When your usual source of inspiration has packed up and moved elsewhere or just thinking about sitting down to work on your writing feels more like a chore than a delight, it may be time for you to escape somewhere to write.
Of course, we’d love it if you joined us at our annual writers retreat Spring Thaw this April but there are other options. From renting a cabin in the woods to pitching a tent in the backyard, there are ways to arrange your retreat from the world. No matter your choice, it’s up to you to get inspired once more and put your focus on your work in progress.
Here’s 10 signs that just might be
pointing to your need to get away and write:
1. Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest are far more interesting than your current work in progress…even if you fooled yourself into thinking you might find inspiration from other writers posting their success stories.
2. When friends or family ask you how your writing is going, you change the subject. Repeatedly.
3. You spend a lot of time looking up recipes to at least be creative somewhere. That soufflé might be amazing but it won’t look great on your bookshelf three years from now. Your book will.
4. Your day job drains every ounce of creativity you once had and even the days off are lost causes. You yearn for vacation time but then remember that it’s booked up with family events.
5. The name of your main character is hard to remember…or the working title of your book…the name of the antagonist…or why you set a science fiction novel at a seaside resort…it’s all so vague now.
6. You have nightmares about winning the Giller Prize where everyone boos and calls you a hack and they take the cheque back. Really? Doesn’t every writer have that nightmare?
7. You yell “plot hole!” repeatedly at the television and then worry your novel is nothing but plot holes.
8. You can no longer imagine your book being published — in fact, you’ve forgotten why you started the darn thing in the first place.
9. The noise level at home is a constant distraction: kids, pets, neighbours, the dishwasher — you name it, there’s no quiet zone to just reflect.
10. You avoid meeting up with other writers to avoid hearing how well it’s going for them. Not that you don’t care, but really, it is hard to take when you’re in a literary sinkhole of nothingness.
Some of these may be a bit tongue-in-cheek but there’s a ring of truth in all of them. We know, because we’ve experienced them in one form or another. That’s why we offer our escapes.
And for 2020, we’ve opened our country properties to writers who want a self-directed or supported writing escape. Choose from a cozy lakeside home in the Northumberland Hills or a traditional riverside cottage in the Haliburton Highlands. Send us an email at email@example.com for more details.
There are probably 110 signs that a writer needs a writing retreat. Add to our list in your comments.
We are here at Spring Thaw, on the shores of Rice Lake at this year’s annual writers’ retreat. The sun is shining, the coffee is hot and everyone is tucked away in cottages, writing. And we don’t worry when they might need some inspiration, because we always plan our program to meet the diverse needs of our participants. From those just starting out to seasoned and published authors, writers at our retreats know two things:
1. Gwynn and Ruth are always available for support. And 2. They have their themed retreat handbook full of tips, prompts and resources.
Here are 10 snippets from 10 of our past retreat handbooks:
#1 From Up Close and Personal:
Write like a movie camera.
Start close up, focused on one detail, then draw back and reveal the larger scene. Don’t make it all description. Bring it alive with action, reaction and dialogue—and don’t forget about evoking emotion.
#2 From Myths & the Stories We Tell
In life, if you want to become closer with someone it’s necessary to be open and vulnerable. The same can be said of the relationship with the reader.
Revisit an emotional scene you have written and find ways to
be more open, honest, vulnerable. Write as if it will never be read. You don’t
have to use the scene you write, but practice writing what you REALLY feel and
want to say rather than what you think you SHOULD say.
Switch it up: Write a dream or daydream where a character experiences the
situation they have long hoped for.
#3 From Q is for…
To craft your one-sentence pitch, try one of these two methods:
Best-selling authors share their one-sentence pitches, 25 words or less, using the What If or So What method.
elements of the “What if . . . So What?” pitch include:
the major conflict (plotline) of the story.
the answer to the question, “So What?”
Kathleen Antrim’s one-sentence “what if” pitch for her novel Capital Offense
What if the first lady (PROTAGONIST) is plotting (CONFLICT) to overthrow the president? (SO WHAT)
#4 From Bridging Your Words
Links to 6 Continents & 6 Lit Journals accepting international submissions
Secrets can be big or small, important or silly, even funny. Some have grave consequences if divulged. Others are just an embarrassment. Some secrets hurt, some protect, some exclude, some are a lie. Hmmm……
In your story: What is the secret? Who is keeping the secret and from whom?Who are the people involved? Why does it need to be kept? What will happen if it is uncovered? Is someone digging to figure it out? Why? How are they involved? What are the risks and rewards of discovering the secret?
#6 From Linking Ideas and Inspiration
Tap into your creativity and make connections in surprising ways.
Work as fast as you can to escape your internal editor. Without thinking or stopping, make a
vertical list of whatever word is
suggested to you from the one above. Try for at least 25 words.
Use your own word or add to this list if you like…
Use the last word to spark a new piece. Or write something that uses these words in the order in which they appear, beginning with the first one you added.
Use several words in one sentence or only one every other sentence. Whatever works for you.
#7 From Voice:
“A voice cannot carry the tongue and the lips
that gave it wings. Alone must it seek the ether. And alone and without his nest shall the
eagle fly across the sun.” ― Kahlil Gibran
“Words are the voice of the heart.” ― Confucius
Let your muse go where it wants to…No holding back… just write…For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice. ― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
#8 From Shadow and Light:
#9 From Both Sides Now:
“Every family has a story that it tells itself, that it passes on to the children and grandchildren. The story grows over the years, mutates, some parts are sharpened, others dropped, and there is often debate about what really happened. But even with these different sides of the same story, there is still agreement that this is the family story. And in the absence of other narratives, it becomes the flagpole that the family hangs its identity from.” (A.M. Homes)
An abridged version of a post by Tracy Seeley, author of My Ruby Slippers. tracyseeley.com
So there you have it. If you would like to join us on our next annual Spring Thaw Retreat in 2020, mark your calendars for April 17, 2020. Come for 3 or 5 days as we’ve offered before, or try the new option: 7 days!—whatever fits your needs, your budget and your time. Registration opens on June 1, 2019.
