)

Hopefully, I will also start doing a better job shuffling those "real world" responsibilities and get back to my own writing.  (Those revisions don't write themselves, you know!)  As such, I intend to balance my blogging and "serious" writing time, so expect a post or two a week from me for the indefinite future.  (Now that I've left the Highlights workshop, you probably don't need daily updates about what yogurt flavor I packed for lunch or when I took out the garbage anyway.)  

Thanks always for reading and look forward to some fun upcoming posts!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Fond Farewell

Alas, this lovely week has come to an end and it is time to pop in another Yanni tape and head home.  We enjoyed one last group breakfast this morning (an array of delicious leftovers from the week), gave each other hugs, then said our goodbyes.  My cabin looks lonely, but soon it will be filled with a new writer with budding hopes and dreams.  I wish them a happy and inspiring week (and secretly wish I could hide under the bed and stay here forever.)

My lonely, empty cabin. (I am not hiding under the bed.)
If you'll allow me one sentimental moment, I just want to say how wonderful this experience has been.  The Highlights team knows how to make you feel welcome, warm, and (as sappy as it sounds) special.  You can rent a cabin and write for a week anywhere, but the camaraderie and support is what really makes this place one-of-a-kind.  I have never had so much fun with a group of complete strangers nor ever laughed so much in the span of seven days.  It was truly a gift to share this week with kindred spirits.

If you are a writer, I highly recommend looking into the other wonderful workshop Highlights offers; they are well-worth every penny. :)

Although I am loath to leave, I am looking forward to going home to my hubby, furry critters, family and friends.  In light of mothers day, I would like to add how lucky I am to have such a supportive mom AND mother-in-law!  I will miss celebrating with them on Mother's day as I drive the nine hours back to Ohio and just wanted to say how much I appreciate their love and encouragement.

Time to get going.  I hope you enjoyed my posts this week.  It made me happy to share my time here with you.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Highlights Workshop: Day 7

The thought of going home tomorrow hangs over us like a ponderous fog.

Yes, that may be a bit melodramatic, but today was filled with lots of wistful sighs and all-around mutterings of, "I can't believe this is the last time we'll..."  We all wish we could stay just a little longer, but I suppose all good things must come to an end.

The new retreat center.  Elegant can be rustic.
Today wasn't all pining, though.  After breakfast, Kent Brown, the Executive Director of Highlights, took us on a tour of the new farmstead facility currently in construction.  It's a beautiful barn-styled building which will now house the group meeting and eating part of the workshops.  We just missed the grand opening (it's slotted to open May 15), so we're one of the last groups who will ever hold their workshops in the old white farmhouse.  As nice as the new building is, I'm actually glad our workshop was in the old one.  Sure, it may be a little tight on space, but it's cozy and inviting, providing the perfect environment for nurturing our creative minds and souls.  I don't doubt the new farmstead will be equally inspiring and wonderful, but I feel lucky I got to experience the intimacy of the farmhouse setting, bumping elbows at the dinner table with my new friends.

Sideways view of the new building.
Since all our peer critiques were concluded yesterday, we spent that time today talking about the revision process and sharing our revision plans as a group.  Our faculty discussed their methods of revision and we shared our helpful self-editing tips with each other.  There is no hard and fast rule for the "proper" revision process--it all comes down to what works for you and your novel.  When in doubt or feeling overwhelmed, they suggested approaching your novel with baby steps, taking out an adverb here and changing a sentence there until you can work up to the bigger things.  And don't despair if you find revision hard; even authors with multiple books under their belts can find it difficult to face that beast. 

From my personal experience, I recommend going into revisions with an open mind (even though it's REALLY hard to do sometimes!)  As a personal security blanket, I like to keep a document open where I paste all the phrases, sentences, paragraphs (and even chapters) I cut or change but still feel attached to.  That way, I don't feel like my brilliant (ha!) words are disappearing into oblivion and I can always retrieve them if I realize they should stay after all.

