Into the Woods

I mean this literally and figuratively.

In the literal sense, I’ll be heading off to a writing retreat this weekend. Some friends and I will be staying in a house deep in the woods of northeastern NY. The house used to be a hotel and the woods are (I’m told) dark and deep. It all sounds very atmospheric. I think there’s an equally likely possibility that we’ll:

a. have a great time and get lots of writing done


b. be devoured by sinister forces that dwell beneath moss and stone, never to be heard from again.

Wish us luck!

In the figurative sense, I’ve definitely wandered out of reality and down a winding path with an unknown end. I call this journey Miranda’s First Draft Adventure in which I temporarily disconnect from reality. When I’m feeling my way through a new project for the first time, I tend to go invisible. Or, maybe a better way to put it is that the real world becomes invisible to me.

It might look like I’m cooking dinner or having coffee with a friend or folding laundry, but I’m not. I’m actually working out the way this character might react in a particular situation or considering how to fix a plot hole. I’m not really in a classroom in Queens queuing up the afternoon’s lecture but on a damaged shuttle in another galaxy, trying to imagine how my protagonist will react when he finds out his best friend is a lying liar.

The “here but not here” part of working on a first draft has many advantages. It means I’m always working on my novel, even when I’m doing something else. It means I wake up at 3am with The Solution to a problem or have flashes of deep character insight while waiting for the G train. It makes the book better and is, frankly, an integral part of how I work. It also has disadvantages. I neglect my friends and family. I get scatterbrained at work. I can’t concentrate on other important things in my life. I drift away from the here and now.

This process, though? It appears to be involuntary. I don’t know another way to write a first draft. So, if you’re looking for me, that’s where I’ll be. In the Woods. Literally and figuratively.

See you on the other side.

Getting where you’re going in five not-so-easy steps

We’re about midway through the Paradise Lost IV workshop, and I’m starting to realize that if there’s a theme to this weekend’s lectures, critiques, and discussions it’s this:  think about the long game, both in your career and in your writing.

Many of the talks and lectures have focused on structure, narrative, outlining and how to make pacing and dialogue work for you as you lay pipe toward your big finish.

How can you set things up? How can you pay them off? When & where do you want place the big reveals and redirects, and when do you give your reader a moment to take a breath? How can spoken interactions between characters function as action, advance the plot, and get the reader where they need to go? How do you make the beginning and ending of your novel echo back on each other?

In short, how do we think about structure?

This weekend’s instructors, J.A. Pitts, Melinda Snodgrass, and Walter Jon Williams are, perhaps by coincidence or perhaps by design, a great combination of guests. Their insights and remarks have dovetailed off one another in really thought-provoking ways, yet they’ve also provided distinct perspectives. Their advice, while generalizable, has also been personal and definitive. There’s something refreshing to hearing someone say, “yes, everyone has their own method, but this particular method really works, so listen up.”

Rather than zoning out during lectures and then going back to my room to surf the web or crash, I’ve found myself engrossed — the guest instructor’s remarks have stirred up ideas and insights on my current writing projects in spades. After each session, I’ve hurried back to my room to make notes on my outlines — full of new ideas to see my way through problems that had previously stumped me.

Basically, I’m getting a lot out of PLIV and enjoying the hell out the fine company at the workshop to boot.

What more can you ask for?

Vegas debrief

It’s my last morning in Las Vegas. I’m sitting in my room at the Aria looking out on the sprawl of hotels and pools and kitsch all spilling south toward the mountains. I came here on Thursday for a writing retreat and after three days of eating, spa-ing, partying, and (of course), writing, it’s time to take stock.

This is the second year in a row we’ve done this particular retreat. The idea is for a small group of journey-woman writers to escape their daily lives, get to know each other better, and support one another. Rather than revolving around critiques or workshopping, this retreat is just a chance to write in the company of other writers and to be able to talk freely about issues and challenges we’re facing both in our manuscripts and in our careers.

Every time we’ve done this retreat it’s been fun, easy, and drama-free. Best of all, it’s also always very productive, providing a needed jolt to languishing projects and a reminder of how much you can accomplish when you prioritize your writing and shed other distractions.

There are a number of different retreats, workshops, and Cons that I’ve taken to attending over the years. Each are different and each are awesome in their own ways. This particular retreat has a couple of qualities that I think make it distinctive.

First, it’s usually a small group (typically between 5 and 7 people). This has the advantage of intimacy, of really getting the chance to talk and work as a group with no cliques forming or drama brewing. Additionally, this retreat is organized collaboratively. No one person decides where we’ll stay, what we’ll do, or who will be invited. Both years the retreat has taken shape organically. Thus, we all feel we have a say and a piece of what’s happening. This, obviously, wouldn’t work very well with a larger retreat or workshop, but it works great with a small group.