Shortly after our most recent retreat, Turning Leaves, I heard from a writer who wasn’t able to attend. She was disappointed to have missed the retreat and, of course, we missed having her there. But it started the kernel of an idea for me.
What to do when you can’t get away to write but you really need that getaway?
Do it yourself
A self-directed retreat can give you the boost you and your writing need. There are two basic ingredients necessary to create your own writing retreat.
permission — allow yourself this gift — whether it’s for 30 minutes or 33 days, gift yourself and your muse with writing time
difference — as simple as facing your laptop in a new direction or as drastic as getting in the car and driving west without a destination in mind, a different writing space will loosen your perspective
The “where” doesn’t matter as much as the “okay” you need to give yourself. Once you commit to accepting the gift of time to write, the rest will fall into place. So, you’ve said okay to a retreat? Now to focus on the “where.” Many writers don’t have to even head out the front door.
Retreat at Home:
Begin by creating the right space that will give you the retreat vibe. Turn off the TV. Log off the WiFi. Unplug the phone. Eliminate distractions — if you need to, hire a babysitter or dog walker. Maybe light a candle or incense.
Take your journal or laptop into a room you don’t normally write in. Stand at a window you don’t usually look through. Sit on your apartment balcony or the backyard deck. If you’re a morning writer, keep your jammies on before you start to write. If you tend to write later in the day, start out with a walk in your neighbourhood, but travel in a new direction.
Do a little fuel prep in advance of your self-curated home retreat. Put together meals and snacks in advance. I don’t mean potato chips and dip…treat yourself so this feels special. Crudité. Antipasto. Shrimp cocktail. Whatever will raise the bar for you to a place of being pampered.
Retreat away from Home:
If a retreat at home would never work (i.e., noisy neighbourhood, roommates, cramped quarters) consider where you might escape to. I know writers who write at their local library. They turn off their phones, squirrel away in a quiet corner and spend the day writing. And with so many libraries loosening up those old rules of no food or coffee, bringing your lunch and favourite munchies along is less of a barrier. You can’t sit there in your jammies but there’s nothing that says you can’t wear your old sweatshirt and kick off your shoes to get comfy. My local library has an upscale coffee shop onsite where you can write your book and eat your cake, too.
Another option is to book yourself into an inn or B&B to write for a couple of days. Book for the off season to get lower rates. A friend and Writescape alumnus, Ingrid Ruthig, is an award-winning poet and accomplished artist. She creates her own writing retreats by booking a room in a B&B and staying for a few days. She’s disciplined enough to keep her focus on why she’s there and uses the new space as inspiration for her work. And she notes that the breakfasts make for a stellar start to her day.
Be creative. Head to a coffee shop to write. How about the local museum? Do the kids have a backyard treehouse? Retreating away from home doesn’t need to be an overnight excursion. The main point is finding a place that is different; it is difference that can inspire creativity.
Look for artist residencies
An artist residence can offer time and space to writers. Some residencies involve a large financial commitment. But some are provided free of charge or have scholarships or bursaries to offset the cost. And some pay you to attend.
There are dozens and dozens of residencies in Canada, the U.S. and abroad. The Write Life has a list of 27 Amazing Writing Residencies. I’ll admit to being intrigued by the winery retreats — Writing between the Vines will give you a week-long, no charge residency in either California or B.C. You have to get there and you need to bring your own food but my goodness, imagine a cabin tucked away among the cabernet sauvignon in the Sonoma Valley!
Closer to my home in Ontario, the A-Frame Residency in Ameliasburg offers writers the use of poet Al Purdy’s iconic Prince Edward County home. $650 paid to writers weekly for a no-fee 4-week stay is a remarkable gift. Not to mention the hope that some of the Governor-General Award-winner’s creative spirit could rub off on you as you work. Applications re-open fall 2019.
Heather O’Connor, who’s attended many of Writescape’s retreats, wrote about her artist-in-residence experience at Quetico Provincial Park, west of Thunder Bay and bordering Minnesota. In that post, she shares how she also funded the travel expenses to get her to Quetico, which gives us a nice transition to the next topic.
Fund Your Retreat
Apply for writing grants to help cover the cost of any writing retreat, either self-directed or carefully curated by others. Local, regional, provincial and national organizations offer grants to help support you in this journey. We’ve written a few blog posts about grants and how to get them, including this story of a breadmaker’s grant. And Heather O’Connor, arguably one of the most successful writing grant applicants we’ve ever known, offered some sage advice in this 2016 blog post.
So, whether you hunker down at home or leave the country, there are many ways to create your own writing retreat. Whatever it takes to charge your batteries and keep the words flowing, we wish you well. May the muse be ever-present and the writing, sublime!
Writescape’s next retreat
Registration for Spring Thaw, our annual creative getaway at Elmhirst’s Resort, doesn’t officially open until December 1. But for our retreat alumni and subscribers to our Top Drawer blog, we’re giving you a bit of a head start.
