Friday, June 24, 2011

Taking a Leap

I have two announcements today. 1. The winner of Tracy Bilen's book giveaway is... Jeanette! Tracy will be sending you a copy of 13 Little Blue Envelopes. Thanks to everyone who commented.

And 2. HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME!

Yes, today is my birthday, and I'd like to reminisce about one of my "big" b-days. My friends and family wanted to celebrate my 40th birthday with a big bash, but I had a different treat in mind.
For years, I had studied writing course guides from MFA programs to the Iowa Writers Workshop to Chautauqua. Then I learned about the Highlights Foundation Whole Novel Workshop.

I would need to apply and submit samples of my work; they only accepted 8 students. I would need to leave my family for an entire week. And I would need to cough up a good chunk of change in a turbulent economy. It was time to take my writing craft to the next level. Happy birthday to me!

I received an email from Carolyn Coman (Carolyn Coman! The trifecta honoree of children's book awards- Newbery Honor, Printz Honor, and National Book Award finalist!). She informed me that I had been selected for the workshop, but she wanted to make sure I was prepared to take a leap of faith. She asked me to consider a complete "re-visioning" of my novel. Was this really what I wanted? Yes, it was time to take the leap.

Carolyn read my entire manuscript and sent me a four page, single -spaced critique letter a week before the workshop. I mulled over her comments, flew to Pennsylvania, and met my fellow students. Our marked-up manuscripts were returned to us after dinner, and we retired to our private cabins to pour through our stories.

Everyone used their time in different ways. Some were ready to hit their keyboards and dive into revisions. Others attempted storyboarding to work on their plots. I had plenty to think about, the re-visioning that Carolyn had recommended. I spent a few mornings exploring wooded hiking trails along a roaring river.

Every afternoon, we met for a group workshop - critiquing each others' manuscripts, followed by a discussion on various writing topics led by Carolyn, Donna Jo Napoli (Check out her many wonderful books!) or Monika Schroder. At that time, Monika was a librarian and MFA student who had previously attended the workshop. Just recently, her second published novel won a Crystal Kite Award from SCBWI.

Carolyn likes to storyboard during the revision process to help her look at sequencing and emphasis. She identifies what happens in each chapter (briefly, in one sentence) and names the dominant emotion. Then, she thinks backward from this emotional blueprint to fill in plot. What is the character's motivation, and what do you need to emphasize in each and every chapter?

Going beyond the usual "write what you know" advice, Donna Jo introduced the topic of autobiography and its place in your book. She recited a quote by Katherine Patterson, "Write what only you can write," and asked the group what this meant to us. Essentially, everyone has their own unique worldview that's shaped by our personal experiences over time, and this is what you bring to your writing. This was our most emotional discussion of the week, cutting to the core of each of us.

Did I mention these topic discussions were followed by appetizers and wine? Then we gathered around a large table on a screened-in porch for a family-style dinner, dessert, and conversation. The gourmet chef, Marcia, used locally grown, in-season produce to create delicious, healthy meals all week. She was happy to discuss her recipes, so not only did we learn from the writing pros, we received informal cooking lessons too.

Overall, it was a challenging and inspiring week in a beautiful setting with a talented group of writers. I couldn't have asked for a better birthday present.

Last week, I learned that my completely "re-visioned" novel won first place in the Fire and Ice contest through Chicago-North RWA. I'm finalizing revisions on another manuscript, and a new story is in progress. As I write, and rewrite, I hear Carolyn's voice. Who are you talking to?, she asks when my first-person narration turns self-conscious. Which line in this paragraph best illustrates what you want to emphasize? The heart, the motivation... Cut the rest.

Have you attended a writing workshop that required a leap of faith? That helped advance your writing to the next level? Please share!

21 comments:

Kristen Simmons said...

1. HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU!

and 2. HAPPY FRICKING BIRTHDAY TO YOU! That is amazing news! Congratulations on the contest, and on having a wonderful, life-changing experience. I'm so excited for you! What a way to kick off the year.

3. This writing retreat pretty much sounds like my dream vacation.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Wow, thank you for sharing this. What an experience that workshop was. And also, happy birthday!

Katie McGarry said...

