March 23, 2010

Subject: A Top Ten List from Vermont Writing Retreat

Last weekend, I traveled to Montpelier, Vermont to attend the Novel Writing Retreat at Vermont College of Fine Arts, a workshop for 25 middle grade and young adult novelists organized by Sarah Aronson and Cindy Faughnan. The faculty included Nancy Mercado, executive editor at Roaring Book Press, Emily Jenkins (E. Lockhart for YA fans), and Uma Krishnaswami.

Weekend Highlights

10. Visiting Montpelier. This was my first trip to Vermont, ever. It was unseasonably warm when I arrived (temperatures in the mid 60s!). I enjoyed walking from campus to town, which is home to the capitol, several bookstores, and the Capitol Grounds Coffee Shop.

9. Dorm Living. Nothing like cinderblock walls and the hum of a mini-fridge to take you back to college days!

8. Book Recommendations. My to-read pile grew after each participant shared a recent favorite MG or YA book. Several people recommended our current StorySleuths book (The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly) as well as June’s book, One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia. One Crazy Summer has gotten starred reviews from Horn Book, Booklist, and Kirkus. Another recommendation: The Sky is Everywhere, by VCFA grad Jandy Nelson.

7. Prizes. I won a door-prize, the F&G of Feeding the Sheep by Leda Schubert, who is a member of the VCFA faculty. Schubert’s rhyming text along with beautiful illustrations by Andrea U’Ren tells the story of a mother and daughter who raise sheep and harvest wool.

6. Cafeteria Food. I have no complaints about the cafeteria food at Vermont College, all of which was prepared by students from the New England Culinary Institute. We had some great veggies… plus delicious cookies at every meal.

5. Workshop. The retreat’s critique track included a workshop with four other writers. I always love workshop time when at Hamline, and this was no different. I learn so much from reading other people’s work as well as from their feedback on my work. Critique Group One was awesome.

4. Making Things Worse. Emily Jenkins, author of The Boyfriend List and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks, shared her techniques for plotting and pacing. At every step, she asks, “What’s the worst that can happen?” She also showed us different versions of the same scene so we could see how she revised for pacing. (My comments on the structure of The Boyfriend List are here.)

3. Reading Birthmarked. For her talk on pacing, Nancy Mercado gave participants a sneak peek at Caragh O’Brien’s new book Birthmarked, a dystopian novel set in a post-climate change society next to Unlake Michigan. Although I probably wouldn’t have chosen the book on my own, I have to say that I loved Birthmarked. Action, suspense, moral choices, plus a romance… definitely read it. Birthmarked hits bookstores next week.

2. Brainstorming with Uma. I am so grateful for the opportunity to talk about my work-in-progress with Uma Krishnaswami, author of Monsoon and Naming Maya. She provided excellent feedback on my opening pages as well as good advice about the directions I plan to take in the rest of the book.

1. Making Connections. As always, it was so great to meet other writers who love MG and YA books as much as I do. Good luck, all, in your writing. Hope to see your novels soon!


  1. Hey Heather-
    I met you at the Vermont College retreat and saw your blog through Storysleuths. I love all your writing posts. You have so many good insights and ideas, which is so great for me right now because I'm feeling stuck. Great blog! It was nice to meet you!
    Sherry Berrett

  2. Hi Sherry!
    It was great to meet you in Vermont. I hope you had a good trip home. Sorry to hear you're feeling stuck. I struggled this week to refocus--it was hard to get back into the normal routine after a weekend away PLUS I was trying to wrap my head around the feedback I got at the retreat.

    I started thinking about the goals exercise Sarah led at the beginning of the retreat, and so I decided to dedicate a block of time to working on my novel before doing any other work (hence, the lack of posts here last week). I didn't move forward on my novel, but I did spend the time brainstorming about directions and characters.

    I hope your writing starts to flow again. Please stay in touch! I'd love to hear how you're doing.

  3. This is so helpful. I have been trying to figure out a writing process that will be more efficient and help me move toward my most important goals. Thank you!

  4. Hi Molly,
    Thanks so much for coming by. I hope your writing is going well.

  5. Hi Heather - we met at the weekend - just saying I'm finally getting around to reading your blogs and making contact. I was working hard on my first workshop pieces for July, when I start at VCFA.
    I really enjoyed meeting you, and I'm enjoying your storysleuths blog as well - particularly your midpoint piece. Bravo!

  6. Hi Nicole--
    So nice to hear from you! I hope you're doing well. You must be excited about the residency coming up. That will be so much fun.

    I hope your writing is going well! Enjoy Vermont!