Friday, March 27, 2015

Finding Time for Yourself: The Value of Writing Retreats

Writers who take on a book learn that it is always connected to their lives, some way, somehow.  Even if the story is about another planet.  Even if the writer is making it all up.   

We can't write completely outside of who we are, especially when we're spending 300 pages doing so.  This means we must face ourselves squarely, look at our motivation for our project, as well as any oh-so-personal obstacles to getting there.

It requires being alone with our creativity.  Writing retreats are great places for this to happen.

Necessary Boredom
Each summer I teach two week-long writing retreats on an island in Lake Superior.  They are sponsored by Madeline Island School of the Arts, and we live on campus in cottages and gather each day in a sunny classroom to orient, plan, and learn--then go off to write alone.  I find the coming together, the daily check-ins, balanced with the solo writing time, is the key to making a retreat work.   

Also, the location is ideal.  Remote and beautiful, Madeline Island is lined with lagoons, inlets, and beaches.  A cute lakeside village sits on one end of the island, full of arty shops.  A writer's senses get filled with summertime blue skies, lake breezes, sailboats, and grassy meadows of wildflowers.  The pressures of normal life slip away and "necessary boredom" filters in.

What is necessary boredom, and why is it so important for writing?   

Writer Dorothy Allison coined this phrase.  It's the inner stillness that promotes creativity, that lets us wander inside and come up with original thoughts.  I find that writing retreats offer a chance to perceive whatever has been swimming underwater.  It begins to surface, to be looked at.  Inner lives finally inform the writing. 

But inner lives can be scary to face alone!  The balance, again, of community and coaching are what makes it possible.

The Dangers of Writing Retreats
I've been on many writing retreats.  Sometimes my take-away is less than stellar.  At several, it became all about impressing the teacher and fellow writers, more than finding out about our own work.  (I left that one early.)   

The big questions:
1.  Does the retreat offer enough stillness and writing time?
2.  If you get stuck, is there a way to learn some new skills or get coaching to keep you going?   
3.  Is there just enough comraderie but not too much to interfere with writing time?   

I remember one retreat that featured so much partying I was too tired and toxic to see beyond a bottle of aspirin.  The fun I supposedly had doesn't come to memory; I can only recall the regret I felt when my writing didn't budge.

Looking at Your Own Motivation--The First Question
Good retreats provide (1) necessary boredom, (2) coaching and new skills when you get stuck, and (3) just enough community to feel support but not social overwhelm.

Retreats also force you to ask those big questions about your writing, hopefully bringing you to a new perspective:   

What's driving you to write this book, really?    
If you didn't have to write it, would you?   
What will keep you facing the blank page?
What are the personal benefits to me?  If no one else were to read this book, would I still write it?
Your Primary Obstacle--The Second Question
When the book doesn't get written, the reasons are as individual as the writer.  Maybe you don't have enough time.  Maybe you have too much fear, and it keeps biting you when you sit down to write.  

During the retreats on Madeline Island, writers inevitably get stuck.  My job is to coach them through the stuck place and reacquaint them with their reasons for writing--as well as the courage I know they have.

Creativity and Courage
I urge them to remember what it was like to waste time in sheer exploration. It may sound counter-intuitive, but each day on Madeline Island we practice time management from a perspective of creativity.  With some structure and plenty of writing time, writers begin to see that elusive thing called time and what it really meant for them as creative writers.

As each writer got more relaxed and felt more at ease with the group and our daily schedule, as we got to know each other as a creative group, we began share more intimately, be foolish in front of each other.  We gradually read more of our raw writing, scenes just created that day, and this let everyone practice being fearless.  As voices were heard and respected, these voices got stronger.   

I am always amazed at how the week grows organically, how it becomes custom-made for each person.   

Some writers choose to spend the whole week exploring ideas, branching out of their known worlds into the unknown.  They write short pieces that may eventually become chapters.   

Others craved a good map, a serious direction for all the material they'd accumulated.  I coached them through storyboards and image boards.  We made collages of our books, of our characters.   

One afternoon, I sent everyone to the beach to write the "container" of their books.

It is always hard to say goodbye on Friday.  We become quite a family by the end of the week--which is how a good retreat should be.  Knowing each others' true stories is often the best door to really knowing a person. 

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
If you're curious about retreats, check out my Madeline Island summer writing retreat, for book writers at all stages.  Click here. 

And get a taste of the big questions by setting aside some time to dialogue on paper with your book idea.  Ask yourself the two questions below, letting yourself write whatever comes and responding as honestly as you can. 

What do the answers tell you about your own book-writing process?

