Facets of a Muse

Examining the guiding genius of writers everywhere


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A gathering of muses

A newspaper lays across my desk in my writing office, but it isn’t any newspaper I recognize. It’s not the local Enterprise or Hub. It’s called the Inspiration. The headline reads: “First Annual Muse Gathering”.

Hmmm. Why do I have a funny feeling about this?

Before I can read the article, my Muse sweeps into the office and swipes the paper from my hands. “Hey, I was reading that.”

He folds the newpaper and tucks it under his arm. “Don’t bother. It’s boring.”

Then I notice his attire. No worn jeans here–the ones he’s wearing look like they came fresh from the indigo dye factory. And is that a silk shirt? It’s a rich maroon that adds a little color to his complexion–not that I’m complaining. Oh, no. Sooo not complaining.

“Ah hem. Earth to Julie.”

Ahhh, yeah. “Where are you going? Is that really a silk shirt?”

“I’m going out. Mr. E is picking me up.” He points to my laptop with the paper. “And while I’m out, I want you to write.”

“Out? With Mr. E? Mae’s on a deadline. How can Mr. E go on a pub crawl? And you never dress like that for a pub crawl. What kind of pubs are you planning to hit?”

He waves the paper in my direction. “Doesn’t matter, love. You need to write. You’re falling behind.”

I snatch the paper from him and zero in on the front page. “Are you kidding me? Since when do you guys all get together in the same place?”

He swipes the paper from me and points to the headline. “Since now. See. First.”

“So who else is going on this muse party bus? And do you really think a silk shirt is a good idea?”

“There’s no smoking in pubs anymore, love. Not here, anyway. There’ll be a half dozen of us or so. D’s mercenary muse, A’s Moka and her cousin, G’s muse“–he counts off on his fingers–“she’s pretty broken up, but she’s going even though her ex will be there. P’s muse, muse Brad, and C’s muse Lorelei said she might meet us. She’s looking for a new pumpkin beer for her author.”

Man, there’ve been a lot of muses showing up in the blog-o-sphere lately. “So, the fancy clothes are for what? Planning to sweet-talk some Moka?”

He wraps an arm around my shoulders. “No worries, love. I’ll be back before last call.” He plants a kiss on my forehead. “But you are cute when you’re jealous.”

I shove him away. “I’m not jealous. They’re muses.”

He chuckles and tosses the paper onto my desk before heading to the door. “I want to see words, love.” He points to my laptop. “Get to it.”

Ugh. He’s right. Real life’s been invading my writing brain. School starts for my daughter on Monday, and the new/remodeled school isn’t nearly ready. Hey, hang on. That coiled bullwhip wasn’t on my chair before.

Okay, I can take a hint. He’s out whooping things up, and I’m here. Well, at least I’ve got some craft beer and chocolate. That should last me for a while.

Happy writing!

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Get ready … get set … Re-draft!

I’ve made up my mind. I’m going to challenge myself to a self-imposed NaNoWriMo (50k words in 30 days) this month (yes, I know the “official” NaNo month is November, but I need to get my butt in gear NOW). I’ve learned the best way for me to get a draft done (at least at this point in my writing journey) is to do a NaNo. I’ve got an Excel spreadsheet for daily word counts and everything!

I’ve been procrastinating long enough. Technically, this WIP isn’t even a new project; I wrote it the first time during another self-imposed NaNo this past March. So, even though technically this isn’t a first draft, I’ve made enough changes to the plot that I may as well start over.

That’s another thing I’ve learned: the process of drafting–writing with a muzzle on my internal editor–helps me work out the plot. Or work out the kinks in the plot. Or see what’s wrong with the plot. All of the above.

So, I’ve brainstormed changes to the plot, and of course I won’t know if those will work until I actually start drafting. Or is it re-drafting? For my past few projects, I’ve ended up writing two “first drafts”: one that helps me see what works and what doesn’t in the original plot, and one that takes those discoveries and uses them to build from scratch again.

It’d be like drawing out plans for a shed or tiny house you want to use as a writing space, like a detached writing office. You dream up the perfect size, imagine it in the perfect location, then get out the ol’ ruler and graph paper to draw it out. Maybe even use cutouts of a desk, chair, shelves, dog bed, cat pillow, whatever. You figure out how much wood you’ll need, pick out paint and siding and even a cool window or two.

