Retreat!

Mindy KlaskyMindy Klasky
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Approximately fifteen years ago, I became serious about my writing career.  That is, I realized I would need to do more than edit and re-edit and shop around and re-shop around the same epic fantasy novel.  I was determined to write a new novel, and to write it in approximately a year (a substantial improvement on my earlier, five-year-for-a-novel pace.)

The only problem was, I worked full time, as a litigator for a large Washington, D.C. law firm.  While I attempted to write before work, there were only so many days in a row that I could wake up at 4 a.m.  And I tried to write after work, but midnight has never been my power time.

Still, I wanted to be a writer.  And writers write.  And so I invented (for me — others probably invented it long before I did) Writing Marathon.  With Writing Marathon, I would take one week off work — five business days, plus the weekends on either side.  For those nine days, I would do nothing except for write.  (Okay, bodily functions were accomplished.  But otherwise, writing all day, every day, with a heavy reliance on snack foods and prepared meals.)  In one week of Writing Marathon, I could create about 40,000 new words.  That left me with about 60% of a novel to create using slightly less dire means.  Using the Writing Marathon technique, I wrote my first nine novels (The Glasswrights’ Apprentice through Magic and the Modern Girl, for those who are counting.)

Skip ahead in time.  I left behind the litigator job, and the librarian one too.  I now write full time.  I can pretty much set my own schedule (around pesky things like running the house, providing emotional support for my family, etc.)

But I still indulge in a modified Writing Marathon, now New! And! Improved! under the name of a Writers’ Retreat.

I retreat approximately three times a year, with the same group of four writer friends.  We pummel our schedules into submission to choose a date when we are all free from Friday until Sunday.  We gather at one of our homes, on a rotating basis.  (For those of us, like me, who have too small a home to host five writers, we host at the house of another retreat member.)  The host is responsible for feeding us meals; everyone else is responsible for bringing one sweet snack, one savory snack (and, usually, a bottle of wine.)

Each of us has different approaches to writing.  One of us stays up until three or four in the morning, waking up around noon to resume her writing day.  I stay up until around midnight, then wake up by no later than seven to get back to work.  Some of us connect up to the host’s wi-fi.  I studiously avoid all Internet connections (relying solely on the email capacity of my phone), due to the inherent distractions therein.  Some of us work on outlines, or short stories, or editing works in progress.  I concentrate on new words, and I do my damnedest to be teetering on the edge of a muddled middle when I arrive, so that I can get the most out of the retreat time.

At last weekend’s retreat, I had been wrestling for weeks with a recalcitrant novel.  I had 7500 words down, but I had edited them nearly a dozen times, and I still could not find the right tone, could not layer in the right emotion. 

But the dam broke at Retreat.  By the time I drove home, I had a total of 22,000 words.  I had reworked those original 7500 (I hope, for the last time), and drafted all those new ones.  Perhaps most importantly, I filled out a very specific timeline, based on a very specific real-world calendar of events. 

That wasn’t my most productive Retreat, in terms of pure number of words.  But it was my most productive, in terms of grappling with a difficult beast.  My energy and enthusiasm for the project have carried over upon my return home; I’ve completed two consecutive 3000-word days, moving the draft forward to its conclusion.

So.  Retreats.  They’re what makes it possible for me to be a successful writer.  Even though I’m a full-time writer.

How about you?  Have you ever tried a Retreat?  If so, how have they worked for you?  What techniques do you have to share for increasing meaningful productivity?  And if you haven’t tried a Retreat, why haven’t you?  Do you use some other form of “power boost” for your writing?

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22 comments to Retreat!

  • sagablessed

    My writer’s group has a write-in, where we meet at coffee shop or such once a month and devote a whole afternoon to writing. But a whole week? This is something I will have to look into. :)

  • I’ve been considering taking a week off this summer, retreating at home and writing. I think you’ve convinced me it’s a good idea!

  • wookiee

    I have this issue with many large projects – if I don’t have the time to sit down and accomplish the whole thing, I’m hesitant to even start it. Your Writing Marathon sounds like a dream. I remember in college when I had a large paper due I’d grab a bunch of food and lock myself in the darkest corner of a random academic building until the whole thing was written. It really helped my ability to focus on the task.

  • ajp88

    I have a friend I’ve met through the writing sub-forums of fan sites, who has recently received his degree in Creative Writing. Two or three times now, he’s somehow had the foresight to set aside money from working two jobs to travel from brisk Vermont to warm LA, and spend a week in the same Starbucks out there, solely writing. I’m always envious whenever he announces that he’s off for a writing vacation.

