Weekend writers’ retreat

Last weekend I lied to my family and friends. I told them I was going to a writers’ retreat – a simple excuse to decline theater and dinner invitations (always a tempting and fun use of writing time). In fact, I really was invited to attend a writers’ retreat at a bed and breakfast on Lake Erie. The agenda looked great: a beautiful setting, interesting speakers, optional activities like yoga and hiking, plus time for writing; and all that communing with other writers. Sounded perfect.

But then, I thought about: four hours of (wasted time) driving plus the $300 fee. So instead of going, I created an agenda for a writing-focused weekend and TOLD people I was going to a writers’ retreat. It was also a great excuse to skip laundry and really work on my writing, plus spend focused time reading about writing and taking an online course on screenwriting – in lieu of listening to the speakers at the event.

I wrote a list of potential activities and then developed a schedule much like the actual retreat:

Saturday (also used on Sunday):

Morning yoga stretches (Sun Salutation)
Journal time
Light breakfast

Optional activities:
1) bake banana bread (we had some REALLY old bananas …. definitely wouldn’t make it to Sunday) OR
2) accompany my husband Ron and Dug the dog on their morning walk

Reading time: Vein of Gold by Julia Cameron
Vein of Gold assignment:  binge reading
Writing time
Editing time
Post blog entry (here it is!)
Reading: fiction choice: Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan  (the Bowling Green State University alumni book club current selection)
Consolidate notes* (see below)
Review next lessons in Master Class: Aaron Sorkin Teaches Screenwriting
Master Class homework assignment Saturday night: Watch movie – take notes

Other optional choices (didn’t get to either of these):
Play music – piano, clarinet
Review TED Talks on writing and creativity (Does Elizabeth Gilbert have one with Big Magic?)

On Friday night I prepared for the retreat:  Instead of time I would have used packing, I went to the gym for a workout. I planned food to make kitchen duty easy for the weekend, and did a little cooking. I grilled chicken and made a chicken pasta salad, one of my family’s favorite summer dishes and great for lunch on a warm summer day.

Saturday lunch included flirting with my husband. “What brought you to the writers’ retreat?” I asked him. He’s been working on a book since NaNoWriMo, and I knew he was planning to spend the afternoon editing. We had a great conversation as though we didn’t know each other and I learned more about his book than I had known.

Sunday’s schedule was harder to manage. I lost some steam and didn’t feel as motivated. But I definitely plan to set up writers’ retreat weekends once a month from now on.

* Note consolidation: I have dozens of scraps of paper with notes including essay ideas, story topics, character concepts, and quotes overheard and written down – from funny comments that people have made to insightful statements, all of which I intend to use as dialogue some day. I have dumped these into a bin for years, and finally spent several hours putting them into several organizational documents: I have a list in word of Blog and Story ideas. I use OneNote to organize magazine article ideas, character sketches and research topics. Goal planning, long-term projects are all in Evernote. I just recently started using OneNote to try it out and actually watched a lecture about how to use it effectively. And since they bought WunderList (which I love and used to pay for), I thought I’d give it a try to see how OneNote will eventually incorporate the functions of Wunderlist. There are so many choices in how to organize notes for writing and I have found it to be so difficult to choose which one is better.)


Writing every day is hard

I have spent more time reading books ABOUT writing than actually writing. I have spent hours in workshops and classes, attended conferences and meetings – all in the hopes of being instantly inspired with the perfect idea that leads to a flawless first draft.

Every class and every book has two main messages: 1) If you want to be a writer, you have to write every day.  2) The first draft is going to be crap. (NO. Wait. The first draft is going to need to be edited. There! That’s much more positive.)

I think all writers are victims of other writers’ success. When we read a great novel, we are not reviewing the original draft. We only read published works that have been revised, critiqued, edited and re-written.

OF COURSE the story sounds better in my head than on paper! Did I really think it would be that easy?

Well, yes. Yes I did. So when I struggled to describe a scene or create dialogue or explain a character’s motivation, I gave up. Because I expected it to be easy.  And besides that, sometimes the little voice in my head is a bitch: “Real writers don’t struggle to find the right words,” she would whisper. “Real writers get it right the first time.”

But they don’t! Real writers work, and re-work. They write and edit and revise and re-write. Creativity takes time. And patience.

Writing every day is hard – because progress is incremental and I want MONUMENTAL and IMMEDIATE. In the immortal words of Carrie Fisher in Postcards from the Edge: Instant gratification takes too long.


Planning for NaNoWriMo

The “National Novel Writing Month” is a speed-writing tactic to write a novel in 30 days. It has a fun 20 year history and has inspired thousands – maybe hundreds of thousands – of people to complete a first draft of a novel. The NaNoWriMo website describes “best practices in preparation.” There are dozens of conflicting suggestions: outlining, not outlining, researching, avoiding research until the editing phase, creating detailed character descriptions, and diving in with no preparation at all. It also says, “choose what is best for you.”

I am a “failed NaNoWriMo.” You have to commit to writing about an hour every day for one month. Some days longer. You need to average writing 1,667 words per day for 30 days to reach the 50,000 word goal.

Why would anyone want to put themselves through this? I can think of two good reasons! First and most important, this exercise requires writing every day – the best way to become a better writer. And because of the speed required to make the word count, there is no time to edit while you write; so it’s a great way to focus on the creativity of telling your story. Daphne Gray-Grant, The Publication Coach, offers a succinct list of pros and cons on her website. https://www.publicationcoach.com/nanowrimo/

I am planning now for 2018 November, the month generally promoted as the time to undertake NaNoWriMo – with 100,000 of your closest friends. If support groups help you achieve more, it’s a great opportunity to commiserate with other people who are attempting to do it too.

NaNoWriMo Preparation, Step 1: Daily writing

For more than 40 years – since I was a kid – I’ve been reading books, taking workshops and classes, attending seminars and conferences, all to learn how to be a better writer. From each instructor I have learned insights, suggestions, traps to avoid, but they all say the same thing: to be a writer you have to write every day.

Writing every day is difficult, but it’s all about muscle memory. Just like music practice – if you want to learn how to play an instrument, you should play every day. All that repetition makes you a musician.

So my first step in preparing for NaNoWriMo is to carve out daily time now – even 15 minutes a day, every day – to exercise creative writing muscles.