DIY Writing Retreat

DIY Writing Retreat

I have a healthy appetite for solitude. If you don’t, you have no business being a writer

 Will Self

Have you ever wanted to go to a writing retreat? Maybe one of those supercool ones, hold in a boutique hotel and hosted by a famous writer? I bet you have because I have. If you are anything like me, you love to write but life has a surprising ability to get in the middle, and you find it very difficult to set a few hours aside so you can focus on your story.

For newbie writers it’s usually even worse because writing competes with a day job, family and friends needs, and a tendency to procrastinate because they haven’t yet developed the writing discipline that pros have.

I’ve been there too, and I know how hard can be carving some time for ourselves, without interruptions, to work in our stories. However, those moments are precious to any writer, because solitude is essential to relax and let our creative juices flow.

When I was trying to come up with a system to get more “quality writing time” I found an article on a women’s magazine about turning our bathroom into a “spa area”. The bell went off: since writing retreats were out of my reach, what if I planned my own?

Writing Retreat
Give your writing a few “creative spa” sessions

If you need some focused time to research your book, work in your story or simply to read, daydream and mull over new ideas, you’d love holding your own writing retreat.

Why is a writing retreat important?

Please, don’t think about a retreat in terms of productivity. Of course, if your book goes forward that’s great, but the rewards of solitude are deeper, and shouldn’t be measured in terms of words written only.

  • Working alone equals to focused writing, without the usual distractions, so you’ll be able to concentrate, to generate new ideas or to get unstuck.
  • It frees you from routine. You’ll be doing things in a different place, at a different time or in a different way. Take this chance, and use it to get rid of any unwanted habit that might be impairing your writing.
  • You’ll be more motivated and committed to your writing. You’re going to be working like a pro, so it’s a perfect chance to see if you have what it takes to become a full-time writer.

Before you start

A writing retreat is an adventure trip, so it’s a good idea to do some preparation before you close your home door and take to the road. Make sure that you’ll have a pleasant, fulfilling experience by:

  • Setting a goal: What do you want to achieve? What are you going to use this time for? Write your goal down and stick it where you can see it to avoid using your retreat time for things other than writing.
  • Having realistic expectations: Retreat time won’t save a novel that started badly, but it can help you to find out what to do with it. It won’t instantly remove your writer’s block, but you can come across some new ideas worth exploring. Enjoy this quiet time alone. Don’t push yourself too hard.
  • Scheduling it: Write it on your calendar and, most important, tell your family and friends that you’re attending a writing retreat. Make sure they understand that you won’t be available. Writing time is for you alone.
  • Taking your office with you: Collect all you might need (laptop, charger, pen, paper, inspirational or instructional books, your favorite music…) and keep it at hand.
  • Having a time-management system: You’re going to write like a pro, which means knowing when it’s time to write, when you’re going to have a break, or when can you check your smartphone or your e-mail.

Take that first step

A DIY writing retreat must suit your needs and taste. Do you feel like seeing people and eavesdrop a little? Go write in a coffee shop. Feeling literary and inspired by the masters? Go write in a beautiful library. Write at home, in a picnic area in a nearby park, in hotel lobbies, wherever you feel comfortable and inspired.

This is your chance to enjoy your passion for writing, so take your time. No need to rush. Take small steps, daydream, stroll, and live slowly. Be open to creativity and surprise. Let the words flood you.

At the end of your retreat you’ll have learned something about the craft and, most important, something about yourself as a writer. Trust me.

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Echo: Pleasing and Writing

Echo: Pleasing and Writing

Writers write because we love it, because we can help it, we write for pleasure and to relieve the pressure, we write for ourselves but, in the end, we expect others to read what we write. We want some echo.

Have you ever written an article or a post and got no response from any reader? I have. I know that cricketing sound, the tumbleweeds roll-roll-rolling in the empty halls of my head when I get no comments and no feedback. When there’s no echo, even lack of self-confidence might come creeping and crawling: “Am I a good writer? Do I have what it takes to keep on blogging, pitching my stories?” We have all felt this way.

We all want to be read, we want to know that our thoughts, our stories have an impact on somebody else, that there’s people out there who like our style, our voice and our words, and that’s that. We get no echo and we start to feel uneasy. It’s natural, but it shouldn’t be that way.

