I spent the last week in Boyds Mills, Pennsylvania.
Where? No, the map doesn’t know where it is…but the magic does.
The Highlights Whole Novel Workshop for Fantasy, in Boyds Mills, Pennsylvania.
The first stop, the family home. This house in pastoral Boyds Mills belonged to the ancestors of the founders of Highlights and has been in the family for generations. Tucked in among the trees in a such a remote corner of Eastern Pennsylvania, even the cell phone towers cannot find you, it is the perfect spot for a retreat from the real world and a flight into fantasy. This is where participants gather to eat, drink, and critique.
Straightaway, I knew I was in for a treat when I was picked up at the airport and delivered at the doorstep of my temporary home, complete with a huge poster welcoming me by name.
Inside the cozy cabin, was a beautiful tote with my name, a conference lanyard and fun-filled schedule for the next eight days. No roughing it here. The cabin was heated, airconditioned, had its own frig, and a study corner where I set up my laptop and got to work.
Only eight manuscripts were chosen from the “slush pile,” eight lucky writers who were divided up between two incredible instructors who read the manuscript twice before we even got there and sent us a detailed editorial letter by e-mail. The forest queen of our group, Anne Ursu, is an author of several fantasy books including Shadow Thieves and is an instructor at the Hamline University Low Residency MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults.
Ellen, Rilla, Sylvia, Anne, Elizabeth
The lovely Laura Ruby is the author of several fantasy books for children, including Lily’s Ghosts and her latest Bad Apple.
Amanda, Karen, Claudia, Laura, Pam
Mornings were free time. After breakfast, you could go back to your cabin and write, go for a long walk in the woods that contained deer, porcupines, wild turkey, woodchucks,…and ticks, or swing to your heart’s content.
After lunch, the workshopping began. Each writer had already sent every participant the first fifteen pages of her work and it was time now to put herself on the line and listen to questions and concerns.
Despite just having her manuscript critiqued, Pam, our resident Fairyeater didn’t bat an eyelid. She opened up her cookie container, took our comments with a cupful of sugar, and had us chomping on sweet sugary wings!
In the evening came the lecture. Each instructor took turns talking on serious subjects such as fear, revisions, and strong characters. Not for naught, was this our favorite time of day as it also came to be known as The Cocktail Hour, shortly to be followed by hors d’ouvres.
Christine Heppermann was our graduate assistant. She is a poet and a regular reviewer for the Horn Book Magazine. Her poetry appears in the May/June Issue as well. She also holds an MA in children’s literature and an MFA in writing for children and young adults!
Elizabeth’s smile reflects keen knowledge. She knows what comes after hors d’ouvres!
Dinner of course! We were feasted and feted by the almighty Marcia and her team of helpers including Mary, an expert at milking the last drop of wine from its container. No food restriction was too difficult for Marcia. Her menus catered to the gluten free, the lactose intolerant, the vegetarian, the apple-allergic–nothing was too difficult for the culinary queen.
Dinner on the porch was always a rolicking affair. We all knew we would put on pounds despite being told by Marcia that Jane Yolen had beaten the odds and lost weight on her balanced meals. We knew we couldn’t be that lucky, yet. Maybe after we too have published two thousand odd books…
We did have to share the house with Others. Creatures the world forgot…and…
…the odd ghost or two.
And then the time came to a sudden close and we didn’t know how we were going to continue. Life after Highlights seemed bleak. To ease the pain, they gifted each of us with a novel from our esteemed instructors which we promptly insisted they sign, as if they hadn’t done enough for us, already.
It was so hard to let go.
Nobody wanted the fantasy to finish.
The Last Supper was tinged with sadness, and promises of reunion.
And now forever, we have woven a wormhole in our memories to a time of togetherness, a magical place shared, and I for one will return regularly through our portal of magic. The memories are so vivid, I don’t even have to shut my eyes.
Thank you, Anne, Laura, Christine, Tina Dubois Wexler, Amanda, Claudia, Elizabeth, Ellen, Karen, Pam, Sylvia, Marcia, Mary, Martha, Pam, Briann, Jo Lloyd, and the Highlights Foundation and family! This has been the most worthwhile workshop or writing retreat I have ever attended.