It is the takeaways that count. Yes, the atmosphere, the complextion of the group, the fealty to the idea of craft and craft at a high level definitely count. But it is what you can takeaway—apply, use, incorporate into your own writing that makes a retreat, a conference, a writing event more than a good one, but a great one.
Falling Leaves in upstate NY run by the regional team of Nancy Castaldo, Lois Huey and Kyra Teis, falls into the great category. In part because I was not distracted by running the program, I was there to sit and to learn. I did.
It was also because the presentations which covered voice, character, tension, emotion and suspense came complete with writing exercises to draw more from the presenation than just notes, but practice.
I’m a plotter. Before I even know the character I know the basic plot. Like: MC finds out that _____ is able to ____ and yet saves the ____. I have a problem, some action and a solution. What I need is what Lisa Yoskowitz [Executive Editor, Little Brown Books for Young Readers] brought—Raising The Stakes–the conflict, the pacing and the suspense of getting to the solution. She talked about the ‘three sentence story‘ as a way to understand the problem, conflict and solution, i.e., Baby shoes. For Sale. Never Worn. The middle sentence sets up the suspense. Also being able to write this three sentence story is great for a pitch.
This complimented Ben Rosenthal’s [Senior Editor, Katherine Tegan Books] Revise with In-Tension, adding friction to the dialogue. Not ‘he opened the doors and walked in’, but better ‘the door blew open as he rushed in’. Ah. Adverbs and adjectives!
Cheryl Klein’s [Executive Editor, Arthur A. Levine Books] presentation Connecting With a Character was full of nuggets too numerous to mention. Her definition of the difference between MG and YA which revolves around home is of value. For a middle grade book–the ideal is to find family, friends and return home. For young adult–everything except home is what they want, to fight in a wider world.
Anne Heltzel’s [Editor, Amulet Books] Let’s Talk About Voice, Baby was for me [I’m the plotter, remember] what comes later, I have to know the story– establish plot, tension, character, then to the actual voice. We know voice compels agents and editors to read on. I know voice is the character. But it is more. Voice equals style, consistency and authenticity, meaning that the character MUST have a distintive emotional arc changing from beginning to end.
Oh, and that emotional arc. You can have the voice, but if you don’t have the emotion to go with it, the character is not compeling. Jill Santopolo [Executive Editor, Philomel Books] brought the retreat to a close with The Emotional Connection. Jill was on the faculty of our 2014 spring retreat and presented on voice and it was a wonderful discussion of using word choices to discover what the character sounded like, that consistency and authenticity that Anne Heltzel talked about. In this talk she paired that idea with action rather than attribution in dialogue. ‘In story, every action has an emotion behind it. Some more obvious than others.’ We all get what it means when a kid rolls their eyes, or stands twirling a strand of hair.
It was hard to say where one talk began and the others ended, because it takes all these–and more–to make a good story. For me, the talkaways were not of my own writing, although we each received a critique of 20 pages of a mss by one of the editors. For me, like anything I do, I don’t want to be told where and when to change my story. It’s my story. I want the skills I can take to my character to discuss and develop a more complete, satisfying story with a protaganist I would have related to as a kid, with the tension to keep me up at 2 am reading, with a voice that would resonate in my head for a long time after I finished reading.