Second, because it’s focused on producing material rather than critiquing material, I always leave this retreat feeling like I accomplished something meaningful. Typically when I go to a critique-based retreat I leave thinking of all the work I have before me (not necessarily a bad thing, but still…) rather than feeling good about the work I’ve already done. Both types of retreats galvanize you, albeit in different ways.

Third, this retreat emphasizes fun and socializing and indulgence as much as it does productivity. Vegas is a mad, crazy playground and thus the perfect place to let go for a little while — to dance and drink and eat and let your hair down. For better or worse, in co-ed work-related situations (which, at the end of the day, writing workshops and Cons are) many women often feel they have to monitor their behavior more carefully than they otherwise would. Indeed, I’m sure many men feel exactly the same way. While we always miss our male writer friends at this retreat, there is something freeing about being temporarily in the company of other women.

As always, when I leave a writing retreat or workshop I’m thinking as much about the writer friends I’ve been spending the retreat with as the ones who aren’t here. That’s the downside of retreats: whether you’ve invited everyone you know or just a small group, there are always friends absent. Because our community is so spread out and many of us only get to see each other a few times a year, these retreats — and their fleeting intensity — are both wonderful and a little sad.

So, as I head for the airport, I put my first writing retreat of 2014 behind me. I had a wonderful time and I moved my novel that much closer to completion (I wrote about 5.5K across 2 days). I’m chalking this one up as a win.

Writing Retreats: What Works

I’ve just returned from a writing retreat in Colorado — the most recent of many that I’ve attended in the last several years — and it’s given me a chance to pause and reflect on the nature of that particular beast.

Writing retreats. What makes them work? What sinks them? What’s the right alchemy to bring a group of friends, acquaintances, and sometimes strangers into productive and harmonious balance?

A couple of thoughts:

1. Finding the right people matters.

And here I don’t just mean the right writers. You need the right people AND the right writers. If you’re going to gallivant off to some strange place and spend several days talking intensely about highly personal things, well…you’d better be sure you’re doing it with people you can get along with (and who can get along with you). In my experience, folks who can go with the flow, not take critique personally, and are able to assess when they need alone/down-time are good. Folks who thrive on drama? Folks who don’t really want to hear that their work needs work? Well, obviously this can be less productive and less desirable.

Even more than this, though, you need people who bring different perspectives, write with a distinctive voice, and are able to hone in on the real problems with a piece of writing. One of the things that worked fabulously at the Colorado retreat was the fact that everyone wrote very different kinds of fiction. We had historical fantasy, hard sci-fi, YA space adventure, near future post-apocalypse, gender-bending avante garde stuff, short fiction, long fiction, and everything in between. It made for a nice mix and allowed each person to bring distinctive skills to the fore.

2. Finding the right place matters.

I’ve been to writing retreats in pastoral settings, in urban settings, and in suburban settings. The thing I’ve found is that it doesn’t matter so much if a place is near or far, built up or peaceful. What matters is that it’s interesting and pleasant. Writers need stimulation. They need light. They need comfy sofas. You can find all these things in a remote mountain town in the Colorado Rockies, but you can also find them on the Las Vegas Strip, or in a bed and breakfast in Des Moines.

The Colorado retreat worked really well because it wasn’t just a writing adventure, it was an adventure adventure. We rode a train and went to hot springs and got time to hang out and socialize in a beautiful setting. This built trust and strengthened bonds that, I think, improved our ability to discuss our work frankly and productively.

3. Knowing your own strengths and weaknesses matters.

By this I mean a lot of things. I mean the ability to figure out that maybe you shouldn’t spend every waking with minute with everyone — that maybe you need a little quiet time. Or being the person who realizes that everyone’s tired and burned out and the group needs someone, anyone to make a decision (or that they need you to shut up). I also mean knowing where the holes in your work are and being open to exploring the ideas of your peers (even if they aren’t the direction you wanted to take your story in). Or, conversely, knowing when your critique partners (however insightful their comments) are leading your story down a path you don’t want it to take. I guess another way to put this is: getting a lot out of a writing retreat is contingent on you being able to self-monitor and self-assess as you go.

The most recent retreat in Colorado was really top-notch in all these regards. The group of people brought together by the organizers was fabulous — a mix of old friends, new friends, and people I’d never met before. There was no drama and a lot of good times. People seemed to do a great job of knowing their limits and adjusting their behavior in response to the mood of the group. The setting was gorgeous and the balance of work to play spot on. I feel really lucky to have been able to be a part of it and know I’ll be holding it up in the future as a standard for other such events.

I’d love to know what you all think about the writing retreats you’ve been to. What have you found to be essential elements for a good retreat? What works? What doesn’t?