I am a compulsive planner. I love making lists. I love checking off boxes. So, when I’m planning on a trip to Highlights, I like to plan accordingly. The Highlights Retreat Center is a magical place, and every time I go I want to make the most of it. In August, I’ll be heading back to Unworkshop, but also in my capacity as an editor for Tor Teen and Starscape. I’ll be giving an hour-long presentation with Lauren Spieller, an agent at TriadaUS, that walks through the process of taking a manuscript from first draft to publication. We’ll be giving our unique perspective as writers also working in the industry. And of course we’ll also be taking questions and hanging around at mealtimes.
I am unreasonably excited about this. So, naturally, I’ve started planning already. I’ve been to Highlights several times now and have discovered a few things that help me make the most of my time there. Here are five tips I’m using to plan this retreat. Maybe they will help you plan your own!
When packing for Highlights, I try to pack light and smart. I’m personally not a big pajamas writer. I try to treat writing like a job, so that means getting dressed and sitting down at a desk. I usually pack a pair of leggings and jeans, a few T-shirts, and my favorite sweatshirt. That’s about as dressed up as I get. Other writers want to look much more put together. Others show up in sweats. All are perfectly acceptable. Do what works for you. Highlights is a place where you can nurture your most creative self–so wear what you want!
I always pack a pair of hiking boots, because trail-walking is an essential part of my Highlights experience. You never know if it’s going to be muddy or what sort of little bugs are hanging out in the woods, so I err on the safe side and just wear boots. Tennis shoes also work well.
Other things you might consider packing: a notebook (Highlights provides one, but I like to keep all my notes in one spot); a book to read at night (I usually pick an old favorite or nonfiction, so it doesn’t end up distracting me from my own writing); your own toiletries (if you’re picky about shampoo, et al); yoga clothes (there’s sometimes yoga in the barn, if that’s your thing); and a picture or two to inspire you!
Plan Your Project
When I go on a Highlights retreat, I try to set goals beforehand. This helps keep me focused and makes me feel like the weekend has a specific purpose.
A good rule of thumb for goal-setting: be ambitious but also realistic. If you usually write 1,000 words a day but aim to write 10,000 words a day at Highlights, you’re probably going to disappoint yourself and feel frustrated. But 2,000 words a day, given the extra time and focus you’ll have, is a reasonable but still aggressive goal. You’ll feel satisfied that you set a challenge and met it. And you can always change these goals along the way.
I just turned in a final draft of my manuscript to my agent, so I will probably be drafting while I’m at Highlights. This could change as I get closer to the date, but I’ll nail down my writing plans the week before. Having this done before you get there will allow you to dive right in! Pro tip: If you’re going with a friend, talk about what you both hope to achieve on the way. This is also often a question I ask other writers at breakfast: “What are you hoping to do today?” Accountability is a great way to keep yourself on track.
Break Up the Day
At Highlights, your day is naturally broken up by mealtimes. When I’m planning my days, I take this into account. I have found that each time chunk can be useful for different types of work. The key here is knowing yourself and when you’re most productive and creative. Here’s how it works for me:
Plan to Unplug
Highlights does have Wi-Fi, so you can access the Internet if you need to use your phone, check your email, do research, or post a photo of your awesome writing view. But it can be creatively rejuvenating to unplug as well. One of the first things I do at Highlights is turn off my phone and put my computer in airplane mode. I try not to bring my phone with me to meals or on walks so that I can be fully present. Not everyone can or wants to unplug that fully, but I’ve found it creatively refreshing. No news. No status updates. No urgent emails. Just writing. The world will still be there when I return.
A few tips for planning this: Set up an away message on your email, put up a status on Twitter that says you’re checking out for the weekend, and let anyone who might worry know that you’re away from your phone for long stretches of time. I also usually post a pic to Facebook so it’s obvious I’m unplugged in the woods.
Instead of being hooked to my phone, I plan certain times to check it, and I try to keep them to a minimum. If you’re on the fence, try it for a few hours. You’d be amazed at how great it feels to step away from it all and just focus on your writing!
Embrace the Spontaneous
I’m not the first nor will I be the last person to say that Highlights is a magical place. You might get a new idea you want to explore or be inspired to take your story in a new direction. While still being disciplined about your time and goals, consider letting your creativity lead you. Even if it’s just for one chunk of the day, embrace the unexpected–you never know what may come of it!
Along those lines, one of the best parts about Highlights is getting to talk with all the other writers attending. As much as I love all the time alone in my cabin, I also love working in the Barn in the evenings and hanging out after a meal because I’m having a great conversation with someone, or inviting a new friend to join me on a walk. Give yourself breathing room. Spend some time in the stone garden, play with the neighbor’s dog, or even take a nap in the sunshine in your cabin or room. I try to think of Highlights as both a work trip and a creative vacation. You’re in a beautiful, secluded place where you don’t have to worry about meals and can embrace your most creative self. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I’m allowed to just rest and relax and that that’s fueling my creativity, too.
If you’re looking for an awesome place to get away for a few days, focus on your craft, and spend some time with an agent and editor, please consider joining me and Lauren Spieller. We’ll be at Highlights from August 9-13. We hope to see you there! But whether your retreat is then, now, or sometime later, happy writing!
Posted on: June 19, 2017