What I Learned at the Writing Retreat

In daily walks during my southern Oregon writing retreat, I noticed how many different shades of green appeared in the landscape. I love the mountains in the background--sort of a blue-green.

I’m back home, but my brain is still on vacation.

The past week, living in a bunkhouse in the woods in southern Oregon, taking long walks and waking each morning to a full day of writing, has refreshed me and grown my story.

We settled into roomy apartments in the campus bunkhouse.

I’ve learned it’s easier to work 12 to 14 hours a day, with short breaks, if I’m revising. That’s what I did the last two years on this retreat.

I dug my brain into my story and stayed there all week, only coming up for air at night to meet with the other writers and read some pages of my now-completed novel BODY COPY.

This time, I needed to churn out first draft pages for LOST NOTES, my 19th century historical novel. New work. Including that riot. Due to some last-minute changes, there were only two of us attending this women’s retreat, and both of us had brought first drafts. While eating meals and taking breaks from the computer, Emma Burcart and I talked about our work. We asked each other questions. We hypothesized and theorized and strategized and laughed and wondered. We walked through the beautiful landscape, startling bugs and other critters with our footsteps.

These immaculately cared-for flowers kept us company on the wraparound porch of our bunkhouse.

And you know what? We both returned home with much clearer visions of what we’re trying to achieve. Where the next pages will take us. How our characters are changing. Where we need to raise the stakes and how we might do that.

As I’ve mentioned, I’m planning to submit half my novel to my critique group this fall. Many writers warn against sharing unfinished work, but I trust these women after several years of working with them, and after this week’s fruitful discussions with Emma, I’m confident that passing my work into their hands won’t derail me. Or discourage me. It’ll give me a stronger sense of the manuscript—what works and what doesn’t. I love LOST NOTES, but their input will make it even better as I move forward.

Do you show people early drafts of your work? Or half-drafts? Or do you think I’m totally crazy to risk such a thing?

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
This entry was posted in Community, Fiction, Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to What I Learned at the Writing Retreat

  1. Nisha says:

    Personally I wouldn’t, not because I think its wrong, but because I’m too chicken! I have a problem with criticism which I’m slowly trying to deal with.
    An established author like yourself, you have a right to be more confident but I also think you’re very lucky to have a group of people you can trust to give an honest but caring opinion. You don’t meet too many people like these nowadays…
    I need to go on one of these retreats! Sounds like you had a magical time. There’s nothing quite like Nature to re-energise the creative spirit!

    • Thanks for commenting, Nisha! I definitely agree that having a trustworthy group, one where you all respect and understand each other, is key when submitting a big group of pages especially. I’m still a little nervous about submitting a half-finished manuscript, but I am confident that I’ll learn a lot from my writer-friends. It’s so much easier when you can remember they’re looking at the work, rather than taking it personally!

      Retreats are wonderful! You could even ask a few of your writer-friends to go away someplace for a weekend to get a little taste of that kind of experience. (Although, I warn you, it’s addictive… and it’s really hard to come back home, especially after a few days of focus!)

  2. Pingback: Exciting Writing | The Happy Logophile

  3. That sounds like a wonderful writing situation. If it was me, I’d probably spend most of my time on that nice-looking porch (hopefully not in a plastic chair) with a notebook and a printed draft. And a few pens.

    I show unfinished work all the time. Right now I’m rewriting my WIP, my third novel, and a few very helpful readers are reading each chapter as I finish it. This is because I’m trying to solve a very specific problem. I’m writing the third novel in a series, but I want to make sure it can be read and enjoyed by people who have never read the other two — which is something I can’t tell for myself because, obviously, I have read the other two 🙂

    It’s wonderful to get the feedback as I go, since I really don’t want to waste the time of writing a whole draft if it isn’t going to work for new readers. If I’m way off, I don’t want to take the whole journey before I change course.

    • It was a great setting. I spent way too much time indoors, although I stared out the window and enjoyed the sun and breeze coming in every day.

      Thanks for your thoughts on showing unfinished work, Anthony! I especially was hoping you’d comment due to your recent call-for-readers and the challenge you’re facing with making your story both a sequel and a standalone. You made a great point about feedback helping “since I really don’t want to waste the time of writing a whole draft if it isn’t going to work.” I trust my critique group so much, and the last time I gave them a half-draft, they pointed out issues and I was totally able to write a stronger second half incorporating their ideas. Then again, I think that’s what people worry about–that they’ll get knocked off their creative vision. My vision for LOST NOTES is strong, though, and I made a more specific outline of the end at the retreat. I know where it’s going. Hopefully they’ll tell me what I don’t know, like where the characters fall flat or what I can cut.

      • “I trust my critique group so much, and the last time I gave them a half-draft, they pointed out issues and I was totally able to write a stronger second half incorporating their ideas.”

        This is the key, I think. Learn from the criticism, but keep writing forward. I think people get screwed up in this situation because they go back to rewrite the part that was critiqued, rather than continuing on.

        I’ve posted three chapters so far, and I’ve got really helpful comments on each one, but I’m not touching those chapters again until I get to the end and go back to rewrite the whole book.

        • Nice point, as always, Anthony! It definitely makes sense that an ill-timed critique could send a writer backwards, and it’s so easy to get lost in making changes. What you’re doing–getting the comments and sitting on them while you move forward–is exactly what I hope to do this fall.

  4. I’ve learned the hard way to never show any drafts to anybody (except my husband — and even he I sometimes don’t) because it always slows me down or stops me completely in my tracks. I don’t know why but any comment, whether negative or positive or indifferent, makes me less involved with my work. I wish it weren’t that way, but for me it is. I also think it is completely and utterly personal — and a lot of it has to do with the fact that I’m an introvert and feel very guarded about all kinds of things…. except apparently blogging in which I probably share WAY TOO MUCH 🙂 By the way, the writing retreat looks AMAZING!

    • I think it’s huge to show your husband drafts! I never show him mine. We talk about it all the time, though, and he makes a great plot helper.

      I have heard that others’ comments can make writers feel less involved with their work. You said that very well. Once it’s out in the world like that, it feels less personal, somehow. For me, at least so far, that seems to give me clarity, not distance. Of course sometimes critiques can be frustrating and cause me to set aside a manuscript for a while. Hopefully this one will just gear me up to write more! And revise more, of course.

  5. How wonderful and brave of you to go do something like that! I’d have been thinking about where I was rather than writing. And yep, I find it easier sometimes to spend an extended time on revising than on new (which takes a lot more focus and draws from a deeper well.) Welcome home….

    • Thanks, Lynn! Since this was my third time there, the energy feels so good, and while I did enjoy daily walks and all the wildlife, it felt just as good to sit inside and work. Great points about new work drawing from a deeper well. It’s just not as sustainable for hours the way revision can be. Immersing yourself in a manuscript that needs work allows you to work forward and backward, or focus on certain themes or fixes. New work takes that deeper kind of energy, and I apparently do it best in small bursts.

  6. handstitch says:

    Love your retreat setting, Laura.

    I share my design work and thought process all the time. I find it when I verbalize them, I spot things I miss, like or dislike, and re-engineer, streamline, whatever else reveals itself through the process.

    • I have totally noticed that thinking out loud about plot problems, or blogging about them, helps crystallize the process. Hopefully getting critiqued will play into that!

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