Friday, March 25, 2011

Why all new writers should attend writing retreats

Well, aspiring writers shouldn't attend just any retreat. They should attend one
sponsored by a reputable college.

The University of Vermont School of Fine Arts in Montpelier, Vermont, was the first college to offer a degree in Children's Literature in the U. S., and they have a good reputation for having created authors like award winners Kathy Appelt and New York Times noted author Carrie Jones. The school's faculty are published authors, many of whom attended the college. After having gone through all the trials of making it in the real world of publishing, they then come back to teach others about all the steps to get "there" too. The school offers not only a winter weekend retreat, but a summer week long one, where newbies and returning authors exchange ideas and enjoy the sights and pleasures of Vermont's majestic mountains. The school offers a low residency MFA degree as well, where students communicate with professors online for a year and a half, and only come to Vermont for two one week stints.

At the retreat I attended last weekend, I was lucky enough to have my submission looked at by K. L. Going, author of Writing and Selling the YA Novel and Saint Iggy, as well as Fat Kid Rules the World. All three of these books have been highly praised, and as synchronicity would have it, Ms. Going's book was the last book I had read on the craft of writing. She was very gentle and encouraging with me, and spoke of the positive aspects of my partial manuscript before saying what I needed to work on. She left me feeling like there was no way I couldn't complete and sell my book some day. All budding authors know what it feels like to worry about if they are "kidding themselves". She dispelled that notion for me. I needed to hear someone who has published say I was OK.

Because this was a week long hiatus from the real world and all its responsibilities, aspiring authors are able to really take the time to examine and comment on each others' work. I have been at crit groups, where I felt my fellow learning curve students barely had time to skim my submissions. For this retreat, however, I know I spent hours just looking at my crit group's first twenty-five pages and tried to write something on every page. The group gave me the best ideas I've ever received in how to start my novel in a different way, and how to reorder events. It was also a learning curve to discover what others were writing about and how their styles differed. This seemed to be the year of gender identity issues in my group, and about bullying. It was a pleasure for me to discover that almost everyone, like myself, was interested in creating real literature, and not Wimpy Kid take offs, not to put down Jeff Kinney. I think the college atmosphere attracts the more literary writer.

Everything about the time spent for two days on campus was intensive, as well as fun. There was a launch party before registraton at Bear Pond Books, where Tim Wynne Jones from Canada signed off on his 20th novel, Blink and Caution. E. L. Goning also signed off on her latest. Did I mention cupcakes, chocolate and lots of red wine! Food for meals was provided by the culinary school.

There were great workshops on both character driven YA novels as well as those plot-driven. Ms. Goning, who considers herself a pantser, and who writes a book after she visualizes a unique character, spoke about voice, and about the importance of pace and style or rhythmn as well as the choice of words in dialogue to show the specialness of that character. She indicated that sometimes it is necessary to exaggerate a voice to get a point across.

Tim Wynne Jones put us through exercises and spoke about the mechanics of dialogue, including the necessity of adding body language and inserting pauses at crucial moments. An excellent workshop on the importance of plotting and creating an outline was conducted by Claudia Gable of Harper Collins, here below with workshop co-cordinator, Cindy Faughnan. Claudia is also a writer and the author of Romeo, Juliet, and Vampires. She told us that today publishing houses often spec a book, that is they need a certain kind of book to fill what they think would complete their offering for the year, and so they find someone either in or out of house to write that book.

Earlier in the Friday night session, authors had been aided in getting in touch with their child-like selves by being given play dough to work with, and paper and charcoal, to act out the emotions of their main character and feel those emotions as part of their own body.

I'd like to thank Sarah Aronson for being a great hostess, and Ann Cardinal, who handles registration, for ensuring that the best cupcakes in the world were served. I hope to attend the event again. I have been to conferences, dialogues, crit groups, but this weekend was the best money I've ever spent to learn about writing.

Other authors in attendance included Mitali Perkins, author of Bamboo People, Janet Fox, author of the historical novel set in Yellowstone Park, Faithful, Alisa M Libby author of The King's Rose about Henry VIII's fifth wife Catherine Howard. Alisa and I had a great talk in of all places, the girls' dorm bathroom!

If you loved college, and you love to write, you have to try this experience!


  1. Mary Lou - it was lovely to meet you, and I hope our paths cross again soon!

    hugs - Janet

  2. Thanks, Mary Lou! When Cindy and I first decided to organize this retreat, we HOPED that it would inspire, teach, and nurture writers. What this retreat has become...well...part of it is the people who teach. Part of it is the place. Part of it is the people who attend. Everyone is SO generous. I learn a lot every year.

    It was great meeting you! Good luck with your writing!!


  3. Sounds like you got a lot from the retreat Mary Lou. Lovely to hear. Thanks for sharing. Kim

  4. Oooooh! I have always wanted to go on a writers retreat somewhere, but have never quite made it. I did get invited to one up north once, but it was when I had to go away for work, so I never got there. I was completely gutted about it... but by reading your post - you have lit the writers retreat candle again that's within me. Thank you Mary Lou - great post, and I'm so pleased that you had a wonderful time.
    Leigh :-)

  5. Hi Mary Lou, Glad you had such a marvelous experience. My first total submersion in a world of words occurred at Centrum's Writers Conference in Port Townsend, WA. I went back a few times and a years back just went for the Centrum Writers retreat (only attending lectures and readings, no workshop participation). There's nothing like spending an extended period of time with other writers and learning more about the craft from the pros. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Hey Warrior
    Come on over to my blog and collect your Stylish Blogger Award....
    :) Tee

  7. Glad you had such a nice experience. Thanks for the share.