Category Archives: retreat

Highlights Foundation – A Writer’s Retreat

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I’m going to digress a bit from my reading raves to talk about my fantastic few days at The Highlights Foundation where I took a Revision Workshop with Harold Underdown and Eileen Robinson. It was in a word -blissful!

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I didn’t take photos of the most important part – the actual workshops – because I was too busy listening to what Harold and Eileen had to share about revision techniques. Okay, I lie – that wasn’t the most important part, even though it was a key element. Everything about this retreat was important!

If you’ve ever considered taking a Highlights Foundation workshop or going for their Unworkshop days (where you go just to work on your own), I highly recommend it! I don’t know that I’ve ever worked so well, so focused over a 4 day period away from home. The lodgings are extremely comfortable and the atmosphere is conducive to writing. It’s quiet and peaceful and there are plenty of places to sit and write, including your room. Meals and snacks are provided – and the food was absolutely delicious. (Confession: I asked for seconds of dessert one night.)

The revision retreat itself was perfect for me – I’m diving into a tough revision of a YA novel. The sessions in the mornings were informative and interesting, and gave us opportunities to put some new techniques into practice. Having the afternoons free for writing (or critique group) time was outstanding. I didn’t know how much real work I would get done in the afternoons (I’m typically a morning writer), but when I sat down to write, the hours flew by! Going on hikes in the gorgeous hills before dinner helped me settle my mind and regroup. Evenings were on our own and varied. The first night, I read and relaxed in my comfy and quiet room. The second night, I wrote. I admit that I hadn’t planned to, but my neighbors all said they would be writing that evening, so peer pressure pushed me to write as well. The third night, a group of us got together to read one another’s work and offer feedback. And the last night (sigh) we had a bonfire and roasted marshmallows and talked about the market. There were 13 of us, plus Harold and Eileen, and our group really connected. I miss everyone!

The days went by too quickly, but the good news is that I carried all the positive energy home with me and worked hard all week. I feel like I’ve gained new insight into revision and am excited to dive into this next draft. Thank you to everyone at the Highlights Foundation, to Harold and Eileen, and my new friends, Kristy, Theresa, Marie, Carole, Nathalie, Betsy, Marie, Taunya, Linda, Raj, Eric, Jennifer, and Catherine! It was a honor and a pleasure!

Check out Kathryn Erskine’s post about this wonderful place. It was when I read her post that I knew I was going to have an amazing time there. For another retreater’s take on this workshop, check out Kristy Boyce’s blog post.

Happy reading and writing!

The Word Nest!

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As some of you know, this past fall we moved from my beloved home state of California to Connecticut for my husband’s job. After being evacuated from Hurricane Sandy, making it through a blizzard and several snow storms, and otherwise enjoying our rental on the ocean, we are thrilled to finally move into our new home sweet home. New to us, at least. The house was built in the early 1800s!

My husband has always been very supportive of my writing career, and he knows how hard it is for me to move time and time again for his career. (This is the seventh move in sixteen years.)  To show his great love and appreciation, he had a special studio built just for me and my writing/reading! I’ve dubbed it The Word Nest (the area where we live is bird bountiful). As promised, here are a few before, during, and after photos! Many appreciative thanks to Mystic River Building Company and their amazing team and crew for creating and building this perfect space!

The studio is a former wood shop, attached to the detached garage. It was not weather proof nor secure so the first thing we did was put on a new roof, and add new windows and a door with a lock.

The original wood shop was not separate from the garage, so we added a wall, insulation, drywall, and paint and trim.

No surprise that I have a ton of books so I needed space for them. And I wanted to make sure I had additional space for my constantly growing library.

And finally, the most important part of my writing studio – where I write:

photo-30-2And my amazing views:

And let’s not forget, writing would be a very lonesome endeavor without the perfect companion:

photo-25 copyTrixie checks out the new space!

photo-30Thanks to Amanda of GreenChickens for this awesome custom sign!

Happy reading and writing! I know I’ll be happy working and reading in my cozy Word Nest!

When Words Count Retreat – Part 3

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The Food and The Adventure!

Welcome back to the final installment of my When Words Count Retreat series. In part 1, I talked about The Place and in part 2, I talked about The People and The Schedule. Today, I’m talking food!!! Mmmmm!

IMG_1999Let me introduce you to Chef Paul. He’s not only a genius with food but also friendly and helpful. As he built a fire where I was writing, one afternoon, I took a risk and asked him a question related to a character in my WIP. He gave me a perfect and helpful response. Chef Paul understands the writer, providing a hearty nourishing breakfast to get us going, a light lunch so we won’t feel sluggish and tired in the afternoon, and amazing dinners as a reward for a hard day’s work! I never felt hungry between meals until I smelled the amazing aromas wafting from the kitchen, and I was always satisfied after each meal, never feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. Perfection!

