Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Writing Retreats: What To Expect

Relaxing Writing
This past weekend I had my first opportunity to attend a writing retreat (Let me just say, it was awesome). So while I'm not a complete expert with how writing retreats operate, I want to point out several things that this one did right and the most important thing to expect.

Lots of Space
The retreat I attended was hosted in a cabin near Sundance, Utah. It was scheduled to run Thursday night through Monday night, with attendees coming and going as time allowed.

Now, the first time I went up there I was thinking:
Cab-in [kab-in]: noun: a small house or cottage, usually of simple design
But this cabin was huge with an enormous amount of rooms. Bedrooms, bathrooms, game room, dining room, sitting room(s), and conversation pit. Fireplaces were everywhere and massive windows looked out at stunning mountain views. So yes, it was an awesome cabin, but for hosting a writing retreat it was absolutely ideal.

Why? Because if you got tired of sitting in one area, you could get up and move to a different area.

What I discovered was that after writing in one place for several hours, I would get tired and need a stretch. So I would walk around for a bit, have some munchies, take some photos, and sit down somewhere else like I'd never written at all that day. Sure some people wrote in one chair all day, but my mind needs variety so I moved around.

What this retreat offered was the opportunity to do both.

Rob Wells discusses the writing life
I can sit and write for only so long. What I loved about this retreat was that once or twice a day there were presentations on various topics, several by published authors.

For instance, author Robison Wells talked to us about the lessons he's learned about writing. Then he did a second presentation on plot structure. Later that night, author Mette Ivy Harrison did an excellent presentation on dialog. And not to be missed were other presentations on writing Flash and Core fighting scenes, and interrogation techniques.

While presentations are probably not critical to a retreat's success, these stimulated our minds and gave us opportunities to add new tools to our writing toolboxes.
Shooting pool between sprints

As I said in the presentation section, you can only write for so long before you need a break. Board and card games were on hand to vent a little after a serious writing binge. What was more, the cabin I was at, had a game room complete with pool & foosball tables.

What To Expect
You should come prepared to work.

I know that may seem common sense, but a few people moaned that they were bored this weekend. While there may be fun moments at a retreat, your purpose there is to nail down your word count, not be entertained.

So I'm suggesting a list of etiquette rules for writing retreats:
  1. Don't interrupt a room full of writers, who are writing, with mundane questions or comments
  2. If you are not writing and everyone else is, be considerate and keep quiet
  3. If there is a presentation, show some respect and attend it--unless you are actually writing
  4. If there is a presentation, don't hijack it even if you do know more about the topic than the presenter--at the very least, save your comments for the end
  5. Respect your host's house--treat it better than your own
  6. Get to know your fellow writers and ask them about their work
  7. Nailing Down The Word Count
  8. Respect the personal space of others
Now as far as what you should take with you:
  • Pajamas/sleep attire (nobody wants you going commando)
  • Toiletries (don't expect your host to provide you everything)
  • Books, iPod, games (just in case)
  • Writing materials
  • Retreat goal (to keep you on task)
  • Food budget or food
  • Spending cash (just in case)
Other Retreats
So what retreats have you attended? What aspects of the retreat did you enjoy most? What did your hosts do differently that made the retreat a success?

Monday, March 11, 2013

Same But Different: Serial Killers

I've been perusing Save The Cat! again and was thinking about Chapter Two: Give Me The Same Thing... Only Different. To sum it up, Blake Snyder talks about how movie execs (and I'm sure publishers are the same) want to classify each script/story so they know how to market it.

