Friday, November 12, 2010

Writing Retreats Aren't Just for Writing

By Kim

In case no one's noticed by now (after four other posts on the subject) we can’t say enough about our retreat. Those of you who follow our blog regularly have already read about the anticipation, the preparation, how what started as a comedy of errors turned into a productive and enjoyable weekend, and the wonders of having the perfect critique group.

I suppose the only thing left is to share with you what this retreat meant to me on a more personal level.

Let me begin with a confession. I believe all my colleagues here at WWW would agree that other than when I’m reading at critique (my voice projects), I am the quietest member of the group. Setting up my workspace in the dining room, as Elizabeth did, would be my worst nightmare. Since I must have silence in order to accomplish anything, I spent most daylight hours voluntarily sequestered alone on the back patio. (Joan joined me one day, but we agreed to ignore each other.) I had the lake and the trees to keep me company. Occasionally the neighbors’ puppy escaped from their yard and paid me a visit as well.

I’m not so much shy as the product of an unconventional and isolated childhood. I won’t go into that here because it will be discussed at length in the interview Joan will post next week. Let’s just say that I have no problem speaking in front of large groups and can pretend to be an extrovert when I must. While I’m slow to make the first move, invite me on a nature walk or out to coffee and I’ll probably jabber away like a bubbly teenager as long as it is one-on-one. Put me at a table with a group of people, however, even ones I know well, and I’m easily overwhelmed by all the conversations going on around me. Unless I believe I have something important to contribute, I never learned the art of jumping in gracefully. I sit there, nodding, smiling, perhaps even laughing, but inside I suspect that everyone views me as the socially awkward step-child. I know I do.

The beauty of this group is that they seem to accept my quirks and not take it personally. We all have our quirks.

I imagine most writers need to escape sometimes, to kick back in a hammock and get lost within a novel for a few hours, to stay up until two in the morning to finish a scene, secure that no children will burst into the room at dawn. In my case, I also needed the freedom to sit by the lake with my sketchpad. I hadn’t opened it in over a year and, as I watched my youngest daughter’s face form on the page, I wondered why I don’t make the time for this more often. Sure, I have to fumble and erase a lot to get the results I want, but I find that process oddly relaxing and it enhances my writing. What better way to get inside the head of an artist than to become one, at least for an hour.

Unlike at home, I had no problem remaining at the keyboard for extended periods of time. I had no husband or children to entertain, no errands to be run, I could eat (or not) whenever I chose, and I had no responsibilities other than helping Elizabeth prepare Sunday night’s dinner. Normally I’m lucky to get 500 words a day written. I tripled that one day. If I got stuck or needed someone to read over a paragraph for me, five honest (though differing) opinions were just a few steps away.

Piggybacking off of what Julie said in her post, a good critique group is as much a blessing as a bad one is a curse. I’m sure that anyone who took creative writing classes in college or graduate school has experienced the latter. It’s impossible to give constructive feedback to someone with whom you’re competing. I believe that what makes our group work so well is that the person who would reach for my book likely would not buy Pamela’s and vice versa. Elizabeth's and Susan’s audiences would not overlap, while Susan’s and Julie’s might, but only to a degree. Joan and I would share some readers, but we appreciate each others strengths and are grown up enough to bluntly say "this prose stinketh" if it does.

Trust is essential. It’s scary to read work aloud and then silently listen while five other people point out every flaw. That said, I’d rather friends point them out than agents or publishers. Instead of rambling on about how helpful everyone was in general, I’ll give a concrete example.

I spent most of Sunday writing a scene that takes place at a 1911 exhibition of Carl Ahrens’ work. I happen to have a lot of raw material about this event as it was the high point of my great-grandfather’s career. My workspace was filled with newspaper articles, photographs, reviews and pages from Madonna Ahrens’ memoir. My head was full of facts and figures as I banged out about 1700 words.

The comments after I read my scene out loud:

Susan: Um, Kim, this is a bit journalistic.

Julie: I perked up when you got to the dialogue. Can you start there?

Elizabeth: I'm not crazy about the first line and when you say “the viewer sees” something in a painting it feels rather intrusive. Everyone will see something different.

Joan: Carl and Madonna are always affectionate in public and they don’t care what anyone else thinks. That behavior’s not unusual.(She's the only one who has read everything so far.)

Pamela: There are a lot of names here, Kim. It’s Mr. this and Mr. that. Madonna’s the only woman so you don’t need to use her name in every sentence. (It was a ROUGH draft – what can I say?)

