Friday, April 10, 2015

Writing Retreat: How to DIY

I think every writer has, at some point, maybe a point surrounded by dirty dishes and a whining toddler, wanted to get away on a writing retreat.  I find myself pining for a quiet cabin in some remote woods, surrounded by writers (at nice, comfortable distances from me and one another) who are as engrossed in their own words as I am, tapping away on keyboards and making notes in big, full notebooks.  Maybe we'd meet up for dinners and have long discussions during hikes in aforementioned remote woods.  Maybe we'd make new friends.  Maybe we'd learn new things.  Maybe we'd just get uninterrupted time to write until our fingers cramped up and refused to type another word.

Unfortunately, time and finances don't always allow for a writer to get away in order to submerge herself in a formal writers' retreat.  However, with a little creativity...

...Backstory.  My husband is a Navy Reservist.  He's gone at least one weekend a month and 4-6 weeks a year.  So I'm Mom in Charge at home a lot.  For weekends that, when he's home, we're splitting parenting duties and I can steal an hour or two to write.  So we agreed that, after a couple years of this action, I'd earned a weekend away.

I knew what I wanted to do.

Create my own writing retreat.

So I did--a couple weeks ago my Best Writing Friend and I took a weekend away to hide in the duneland near Lake Michigan and write.  And write.  And hike.  And write.

My DIY How-To

First:

Decide--go it alone, or find a friend/friends?  When I mentioned my plan to BWF, she was in in a heartbeat.  Here's the thing--we're both introverty types who can happily work side by side without feeling the need to talk.  We were both committed to lots of time writing, with some scheduled non-writing outdoors time and could agree on things like eating dinner out and then splitting a bottle of wine.  Sometimes your friends and your goals fit; sometimes they don't.  If they don't, it might be better to go it alone.

Second:

Find a location.  Home is unarguably the cheapest, but since mine is inhabited by a toddler, three needy cats, and a laundry list of chores (including laundry), it's also not the most suited to productivity.  Plus, for my BWF and I, we wanted to find a place that was between our houses.

Things that we looked for:

  • Quiet, with nearby natural awesomeness for hiking breaks.  We wanted to split our time between writing and recharging, so chose a location in the Lake Michigan Dunes area.
  • Lodging with places to write as well as, well, sleep.  This was harder than I had thought--I had planned to find a state park lodge, which tend to be inexpensive but full of public spaces so you're not stuck in your room if you want to write at the hotel.  They apparently don't exist in the area we wanted to go.  So we found an independent inn with a large two-story lobby, niches with chairs and tables around the place, and desks in the rooms.  Not perfect.  But better than it could have been.
  • Nearby town with restaurants and coffee shops.  We didn't want to go the "granola and cereal bars" route.  And though we did find a hotel with plenty of places to write, we both agreed that finding a coffee shop to camp out in was helpful.
Third:

Goals make you soar....like a juvenile bald eagle.
Awkward transition win.
Set on your goals and, ideally, set a schedule.  We were both starting new projects, and agreed that we would devote the mornings to writing only, would break for lunch and a hike, and then write more in the afternoons.

Don't underestimate break times--the recharge of getting out for a (longer than planned...we misread the  map) hike was much appreciated.  (Plus, we geeked out on nature-y things like a juvenile bald eagle, a tree that had been nommed on by a beaver, two sluggish young garter snakes, and wetland plants.) The point of a writing retreat isn't, in my view, just to get tons of words on paper, but to recharge and remind yourself why you love words on paper so much.  Burning yourself out won't lend itself well to that goal.

We agreed as well that evenings were for dinner out and girl time--talking over a bottle of wine about All The Things.  This might not be a consideration with people you don't know well, or if you're by yourself, but we both knew that we would want to spend some quality time talking, and setting aside that time kept us on track during the day.

Fourth:

Stick to it!  Make it happen!

Have you ever been to a formal writing retreat, or made one happen for yourself?

