5 Tips for a Stellar Writing Retreat

By Lisa Alber

I just returned from a five-day writing retreat in Sunriver, Oregon. 7000+ words written. I wrote my way out of a plot blockage. Good friends. Good food. Great vista. All in all, perfection.

I got to thinking about all the many writing retreats I’ve gone on over the years, excluding retreats run by professionals. Half my retreats are solo adventures, the other half with pals. For the latter, here are my five recommendations for a perfect writing retreat:

Come prepped and with specific goals.

If the goal is to maximize word count, then come with research and ideas in mind. If the goal is to finish those last few chapters to The End, then be ready to pound them out and revise later. If you’re in revisions, have a general strategy and perhaps a daily goal.

Choose like-minded retreat pals.

Let’s face it, some people are more social than others. It helps to surround yourself with people with similar work habits. I have several gangs of writing retreat buds. We’re all focused, independent, and ready to relax at the end of a productive day. Being social is part of the fun of a retreat, of course, but it works best if people are on the same wavelength.

Location location location.

Pick a beautiful location with vistas so the eye can settle into a deep and tranquil distance. The closer to nature the better. I’m a big fan of retreat spots with plenty of space, indoors and out, so that we can spread out or write communally, as desired.

Prep the food beforehand.

We come prepared! (And there’s always too much food.) We’re each in charge of a meal, and breakfast is either unstructured, or not. As long as there’s plenty of coffee, I don’t care about breakfast. I also like the freedom of eating lunch while I write, but then for sure coming together for dinner.

Relax with walks, naps, sitting in the sun, early bedtimes, reading …

No point in driving yourself into a state of anxiety. That’s for everyday life. Fill the creative well!

 

 

Writing and Grieving While Gardening: A Lesson in What’s Important

60259631_10219183819888660_5888423291214888960_nBy Lisa Alber

I happened to be browsing my defunct blog and came across a three-year-old post that holds as true today as it did then. It’s really a post about writing, I realize now. And as I sit here a year after my mom’s death, I’m struck by how much gardening helped my grieving process in addition to my writing process. The garden is looking pretty fabulous this year because of all the work I did last year.

Have I grown since three years ago, since a year ago? I honestly don’t know, but I do know that time spent in my garden is still a balm to my soul. Writing my current novel is on the upswing again, and I’m grateful for that. I’m looking forward to hours and hours of writing in my backyard in the coming months.

Anyhow, without further ado, here’s the post with a few notes and things.

IMG_3882~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

However many years she lived, Mary always felt that she should never forget that first morning when her garden began to grow.
— Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

The other day I was talking to my writer buddy, A, about the usual thing: how behind I am on my work-in-progress (LISA NOTE: Gawd, some things don’t change!). I joked that with all the time spent in my garden since April, I could have had the novel completed, revised, and polished by now.

So what’s up with me and my garden? Yet another procrastination method or a requirement for mental equilibrium?

I’ve owned my house for a year four years(!) now, and (still) much to my surprise I’ve become what I call “one of those crazy gardening ladies.” I suppose it’s better than being a crazy cat lady or a crazy-looking Botox lady, but still, I’m fascinated by this newly discovered side of myself. I hadn’t realized I would take to gardening to the extent of digging up bushes and transplanting established plants and sifting through the soil to dig out every, and I mean every, bluebell bulb I can find. (<–Yeah right, I don’t do that anymore–futility, thy name is bluebell.)

So what gives with that?

I (re-)realized as I was talking to A that I always need a project. You might think, But isn’t fiction your project?

No no, oh no — not any more, it isn’t. It’s my *work* now. A while back, writing fiction was my soul release, my labor of love. I pursued it just for me — writing is the way I connect and process — but once I started to get published, I was forced to think of it as a business. Which it is, definitely, and I don’t have a beef with that.

59620296_10219119851809498_7964259789431635968_nWith the advent of fiction writing moving over to “the dark side,” I was left with a void. A project void. I no longer had a creative outlet that was just for me in the spirit of Elizabeth Bennett …

… I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me.    —Pride and Prejudice

Over the years I’ve tried out all kinds of creative activities in addition to writing: photography, painting, guitar, piano, pottery, drama, cooking (which may surprise people who know me well), crocheting, knitting, decoupage(!), printmaking, scrapbooking, and more I can’t remember.

Ultimately, fiction (with photography on the side) stuck, but now I need something to replace fiction. Looks like it’s gardening! And I’m content with this, more than content, actually. Gardening seems to be doing my poor, beleaguered, neurotic mind some good.