    Myself, I make so little managing a restaurant (even with semi-consistent weeks of overtime) that I couldn’t afford that luxury. But each week, on the day I get off, I spend 8-10 hours on the clock in one of the four coffee houses I’m a regular at, taking out the WIP in 10k word chunks. Hmm, perhaps spending more on coffee than rent each month has something to do with not being able to afford a writing retreat…

  • My NaNo Other Eleven Months has regular write-ins of at least three hours once a week, but sometimes that becomes a challenge of trying to get work done vs. socializing. Usually we’re pretty good about getting to work. (Cue the headphones for when I want to work and no one else does.) Even then, Internet can sometimes be a distraction, so staying focused is something I need to work on.

    I’ve tried taking a week off for writing in the past, and it just seems to devolve into a week of “everyone knows Laura’s off, so it’s time to make plans with her”. And I foolishly let them, especially when there’s guilt involved. That’s the most frustrating thing. Well, that plus the focus thing.

  • KR1L3Y

    My available vacation time renews at the end of the month and I have 4 ½ days left. Three of those are scheduled to celebrate my 15 year anniversary with my wife but I did not have any plans for the other day and a half. Now I do. Thanks!

  • I have always wanted to do a writer’s retreat, but never have. I think it would be tremendous fun, not to mention productive. On the other hand, I do better as the tortoise than I do as the hare. Slow and steady. That’s me. My daily output is good, not great, but I do it every day, and before long I have a novel in hand, ready to go to my agent or editor. I actually wonder how a marathon like the one you describe would work for me. Hmmmmm……

  • deborahblake

    Made it here! Whew.

    I am really impressed by 40K in a week. I’ve managed 55K in a month a few times, but nothing close to that. *bows in your general direction*

    I have never done a writing retreat because I don’t have anyone to do it with–my main CP lives across the country from me. And my rare whole-week off times are usually spent going to conferences.

    But when I’m in mid-novel-writing-burst, I do write every day, as much as I can squeeze out of my brain, until it is done.

  • I totally do this–in fact, during the school year, it’s the only way. I choose one day a week–usually a week day–and go to a coffee shop and write. I’ll write for 8 or so hours, somewhere between 3000 and 8,000 words. But I’m busy the rest of the time. Plus, I’m finding I do need a day off–one where I do nothing–or my productivity in other areas fails.

    Over the summer, my writing partner and I get together and do the marathon week-to-10-days thing where we write the novel we want to write. Though we’re getting the swing of how to do it online via skype and stuff.

    But I really like the marathon format. I’d LOVE a writing retreat and workshop combined (HINT HINT MW Folks!! Seriously!). I’ve done something like that once, and it was really cool. (It was a retreat to an Episcopal Nunnery, so there was prayer and stuff, too.) But when I do the marathon thing, I include planning and outlining in that, too.

  • mudepoz

    This weekend is the retreat for Allwriters’ Workshop. It’s in a monastery of all places and very peaceful. The rooms are cells, so if you aren’t claustrophobic, it’s a great place to just write.
    I hate to admit that I didn’t go to write for the retreat I went to. I was down on all workshops, but a friend introduced me to the owner. She decided I’d be a good prompt as well as answer science-related questions.
    When I attended the workshop during the evenings to discuss what they did, I discovered they offered crits without going after the writer. And the Crits were, OMG, useful. I decided to use the Sunday to write, after deciding I’d never write again.
    And, I did. I was sucked back into my story and eventually finished it.

    No, I won’t tell you how I was the prompt. This year I found them an excellent prompt. None of us can figure out what it is. Maybe an adult toy?

  • sagablessed – I find that devoting a few days (at least) rather than a few hours changes the way that I approach the writing. My flow-of-story is increased greatly by continuing on day after day. (As for a coffee shop write-in – I’ve never tried that. I suspect I’d find the noise too distracting. It’s probably bad form to curse customers who ask for noisy drinks, huh?)

    Misty – If you can swing it, I highly recommend it! (If for no other reason that if you *hate* it, you can cross it off the list of techniques to use in the future!)

    wookiee – See? You’re already a Marathon champ? (One thing that I’ve found over time is that I need my “bunch of food” to be healthier now than it used to be. I used to get by with chips and candy, lots of ‘em, but now I need regular doses of protein :-) )

    ajp88 – There’s something about making such a huge change in place (and atmosphere) that triggers creativity in my mind. I think I’m fortunate that my home is too small to host Retreat here. I always get to retreat to a place unassociated with my usual delay tactics! (As for the high price of coffee relative to, um, rent, I’d argue for tea, myself! :-) )

    Laura – Protecting the time you set aside is vitally important. When I did Marathon, I insisted on treating it as a work function — I answered email and phones three times a day (first thing in the morning, lunch break, late dinner break), but otherwise, I made myself unavailable to people – no matter who tried to apply what amount of guilt. With Retreat, I accomplish something similar by refusing to connect to wifi, no matter how many people want to chat by email or IM… I consider my insistence an investment in my career.

