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Writing Retreat

I’ve recently returned from my annual writing retreat — that’s a time away (in our case almost a week) with a group of writer friends, working. We’re all multi-published writers, but even so there’s an emphasis on professional development as well as producing words on the page.

This is our tenth anniversary as a writing retreat (I reported on the first one here  and over the years we’ve refined the process into one that works for us. Here’s the post I wrote while I was away on our 10th retreat.

I’ve had enquiries from time to time asking for more detail about how we run ours, so here’s my view of things.

Location
The first retreat, and all but one of our retreats have been beside the sea. There’s something about the sea and the salt air, the interface of land and water and sky, the constantly changing view and the endless rhythmic pounding of the waves, hypnotic and soothing and inspiring — it feeds our muse.

Another requirement for us is a range of affordable and varied places to eat nearby. We can cook our own meals, but a lot of people prefer to grab take-aways — Thai, Japanese, Mexican, Greek etc — or eat out in a group.

A room of our own
From the very first retreat, we decided this was important, as each of us needed a private space to write in. That’s not actually true for all of us, we’ve discovered — some write in bed, some in cafes, but for some a table and a private space is vital, so that was a priority.

Planning
In the weeks leading up to the retreat we start to toss around ideas for professional development. From craft-of-writing exercises (because we can all do with refreshing and honing our craft) to “the state-of-publishing” discussions, to discussions of books or movies, and the sharing of good writing books — we brainstorm ideas, come up with a schedule, and assign people to lead each session.  The leader doesn’t have to be an expert — just do a little preparation and lead the discussion.

Schedule
On the first night together we grab fish and chips and champagne (it’s now a tradition), and we plan the week.

Mornings are the most creative time for most of us, so the majority of us stay in our rooms, writing until lunchtime. Some go out for breakfast, some make it in their room (we have cooking facilities), some go for an early morning swim or a dawn walk, but we don’t meet as a group until lunchtime. And if anyone wants to keep working, they skip the lunchtime meeting.

We bring our own lunch to the meeting room and the first professional development session takes place.

Then it’s back to our rooms for more writing — or in some cases, shopping, swimming, walks, naps, whatever. 

In the evening we meet again for dinner — sometimes we go out as a group, but mostly we bring take-away or home-cooked and there’s another professional development session. And after that there’s wine and chocolate and lots of fun.

Some sessions/discussions we’ve had — in no particular order:
*  The changing face of publishing — always something new to discuss there.
*  Contracts and business matters
*  Theme
*  Subtext 
*  E-publishing
*  Movie watching and discussion
*  Plotting — sharing and discussing individual methods
*  Book discussions — of fiction, and of non-fiction writing books
*  Story collage
*  Our processes — how we each approach writing, and deal with problems that arise
*  Brainstorming – we brainstorm plots, story problems, and titles
*  Dealing with revisions —the approaches vary considerably.
*  Keeping the magic alive
*  Paramedic, medical and midwifery advice for use in books
*  How to keep the muse fresh and bubbling
*  Writing the back cover blurb
*  Tips for writing faster/better
*  Dealing with perfectionism
*  Dealing with editors
*  Visibility
*  Learning Styles
*  Meditation and exercises for writing health
*  Promotion and publicity — what works what doesn’t, what we like/hate
*  Planning a series
*  To blog or not?
And much more . . . .

We came together as an experiment — at the first retreat half of us had never met — but now we’re all good friends. We’ve gone down different pathways in publishing and it’s a constant journey of discovery and rediscovery.
We’ve already booked for next year’s retreat. I wouldn’t miss it for anything.

PS — I would have included more photos, but for some reason WordPress won’t let me upload them, even though they’re all under 30kbs. sigh.

Considering Characters

Considering your characters

When thinking about characters, the tendency for many is to start with an archetype — the strong silent soldier/cowboy,  the remote, buttoned up duke/billionaire businessman, the wild, unpredictable bad boy etc.

Archetypes can be useful as a starting point, but unless you go deeper, there is a risk of your characters being a bit too clichéd for comfort.

You need to twist the cliché, go deeper into your character’s personality and back story, find out his secrets and his deeply buried fears/hopes/vulnerabilities.

Consider this poem, by the Russian poet, Yevtushenko.

People, by Yevgeny Yevtushenko

No people are uninteresting.
Their fate is like the chronicle of planets.

Nothing in them in not particular, 
and planet is dissimilar from planet.

And if a man lived in obscurity
making his friends in that obscurity
obscurity is not uninteresting.

To each his world is private
and in that world one excellent minute.
And in that world one tragic minute

These are private.
In any man who dies there dies with him
his first snow and kiss and fight
it goes with him.
                                                    (Read the rest of the poem here)

At a distance, your characters might fit an archetype, but the closer and deeper you go, the more individual and particular they become. Think of your character’s ‘one excellent minute’, and ‘one tragic minute’,  their ‘first snow, and kiss and fight’ — or your versions of those— the events that contributed to the formation of their character and personality, gave them their hangups and their strengths and their blind spots. 

Consider the ways in which they might be “stuck” in their current life.

Then brainstorm events and challenges in your plot that might cause them—force them!—to change.

And finally, consider this quote from Vicki Hinze: “Find your character’s Achille’s heel — their greatest fear or weakness or vulnerability.  Then stomp on it.”

The Power of Detail

Faithful, evocative detail.”

Many years ago I did a writing course with a superb teacher. Of the many things I brought away from that course was a quote, the source and the precise wording of which I’ve lost, but it went something like this: “The purpose of writing is to bring to life the world of the characters in faithful, evocative detail.”

It’s those last three words that have stayed with me all these years — faithful, evocative detail.

I mentioned this to a friend once, and he said, “Oh, description — I always skip that stuff.” 
I often do, too, depending on the writer.
But this post is not about “writing description” — it’s about choosing the most vital and  evocative details — and making it work for you.

Take for instance, this example:

We lived near the sea, near the marshes. I remember one time when I was a small boy, it was a cold afternoon, nearing evening and I was playing alone in the churchyard, among the graves. It was a depressing place and, feeling a bit lonely and cold and frightened, I started crying.

Suddenly a man stood up from among the graves and shouted, “Hold your noise! Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!”

He was a scary man, all in gray, dirty and wet and obviously cold. Dressed in ragged old clothes, he wore an iron shackle around one leg. He grabbed me by the chin.

* * * * *

Lots of detail there, but how vivid is it? Could it be improved?

Does the scene ring a bell with you?
It’s from Dickens, Great Expectations — and here’s Dickens’s version.

Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.

“Hold your noise!” cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. “Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!”

A fearful man, all in coarse gray, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared, and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.

* * * * *

Okay, it’s very wordy. It was written some 150 years ago, and these days we tend to prefer a sparser style of writing. Most writers today would probably cut a lot of that detail back, but you can’t deny the powerful effect of this passage. In fact, why don’t you try deciding what you’d keep and what you’d cut? Start by underlining or highlighting the details that seem to you to be the most powerful and evocative. 

But before you cut anything, try reading the passage aloud — many of Dickens’s readers would have heard his stories read aloud to them. His stories were first serialized in newspapers and magazines, and thousands of people who couldn’t read, let alone afford to buy books, heard them read aloud, and became devoted to his stories and characters.

He built worlds with words and details, and his worlds and characters became real to his audience. And have lived on for more than 150 years.

Read especially that last paragraph again, about the convict and tell me where you’d cut it. And yes, POV purists would mutter that a small boy would not possibly know all that detail — but as I’ve said before, its a tool, not a rule. And it’s a rule broken to magnificent effect.