Writing Retreats – Are They Worth It?

by Alena Tauriainen, writing as Alena Wendall @alenawendall

My first writing retreat was a huge step of faith. I knew nothing about writing. I didn’t even know what a panster was or POV. I’m telling you I was the true definition of a newbie writer.

I found my favorite author Susan May Warren and looked her up. She had a writing retreat,  Storycrafter’s Retreat, scheduled that October (before she moved it to an online course). During that weekend, she taught story crafting in such a simple way that the mountain before me now seemed scalable.

Not only did I learn a ton about story crafting, something unexpected came from that retreat–friendships. There were only about a dozen of us at that first retreat, but we are still friends 7+ years later. In fact, some are my very best friends today. We room together at different conferences, became craft partners, email each other and text almost daily. So, yes, I believe writing retreats are worth the time, money and effort.

Observations of a Retreat Coordinator

Fast forward a few years and I’ve since become the Retreats Coordinator for MBT. I’ve noticed a couple of things over the past eight years of conferences. If you are considering attending a retreat/conference, can I offer some advice?

Prepare. People that prepare for the conference, get the most out of it. Your time is precious and so are your resources. Plan on giving it your all. Some retreats like the Deep Thinkers Retreat require prep work. Make the time to complete it and give it your best.

Take The Advice. If you are spending time and resources to attend a conference presented by a veteran author that you respect, then take their advice. I’ve seen many people refuse—not wanting to change the manuscript, etc. only to come back the next year and admit they should have listened after hearing from an editor or agent.

Minimize Distractions. When you attend a retreat, you’ve entered an atmosphere intended to maximize your learning. That phone that keeps going off or the text messages that keep beeping in, can cause broken focus. Life happens, trust me I know. But if you ask to only be called in an emergency, it will help.

Buy The Recordings. My Book Therapy sends you the recordings of the Deep Thinkers Retreat at no additional charge. But if you attend a retreat that offers them at a cost, they are typically worth it to reinforce the classes taught.

Hide. Schedule an extra day away before you return to the real world. Take the time to review your notes, type them up etc. Plan how you are going to implement what you’ve learned. If not, encapsulate your notes and plans on the airplane ride back home. This helps me put into action the things I learned.

I can honestly say, I’m agented and working on my third manuscript because of the skills I’ve learned from My Book Therapy and the retreats I’ve attended.

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Writing as Alena Wendall, Alena Tauriainen pens contemporary Christian romance novels that always end with a happily ever after. By day, she partners with her lifelong mate Clyde, to run the family HVAC business. She manages both business and family life with four lovable but crazy kids. She is the Retreats Coordinator for My Book Therapy. She is represented by Rachelle Gardner with Books & Such Literary Management. Visit her at alenawendall.com.  

You Don’t Have To Do It Alone – Brainstorming Help!

As writer’s we are constantly learning new things to improve our craft. That being said, brainstorming is one of the harder aspects of the writing journey for me. It’s amazing, I can help other writers with plotting but when it comes to mine, I get stuck. I was astounded (and greatly relieved) to find out I could get help.

Last week I met with my craft buddies and we had a fantastic time brainstorming. Not only did we flesh out our next novel but Gabrielle Meyer was an awesome hostess. She planned the schedule and created the perfect atmosphere of brainstorming and relaxing. For the most part, we worked in the mornings and played in the afternoons. Listen, if I didn’t love where I lived, I would move to Little Falls Minnesota. Thank you Gabrielle!

If you want to brainstorm with a group, here are a few tips.

  1. Have Clear Expectations. Like anything else, you want to go into a project with clear expectations and communication.Time is precious and you want to maximize it.
  2. Set a schedule. You want to make sure everyone gets equal time. We scheduled about three hours per person to brainstorm.
  3. Voice Recorder. Utilize a voice recorder or the recorder on your smart phone. I promise you won’t be able to type notes quick enough. Ideas can come fast and furious and they can change just as quick. A recorder ensures that you catch it all.
  4. Be flexible. Remember, you are brainstorming with people who have different perspectives and experiences. Listen to the ideas; you never know what may come from it. One idea leads to another and before you know it you’ve hit upon something that works!
  5. Speak the same lingo. The group of people you brainstorm with should speak the same writing lingo as you. Translated? If you follow the Lindy Hop, then they should know exactly what that means. If they follow a three act structure, you should know what that means. It helps ensure all needs are met.

These are just a few benefits I receive from our craft group.

  • Perspective. Each person has different talents and experiences. In our group alone we have a copy editor, a journalist/reporter, a grant writer and a historian. Throw the four of us together and we came up with awesome goals, disappointments and absolutely awesome love stories to write.
  • Lindy Hop. We utilized the My Book Therapy’s framework to plot a book and we were able to walk away with our next story almost complete. After I get home I plug everything into an Excel chart and then review it with The Book Buddy. Use whatever works for you, but I’ve found these two tools help ensure I haven’t missed any key points in plotting.
  • Friendships. We’ve developed awesome friendships because of our common passion of Jesus and writing. What a blessing to call these ladies my friends.

What about you, what experiences have you had with brainstorming?

When Is It Time To Have A Craft Partner Review Your Manuscript?

I’m so thankful for friends like Beth Vogt and Edie Melson who took the time to answer my “newbie writer” questions on craft/critique partners.

Here’s the first question for this segment. Click the link if you want to watch it. Alena Blog segment 3.

(AAT) Now we’ve got this fast draft and we have a craft partner. We have an established relationship with a craft partner. When is a good time for someone to look at your work-in-progress?

