Why Retreat When You Can Write Full Time?

Last week, I drove two hours north to the Pennsylvania woods, where I rented a cabin with Maria V. Snyder for a week-long writing retreat.

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I suspect some of you are wondering why I’d do something crazy like that.  I mean, I have the luxury (and the responsibility) of writing full time.  Why spend a total of four hours in the car to go to a place where I need to carry in bedding and pots and pans and food, all to write, just like I write at home?  (For reference, I’ve written an article about writing retreats — how to set them up and why do do them — here.)

Short answer:  It’s not just like at home.

For one thing, I’ve driven two hours to get there, and I’ll drive two hours to get home, so there’s a time cost to going there.  Far more importantly, there’s a family cost to going there — I’ve left behind my husband and our cats, upsetting human and feline schedules alike.  I’ve turned my world and the world of those I love upside down.

So I damn well better be productive while I’m there.

In an ordinary week, when I’m writing at full speed, I produce 15,000 words of solid first draft.  Those words aren’t perfect, and there will likely be fairly substantial revisions in specific language, but the plot is set and the general sequence of events and the backbone of the writing.

In the four full days of the retreat (Monday through Thursday, plus a few hours on Sunday after I arrived), I drafted almost 30,000 words.  That’s one third of the new Jane Madison novel, JOY OF WITCHCRAFT.  Those words are more likely to survive editing than my usual words because they were written quickly, in close proximity to each other.  (I find that I do my best writing fast.)

In addition to drafting all those words, I also built a Scrivener file that contains all the Jane novels in one large project.  That file makes my writing vastly more efficient — I can search one file to see if I’ve used a name before, or to track down the characteristics of a crystal or an herb,  or to recall the name of a spell.  It took  me a few hours to do the work (see, Sunday evening), but the labor will benefit me for all the Jane novels to come.

Usually, I alternate writing time with breaks — taking long walks in the woods, heading down to the lake, etc.  On this retreat, alas, it rained *buckets* on Monday.  And then on Tuesday, the temperature didn’t get above 25.  (I took a short walk, but I headed back when the wind nearly blew my frozen ear lobes off my head.)  On Wednesday and Thursday, the words were flowing and the temps were still glacial, so I kept my head down and wrote, wrote, wrote.  On Friday, before we left, I did take one relatively long walk, but it was mostly a chance to say goodbye to the site.

Maria, I’ve discovered, is a great retreat-mate.  We keep very different hours.  I wake up relatively early, write a chunk in the morning, break for lunch, write a chunk in the afternoon, break for dinner, write a chunk in the evening, then go to bed around 11:00.  She wakes up much later (around my lunch time) and she works must later (till 3 or 4 in the morning.)  Therefore, we both have “alone time,” the same way that we have “together time.”  It works out well.

I have two other retreats already scheduled in the new year — mini-retreats that last a weekend and take place at the homes of writer-friends.  I’m looking forward to them, to the socializing, to the discussing business, to the short intense bursts of writing.

But I’m also already planning my next retreat in the woods.  Because I’ll have another third of a book to get drafted.  I always do.  :-)

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Not Dead Yet

Not dead.  Not carried off by the camelback crickets that insist on taking refuge on the ground level of our home (and some of them are HUGE this year!) Not king yet.

But, um, where did the past ten days go?

Let’s see…

We had houseguests visiting from Canada — the charming Julie Czerneda (in the midst of her book launch tour for A PLAY OF SHADOW) and her husband, Roger.  They arrived with flavored coffees (blueberry! maple!) in hand and a ***gorgeous*** matted photograph of a unicorn ice sculpture, taken by Roger himself.  We enjoyed long conversations about writing, books, publishing, politics, music, travel, and I don’t know what else.

Julie and Roger were in town for the World Fantasy Convention, which took place in a hotel just a couple of miles from our house.  I didn’t attend the con as a member (I’ve been publishing too little fantasy!), but I did hang out in the hotel lobby and bar for two days, visiting with friends and catching up with folks I haven’t seen in far too long.  I also had a chance to meet some Book View Cafe members for the first time in person — I’d love to have a chance to visit each of our co-op members, because communicating face-to-face adds so much more to our online chats!