As it turns out, I'm a thriller fan and I likes me a good serial killer / vigilante story. With the current popularity of Showtime's, Dexter, serial vigilantes seem to be all the rage. But Jeff Lindsay wasn't the first to cash in on this trope. From Robin Hood to Batman, authors have been handing out justice to those who escape the criminal justice system for centuries. So, in the spirit of 'Give Me The Same Thing... Only Different,' let's look at Dexter and two other serial killers / vigilantes in current 'literature' and see how I think they differ.
Darkly Dreaming Dexter (Dexter Series #1)
Buy it @ Barnes & Noble
Dexter Morgan
First Appearance: Darkly Dreaming Dexter, 2004
Gainfully Employed: Yes - forensic blood spatter analyst
Kept in Control By: Adoptive Father's moral code
Modus Operandi: Stalk victim for weeks to ascertain guilt, then kidnap victim and take them to prepared kill site. The kill site is prepared with plastic tarps to catch blood splatter because blood is 'dirty/disgusting.' After collecting a blood sample trophy on a microscope slide, Dexter confronts the victim with their crimes, usually including photographic or physical evidence (at one kill site, Dexter had dug up all the victims of a priest and displayed them). Once Dexter's victims know why they're going to die, he begins... cutting.
Driving Force: Dexter feels he has an entity living inside him, which he refers to as The Dark Passenger. When a 'guilty' person outside the law is found, he lets the Dark Passenger take control of the confrontation.
Movie Type: Superhero
Florida Roadkill (Serge Storms Series #1)
Buy it @ Barnes & Noble
Serge A. Storms
First Appearance: Florida Roadkill,1999
Gainfully Employed: No - Con man
Kept in Control By: Serge has several psychological disorders and is manic and obsessive. He has drugs to keep him 'normal,' but doesn't like taking them. For the most part, he is extremely likable, only launching into a homicidal rage when his sense of justice is triggered.
Modus Operandi: Serge's victims are always guilty of hurting someone or making Florida look bad. He considers himself an expert of Floridian history and culture and despises anyone who offends his great state. When his victims are chosen, he dispatches them in a wide variety of James Bond-type death traps. Others he kills outright, although creatively. For instance, in Torpedo Juice (2005), Serge forces his first victim to swallow multiple bullets, then puts him into the magnetic field of an MRI. The police are baffled after finding a body with six exit wounds, but no entry wounds.
Driving Force: Sense of Justice
Movie Type: Buddy Love
I Am Not a Serial Killer (John Cleaver Series #1)
Buy it @ Barnes & Noble
John Wayne Cleaver
First Appearance: I Am Not A Serial Killer, 2009
Gainfully Employed: Yes - Funeral Home Assistant / Embalmer
Kept in Control By: John is a teenager in high school and is fascinated by serial killers and corpses. Thanks to his embalming job, he has an outlet for some of his... exploration. Coupled with a series of rules meant to interrupt his compulsive urge to kill, John has been successful in restraining himself.
Modus Operandi: John spends most of his time avoiding situations that would encourage his urge to kill. Events have led him to actually kill individuals, but because his intended victims were hunting humans, he felt that the Rules could be overlooked in their case. As a result, he turns himself loose to hunt the murderers.
Driving Force: Obsessive Compulsive
Movie Type: Monster In The House
Breaking the Mold
Notice anything different? Everything! Well, okay, all three are vigilantes that only kill the deserving, but everything else about them is different. Each character would enjoy the quality of the others work, but really, each series is the same, but different. Each even has a different feel. For instance:
Dexter Morgan - Light with comedy as Dexter fails to understand humans and fights to blend in. High levels of suspense as he stalks and confronts his victims. Extreme tension when the Dark Passenger is loose.
Serge Storms - High comedy with light suspense. As a manic, Serge is incredibly upbeat and enjoys his life. He's always exploring or trying something new and dragging anyone along (even the unwilling) for the trip. His death traps are usually so fascinating it's fun to watch.
John Cleaver - Like a Young Adult (YA) version of Dexter and sold with both YA and Adult books. Some light comedy, but great tension/suspense for the YA crowd to cut their teeth on.
Anything Different Is Good
So, writers, check out the listed tropes in Chapter 2 of Save The Cat! and ask yourself how your work will be classified and how you're changing the norm. The rest of you, think about what genres you like and what authors do to frame the same theme differently.

If you're looking for more information about serial killers, I recommend:
Howdunit: How Crimes Are Committed and Solved
Murder: A Writer's Guide to Homicide
Buy it @ B & N
Murder One: A Writer's Guide to Homicide
Howdunit: How Crimes Are Committed and Solved
Buy it @ B & N

Monday, March 4, 2013

Using Your Pain

Recently I came out of the closet to my family. Err... not that closet. I mean, I AM fabulous and all that, but I love my wife and my closet has 'Insanity' written on it in permanent marker with big scratchy letters.

Note: This post is going to go a bit long, so if you want avoid my mental issues leading up to my writing comments, skip down to my writing tips at the bottom.

A Little History
Over the last couple years, I've had a growing sense of impending doom. There wasn't anything that was going wrong, and yet, something was very wrong. I tried to figure out what I was worrying about, but nothing was there. The feelings worsened and I settled into a depression. I got on medication that sorta helped.

Then Christmas of 2012 happened.

Or rather, Christmas was grand, but after Christmas I ran out of my medication. I needed a refill, but first I needed to talk to my doctor about possibly upgrading my dosage. Unfortunately, because of the hustle and bustle from Christmas and New Year's Eve, I waited to get an appointment and was far over the edge before I got to my doctor.

By this time, my mind felt like it was unraveling. I was having crying spells where I would breakdown and cry for no good reason. I was afraid to get out of bed and just wanted to sleep all the time. Going to work was impressively hard, since a job brings its own added stress. With a series of illnesses, my world folded in.

During the build-up to this collapse, I listened to an episode of the Writing Snippets podcast where they interviewed author Robison Wells. Robison is very outspoken about his own struggles with mental health and as he talked, I recognized a lot of similar situations that I was experiencing. I learned two things:
  1. I'm not alone
  2. I needed professional help
But recognizing these things didn't bring me any comfort, because by this point, I couldn't even pick up the phone to call my family, let alone my doctor.

Denial - Not Just a River in Egypt
I knew I needed help, but I began fighting myself. Why should I waste money on a shrink? If I was any kind of man, I should be able to shrug this off. If I just gave it some time, it'll go away. Maybe if I alternate my medication, things would get better. And really, as I see these words on the screen, I realize that, as of yesterday, I was still using these excuses.

