There were six of us… There are three posts today, and three more next Friday. And this is how it happened.
‘Till Birnam forest come to Dunsinane,’ or, How a Writers Retreat Took Root
Like so many other rooms hosting writer panels at 2013’s ConCarolinas, this particular one—”Burnham”— was overgrown with people. Overgrown, not overrun; we had planted ourselves there to hear published authors discuss a specific topic. Considering the quantity of us listeners squeezed in and barely keeping our feet, in the chaos it wouldn’t have been a stretch to be mistaken as trees. Maybe even a forest. Couldn’t tell ya since it was hard to see. But, as such things happen, especially when everyone is so squashed together, you becomes friendly with others around you. Doubly so when you later discover them also hanging out with authors from Magical Words. Bonus! And so, maybe unsurprisingly, a number of us took to enjoying to each other’s company.
There, my friends, lay the root of our problem.
Y’see, at the final session of last year’s con, this group of us unpubbed writers hovered around saying happy things about meeting each another. Impressed by the sincerity, I mumbled something about how wouldn’t it be great to stay in touch, us members of the writerly tribe who immediately got along so well, maybe correspond, informally help each other? In a different era the idea would never have worked. Not really. But now? Still unlikely. C’mon, we’d all just met. A more geographically diverse group there wasn’t. Someone came over from TN, another’s home was MI. One relative local was more east and north in NC. I was in MD. Further out was a writer in WI. We even had a marvelous import from Canada’s BC!
But…wouldn’t a writers group together be so cool?
Light gleamed in our eyes like from feral cats’ at night as our imaginations clicked on. Dangerous. And I knew better, but…
“We ought to do a writers retreat.”
I startled. Who’d said that? It didn’t matter. In that moment I knew MacBeth’s alarm in discovering Birnam wood—English soldiers in disguise as trees—had come to Dunsinane. Like them, our future had shifted. Crap, we were in for it now. Even me, because, yeah, I was sold on it, too. Ever try to pry an idea out of the teeth of an inspired writer? Good luck.
Braced for the consequences of our “Bring it” challenge to fate, we set off. What do you know? Good luck is exactly what attended our ensuing chase of that idea. Over the year between cons we collectively schemed, hunted, and found not only a great place to stay, but our invitation to one of Magical Words’ own, Faith Hunter, to come offer writing guidance was a go! How cool. How very cool. That never happens. But that’s how the retreat actually started: a flick of thought and spark of possibility mixed with the tinder of enthusiasm.
So what did I take away from the whole experience? Okay, I’ll spill.
Generally, beware of making friends in large, writerly crowds if you aren’t serious about your craft. Things from there can go unexpectedly well. It’s like non-canon plotting. Very unsettling.
Whisked off on the resultant retreat, don’t be surprised if your work morphs substantially. Likely culprits are rearrangements based on discussion, excellent authorial advice, and possibilities floated by the group. Listen to them, though. Laugh. Explain more of your plot. They get it. Your writer cronies, near or far, want you to succeed, so expect insightful questions. Savor the answers and let thoughts stew. Possibilities may spring up from everywhere, like trees in a fertile wood, and jam in upon each other until you have not one novel to edit, but now the groundwork laid—sections already partially written—for a trio of books to pitch to that future agent.
And armies may travel on their bellies, but distracted writers will starve—unless they’re smart and lucky enough to find an awesome cook. We were. Ours kept us and our ideas rolling. (Thank you, and don’t be surprised if you end up in a book!) Anything else? Ah, yeah. Remember to breathe, unwind, and revel in each others’ company. And at the end wonder, best if out loud, “Maybe next year we should….”
Thanks from a Magical Words lurker to this site’s collective wisdom-givers, to Faith for saying yes, and all the good writers and now closer friends brought about by one murmured idea, subsequently believed in and pursued. I can’t recommend any more highly living an example of why we write.
BIO: Melanie S. Otto (writing as Melanie Griffin) is a currently unpublished writer in the Washington, DC region who, in the copious spare time of her other lives, serves as not only a professional photographer, but a well-known instructor in the secrets of storytelling via the camera, and additionally as her town’s webmaster (hired once they discovered she has command of the English soldiers—er, language). She is foolish enough to love a challenge, having once been heard to utter, “I hate being bored.” Like most writers—and authors—she’s been juggling lives ever since.
***THE COOK and PHOTOGRAPHER***
I don’t write.
I have a lot of friends that do, which is how I found myself at ConCarolinas in 2013.
The panels were interesting, the costumes were amazing, the craftwork was beautiful and the people attending were fun and engaging.
