Inward bound


Silk’s Post #130 — Ready … set … retreat!

When the 5writers began discussing a writers’ retreat, the idea had just a slight whiff of desperation to it. At least it did to me.

The fact was that, for a variety of reasons – some no doubt avoidable, and others clearly inescapable – all five of us were struggling at times to maintain our writing practice.

In the “old days” (pre-2012) we’d produce 30 first-draft pages each month for submission, critique 120 pages of our colleagues’ manuscripts, and spend a few lively hours together every few weeks to discuss our writing progress, successes and problems. It was damn hard work, but it kept the words flowing and the enthusiasm level high.

It wasn’t perfect, and there were times when one (or more) of us would leave our critique session discouraged or confused. For me, though, it was just the discipline I needed and it was during this time that my commitment to being a writer – a real writer, a good writer – became carved in stone.

Then came our grand 5writers experiment in 2012-13: writing 5 novels in 5 months, followed by a critique extravaganza at a week-long retreat high in the mountains at Whistler. Another amazing learning experience. Although some of us fell short of the original goal, it was still exhilarating, and it gave birth to this blog.

Since then – let’s be honest – it’s been a bit more hit-and-miss. Life has thrown all manner of challenges and opportunities in our paths. House moves. New relationships. Business ventures. Health issues. Travel. Volunteer commitments.

Some of us have taken courses and forged ahead (kudos to Karalee), or taken off on great spurts of productivity (congratulations to Joe). But if you’re one of the loyal readers who’s still following this blog, you know that the thing we’ve been writing about most is how hard it is to get back to the “writing life” and make consistent progress.

And that doesn’t even touch the looming challenge of actually getting published – another whole learning curve in itself.

So back to step one: writers gotta write. We need to chip the rust off those brain machines and … Just. Sit. Down. And. Write. Somewhere away from all the distractions competing for our time and attention. Get the momentum going again. Get inspired. Get obsessed and stay obsessed, as one of my favourite writers John Irving would put it.

And so, we retreat this week to Paula’s idyllic Northwest home on the Sunshine Coast waterfront to pound out some wordage.

But how to prepare for this intensive experience? This inward-bound journey into our writers’ hearts and minds, in search of story? So I indulged my research geek side today and looked for “writer’s retreat” advice online.

I didn’t expect the deluge.

Why, oh why, am I surprised that we’re not alone in the quest for retreat? Oh, I know writers have been stealing off to focus on their writing – retreating temporarily from the inconvenient traffic jam of life – for years and years. It always sounded so exotic: the vagabond artiste, sojourning in some Tuscan villa, or mountain chalet, or hut on a palm-studded beach, writing Something Important in between long, soul-searching walks.

I just had no idea that writing retreats had already become such an industry.

Like the ubiquitous writers’ conferences, writers’ workshops, and writers’ courses, there is now a plethora of writers’ retreat opportunities to suit every travel whim, budget, and lifestyle preference. Some sound more like vacations than working retreats, but many include writers’ services such as coaching, critiquing and workshops.

The Write Life website lists “20 Incredible Writing Retreats” to attend in 2015, including an all-inclusive resort in Baja, Mexico; an eco-lodge on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast; an island outside Savannah, GA where such writing luminaries as Annie Dillard and Alice Walker have scribbled; a Colorado Rocky Mountain fiction writers’ getaway; a writing and mindfulness retreat on Maui with Cheryl Strayed; a nature-oriented retreat with workshops on the coast of New South Wales, Australia; a retreat for women writers in Florence, Italy; a proprioceptive writing retreat (huh?) at a traditional Irish B&B; an intensive learning experience at a private Texas ranch …

It goes on and on. Tuscany, Greece, Spain, the French Alps. Writing retreats combined with spiritual discovery. Writing and yoga in a Danish castle. Screenwriting in Spoleto, Italy. Weaving words among Peruvian tapestry weavers with a side-trip to Machu Picchu.

Closer to home, the Pacific Northwest is lousy with writers’ retreats, many of them combined with yoga, cleansing, meditation, nature, healing arts, self-discovery and god knows what other super-duper healthy holistic practices. Check out Retreats Online for a listing of artistic retreats so wholesome you’ll feel better about yourself just perusing them.

There’s even a website for those who want to set-up and promote their own writers’ retreat business – kind of like a literary airbnb network. The Writers’ Retreat Network tells all, for a membership fee of course, and includes a handy “Step-by-Step Guide to Set Up and Operate a Writers’ Retreat”.