I could have let my creative bubble burst, I suppose, as I was only one of two writers at the table who were not handed a single rose to go with all those thorns that night. Instead, I mulled it over for a day or so, opened a fresh document and started over.

My original first line (universally hated): On the opening night of the exhibition, Madonna felt smug.

What follows: a description of the room and who was in it, Madonna pondering whether the current arrangement with Carl’s patron needs to be amended, and how this exhibition differs from others in Toronto. After that it gets to the good stuff, though even that could be stronger.

New first line: Madonna had not seen Edmund Walker since the day he unwittingly called her a whore to her face.

What follows: Madonna buttonholes Walker (Carl’s harshest critic) at the door, knowing that a meeting between the two men would lead to an altercation that would be recounted in all major Ontario papers the next day. An awkward and pointed conversation takes place where Madonna passive-aggressively criticizes the way exhibitions are generally run (Walker's domain), parrots Walker’s own remarks in a manner that makes him look foolish, and boasts of Carl’s successes that night. The gist: I'm not afraid to disembowel you with a smile.

Thank you, ladies, for caring enough to point out that my prose smelled a bit ripe.

I hope other writers are so blessed.


  1. This is a bit off topic, but I love the new picture of you posted up. You look lovely. And you are good at drawing too? Wow.

    I was not aware that you and the other women on this site go on retreats and give each other feedback about what you write. I think that takes a lot of humility. It also sounds like you are receiving a diversity of viewpoints. Glad to see that you are doing well and that you are pressing on.

    Katrina N.

  2. Katrina,

    This is the second year we have all gone on a retreat together and it will be an annual thing. I wish it could be a monthly thing!

    It would take humility to read if only one person was being critiqued, but everyone takes turns. Yes, it is not always easy to listen to the opinions, but we have all been doing this long enough not to take comments too personally. While it's great to heat "It's perfect" that's never true and is of no real help. It is far better to hear about flaws before sending out queries. Agents generally won't give you feedback as to why they rejected you, so it's best to make everything as polished as possible.


  3. Critique is give-and-take. And having been on both sides of the table--in person and via email--you learn pretty quickly if it's working or not. In our case, it's working. You learn when to back off (when giving) and have to keep forefront that your partner's project is not your own. In our group, it's easy. We're not tiptoeing around egos or attitudes and, while feelings might get bruised, those are quickly addressed with a private conversation or an email. I wouldn't trade what we have for anything!

  4. Lorna Ferguson12 November, 2010

    Hi Kim,
    This was a great read - good switch to the new opening line. I love it! That Madonna really is something.

    And the photos are outstanding. What a pristine place to recharge and share. And the drawing is beautiful. You are a mighty talented woman!


  5. Pamela - I completely agree, and for the record I wasn't bruised by the remarks.

    Lorna - Yes, Madonna was really something. She had to be to live with Carl. Thank you for the kind words about the drawing. I had fun with that.

  6. A beautifully written and moving post, Kim. Having just read the scene that developed as a result of the feedback you received at the retreat, I once again sing the praises of constructive criticism and belonging to the kind of synergetic group WWW is. I'm very happy for all of you. BTW, love the new look of WWW. So lovely, warm and inviting. Has the appearance of a well loved home full of loving people.

  7. As a fellow writer, I could relate with all you wrote here in relation to critiquing - I clicked onto 'Julie" in the body of your blog and left a lengthy diabribe there, so won't go into it further other than to say I found your assessment of your retreat most interesting and had mixed feelings about how much fun it was!

    No matter what your colleques say, I think you are a great writer Kim and don't be discouraged. I am sure the critiquing hurts--it hurts us all-even thought the reasons for it are valid, but full steam ahead girl--you are a significant writer!

  8. Hi Paula,

    No worries! I wasn't hurt in the slightest by the comments made in critique, nor did I take them as a slam on my writing ability. On the contrary, I depend on my colleagues to be nit-picky, to tell me when a scene does not match the tone of the rest of my book. This particular one did not, and I knew they were right. After a re-write the scene is MUCH better, and everyone who has read it so far has loved it. I thank them profusely for their honesty because it makes me into a better writer.

    Writers only get one chance to impress an agent or a publisher. The more polished the work is when we submit, the less reason they have to say no.

    Having an agent/publisher does not mean the end of the revisions/rewrites either. Editors will be far more brutal. I'm prepared for that. :-)



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