Hello, novelists! I hope you had productive weeks.
Last time, we talked about ways to work on your novel while you’re out and about in the world. This week I’d like to explore the reverse situation–what to do when you go away just to write.
Writing retreats can be incredible opportunities to focus on your novel. In fact, many applications ask for your to describe the projects you would address during your stay. Of course, some retreats only span a week or two–not enough time, in other words, for the average person to churn out a whole novel draft, especially if you’re going for a longer work (200+ pages). So how do we make the best possible use of this time?
Write a Few Chapters
In other words, set a reasonable goal. In the long run, writing five solid first draft chapters will probably be more beneficial than writing twenty-five absolutely useless novel chapters. (“Isn’t that what we do for NaNoWriMo?” you ask. Yes, but NaNoWriMo is a special exception.) Choose the chapters that excite you the most–or the ones you find the most problematic. Write only the beginning. Or the middle. Or the end. Having a plan or a blueprint is one of the ways you’ll avoid getting stuck staring into the awful abyss of the blank page. Don’t forget: a retreat is a peculiar kind of situation. Unless you’re a professional, full-time writer, you probably don’t get a lot of time just to write. It can be an amazing, productive experience. Or the pressure of it can completely stymie you. Don’t let it and don’t over-plan your week.
The solitude of a writing retreat is the perfect place to read and think about an earlier draft of your novel. You have the time and the privacy to really look at what you’ve produced and think critically. You can laugh at your own jokes, cry over your most tragic scenes. And, if need be, you can be loudly embarrassed over your errors, melodrama, and gigantic plot holes. It’s kind of therapeutic, trust me. And, if you need to, you can spend hours addressing particular problems, guilt-free. Scribble your alternatives, ball up paper, revel in your conundrums. You won’t solve everything, but you’ll make more progress than you would in your daily writing hours, which are, as we all know, quite precious.
As a bonus, many retreats are in the middle of truly beautiful natural areas, so you’ll have an excellent place to walk and think as you mull over the difficulties with your draft.
Don’t have a lot of time to leaf through reference books or read historical texts? Incorporate your research needs into your retreat time. Give yourself a day or two to read, make notes, and plan. Maybe you need to draw up a family tree to keep track of your characters or you want to explore the historical events surrounding your plot. It might feel odd not to spend every waking moment writing, but you have an opportunity to create a better foundation than you might otherwise. Keep in mind, of course, that some retreats are designed to be free of distractions (like the internet) so make sure you have everything you need before you go.
Maybe you don’t have a novel to revise–or even to research. Maybe you’re just not ready to sit down and type “Chapter One.” Or, worst case scenario, you do have those things but you’re completely stuck. This might not have been the case when you applied for your retreat, but it is now. You don’t know what to do. It’s terrible.
My recommendation? Just put pen to paper. Or fingers to keys. Whatever your medium, just start writing. If you need to, borrow a line. “It was a dark and stormy night.” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” “Call me Ishmael.” It doesn’t really matter so long as you start writing. And keep writing. Don’t look back, don’t reread, don’t think about what you meant to be writing. Just go for it. Clear out whatever cobwebs are cluttering your brain, get the rust off. Maybe you’ll only get a few lines from this paragraph that you like, but you’ll have a beginning, which is all that matters. Do it every day you need to, even if that’s all you do for the week. I’d wager, however, that on the second or third day, you’ll have something to work with and you can get writing. Keep the mentality though–the point is to just put one word after another.
Have you gone on a writing retreat? How did you use the time?
And for more about writing retreats, check out Neina Gordon’s recent post!