Among all these packaged travel-and-writing experiences, I did come across a useful article in the Books section of Huff Post, where Holly Robinson tells us “Why You Need a Writing Retreat and How to Make the Most of It.” She offers good advice on types of retreats, differentiates retreats from conferences and workshops, and gave me fresh enthusiasm for our own upcoming retreat with these observations (loosely quoted from her post):

You can make your own writing retreat on the cheap

All you really need is a desk and a power outlet, she says, and it pays to look for a place off-season (if you don’t happen to be lucky enough to know Paula!). She says lots of people are happy to have you use their houses for the price of a cleaner’s fee (presumably while they’re off somewhere warmer), and she’s also found incredible deals at summer resort hotels in winter.

It’s more fun with two or more writers

This assumes a pretty high level of compatibility, of course, but splitting costs makes it more affordable to rent a place short-term, and meals are less work and more fun when shared. She also enjoys reading pages aloud to each other at night and having mini-workshops or social time to unwind.

When you go on your retreat, let yourself take breaks

Don’t be guilty about taking some time to chill, she warns. She reminds us that refuelling is part of writing, too, and she’s amazed how much more productive she is when she’s rested and clears her head now and then with some exercise.

If you can only get away for a weekend, that’s okay too

According to Holly, you can get a lot done in two or three days. She says to use the opportunity to focus on thorny issues like plot pacing, a conclusion, point of view, or any other sticking point that has kept you from progressing, so you can keep working on it after you get home again.

Do it four times a year

Okay, this was a “whoa!” for me. Four times a year? But Holly’s argument is that “we need to visit the muse” at least quarterly. Maybe she’s right. I can’t wait to see how our first Writers’ Retreat goes. (See? I’m already thinking of it as the first in a series.) If I find myself writing 7,000 words in a day (as Holly claims she did on a writing retreat to Cape Ann last November), I’ll be all over that quarterly schedule.

“I can’t be that focused at home,” she writes. “I bet you can’t either.”

She sure got that one right, so I’m paying attention. Wish us luck!

You can follow Holly Robinson on Twitter:




Silk’s Post #71 — For a writer, nothing beats the feeling you get when you start on a new story. To riff on Paula’s great post last week, “Serial monogamy”, it’s like the rush of falling in love.

I call it Writerlust.

You’re vibrating inside with the thrill of possibility. Your endorphins kick in. You’re filled with energy and purpose. Ideas bubble up out of nowhere, and bits of dialogue play in your head. The world looks a little brighter. You feel a little smarter, a little cooler, a little more adventuresome, a little more confident. You wake up in the morning excited about spending the day with your hot, new muse. You hit the keyboard before the coffeemaker has even finished gurgling.

doris-dayI’m feeling the love right now. I had a chance to discuss my new book concept with my 5writer colleagues last week, and got a pretty strong thumbs-up. At least that’s how I heard it, because, in the immortal words of Doris Day, “Everybody Loves a Lover.” When you’re in Writerlust, your infatuation is contagious and everything sounds like an endorsement.

But I’ve been hurt before.

I’m no Romantic Advice columnist, but I’ve decided I should give myself a little talking-to. Just, you know, in case things don’t totally work out the way I hope. Just on the off chance that I actually cannot write my amazing new story in a month-long gush of boundless creativity, skimming across the surface of the Saggy Middle Swamp on magical writer’s feet towards an orgasmic climax that no agent or publisher will be able to resist. In one draft.

So … Notes to Self:

Enjoy your euphoria right now. Don’t let anything bring you down to Earth too soon – stuff like preparing your tax returns, or cleaning anything that’s been let go for a couple of years, or trying to fix the first draft mess of your last unpublished book, or making your first attempt at serving a turducken to dinner guests. Remember, euphoria is ephemeral (see how good you’re getting with those esoteric “e” words?).

hotel new hampshireTake this opportunity to become obsessed. You will need to survive the many dangers and deprivations of your writing journey on the fading memory of these fleeting feelings of Writerlust. So right now, while you’re thirsty to write, drink the Kool-Aid and commit yourself totally to the story you’re in love with. Take the sage advice of the madly successful writer John Irving in Hotel New Hampshire: “You’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed.”