The revision chat counted as our usual group workshop, too.  Instead, we met this evening for a general wrap-up.  After our last group dinner (which was lamented by all), we gathered for a "show and tell" session where we each brought something to share that was different from our workshop manuscript.  Some people shared poems or funny essays or now-deleted excerpts of stories (those ones they wanted to keep but cut for the overall benefit of their manuscripts like I mentioned above!)  I shared the first chapter of my brand new novel. :)

After that, we had some sentimental moments and the authors signed books which we get to take home for our very own.  We're all exhausted from this knowledge-packed week, but none of us want to go to bed and wake up to face our impending departure.

Our food today did not disappoint; I will miss the Highlights mealtimes dearly.  Breakfast was carrot-cake bread, coffee cake and oatmeal with that delicious apricot compote from earlier in the week; lunch was chicken salad wraps ("the good kind, with grapes!"), parmesan pasta salad and chocolate-cranberry cookies; our evening-chat snack was spring rolls and piggies in blankets; and dinner was baked chicken with Southern squash casserole, zucchini pancakes and strawberry-rhubarb meringue for dessert.  We followed that up with Sangrias all around, toasting our amazing week.

Now it's time to pack up and enjoy my little cabin in the woods for one last night.

Highlights Workshop: Day 6

Late post again!  Stupid internet!  (But lucky you since that means you get two posts today!)

Today was day six of the workshop and we're all starting to get misty-eyed at the thoughts of leaving this writer's paradise (even though we do miss our family members--both the two-legged and furry ones.)  In the morning, I had my end of the workshop chat with Laura about my revision plans for my novel.  We bounced around some ideas and she looked at my chapter 1 revisions (which, I'm happy to say, she thought was even better than before!  Hooray!)  The afternoon consisted of our last two peer critiques.  Our group was unanimous in sharing the feeling that we all learned so much this week from the critiques we received as well as listening to each other's critiques.  Everyone was kind, considerate and constructive--the best type of critique givers. :)
The gang's all here! Aren't we a smiley bunch?

Our group workshop today was on Language.  Honestly, it's one of those abstract concepts that is hard to explain but easy to see, going hand in hand with the other topics we discussed this week.  Language varies in everyone's writing and plays a part in creating mood and tone.  Some writing is lyrical and a joy to the ears; others are concise; while others might cut you like a knife.  It's an aspect of writing that is especially important to consider towards the end of the revision process, when the kinks of your story are worked out and you can focus on making it shine.  Language relies heavily on word choice and while the right word can sing to you, the wrong one can throw you out of the story.

Still too vague for you?  Here are two examples from The Folk Keeper that illuminate this intangible thing:

"Ever since I turned into Corin, I can no longer put together words...every rhyme that comes to me now has a hole in it's middle, right where the heartbeat should be."

"The beach has a language of its own, with its undulating ribbons of silt, the imponderable hieroglyphs of bird tracks.  The receding waves catch on innumerable holes in the sand.  Bubbles form and fade.  A new language, with a new alphabet, which I will learn to read."

The writing is so perfect and careful that it gives you goosebumps.  One last thought from our faculty to consider for your writing: it's not always what is there, but what isn't.  What you don't say says volumes.

The meals of today felt perfect--nothing fancy, but completely soul-satisfying.  (Oh how I will miss this glorious food!)  For breakfast we had oatmeal with warm applesauce and monkey-bread; lunch was turkey soup and salad with honey-lemon dressing; our workshop snack was deviled eggs with chips and salsa; and dinner was a variety of grilled cookout food  (I had a portobello "hamburger") with dill potato salad and ice cream novelties for dessert.  (Mmm...Klondike bars....)

Just one day left. :(

Friday, May 6, 2011

Highlights Workshop: Day 5

Sorry for the late post again--internet was not being agreeable last night!

Today was Day 5 at the Highlights Workshop and we're all starting to feel that pressure to fit in as much writing as possible in the little time we have left.  (You know that feeling when you go on vacation--in the beginning of the week it feels like you have time to do everything in the world, then somehow that time disappears and you realize, "Crap! I have to go home in two days!?")
No time to swing!  Must write!

So, my morning was spent busily revising, aka "destroying my baby" as I reworked my first chapter.  Our afternoon consisted of two more peer critiques, then we had a tiny break to write some more, followed by our group workshop.  Today's topic was on Point of View.