Spring Thaw, April 26 to 28, 2019, is an all-inclusive writing retreat in cozy cottages on the shores of Rice Lake in the Kawarthas. We create an intimate and safe space in which writers can explore ideas and stretch their creative energy. At Spring Thaw, you’ll have:
editorial review on 10 manuscript pages
private feedback consultations
creativity sessions to inspire your muse each morning
private room in shared, fully equipped lakeside cottages
optional evening activities
full access to resort amenities: WiFi, indoor pool, whirlpool & sauna, trails
Writers can keep the energy going with our Extend-Your-Pen option, April 28 to 30, two more days devoted just to working on your writing.
Retreat alumni and members of writing organizations can take advantage of our special discounts. Spring Thaw is a wonderful escape to let you imagine, reflect and write.
Some writers are plotters. They develop outlines and character sketches. Spend time in archives researching long before putting words on the page. When they sit to write, they are prepared. They have a plot in mind.
Some writers are pantsers. The follow the shiny object of an idea, a snippet of overheard conversation, the allure of an intriguing character. When they sit to write, they are happily adventuring into the unknown.
Which one is right?
If you had asked me earlier in my writing career, I’d be all for pansters. Write by the seat of my pants, that was my motto. I’ve done some fine work that way, writing I’m quite proud of. And it is my way of getting to the page, of discovering the story, the layers of personalities in emotions, actions and reactions. I’m excited to follow their journey. If I had it all mapped out, it would deflate some of the energy that feeds me in the writing.
After a retreat weekend with author Andrew Pyper, I’m thinking maybe my pantser approach led me to too many half-baked novels that languish in my drawers. Sure they are full of wonderful, quirky characters and great beginnings and even some exciting endings. Yet the middles are not so clear. In fact, that early excitement that led me to the page seems to have led to some deadends. And maybe if I’d had some plot in mind, the story of each might have been different.
But I’m not ready to declare an all-out allegiance to plotting my novels. Instead, I’ve come up with a kind of hybrid. A Frankenstein-ish patchwork that continues to serve my artistic needs as a writer. This method also offers satisfaction to my less-confident left brain approach to writing a novel. I end up with a plot that gives a solid foundation to my characters and themes.
How plotting marries pantsing
It starts with the midpoint of a novel. As the author of 10 successful novels, Andrew knows a thing or two about plotting a novel. He’s clear that the midpoint comes pretty much in the middle of the novel and that getting it right is crucial to the rest of the work. In fact, if the midpoint isn’t smack dab in the middle of the book, well, you’ve likely either not correctly identified your midpoint or put it in the wrong place.
The midpoint needs to do important work with your characters, especially your main character. It’s the place in which you need to deepen your characters or change them. A place of revelation or challenge. A spot where threat rises, opportunities present themselves or choices have to be made.
It also needs to be where the story moves forward or, at least sets up the forward movement. The midpoint can also be the starting point for a writer, with the beginning and end to come to the writer later on.
No write or wrong about it
Working with a midpoint is not prescriptive and this is where the pantser in me gets excited. I can write as a pantser with an awareness of the midpoint. I don’t need to have a detailed outline or even a firm sense of where the story/character is going. I just need to know that at some point in the process, I have to stop to consider where my midpoint is. And then consider if it is strong enough, if it carries the weight the novel needs to pull the reader along as well as pull me along.
You know those half-baked novels in the drawer? Well, I think I have an idea about how I might get them out of the drawer for a second chance. Maybe they will get sent back to the Island of Unwanted Manuscripts. And maybe not. But it won’t be because I didn’t know what to look for.
Over the past few years, it’s been my pleasure to take three workshops with best-selling author Andrew Pyper. And I can tell you that those workshops were incredibly helpful to me in terms of craft and technique.
I first met Andrew in 2000. It was shortly after his first novel, Lost Girls, came out. He was a guest at Words in Whitby, a magical reading series that sadly no longer exists. Fortunately, Andrew’s books last—both on the bookshelves and in the memory. On the bookshelves because they continue to sell. In the memory because they haunt you.
The same can be said about his workshops. But that haunting is a good thing because he offers writers the opportunity to understand elements of the craft in approachable and human terms.
An “Artiste” at work
I’m a pantser. Meaning, I write by the seat of my pants. I follow my characters around like a love-struck puppy. I’m content to let them tell me their stories. I write scene by scene and the hell with what kind of book I’m writing—it’s MY book so leave me alone World. Of course, all that is in the first flush of creativity—that beautiful first draft that glows in the dark and suggests how perfect it is.
Then I have to turn it into a real book with plot and character arcs, engaging themes and all those scenes in the best possible order. I figured I wrote it scene by scene so why wouldn’t it all be in a good order?
My critique group, on the other hand, often points out things like: Why is there so much backstory in the beginning? And This is not the best place to slow down the pacing. And Are you certain you want this climax so early in the book?
Pshaw. What do they know?
They know a lot. Which is why I value them so much. But still, I fought against the tyranny of plot and the three-act structure. Enter Andrew Pyper and his plot workshops.
What Andrew taught me
Plot is not a four-letter word (even though it technically is.) And any pantser who avoids thinking in terms of plot (like I used to) is not doing themselves any favours.
From Andrew, I learned that analysis of structure is an excellent way to understand plot. Whether you use the standard 3-act structure triangle image of rising action, or a straight line divided into three separate acts, or Post-it Notes on the wall…
…you will come away with a visual picture of the frame on which your gorgeous prose hangs. It took me two different workshops with Andrew before I allowed my tentative plotter into the room.
