Last Wednesday I said goodbye to my pets, hopped in a car with a couple other writers, and left my neighborhood for the desert setting of Palm Springs, where yet another writer would soon be joining us. I had never been on a writing retreat before–or a retreat of any kind, period–so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would we actually work? Or would we get so distracted by our posh surroundings and the easily-walkable food and beverage that it would turn into just any ol’ vacation?
I did know what I HOPED to accomplish: new words. Lots of them. I just completed revisions on a manuscript that’s about to head into the dangerous wilds of submissions, and it was time to stop pretending I didn’t have to worry about New Book. New Book was now Current Project. And if I didn’t get a big chunk of it down, I’d keep thinking of it as something to work on later, not something that was underway. I’ve been writing for many years but I wasn’t convinced I could leave town, tell myself to write, and actually… do that.
Once all four of us had arrived, we sat down together to outline our retreat goals. I was actually the only person there desperate to write new material. One writer was beginning work on shaping her first draft into a real manuscript, while two others were implementing agent and editor notes into a new draft and a page-one rewrite, respectively. (I was jealous; my previous project seemed so much more inviting and comfortable than something new and unknown.)
After stating our goals (mine was the insane 5k words written a day) we shared chapters from what we were working on (everyone else) or something we’d recently completed (me). I was curious how my additions and reshaping of my basically-completed manuscript would sound to others, so it didn’t feel like cheating not to read my new project.
We decided to stick to a schedule, even though this was kind of a vacation, and I am very much a lady of leisure who prefers the sun to rise hours before she has anything to do with it. We were up at eight the next morning, and after a short walk to Starbucks (them) and Coffee Bean (me), we were back at the house, working on our projects. We didn’t socialize; I’m not sure a word was even spoken aloud once I was huddled up with my beloved MacBook.
Aaaand I wrote. I wrote so much my eyes ached from staring at the screen, and I’m pretty sure my brain ached too from the exertion. My insanity-motivated goal seemed unreachable, but I did churn out nearly 3k the first night, more than 3k the second day, and then. It happened. I hit the goal. And then I very nearly hit it again. When I arrived my little wisp of an idea consisted of some scattered scenes and ideas. It didn’t even top 3k. When I left it was at nearly 18k. 18k is a nice number. Hello, that’s how they classify GOLD.
The readings were more helpful than I could have realized too. Obviously it was fantastic to hear everyone else’s projects (there really is something special about hearing a writer reading their own work), and I am Anxious McGee to read them in full. But reading my own was exponentially helpful. I’d polished the heck out of this thing. I’ve edited it multiple times and had it copy-edited by an eagle-eyed spotter of mistakes. And yet aloud poor grammar and usage choices roared for attention. But also: it was good to hear when people laughed. It was surprising for me when people were moved emotionally. For me, there’s something about writing novels that leaves me alone in my own head so often it’s sort of amazing watching others’ reactions, like my brain is on public display, but in a good, unneeding of medical attention sort of way.
(Though, yes, this does mean I now have more edits to make to Nearly-Finished Novel. Books are like time vampires, you guys.)
In case you worry I took off three days of work to be All Work/No Play Ames, there was also food consumed, wine drunk, books read, and writing/rewriting/edits/agents/editors discussed. In short, this retreat was exactly what I needed, and I heartily recommend Getting The Heck Away From Life to any writer, no matter what stage of the game you’re in.
My 18k first draft agrees with me.