Let’s assume you’re handy enough to give it a good go. So you start framing your spiffy new writer cave according to your hand-drawn plan. The floor is the easy part–it’s a rectangle. Can’t get much simpler than that.

Okay. You’ve got your base floor done, so now for the walls. Once you’ve got the framing finished, you can see the skeleton of your project. With the walls up, you can start to see how it’ll look.

Now finish the walls, put on the roof (not shingles yet), and cut holes in the walls for the windows. You’ve got plywood on the outside, sheathing on the roof, and places to put windows.

Wait. That’s one’s not quite in the right spot. Hmm. Don’t forget to measure how far over you moved the door. And make sure to check the angle of the roof–you don’t want it to leak.

Er. Yeah. Hmm. Looks kinda wonky. That wall’s not quite square. And oops, the roof angle is wrong. All wrong. You’ll have to pull that off and redo it. And that window’s in the wrong spot–you’ll have to take that wall down and redo it. Oh, but that means the desk won’t be able to go where you wanted, you’ll have to shift it over. Wait, then the built-in shelves will have to be shorter. Oh, and a skylight. That’d be awesome.

Ugh. So you go back to your plans, erase and redraw to take into account what you’ve learned the first round. Then, you disassemble everything except the floor. Wait, gotta do that too–it needs to be six inches wider.

And so you start over. Re-draft. Except now when you get to the point where all the walls are up, the roof is sheathed, and the windows are cut, it looks much better. Oh, and don’t forget the skylight. Wait, maybe not a skylight.

Once it’s “drafted”, you can refine it, paint it, add shingles, a nice door, lights, etc. Eventually, you’ll have a nice little writing cave.

Kinda like the writing process. First plan, then draft. Then maybe you can work with the draft, but maybe it makes more sense to start over. Or take it down to the floor and try again, because you figured out what doesn’t work.

It’s a process, and each time I use it, I learn a little more about what works for me. Each time I try something a little bit different to see if it makes the process more effective.

Anyway. Enjoy the last hurrah of summer vacation this weekend. I’ll be writing. Will you?


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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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Rural Retreat

Raucous laughter echoes off the high ceilings in the room we’re gathered in, my writing sisters and I. We’re staying in an old farmhouse that’s been transformed into a B&B. The house is over a hundred years old, and housed four generations of family farmers. There are barns, sheds, a river, and a prairie labyrinth, which we explored before heading into town for a magnificent meal at a local inn.

My Muse appears in a doorway behind our meeting area, wearing a faded t-shirt, worn jeans with a tear above a knee, and a green baseball cap with a yellow leaping deer silhouette. With a fishing pole in one hand and a cooler in the other, he tips his head, a silent request for a quick word.

“Excuse me, gals, but I’ve got to get more water.” I sidle out of my corner seat past a couple of my sisters and head toward the room where our hosts have put a pitcher of ice water, brushing past my Muse.

He follows me. Once we’re out of sight and earshot, I turn to him. “What’s up? We’re talking about writing. You can sit with us in here.”

“I know, love.” He gestures at the view of the river out the wide picture window. “I’m going to hang out there for a while. Might catch something.”

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I indicate the cooler. “Like what? A six-pack?”

He gives me his lopsided grin, the one that makes it feel like the room temperature rose just a bit. “Maybe. Or maybe I’ll catch one of those wide-mouthed bass the innkeeper talked about.”

“And then what? Fry it up for supper?”

“Maybe.”

I fill my water glass. “And you felt it necessary to tell me this why?” As if I wouldn’t be able to find him when I need him. He never strays very far when we have a reunion; too much creative energy invoked, and the other muses are around. Besides, I was in the middle of a great discussion with my sisters.

“Well,” he says as he points his rod toward the river and the fallen tree conveniently located for hanging out, “there’s enough room for two on that tree. You know, in case you want to bounce ideas around.”

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The tree is inviting, especially the way it hangs over the river. It has a thick coat of moss that looks more comfortable than sitting on bark. There’s a gazebo on the shore as well, though I imagine the mosquitoes have set up a base camp there. “I think I’ll check the tree out later, after it warms up. We’ll probably sit out in the gazebo for a bit, but there’s only six chairs–we’ll have to bring another one out.”

