Posted in Writing

My Cabin in the Woods: 5 Days at the Highlights Foundation

When most people hear Highlights, they think of colorful magazines strewn across end tables at doctors’ offices. They think of “Find It” pictures and Goofus & Gallant. They think of stories for children. But there is much more to the Highlights Foundation than just their seventy-year literary legacy, and I got a small taste of it last weekend at the Books with Bite workshop.

My trip began with a tour of Highlights and Boyds Mills Press in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, just a few miles away from the retreat center. It was interesting to learn that the magazine, which was started in 1946, is still a family business. The current CEO (only the third the company has had) is the great-grandson of the founders. I met him later at the “barn,” the large meeting house which serves as dining hall, living room, and workshop space. He wore suspenders and told jokes over breakfast. He and the other Highlights staff were always around, sharing meals with us and asking if there was anything they could do to make our stay better.

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I have to admit, this little welcome packet gave me the heebie jeebies. Luckily, I didn’t need to use it.

But what could we ask for? The retreat center—composed of the “barn,” the farmhouse, the lodge, and over a dozen cabins, all perched on the edge of beautiful woods with hiking trails—is quiet and serene. Writers have the space they need to think or work independently, while also having plenty of opportunity to converse with other attendees about ideas, craft, industry, or just chat about the weather, which was pretty perfect in early October. The place is large enough to house multiple groups at a time, and some workshops overlap, which means there are always new faces to meet at lunch or by the fireplace after dinner. During my five-day stay, I met picture book authors, illustrators, and nature writers. My friends and I were the only horror writers in the bunch, which automatically made us the “creepy kids.” It didn’t help that we accidentally left our brainstorming board up during dinner. Oops.

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Can you pick MY nightmares off this board?

Speaking of dinner, you would not believe how good the food is at this place. Seriously. Writers (and teachers for that matter) are not people used to being pampered, so when the website said all meals were included, I expected a Days Inn-style breakfast, a ten-foot sub for lunch, and pizza for dinner. I was wrong. The Highlights retreat center has amazing and accommodating chefs who prepare spreads of fresh, creative, delicious food three times a day. Four if you count the appetizers before dinner. (And why wouldn’t you? They were scrumptious.) I have no photos of the food because I was too busy eating to take pictures, but trust me, it was phenomenal. All of it. Every meal. I still have the three extra pounds I came home with to prove it. SO. GOOD.

Having never been to any other Highlights workshops (yet) I can’t say what each one is like, but the Books with Bite workshop, led by Nova Ren Suma and Micol Ostow, provided a nice balance of critiquing, discussion, and down time (for writing, hiking, or napping—I did some of each). Most of us arrived Wednesday afternoon, got a tour, settled in, and then met for dinner. Sunday was breakfast, a final meeting, and departures. But the three days in between all followed the same schedule. Here’s how it went:

A Day In the Life of a Horror Writer

  • 8:00-9:00AM – Walk from cabin to barn to drink coffee, eat delicious food, and chat with other attendees
  • 9:30-Noon – Workshop (Our group had nine participants, so we discussed three writers’ pages per day.)
  • Noon -1:00PM – Eat delicious food and chat with other attendees
  • 1:00-5:30PM – Free time to write, read, hike, nap, or talk to other writers (There was an optional writing prompt session for an hour during this time. This was also when one-on-one conferences took place between attendees and their mentors.)
  • 5:30-6:00PM – Appetizers and drinks on the patio
  • 6:00-7:00PM – Eat delicious food and chat with other attendees (On the first day, I also had the pleasure of meeting Denise Fleming, whose picture book workshop was ending. The Highlights staff made a beautiful speech about her and named a scholarship in her honor. Then they gave all guests copies of one of her books, which she signed.)
  • 7:30-9:00PM(ish) – Meet for discussion topics/readings/ghost stories (The ghost stories night was particularly interesting and inspired a strange nightmare/spooky experience which I’ll write about later.)
  • 9:00PM-morning – Free time to sit by the fire, write, sleep, or read horror stories on the porch while listening to the coyotes howl (Can you guess which ones I usually chose?)
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Photo from the Word Garden

As I said before, I don’t know how Books with Bite compares to other workshops, but I was impressed by how present and approachable our mentors were. Nova and Micol not only critiqued our pages, led our workshops, and facilitated our discussions, they also ate every meal with us, joined us for writing prompts and sharing, and offered feedback and advice about everything related to writing. It was wonderful being in such capable, creative, kind hands.

Nova and Micol were incredible, and their expertise and insight were invaluable. However, I found out you can also plan your own retreat at Highlights, where you work at your own pace without the aid of a mentor. It’s called an “unworkshop,” and I met several writers and illustrators who were there for that purpose. They were spending a few days in the lodge or the cabins, either individually or as a group, working on projects while soaking up the Highlights ambience. Hmm… sounds nice.

