Posted by: Kathy Temean | May 15, 2013

Pumped Up in the Poconos

Mary Zisk attended the Highlights Novel Writing Workshop at the end of last year, so I asked her if she would share her experience with us. I think you will enjoy hearing about it and what she learn.


Pumped Up in the Poconos By Mary Zisk (back row with yellow scarf)

“Work on voice—like a girl talking to her best friend.”
“Focus on characterization—your characters feel a bit stock. Bottom line: it’s your job to entertain.”
“Is this a historical novel or a novel that takes place in a historic time? There’s a difference.”
“Make your novel shorter and characters younger. Forget boyfriends. Add touches of fantasy.” (Whaaa?)
“I lived through the sixties. Why would I want to read about it?”

That’s what I heard at last year’s NJSCBWI Conference in June. After critiques from an author, an editor, a consultant, a publisher, and an agent pitch for my middle grade novel, my head was spinning like a boardwalk Tilt-a-Whirl.
But there was a hopeful note. At the end of each critique, I said “I’m thinking of illustrating my novel.”

60s280“Hmm, that could work,” they all said.

So I literally went back to the drawing board to approach my novel illustratively. I kept drawing and writing and revising and characterizing and revising and plotting and revising. By winter, I had written my novel to the end, with illustrations for the first three chapters.

The 2013 NJSCBWI Conference was still five, long months away, which would be the next opportunity to meet with the pros to discuss my novel. Suspended in limbo, waiting for June, I cleaned the subterranean hoard known as my basement.

But the Universe pulled me out of limbo (and my basement) and led to me the Highlights Foundation Whole Novel Workshop: Middle Grade. I had heard writing friends reminisce about the Highlights Writing Workshop in Chautauqua, NY. Their eyes would glaze over with a combination of reverence and rapture. “Instructive. Inspiring. Life-changing,” they sighed.

“Huh, I need that,” I thought. “Now!”

No one had ever read my entire novel past the usual 15 or 30 pages. Hot-cha-cha, this workshop would be perfect! I’d return either pumped up or deflated.

The Highlights Foundation no longer has an annual workshop in Chautauqua, but instead, has more than thirty, short (three to seven days), theme-focused workshops throughout the year at their conference center outside of Honesdale, Pennsylvania, home of the Highlights office. The Whole Novel Workshop promised three author faculty members, one of whom would be my personal “reader.” Plus (GET THIS!), I’d have my own private, “rustic” cabin for writing and contemplation.


Author Alan Gratz was assigned as my reader. I immediately googled him and found that Alan had written sports novels and murder mysteries. I fretted. Could he relate to my female, coming-of-age 12-year-old, aspiring-artist, main character? Absolutely! Before the workshop, Alan sent me a six-page, single-spaced letter thoroughly critiquing my novel, and his insights were spot on. We had a strong starting point for renovating my novel at the workshop.

I drove (and antiqued) my way through the Pocono Mountains to the The Barn at Boyds Mills while the other participants arrived from all over the country. Our faculty members were authors Tami Lewis Brown, Alexandria LaFaye, and Alan, with help from authors Helen Hemphill and Sue Ford

The week started with a face-to-face with our reader, which I wanted to be honest and blunt—no pain, no gain. Alan hit me with the difficulties of selling a book set in the sixties (no agent will touch it). Why did I choose that time period? Should it be contemporary instead? I stuck with the sixties. Look at The Wednesday Wars or Dead End in Norvelt.

We dug into the meat-and-potatoes of my novel (although Alan only eats pizza). Alan thought the novel started with a strong goal and then dropped away for 25 pages. My novel’s chronology had always been a struggle, especially finding my beginning. I could wallpaper a bathroom with all the “first pages” I’ve written over the years (a master-suite bathroom, not just a powder room). I retreated to my cabin to wrestle with the chronology, conferred with Alan again, then back to the cabin to move chapters around and write a new first chapter. Hot dog! The beginning pieces of my plot snapped together. On to the rest.

Alan felt my novel continued at a nice pace, with conflicts, ups and downs, good humor, and heart. He questioned some of my decisions: Are the seventh graders too savvy about art? Is the lightning strike and resulting fire an unrealistic act of God? Is the reference to Vietnam intrusive, not instructive? Would today’s tween really know who Pepe Le Pew is?
Again, back to the cabin.

Later in the week, Alan made a masterful plot presentation to all of the participants using the hero’s journey and Star Wars. The other faculty members also made presentations: Tami showed us the advantages of storyboarding both actions and emotions, from first epiphany, through attempts and failures, recommitment, the depths of despair, victory, and resolution. Alex took us into a deep analysis of text, like the Double Duty Detail that puts details to work in many ways, flashbacks that are triggered by an object (I used this), and that chapter names, not numbers, generate a cognitive response in the reader.

Throughout the week, talking during meals at a large communal table, gathering in the sitting room, or working alone in our cabins, we were immersed in the craft of writing and nothing else (although I did sneak in a couple of posts to Facebook). On our final night, each participant read a few pages aloud from their novel. I discovered I had a gift for voices (maybe I should only do an audio book). Then we shared what our plan would be when we got home.

My plan was to:

1. Work on voice;

2. Illustrate my novel’s most compelling events as seen through my MC’s eyes

3. Attend the NJSCBWI Conference in June to improve my novel through more critiques (I’ll pitch it as “Ellie McDoodle meets The Wednesday Wars”)

Not only did that week in the woods solidify my novel, it gave me confidence in my skills. I arrived at Boyds Mills a participant and I went home a writer.

Next step: I plan to make merry with the New Jersey Tribe at the Conference!
See you there!


Mary Zisk is the author/illustrator of The Best Single Mom in the World: How I Was Adopted (A. Whitman & Co.). During the day, she is a magazine art director trying to hold on to the use of illustration in print. The rest of the time, she writes and illustrates picture books and middle grade novels.

Thank you Mary for sharing this very well written, interesting, and informative article with us. I love your idea of illustrating your middle grade novel and I love the humor in your illustrations. I can see how much your style has grown since I featured you on Illustrator Saturday in July of 2010.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Mary, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your recap of your experience at Chautauqua. Every time I hear about it, I salivate! lol I’m glad you got so much out of it, and enjoy the conference!


  2. wonderful Mary! I’m glad the Universe pulled you into the Poconos and also into Kathy’s blog to share it all!


  3. Mary, it made me feel like I was back there again. Thanks so much and Donna, you definitely should go.


    • Oh, Ann, I so wish I could! Sadly, though, even if I could afford it, I don’t think I could handle all the environmental exposures 😦 STILL…I WANT to 😀 lol


  4. Can’t wait to see these latest revisions, my talented friend!! (And to see you, too! 🙂


  5. Love it. Best wishes with your book, Mary! And thank you.


  6. Glad I was able to help!


  7. I tell ya, I really love the Poconos, I think it’s the best place to go on vacation in the North East. 🙂 Thanks!


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