With Julie and Roger in tow, we went to hear Suzanne Vega play at a small venue in DC.  Stranger to music that I am, I only knew a couple of her songs, but I loved her performance.  Stevie Wonder was playing a huge arena show just a couple of blocks away, and I think we *totally* made the right choice for the evening :-)

I’ve begun outlining my next book, JOY OF WITCHCRAFT, which will be the fifth Jane Madison book.  I’m having a wonderful time getting back into Jane’s world.  Poor librarian-witch! Nothing goes easily for her!

We went to an amazing Smithsonian lecture on Istanbul, taught by Nigel McGilchrist.  Alas, I knew very little about Istanbul prior to the talk, but I learned a great deal of history (and some information about art and food and geology and, and, and, and…)  One of the great things about Nigel’s lectures is his ability to fold together so many different disciplines as he speaks.  His slides illustrate his points beautifully, and he speaks without notes, making everything feel very real and immediate.  And now, alas, I have more travel destinations to add to my list :-)

And I’ve been preparing for a writing retreat next week.  I’ll be stealing away with Maria V. Snyder.  We’re heading off to a state park, where we’ll rent a cabin (just as the first major blast of arctic air is set to hit the region!)  I intend to get about a third of a novel written while I’m there — and to have great conversations about writing, publishing, etc.  (Maria and I keep somewhat different schedules — I wake up early and go to bed before midnight; she wakes up after noon and works until the wee hours of the morning.  That gives us both some “alone time” to get a lot of work done and some “social time” to talk.  A great arrangement!)  I’m generally very productive on retreats — I have to justify taking the time away from Mark and the cats!

So, that’s the past.  And I’ll be scarce for the next week.  But after that, I hope to be back in the usual swing of things!

What about you?  How’s the autumn treating you?  Tell me something wonderful about November!

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What a Way to Celebrate!

Well, I’m a year older now.

Okay, technically, I’m a day older than I was yesterday, and three days older than I was on October 12, my official birthday.  But you know what I mean.

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This year, we decided to take advantage of a relative’s kind offer, and we spent my birthday (and a long weekend!) at the beach — Duck, North Carolina, on the Outer Banks.  We typically go down there once or twice a year, usually in the heart of winter.  Duck is a wonderful place off season — nearly deserted, with most businesses closed up tight, with nearly no one on the beach, and with cold, bracing winds that can howl all night in classic nor’easters.

Not so much in mid-October this year!

The temps were in the 80s — I dramatically overpacked for cool weather and just got by with the T-shirts I brought (and I mourned my failure to bring shorts or sandalsl!)  On Saturday, the beach was actually *crowded*, and there were lots of folks on the sand every day.  All the businesses were open (even the Dairy Queen :-) ), and the roads were surprisingly busy.  In short, “our” Duck looked completely different from the Duck we normally encounter.

Of course, it was enjoyable, all the same.  We took walks on the sand (with surprisingly high tides and lots of waves!), and we indulged in meals at our favorite restaurants.  We got a lot of reading done, and we watched a lot of movies — binged the second half of HOMELAND, Season 3, and the BEYOND Linklater movies, and an odd, well-made little film called A SIMPLE PLAN.

All in all, a perfect birthday weekend, brightened by the Facebook posts of many, and emails from even more, and cards and phone calls and, and, and, and…  I feel well and truly spoiled!  (I also feel like I’m never going to eat anything other than salad and lean grilled meats, for the rest of my life :-) )

And that is why it’s time for me to get back to work :-)

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Frozen (And I Don’t Mean the Disney Musical)…

