Anne here. Last month I went away for five days on a writers' retreat, and since some of you have, at various times, asked about such things as critique partners and writers groups, I thought you might be interested in what we did. It's the third year we've gone on retreat — the same group of 11 people, roughly the same time of year, and we follow the same process, but of course, each time it's different.
It's a very special time for all of us, as we live far apart, coming from five different states in three corners of the country, and one from New Zealand, so it's simply wonderful to see each other face to face. Most Australian romance writers only see each other at the annual conference — there's only one for the whole country, and as Australia is geographically a similar size to mainland USA, you can see why we talk about the "tyranny of distance."
This makes our retreat even more special, as most of us also don't live near any other romance writer, or any other fiction writer.
Our first retreat was near a beach and the second one was in spa country, and we decided after that that we had to be near a beach. There's something magical about being beside the sea — dawn walks, sitting on the beach in the dark, listening to the waves and watching the moon, drawing a labyrinth in the sand, walking it contemplatively and later, watching the sea wash it away— it's all very inspirational.
Since we couldn't return to the first place (the owners of the eleven room Victorian era guesthouse sold it and the new owners are turning it into a family house) we decided that Sydney was probably the most central — none of us live there, several of us could drive there and for the rest of us it was just one flight. We stayed at Coogee Beach, and this was the scene from my room. Yep, it's a tough life, but someone has to do it. 😉
On the second night a storm blew in and those palm trees were whipping around and the waves were crashing in all night. It was warm and muggy and I slept with my sliding doors open and listened to the surf and the wind in the trees. It was superb.
But even though it's beautiful, it's a work retreat. We're all working writers, earning our own living, so we can't justify the time away from computers and families for simple frivolity, and indeed we'd be foolish to waste the opportunity.
We start by meeting on the first night over wine and fish and chips and we plan a program for the 5 days. We have a formal session after each breakfast, lunch and dinner — business discussions, craft-of-writing sessions, "a writer's life," whatever — we brainstorm all the things we'd like to talk about during the retreat, assign a group leader for each one and then slot them into a timetable.
In one session we had a pearl-knotting class, in which we talked about writing as we made necklaces — that one was filed under "refilling the creative well." We talked about endings and what makes a really good ending (I'll keep that for a separate blog topic), we talked about layering, we talked about where we were in our careers, we talked tax and the economic situation, we talked about breakout books, and continuities, we discussed editors and agents and about remembering to find the joy in our writing.
In between those sessions we wrote. Some also met to brainstorm in small groups, or walk along the beach, or critique each other's work, but the writing time is inviolable — it's practically a crime to interrupt anyone who's writing, and since three of us were on deadline at the end of that week, nobody needed reminding. (They all made it, by the way.)
Critique is a growing part of our interaction. It's not so much a critique group — it's usually one or two individuals showing another their work to a couple of others for particular feedback — "I've rewritten these first few chapters several times and now I don't know if it works, can you have a look, please?" or "There's something not working in this scene and I don't know what it is," — that sort of thing. We know each others' writing, our strengths and weaknesses and over the three years an amazing level of trust has grown between us. And within the group there is a level of wisdom and supportiveness and appreciation that's extraordinary.
A highlight for me was when four of us holed up in someone's room one rainy afternoon and brainstormed someone's three part series. We also brainstormed an alternative ending for another book and made it so much stronger. It's very stimulating process — really , IMO, the job of the brainstormer is not to tell the author what to do, but toss suggestions around in order to get her out of the plot possibility rut she'd been stuck in. The longer we do this, and the more we know each others' writing the better we get at it.
I must admit that another feature of this particular retreat was the food. Coogee is simply stuffed with fantastic eating places only 2 minutes walk in any direction. We went out for every meal — some had the full cooked breakfast, others a toasted sandwich and coffee. Lunch ranged from the most fabulous array of salads, to fresh sushi, noodles, or sandwiches. And dinner — well, let's say we did well for ourselves.
We developed a favorite breakfast restaurant, not because the food was so much better than other restaurants, but they had better um, ambience. As one retreater recalled, "the French waiter came over, fixed us with a stern visage and said…something. We're not sure what because the moment he started to speak our mouths went slack, our eyes glazed over and we lost all power of comprehension."
It's always sad when the retreat has to end, but I feel so lucky to be part of this group. Friends are so important in life, but writing is a solitary occupation, and to have such supportive writing friends is a real privilege, I think.
Do you have a group you regularly go away with? Where do you go? What do you do? What do you like about it? Do you have friends from work you share a special bond with? Do you have a critique group, or a reading group, or do you get together with friends for craft or other activities? What do you do with your friends that's special and fun and wonderful?
One person who leaves a comment will win a book by me and one by one of the other retreaters.