Inoculate yourself against perfectionism. Okay, right now your book is perfect. That’s because you haven’t written it yet. It’s just a sexy mirage in your head. One morning, when you have 25,000 words on the page, you’ll wake up and look at your darling story and see what’s really lying there beside you in bed: something far less than perfect. It may snore. It may have bad breath. Or missing teeth. It may have packed on the weight in all the wrong places. You may wonder what you were thinking, bringing this thing home with you. But if you’ve inoculated yourself with the anti-perfectionism serum, everything will be okay. You’ll give your story a knowing look – full of love and sympathy – and get back to work, confident that you can get it in shape at rewrite time. A great story always cleans up nice.

Put on your chastity belt. While you’re living with the story you’ve said “I do” to, keep your roving eyes on the straight and narrow. No flirting with other new stories. No tearful calls to your old bookfriend in the middle of the night – the one abandoned in the bottom drawer that’s looking better and better compared to the new story you’re struggling with. No giving-in to aching desire when you read your favourite writer’s newest book and realize it’s better – way better – than the story you’re deeply involved with. Buckle up and be true to your sweetheart.

Remember that you can’t hurry love. Who could forget the sage words Mama said, as immortalized by The Supremes:


You can’t hurry love
No, you just have to wait
She said love don’t come easy
It’s a game of give and take

When you’ve been living with this story that you’re marrying for months and months … and you just can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel … and all your writer friends are already working on their query letters … and there are moths fluttering out of your file of agents who told you to send them a chapter (but not until the book is really, truly finished and it’s the best it can possibly be) … and on bad days you wonder why you ever fell in Writerlust with this story in the first place … well, just sing yourself this song. Don’t try to jump into bed with the first passing agent and allow yourself to suffer from premature evaluation.

Wise words to be sure. I will likely forget it all as my life with this new story stretches from days into weeks, and weeks into months … as my Writerlust heat cools and I encounter the tepid ennui of writer’s fatigue, and the cold sweats of writer’s block. So it’s a good thing I wrote it all down. Now I just have to remember take my own advice.

Writing a novel involves a long-term, committed relationship, not a one-night stand. It demands a huge chunk of your life, and there are times when every writer wonders whether it’s really worth the time, effort and angst.

The gurus advise us: Write what you really care about. I’d add: Follow your Writerlust. Make sure you’re all-in with both your head and your heart before you start.

fire-in-fictionThis goes beyond craft and technique. When agent/lecturer Don Maass titled his great 2009 book The Fire in Fictionhe didn’t just mean the fire on the page, he meant the fire inside the writer. I think that only a wild passion for your story at the outset will sustain you through 400 hard-won pages of writing that is capable of captivating a reader.

At least I hope so, because I’m deep in the embrace of a story I love and I’m going for it.

Critical (re)thinking skills


Silk’s Post #37 — The 5 Writers are deep into critique mode now, with another deadline looming. In a little less than three weeks, we must all present ourselves at Whistler, prepared to say something intelligent, helpful, and maybe even provocative about each other’s books.

My post last week, Critiquing creative spirits, tried to look ahead to the challenges we would encounter in this task, recognizing there’s a certain amount of ‘critique anxiety’ that goes along with handing your virgin 400 pages over to someone else to pass judgement on. Frankly, I thought the post was pretty common sense stuff – nothing very controversial about it.

Was I ever in for a shock.

As usual, I posted a link to Fiction Writers Guild, one of the couple of writers’ groups I belong to on LinkedIn. And then the fun began. Unbelievably, as of today the discussion thread has drawn 322 comments, from the informative to the emotional to the argumentative to the downright nasty. (For a brief moment, I even found my name at the top of the FWG list of “Top Influencers for This Week”). Granted, much of this fire was stoked by a particular contributor who brought a very strong point of view to the topic and apparently had the time and the sustained interest to defend and promote it vigorously.

It was a real learning experience for me.

I’m not generally much of a discussion group participant, truth be told. I’m already struggling with a bottomless ‘to-do’ list. So what I learned about discussion groups is probably ‘old hat’ to those who frequent them. The main take-away was how easily threads can be hijacked by anyone who is particularly passionate about the topic, or craves attention, or has an agenda of their own to serve. No surprise, really, when you think about it.

The secondary take-away is that, in a discussion group, people ‘talk’ to each other in a manner that they probably never would dare to in face-to-face conversation. That has good and bad implications. The safe distance provided by cyberspace may encourage honesty and forthrightness. That’s admirable. It may also push forthrightness past the bounds of civility and promote flat-out rudeness and bullying. That’s despicable.

