Part 3: The Writer’s Retreat
If you’ve followed this series, you may have noticed a progression in quantities of time:
Part 1, Writing While Waiting, was about finding small, otherwise idle pockets of time in your schedule and using them to write.
Part 2, The Disappearing Act, addressed going someplace where distractions can’t find you so you can make the most of bigger chunks of writing time that are already in your schedule.
Part 3 is about MAKING time to write—carving out whole days, weekends, or even longer to leave behind your other obligations so it’s just you, your computer, and whatever other story-related tools you bring with you.
In other words, taking a writer’s retreat. If you think you can’t afford it, or it’s not worth the time and trouble, keep reading. I might change your mind.
For years, I secretly looked askance at the idea of paying good money to leave home, skipping out on family and community obligations, just to hole up in a hotel somewhere to write. It seemed unnecessary, self-indulgent, even risky. Images of crumpled paper, smoldering cigarette butts, and half-emptied glasses of whiskey came to mind. Never mind that I don’t smoke, drink whiskey, or write on paper. In my mind, a writer’s retreat was the sort of thing Hemingway did, and we know how things ended for him.
Then at the end of this past summer I got 48 hours of uninterrupted time with only this beautiful view for distraction.
My purpose for being at a riverside motel in Maine was to avoid driving home and back again between dropping my daughter off for a pre-college trip, and helping her move into her dorm room two days later. I could have done any number of things with that time, including visiting Camden or Bar Harbor or hiking in Acadia National Park or shopping for a dress to wear to my niece’s wedding.
I decided to write.
After having the experience of 48 hours completely alone with my computer, my storyboard, my copy of The Writer’s Journey, and enough food in the mini-fridge to sustain me, I would go back there solely to write. It was that good.
Writing alone without interruption gave me the chance to understand my story in a way I hadn’t yet. Being on retreat:
- resolved plot issues
- gave a secondary character a quirk—one that’s kind of funny but also raises the stakes by taking him away from the main character in his hour of need
- introduced two characters with small but important walk-on roles, both central to the antagonist’s backstory, one key to the protagonist’s future
- tied the threads of two major supporting characters with the antagonist’s, which…
- raised the stakes for the main character, which…
- made the character take a more active role in driving the action at the peak of the story arc.
You’re probably wondering about word count for this two-day sprint. I’m not sure. I’m working in multiple Word files, and I added at least a couple of thousand words to each of them. But this work in progress was already getting too long, so word count isn’t the most important measure of the success of this particular retreat. Knowing which words count is what I really needed—and I now have a much better idea about which scenes are driving the story along and which are just hanging out and can be trimmed away during revisions.
I felt like I could have continued for a few more days, but I’m not sure they would have been as productive as the first two. I was out of chocolate and tiring of my own company. My characters are great but they lack a certain, I don’t know what, physical presence? So after the 48 hours had elapsed, I helped my daughter move into her dorm and then went dress-shopping before making a few more notes about plot and character and heading home the next morning.
Is a writer’s retreat for you?
It depends. There’s the risk that you’ll come away with nothing after making arrangements to be away for days at a time. When I decided to spend those two days writing, my mind was saturated with the story after working on it consistently over several weeks (see Part 1). I knew there were things I still had to figure out that would help the book resolve itself into a complete draft. To use a horsey metaphor, the story was champing at the bit, and the retreat was a chance to loosen the reins and let it run.
Had I taken the retreat cold, I’m not sure it would have been productive—which is why I now appreciate the brilliance of organized retreats. Many such events, like SCBWI-New England’s Whispering Pines, let you write in silence for an entire weekend if you choose to. Or you may participate in on-site critiques, or go to workshops run by faculty: agents, editors, and experienced writers and illustrators. Events like this cost more than simply holing up somewhere, but consider this: If you’ve gone to the trouble of arranging for your family’s needs while you’re away, the workshops, faculty, and fellow participants are insurance that your retreat will be worthwhile, no matter how your work-in-progress is behaving: running, walking, or balking. (More horsey language, and I don’t even ride.) I haven’t committed to attending any organized retreats yet, but I’m keeping my eyes open for opportunities.
Have you taken a writer’s retreat, either on your own or with others? What was the experience like? Would you do it again? Tell us in the comments!
Photo credits: whiskey, cigarettes, Pixabay; View of Indian Island across Penobscot River Maine, bulletin board, M.Knowles; crumpled paper, unknown.