But once I did, it opened up a whole new vista on actually seeing and, more importantly, understanding the frame that plot offers. Once there, I was ready to tackle the next bit of knowledge Andrew shared: the three-act structure is not just three acts.
Act Two = Two Acts
Imagine all three acts; now, divide Act Two in two. Why? Because the middle is the majority of your book. Consider the novels you love, the ones you cannot put down. Are they all relentless, never-ending races through the middle to get to the climax—the big scene, the moment you were dying to reach, the discovery of who the murderer is, of the at-last togetherness of the gal and the guy, that final battle with the monster…?
No they aren’t. In fact, the great books open up even more questions and several smaller crises in Act II, the middle section. They often let you THINK the monster had met its end only to discover the sacred ring was no longer in the protagonist’s pocket and, oh my god, the monster is still alive and the protagonist is trapped in a place she’ll never escape from.
She’s doomed. They’re all doomed.
That is the middle of Act II. Dividing it into two “mini-acts” makes perfect sense. As Andrew pointed out more than once (I was sometimes slow to catch on to this) Act II is always much longer than Act I (the set up/moment of change) or Act III (what Mark Twain called The burying as in let’s get it done quick.)
If you’re going to keep the reader engaged for that big chunk of your book’s middle, pull out some big guns of crisis. Not the BIG crisis; you still have to save the “ultimate battle” scene for the end.
No point in having Inigo skewer Count Rugen or Westley save Princess Buttercup in the middle of the book. But why not kill Westley in the middle of the book and keep Inigo and Fezzik busy trying to bring him back to life in time to save Princess Buttercup? (Yes. I just finished The Princess Bride and recommend it as a great novel for plot analysis.)
So pull out your current work in progress. Can you apply a three-act structure? Is your middle Act II nothing but the road to one big crisis, with no rest stops along the way and subsequent crisis to threaten everything?
If so, take the time to look closely at the story and see what you need to add to the middle. Maybe move some of the action in Act III and see if it really belongs in Act II.
If you still resist the call of your inner plotter, pull out some of your favourite books and analyze their plot’s structure. Then think a bit about why you loved reading them. More than just great characters and fantastic scenes; it’s how and when and where those scenes appear and those characters behave. In other words: plot.
DID YOU KNOW?
Registration is now open for Turning Leaves, our annual fall retreat. We’re celebrating our 10th anniversary in 2018 and we are tickled to confirm that Andrew Pyper (yes, that Andrew Pyper) will be joining us for three days of focus on the craft and practicalities of writing fiction.
On November 2 to 4 at Fern Resort near Orillia, Ontario, this all-inclusive retreat includes Friday night fireside chat with Andrew about the writing life and an intense morning workshop. He’s an award-winning writer, a master of dark and disturbing mysteries and fantasy, and excellent workshop facilitator.
Our limit is 20 participants. A $250 non-refundable deposit will guarantee your spot. We expect there will be a waiting list.
Guest blog: Lori TwiningThe gift of getting away to write is captured byLori Twining on the Ascribe Writers group blog. Gwynn and Ruth are delighted to share her words with our readers. April 24, 2018: Spring Thaw
Every writer gets to celebrate one birthday every year. If you have a writer in your life, what do you get them?
Sure, writers love things like coffee, pens, highlighters, cake, wine, empty notebooks (cheap ones from the dollar store will do just fine), leather bound notebooks are awesome too (although most writers are afraid to write in them for fear of wrecking them), coffee, wine, dinner out somewhere, cake, coffee, maybe some more wine, definitely some more cake… but seriously, what is the one present a writer could receive, that would make them the happiest writer you know?
What is it?
Well, I am a writer and I give myself a present every year AND I consider it the best present in the world for a writer who works full time for someone else.
The gift of TIME
When I say time, I don’t mean buy them a watch. I mean, buy them a gift of time ALONE, without interruptions.
How do you do that?
Simple. I’m doing it right now.
I’m alone, well almost. I have two writing buddies from my local writing group, Ascribe Writers, who drove over four hours with me, to arrive at a beautiful lake where spring has already arrived (unlike the piles of snow still sitting at home). Here at Rice Lake, we found an amazing all-inclusive writing retreat at the fabulous Elmhirst’s Resort in Keene, run by Writescape (The Writing Retreat Specialists). Which means, there are over a dozen other writers here too.
It’s also difficult for those same writers who have to feed their families after they are finished working, clean up and do dishes, and then run their children to various sporting events, after-school jobs or to the gym or library. Time disappears too fast, and if there is an hour or two left in the day, writers are usually exhausted and probably couldn’t even write one sentence that made any sense.
So, technically, I’m not always alone. BUT, 87% of the time I am. I’m spending five whole days concentrating on writing my novel and I’m extremely happy to be making progress in huge leaps and bounds. It’s hard for writers that go to a day job for 8-13 hours each day, Monday to Friday, and still want to write for the fun of it.
If you have the opportunity to sign up a writer that you know for a 3 or 5-day writing retreat, GO FOR IT! They will love you. Or perhaps, YOU ARE THE WRITER? Then, feel free to treat yourself to this amazing gift.
Seriously, I’m almost convinced that this place is Heaven for writers. Early morning coffee at 5 a.m. on the deck watching the sunrise as you think about the motives of your characters and why they are doing what they are right now. If you get stuck, there are other writers that will help you brainstorm, giving you ten new ideas you never thought of before. They will help you with your title, your character names, a restaurant or hotel name, and they’ll even help you with motives for murder.
Feed your passion
Perhaps you are a writer that has lost your muse? Maybe you are stuck? Confused? Lost? And want to quit writing? Well don’t do it. Writing retreats are the best medicine for a soul who is passionate about writing.
