Thursday, September 4, 2014

My first Highlights Retreat: Tight Focus

I’ve already written about my experiences at the Highlights retreat, but I just didn’t feel like one post could cover everything. I had so much to say about the food and forests that I didn’t even get a chance to talk about revision, which was the entire reason for attending in the first place! Now that I’ve had a few weeks to think about it, I can definitely say that the timing of this retreat was perfect for me. I was (and continue to be) in the midst of writing the second draft of my current WIP, but I knew that I needed to learn more revision tricks and techniques in order to improve this manuscript. Thankfully, I learned all that and much more during the retreat.

I’m happy to say that our faculty, Harold Underdown and Eileen Robinson, gave us enough different techniques that I’ll have more than enough to work on when I finish this draft. (In fact, I wish I had a little less work to do!) We went over holistic vs. analytical techniques for viewing the ‘big picture’ in a story, including essential questions to ask yourself, plot checklists, revision mapping with excel files, and storyboarding, as well as many techniques for tightening and line-editing once the big picture is museum quality.

In some ways, the big picture review was reassuring because it showed me that I was on the right track. Specifically, we discussed creating an excel file where you can list a brief description of each scene, the purpose of the scene, the POV (if needed), the setting and time, chapter length, and so on ( and it could practically go on forever). I started an excel file like this a month or two before coming to the retreat and I was happy to know this hadn’t been a horrible waste of time. Having said that, there’s definitely room for improvement and one addition I’ll make is ‘type of scene.’ I sometimes struggle when trying to categorize my scenes (which seems silly given that it should be objective), but now I have a list of scene types which will make it easier. I’m hoping this will be a way for me to visualize pacing and see whether I have too many scenes of one type (i.e. my MC’s constantly thinking to themselves!)

The Lodge where we learned all about revision!

There were other aspects of revision that I had never tried before. For instance, I have never gone through my manuscript and highlighted adverbs. Having now done this (in the first few chapters) I can say that it is a very sobering task! Eileen gave us 16 (!) page list of adverbs which included words that I'd never known were adverbs. I already knew all of the “-ly” ones, but I honestly didn’t realize that words like “after” or “just” counted too. As Steven King has said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs,” and now I realize that I have enough cement to go down to the underworld and back up again. Oh well, that’s why line-editing was invented. J

In addition to reviewing revision, we also did a creativity exercise that was extremely challenging but ultimately great. Sometimes I think my story ideas need to trickle down from the writing gods, but this showed me that I can generate my own ideas with a little time and effort—I don’t need to wait for a plot to magically appear in front of me.

Finally, all of the attendees were able to put this new knowledge to good use by working together in critique groups.  I really loved this part of the retreat because it was a wonderful way to bond with other writers, learn from their ideas, and share your interests. A fellow YA writer, Debbi Michiko Florence, and I bonded over our shared love of YA romance and I’m already looking forward to trading more work with her in the future!

It really was a wonderful retreat and the best way to wind down this summer. I also think it’ll be a gift that keeps on giving because revision never ends. I can’t wait to see what workshops are offered next year!


  1. My experience at the retreat is similar to yours. The analytical techniques made me see my manuscript in a new way.

    I'm so glad you're making progress! Very thorough post.

    1. Thanks Theresa, hope you're making progress as well. Good luck with the school year!

  2. I arrived at Highlights for an Unworkshop just as the revision retreat was in its last night. It sounded WONDERFUL. What a gift it must've been to learn from Eileen, Howard, and all of the other talented writers who were there.

  3. Stacey, it was really great to have a group of writers to bond with and learn from. I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to meet you while I was there! I'd love to do a unworkshop sometime.

  4. Another fabulous post on the fabulous retreat! I'm SO glad we met - and I can't wait to read more of your work! xo