Monday, December 5, 2011

Pictures & Wisdom from my Writing Retreat

Once again I am blogging to you live from the airport! Gotta love airports with free wi-fi (unlike O'Hare or Midway, more points against you sour home Chicago). Anyway, sadly I am now on my way home from my retreat. It is ending way too early as they always do.

I went into this not quite sure what my goals were or what to expect. It wasn’t the same as my trip to San Diego in January where the goal was either make the book work or die. I mentioned in the blog entry that I wrote in the airport when I arrived here that I’d been struggling in a different. It had been so long since I’d started a book that I wasn’t really sure what my process was. The amount of plotting I’d done felt like overkill, writing words for the sake of words during NaNoWriMo wasn’t getting me into the story. I had this awesome opening chapter/prologue, but aside from that, I kept stalling out.

But Monday night when I arrived, I was positive that I would do amazing work when I woke up on Tuesday. Yeah, not so much.

For me, a creature of habit who fears changes, it takes time just to adjust to the retreat space. The house in Arizona that the ten of us rented (Melissa Marr and Kelley Armstrong doing all the arrangements, so I must give them credit for that because they are incredible, I know it was hard work and they are very busy women and I felt privileged to be invited) was gorgeous. It had:
  • a giant master suite plus four bedrooms
  • a casita (where Melissa and I stayed and we called it “the shed” though it really was like a nice apartment off the side of the house with a kitchenette, bathroom, etc.). It looked like this from the outside:

  • a huge kitchen with a table where most people worked:

  • living room with cozy fireplace where after some trying out of different locales, I mostly worked (on the corner of that black couch):

  • dining room with a big table and regal looking chairs where we had our meals:

  • a pool with a slide, waterfall, hot tub and swim-up bar:

  • tennis/basketball courts

  • fitness room (which was above the casita)
  • media room (like with big chairs and a projector screen, though sadly we never used it)
  • koi pond

  • And my favorite thing an in ground trampoline:

So it was the most luxurious place I’d ever stayed. Plus it was Arizona. Warm. Sunny. Things that Chicago is not.

Work for the most part took place on the big living room couches and chairs and the giant kitchen table. But wanting to take advantage of the sun, I tried writing outside the first couple of days. This is not ideal because the sun makes it hard to see the screen. But I did my damndest to write by the pool and the koi pond. The writing quickly turned to panicked emails to my critique partners because as much plotting as I’d done, the writing still wasn’t clicking. Something just Wasn’t Right.

Day Two, I staked out a balcony which shaded me from the glare, but was still a warm outdoorsy place to write. This was my view:

Except for that I was still stuck. Fortunately the lovely Tara Kelly emailed me and I started to figure things out and she said I could call her. After a good twenty minutes on the phone, I realized I had a very simple fix for my beginning. It was staring me in the face the whole time, I just needed Tara to tap me on the shoulder and go, “Dude, LOOK!” Tara also provided me with music for my book. I felt like this book needs a mixture of angry female punk ala Hole and The Distillers, which I got covered, but also darkwave/synthpop/goth/industrial, which I haven’t really listened to in 10 years. Tara sent me some YouTube videos and made a whole spotify playlist for me that (with a couple of my own additions) I have been listening to pretty much nonstop since Wednesday like these:

I needed music for inspiration, but I don’t generally listen to it while I write. The retreat environment makes this more necessary though because even though we had strictly enforced quiet hours, sometimes I wanted to write through the talking-permitted hours, not to mention listening to everyone else’s keyboards clicking kinda makes me feel like I’m not working hard enough. What will be interesting is to see if I keep writing to this music because I think it really is helping me with the mood of the book.

So I had a total breakthrough on…. Thursday? Friday maybe? (This is the lovely thing about retreat is without a bartending and teaching schedule I don’t have to keep track of the days. I really wish I had more pure writing days.) when I remember how I work. I detailed it in this Tumblr post in the moment, but basically it is this.

I have a long gestational period with books. I think about them for years. I have a few that I am thinking about at a time, so sometimes (like this time and last time), when I finish one it take a while for me to decide which is the next one to pursue. I write back and forth, I ponder, ultimately I picked one. I knew this part already, the next part, I’d forgotten. I have to write in circles for awhile. This may include (as it did this time) writing summary and back story and trying scenes over and over again and writing one solid scene and then trying (and always failing) to write fast. I do this until I figure out the essential things that will keep me moving through the next few chapters.