I'm sure you already know the fundamentals of Point of View and how it's usually First, Second, or Third Person.  (We didn't go into Second--aka "You"--since it's not commonly used.)  What you choose for your novel has a direct influence on tone, mood, and something we discussed called "Psychic Distance."  To iterate Psychic Distance, our faculty gave us five sentences:

1) It was winter of the year 1853.  A large men stepped out of the doorway.
2) Henry J. Warburten never cared much for snowstorms.
3) Henry hated snowstorms.
4) God, how he hated those darn snowstorms.
5) Snow in my collar, down in my shoes, freezing my miserable soul to its core.

When you read these sentences, you can see how some take you further away from the character and action, while others bring you closer.  As illustrated above, Point of View is no black-and-white concept and there are varying levels of how close you can bring your reader to the story.  So what the pros and cons of each?

First Person: Sentence 5 above, brings the reader closest to the story.
-Pros: Very intimate and reader friendly as reader is experiencing the story with the narrator (usually the main character).
-Cons: You can only see the world from the narrator's eyes and know what they know.  In first person, you can't see off-scene events or know the thoughts or feelings of others; you are solely in one character's head.  As our faculty told us, this can be very exhausting to both read and write, especially if your character has a particularly strong voice.  (The djinn parts in the Bartimaeus Trilogy are told in first person perspective from a very snarky, cocky, smart character.  Some people love him, some don't.  In book one I did actually find him rather exhausting.)

Omniscient Third: Sentence 1 above, the furthest you can get from your reader.
-Pros: Can give the reader all perspectives, which is great for epic fantasy with huge, sprawling story lines and history.  It can also act as a buffer between the reader and traumatic story events, making terrible events palatable for young readers. (Charlotte's Web and The Tale Of Despereaux  are both examples of this where tragedies happen, but kids aren't traumatized by reading them.)  You can also have a strong narrator and give your story a fair-tale/tall-tale feeling, which helps to close thay distance (as seen by the intrusive narrator who addresses the reader in Despereaux).
-Cons: You often lose the intimacy of the story.  (Charlotte's Web is a good example.  It's a touching story, but we never dive into any specific characters or emotions.  Our faculty said this is a general trait of Classic Children's Literature).  You can also often bore your reader by story-wandering and focusing too much on the "outside world" (setting, peripheral characters, etc.) instead of sticking to your main story.

Close Third: Sentences 2-4 (aka Straight Third or Limited Third).
Pros: Close Third is the most common Point of View, particularly in children's fantasy books.  You really get the best of both worlds.  The story is filtered through the main character's thoughts/sensations/feelings, but you aren't trapped there.  You can write chapters following the action of side-characters, villians, outside events, etc. as well.  It's a good way to make your reader feel close to your character and story while being able to delve a bit into side-plots, history, explanation of magical elements, and whatever else enhances the overall story.  (Think Inkheart.  You closely follow the main character, Meggie, throughout the story, but some chapters you leave her and follow the villians or side-characters instead.) 
Cons: There is a tendency to "head-hop" in scenes or bounce around between your characters, explaining all their feelings and actions that don't directly apply to your focus character.  This is jarring and the reader ends up confused, unsure who is important and what to focus on.  (This can be fixed if you remember to only follow one character's emotions and thoughts per chapter.  Other characters can be the focus of other chapters if it adds to the overall story arc.)

Point of View can be tricky, especially picking out the right one for your story.  You might have to play around and find what fits best with the tone and voice of your story (i.e. what Point of View BEST tells your story.)  I personally go with my gut and tweak as I revise and receive outside feedback. :)  Furthermore, you can throw a wrench in the whole thing by combining and mixing up Points of Views!  (Think Holes--the overarching, grand story that sets up the dominoes of fate is Omniscent Third, while the chapters about Stanley are Close Third.  Neat, huh?)  Our discussion definitely left me with a lot to think about!

