Poconos Retreat, Part II

(Continued from Part I)

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Our last day dawned soft and gray, drizzle misting in from the hills around us. Luckily the weather had no impact on everyone’s enthusiasm, and after another amazing breakfast (seriously, Highlights, do you not want us to ever leave?), we gathered once again in the main room in the Barn to watch the faculty talk us through some of the (anonymous) first pages and illustrations that attendees had sent in. I’m always fascinated at these events to find out just what an experienced editor will pick out of a fragment of text.

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Mealtimes at the Barn

We broke up into workshops after this, and I chose to hear agent Kira Watson talk us through scene development. We looked at the difference between ‘core’ scenes and ‘bridge’ scenes, and how to avoid the so-called ‘fluff’ scenes. Kira told us that each scene should make a difference, even if it’s a bridge scene, and not just be there to fill space. I’m looking forward to trying her flashcard exercise!

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Kira Watson talks us through scene essentials

The final keynote was given by picture book author Tara Lazar. Tara’s speech was joyous and uplifting, even when talking about personal obstacles, and was just right for sending us home all fired up to get back to creating. She both began and ended her talk by reminding us that “there is no divide”, and that authors are just people like anyone else.

We sat down for a last lunch (with a huge round of applause for chef Amanda and her staff), and then said our goodbyes to all our new (and old) friends, and then it was time to take off my name tag, grab my bags, and drive the three hours back to Connecticut.

 

Our printed schedule ended with Master Yoda’s words: “That which you seek inside you will find.” That may be true, but all of us at the 2018 Poconos Retreat found plenty in each other, too, and in the inspiring words of our weekend mentors.

 

 

High points for the weekend:

  • Location, location, location. And did I mention location?
  • Star Wars references everywhere!
  • Great faculty choices: everyone was kind, generous, and friendly, full of wisdom to share.
  • Good attendee vibes. Everywhere I turned I was met with a smile and a friendly face. I returned home with lots of nice memories, and plenty of new Twitter and Instagram contacts, too.
  • My awesome roommate, Tina Holt. I was a little worried about sharing a cabin with a stranger, but Tina was a star. #TeamCabin20
  • Okay, I won’t mention the food again, but I loved the ‘help yourself’ hot/cold drinks stations set up all over the place. And the baskets of snacks, too. (Oops, did I just mention food?)
  • The Eastern PA SCBWI crew: Kim Briggs, Alison Green Myers, Lindsay Bandy, and Virginia Manning. You all rock, thanks for organizing this tremendous weekend.

 

Poconos Retreat, Part I

(In two parts, because it was just THAT great!)

Ever since I met the ray of sunshine that is YA author Kim Briggs, five years ago at my first ever SCBWI conference (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), I’ve wanted to go to the annual retreat organized by her region, Eastern PA SCBWI. This year I finally made it down to Pennsylvania, and I’m so glad I did!

Around thirty or so writers and illustrators gathered with faculty and staff at the lovely Highlights Foundation center in the Poconos, for a weekend of workshops, critique sessions, good food (so much good food!), and lots and lots of creative chit chat. The theme? May The Force Be With You, of course. What else for a start date of May 4th?

The magic began on Friday evening. After appetizers, the illustrator showcase, and dinner, we were all invited to go to the podium and present our homework. Yes, homework: to prepare a short presentation of what the Force means for you and your work. A great opening for the weekend. (I’m saving mine to share in another blogpost; wait and see!)

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Wookiee Cookie from Saturday’s lunch

Saturday, after a generous breakfast in the Barn (seriously. So. Much. Food.), we were treated to an opening keynote by YA author K.M. Walton, who encouraged us to trust our goals and dreams; to know our dreams and do the work to make them happen.

Next, I headed up to the Lodge for a workshop on Plot Meets Character with Kate Prosswimmer, editor for the Sourcebooks Fire and Jabberwocky imprints. Kate went over some of the key approaches for breaking down plot and character in stories, and then suggested we chart our own novels with the tools she introduced us to.

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Plot Meets Character workshop

After lunch (more REALLY GOOD food; I was feeling thoroughly pampered by that point!), it was time for the keynote by author/illustrator Angela Dominguez. Angela talked about the difficulties of growing up bilingual — something that most people in my family can relate to! She also gave us an important reminder: that there’s a lot of waiting in publishing, and it’s okay to get frustrated.