Well, *that* was a weekend…
Surely by now, you know that we’re fans of the Nationals around here…  So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that my Friday afternoon was spent at the ballpark, cheering on my team.  The game started at 3:00, but that was fine, because the afternoon was cloudy, so the ferocious shadows of a sunny day didn’t have a chance to compromise the game.  Alas, the Nats lost.
Saturday found us back at the park for a 5:30 game.  Alas, Friday’s clouds had been caused by a cold front that swept through Friday night.  When we arrived at the park, the sun was *brilliant*, but the weather was cool, and there was a healthy breeze blowing in the upper decks (stronger than the lovely breath of fresh air that keeps us cool up there in Section 416 on those beastly hot summer days.)
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I’ll cut to the chase.  We left the park after 18 innings of baseball, after six hours of play, after the temperatures plummeted into the low 50s and the wind chill was somewhere much below there.  The Nats lost, 2-1, after three different would-be-massive-homeruns-for-Nats died on the warning track, blown back in by the wind, and after one Giants home run cleared the fence.
The restrooms (which were heated and, obviously, out of the wind) started to look like refugee centers by the end of the game — elderly women in wheelchairs, mothers holding sleeping babies, clutches of women leaning against each other as they huddled against the walls.  About half the crowd stayed until the bitter end; in some sections (but not in hours, thankfully!) people stood for the entire game.  Most of the concession stands shut down after 9 innings, but the hot chocolate stand stayed open until the bottom of the 18th.
There’s still at least one more game to be played (this is a best-of-five series) but things look quite grim for the Nats.  I’m more than a bit astonished at how personal this whole thing feels — even though I know they didn’t win for me during the regular season and they aren’t losing for me now.  I’ve only followed baseball for about twelve years, and this feels like the first time I’ve really gotten to “know” the players on my team — maybe a side effect of going to 20 regular season games, maybe a side effect of writing the Diamond Brides, maybe a side effect of these particular guys on this particular team.
Yesterday, I felt rather hung over. Tonight, I’ll sit in front of the TV and watch them play in San Francisco. And I’ll have a cat on my lap.  And a blanket.  And a cup of hot tea if I want it.
I’ll be able to feel my toes.  But I’ll settle for teeth-chattering shivering all over again on Thursday, if they could just win tonight’s (and tomorrow’s) game and bring the series back here to DC!
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A Vacation By Any Other Name

Oh.  Wait.  I *was* on vacation.  That *was* its name :-)

I spent last week in Ashland, Oregon, attending the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with my husband, my college roommate, and her family.  We saw seven plays in four days — a matinee and evening show every day but one (when we just had an evening performance).  The plays are all performed in repertory, so we got to see many of the actors multiple times.  (We also saw two understudies who did amazing jobs!)  It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I’ll try to sort the shows:

  1. THE GREAT SOCIETY:  This was the best play — a sequel to ALL THE WAY, which we were lucky enough to see in New York, with Brian Cranston *channeling* LBJ.  SOCIETY picks up immediately after the events in ALL THE WAY.  The actor who played LBJ, Jack Willis, was very different from Cranston — he wasn’t as tall (Cranston wore lifts), and he was heavier; he didn’t have the same physicality, and he didn’t present a caricature of the president.  Rather, he delivered his lines with emotion and skill, *acting* to resemble the former president.  The script was wonderful as well — over and over again, I was struck by how similar to a Shakespearean tragedy it was — LBJ could have been any king in the histories, seeking counsel from his advisors, receiving some good advice, some bad.
  2. INTO THE WOODS:  This was the best musical (see what I’m doing here?) — great performances with some difficult music, staged well with minimal sets and lots and lots of doubling of actors.  Many of the musicians were students, playing with the professionals; they sounded perfect to my ears.
  3. RICHARD III:  A very close second to best play.  Dan Donahue’s Richard was utterly unredeemed evil (per the script); he brought the audience in as co-conspirators, sharing his plans with us with wicked, conniving joy.  He was the most disabled RIII I’ve ever seen — he needed to use a leather strap around his neck to hold his contorted left hand, whenever he needed those fingers.  I didn’t remember the women’s roles being as prominent as they were.
  4. A WRINKLE IN TIME:  This was a world premiere adaptation, and it was an earnest attempt to make one of my favorite children’s books come alive.  Alas, it wasn’t entirely successful — mostly because the book is so *vivid* in my mind, with such wonderful otherworldly settings…  I was always aware that I was watching a play, instead of getting involved in the characters.
  5. THE TEMPEST:  I’ve never liked this play — it has a lot going for it (magic! books! enchanted isle!) but it never really manages to deliver, and the clown scenes go on for *way* too long.  That said, this production had some good things going for it — an otherworldly set, cool fairies that assisted Ariel and Prospero.  The best thing about the production, though, was the romance between Miranda and Ferdinand.  The actors who played those roles played the title roles in the best ROMEO AND JULIET I’ve ever seen, a couple of years ago — they have amazing chemistry, and they truly sold their scenes.  (Another high point — the music and dance number in the second act was kept short — sometimes, it turns into its own endless spectacle!)
  6. TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA:  This all-female production was confusing at first — it wasn’t clear whether the performers were supposed to be women playing women or women playing men.  (They were women playing men, it turned out.)  There was some odd doubling, with a very distinctive actor playing Launce (a clown) and Sylvia’s father.  The dog, Crabbe, was played by a wonderful Great Pyrenees who was very fun to watch :-)
  7. COMEDY OF ERRORS:  Another play that isn’t one of my favorites.  This highly edited performance (1.5 hours, no intermission) was set in Harlem in the 1920s.  The actors who doubled the leads did a good job of bouncing back and forth through their many fast costume changes, but the play itself is silly (and there’s no good way to stage the ending, when other actors need to come on to perform the final confrontation scene.)  Some of our group thought that this was one of the best plays, so it was obviously a matter of taste!