(BKV) When I fast draft I usually like to set it aside for a couple of weeks. I’m usually worn out and it’s good to give distance for a couple of weeks. Then when I get together with my craft partner, I usually let them know what I’m looking for.

As far as I’m concerned there’s two ways to critique a book.

You can be looking for big picture edits. You just want to know; Is this scene working or are you feeling the emotions? Or you can be looking at fine-line edits, where you are really trying to polish a scene. You have to let your critique partner know what you are looking for. There have been times where I’ve gone into a critique group and said, “Your welcome to read this scene. I want you to know I’ve had a rough week, and I really don’t want feedback from you all.” I have been that honest with them, because I couldn’t even handle them telling me a word was misspelled. It was just that bad of a week. I think that in a really good critique group you can be that honest with them.  They’ve gone ahead and read it and said, “Loved every word of it Beth.” They just left me alone for that week.

(EM) I like to be able to brainstorm before I start a book and get things laid out. I generally have an idea and it sparks my creativity to do that. When I’m in a midst of a first draft, its not a time I want craft partners chiming in. I have to have a big picture of the whole book before I start listening to other people’s suggestion, even good suggestions. I need to get my arms around it first. I do what Beth does and let it sit for a couple of weeks before I go back in. Yes, there have been times where I’ve said. “Look guys, if you can’t say something nice don’t anything at all.

(AAT) Do you think you should have two partners, one person to help brainstorm your plot and someone to help with critiquing? What does your process look like?

(BKV) I’m and editor. Edie is an editor. Often when we think of critiquing, we are thinking of editing and were thinking of grammar, punctuation and spelling. Believe me that is an important part of polishing your manuscript. But quite honestly that is the final phase of editing your manuscript. It cannot be overlooked. If you are a lousy speller, find an editor. Make sure you hand that manuscript up. You can’t ignore that and say, “I’m a lousy speller.” You have to do everything you can to make your manuscript the best possible manuscript before you pitch it to an agent or turn it into a publisher.

There is more to a critique than grammar, punctuation and spelling. Like I said, it’s the final phase. There’s craft. One of the things Edie mentioned, it can be brainstorming. Walking in and saying, I’m stalled out on a scene. Help me figure this out or ask for some options on what can happen next. It could be, help me layer in the emotion, or I need a symbol for this scene. Just some of the things we talk about at My Book Therapy.

There are so many other things you can talk about with your craft partner besides spelling, punctuation and grammar. We have to remember that when we think about craft partners. When we talk about editing, what we are really talking about is helping one another as we re-write our manuscript.

(EM) I agree completely. I think it’s so important to make sure we are with a group or partner who comes from the same viewpoint. It would not do for me to find a fiction critique/craft partner who doesn’t understand the My Book Therapy lingo because that’s the way I put together a book. If I have to explain what I’m trying to say or try and define words, it wastes time. There are a lot of different ways to put together a book out there.  There is a lot of different verbiage to make a book come together well. I think it’s so important to pick your favorite language and find a group that speaks that language.

What makes your editing process goes smoothly?

What Happens When You Receive A Critique You Don’t Like?

Merry Christmas!

I don’t know if you’ve had time to work on your bestseller during this busy season, but I’m back with my two favorite editors with tips on navigating the sometime murky waters of critique/craft partners.

(AAT) What do you do when you receive a critique and it’s not what you want to see, read or hear?

(EM) Well, as far as you putting your feelings aside and you’re no longer sensitive? Twenty-three years into this and that has not happened yet. I’m still sensitive when it comes to my writing, no matter how hard I try. Anytime I receive suggestions, it has a sharp edge to it. Even though it’s not true, in my own mind, it feels like I’ve failed. One thing I‘ve learned for me, is I need to process. I’ve learned to tell my critique partners, I accept that, I think that’s a valuable comment. I’m going to have to go home and play with it and see how I feel about it. I can’t just immediately jump up and down and say “Oh goodie, you’ve made it better.” I have to say “thank you for the work you’ve done” and I have to go home and process. That’s the way it works for me personally because it always feels like I’ve failed.

(AAT) Beth, what about you?

(BKV) Becoming valuable, reliable, trustworthy critique/craft partners, takes time. I found in the beginning of the critique groups I was in, we were too nice to each other.  We weren’t giving each other valuable feedback. We were saying, “Oh love this, like that.” We were really wasting each other’s time. It actually takes a couple of months before you get comfortable enough to give each other valuable feedback. Once you’ve become established and comfortable and are able to say this is really what’s working and this is really what’s not working. Then you actually start growing as critique partners. Now you trust each other to say both what is working and what’s not working. It takes time to build trust between writers. Really the first couple of months of a new critique group, they don’t count. You are just developing a relationship with each other. When we brought a new member into our group, we let them know, we were an established writing group and we were going to treat them as a member who had been with us for a while. We were going to bring them right up to speed and give them a trial period, but were not going to necessarily be “polite” with them. This was a professional writer’s group and we were going to treat them as a professional and give constructive criticism. It wasn’t about being “polite.” That was something we developed over time. Edie, do you agree?

(EM) I definitely agree. It depends on the dynamic of the group. I have been in critique groups where the initial getting to know each other phase is more brutal than polite. I have also been in groups that have been established and done really well and suddenly it begins to go toxic. You either take steps to correct that or you need to get out while you still can. A toxic critique group can do a great deal of damage to your career and also to your own confidence level.

Thanks Beth and Edie. As always your insight is invaluable!

What steps have you taken upon receiving less than great critiques?