  • IMG_3901There’s a meditative thing that happens where I don’t think I’m thinking at all. (I must be, but you know what I mean.)
  • I lose time, which is signal enough that I’ve been 100% living in the moment.
  • I’m outside and physical and getting dirty—a nice opposition to the cerebral, clean world in front of my laptop.
  • Unlike writing, I can immediately see the result of my work. Instant gratification. While writing I can see my word count, but I can’t tell if what I’ve written is good or not. Whereas, a de-weeded flower bed? That’s nothing but good.
  • The excitement of seeing perennials pop up, watching buds grow fatter until one day the rose or the lily or the peony  pops open. That’s just good for the soul.
  • And, I don’t know this for sure, but I suspect that mucking about in my garden enhances my creativity when I sit down to work. (TRUE! I need time to let my story thoughts ripen.)

So, I may joke with A about all the time “wasted” in the garden, but I know it’s time spent on what’s important rather than just on what’s urgent. Life needs to be more about the important than the urgent.

Do you have a just-for-you activity that ends up being therapeutic?

Murder-A-Go-Go’s: A Music-Inspired Anthology

By Lisa Alber

Today (Monday as I write this) is publication day for an anthology that I’m honored to participate in: MURDER-A-GO-GO’S: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Music of the Go-Go’s, edited by Holly West and featuring sooo many great authors (many of whom I call friends).

Music-themed anthologies are fashionable these days. In the last several years, I’ve seen anthologies inspired by the music of The Replacements, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, and Steely Dan. All male, you notice. It’s about time for a female-artist-themed anthology, especially centered around a band like The Go-Go’s — the first, and to date only, all-female band to write their own songs and play their own instruments and top the Billboard album charts. That’s no mean feat in a male-dominated rock world.

The way it worked was that we were assigned song titles as prompts. My song/story title is “It’s Everything but Partytime.” From a process point of view, I found it challenging and fun to start with a title. Normally, I don’t know the title ahead of time and struggle to come up with decent titles all the time. Working backwards from a title was oddly liberating. And let’s be honest, it’s rarely going to be partytime for characters involved in a crime. So I could have written just about anything.

However, I decided to work a party atmosphere into the story — a fun and maybe funny environment in which to set a murder. I decided on a furry convention for the sheer novelty and silliness of it. I realize these conferences are serious business for devotees of the furry world, but … you know … it’s funny. It just is, especially if you’re an outsider — let’s say a cranky detective — who doesn’t understand what the hell is going on.

It made for a great push-and-pull. The environment is an obstacle to sussing out the murderer of a guest at the conference hotel. However, ultimately the environment helps the detective find the murderer. The environment is light and humorous, but the crime is dark.

This week I’m heading up to Vancouver, B.C., for a writers conference called Left Coast Crime. A bunch of my anthology pals will be there, and we’ll toast ourselves in true tipsy writerly fashion. That’s what I call partytime!

 

 

When Your Novels Sucks And You Stick it in a Drawer

By Lisa Alber

I happened to see this question posted on Facebook recently:

For those of you who have novel manuscripts that you put away because they weren’t working (i.e. they sucked), what were the problems that you noticed in those drafts?

Normally, I don’t go in for pseudo-survey conversational gambits like this. My interest that day might have had something to do with the drawer novel that I periodically pull out and then shove back in the drawer. It might also have had something to do with my work-in-progress, which almost landed in the same drawer a dozen times last year.

Interestingly, most of the responses fell into the following categories:

  • Not enough plot: Lack of forward momentum. Episodic scenes with protagonists on the road to nowhere. (Thank you, Talking Heads.) Conflict and goals and obstacles and stakes apparently sidelined.
  • Passive protagonist (often linked to plotlessness): Characters with not enough to do. Too much rumination and thinking, not enough movement. Reactive rather than proactive.
  • Too much plot: Bigger plot than you know what to do with. Situation so complex you can’t write your way out of it. Too many subplots.
  • You don’t know but it’s off: No matter what you do, it doesn’t feel right. (This one’s a toughy.)

The responses got me thinking about my drawer novel and my novel in progress.

My drawer novel is a case of too much plot and my inability to let some of it go. I know! I drive myself nuts sometimes. I’ve noodled every which way with the parallel plot line (I love a good parallel plot line), but it’s too much. The entire thing’s gotta be re-jiggered into one storyline … Next time. Or maybe never. Maybe that was my practice novel … (but I can’t quite let it go!)