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Keynote by Angela Dominguez

It was time for a break and a group photo, and then onto the keynote by editor and author Harold Underdown. Harold walked us through a selection of children’s books for all ages and talked about the importance of beginnings and endings: of making a promise to your reader at the start of a story, and following through on that promise at the end.

The afternoon was set aside for peer critiques (and one-on-one critiques with faculty for those who had signed up for one), but as I had been deep in revision mode when the deadline came around, I hadn’t sent anything in. Instead, I snuck off to my cabin for a bit of tea and quiet time. With so much information bouncing around in my head, it was a perfect way to unwind.

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Some much-needed downtime

Saturday evening brought nachos on the patio while the faculty signed books inside, followed by dinner and the silent auction. There were lots of amazing items to bid on, and I’m pleased that one of my bids made it to the end: a 15-page manuscript critique offered by agent Kira Watson, along with a signed ARC from her client Naomi Hughes’ upcoming release, Afterimage.

We closed the night on a high note: with s’mores on the patio by the open-air fireplace under twinkling lights. And then it was off to our cozy cabins for our last night in Writer’s Paradise.

Retreat, Regroup, Resume

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This morning’s view from my kitchen window

I sit here in my cozy kitchen looking through my manuscript notes as yet another nor’easter blasts my town with snow, and I’m content. Not only content, but downright happy. I don’t even care that it’s snowing AGAIN. I’m happy because the new story I’m working on has finally had its niggles worked out and its outline charted, and I’m ready to blast my way forward.

After getting my head stuck in boggy, swampy plot points for a good couple of weeks, I’m finally moving on. The main reason for my breakthrough is this: I was lucky enough to spend time this past weekend with friends in Vermont on an informal writing retreat.

We gathered for meals and coffee/tea breaks, and for post-lunch writing prompts, as well as evening readings and critique sessions. The rest of the time, I was able to dive into my work. No distractions of family, grocery lists, or laundry piles. No TV shows calling from my overflowing DVR. Nothing but my laptop, my notes, and a dog or two. I ended my weekend with:

  • 70 pages of revision
  • The makings of a much-needed new start to my work in progress

Now, I know not everyone can take a weekend off — there are many things going on in people’s lives, like small children or elderly parents, pets, or weekend jobs. Not everyone has a place to go, or knows someone with an awesome house in the snow (like me!), or can afford a hotel or a cabin rental. But there are other ways to break out of your routine if you’re stuck. Try spending a Saturday, or a weekday evening, writing someplace where you wouldn’t usually go, like your town’s library, or a welcoming coffee shop. Hide away at a friend’s house for a morning. Sneak away from your colleagues at lunchtime and find yourself a quiet corner. Get away from those everyday distractions, even if it’s for an hour or two.

Now, rather then just stick with your usual writing routine, label this a MINI RETREAT and set yourself some ground rules. Give yourself an internet allowance, and ignore the online world the rest of the time. If you manage to wrangle yourself an entire day or two, set break times, meal times, and times to relax. Start out with a clear idea of what you want to do. In my case, it was revise the work I had already done and adjust the plot points I’d changed so I could move forward. You can make this work for you, even on a 1hr lunch break: say, 15 mins to eat and browse the internet, 40 mins working on a chapter, developing a character arc, or mapping out a fight scene, and then 5 mins of free internet time at the end.

If you allow yourself to carve out this sacred space every now and then, and keep it fiercely for yourself, I hope you’ll find — like me — that it boosts your productivity and sharpens your focus. Retreat, regroup and then, with your ‘writer brain’ back on track, prepare to resume your regular writing schedule, full speed ahead.

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Retreat bliss: a peaceful writing corner

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For my Blade Hunt fans: no, I haven’t forgotten you, I promise! I have a gazillion notes and a basic outline for Book 3, Star Blade, and will be jumping back into my Blade Hunt Chronicles world in April, as soon as this draft of my new project is ready for my beta readers’ eyes… More updates on Star Blade and King’s Blade (Book 4) coming soon!