On the last day, after the last panel, I was talking with others who I had become friends with over the weekend, and before I knew it we were all chatting about having a writer’s retreat next year, right after ConCarolinas. I happened to mention that we had some timeshares we might be able to use. Just like that, I was in charge of finding us a place to hold the retreat!
As Fall rolled around, I started looking for a location that would hold all of us. It was more of a challenge than you’d think. In the meantime, Melanie contacted Faith to tell her about our plans for the retreat. Not only did Faith agree to come as a guest author, but by Thanksgiving a better accommodation option opened up: a beautiful mountain cabin we could rent. Now the waiting began. I hate waiting.
Since I don’t write, but I do cook, the group encouraged me to come along as “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer.” Since there was no dishwasher, I really earned my title!
The mountain “cabin” turned out to be a beautiful log home at the top of a mountain near Stone Mountain State Park in NC. 4 bedrooms, 3 baths, 2 living rooms, 2 decks, a front porch with rocking chairs and a swing. What more could we ask for? It was as lovely a place as I’ve ever stayed. And with the weather being beautiful, the views of the night sky were amazing! With no light pollution the stars filled every corner of it. The evenings were fun with plenty of giggles, cold beer, wine, specially made Tiger Butter, good food and great conversations.
In the daytime I spent my time shopping, cooking, washing dishes and doing what I love: taking pictures. I am experimenting with Infrared Photography and the mountains were perfect for my endeavors.
I made new friends, reconnected with old ones, and watched the writers bloom with understanding when their work was being critiqued. I witnessed quite a few “AH-HA” moments. For me, sometimes the best were the ha-ha-ha ones.
BIO: Judy Bienvenu is a camera repair technician (34 years), and a photo equipment reseller on eBay. She loves photography, but is content doing it as a hobby. Traveling where and when she can, she especially loves the desert southwest and red-rock canyons of the Four Corners area of the US. Want quality camera equipment to help tell your stories? Check out eBay Store – The Marmot Burrow: 35mm Cameras, Camera Lenses, Nikon . If you like looking at pictures, some of her images can be seen at: Judith Bienvenu (haveacookie)’s photos- powered by SmugMug.
“Just so you know, if I die my health insurance covers repatriation.”
“If you die, I’ll hide the body and destroy the evidence. I’m not dealing with all that paperwork!”
Ah, roommates. Can’t live with ’em, can’t — well, like she said. Too much effort.
So there I was, at a cabin in the woods with five other women. I was far from home, the nearest hospital was too far to reach in a real emergency, and reception was spotty at best. Horror jokes aside, we did do a good job of trying to meet the tropes. Every morning we were awoken by a blood-curdling scream. Blood was drawn on two nights out of four. And as we neared the climax, we were threatened to be subsumed by a terrible storm!
(I’m not sure if we ever figured out the source of the scream. Some type of animal; as one of the others said, “I don’t know if that’s a strange bird or a demented sheep.” We did receive a tornado warning that last night, even if it just turned out to be rain showers and a distant, gorgeous lightning storm. As for the blood, aforementioned roommate cut herself on a shiny hunk of marble that later somehow managed to make it through TSA. And I think I understand now why people put stickers on glass doors. Ow. We left my faceprint there as a warning.)
I’m getting ahead of myself, of course. Before that harrowing adventure came ConCarolinas 2014. As usual, I had a blast. It was great to hang out with all the writers that I only get to see once a year, especially since I’m not sure how much longer I can make this the trip from Vancouver. I took a lot of great notes. I especially loved the Live Action Slush Pile, where we examined why agents are likely to stop reading. The MW party was mostly successful. The only difference about the con this year is that I wasn’t scrambling to make a flight at its end; it simply involved an epic quest to reach our writers’ oasis.
“You mean you got lost.”
“I said nothing of the sort.”
As for the retreat itself, the one word I keep coming back to is “useful”, in the strongest sense. Faith’s lessons on craft at the micro and macro levels made me think about character, story structure, and plot in completely new ways. The sessions where we read aloud and picked apart each other’s writing let me figure things out about my work that I simply couldn’t do on my own. Having writing space mostly free of real-world distractions, and time to think, allowed me to focus in ways I’m trying to recreate now that I’m home. And for me, it also provided strength in the face of rejection. (Twice in two days. You’d think the agents knew I was on vacation or something.)
All in all, this trip was fantastic. Not only was I able to take away valuable strategies for revising my current WIP, but I also realized some key ways to improve the manuscript I’m trying to sell. In gamer speak, I really feel like I leveled up.
And I can’t wait for the sequel.
BIO: Laura Sheana Taylor is from Greater Vancouver, Canada, and she is crazy enough to fly across the continent to hang out with people she knows from the Internet. She likes to take notes at writing panels, which she eventually posts on her blog. Eventually. Honest.