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He nods. “I’ll be there.”

We’ve had the fortune of staying at some wonderful places over the past few years, each with its own charm. Last year our stay at a mansion was wonderful due to a comfortable area to gather, a location within walking distance of downtown, and a patio overlooking a neat yard. This year, our B&B is on a former farm, complete with restored prairie and a river lending its name to the location. The tiny village of Rural, where our B&B is located, is tucked into a wooded area that feels more park than town.

The weekend, as usual, is proving to be a great meeting of creative minds. We’ll work all day today, with breaks to enjoy the locale–and we’re looking forward to testing out the gazebo. Not keen on the mosquito squadrons, but maybe we’ll get lucky and there won’t be many (pfft, yeah, right).

Tomorrow is our final day, when we’ll wrap up the weekend and bid each other “write-well”. Even if we don’t get any actual writing done. we’ll discuss our projects, work through ideas, offer suggestions, and just enjoy being a group of writers “talking shop”.

Enjoy your weekend–I know I will!


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So, what do writers do when they gather

Less than a week to go before I reunite with my spectacular writing sisters–yippee! (if I was more “hip”, I’d have a meme here with the Pointer Sisters and “I’m So Excited”)

I’ve talked about my writing sisters before, but you might wonder: just what do these seven women do when they get together? Come to think of it, when I mentioned to a colleague what I’m doing next weekend, he asked me what we did. What do writers do when they get together? It’s not like heading to the lake for a weekend of fishing and grilling and water-skiing.

Well, right, it isn’t. For someone who doesn’t know writers, they might think of a beatnik coffee house, where they take turns wearing a black beret and reading poetry to the whispering beat of a snare drum.

Give me a minute while I laugh hysterically.

Okay, *wipes tears and catches breath* Now I’ll tell you what a group of writers really does.

Keep in mind our writing group is close-knit; we aren’t the writing group that meets once a month to critique a few pages, and maybe drink tea and keep the bakery in business with consumption of Danishes and biscotti. We’re more like, um, a writer’s version of sorority sisters.

Yes, really.

We usually meet up for lunch on Friday, and spend an hour or more catching up on the past year. Then we take over a bed and breakfast; there are enough of us that we reserve the whole house. Once we’re settled, we gather to review the pages we’ve sent around to the group.

We don’t usually break out the wine and chocolate until later 😀  We head out for a late supper; if our B&B is in town, we enjoy a walk to a local eatery. We usually don’t work much after supper, but we will continue earlier discussions. And wine and chocolate.

Saturday is our working day. After a good breakfast, we gather together and go through the discussion topics we’ve agreed on. Our mentor has been teaching for many years, and is a wonderful facilitator. We break for lunch, then get back to it in the afternoon.

We usually take an hour or so for our own projects around supper time. After that, we’ll finish up earlier topics, and work on odds and ends. And wine and chocolate.

Sunday is our last day, and we’ll work for a few hours before we need to check out of the B&B. After fond farewells, we part for another year, in contact through email, video chats, and FB.

If this sounds a little dull, well, trust me, we’re a spunky group. I mean, what would you think if you heard a group of women talking about the best ways to kill someone and dispose of the body? Or whether college friends would trust each other with a secret that could send one or more of them to jail. Add a little chocolate and wine, toss in a healthy dose of creative energy along with our muses (and yes, my Muse does his share of instigating antics), and you’ve got a helluva fun (and productive) weekend.

So, whenever someone suggests writers are boring, I scoff. They’ve never met my Writing Sisters 😀 I’ve got some pages to read yet, then critiques to do before next weekend, so I’ll sign off.

Enjoy your weekend, and write!


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Changing direction

I move another publisher to the Pass list on the whiteboard in my writing office, transfer most of the publishers on the Active to the Inactive one per my agent, and add the latest three publishers to the Active roster before I return to my desk.

