Facets of a Muse

Examining the guiding genius of writers everywhere


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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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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!


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Gardens, retreats, and updates–oh my!

I add the new publishers from the second round of submissions to my list on the whiteboard in my writing office. I sense my Muse behind me, his energy radiating into me like a heater gone all psychic-creative vibes in place of warmth.

He settles beside me, his arm a solid line along my own. “What’s the tally, love?”

I add a footnote below the list and mark two entries with an asterisk. “Six passes, five radio-silent but could still be interested, and seven active.”

“What about these two?” He points to the marked entries.

“Those are ones who asked for the revised manuscript when my agent nudged them and offered it. So, crossing my fingers they’re still interested.”

“Hrrumph.” He rocks on his heels. “What does your agent think?”

“She thinks my latest revisions are good, and that might be the clincher.” Hoping. Searching for that damn leprechaun who’s supposed to grant wishes … wait, no, that’s a genie.

“So,” he slings an arm around my shoulders, “writing retreat to your dad’s this weekend.”

“And next weekend.”

He nods. “Does that mean you are going to stop procrastinating on that second draft you keep promising to work on?” His arm tightens around my shoulders.

Almost like a warning.

“Yes, after I get my promotional plan and three-to-five page synopsis done for my manuscript. One of the publishers my agent submitted to is asking for them.” I know he’s aware of that. I suspect he wants to remind me I’ve been dragging my feet and he’s done watching me do it.

Gulp.

“It’ll be a dreary weekend, and you’ll have all day Saturday to work. On writing,” he adds, an edge to his baritone voice. “Right, love?”

“That’s the point of going to my dad’s while he’s away. No distractions.”

“Uh-huh.” He squeezes my collarbone. Hard. “Just remember that.”

Er, o-kay. At least I managed to get the garden planted before the cool, rainy week set in. Needless to say, it’s been too wet to do much outside, although when I checked the garden last night between rainshowers my onions were still looking good. Whew! Those are the ones I worry about the most, because they’re just tender seedings about 5 inches high and about as thick around as the wire from a coat hangar. Once they’re strong enough to stand up, I can stop worrying about them.

No pics this week since it’s been so icky outside and the garden looks way too forlorn. I imagine by the time the rain finally stops and it dries out enough to work in the garden that the weeds will have a decent head start. Sigh.

Hey, since I’ve got you here, anyone know of any good blogs aimed at middle-grade readers or writers? One of my writing sisters is looking for opportunities to guest; her next middle-grade book is coming out this summer.

Enjoy your weekend–stay warm, stay dry, and WRITE!


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A Weekend with Writers

I hear the door to my room open. “What the–”

“Sorry, didn’t mean to wake you.” My Muse slumps into a chair in a corner of the room. He’s disheveled, and has a grass stain on a shoulder of his rugby shirt. His cargo shorts are wet on one side, and his tennis shoes look like he’s been slogging through puddles.

“I was already up. Where have you been?”

He pulls a flashlight from a pocket and sets it on the small table beside him. “Scavenger hunt.”

Okay, let me think about that for a minute. “Weren’t you out with the other Muses?”

He leans his head back. “Yep.”

“Sooo, how does scavenger hunt fit in? New drinking game?”

“Sort of. A couple Muses aren’t exactly beings, human or otherwise. Couldn’t include them unless we got creative.” He groans. “I’m getting too old for this.”

“You don’t get old. How did you come up with the scavenger hunt?”

“Well, one Muse is a library card catalog, and one is Nature. What else do you do?”

Good point. “Like beer pong? Every time you find a clue you get a drink?”

He nods. “Some of those gals are fast. It was like playing rugby.”

“Hence the grass stain and wet. And I’m sure it was torture to play ‘chase the treasure’ with those women. You’re the only male Muse in the group, aren’t you?”

He stretches, rubs his eyes. “C’mon, love, it’s too damn early for this. Let me rest.”

And so ends a glorious weekend with my Writing Sisters. This year we stayed at a bed and breakfast in a mansion. What a gorgeous house! And a lot of places we could gather in a group. We brainstormed, critiqued, caught up on news, and yes, enjoyed cheese, fine chocolate, and wine.