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I loved everything Chef Paul made! From the appetizers to the soups and salads to the main courses to the desserts! Delicious! I had to truly refrain from licking my plate clean every meal. One evening we had The Case of the Missing Apple Crisps. It was never fully solved, but it was entertaining at least. (And no worries. nobody went without dessert.) Some of my favorites were the Norman Mailer stuffed mushrooms, the chili roasted pork tenderloin, the red wine poached pears, and the caramelized onion and cheddar cheese tarts.

Cindy and I had a bit of adventure, too. On one of our walks, we followed the tap lines to a sugar house where a couple was busy boiling the maple sap. We were invited in to take a look around. It was fascinating! My first time (not Cindy’s though) in a sugar house! It was warm and steamy as the gentleman stoked the huge fire for the giant vat. And it smelled like sugar! The wife offered us a sample and how could we turn that down? (We couldn’t.) I expected a small taste but instead she handed us half a mug to share! Whoa! And share we did – we drank that whole mug of pure maple syrup! It was delicious! But, let’s just say I did not need any coffee, tea, or chocolate that afternoon. Maybe that’s a new trick I should use, drink a quarter mug of pure maple syrup in the afternoon to keep me writing!?

It was a heavenly stay at the When Words Count Retreat, and I miss it already. I have never been so productive, so inspired, so well-fed and rested than when I stayed those 3 nights. I hope to return again!

I haven’t forgotten the main focus of this blog, and I promise some great book recs and interviews coming up very soon!

When Words Count Retreat – Part 2

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The People and The Schedule:

IMG_2010As I mentioned in Part 1, the other guests turned out to be children’s writers as well. From left to right: Nancy Tandon (who was working on a MG novel), Enesa (who should definitely be a writer but was there keeping Sarah company), Sarah McGuire (who was working on a YA fantasy), and Cindy Faughnan (my long time writing partner who was working on a revision of a MG novel). We all got along fabulously, and more importantly, we were all dedicated writers, focused on using this gift of time to write, write, write!

Adding to the perfect mix of people – Diane and Paul as I mentioned on Tuesday (and more on Paul in the next post), Steve C. Eisner, the owner and operator of the retreat, and Jon Reisfeld, the VP of Marketing. Both Steve and Jon also offer editorial and PR services for a fee. Everyone was so friendly and nice and welcoming! By the beginning of my first full day there, I felt like I was at home, walking through the house in sock feet and helping myself to coffee, and feeling comfortable enough to just wander the house to find the perfect place to write.

I promise a detailed post about the amazing food, but here, I’ll share the schedule. A farm breakfast was served between 8:30 and 9:30 AM. Our group ate together, chatting about our goals for the day. After breakfast, we all disappeared to our respective writing spots to work the rest of the morning in peaceful silence. Chef Paul rang the lunch bell around noon and we drifted to the kitchen for a buffet style lunch – light and delicious! After lunch, Cindy and I would go for a walk to clear our heads with fresh mountain air. Then, back to writing for the rest of the afternoon! Time would blur until 5:30 cocktail hour when we would all gather in the Gertrude Stein room for wine, beer, and yummy hors’doeuvers and conversation. Steve and Jon would join us and we’d talk about our accomplishments for the day. Dinner was at 6:30 and always incredible! Jon and Steve joined us and the conversation about books, each other and writing would continue in a lively fashion.

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After dinner was the hash session were guests could choose to share their work, and we all did. It was so fabulous to hear everyone read a chapter from their WIPs. I can’t wait till I get to read each of the other guest’s complete work as a book I can buy! We were a supportive bunch for sure, with encouraging comments and suggestions.

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I am not a night owl so I was in bed by 10 most every night. I slept fabulously and was well rested the next morning.

P1050968I loved how well we meshed as a group and I think we’ll all stay in touch for a very long time to come! here I am with Sarah and Cindy!

Next time: The Food and The Adventure!

When Words Count Retreat Part 1

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IMG_1990Nestled in the Green Mountains of Vermont is a piece of paradise for writers called When Words Count Retreat. I was fortunate enough to win a 4-day, 3-night stay during their Christmas Sweepstakes. I spent the end of last week there, writing up a storm.

The Place:

Their web site calls the retreat a Home Away From Home. It really is! Everything about the place was comfortable, cozy, warm.