I’ve made up my mind. I close the document I’ve been staring at for the past, gads, a long while. I’ve got my first twenty pages about ready to send around to my writing sisters before our reunion, but I’ve been spinning my wheels on that story for a while now. Probably far too long. st-paul-saints-logo

The door to my writing office swings open. My Muse shakes his head and nudges the door closed behind him. He’s wearing a Minnesota Twins jersey with a St. Paul Saints hat, and faded jeans with a suspicious mustard-colored stain on one leg. “What are you doing, love?”

twins-logoSomehow his Australian accent clashes with the baseball theme he’s got going. “Trying to write.” I think it is mustard. “Who’d you go out to the ball game with this time?”

“Casey Jones.”

“Pfft. Yeah, right.”

He settles on the corner of my desk. I can smell the stale beer now. And there’s another stain, this one an unnatural orange only seen in artificial cheese sauces. “I mean, what are you doing?” He turns my computer towards him. “I thought you said you were writing. I don’t see any writing going on.”

“There hasn’t been any writing going on for a while now, of which you are fully aware.” I open another document, this one a small-town mystery I set aside when I decided to start the book to follow the one my agent is shopping. “So, I’m shifting gears.”

He lifts his hat, scratches disheveled hair that needs a trim, then settles the ball cap again. He stands. “C’mon.”

“What do you mean, ‘come on’?”

He sighs, waves his hand in a “follow me” gesture, and crosses the office to the back door. “Just what I said.” The view outside the windows shifts to a thick temperate forest complete with wildflowers brightening the undergrowth. “You coming?”

Sure. It’s not like I’m busy trying to write or anything. I follow my Muse through a clearing to the rock-strewn shore of a lake surrounded by the dense forest. Two Adirondack chairs are planted side-by-side in a sandy section of the shoreline out of the reach of gentle waves. There’s not enough sand to call it a nice beach, but just enough to allow wading into the water.

7a5181b6b751442d0864fa6d969db94aHe drops into one of the chairs and leans back, hands behind his head, long legs stretched out in front of him. I settle into the other chair. I’m starting to think this might be some sort of sneaky Muse trick.

“No, it’s not a trick. And trust me, love, if I wanted to be sneaky, you’d never see it coming.”

I hate it when he does that. “So glad my private thoughts are up for grabs. Stop it.”

He chuckles and offers a charming lopsided grin. “You know I won’t. You’re just too damn entertaining.”

“Glad you’re enjoying yourself,” I grumble. “Why are we out here?”

“You need to figure out what you’re going to do. You need 20 pages to send to your writing sisters. The question is, what project are you going to focus on?”

I slump back in the chair. “I’m going back to the small-town mystery.”

“But?” he prompts.

Arrgh. “But I’ve been thinking about doing some flash fiction or short stories.”

“Pick one or the other, love. Your book or shorts.”

“Other writers can work on a novel and a short story at the same time.”

He picks up a small stone and tosses it into the lake. Concentric circles ripple across the smooth surface. “Other writers who do that don’t have a full-time job, a big vegetable garden, and kids at home for the summer. Or a lack of focus.” With the last, he pokes my temple with a finger to emphasize each word. “You, on the other hand, have all of the above, with a big gold star for the last one.”

“Who did you really go to the game with? Gandhi? Sun Tzu? Jung? You’re getting a little philosophical. It’s kinda scary.”

“Would you rather have the Indiana Jones fedora and bullwhip? I can still go there.”indianna-jones-hat-whip

Hmm. He looks damn good as an adventuring archaeologist.

“I heard that, love. I’m flattered.”

“Stop eavesdropping.”

“Comes with the job.” He stands, hands on hips. “Stand up.”

I consider ignoring him, but I decide to acquiesce to his request (can you tell I’ve recently watched Pirates of the Caribbean?). I stand.

He points to his face. “Look here.”

No reason to refuse that one. I comply, noting his 5 o’clock shadow.

“Focus.” He lifts a finger between us. “Right here.”

I’d much rather focus on something more interesting, like that dimple in his cheek.

“And that’s why you’re having trouble.” He grabs my shoulder and squeezes. Hard. “You will sit at your desk and write.” He pushes me ahead of him toward the office. “I’m going to block the wireless signal until you get your twenty pages figured out. No internet, no research, no email.”

“But–”

“‘But’ nothing, love. I’m trying nice but firm. And I’ve got some Moon Man and Ghirardelli chocolate for you when you’ve gotten that finished.”

“Are you bribing me?”

“Yes.”