Ruth E. Walker and Gwynn Scheltema run a daily workshop or two during the writing retreat to get the creative juices flowing or just to stretch your creative mind. They never fail to surprise me, by discussing a topic I thought I already knew about and presenting it in a completely different way. Fascinating approaches to getting into your character’s minds and then allowing us to try it in exercises that you can actually use in your novel.
Anyone who knows me, knows that I hate doing writing exercises. These two ladies have convinced me the writing exercises are a precious gift for my writing projects, and they are definitely NOT a waste of time. It is worth every single penny, just to figure out that aha! moment that fixes everything in your story. I’m so grateful.
We gather with all the writers twice a day to eat lunch and dinner (breakfast is provided in your cabin, helpful if you’d rather sleep through it). While there, we discuss the normal struggles writers face with writing, editing and getting published. We share ideas on how to feed our family quickly and still find time to carve an hour or two out of the day to write. Some of us are early risers and get up before the sun does and others are night owls and double as the nightly neighbourhood watch, while the rest of us sleep.
Feed your body
I should mention the food. Oh my goodness! It is fabulous. Roast beef that melts in your mouth, fresh grilled salmon, luscious pork covered in apple slaw, veggies, pasta, rice, fruit, crepes with fresh fruit, omelettes, BACON and vegetarian options for every single meal. Desserts galore, with so many options, it takes you five minutes to decide what you want to have. You walk away stuffed to the ears, thinking you will never eat another bite for as long as you are at the retreat. Well, I can easily say, that a quick walk along the shoreline, and several hours of pounding a keyboard cures that. So, we eat every 5-6 hours whether we are hungry or not. AND, we love every minute of it.
I could go on and on, describing what a great birthday gift I gave myself this year, but I still have two more days left of writing at this retreat, so I need to get back to writing about murder and mayhem in the big city.
One More Thing
One last thing, while I’m speaking of murder… Writescape has another 3-day writing retreat this fall: Turning Leaves on November 2nd– 4th, 2018. It will be held at Fern Resort on Lake Couchiching in Orillia with special guest Canadian author Andrew Pyper. Registration opens on Wednesday, April 25. If you love psychological thrillers, mysteries or dark fantasy books (a.k.a. horror), you might want to join me at this writing retreat. Of course, all of the discussions and writing exercises are adaptable to all the different genres you are writing. But, if you are writing mysteries or thrillers, you’ll have Andrew on hand to ask questions about the genre or the publishing process, all weekend long. Go to the website to reserve your spot: WRITESCAPE WEBSITE. Limited spaces available.
Okay, wait, this is the LAST, LAST THING, I promise. Look at this picture of a writer sitting on the cabin’s back deck in the warm hot sun, accompanied by a friendly kitty-cat, writing beside a beautiful blue lake, listening to the Loons calling out… “THIS COULD BE YOU!” Think about that for a minute.
Lori Twining writes both fiction and nonfiction, with her stories winning awards in literary competition and appearing in several anthologies. She’s an active member of many writing groups: International Thriller Writers, Crime Writers of Canada, Romance Writers of America, Toronto Romance Writers, Writers’ Community of Simcoe County and Ascribe Writers. She’s a lover of books, sports and bird watching, and a hater of slithering reptiles and beady-eyed rodents. www.lvtwriter.com; Twitter @Lori_Twining.
Guest blogger Stephanie Gibeault is a freelance writer with a passion for fiction for young readers. She recently wrote a post for Writescape about the benefits of writing away at the Highlights Foundation’s Pennsylvania retreat. As she promised in that December post, she’s here to share what she learned about getting a novel unstuck:
Whether you call it writer’s block, an empty tank or say your creative well has run dry, every writer has days or weeks when putting words on the page is a challenge. This past summer, I found myself stuck on my middle grade manuscript.
I created a storyboard (on my closet doors) to help me see the flow of the plot, only to discover there were structural issues I hadn’t noticed before. I could see what the problems were, but had no idea how to fix them. Thankfully, I had already signed up for a workshop dedicated to getting unstuck.
Stop spinning your wheels
In my recent guest post, I wrote about my experience at the Highlights Foundation workshop Getting Your Middle Grade Novel Unstuck. I learned many things at the workshop, but the main focus was how to deal with being stuck.
Beginning, middle or end of your story—there are great techniques that can help move you forward. Instructors Chris Tebbetts and Elise Broach armed me with loads of options. And many of them don’t even involve working directly on your manuscript.
The most valuable piece of advice I took away from the workshop: there’s always something you can be doing even if it’s not writing.
Experiment with play
Sometimes, it feels like anything other than writing a new scene is procrastination. That’s simply not the case.
Anything that moves you forward with your writing, builds your skills, increases your familiarity with your characters or fleshes out your plot is a productive and effective use of your time. That’s incredibly liberating.
Discovering your characters
Successful middle grade writers create characters their readers connect with—and characters the writers know inside and out. Chris and Elise offered lots of suggestions to get to know our characters better. Here’s a really effective one for me:
Create a chart with a column for a character’s self-perception and a column for how they are seen by others.
The two columns are those perceptions that are true or accurate and those that are false. This provides insight into your character’s psyche – what they hide from others and what they hide from themselves.
HOW BOB SEES SELF
HOW OTHERS SEE BOB
Cute but annoying
Makes light of tough situations
Journal as your character. Get at their innermost thoughts, motivations and goals.Other ways of getting in touch with your characters include:
Fill out a questionnaire or survey as one of your characters. How do they answer differently than you or another character would?