IMG_2264One of my writing partners, Cindy Faughnan, also won the sweepstakes and we chose to go at the same time. The house stood on a dirt road, among barns and fences (a former working farm), facing a huge expanse of fields and mountains. As a city girl, I was worried I’d feel isolated but I immediately felt welcome. We were greeted warmly by the fabulous Diana Mellar, the general manager, and  the amazing Chef Paul (more on him in an upcoming post dedicated to the food). I was thrilled to be assigned to the Emily Dickinson room!

IMG_1987Inviting and cozy, yes? There was a large dresser, a closet, and two nightstands with reading lamps. The walls were adorned with photos relating to Emily Dickinson. I do believe the photo above the desk was of her house. A book of her poetry was placed on the dresser.

IMG_1995The bed! Oh! The soft, comfortable, amazingly cozy bed! I never sleep well when I’m away from home, but here? I slept like a content baby!

IMG_2005On the first floor, past the kitchen is the Gertrude Stein Room where hash sessions were held in the evenings (more on that in a later post). And there was plenty of space to spread out to write during the day. The first day, I worked in my room, but after that Cindy and I worked in other parts of the house.

IMG_2014With a lovely view of the scenery, this looked like an inviting space to write. Unfortunately, I have light sensitivity issues so I chose to sit elsewhere. This is where I worked for much of my stay:

IMG_2015This was in the living room – adjoining the fabulous dining room (I can’t wait to talk about the food…!). This was truly a most amazing retreat – everything is taken care of for you so that you can devote all your time and energy and thought to writing. I arrived hoping to get a solid start on a brand new YA novel. I think I was shooting for a few thousand words during my 3-1/2 day stay. We arrived past 2 PM on our first day and I spent much of that afternoon getting situated and reading what I already had for my draft (not much). After that, I dove into writing. Day 1 word count: 3000+ words. Day 2 word count: 4000+ words! The morning of the day we left word count: 2000+. Seriously, it’s rare that I can write that many words in a day when starting a brand new draft. I completely lost myself in writing. I even forgot what day it was!

I woke up every morning around 5:30 (this is normal for me), and wrote (with breaks for breakfast, lunch, a walk, and dinner) from morning till 5:30 cocktail hour. That’s intense for me. The other writers seemed to feel the same – they were all productive and invigorated. There were five of us guests total and by some wonderful miracle, we were all children’s writers! Not only that, but we knew people in common.

I’ll be blogging about this retreat for the next few posts! There’s just too much to say about my wonderful experience there. Till then, check out their web site. I highly recommend checking them out if you’re looking to get away and write for a period of time. Next posts will include: The People, The Schedule, The Food, The Adventure!

Novel Writing Retreat at VCFA – Part 2

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A full week later and I’m still feeling the very positive effects of attending this fabulous retreat.  I loved making new friends and reconnecting with old ones. It was special to be able to room with my long time writing partner, Cindy Faughnan (who for ten years has been co-running this amazing retreat). I had a couple of first times during this weekend.

First, I had never heard of Sugar on Snow! Cindy mentioned it as the Farmer’s Market was setting up in the chapel next door to our dorms. For those of you who don’t know – it’s freshly tapped maple sap, cooked and poured onto fresh snow. I snagged new friend Catey who is from North Carolina and I assumed correctly she’d never heard of it either, and the two of us headed over to the booth before lunch! (Yes, dessert before lunch!) What a delicious and special treat! The snow was scooped onto wooden troughs, the cooked maple sap ladled onto snow, and then plastic forks were stuck into the “glops”. I took a fork and slid the concoction into my mouth. YUM! It was chewy like taffy and oh so sweet, and the snow was crunchy and cold. Catey and I helped ourselves to quite a few forkfuls (after an appropriate donation). I didn’t know until after that this treat is only available for a very short period of time when the maple sap starts to run.

The second first for me? I read my work out loud in public. Sure, I’ve read out loud to family and friends and during critique group meetings, but I’ve never read to a group of mostly strangers. Fortunately, the reading was scheduled on Saturday night – the second night of the retreat, so I had a chance to meet a lot of the other attendees and felt like I was in a supportive environment. Just before my turn to read, I wasn’t feeling too nervous (just the appropriate amount of nervous, I suppose), but when I walked to the podium, I made a conscious effort not to look up at the audience of 35. I read – and wow! What a heady experience to read my words out loud and to hear the reaction as I read (laughter in all the right places)! Even better was sitting down and being able to enjoy and listen to the other attendees read their work out loud – I was inspired and entranced by all the talent in the room!

And now for my main take-aways from the presentations – I’m being mindful of copyright, I hope, and just giving a brief line about the main thing I took away from each talk. Each presenter gave an hour long, riveting and inspiring talk.  I was so thrilled to hear what they had to share!