I can almost hear you rolling your eyes. Naive, am I not?

But enough Psychology 101. What did I learn about writing and critiquing?

First: that there are many species of critique that span the spectrum from the tiptoeing style of “writing by committee” in a workshop setting, to the no-holds-barred style of anonymous crits in a training setting such as the “Boot Camp” program for beginning writers.

Second: that the two issues which generated the liveliest and most interesting debate (for me, anyway) were honesty in critiquing, and which aspect of the process a writer learns the most from – giving critiques or receiving critiques.

Our 5 Writers critique process seems to fall somewhere mid-spectrum in the range of approaches. It is neither anonymous nor collaborative, but collegial. That is to say, we try to give honest criticism in a face-to-face meeting (supported by written critiques and often margin notes), but we don’t “work on” each other’s stories as a group or critique re-writes. From the forum, I surmised that this approach is most appropriate for – and likely used most often by – small groups of writers who are at an intermediate or higher level of craft, and are writing in similar forms (e.g., novels) and/or genres. Mostly, such critique groups include unpublished writers, but I understand that even some published authors may find them valuable. The key seems to be working with others at a relatively well-matched skill level using agreed methods and standards for critiquing.

But what about the honesty factor? Do the absence of anonymity and the constraints of diplomacy and personal friendship inhibit the kind of forthright criticism that writers truly need to hear – even though they may dread it?

My answer is: No. Or at least, not necessarily. Read on, and I’ll tell you why I think meeting this challenge is not only achieveable, but is an extraordinarily good exercise.

My thoughts about honesty in our style of critiquing are linked to the other key debate in the forum: which aspect of the process a writer learns the most from – giving critiques or receiving critiques. The stated purpose of our 5 Writers group is to provide our members with useful critiques of their own work so they can improve their novels with the ultimate goal of getting published. This, for me, has been a tremendous help in getting past my own blind spots and identifying strengths and weaknesses in my stories. Since I would call myself an experienced writer, but a neophyte novelist, critical comments that relate to the craft of storytelling are especially helpful for me.

However, over the couple of years I’ve belonged to the group, I’ve come to realize that I am, in fact, learning more from doing the critiques of others’ work than I am from receiving their critiques of mine. This has been a surprise, and perhaps it took me a while to recognize it precisely because it was unexpected. Why would I be learning more by giving than receiving?

The explanation is perfectly captured in the axiom:

“If you want to learn something, read about it.
If you want to understand something, write about it.
If you want to master something, teach it.” — 
Yogi Bhajan

When you have to give a written critique, it forces you to really think about the strength or weakness you’re commenting on. You have to get down to the specifics and articulate the problem in terms that will be useful to the writer. In other words, you must come to thoroughly understand your own critical thoughts before you can convey your insights, in writing, to someone else.

Very frequently, this thought process delivers an extra zinger: you recognize that your own work has the very same problem somewhere, but you had not quite been able to put your finger on it until you recognized it in someone else’s book.

Going back to the issue of honesty and diplomacy: I believe that the deliberate effort to serve up sometimes serious criticism in a digestible manner that will nourish the writer actually adds to the learning experience for the giver as well as the recipient of the critique. Some think that adding the ‘condition’ of being diplomatic rather than blunt inevitably dilutes the hard truth with equivocation or false praise.

I’m sure that happens. Maybe often. But I don’t believe it’s at all inevitable. The challenge of writing out the ‘hard truth’ in an honest but respectful (and, yes, sensitive) manner forces us to use our critical thinking skills – and writing skills – to the fullest extent. Therefore, we learn the most from writing the toughest critiques, and doing it well.

A great critique helps the writer receiving it to literally see his/her work through the eyes of the critique giver. As we learn this skill of critiquing, we also learn the corollary skill of seeing our own work through fresh eyes. Even more important, we learn to visualize our own work through the eyes of a reader. Perhaps not everyone gets out of this process what I do, but I believe these lessons are there to be learned for those who invest serious time and effort into doing their critiques.

Bottom line: things that are the hardest to do are the things that we learn the most from in our attempts to master them. And “hard” does not mean “impossible.” It just means, in the immortal words of novelist John Irving in The Hotel New Hampshire:

“… you’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed.”

Lest We Forget

I know, I shouldn’t get distracted, thinking about war. I should hunker down and write that novel, like my four writing partners are doing right this moment. Because the deadline is looming larger by the week, by the day and yes, by the hour.