So that was day five!  Of course, I can't forget about our meals!  Today was apparently Cinco de Mayo (I have zero concept of time here) so some of our meals had a fiesta-flair: breakfast was a gooey french toast bake with apple compote oatmeal; lunch was chile (I don't even like chile and it was amazing!) with cornbread and Mexican chocolate pudding; our workshop snack was chips and guacamole paired with crackers and cheese; and dinner was steak with side veggies and coconut cake with grilled pineapple for dessert.  (No, I am not going to fit into my pants by the end of the week.)

By the way, I did not forget about posting pictures, but they take too long to load with this internet.  I will add some when I am back in Columbus. :)

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Highlights Workshop: Day 4

Aaah!  I can't believe it's already Wednesday!  I'm having such a good time at this workshop, I wish I had a stop-watch to slow down time for the rest of the week..

We had a lovely little black-out last night and most of this morning.  No internet, no water, no lights, nothing.  Sitting alone in my dark, silent cabin as thunder rumbled through the night, I kind of felt like the last person in the universe.  Creepy...

Thankfully our power is now back on, so we could all get back to our writing (and blogging!)  This afternoon we peer critiqued the first chapter of my manuscript.  It actually went quite well (yay!)  After years of hard work and countless revisions, I have reached the point where I finally have a solid first chapter.  As the faculty explained, my beginning is already a "10," so now I get to push it to an "11."  (Apparently that is from some song--anyone know it?  Personally, I'd say it's a 7.5-8, but I'll take the compliment.)  You may wonder why I don't just leave the darn thing alone, but I absolutely agree with them.  Sometimes you have to destroy your baby to make it even better.  It's difficult to do, but the thought of creating something even better is great motivation.  Now the hard work begins...

Our evening workshop was on the topic of Character.  Naturally, this is one of the biggest elements of writing.  If you don't have good characters, it's probably not possible to have a good story.  Just think of some of your favorite books: don't you love them because of their characters?

We started our discussion with a review of "The Hero's Journey" in fantasy stories (a good thing to pop into a google search and take a peek at).  It basically describes the protagonist's path through the story, from the beginning of his journey in the "Ordinary World" and his "Call to Adventure" (think Harry Potter wasting away in the Dursley's house until he receives that mysterious letter) to his ultimate triumph at the end of the book (I think we all know what happens to dear Harry).  The Hero's Journey is both physical and emotional, external and internal.  We plotted The Folk Keeper as a group for practice, which I recommend trying with one of your favorite books, too.

Some other tidbits about character our faculty shared:

-Your characters should be actively making things happen, rather than having things happen to them.  (Otherwise you often get a snooze-worthy story.)

-Challenge your characters internally through external trials.  (i.e. If your protagonist needs to learn bravery, put him in situations that ultimately make him brave.)

-Establish your character and norm in the beginning, then give them their reason to go out into the world.  (Opal in Because of Winn-Dixie feels abandoned and lonely; rescuing Winn-Dixie starts her on her path to finding friendship and, ultimately, herself.)
Best pizza EVER!
-Remember that in the beginning of your book, the world is bigger than your character--then your character rises up to the world.  (Great quote from our faculty gurus!)

So that was our great discussion on Character!  And now for the food.  (Oh, it was AMAZING today and more then made up for all the power-outage troubles!)  We relished in a breakfast of potato scramble, grape brulee and chocolate chip loaf; lunch was BBQ chicken and greek salads; our workshop snack was pesto goat cheese with crackers and cream-cheese/pecan-stuffed dates; and dinner consisted of homemade pizzas (I had a slice of margherita AND portobello with baby spinach and carmelized onions) with an array of cupcakes for dessert (mine was s'mores!)  I'm going to be very spoiled by the end of the week. :)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Highlights Workshop: Day 3

Hello everyone!  Internet seems to be doing much better today.  (We were starting to feel cut-off from society without our precious emails and YouTube!)'s so peaceful and pretty here!
Today was day 3 of the Highlights Workshop and we're settling into our routine.  We have mornings free to write followed by an afternoon of two peer critiques and our workshop.  (My peer critique is tomorrow--yikes!)  Actually, hearing what your peers think of your work is a really rewarding experience and you can learn so much about your strengths and weaknesses.  (On the flipside, giving peer critiques is helpful, too, because you always end up learning something from someone else's strengths and weaknesses.  Cool, huh?)  The two attendees we critiqued today were great sports and we all benefited from the constructive discussion.  (Children's writers are the best critiquers--we're never nasty or destructive as we provide helpful feedback!)