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What Did I Get Out of My Highlights Experience?

I got:

  • Great feedback on my manuscript
  • A new vision for the end of my novel
  • 20 pages of notes
  • 15 books to add to my reading list
  • 10 new friends
  • Connections with writers from around the country
  • Rest and relaxation
  • A boost of energy and inspiration
  • One spooky experience

So the only question I have is… who wants to plan an unworkshop with me???

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Don’t forget– If you comment on this month’s posts or share them on social media (and tag me), you’ll be entered in my OCTOBER GIVEAWAY!

 

 

Posted in Reading

Book Review: The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud

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Title: Lockwood & Co: The Empty Grave
Author: Jonathan Stroud
My Rating: 5 stars

Rarely do I find a book or a series of books that I love as much as Lockwood & Co. by Jonathan Stroud. This weekend, I finished The Empty Grave, the fifth and final book in the series, and the feelings I have about these characters’ stories coming to an end are very bittersweet.

The Lockwood & Co. series is about teenage ghost hunters in London. It is set in a time when ghosts have become a big problem in society. Instead of just one or two popping up now and then, they’re everywhere, and they’re dangerous. Ghost-touch is fatal, and adults are especially vulnerable because they can’t see the spirits. Children and teenagers are the ones with the Talents– the ability to see, hear, and sometimes communicate with the dead– so they are the ones hired to fight the ghosts, locate their Sources, and seal them to protect the living. Most of the agencies have adult supervision, but not Lockwood & Co. This small, independent group works without adults, and they’re not afraid to break the rules (or burn a few houses down) to get the job done.

In The Empty Grave, the Lockwood team, consisting of Lucy Carlyle (the sensitive who can communicate with Type 3 ghosts), Anthony Lockwood (the confident, reckless leader of the group), George Cubbins (the always-messy, expert researcher), and their associates (Holly, Kipps, Flo, and the Skull in the jar) are homing in on something big. They think the head of the top agency in London is not who she claims to be and they may actually be close to solving the ghost problem. But in order to prove they’re right, they have to face more danger than ever before, and may even have to take a trip to The Other Side.

One of my favorite things about this book is the Skull in the jar. The Skull is a character in the story, an unusual one. He is the Source of the ghost of a teenage boy, but he’s trapped in a silver glass jar, so he’s not dangerous, and he can communicate with Lucy. He’s sarcastic and rude to her but sometimes helpful, and I love the interactions between them. In this book, the Skull keeps trying to persuade Lucy to let him out of the jar, though he’s not exactly convincing. Here’s an exchange from page 99 of The Empty Grave:

“‘Say I let you out. What would you do?’
I’d flit about. Stretch my plasm. Might strangle Cubbins. Carry out a spot of casual ghost-touch, now and again. Just simple hobbies.’

I think the author writes the Skull’s voice really well. Although he can be a giant pain to Lucy, I love his wit and humor and enjoy listening to his snide remarks.

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How I spent my Saturday…

I love to read, but I am often a slow reader. However, I flew through The Empty Grave, finishing this 437-page book in less than a week. On Saturday, I read for hours, losing a few fingernails and gaining a LOT of calories in the meantime. (I like to snack while I read.) I kept trying to put the book down to do chores or grade papers, but I couldn’t stay away for long. I couldn’t leave my favorite characters alone in such desperate situations. I had to go back. I had to know what happened next. That’s another reason why I love Jonathan Stroud’s books. His characters feel like friends. I’m never lonely when I’m hanging out with Lucy and Lockwood and George. (And the Skull in the jar.)

That brings me to the only thing I didn’t like about The Empty Grave: it ended. I loved the book, but I hate that this story is over. I will miss my character friends. However, there is a way to keep in touch with them. YOU can read the books, and you can tell me what they’re up to. I’d really like that.

If the Lockwood & Co. series sounds like something you would enjoy, start with book one, The Screaming Staircase, and tell my friends hello for me.

Posted in Writing

Vote for “Makeup” in the TNT Horror Contest!

I have some news!!!

TNT (the TV network) is hosting a horror contest. There are some BIG prizes involved and the winner’s story will be purchased by the network.

I’m thrilled to announce that my story “Makeup” has made it into the top 100 entries! The stories are now in the hands of Wattpad voters. Voting ends this TUESDAY (December 6th). At that time, the top 35 stories will advance to the next level.

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“People don’t believe me when I say I’m not afraid of clowns, so I tell them this story to prove it. Of course, I leave off the ending.”

If you have a Wattpad account and enjoy disturbing stories about creepy clowns, please consider voting for “Makeup” or sharing it with a friend. And if you don’t have an account, you can still read the story for free here.

Disclaimer: Although most of my work is for YA or middle grade audiences, this story is adult and contains some mature content. You have been warned!

Thanks so much for your support! I’ll keep you posted about the results.