Saturday, August 23, 2014

My first Highlights Retreat: The Big Picture

I got back last Sunday from my first Highlights Foundation retreat. It was SUCH an amazing experience, and there’s so much to say about it, that I’ve decided to split my comments on the trip into two posts. To keep with the theme of the revision retreat, I’m going to call this my “big picture” post and talk about some of the major themes that made the retreat so relaxing and helpful. I’ll save my “tight-focus” experiences with revision for next time.

I don’t think anyone could write about a Highlights retreat without mentioning the beautiful surroundings. The workshop buildings are nestled in the rolling hills in the Poconos, surrounded by forests carpeted with lush ferns.  I grew up out in the country in Ohio, and my childhood home was also surrounded by forests, so coming to Highlights was a bit like coming home.  I used to love wandering the forests as a child, looking for mushrooms or making up little stories about which patches of forest held the most elves and fairies. In fact, there was a hard-to-reach section of forest that my dad and I named the Enchanted Forest. So, in some ways, I really associate my early writing and story-telling with forests.  Now that I think of it, the first two novels I ever tried to write were set in forests very much like the ones I’ve been describing.  Given this, it’s really no wonder that I found this location to be an inspiring place to write.  One of the few regrets I have is that I didn’t get to explore the woods even more…although there was talk of someone actually seeing a bear so maybe I shouldn’t be regretting it! I would love to return when the weather is warm enough to spend the afternoons writing at a table by the outdoor fireplace. Until then, I told my parents that I might need to have a little “retreat” at their house just to reenact everything!

The beautiful forests--I loved the ferns!

The outdoor fireplace where we made s'mores. Yum!

 Although the forests reminded me of home, there were a few aspects of the setting that were anything but home-like. Specifically, quiet rooms and piles of food!  I love my home and family, but it’s rare for me to wake up whenever I want to, get ready in peace and privacy, and then saunter down for an enormous chef-made breakfast.  Wait, did I say rare?  I meant impossible!  And speaking of the food…well, what can I say? It surpassed all my expectations. I even made a list of the different foods we had so that I wouldn’t forget it all!  Probably the biggest compliment I can give is that I ate so much at each sitting (and looked forward to each upcoming meal so much) that I never once ate a snack, candy bar, anything in between meals.  And that’s really saying something for me because I love to snack.  ;)

My bedroom

The "Barn" where we ate all of our meals.

Finally, this overview would be far from complete if I didn't talk about all of the other retreat attendees because they made all the difference.  I’ve met many wonderful people at previous writing events, but never have I been in the company of so many kind, welcoming writers and faculty as I was during the retreat. What a rare gift it is for me to be around other people with the same questions, motivations, and dreams that I have. We are all different—in terms of demographics, writing styles and genres--but that didn’t stop us from becoming good friends over the course of just a few days.  Our faculty members, Harold Underdown & Eileen Robinson, were also incredibly helpful and gave us so much great information for the future (but more on that next week!).

I won’t forget my time there or the new friendships that I’ve made, and I’ve only got one more thing to say for now…when can I go back?!

Some of the private cabins.

Cool bench!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Queries, book signings, and quite a few laughs

I’ve been lucky enough to attend multiple YA-related events recently.  I already wrote about the Pickerington library author fest in my last post, and I’ll definitely be writing about my upcoming Highlights retreat (much, MUCH more about that to come!), but this past week I went to two other fun events. First off, last Saturday I attended a query writing workshop with Mindy McGinnis, the author of Not A Drop To Drink and the upcoming In A Handful of Dust. I was so excited that COSCBWI decided to sponsor this event because I’ve been through the dredges of writing and submitting query letters once before and it’s just plain awful.  There’s really no other way to explain it.  You can put years of work into writing then rewriting then perfecting a manuscript that you really love only to realize that agents (and editors…and readers) may never get to see it because you can't get an agent to read past your sparse three paragraph query.  Sometimes it just feels ridiculous trying to condense an entire novel with backstory, mythology, romantic subplots, etc into just a few paragraphs, but unfortunately that’s the way of the publishing world.

A few years ago I did write a query letter and send it out to agents (a lot of agents…like probably 70+). It’s fairly embarrassing to think about now because I have since realized that my book was not ready for submission.  But hey, it was my first time and I think that’s a fairly common newbie mistake.  I guess it wasn’t a complete failure since 3 agents (4%--whoo-hoo!) asked for additional pages (meaning they made it through the query letter), but that also means 96% did not care.  Oh math, you make everything seem so much worse.  96% looks so disheartening when written in black and white.