1.  Why am I really writing this book?
2.  What's the primary obstacle I face, in writing this book?

Friday, March 20, 2015

Studying Stephen King: Subtext and Dialogue Use by a Master

My April 2 dialogue workshop is almost sold out, so I wanted to give those of you who are coming (and anyone who can't come) a jump start on understanding subtext in dialogue.  Subtext is the undercurrent in written dialogue. 

It makes dialogue expand from information-giving to emotion- and tension-fostering.  It's what makes dialogue really work.  And what gets your manuscript past that round (rejection) file.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Navigating a Big Writer's Conference--What's Best to Do, What Do You Bring, How to Make the Most of Your Time and Money

This spring, two major writing conferences happen.  One is the annual AWP (Associated Writing Programs) conference in Minneapolis on April 8-11.  The other is the Muse and the Marketplace, the premier New England conference sponsored by Grub Street writing school, on May 1-3 in Boston. 

Mega-conferences are high opportunity and high overwhelm.  Concurrent workshops, panels, and pitch sessions with agents tempt you to multi-task or bilocate.  But the best results often come from thinking carefully ahead of time about what you want to leave with--more skills, more contacts, a sense of where you are in the publishing process, a hopeful connection with an agent? 

Dialogue Skills to Develop Real or Imagined Characters--And Help Sell Your Book to a Publisher!

Imagine a publisher sitting in front your manuscript.  By some wild luck, and your hard work, it has arrived in his or her hands.  Now it awaits trial.  Will it pass or fail?

The publisher skims the pages until a section of dialogue appears.  It's read and the entire book is judged on how the dialogue moves.  If it's good, the publisher turns back to the first pages and begins to read your story.  If the dialogue is clunky, the manuscript is set aside with a sigh (or a laugh) and the publisher moves on to the next in the stack.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Structuring for Nonfiction Books--How Do You Do It, So Your Reader Can Follow It?

We were taught in school a three-part structuring tool:  Tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.

While this essay-structure helped me pass my high-school English classes, it never came in handy as I began writing books.  In fact, I had to unlearn that tool, pick up completely different ones.  No longer impressing a teacher, I had to impress my readers.  And a reader's mind gets bored with knowing what's coming.

This is obvious in fiction and memoir--we want to dive into the story, be surprised.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Structuring Phase--The Second Stage of Building a Book

This two-part post discusses the two phases of book building.  If you missed part 1, just scroll down.

How do you know you are in the structuring phase of building your book?

Friday, February 13, 2015

Gathering Phase and Structuring Phase--Two Stages of Building a Book

Writers who have published books know that there are two phases in the book-writing journey. They cycle back and forth during the time you’re planning, writing, and developing (editing) your book. They apply to all genres: fiction, memoir, and nonfiction.  

It’s good to know what phase you are currently in, so you approach your book-writing journey with the appropriate tools. Knowing your phase will also keep you from getting discouraged or overwhelmed.

Friday, February 6, 2015

How Do You Start Your Chapters for the Most Punch? Some Simple--and Surprising--Structure Tips for All Genres

Michelle from New Zealand watched my video on story structure and sent some questions about how to begin a story.  

Although Michelle writes short stories, this question is important for book writers too. 

"Some stories begin with a problem," she wrote, "and it is solved through several small events.  I can't find how the other stories might begin. "

There are essentially three ways to begin a story (or book).   
1.  Through characters
2.  Through a location (usually a location that is vital to the story and ends up being as strong as a character)
3.  Through what's called a "triggering" event

Friday, January 30, 2015

Writing in "Islands"--How I Wrote My First Memoir in Forty-Five Days

A novel in a month?  A memoir in six?  I never believed those promises, tooted by many writing books.  Not until I came across the concept of writing in "islands."

I'd already published five books, with the help of great editors, when I first heard of  "islands."  A writing friend knew I was struggling--a publisher was interested in my memoir and I had to deliver in three months.  I'd honed my skills in nonfiction, even won some awards, but memoir is a whole different animal. 

I was moaning to this writing friend about how to even get started, with such a deadline looming.  She suggested I check out a book by writing teacher Ken Atchity.  Called A Writer's Time, rereleased many years later as Write Time,  the book was not at all about time management but about the two-part process of book writing.  Atchity had noticed over the years of working with new authors that those who actually finished their books allowed random-access writing before any organizing happened.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Growing Out of Your Rootbound Pot--Why Bravery on Demand Can Help Your Writing

Simone de Beauvoir once wrote, "Every time I start on a new book, I am a beginner again. I doubt myself, I grow discouraged, all the work accomplished in the past is as though it never was, my first drafts are so shapeless that it seems impossible to go on with the attempt at all, right up until the moment . . .when it has become impossible not to finish it."

This comes from her 1965  book Force of Circumstance, which is one of many published works during her long literary career.   New book writers might read this in astonishment.  How come such a prolific and experienced writer had such beginner's emotions?