My work-in-progress also contains a parallel plot line — heh — but I’m more skilled than I was when I wrote the drawer novel. Nevertheless, something was off.

Head. Wall. Ouch. Repeat.

I was suffering from a case of I-don’t-know-but-it’s-off. My solution was to think bigger picture: voice and perspective. I engaged in a thought experiment in which I imagined the story from some other character’s point of view, and imagined it told in first person instead of third (or vice versa). In my case, this was enough to rock my world and a-ha myself out of my stuckness.

Whew! Massive rewrite, to be sure, however, at long last I’m back to having fun with the story. Which, it seems to me, is the ultimate barometer. If, no matter what you do, you keep not having fun with a novel, let it go.

The last pattern I noticed in the Facebook responses was that the bullish attitudes about manuscript problems tended to come from the more experienced writers; these were problems they’d yet to solve, that was all. Most stories are salvageable, but it may take a few (or more, probably more) years of craft experience to learn the art of the salvage.

Oh, and don’t forget your friendly neighborhood beta readers and brainstorming partners. They save me all the time.

Labyrinth of Souls

by Elizabeth Engstrom

It’s Christmas, so what could be better than a little self-promotion?

If the self-promotion includes the genius of others, that’s what could be better.

If the self-promotion also includes the ease of Christmas shopping for loved ones, that’s better yet.

Several years ago, Matthew Lowes wrote quite a brilliant solitaire card game called Dungeon Solitaire—The Labyrinth of Souls.

rule book

After reading the rule book, and looking at the amazing art that had been done by Josephe Vandel for not only the book, but the Tarot cards to accompany it, I was inspired to write a novel set in this fictional universe.

cards

Matt and I talked with other authors, many alumni of the infamous Ghost Story Weekends, about writing similar books. Christina Lay signed on to publish, her feet already solidly planted by publishing the successful anthology Shadow Spinners: A Collection of Dark Tales, and voila! a series was born.

current books

The basic rules of the solitaire card game (and you can watch Matt play a few games on YouTube), is that the hero delves into the underground, where he encounters a labyrinth. The cards the player turns over dictate what the character encounters down there. Monsters. Treasure. Light. Food. Deity. Some things he must have, other things he must vanquish, or avoid. At some point he must turn around and have enough resources to return above ground. Sometimes he makes it, sometimes he doesn’t.

Each of these novels is set within this realm.  Each one is completely different from the other. There is only one requirement: the hero must delve underground at some point in his quest.

These novels by Matthew Lowes, Eric Witchey, Stephen T. Vessels, Christina Lay, Mary E. Lowd, L.A. Alber, and me (your obedient self-promoting servant), are really good reads. Littlest Death by Eric Witchey has won awards. They’re fun, they’re daring, they’re exciting, and they’re like nothing else you’ve ever read before. Fantasy with a twist, always with a twist. And there are more in the publishing pipeline by Cheryl Owen-Wilson, John Reed, Pamela Jean Herber, Cynthia Coate Ray, and others.

Treat yourself. Treat your loved ones.

What’s better than receiving a good book for Christmas?

Nothing. Seriously. There’s nothing better.

Reapplying the Bum Glue

By Lisa Alber

It’s not that I haven’t written since my mom died at the beginning of the summer … It’s that I haven’t truly been writing either. Know what I mean?

There’s a self-discipline to sitting down to the writing. There’s also a self-discipline to clearing life stuff out of the way so I can sit down to the writing. I’m out of practice with both.

So, this morning as I laid in bed, I gave myself a lecture:

  1. Whatever you do, do NOT roll over for the return journey to slumberland. It’s your own blasted fault you accidentally read until 1:oo a.m.!
  2. One hour, just one hour, of writing is a-okay. Ignore word count rules. Thinking counts as writing!
  3. Turn on the computer and. just. WALK. AWAY. Do not pass go, do not collect stressors from the email queue and distractions from Facebook! However, do open the manuscript so that it greets you when you return with your coffee.
  4. For a change of pace, try relaxing with your coffee for 15 minutes before starting the computer hunchback routine. Maybe open a novel by an author you admire, turn to any page, and read to get your juices flowing.

Happily, I achieved the written word today. It’s still not enough — there goes Little Miss All-Or-Nothing again — but it’s what I could do today.