In between going to plays, we ate massive amounts of very good food.  We also spent a lot of time talking, reading, generally relaxing…  And I couldn’t pass up the yarn at Webspinners — I came home with two new projects.  (That yarn shop has the most different (textures, types, etc) yarn I’ve ever seen collected in one place!  I ended up with several small skeins of mercerized cotton for one shawl and some beautiful hand-dyed silk-and-camel for another shawl…)

And now I’m home, a bit shocked to realize that none of my to-do list got done while I was gone :-)

 

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The Best Sort of Theater

Make that “the best sort of ‘theatre’” because virtually every acting company in DC that has the-a-ter in its name uses the British spelling…

Friday evening, we headed downtown for Studio Theatre’s (see?) production of BELLEVILLE by Amy Herzog.  Why, yes, you might have noted we shifted our subscription to Saturday matinees.  Why, yes, you might have noted that a Friday night is not a Saturday matinee.  Why, yes, you might have noted that when the schedule arrived, we had a conflict for “our” Saturday — and for every other Saturday matinee the play was showing!

In any case, we headed downtown for the evening performance, and we hassled with parking, and with a less than stellar dinner, and with having extra time before the show, and, and, and…

And it was all worth it.

We saw another Herzog play last year — 4,000 MILES.  We knew that she could write realistic dialog spoken by people in crisis who are trying to conceal parts of their pasts to protect themselves in their presents.  But that didn’t prepare us for BELLEVILLE.

The play is set in Paris, in a neighborhood inhabited by many immigrants, including a young American couple who have moved their so that Zack can help children with AIDS.  His wife, Abby, has had trouble making the adjustment to her expat life.  The entire action of the play takes place over a 24-hour period, as the couple confronts each other about the problems in their relationship.

BELLEVILLE follows in a long line of “relationship” plays.  For me, it resonated most closely to WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF and AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY — Herzog’s play has the same vicious use of language, the same domineering thrusts and parries by people who aren’t afraid to fight with words.  About 15 minutes before the end of the play, I realized that I truly did not know how it was going to conclude — there were at least three very realistic, fully supported directions the play could have taken.

Despite my years as a litigator, I am not a Warrior of Words — I hate the type of brutal confrontation that takes front and center in BELLEVILLE.  But as a theater-goer, and a student of people, and a general admirer of beautiful words, I’m in awe of the play and its performance.

(One minor flaw — two supporting characters primarily speak French to each other in their dialog.  I understood what they said, but my theater-going companion felt that he missed almost all of a crucial late scene.)Perhaps my admiration for Herzog’s work is based, at least in part, on a scene in ALWAYS RIGHT — the first knock-down, drag out verbal fight I’ve ever truly written.  (Zingers, yeah, I’ve got those down.  But all out warfare?  That was a first for me…)Sigh…  Off to edit now!P.S. The rest of our weekend was relatively quiet, marked mostly by the death of the power of the baseball cap — the Nats finally lost a game while I wore it to the park.  Oh well.  Time to start a new streak!

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