Write about a character’s perfect day. What makes him or her happy?
Create a character profile with details like hair colour, favourite movie and best friend. The more details the better.
Write a letter to yourself from a character about what you are getting right and wrong about him or her in your manuscript.
Stretch some more!
I learned how writing prompts helped uncover details about our characters and plots. I thought it would be limiting because I’d have to go in a particular direction rather than letting my creativity flow.
I was amazed. Forced to explore areas I might otherwise have ignored, I answered questions not directly related to my story but essential to understanding it. Simple questions like, “What does this character want?” or “Why do I love this story?” gave me a great start.
ReVision to move forward
Editing can be as radical as starting from scratch and rewriting a scene entirely from memory. You’ll likely retain your favourite parts while stumbling onto some new descriptions, dialogue and directions at the same time. With track changes in your word processor, it’s easy to compare the two versions, choosing the best sections to keep.
Or be more conservative and only delete what isn’t completely necessary. Decide what, if any, details need to go back in and what the reader never needed in the first place.
One of my favourite suggestions was when Chris told me to rewrite a section of my manuscript in first person point of view. The purpose was not to rewrite my entire manuscript, (although that is exactly what I will do), but to get me deeper into my main character’s head.
I couldn’t believe the difference it made. No longer hovering over my story, now saw it through my protagonist’s eyes. Changing point of view, or even tense (from past to present, for example), allows you to approach your narrative from a different angle and that can be all you need.
No more excuses
With so many available options, I no longer have any reason to be stuck. Or to use the phrase “writer’s block”. If you’re feeling stuck with a writing project, consider trying some of these suggestions.
Remember to take advantage of workshops and retreats to help propel you forward. My experience at Highlights sure made a difference for me.
Did You Know
Are you stuck? Writescape retreats offer the perfect space to stretch your writing skills, re-imagine your work in new and exciting ways and the safety you need for full-throated expression. Spring Thaw is already half full of eager and focused writers like you, ready to give focus to their work.
Join us for an all-inclusive escape on the shores of Rice Lake. Elmhirst’s Resort boasts cozy fully equipped cottages with fireplaces, private bedrooms and gorgeous sunrise lake views. All you need is your jammies, toothbrush and writing materials; writers at all levels are welcome. Choose either a 3-day or 5-day retreat.April 20-24.
Okay, I know; I know. New Year is yelling out “GOALS” and “RESOLUTIONS”, and no one really wants to hear it, least of all me. But when I got to thinking about it, I realized I have a few ongoing goal-setting and goal-achieving tools in place already. And they work! So I thought I’d share them with you.
Little and often
While I’m a great supporter of having big long-term goals and a vision of where you want to go in life, I find that sometimes the big picture can be overwhelming. I believe that those big concepts should be the background canvas on which you paint in the details as you go—and re-paint them if you choose.
The writing critique group I belong to understands this perfectly. We meet every two weeks and at the end of each meeting we all set a writing goal for the next two weeks only. We each set our own goal depending on what we are working on at the time and what is happening in our lives.
We encourage specificity— “5000 words” or “edit 3 chapters” or “fill plot hole in Chapter 7 or “four meaningful bum-in-chair sessions”. At the next meeting if we miss our goal, we pay up to a charity fund. But we also encourage life balance. It’s okay to not set a goal if your life dictates. We also recognize that sometimes “thinking about” a plot or character qualifies as long as sooner or later that turns into “writing about.”
This system works because it is frequent, achievable, and there is accountability. Small goals and small successes that add up over time.
Eat that Frog
Mark Twain once said that if you start the day by eating a frog you will have the satisfaction of knowing that this was probably the worst thing you had to do that day. The frog is a metaphor for your biggest and most important task of the day and has become a popular procrastination-busting technique.
When I’m trying to avoid that “frog”, I play solitaire, disappear into social media or sort the kitchen junk drawer or….. I’m sure you have equally pointless—and time consuming—avoidance tactics.
Learning the skill of attacking the most important task first (writing related or not) and getting it out of the way frees you up. You’ll have more time, less guilt and a clear mind to be creative. It’s a skill that helps you accomplish whatever you set as your priorities—including your goals.
It does take practice, but like anything in life, the more you consciously do it, the easier it becomes. Most writers can perform to a deadline. Perhaps putting your own deadline on your “frogs” will help?
Make your bed
Now this may seem contradictory to the “eat the frog” principle, but getting through your to-do list and achieving your goals begins with making your bed.
Your mom probably drilled that in to you, but the idea came back into popularity with Navy SEAL Admiral McRaven’s speech to grads in 2014: “If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed. If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task, and another, and another.”
All I know, it works for me.
Your frog for today
So there you have it.
Today, go make your bed, then sit down and decide on a reasonable achievable goal to be accomplished within the next two weeks. Then break it down into what needs to be done first, and then next, and next after that….
Tomorrow, make your bed, look to see what is #1 on that list and eat that frog.
Day after tomorrow, eat frog #2
Rinse and repeat…rinse and repeat…
DID YOU KNOW
A writing retreat is a great way to focus on your writing projects and goals and registration for Writescape’s Spring Thaw 2018 is now open, and already half full.
This all-inclusive writing retreat is held at the fabulous Elmhirst’s Resort on Rice Lake in Keene. Stay for the weekend or treat yourself to an extra two days of writing.