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A Book for Every Reader

I've been reading a lot about gender and books and who reads them and why that matters.

If you keep up on news, discussions, and general brouhahas in publishing, I'm guessing you have, too.

There was Shannon Hale told by a school she would present to girls only, since she had written "girl books."  Boys, head to they gym for the "other" activity.  Like when we watched the videos about getting our periods and they got the lecture about deodorant (or was that just my school?).

There was Andrew Smith answering a (pretty loaded) question about the lack of female engagement with his work and getting roundly slammed for his response.

There are fantastic overviews of the issues at hand.

I'm finding myself considering, not the context of society and sexism, but the context of my personal responsibility as a writer.  What audience, and what breadth of audience, am I as a writer obligated to write books for?

It's a personal question.  It's probably a question with as many answers as there are writers and readers and people with general opinions about words.  But I started thinking subtext when I thought about my responsibility as a writer.  There's a subtext to the Smith question--that his work *should* include more female characters and *should* appeal to female readers more.  That's a very different subtext than the Hale situation--that perhaps her books included elements that traditionally appeal to female readers, but male readers should not be barred from the experience.  In some responses, the sentiment seemed to veer even further--that they *should* read these books regardless of the outlook, correct or not, that they preferred books with a male POV.

In one, we seem to be asking an author to address how he writes.  In the other, we are asking an audience to change how they interact and encourage others to interact.

When it comes to gender representation (and other diversity aspects, frankly), which is the right approach?  Ask authors to create more inclusive work, or ask audiences to interact with books that are less inclusive of them?

I admit that the Smith situation was convicting to me, personally, in some ways.  Not that I write books that I think are exclusive of some groups--there are male and female, black and white, human and android characters, so I feel like I'm covering bases up to and including robots reading my work--but that *attempting* to be *as inclusive as possible* is not my goal.  I've written books that are more accessible to male readers--they include fewer fancy dresses and kisses stolen under moonlit arbors and more strategy and spaceships and saving the world.

Girls like that stuff, too. Maybe given the chance, boys would like stories about formal balls.  But I can't force that--I can write books.  I can write books that appeal to a broader audience--but do I cut out some audience in doing so?  I think we can accept the precept that some of the potential audience wants the traditionally "girly" romantic fantasy chockablock full of balls and beautiful gowns and told from a female POV.  Some of the potential audience wants action-driven books with male POVs and a focus on male camaraderie rather than male-female interaction, especially the interaction quite commonly known as "romance." ("Is this a kissing book?")  I'm reluctant to say that either desire is "wrong."

In fact, I'm reluctant to say that *any* preference in story-reading is "wrong."  I'm reluctant to say that authors must incorporate all potential audiences into their focus.  There is no single book that will draw every reader into its pages.  However, I am willing to say that authors should consider realms outside of their own experience to write from, including gender.  I won't demand that someone write both male and female POVs--but it seems to be just good craft to be able to incorporate believable and active characters of any gender identity.

Likewise, I won't demand that everyone read every book.  I won't ever expect the girl who loves princess stories to fall in love with space opera, and I won't demand that the boy who likes action-adventure settle in with The Princess Diaries, either.  But I do think it's time we stop telling kids what they *should* like.  Sending boys away while the girls talk about a "girly" book is as wrongheaded as demanding that the entire class like the "girly" book (note that "girly" is in moderately-sarcastic-quotes here).  And we have to acknowledge the power of the written word to not only reinforce and comfort--as turning to the books you love has a tendency to do--but to challenge and spark curiosity.  Boys, read the "girl" book.  Girls, read the "boy" book.  You might find something new to challenge your thinking.  You might find so much that's familiar that it challenges you even further.

So which is it, ask authors to change their writing, or ask audiences to change their reading?

Both, and neither.  Both should be considered, but neither enforced.  Write the book you want to write; read the book you want to read.  Don't stand in the way, overtly or in those quiet yet powerful messages, of letting others choose what they want to write and read.