Retreat Recap

It’s been almost a week since I said goodbye to my Writing Sisters. Man, that was a great weekend! Great atmosphere, great scenery, great food, and best of all, great company!
Last week’s post hit the Internet before we settled in for our all-day session. We spent all day Saturday going over our exchanged pages. I thought I’d give you an idea of the types of things we help each other with, like plot, characters, and pacing.
We do a round table (sometimes literally; the coffee table at the B&B was a wagonwheel with a glass top–yes, a real wheel, with the hub sticking up though the glass), and randomly choose one victim–er, I mean, one project to start with. My project was the first 4 chapters (approx. 20 pages or so) of my small-town mystery WIP.
The feedback I got was priceless: The main character is a little flat. Love the setting. Love the old farmer neighbor, but the MC has to be more familiar with him. Felt like I was right there in the house. Why doesn’t she want the house if her father worked on it–it’s all she has left of him, so why is she resisting? I thought the great-aunt was alive. I miss the energy of your other character [in the project my agent is shopping].
Then the suggestions, again, invaluable: What if the great-aunt is still alive? The MC needs to have a closer connection to the great-aunt. You could have the great-aunt work on the mystery with the MC. What about the story you told last night [at the restaurant while we were waiting for our meal]? What if you used that?
Click. That’s it.
The story I told at dinner the night before was one I heard from my BFF from high school (I won’t go into it here, but suffice it to say it involved a nursing home, a volunteer, and a suspicious death). Our mentor always reminds us of a few important things to keep in mind: a) need to draw the reader into the story right away, b) the reader has to care about the MC right away, and c) (for mysteries) there has to be a dead body in the first 20 pages (or at least the first 10-15%) of the book.
I have a dead body in the first sentence–the story is about solving a 70-yr old murder–but if I could get a more recent dead body (recent as in less than 70 yrs ago), it would ratchet things up. To draw the reader in, I can play up the mystery, make it more important to the MC, and give the antagonist a stronger motive to keep secrets buried. To do that, I need to make the relationship between the MC and her great-aunt tighter. And by using elements from the story I told at dinner, I can crank up the threat to the MC.
Mwahahahaha. Have you ever felt like a mad scientist?
I’ve got a plan to revise the story, and I know the story will be much stronger after incorporating suggestions from my writing sisters. We look at each person’s story in the same way: Do/Can we care about the MC? What does s/he want? Does the plot make sense? Does the MC behave the way we think s/he should? Are there enough questions to lure the reader on? What’s the story goal (one of our mentor’s favorites 🙂 )? Why does the MC do/not do this?
It’s like a writing class: we point out story elements that work or don’t work, and suggest changes to make the story better. Another big aspect of our group: we trust each other. If you’ve ever been in a writing group or critique group, trust is huge. If you can’t trust someone’s suggestions, then it’s a waste of time (which is why I don’t let my husband read any of my stuff–he’s not a writer and doesn’t read unless it’s a maintenance guide (BTW, I envy everyone who has a significant other who can read a draft or WIP and give you valid observations that help you improve your writing. Just sayin’.)).
We review everyone’s projects, even our mentor’s project. We care about each story, each MC, each strong supporting character. The process takes all morning, then a break for lunch, then we finish up in the afternoon before breaking for dinner. We are fueled by mutual encouragement, creative ideas, and chocolate.
We didn’t get much opportunity to work on our own stuff this time, so we decided to add an extra day to our reunion next year. That should give us some time to revise with the suggestions in mind, and still get a little feedback to make sure we’re on the right path.
Of course, after five days away, I returned to a garden filled with prolific weeds, lots of green beans, and monster zucchini despite assigning garden duty to my daughter. The chickens appreciated the huge zucchini and overinflated cucumbers, I picked a few very nice beets, and found these cherry tomatoes, the first of the season:
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And yes, they were yummy! We’ve trapped about 8 chipmunks so far, at least one of which stole my first ripe regular tomato (I went to pick the tomato, and half was eaten. Damn chipmunks!). Happened with the second tomato, too. So, we relocate the critters a few miles away on the other side of a creek. Now I’m waiting impatiently for the next ripe tomato. I’ve got bacon stocked for BLTs 😀
Enjoy one of the last weekends before school starts (which means summer is almost over–eek!). Happy writing!

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