Julie Berry – “Mind the Gap” – What are the obstacles that block you from what you are and what you aspire to be. It’s an interesting way to look at my career path. I’m giving a lot of thought to this!

Cynthia Leitich Smith – World building is key, setting is the springboard for world building. Even realistic fiction needs world building. This made me think about my settings in my stories more critically. How well do I really know the world my character inhabits? How much detail is there and what details are crucial to my story?

Lauren Myracle – TELL YOUR STORY! She said a lot of wonderful things, but that was the big take-away for me. Tell the story you want to tell, the one you need to tell.

Andrea Tompa (editor at Candlewick Press) – Make sure the backstory serves the story. And one more thing, don’t focus on theme during the first draft – use revision to do that.

I also had a critique with Andrea Tompa and let me just say, OMG, she is truly brilliant and she made me look at my story in a whole new light. (This is a WIP I put away almost 5 years ago.) I can’t wait to get back to it!

I am so happy I went to this retreat! And I hope to go back again next year! Maybe I’ll see you there!

Novel Writing Retreat at VCFA – Part 1

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I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the Novel Writing Retreat at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. This craft-focused weekend workshop is run by Cindy Faughnan (VCFA MFA grad and my writing partner) and author and writing teacher Sarah Aronson (also a VCFA MFA grad) – this one marking their 10th anniversary. This is a truly spectacular retreat and I hope to return again next year!

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There were two tracks one could sign up for, the critique track and the writing track. Because I’m in the final polishing stage of my WIP, I signed up for the writing track – I had blocks of 1-1/2 hours between lectures to focus on my own writing. The critique track put attendees into groups of four – and they had blocks of time to meet and workshop their WIPs. (Crit track members were sent work ahead of time to read/review.) Each crit track attendee also received critiques from the author mentors and editor mentor. From what I heard from these attendees, the crit groups were amazing and supportive and inspired!

The mentors this year were:

531659_10200994594493143_1963932420_nAndrea Tompa (editor at Candlewick), author Lauren Myracle, and author Cynthia Leitich Smith. (Thank you to new friend Elly Swartz for the photo.) Each gave an amazing lecture.

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Cynthia Leitich Smith (who is a good friend and former mentor) is the author of amazing books for kids, from picture books like Santa Knows (co-authored with her husband Greg Leitich Smith), to contemporary MG and YA books (like one of my favorites, Rain Is Not My Indian Name) to fabulous fantasy books like her Tantalize series. I just finished reading Eternal: Zachary’s Story, her graphic novel illustrated by Ming Doyle. Zachary is a guardian angel watching over Miranda, but when he shows himself to her in an effort to save her, he is demoted to human form. He is still committed to trying to save her soul, but Miranda has changed a LOT since he last saw her – she is no longer human but a vampire princess.  I’m going to start reading her Feral Nights series very soon!

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Lauren Myracle is the awesome author of a slew of books that I’ve loved, from Peace, Love & Baby Ducks to Rhymes with Witches, and How To Be Bad (co-authored with Sarah Mlynowski and E. Lockhart). I also read Bliss, which was great, but it scared me (I could only read it during the daylight). 😉 I’m currently reading Shine and it is an incredible read so far about a hate crime that takes place in a small Southern town – sixteen year old Cat is determined to solve the mystery while her former best friend, Patrick, lies in a coma in the hospital. Wow…just WOW! She talked about her upcoming novel, a New Adult, that sounds fabulous and Hot! I can’t wait for it! (But I’ll have to as she is still currently writing it.)

9780763649227_p0_v1_s260x420Andrea Tompa is an editor at Candlewick. She edited Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri (illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson).  I have to admit, this is not my usual kind of book – a  MG “boy book” set in the inner-city about horses (yes, I was one of those odd girls who didn’t want a horse when she was little). But because Andrea’s talk was going to be about the editing process of this book, I decided to read it – and guess what? I loved it! I didn’t want t put it down and I had tears in my eyes when I finished it. When 12 year old Cole’s mother is fed up with his school truancy and getting into trouble, she packs him up and drives from Detroit to Philly and drops him off with the father he never knew. Cole is suddenly in the middle of a run-down horse stable smack in the city, where his dad and other Black Cowboys try to care for horses in ramshackle buildings. At first Cole is frightened of the horses and angry that his mom left him there – but he bonds with a horse named Boo, and the other cowboys (and his dad). When the city wants to shut them down and take back the land, Cole is spurred into fighting back to save the place and the horses.

I recommend all the books above, for sure! I promise another post about my experience and the inspirational take-aways I got from the talks. See you Tuesday!  Happy reading!