Hell... I'm still using them right now.

But during a family meeting about my Dad's health, I had a complete meltdown. My siblings were trying to figure out where each of us could help with our parents in their declining years and my wife mentioned how she was just worried about keeping me together.

Suddenly I felt like my 'issues' were the center of attention and I became very embarrassed. I knew I needed help, but I didn't know how to... how to... talk about it. As I tried to explain, there were plenty of tears. In fact, at one point I was crying so hard that I thought it sounded like laughing. Or maybe it was cackling... sometimes it's hard to tell. 

Writing Tips
Well, I survived my meltdown and have an appointment to see my doctor. But I got thinking about how this uncomfortable experience could influence my writing. What had I learned? I thought about the nugget of wisdom, "write what you know" and 'evaluated' me.
Why did I cry?
How did I feel as my family looked at me?
What was I doing with my hands?
What was my posture?
Where were my eyes looking?
How did my mood alter as family offered help/comfort/support?
Did I believe them?
Did I believe me?
Was I tired/cold/hungry?
As writers, we present the world to our readers. Part of that is explaining our characters motivations and feelings. Any good story has conflict, or as author John Brown put it, a problem. John said, "Find the problem, find the story." I realized that this is how writers understand what a character is going through. We put ourselves mentally in horrible situations and think how we, or our characters, would respond in that situation. If we fail to communicate the emotion of a problem, we fail as a writer. Remember the famous quote by Robert Frost: "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader."

Anyway, this morning I thought about what I was doing during that meltdown. For instance, for some reason I was pulling on my bangs and wondered why. It probably wasn't because I wanted my hair to grow. I realized I was using my hand/arm to cover my face. I guess I felt so vulnerable that I was trying to hide. Part of me was embarrassed that I unconsciously acted like that, but my writer's mind said, "Hey! What an awesome way to show vulnerability in a character. Save that in your writer's toolbox!"

And you know what? My writer's mind was right. With the right tweak, I can use that experience, or at the very least some of the details, in my writing. I guess sometimes, to understand the deeper motivations of our characters, we have to understand our own motivations.

So, even though I'm going through a really difficult time in my life, it's giving me experience that otherwise I could only pretend to understand. But more than that, it's gotten me thinking of the unconscious things we do as a result of problems, the nervous ticks and awkward gestures that give away our private thoughts.

You're Babbling
Sorry. Alright, moving on.

What about you? Have you written your private pain into anything? Do you 'people watch' and milk the pain of others? Which emotional situation do you feel you convey well in your writing because you've had experience with it?

Friday, March 1, 2013

Tracking Your Word Count

I'm a stickler for keeping track of my writing goals. Err, well, the first step is to a admit you have a problem, right? Okay. I aspire to be a stickler for keeping track of my writing goals. Normally I keep track of my daily word count on a tracking sheet I keep by my desk. But recently I was looking for an efficient tracking app. Specifically, I wanted to track
  • Words per day
  • Progress month-to-month
  • Track the yearly goal
  • Hours of writing per day
Mainly, I wanted something like the tracker on the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) site during November. Doing a Google search, I found a spreadsheet on another blogger's site. Svenja Liv is an illustrator/writer out of Ireland. Beside being a fantastic artist, she has created an awesome spreadsheet for writers to track their word counts.

First off, you can select one of several 'styles' Svenja has created using her artwork. I personally went with the Steampunk version. I liked the Pirate style, but didn't think I wanted to look at Johnny Depp for a year.

Sorry, amigo. It's nothing personal.

Once you've picked your style and downloaded the spreadsheet, enter in your word count goal for the year, and the spreadsheet divides that goal over the twelve month tabs. As you enter your daily word counts, the spreadsheet keeps track of where you are in relation to your goal, yearly & monthly. It even tells you in the Monthly Status Report line how many words you need to do per day if you fall behind.

Your progress for the year is monitored by a bar chart, just like when you do NaNoWriMo. Since I just started using the spreadsheet, I haven't seen much progress here.

Here's the links for the themes:
Huntsman & Steampunk
Pirate & Forest Fairy

Need spreadsheet software? I recommend OpenOffice. It's free.

Why Should I Care?
So, I hear a few of you shouting, "So what? Why should I stress out about tracking my word count?" Remember the quote by A. Lee Martinez:

“Those who write are writers. Those who wait are waiters.”

You don't want to wait, you want to write, and keeping track of your goal is how you make that happen. You are the boss of your one-person company, at least until you push Janet Evanovich off the NY Times bestseller list. Not only that, but when you contact an agent or publisher, and they want to know more about your writing habits, having this kind of documentation is an Ace up your sleeve. It documents your commitment to your craft. That alone is a powerful reason for tracking your work. But no matter how you do it, I recommend you start right away. You're worth it.

How do you track your progress? Do you use spreadsheets? Apps? Do you think it's important to keep track of your work?

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