Monday, December 5, 2011

Don’t leave Travis in the ball pit

by Joan

Hard to believe it’s Monday and time for the wrap-up of our annual writing retreat. As Susan mentioned on Friday, we did indeed rent a house near water, though this time I don’t think any of us could have guessed just how much water we’d see. In addition to the lake inlet just beyond our back porch, we were deluged with rain the entire weekend. Our outdoor photo shoot turned into an impromptu huddle on the chilly porch. We also attacked our goals with the same heartiness with which we ate and drank. And we met a three-year-old named Travis. But first ... how'd we do with our goals?

Julie’s goal for this retreat was to dive into her official edits to stay on deadline, but also to relax after the past few whirlwind months. In typical Julie-on-retreat style, she wandered around the house engaging in random conversations and grazing on snacks. And thinking. But she also dug into her edits as planned. An impromptu group brainstorming session about one issue reminded the rest of us the work becomes even deeper after the publishing contract comes in.

Pamela reacquainted herself with her neglected manuscript. She killed stepchildren, not darlings, and worked on crafting a stronger story by repositioning chapters and making sure that both the characters grow and the story progresses. And by reading us a chapter, she proved once more that hers is a book that needs to be written. She also planned our photo shoot and began editing our goofy smiles.

Kim got closer to the end of her manuscript by writing 2,400 words, an epic feat for her. She wrote on her Netbook, a miniature laptop that fits squarely on a child’s desk and allows for no more than six lines to a page, impossible for her to edit as she writes, as she normally does. We all encouraged her to write the rest of her manuscript on the Netbook so she can finish this poignant story and send it out to the world.

Susan tried to not be too anxious about the agents who were likely opening the Word doc to her requested manuscript. She read to us the gorgeous opening pages of chapter one, and we cheered her on, becoming anxious with her about what news she might soon hear. She focused on mapping her next manuscript and described to us her rough, but totally worthy new story.

Susan also found time to share her critique of my manuscript, brainstorming with me, pushing me to dig deeper into my characters’ souls. After the session, I edited like a fiend, making sentences pop, clarifying tricky plot points and adding or enhancing dialogue. I was rewarded when I read a revised section to her later and she rubbed the chills from her arms.

Elizabeth committed to a new kind of structure and set about to plot out the rest of her novel. She became comfortable with how she’d finish, concerned not with word count as she had last year, but instead technique. She raised the stakes about 10,000 degrees and said she felt so bad for some of her characters, she actually teared up. Better still, the structure of the book suddenly came into focus, and she now knows the exact order in which to tell the story.

The scene Elizabeth read to us also prompted our new catch phrase: Don't leave Travis in the ball pit. Something to remind our writing selves to tie up loose ends so the reader isn’t distracted by something that really doesn’t matter at all, but will take on unintended significance if we leave the neglected kid in a germy ball pit with no ride home.

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