10-page manuscript evaluation with written feedback from Ruth and Gwynn
one-on-one manuscript consultation with either Gwynn or Ruth
private writing time
optional daytime creativity sessions to fire up your pen
a companion workbook with inspiration, prompts and supports
optional evening activities to network and share ideas and inspiration with retreat colleagues
Guest blogger Stephanie Gibeault writes for children. And lately, she’d been stuck on a novel she loves but couldn’t get liftoff with. A change in locale and working with experienced authors and editors paved the way for some breakthrough work on that middle grade manuscript. She shares her experience with us:
I always heard how amazing writing retreats can be. To learn and write in a resort-like location sounds like a dream. But they’re for people who already have well-developed skills. Right? Not for writers relatively new to their careers or with one unfinished work-in-progress.
In short, not for writers like me.
Maybe someday I thought I might indulge, but for now, I figured I didn’t have enough ability under my belt. And I didn’t want to be the least-experienced person in the room. Besides, I have a private office for writing, so why would I need to go somewhere else?
Then I stumbled across a five-day workshop I simply couldn’t resist – GettingYour Middle Grade Novel Unstuck at the Highlights Foundation.
The Highlights Foundation is a not-for-profit organization with the mission of improving the quality of children’s literature by helping writers and illustrators hone their craft. They offer more than 40 workshops a year for both published and novice writers at their retreat centre near Honesdale, Pennsylvania in the Pocono Mountains. Topics range from picture books to YA, and from fiction to the education market. They generously offer over $100,000 in scholarship aid each year to more than 100 attendees, and I am one such grateful recipient.
Despite my reservations about not being ready, I signed up for the workshop last spring because of the teaching staff. I didn’t want to miss my chance to learn from best-selling middle grade authors Elise Broach and Chris Tebbetts. Plus, a guest appearance by Aubrey Poole, editor at Hachette’s JIMMY Patterson Books imprint — too good to pass up.
Writing community magic
It was a magical event and exactly what I needed. Along with 11 other attendees, from a writer with many books under his belt to people just starting out, I learned about both the craft and business of writing, received one-on-one feedback on my work, and left feeling encouraged and inspired. Most importantly, I got “unstuck,” including waking up at 3:00 a.m. and rushing to my computer because I had figured out exactly how to raise my main character’s stakes.
My accommodation was charming, something out of a writer’s daydream. Although there are private rooms in The Lodge, I lucked into a private cabin. Who doesn’t want to write in a quaint little cabin in the woods?
I had twin beds, a desk, my own coffee maker, a mini fridge stocked with pop, and a small bathroom. Everything I needed to nestle in and get to work.
More than eurekas
The days were divided between class time and private writing time. During class, we had lectures, discussions, Q & A sessions, and even writing exercises with the opportunity to share our work with the class. We learned about plot and outlines, the revision process, developing scenes and characters, and how to write gripping first pages. And of course, how to move forward with your writing whenever you’re feeling stuck. (Editor’s note: more on that last one in a future post.)
There was also a one-on-one critique from one of the instructors. This was scheduled on the second day of the workshop, so there was plenty of time to put the feedback into practice. Then, most importantly, we had the opportunity to show the instructor our changes and discuss whether we were on the right track. Both Chris and Elise were incredibly generous with their time, and I took advantage to follow up with my new ideas. That kind of individual attention was invaluable.
Time well spent
We also ate all our meals with our instructors. It was fun to get to know our teachers better and chat about publishing in such a social and relaxed atmosphere. I don’t know of many events, other than a retreat, that let you so casually interact with publishing professionals and published authors on such an equal footing.
And that private writing time I didn’t think I needed? It was productive, exciting and different from writing at home. A new view, both from my chair and out my window, inspired me. Fresh off a lecture or critique, I felt motivated to work. No scheduling my writing between chores or other obligations. It was the sole reason I was there and that was liberating.
It was also wonderful to have no other responsibilities than to improve my skills. Other than loading up my plate at mealtimes, I didn’t have to lift a finger away from my pen or keyboard. And that meant more words in less time.
I was the only Canadian at the workshop. I’d heard from other Canadian writers that breaking into the American market is an almost impossible goal. So, during a tour of Boyds Mills Press on the first day, I asked the assistant editor what she thought of working with Canadian authors. I also asked my instructors, Chris and Elise, and the Hachette editor, Aubrey, whether they thought there was such a barrier.
I’m pleased to report they all looked at me like I had two heads. Each one agreed that if the story was excellent, it didn’t matter if the author was Canadian or American.
The issue of setting was mentioned, however. Although a Canadian location was not considered a deal-breaker, it was pointed out that Americans prefer to read about America.
So, if location is not crucial to the story, perhaps moving your setting to south of the border is worth considering if you plan to publish in the States. Of course, this may be specific to children’s literature or these particular editors, but it is still helpful information.
I am so glad I didn’t let my concerns hold me back from attending this writing retreat. I was wrong about the prerequisites and I undervalued the chance to write in a new location. And I wasn’t the only one with those same fears at the workshop.
We all struggle to call ourselves writers. If you are thinking a retreat would be valuable, just not right now, think again. There is no time like the present to improve your skills, receive encouragement, and get inspired. And a retreat is the perfect place to make that happen.
Did You Know?
Writescape has hosted many writers like Stephanie at our retreats. Some of them are writers who say “I’m not sure I’m really a writer.” We’re happy to report that each and every time, those writers leave our retreats knowing they are writers. It is not about the skill level. It is all about owning your true voice and finding the best ways to develop and express it.
Next retreat: Spring Thaw at Elmhirst’s Resort in Kawartha Lakes. April 20 – 22 or Extend Your Pen until April 24. Includes manuscript feedback and one-on-one consultations. Registration is open now.