The local town Square (yes, an actual Towne Square) was about a mile walking distance from the B&B. Good food, reasonable prices, and they didn’t mind a group of 6 writers showing up without reservations.

Will we stay here again next year? Maybe. Or maybe we’ll try a different venue. In any case, we will get together again. We just have too much fun creating and conversing to stop our annual tradition. We’ve got a new writer in the group who fits in just fine, and by next year one of our other Sisters should be back in the Midwest.

If you’ve never experienced a weekend with other writers, try it. If you have a few writing friends you met online or at a conference, and you keep in touch, try gathering for a day or a weekend someplace–a B&B, a hotel with suites that have nice “living rooms”, or a convent or other retreat facility where you can gather together and work. I use the term “work”, because as writers, even brainstorming on tangents is considered working.

This weekend consisted of critiques, suggestions, and brainstorming plots for our writing mentor’s next Fudge Shop Mystery.

Today is our farewell until next time. Next time never seems to come soon enough!


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Anticipation

Can you believe we’re halfway through summer already? No, not the actual astronomical summer (you know, like the solstices and equinoxes), the school’s out summer.

We’re halfway through July. O. M. G.

I feel like I missed a big chunk of it so far. Wait, I did. Two weeks’ worth after my surgery. Not to mention all the other busy stuff.

Ack!

Finally got the weeding finished (and of course I need to start over, but I’m tired). Started picking zucchini and green beans. Mmm! Fresh green beans from the garden trump frozen every time. Canned beans don’t even come close. And it’s early enough in the season that zucchini actually sounds good. (Yep, just wait a couple weeks 😮 )

I’d post pics, but I haven’t taken any since I beat the weeds back. I’ll try to post some next week. The corn is tassling, so we should have some in a week or so. Raspberries are ripening, but it seems like they do an every-other-year thing. Last year we had a bumper crop. This year, not so much. I’m not picking wild black raspberries this season, either. I made a couple batches of jelly with what I had frozen from last year, so we should be good for a bit. Besides, I really don’t want to be lunch for mosquitoes.

Made it two-thirds of the way through revising my WIP, and I should be able to finish this weekend. Whew! I’m behind, and the two weeks I was out of commission didn’t help. Now that I’ve caught up on weeding for a minute, I’m focusing on finishing.

The best thing coming up? Nope, not my sister’s visit next week, though I am looking forward to it. Nope, not the pool party family gathering the weekend after.

*Drumroll*

My writing sisters reunion retreat! Three weeks. *happy dance* Not only do I get to spend a few days with some crazy creative writers and good friends, but I get to focus on writing. All weekend. This year we’re having a plotting weekend. So. Much. Fun. There’s nothing quite like getting a bunch of writers together and helping each other with plotting new stories. We throw so many wild ideas out there, the brainstorming wall needs cleaning a couple times a day.

I’ve made some writer friends in the blog-o-sphere, and I was thinking about what it would be like to spend a day with them talking about plots, writing, and all the fun stuff that goes with those creative processes. Man, I think it’d be a hoot! We’re scattered across the country, many countries, but wouldn’t that be cool?

My point is, if you can gather with a couple writer friends for a weekend, just a girls/guys weekend where you do nothing but talk writing, do it. If you know a writer who lives fairly close, meet at a halfway point. There’s an energy that surrounds us creative folks that just seems to multiply when we get together.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Wait. Almost forgot. I suppose you wanted an update on the orphans, right? Well, we found a new home for the pair. I put an ad in the local paper, and we got one call from a gentleman who wanted them both. He just got a kitten about the same age as the orphans, and wanted a buddy for him.

We dropped the kittens off last weekend. Now, before you worry about the sort of home our little foundlings are in now, let me tell you, we have no worries. The gentleman, in his late 70s or in his 80s, has a menagerie. Seriously. We drove up and saw a well-kept yard. Behind the house, a number of fenced areas housed chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese, peacocks, and at least one donkey.

This gentleman took the kittens from their box and cradled them in his arms before handing them off to a couple friends rocking on the porch, one petting the other kitten. An old collie kept an eye on everything.

Yep, I think they’ll like their new home.

Okay, you want a couple final doses of cuteness? Here you go.

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