    KR1L3Y – ::grin:: Sounds like a perfect balance of writing and family!

    DavidBCoe – Of course, we all find what works for us. I considered myself a “slow and steady” person, until the first time I tried these sprints. I still do slow and steady during my regular work days, but I like changing things up every once in a while… Why not try it, for a limited Marathon – a day or three?

  • This is something I’ve been thinking about, and I appreciate all the ideas on how to do this cheaply. Right now I have the time, but I’m finding it harder and harder to focus if I just stay home and write. A change of scenery might be just the thing, or at least I’ll find out if it’s not the thing.

  • deborahblake – I’m glad your computer finally let you in! As for my 40K in a week – we each max out at different word counts. Catie Murphy can nail far more than I (as can several other authors). It all depends on our style. As for allocating those rare weeks, we all do the best we can. That’s one of the reasons I like my current Retreat model – I’m no longer willing to cut myself off entirely from my family for nine straight days.

    pea_faerie – Yes, yes, yes, about the day off. I generally find that I need a day or two off after Retreat (and I did after Marathon as well!) Interestingly, this time, the words have continued to flow – but I think that’s partly because the novel is a short one, so the end is in clear sight. As for Skype – I know some writers who regularly Skype with others (by “regular”, I mean, every day, as if they worked in an office together.) That’s too much togetherness for me. But an MW Retreat?!? I’d be all over that!

    mudepoz – Now you’ve got us all imagining things… I’ve looked into some monasteries and convents, as the sites of retreats, and I’d love to do that sort of thing… The one thing I dislike about my current Retreat arrangement is that the other authors prefer to write in a common room (not my first choice). Occasionally, I’ll retreat to my bedroom, if I’m getting nothing done in the common area, but it’s a social nicety to balance…

  • SiSi – I don’t do the coffee shop thing (too many distractions for this distractible brain), but I have done the public library – setting up my computer at a table facing the wall. Making the effort to get out of my house seems to make me more likely to actually get work done! And the price is definitely right!

  • the public library is a great idea. and the price recommends it.

  • Mindy – a timely post that resonates here as I am facing a pretty firm schedule of deadlines over the next several months… trying to get the writing done while still balancing a regular day job with family obligations I think the “Retreat” approach is looking like the best/most practical way to make advances in what would otherwise be limited productivity.

    There’s a book out there “The Weekend Novelist” that your Retreat idea reminded me of, logging several hour chunks over a weekend (albeit, that book is built around 99% ofthe writing being done during a weekend).

    To spin the running anaolgy a little differently, as someone working on a first novel I see the writing of the novel as the marathon while the retreat periods are the wind-sprints that help develop the endurance.

    Thank you for reminding me of the idea so I can build them into my schedule!

  • mudepoz

    If there was a MW retreat, I don’t want to be the prompt.

  • I would love to be able to find the time and a location away from home for a writing retreat. Too much on my plate and not enough vacation time have taken a real toll on my creative processes and writing time.

  • Razziecat

    Retreats away from home are not in the budget for me, and coffee shops are just too busy & noisy. I did well with NaNo, but that was because I had a deadline that didn’t only exist inside my own head. I guess this is where discipline comes in, but it really would be nice to take a week and do pretty much nothing but write. I think this can be managed at home with some really thoughtful preparation.

  • sagablessed

    Well, Mindy, I am trying the three day stint. It is working out. I think I will have to find a nice balance for the long term however. Thank you for the advice.

  • lillian – And at my library, they allow food, so it’s possible to arrive with a couple of snacks and a brown bag lunch and make the most of a day!

    Jeff Evans – I find that retreats are *most* useful when I’m on tight deadlines (writing or family or otherwise…) Writing a novel in a weekend is a bit much for me, but using weekends productively, I can totally get behind. And I totally like the “wind sprints” analogy! Good luck!

    mudepoz – I promise, we won’t use you that way ::wry grin::

    Lyn Nichols – I hope that you’re able to find something that works for you – even if it’s just a weekend, to kickstart the creativity!

    Razziecat – Preparation *is* key. Also, when I’ve budgeted the time and/or money, that creates a pressure, sort of like NaNo, to use the time productively. As for discipline – more and more, I’m convinced that’s the key to most of what we do!

    sagablessed – Let us know how the three-day approach works/worked for you! Good luck!