Easier said than done. The upcoming Remembrance Day always makes me think about my dad. About stories of his long march back home from the Russian front at the end of World War II in a uniform he hated to wear. A uniform torn and soiled like the country that forced it on him. His stories of unimaginable misery gets me thinking about books written about war. Not historical accounts, but novels that show me, through the eyes of the characters, the insanity of this most inhuman of all human creations. I recall some novels that I cherished and still remember, and as a writer, I try to pinpoint why. What tools did the authors use, what etched their stories in my mind and made it so rewarding? Why am I still thinking about some books for weeks, even years, after I finished reading?

Sure, we expect to be entertained (Author’s First Commandment), but a good book needs to do more. It has to touch a raw nerve. We identify with the characters and their actions. We share their hopes, desires, fears and shame. The story resonates with us as individuals, with our values and the way we lead our lives.

Maybe we don’t remember the entire plot and names of characters, or beautiful prose (although it helps), but something that just hangs there in our brain, a scene, a detail, a fleeting moment. Something that connects us personally to a story long after  “The End”.

I believe a skilled author hooks readers with symbolic details that reinforce the plot and give it longevity. One such memorable book for me is The Stone Carvers by Canadian author Jane Urquhart. This beautiful novel spans three decades, moving from a German-settled village in Ontario to Europe after the Great War. It’s the story about the carvers of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial against the backdrop of war. What makes the book so powerful are the exquisite details, the settings, and the characters, far larger than life. I read the book when it came out ten years ago. I still see the image of the scarlet cloth, from which Klara Becker tailored a magnificent waistcoat for her ill-fated lover Eamon. She was bewildered by his choice of colour, but Eamon insisted on bright red. ‘A bolt of fine red worsted material’, shipped from Montreal. A foreboding on the eve of the war. A warning that blood will be spilled.

It’s often these small details that empower a story and bring the plot into focus. Details coaxed to life with the author’s superb prose. A magnifying lens to plant us in the scene with all our senses. Like my dad’s story of the grenade exploding in his bunker, shattering his ankle. How the eerie sound and the echo that followed still gave him nightmares fifty years after the war had ended. 

Or take John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. If you have read the book, which scene is still vivid in your mind? I bet it’s when the diminutive Owen arranges to saw off a finger of his friend Johnny Wheelwright so he won’t have to go to Vietnam. That’s what I remember best of the 600 page tome. It was the summer of 1963, Irving tells us, “when the Buddhists in Vietnam were torching themselves, and time was running out on the Kennedys.” Johnny didn’t know what Owen had in mind, until he reluctantly puts his finger under the saw. The actual deed, worth quoting:

“I think it ought to be the right index finger. I mean, officially, we’re talking about your trigger finger… Don’t look at the blade, and don’t look at your finger, look right at me…. Don’t shut your eyes – that might make you dizzy. By the time you feel anything, it will be over.” As he lowered the diamond wheel in the gantry, I tried to put the sound of it out of my mind. Before I felt anything, I saw the blood spatter the lenses of the safety goggles, through which his eyes never blinked.

“Just think of this as my little gift to you”, said Owen Meany.

This scene is more suspenseful and chilling than scores of thrillers I have read. Novels where corpses litter pages drenched in blood and where the shooting and stabbing hardly stops. Where the plot is about serial killers, torture, or murders of characters I don’t have a connection to and therefore don’t care. These are books of which I remember little or nothing, even if I’ve read them recently.

Except for those where the author has skillfully drawn me into the characters’ life and woven in some small details that have stuck to my mind like Crazy Glue. Where one bullet, masterfully aimed at characters I have come to love is so much more powerful than whole arsenals emptied.

Often, these details are symbolic, a sub-text to the story that reveals itself bit by bit. The colour of Eamon’s waistcoat, the blood of Johnny’s finger. Both ominous symbols foreboding the terrors of war.

Now in case you think I am writing literary fiction, I must set you straight. Sadly, my writing skills are not in that league. I will try to use some of these tools in my own writing, even modestly. We writers are told there is no such thing as true originality. Every talented writer has stood on the shoulders of a previous great author. For example, A Prayer for Owen Meany is a homage to Günter Grass‘ famous novel The Tin Drum. Not plagiarism, but learning. Using tools that have worked well for others, to the benefit of us, the readers. Each excellent book holds the promise to beget another.

Just to sprinkle a little optimism among our ‘5 writers’ group. ‘Yes we can’.