It’s easier to find the words that you need when you can clear the din from your head. Getting out of the city helps me do that. You can’t escape the heat in Texas, but you can escape the same, persistent writing challenges and author’s insecurities. How? Enlist the help of an inspiring retreat leader and some helpful fellow writers. This process is what I was looking for, and found, at Pamela Fagan Hutchin’s “Beat the Heat Writing Retreat” last weekend.
I work from a small home office in the city, or in cafes with varying degrees of hipness, so real, true quiet is hard to find. In my head, I think of “tranquil” as a word embraced by the fresh-smelling trees of Vermont or touched by the sunrise on a fisherman’s beach in Indonesia, but a remote Texas ranch fills the soul, too.
Heading off to the retreat, I was excited to work with the energetic and prolific romantic suspense author Pamela Fagan Hutchins again, but I was particularly interested in the segment of the retreat on “Getting Through The Sagging Middle” of a novel. Do you ever go out to run two miles and just want to throw in the sweaty towel after mile one? Part of me does. Writing the middle of the novel is the hardest part. I think, “I made an outline, why can’t the storylines behave and follow it?” Rewriting (and rewriting) the middle of my first novel, Bleed Tourmaline, involved more chocolate, coffee, and singing along to Gloria Gaynor than I’d like to admit. I hate the middle! It was great to learn some strategies for pushing through and to connect with a couple of other writers who felt the same way.
The thing with a good retreat or day-long workshop is that it also helps you to look at lessons you’ve “already learned” from a different vantage point. I am blessed to be part of a great writer’s critique circle twice a month (note- if The Body Business author Gay Yellen tells you to tweak a simile- tweak it -you’ll be glad that you did). I also critiqued peers’ work in a challenging MFA program. But just when think I’ve got this critique thing down, a facilitator or fellow writer will ask questions that push me to give feedback in new ways. Hutchins emphasizes working scene to scene (as opposed to chapter to chapter, or point of view one to point of view two), and asked us to consider scenes carefully as we gave and received feedback. Even better, meeting new critique partners meant that I heard a fresh take on my plotting, characterization, and word choice. Talented novelist Ken Oder was in my critique group at the retreat, and he is able to draw unique characters and vivid settings with such a clear style that I really valued his feedback. (His “rough” and “new” pages blew the rest of us away!) There are four books in the to-read pile on my nightstand, but after reading a new chapter of Ken’s, his prize-winning mystery novel, The Closing, has made its way towards the top of the pile. Find out more about Ken and his two fabulous novels on his website, http://kenoder.com, or on his Amazon author page:http://www.amazon.com/Ken-Oder/e/B00JX07B4G/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1.
Another activity that I came to look at in a new way was the shrunken manuscript technique. I already loved how spreading out your entire novel on the floor works as a visual representation of your work and the threads that attach your story together. In the past, I had primarily used this method for consistency and making sure that the various points of view in my narrative weave together well. Hutchins was very helpful because she kept the focus on how things work scene to scene, and told us how she uses color coding to make sure that minor characters get “enough ink, but not too much.” I will incorporate her ideas when I use this technique with my arson mystery-in-process, Zippo. (If you’d like more info on using Shrunken Manuscript technique, one helpful source is Darcy Pattison. See her blog: http://www.darcypattison.com/revision/shrunken-manuscript/.)
Best of all, Hutchins forced us to set ambitious, concrete goals. I joke that Hutchins is my Energizer Bunny wrier friend, but all joking aside, the woman is driven! She sets high goals and meets them, even if her house floods, or her back goes out, or her goats escape. She doesn’t want to hear your excuses. So I stopped making them. I left the retreat with a timeline for not only finishing, but completely revising, Zippo.
It’s scary as hell, but my goals and timeline hang right here on my bulletin board. They’re looking me right in the eyes saying, “Finish it! We double dare ya!”
Writers, if you want to attend one of Hutchins’ small writers’ retreats in 2016 (admit it, you do), check out her website for more information: http://pamelahutchins.com/speaking/writing-retreats/.