Due to one of our faculty feeling a bit under the weather, our workshop topic was postponed and replaced by a general group discussion.  As we rambled on about this amazing book and that awesome author (as we writers often do when we flock together), we stumbled onto the topic of "beats" and a lengthy chat ensued.  I was actually unfamiliar with this specific term, but it basically describes the points in a story where a momentary break occurs and you see the character's physical/visual/emotional reaction to something in the story.  This is most clearly seen during dialogue in between when characters are saying something.  (Think taglines and supporting details.)   For example:

"Do you know what time it is?" Jack asked.
His stomach growled loudly, hoping lunch was near.
"Let me see," Jill replied.
Jack's impatience rose as she fumbled through her backpack looking for her cellphone.  He fought the urge to grab the granola bar poking out of one of the pockets, tapping his foot as the seconds ticked by.
"About five til noon," Jill finally said.
Jack's stomach burbled with relief.  "Thank goodness," he said.

In this instance, the beats are the parts in between the dialogue where we know how Jack feels (hopeful, then impatient then bordering on kleptomania and finally reaching relief) as well as physically reacts (stomach noises, foot tapping).  Not the best example, but you get the point. :)  By incorporating beats, you can add/enhance anything in your story from interest to mood to characterization and everything in between.  If you don't have any beats, you likely have a "talking heads" situation--aka big chunks of dialogue where people talk, no one reacts, and you often lose your reader.  (Never a good thing...)

Conveniently, I was just about to tackle a point in my revisions where I needed to add in some emotional beats to a deep discussion between two of my characters.  How fortuitous!

Of course, I can't forget to tell you our scrumptious meals of the day!  (Poor Jack's rumbling tummy is making me hungry for a nighttime snack!)  Breakfast was homemade fancy scrambled eggs (no clue what delicious seasonings were in them) and blueberry muffins; lunch was tuna and egg salad sandwiches with cream of asparagus soup; our workshop snack was oven-baked kale and crackers with onion dip; and dinner was portobello mushrooms (I opted out of the salmon) with parmesan cauliflower and peach-berry sorbet for dessert.  Mmmmmm.... 

Yipes!  Our power just went out in the thunderstorm that's pelting outside!  Better post this before the internet dies again!

Highlights Workshop: Day 2

(Sorry for the day-late post.  I wrote this yesterday, but internet was being finicky and wouldn't post.)

Today was our second day at the lovely Highlights Workshop.  I forgot to post a pic of our cabins yesterday.  Here they are like little ducklings all in a row.

The big focus of today was our one-on-one critiques.  I met with Laura Ruby for my critique this morning and we had quite an in-depth chat about my book.  If you are a writer, you know that critiques can be both wonderful and frustrating, inspiring and discouraging all at the same time.  This was not my first critique/feedback and over the past year or so I have been dipping my toes into the realm of manuscript submission.  I've taken the feedback from those submissions and revised my manuscript accordingly.  Ironically, most of Laura's suggestions involved things that used to be in my novel which I had either revised or taken out entirely.  Exasperating?  You bet, but it's something writers experience all the time.  So with all that conflicting advice, what's a writer to do?

Well, when the going gets tough, the tough compromise!  Laura and I evaluated her editorial notes and came up with some revision game plans.  Nothing terrifying involving chucking the whole thing out the window, but rather tweaking this, deepening that, shortening here and adding there.  If you want to be a writer, you definitely need to be flexible and willing to revise A LOT!  (Five times, fifty times, or even a bagillion times--whatever it takes to make it right.)  Revisions don't petrify me so much anymore and I'm excited to get back on the horse (no pun intended) and edit my novel some more!