However, this is exactly why I was so happy to attend this query workshop since I clearly need the help.  Mindy has experience writing successful query letters and has also critiqued other writers’ queries for quite a while now.  She walked us through each section of a successful letter: an intriguing first line to make the agents take notice, a body that lays out the main plot without adding in every detail, and a last line that leaves them wanting more.  Probably the most important take home point: don’t trust your mom!  ;)  As Mindy said, moms are great but they tend to love everything you do so that basically makes them the worst people ever to critique your work (if you actually want to get better).  Afterwards, we got into groups to read and critique each other’s work, which was really helpful because you don’t always notice your own mistakes but you definitely notice other people’s! I’ve got more than enough new info now to use when revising my query…just as soon as I, you know, finish the manuscript. 

The second cool YA activity of the week was going to see Rae Carson, Ann Aguirre, and Mindy McGinnis for a YA author panel at Cover-to-Cover books.  Oh my goodness, were these women hysterical together! I haven’t actually been to many panels/book signings so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I could have listened to them riff on each other and joke around all night.  I came home and told my husband about it, thinking that the humor would generalize to anyone—who wouldn’t laugh about having your protagonist describe herself by looking in a mirror?!—only to learn that maybe writers have more inside jokes than I originally thought. 

So, all in all, I’d say it was a productive writing week.  Now, let’s just hope next week at the retreat is even more productive.  I only have a few more weeks until the semester starts…  

Friday, August 1, 2014

Inspiration and Motivation from the YA Community

Last Saturday, I attended the first ever YA Author Fest at the Pickerington library in Columbus, OH. Twelve YA authors from the area came together to discuss their books, talk about the writing process and answer reader’s questions. The authors were Melissa Landers, Carey Corp & Lorie Langdon, Edith Pattou, Jasmine Warga, Erin McCahan, Mindy McGinnis, Emery Lord, Liz Coley, Geoffrey Girard, Natalie D. Richards, Ryan Gebhart. It was a great event for a library to host because it’s so rare to find so many published YA authors together, outside of a workshop or conference (and even then it doesn’t seem very common.) I wish other libraries would start following suit and organize more of these events for YA and middle-grade authors. It seems to be a win-win for all involved.

I had a mixture of emotions while listening to the authors speak, but I probably felt more motivation than anything else. As an aspiring writer, there’s nothing that lights a fire under me like seeing other writers achieve their dreams. I have met about half of the authors at previous events, and it’s really fantastic to hear them announcing new upcoming books and projects. It reminds me that it really is possible to live that life even if you aren’t from New York or Los Angeles, have friends or family already in publishing, or have a publishing fairy in your shirt pocket. (I’m just assuming the last part isn’t true.) That’s not to say it’s easy or common, but it does mean it’s possible and sometimes I need to be reminded of that.

I also felt so inspired (to the point of getting teary-eyed a few times—I know, total dork) to see young teen readers in awe over their favorite authors. There were multiple young girls with their mothers or grandmothers who wanted to become writers themselves. This event gave them the ability to speak face-to-face with real authors and realize (just like me) that they are flesh and blood like everyone else. At one point, a young girl I was standing behind told Natalie Richards that her book inspired her to want to be an author. Can there ever be a greater compliment than that for an author? I can’t think of one.

This brings me to my last emotion. Watching all of this gave me an enormous sense of…longing to be on the other side of the table, giving writing and publishing advice instead of receiving it. I know I still have a long way to go, but I couldn’t stop myself from dreaming about a day when I’d be sitting at a folding table, sweating in the sun, and have a young kid tell me that my writing inspired them to also write. That’s absolutely a new life goal of mine.

At first I felt a little guilty for feeling this way, but then I figured that if I attended an event like this and didn’t wish I was autographing copies of my own book than that might spell trouble. Writing is too difficult and time-consuming to continue if I don’t love it and want to be successful with every ounce of my being. No matter what the future brings, I hope I always feel the same way I did that Saturday: motivated, inspired, with just a little longing mixed in. Those are the feelings that will get me through the long slog ahead until my name is on a future Pickerington library advertisement.