Facets of a Muse

Examining the guiding genius of writers everywhere

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:


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!


Author: Julie Holmes, author

Pen names: J. M. Holmes, J. M. Goebel A fiction writer since elementary school (many years ago), and NaNoWriMo annual participant for a decade, I've been published in small press magazines such as "Fighting Chance" and "The Galactic Citizen". I write adult mystery with a touch of romance, mystery with extrasensory elements, contemporary fantasy, and epic fantasy, and I'm represented by the fabulous Cynthia Zigmund of Second City Publishing Services. In real life, I am a technical writer with a family of two teens, a wonderful hubby, one cat (what writer doesn't have cats??), two dogs, two chickens, and more chipmunks, squirrels, and rabbits than any garden should have to deal with. My garden, our hobby farm, and Nature's annual seasons are some of my muses.

15 thoughts on “Retreat Recap

  1. Julie, thank you for giving us this spirited and vividly painted post. I can almost see you all there, happy, eager, funloving…….and yes, hard working writers. What a great thing to do, I am sure more groups like this will be formed after this inspiring tale.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Miriam! I hope all writers get an opportunity to be involved in a group like ours–it’s a treasure. I feel incredibly fortunate to have crossed paths with all these wonderful writers. I do wish I lived closer to them, so we could meet monthly or ?, but our annual reunions are opportunities to refresh our bonds of friendship. And there’s always email, FB, and video chats. Much faster than snail mail! Have a great weekend!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sounds wonderful and productive, Julie. I love the energy that a group of writers brings to the work and wonder if “outsiders” find the thrilling enthusiam over characters and plots a bit overblown. If they do, they clearly don’t understand. So, you added a day. Next year you’ll add another day… then another… 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • LOL! I can’t imagine what other people think about the stuff writers discuss. In school I remember so many students hated English and dreaded writing papers of any kind; they probably get flashbacks of scrambling to finish a paper the day before it was due.

      At one point, one of the sisters mentioned a week of writing reunion. That was how we met, at a week-long writing retreat. We’ll start with one extra day and go from there 🙂 Have a great rest of your weekend, Diana!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Cannot believe school is about to start again! So much of my summer was wasted err… spent waiting to give birth. “What’s the story goal”? How does one answer that? It can’t just be to entertain? I’m intrigued by your mentor’s question. Oddly, I was wondering about your garden the other day! Why is it bad that the zukes and cukes got so big? Sorry about the tomatoes. Our oranges were being eaten out–as in eaten out. Most of peel intact, insides GONE. We think rats! Bleh!
    And, excuse me, cats? Chickens? You shouldn’t have let me see chicken pics. Now I’m demanding more! Almost as bad as your muse! Also, my husband is good at catching typos, but not too much about story element issues. My mother, on the other hand, is good for that. I need more than just her, however. Other betas I’ve had simply say “Love it!” Nice, but, not as helpful. 🙂 I need writing sisters! And chocolate. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Every time my mentor asks that, I ask the same question you did 🙂 And do you really want to see the jungle–er, garden? It’s truly a mess at this point. When zucchini and cukes get too big, the seeds are more mature. So, the seeds get hard, and the flesh around the seeds gets spongy (zucchini) or pulpy (cukes). Sure, I could use the bigger zucchini for zucchini bread, or stuffed zucchini, but my husband really doesn’t like me using the oven in the summer (we don’t have central air, so the window unit has to work double-special overtime, and then hubs complains I turned the oven on and heated the house up. It’s just easier not to go there). In the past I’ve grated and then froze zucchini to use later in the fall and winter, but that tends to migrate to the bottom of the chest freezer. Besides, I’ve got pumpkin in the freezer for pumpkin bread first.

      LOL! Okay, I’ll post chicken and cat pics. We lost another chicken yesterday–dumb-ass chickens think they’re hot-shit when they fly over the fence. Then the dog finds them. We’re down to four chickens now. And hubs moved Zoey’s fave chilling spot, so I’ll have to catch her doing something else (probably sleeping. She does that a lot).

      Good beta readers are hard to find. I got really lucky with the ones for my manuscript. They gave me wonderful feedback, like “how can you throw a body in a lake in MN in the wintertime? Aren’t the lakes frozen?” Head-slap! DUH! But I missed it through 5 drafts. Ugh. Let me know if you need a beta reader–I’d be happy to help. 🙂


      • So what does your mentor say when you respond with that obvious response? That’s not a good enough answer?

        You certainly know your veggies. Good for you. I know what you mean about not baking in summer (same) and having veg for bread in the freezer. I’ve had pumpkin in the bottom of the freezer since probably November or October.

        Sorry about the dumb chickens. Good news for the dog, I guess.

        My gosh–you mean it? I wasn’t trying to goad you into volunteering, honest! That’s a big undertaking. I’m still working on those edits for the agent, but I will certainly keep that in mind. Thanks. I’d happily read yours, but a) you don’t need me, and b) that feels like cheating because then I wouldn’t have to buy it when it comes out, but I certainly want to buy it and support you (and leave a good review on amazon. Though I could do the review either way.)

        Liked by 1 person

      • Well, I always say the goal is to solve the murder (because, you know, mysteries and such). Then the question is, what does the character want? It makes you really think about the story and where the character arcs are going. As long as she doesn’t ask me about themes, I’m good 🙂

        And yes, I mean it. 😀


      • Awh, that is a good answer. And I can see how it would make you think. I like it!
        And, great! I may utilize your superior writing knowledge one day soon!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Can I email you the first chapter? Send me your address to parentingisfunny@gmail.com?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Your reading will help me stay on track to keep revising and staying ahead of you! Thanks for the added motivation!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I can’t believe summer is almost over. When did that happen?

    The writing retreat sounds productive and wonderful with a lot of fun tossed in. Feedback from others, especially those you can trust, is a huge plus. Weird that you should mention their reactions to your MC. I’m struggling with some of that in my current WIP, thinking readers need a stronger connection to my MC. It’s the first time I’ve ever felt this way about one of my characters and it’s an eye-opener. Now if I could just find a writing retreat, LOL.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know, right? We’re halfway through August–AUGUST–already. My son is moving back into the dorm this year for college, so he’s moving in on Wednesday. Classes start next week for him. And Labor Day is in what, 3 weeks? Man, time flies!

      I’m working with my character to give her more personality and a better connection to the reader. Seems like it should be pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? 🙂 I think part of it is not wanting my MCs to all seem like they’re the same. I mean, they sort of are because they’re all strong female characters, but they still have to be different. You know what I mean. 🙂

      Have a great week, Mae!

      Liked by 1 person

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