Congratulations on winning the Chicago Fire and Ice. I am so happy for you! This is the start of many wonderful things and Happy Birthday!

Ann Finkelstein said...

This is awesome. Congratulations on the Fire and Ice. I wanted to try for the Whole Novel Workshop this year, but a Foundation workshop I attended a few years ago is having a reunion and I felt like I had to attend that instead.

Tracy Bilen said...

Sounds like the perfect combination of writing and nature! Congrats, congrats, congrats!

S. R. Kriger said...

Happy birthday!

And congratulations on the Fire and Ice contest! It's crazy to think of how long ago Whole Novel was and how much everyone's work has grown since then :) Hope to hear great news about your current revision and new project in the future, too!

Natalie Aguirre said...

What a great way to celebrate a special birthday and your writing. And congrats on winning the award. That is so awesome.

Susannah Nichols said...

Kristin, this was fantastic to read. So proud of your persistence and willingness to leap in order to get your writing to the best place it can be. (This blog is pretty sweet too!)

Kelly said...

So glad you had such a great experience, Kristin. I loved the Whole Novel Workshop so much that it inspired me to continue leaping...I graduated from Vermont College in January. Congrats on your awards. I'm sure there will be more in your future.

Kelly Barson

Kristin Lenz said...

Thanks everyone for the b-day wishes and congrats! Katie and Tracy - have a great time at RWA! Ann - I'd love to go back to Highlights Foundation for a reunion workshop. Sarah and Susannah - I'm looking forward to hearing good news about your writing too. Kelly - a big congrats on graduating - that took a huge leap of courage and hard work!

Monika Schroeder said...

Hi Kristen,
Thanks for mentioning me on the blog. Yes, it was sure a wonderful and intense time at the workshop. I just saw Stephen at the ALA Conference.
Congratulations to the Fire and Ice and all the best for your birthday! -- Monika

aneducationinbooks said...

Thanks for this post--I've often wondered about those intense workshops, so thanks for sharing.

Shutta Crum said...

Kristen;

This is great! And wow...congratulations on the win!!!

You need to post to Mich-Kids so we can all feel empowered by your success...or a "little bird" just might do it for you.

Many hugs! S.

Stephsco said...

Wow, what an amazing sounding workshop! That sounds incredibly beneficial. I have yet to do anything like that, beyond a local writer's group I attend. So, being from Michigan, you are able to enter into a Chicago RWA contest? I always hear about RWA, they seem to have a lot of resources, but I don't write romance!

Just found your blog and wanted to say Hi.

Kristin Lenz said...

Thanks Shutta - you're always good about cheering us MichKids on!

Stephsco - glad you discovered our blog! The RWA contests are great, and usually open to anyone. Sometimes, they're open only to people outside of the sponsored area- not sure why. I didn't think I wrote romance either, but most YA novels have a romantic element. And some of the contests have a "women's fiction" category too. Good luck!

ShariB said...

Happy Birthday! And a big congrats on the award. If that's not motivation to keep writing, I don't know what is...

I find myself thinking back to our week together often. It was a magical experience where we got to leave our real lives behind (kids, work, bills, etc...) and just be artists and writers and think only about our work, our creative process, and eating incredible food. Maybe we should have a Highlights reunion on my 40th next summer. What do you think?

Kristin Lenz said...

Shari - I'm in!

Kurt Hampe said...

Kristin,

Good post, I appreciate your explanation of how people used their time at the workshop. I haven't been to a workshop of that length, just conferences and a one-day retreat with writing exercises. If those have a weakness, it's that there isn't enough time to do any in-depth writing and revision as part of an exercise, especially if there are several participants. Your adventure sounds like a great balance of time and interaction. Thanks for sharing the details.

Randy Bulla said...

Wow Kristin! Big congrats on the win. And of course, Happy Birthday.

Colette Ballard said...

Happy Birthday to you, Kristen!! And guess what, my 40th was the day before yours and i did a very similar writerly thing to celebrate me--I went to the RWA conference in NYC!! Yeah for us and picking excellent presents for our 40-year-old selves!!!

Kristin Lenz said...

Happy belated b-day, Collette! And good for you - RWA in NYC must have been an amazing experience.