I’ve got until next weekend to get my twenty pages dusted off and polished up before I have to send them off to the group. And my Muse is right, I’m having a hell of a time focusing lately. Maybe that was because of my uncertainty with the new project. Anyway, back to an old “new” project.

Have a great weekend, stay cool, and WRITE!


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The countdown begins

The calendar says July. Seriously? What happened to June? In a week, the summer will be half over.

If we’re into July, that means the reunion with my Writing Sisters is coming up. I can’t wait!

Wait, I’ve got to get 20 pages ready to send around before the reunion. Hoo boy.

One of my fellow bloggers asked about my writing sisters (B, has the baby arrived yet?), and I’ve mentioned them before, so I’ll give y’all a brief history of my fantabulous WS and some ideas on how you can find your own awesome writing group.

It was a dark and stormy night… Er, wait, wrong story. Give me a minute *shuffles papers* Here it is.

It was June, 2012. I’d learned (through my Writers’ Digest subscription, I think) about a writing retreat in Madison, WI, a six-and-a-half hour drive–super close when considering most writing retreats are in the Pacific Northwest, or out East, or someplace like Italy or Iceland (that one’s on my wish list 😀 ). I was at the point in my writing journey where I felt ready for something intense, like a week of writing by a lake. I’d heard wonderful things about the novel Master Class at Write-By-The-Lake, so I closed my eyes and jumped in.

There were only six slots, and the instructor had to accept you. Gulp. She did (woo-hoo!). We started slow, as people do when meeting strangers for the first time, and especially when we’re all writers, and the point of the class is to critique each other’s work so we could improve it.

We had different genres (YA, mystery, women’s historical, SF/dystopian), and had taken different journeys to get to where we were. But we clicked. And to seal the deal, one of our classmates invited us over for dinner one evening.

The Writing Sisters were born. Not with the name, not yet, but we had a bond. We had stories to share. And we had fellow writers to encourage us, critique our work, and offer ideas.

After our week was up, we kept in touch. We reunited the following spring at the Writers’ Institute in Madison. And afterward, we started our annual reunion tradition. Every year since that week of writing by the lake we’ve gotten together, even if some couldn’t make it. We’ve had sisters move away and return. We’ve adopted a new sister who fits into the group like she was in our Master Class with the rest of us.

Of the seven of us (not counting our mentor), three have published novels (two through publishing houses, one self-published), one has an agent shopping a manuscript, and three are within spitting distance of getting books published. Our beloved mentor continues to guide us, challenge us, and encourage us.

We’ve become more than a writing group. We’ve become good friends.

I promised some ideas on how you can try to find your own “writing sisters” (or brothers, or whatever). The most important step (in my opinion) is to get out of the house (yes, I know we’re all introverts, but you can do it). Go to conferences, classes, or writing retreats. Meet other writers face to face. Talk to them (Yes, I know, the whole introvert thing. Take a deep breath and do it anyway. They’re just as anxious about it as you are.). You can meet other writers to bond with online, but somehow meeting in person seems more “real”.

You won’t always “click” with the writers you meet. In fact, you might cross paths with some you can’t stand to be around. The important thing is to try. Be open and welcoming.

Regular writers’ groups are a good place to meet other writers, but sometimes there isn’t a group near you that “feels” comfortable. I highly recommend going to writing conferences. They are great opportunities not only to learn more about the craft, but also to spend more than an hour or two with fellow writers. Often there are critique group sign-ups with the added benefit of meeting other writers who may end up in your group.

If you can attend a writing retreat, do it. Not only for the time you can focus on actual writing, but for the time you will spend with other writers. A learning/teaching retreat, as opposed to one that offers only time and space to write, encourages you to get to know fellow writers and get a “feel” for how you get along.

At some point, you will run across other writers you can form bonds with. It might be just one or two, or it might be half a dozen. You might meet in real life at the local coffee shop, or you might never see each other in the flesh. In any case, finding one or more writers you can collaborate with, bounce ideas off of, or learn from is valuable.

Another weekend of butt-in-chair-staring-at-the-computer-screen. I think I’ve got a few things figured out, though, so I’m hoping–no, planning more productivity this weekend than I’ve had lately. Bonus: the kids are staying with my SIL until Sunday night. Woo-hoo!

Have a great weekend, and WRITE!