Kindling Words Inspiration

I spent this past weekend at Kindling Words, a retreat for children’s writers, illlustrators, and editors.  It was four blissful days of workshops, group meals, and talking with other people who discuss fictional characters with the same passion as if they were real family members or friends.  And writing.  Lots of writing. 

I didn’t take many photos this year, but I came away from the long weekend with two picture book drafts that are now complete, a chapter one of a new maybe-project, and a middle grade mystery that is many hours closer to ready than it was before I checked into the inn.  Thanks to my KW colleagues, I also came away with some new thoughts on writing goals, the future of the industry, and the vital role that imagination will play in that future. Good things, all.

Me, Laurie Halse Anderson, Kathryn Hulick, and Loree Griffin Burns

The Kindling Words Bonfire, in which rock-solid marshmallows were roasted (it was -3 that night!) and little slips of paper were burned, sending dreams up to the universe in smoke.

Kindling Words

This weekend, I attended Kindling Words, a retreat for published authors, illustrators, and editors of children’s books.  KW is a little difficult to describe because the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts.  There were workshops and readings and informal discussion.  There was also painting, yoga, South African drumming, a January bonfire, writing time, and lots of dessert.  Together, it added up to four days of magic.

Thankful Thursday

It’s not quite Thursday, but I’m feeling thankful for:

…SNOW!!  We didn’t get as much as expected (I think

stole it all when the storm swung to the south), but it’s still beautiful, and the skiing will be great this weekend.

…the delete button on my keyboard.
  I just finished a rewrite of a chapter book that my agent said needed to lose some weight before it sees the light of day.  
                Before:    15,300 words
                After:         9,988 words
 (She was right, too.  The new version is simpler, funnier, more universal, and more kid-friendly. One more revision pass, and I’ll be ready send it off.)

…March Novel Madness, a get-moving, springtime writing project born at the Kindling Words retreat last month.  My goal is going to be 5000 words per week, which should carry me to the end of my new middle grade novel.  I’m especially thankful for the talented, organized, and fabulously fun  Alison James, who sent out inspiration packages to the writers participating in MNM.  Once I figured out that the lumpy envelope in today’s mail wasn’t anthrax, I was delighted to find a word count calendar and peanut M&Ms inside.

…a Map of the World to guide my March writing. 

At one of Laurie Halse Anderson‘s Kindling Words workshops, she discussed the importance of setting details — and how hard it can be to “see” those details when you’re writing a contemporary novel.  I have a much easier time with historical novels, when all the rich setting details come from my research on real places and time periods.  What’s a writer to do with a neighborhood she made up?  Make a map?  That’s what several writers suggested to me, so I sat down with colored pencils and a huge piece of poster paper and mapped Zig’s neighborhood. 

It’s all there — the school, his best friend’s house, the diner, the rock skipping spot…everything. Already, it’s so much easier for me to envision the places that are part of his life.  It was really, really fun.  While I was drawing, I figured out something important about a secondary character’s backstory and discovered some spots in the neighborhood I hadn’t known about before.  Try this strategy!

Bonus for writers with kids at home:  They can do this right along with you.   E spent two hours adding details to her map of our neighborhood while I worked on mine.

Kindling Words

What do you get when you take 75 people who care passionately about writing, illustrating, and editing children’s books, put them together for four days, feed them a lot, and build a blazing fire on a cold January night?


I’m home from Kindling  Words, full of inspiration, ideas, new friendships, and rich desserts.  Homemade ice cream and pastries aside, this was an amazing weekend.

Laurie Halse Anderson‘s author strand on character and plot and Linda Sue Park‘s talk on scene as the bedrock for story were inspirational and immediately practical. When I sat down to write after each session, it felt like Laurie and Linda Sue were there over my shoulder, whispering in my ear, “Remember, make him uncomfortable…” and “Do you really want all that internal monologue?”  (Linda-Sue-Over-My-Shoulder thought not, so I cut a lot of it.)

The retreat also left room for informal “white space” discussions, and I had the chance to connect with friends and meet so many amazing, talented writers, illustrators, and editors whose work I’ve admired for so long.

Jane Yolen and Linda Sue Park catching up in the lobby…

I was thrilled to see Rochester Book Festival pals Kathleen Blasi (left) and Sibby Falk (right), and just as excited to meet Cinda Williams Chima (center), who not only writes but sings beautifully, too.


…  Look who else I met!

That’s me on the left, next to Cheryl Klein, Elizabeth’s editor for A Curse Dark As Gold, which comes out in March.  I enjoyed chatting with Cheryl because we discussed weighty matters like books and whether chocolate or caramel sauce would be better on the brownie sundaes.

Here’s LJ pal Sarah Darer Littman (

) with Wendy Mass

…along with Laurie Halse Anderson, Linda Sue Park, and Gregory McGuire.

Patricia Thomas (left) celebrated her birthday at KW on Sunday.  That’s Michelle Edwards in the middle and Janni Lee Simner (

) on the right.  Janni’s stories about Iceland make me want to book a flight there immediately.

I also met Katie Davis for the first time and was in awe of her energy.  I’ve been called hyperactive.  Katie makes me look like I’m standing still.

And here’s Donna Freitas with Sara Zarr.  I emailed Sara back and forth a couple times this month because I’m hosting a stop on her blog tour, but it was just last week that we figured out we were both going to the same retreat.  It was fantastic to chat with her in person.

It might sound sappy to say it, but everyone was nice here.  And interesting.  And talented. Everyone.  I wish I had photos of each person whose path crossed mine over the past four days.  (If you’re a fellow retreater and I didn’t catch you before the blog-cam ran out of batteries, please know that I loved meeting you, too!)

Here’s a huge group shot from the Kindling Words Caravan at Phoenix Books.  More than 40 authors & illustrators signed books for kids and their families Thursday night.

Super thanks to Natacha, Renee, & Mike at Phoenix for taking on this enormous event!

I made one more cold and shaky attempt at a group photo during the actual retreat.  (Be gentle with the photography criticism. It was dark and I had climbed onto a big slippery rock.)

Here we are, all bundled up for the traditional KW bonfire.  There’s a longstanding tradition here that retreat-goers write down something on a piece of paper — something they need to let go of, or a wish — and then drop it into the flames. 

On the way to the fire, one author worried aloud about people putting them both in the same fire.  What if you wrote the title of your novel on the paper as a wish that it would sell, but the Universe thought you wanted it gone and erased your hard drive while you were off roasting marshmallows?  I suggested that the bad things would all filter quietly down into the ashes, while the good things were carried off on the smoke to the writing goddesses.  Maybe, she said.  Then she labeled her paper WISH, with an arrow pointing to it.  Just in case.

Here’s my wish on its way to the flames…

I won’t tell you what it said, but I’ll let you know at the end of 2008 if it came true. 

I’ll share some other wishes, though — staying in touch with the wonderful people I met this week and returning to fan the flames at Kindling Words again.  It was truly a magical gathering of wisdom, wishes, and words.