After an afternoon of editing, we met for our first workshop discussion.  Our assigned reading for this week was a book called The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsley  It is a story of self-discovery about a cellar-dwelling girl who keeps the nasty Folk monsters at bay while learning she is actually a Sealmaiden (i.e. she can literally turn into a seal.)  This turned out to be one of those books where there were a lot of things I did and didn't like.  We discussed the pros and cons of the book in our group chat, focusing on a few topics such as:

-The fine-line between Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction.  This book walks that thin line, with a character who matures emotionally from a childish teen to a mature young lady but is physically in the grey-area age of 15.  (15 is often considered "no man's land," too old for MG but too young for YA.)

-The power of tight writing.  This book is only 162 pages--very short.  Remarkably, it's packed with depth and themes conveyed with succinct sentences and spot-on emotions.  (Wish I could do that!)

-The circular nature of good writing.  You know it when you see it--where points, themes, etc. in the beginning come full circle and fit back into the ending.  This book exemplified it nicely.  (Holes is a great example of this, too.)

-The importance of "promise" in a book.  This is usually something (perhaps a theme, foreshadowing, etc.) set up in the beginning which therefore sets your expectations for the book.  (Think, for example, Harry Potter.  The first chapter makes you expect a story full of emotion, whimsy and magic.  If the rest of the book wasn't magical, you would have been sorely disappointed.)  For me and a few others, The Folk Keeper broke it's promise (a bad thing) while for others, the book fulfilled its promise (a good thing).  To a certain extent, promises are open to individual interpretation and fulfillment, but overall readers should feel satisfied when they reach the end.  Definitely something to pay attention to in your own writing.

So that was our workshop today!  Our meals of the day practically popped out of a Brian Jacques novel: breakfast of oatmeal with warm apricot compote; lunch of lettuce wrap sandwiches; bruschetta and radish-relish dip for workshop snacks (surprisingly delicious); and a dinner of shepherd's pie with "bluebarb" crisp for dessert.  I can tell my tummy is going to be very happy this week. :)

Time to get back to revising!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Highlights Workshop: Day 1

A view from the magical woods.
Today was my first official day at the Highlights Fantasy Workshop.  It was arrival day for most of the attendees of the workshop (I came early since the drive was long) so we didn't have anything scheduled until this afternoon, leaving us plenty of time for exploration and settling into our cabins.  The weather was lovely so I enjoyed a walk in the woods (which I'm sure my legs are going to regret tomorrow!)  There were lovely streams and mossy-rocks that seemed to have come right out of a fairy tale.

Our meals and meetings are in the farmhouse.  It's a cute, quaint little building with lots of comfy seats.  The chef is awesome and cooked us inside-out potpies for dinner complete with bird-shaped puff pastries.  (From now on, I'm bringing my camera to meal times!)  She also made teeny "fairy traveling cakes" for dessert.  Yum yum!

The Highlights Farmhouse.
Apart from eating and taking long walks, we had our introductory meeting where Laura Ruby and Anne Ursu passed out our critiqued manuscripts.  (We sent our entire manuscripts ahead of time for them to read and critique.)  We received editorial letters, too.  Mine was 10 pages long and full of lots of great topics to discuss at our critique sessions tomorrow.  (That may sound overwhelming, but it included compliments as well as editorial suggestions, so I'm not despairing yet!)  Now we have the rest of the night to go through our manuscripts and take in their editorial suggestions.  (Why did I write a 300-page manuscript again?)  After our critiques in the morning, we jump into our revisions for the rest of the week!

I better get reading!

Meet the Faculty

Before we dive into the meaty goodness of the workshop, I wanted to introduce you to our faculty, authors Laura Ruby and Anne Ursu. 

Laura (left) and Anne (right). 

Here’s what the Highlights website has to say about Laura:
 Laura is the author of the children's mystery Lily’s Ghosts, the children’s fantasy The Wall and the Wing, and a sequel, The Chaos King. She also writes contemporary fiction for older teens, and her debut young-adult novel, Good Girls, was a Book Sense Pick for fall 2006 and an ALA Quick Pick for 2007.

I read four of her books:

The Wall and the Wing about a girl named Gurl who has invisibility powers while everyone around her can fly.  Naturally, her irregular talent causes some problems…

The Chaos King, sequel to The Wall and the Wing where Gurl and her best-bud Bug must stop the title character from abusing the spell of reanimation.  (There’s a giant friendly octopus too!  In case you were wondering, I love friendly octopi!)