I’ve been to a place where all rivers run north, flowing up to the Arctic. I’ve travelled eight hours by car and then five hours by train to reach a place of six seasons: summer, fall, river freeze up, winter, ice break up and spring. I sat in a wide-bottomed freighter canoe, ferried to where the Moose River empties into the salted waters of James Bay.
Thanks to the kind invitation of the Ontario Writers’ Conference, I came to Moose Factory last month to teach a workshop. It was the first Moose Factory Writers’ Retreat, the brainchild of Jean-Pierre Chabot and the MoCreebec Eeyoud Council of the Cree Nation. I hope it is just the beginning of many more arts-related gatherings.
Imagine taking a workshop in the dining room of the Cree Village Eco Lodge, where the soaring wood-lined structure carries both traditional and modern cultural touches. The natural influences—stone, wood, light—affected every moment of our time in that room.
I’ll never be the same writer. There is an energy in Moose Factory unlike anything I’ve experienced. It is the place. And it is the people.
Moose Factory is where high school students don’t wait for their yellow buses, they cluster by the shore for water taxis (and during freeze up and break up, they climb aboard helicopters to cross the Moose River, and in winter, drive over on the ice road.) Here, school starts early to allow students time off for the all-important goose hunt each fall.
Here, the bright blue sky is big because the land is flat and the treeline marks the horizon with stunted dark spikes of black spruce. A place where walkways are scarce and no roads are paved, where the province’s Highway Traffic Act is powerless and a taxi ride across town is a flat rate.
I enjoyed fabulous bannock burgers at John T’s Wachay Wagon and great fish and chips at the Treeline Diner next to the Northern Store. At GG’s Ace Hardware, you can buy anything. And I mean anything. From ammunition, bagged candy and condoms to groceries, vacuum cleaners and christening outfits.
Compact, neatly maintained bungalows line many of the roads, like any other subdivision in southern Ontario. Except for spruce log tee-pee frames in backyards, and the occasional wildlife that wander through: an unfortunate moose, lingering tree-climbing bear cubs and the ever-present cheeky red squirrels enrich the stories around backyard campfires.
Where to begin? It would take several blog posts to give you a reasonable sense of the generosity and attention I received from Moose Factory residents. When I say attention, I don’t mean fawning admiration or special treatment. I mean people who are present. With you. In the room. It’s remarkable.
It made for a great workshop. I never worked so hard or felt as satisfied at the end of a session as I did in Moose Factory. Our coffee house event the next day was a community celebration of poetry, song, art and prose. The Big Dipper is now also a furred fisher that sacrificed everything to return water to the land. A section of an old freighter canoe, a canvas for the beautiful art of John Reuben, will soon hang on my cottage wall.
But let me tell you story. I was on this trip with Naomi Mesbur and Barbara Hunt of the Ontario Writers’ Conference. Along with Durham Region writers, Erin Thomas and Adele Simmons, we were treated to many amazing moments by the people of Moose Factory.
When The Past Became Present
On one of our several wanderings, Norm, a workshop attendee, former Cree chief and teacher, and now minister, took us into St. Thomas’ Anglican Church. Built in 1885 by the Hudson’s Bay Company, it needs to be restored before it can be used again. St. Thomas’ is an impressive structure, the huge timbers and curved wooden ceiling reflecting the skill of HBC shipbuilders. The massive bell was removed from the cupola and waits silent and still, just inside the entrance. Stained glass windows were also removed and sealed in wooden boxes until their return to the original frames.
We all knew we were being offered a privileged glimpse into this locked and vacant building.
Norm has faith that this historic church will be restored. He asked us to take a seat in the dusty pews. He told us of how the front pews were reserved for management and staff of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Cree worshippers were kept in the back pews. Norm said, despite all the things his people have endured over the years, they never lost their faith. Just outside, next to the river, they once camped close by.
And then Norm shared something I will never forget. He sang a morning hymn. In Cree. The same hymn sung many mornings by the long ago people camped by the river, the church just steps away. Norm’s words and music soared above and through us as we sat in those pews. Just as they must have done in the 1800s and 1900s, as the mist lifted from the river and the sun coloured the tips of the treeline.
Moose Factory is rich in contradictions. Wi-Fi in the Eco Lodge. Pot holes on the roads that could swallow your shoes. While waiting for my first taste of bannock at the Wachay Wagon, I chatted with members of a movie crew. They were filming author Joseph Boyden‘s Through Black Spruce. They were easy to spot among the locals. More than their big city attire, they carried a kind of out-of-place vibe as they clustered together.
I understood that awkwardness. I, too, felt like I’d fallen through the rabbit hole after stepping onto the Eco Lodge dock. I certainly hope that movie crew allowed the magic of the people and the place to move into their hearts. Like them, I was motivated to come for artistic reasons—my next writing project will explore my ancestral connections to Canada’s fur trade. I hoped for some inspiration.
What I came away with was so much richer. Meegwetch.
DID YOU KNOW?
Writescape picks its retreat locations carefully. We’ve always chosen settings that are flavoured by the natural world. We look for landscapes that inspire with lakeside sunsets or sunrises. Trees, gardens and winding paths offer gifts to the perceptive writer. Quiet corners, comfortable, well-appointed rooms and healthy foods nourish bodies and imaginations.
Join us on November 3 to 5 at Fern Resort on Lake Couchiching for Turning Leaves. Our guest author Vicki Delany looks forward to chatting on Friday evening and delivering a Saturday morning workshop. With more than 20 books to her credit, Vicki has so much to offer participants. This retreat is suitable for writers at all levels.