This took a really long time with this book. I’m not sure if it was my own insecurities holding me back or what, but until I had the discussion I did with Tara and figured out one very basic thing, I could not break into the book. I was starting to think that either A. I’d chose the wrong book or B. since everyone kept saying that I had chose the right book that I simply did not have it in me to write anymore. Then I remembered how. I had the Eureka moment.

Here is how I write WHEN I KNOW WHAT I’M DOING (and mind you I usually only know what I’m doing in terms of where the next couple chapters are going, then I have to trust that I will figure it out as I am writing or I stall out, have the crisis where I brainstorm, call/email critique partners, ponder quitting, etc):

I sit down and reread some NOT all of what came before. I know where I started getting tired and phoning it in the day before and I generally start reading right above that section and start polishing. Polishing eventually continues forward into new words, which are strong at first. Then the words become shitty, but I press on until either A. I get as far as I wanted to get or B. I’ve run out of writing time for the day. The next morning (hopefully) I will repeat this, starting with the polishing and move onward.

Eventually as I recall, I get so into the story that I could give a shit about the polish and I just plow through because this is a first draft (as opposed to a rough or zero draft which is what I ended up doing with The Bartender Book as a result of writing too fast and it was highly displeasing) and I know I’m going to rewrite.

I wish I could stay on this retreat for at least another week or two to get to that point. I’m so fucking excited about this book. I’m excited and I have an idea of what happens in the next couple chapters. Other people on my retreat finished projects or met huge word goals, but this is what I needed and I am pleased with myself.

The only concerns I have now are keeping the momentum going. The awesome thing about being in a house of 8 or 9 writers is that when I start to get tired or have a headache or whatever, all of the excuses that I would totally use to surf the internet or laze around at home, I don’t because I see other people working. So I need to keep that up. I’m also terrified because going home means returning to a lot of none-writing work. I have 400+ pages of student work to read and make notes on by the 13th. I have several freelance deadlines on the 11th. I have one of my best friends in the whole world coming to visit for a month on the 7th. So yeah….. I have to some how keep writing this Modern Myth Book in the mix. Hopefully my determination will be enough.

So as not to end on a nervous/god I hate reality (minus my husband and friends) note, I will tell you a few more awesome things about the retreat:
  • Working in a big giant house gave me a visual for the big giant house that my character will live in, something I had a very hard time imagining because I don’t share a class background with her at all.
  • Sharing writing space with some of my biggest writing inspirations, some of whom are good friends that I don’t see often enough, others of whom I just know from online/their books and now have discovered that they are fabulous in person.
  • Decompressing after quiet time and have plot/road block talk around a fire pit with people who actually understand plot and don’t just stare at you for having a wild imagination:

  • Nightly meals with writer friends where you get to discuss more plot things as well as industry stuff that non-writer friends don’t get/find boring.
  • The nightly meals include Sarah Rees Brennan making curry and good lord does she make wonderful curry. She is also adorable and hilarious. Oh and Melissa Marr introduced me to Catalina dressing. Nom!
  • The nightly meals involve wine and sometimes Melissa’s fab cosmos. (There are drinks, but I do not have to bartend!)
  • The nightly meals/chats move either to the hot tub or the living room fireplace depending on the weather.
  • Since the hot tub is hot and the pool is a balmy 80 degrees sometimes you go nightswimming. And there is an awesome slide that you can go down. Repeatedly.
  • Instead of your usual workout, you can swim or run around the tennis court which has a wall that you can attempt to play racquetball against even though you suck.
  • Or you can go for your very first ever hike in the desert. Freaking gorgeous.

  • When you meet your final goal of the final writing day, you can bounce on the giant trampoline. If I had a giant trampoline to reward myself with, I’d be a more productive writer. Just sayin’


Bidisha said...

Those photos are gorgeous, Stephanie! Makes sense why writing retreats work wonders ;)

And I agree, giant trampolines are definitely motivating.

Hang in there till you finish the book, okay? An ardent fan demands so :D


Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Thanks, Bee! Yes it was good motivation to write in such a beautiful place. I was so lucky to get to go. And I will do my damndest to hang in there for your sake :)

Adrianne Russell said...

Gah, that place looks amazing! I can only imagine what kind of creativity it would inspire. I'm a sucker for firepits. Kudos to you for plugging away!