Lily’s Ghosts about a girl who must solve the mystery of her dead uncle’s ghost who is haunting their new house.  (A little scary, but there are several funny ghosts, too, so I didn’t get nightmares.)

Bad Apple where a high schooler is falsely accused of having “relations” with her art teacher.  (Deep stuff, yet remarkably funny too.)

Here’s what the Highlights website has to say about Anne:
Anne is the author of The Shadow Thieves, The Siren Song, and The Immortal Fire, all fantasies for young readers. She has also written two books for adults.  Her books have been finalists for Borders Original Voices Award, selected for Barnes and Noble's Discover Great New Writers program, and for the New York Public Library’s Best Books for the Teen Age. She teaches at Hamline University’s Low Residency MFA in Writing for Children.

I read four of her books, too:

The Shadow Thieves, first in her Cronus Chronicles trilogy.  (They are not at all like the Percy Jackson series—which I also enjoy.  No demi-gods here, just normal kids having action-packed, funny adventures at the whim of the Greek Gods.)  Main characters Charlotte and Zee must stop evil Philonecron from stealing children’s shadows and using them to reanimate his army of souls from Hades.  (And he is HILARIOUS!  Philonecron might be one of my favorite villains of all time.)

The Siren Song, second in the trilogy.  Charlotte and Zee must stop Poseidon from destroying a cruise ship (which will both avenge and amuse him.)   Philonecron strikes again and this time he sets his sights higher than taking over Hades.

The Immortal Fire, third in the trilogy.  Charlotte and Zee must find Prometheus’ fire in order to bargain with Zeus and convince him not to wipe out humanity.  Philonocron aims to take over the universe, but ends up managing something a little smaller.

Spilling Clarence, an adult book about a meltdown at a pharmaceuticals company which releases a chemical into the air, affecting the memories of all the town residents.  People are forced to face all of their deepest, darkest memories.  (Very poignant but with a dash of wit, too.)

So there you go!  I highly recommend reading all of the above books.  Anne’s and Laura’s writing styles are both superb and I can’t wait for them to divulge their trade secrets!             

Destination: Highlights Workshop!

Hello everyone!  Sorry for the delayed first-night post.  I didn’t have the password to get on the internet last night.

The trip to Honesdale was loooooong but smooth with fortunately sunny weather! (I hate driving in the rain—and we’ve certainly had a lot of that lately.)  For most of the trip, I felt like I was the only person on the highways and the mountain scenery was beautiful.

Summary points of my trip for your amusement:

-Popped in an old Yanni tape for my first musical distraction.  Suddenly remembered that I really like Yanni.  (Although the music makes me feel like I should be at a spa!)  Hadn’t listened to the tape in probably 15 years and likely would have missed out on another 15 years of Yanni enjoyment if it hadn’t been for this drive!

-Stopped at Barkeyville for lunch because the name made me happy.  Strangely, the subway in Barkeyville does not have tables.  I walked out and went to Arby’s instead.

-Caught up with old friends. :)  Today was probably the first day I’ve sat in one place for more than 10 minutes in over a month.  Now my tushie is tired from sitting too long.

-Popped in “Phantom of the Opera” tape.  Opera singing in the car did not go well.

-Watched a wild turkey take off from the side of the road, fly smack into an SUV then roll back to the side of the road.  Apparently they are not the smartest of birds.  I don’t think poor Mr. Turkey is going to make it. :(

First-night cabin. (Um, ignore that construction stuff.)
-Learned it is a bad idea to listen to Disneyland tapes in the car alone.  When there’s no one to reminisce with, it just bums you out.

-Stopped at some L-town for dinner.  Their subway did have tables.  (What a notion!)

-Road to the Highlights farmhouse was like driving through a path in the woods.  Pretty cool (albeit scary in the last minutes of dusk.)

Well, that’s about it!  I made it safe and sound and I’m getting a kick out of the mini cabins—it’s like being at summer camp again!  Can’t wait for the workshop to get started!