The truth is, I wrote for one and a half hours. The truth is, if I can wiggle past the daily distractions and day-job triggers, the one hour often turns into more.

Write Better Faster

By Lisa Alber

I’m a somewhat — OK, highly — skeptical person, so when a writing buddy, A, told me about an online course she was taking called “Write Better Faster,” I snorted. Seriously?

(Sidenote: The link above will disappear after awhile — Google “Write Better Faster Becca Syme”)

But … Somewhere inside me, after Mom’s death in May, while still dealing with the estate stuff all. summer. long. I felt a nibble of interest when A said, “Oh, this isn’t one size fits all. She uses personality (psychometric) tests like Myers-Briggs to work through what strategies might work best for you for your writing based on how you’re wired. I got a lot out of it. I bet you would too.”

Hmm …

I’ve been stalled since May … I’d thought I was on my feet again, but it derailed earlier this month in the face of stress. Plus, A isn’t a dope; she doesn’t buy into BS or fads. She’s singularly level-headed and sensible.

What the hell, I thought, and signed up for the August course. (They’re held every other month as far as I can tell.) If you’re the kind of person who likes psychology and are curious about how your brain works as related to your writing life, you might like this course. For example, why are some people pantsters and others outliners? One way isn’t better than the other. It has to do with your wiring. Me–I’m a pantster. Now I know why, and it makes total sense.

The instructor, Becca, is amazing and sooo knowledgeable.

A fascinating aside: Becca mentions a study that was done that illustrates that when we improve on our natural strengths we achieve monumentally greater improvement than if we improve on areas that aren’t our strengths. Like, I could take a class to improve my car maintenance skills, but since I’m not talented in anything to do with machinery, I’ll only improve so much. But, if I take a class to improve on my gardening skills, I will see a big difference because I have a natural aptitude with plants.

Ultimately, the course is about capitalizing on our strengths to improve our productivity and writing. Becca breaks down what in her vast experience as a coach generally works best for I vs. Es and Ns vs. Ps, and so on (from the Myers-Briggs world).

She spends time on our systems, which includes our energy, our environment, our health, and so on. So it’s a systems class. She advocates changing one small habit at a time, and a lot of the class is about figuring out the small habits that will make the biggest difference. For example, as a high-P (perceiver), I’m easily distractible because I take in all the data all the time. (Yes, this is true.)

A small change for me might be to *not* open up Internet or email first thing in the morning. Instead, have the manuscript open and waiting for me instead. That’s a small but difficult change. Becca talks about how painful change can be, which is refreshing, because how many times have you been in a course and the instructor says, Do this, like it’s no big deal?

Just do it. F–k that. I hate that Nike slogan. Actually, if you’re a J, judging, not to be confused with being judgmental, these kinds of thoughts might work for you. See what I mean? 🙂

In addition to taking the Myers-Briggs assessment, we also took something called DISC. DISC measures what motivates you–how do you thrive. (This is a simplistic definition.)

D = Drive (How Type A are you? Low D doesn’t mean no drive to achieve goals. It just means you’re more easy going. I’m low D. I’m so not a type A personality!)

I = Influencer (This is the people-oriented one and you want to have influence.)

S = Stability (You’re particularly affected/get derailed when things are unstable or chaotic.)

C = Compliance (This is wanting things to be right and obey the rules; nothing to do with being passive.)

I’m highest in stability, which means I thrive when things are calm. I have a need for harmony in my life. This make total sense, because I get derailed easily from my writing when things feel unstable. This is good for me to know — for one thing, knowledge is power, so I don’t need to get down on myself  when I derail. I’m not a failure because I derail; I’m just a person sensitive to what’s going on around me. Knowing this, I can come up with strategies.

We also took a Strengthfinders test to gather our top five strengths. Three out of my five top strengths were thinking-oriented (intellection, deliberative, and input). What’s funny about this is that I don’t think of thinking as real writing. But Becca opines differently. For some people, thinking is writing, and we should include that time in our designated writing time. In other words, I was discounting one of my greatest strengths because of a fallacious notion that writing looks like one thing, word count!

Some of these things are a relief, you know? Such as the de-mythologizing of “rules” like you must write every day (bullshit, not everyone is wired like that, and success happens for all kinds of writers, not just the ones who write every day).

Anyhow, I had fun with this class, and had some epiphanies along the way. We are wired differently, and one size does not fit all when it comes to writing processes. Oh, the humanity!

(In my next post, I’ll let you know what small habit I decided to change and how it’s going.)