The “pleasing” game

There’s a lot of information out there advising creative writers to use all the tricks and shortcuts that the advertising and marketing industries have developed: visualize your audience, pick up a single reader, stick a photograph of your “ideal reader” to the wall, know him inside out…All very well when you’re a copywriter but creative writers have no such thing as an “Audience”.

Readers are unique
Juan Gris-The Reader – 1926

Out there, there’re a lot of different people, with different moods and tastes. People who might love our novels and dislike our short stories, people who’ll enthusiastically comment on our posts about healthy eating and ignore our articles about meditation.

We, creative writers, have no “Audience”: we have readers, we have editors and publishers, all of them whimsy and unpredictable – just as we are. We don’t have to please them at any cost…we have to entertain them.

If we try to guess what this or that reader or publisher would rather read, we’re in for a big disappointment. They don’t know what they want to read until they read it. Just like us.

Whom are you writing for?

This a basic question with a simple, basic answer: writers write, first and foremost, for ourselves. To increase our chances of being heard and cause echo – and no crickets – when we put our article or story out there, we’re the ones to please, to convince and to entertain.

Successful writing is a socially accepted act of egotism. We write what we want to read, it’s all about ourselves. There’s nothing like writing about a topic we love: we lose track of time, we immerse ourselves in our thoughts and our writing goes forward much like a good skier descends a slope: with balance, grace and ease.

Please yourself as a writer
Stephen King: writing for himself. Then, for all of us.

Relax, then, and say what you want to say. Be clear, be precise, be accurate and, most of all, be yourself. Whether you’re writing a fantasy-fiction story or an article about poisoning mushrooms, you’re the one to please. If you feel satisfied, there’ll be readers who’ll read you with pleasure. There’ll be others who’ll think you’re a bore, sure, but, who cares about them? They won’t buy your books, anyway.

Featured image by Miroslav Sunjick: https://miroslavpencildrawing.wordpress.com

 

 

Aromatic Memory: Use your senses

Aromatic Memory: Use your senses

Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it

Vladimir Nabokov

I remember aromas and fragrances long after I’ve forgotten people and places. Aromatic memories always play a part in the way I write a description. If I had to tell my readers about that guy I used to date when I was at university, I wouldn’t be able to remember all the details about him, except that he smelt of Davidoff Cool Water. Now that I think about it, there must be some memories tugging at me from my twenties, for I’m using again Carolina Herrera’s Classic eau de parfum… the one I wore back then.

This is not a piece about travelling down the memory road, though; nor has this blog turned into a fashion & beauty one. It’s about writing compelling descriptions.

It’s difficult to write descriptions that are both evocative and cliché-free. We all want our characters to be memorable, and our readers to “feel as if they really were” in the places we describe. Unfortunately, we tend to focus on how our characters look, or on the geographical features of our settings.

Movie makers are lucky guys. They have microphones and cameras to help them show everything about a character or a place. Writers only have words, but words let us show our readers more than how the world looks or sounds: we can show them how it smells, feels or tastes.

The aroma of seawater
“Instantánea” by Joaquín Sorolla

How could we describe the woman on the beach? We could write about how fragile and mysterious she looks, hidden under her big hat. We could also write about the golden sand, and the frothy water but what about how the cool, early spring breeze feels on her face? Why not mention the smell of seaweed, the salty taste of her lips? I imagine her wearing a sweet gardenia perfume that clings to her clothes and her hair.

You get the idea. When describing a person or a place, engage all your senses. A description written using a sense other than the obvious one might surprise and delight you and your readers.

Some time ago, I wrote a short story about a boy attending a concert. The orchestra was playing Ravels’s Boléro and all the story was a visual description of the performance. No “sound” was used, only the body movements of the musicians as they played their instruments. Still, when I asked my friends what piece they thought was being played they nearly all guessed it.

Hear the sounds; smell the hay
Van Gogh – The Siesta

Can you describe your first flat only by the way it smelt? Can you write a scene about a woman eating a cherry pie using only the sense of touch, without mentioning the taste? Can you convey the calmness in Van Gogh’s painting by the sounds that surround the sleeping couple? Go. Try and see where it takes you.

Featured image by Kristina Saiyan at http://www.fineartamerica.com

Are writers born or made?

Are writers born or made?

Few questions raise such a hot debate among writers as whether a writer is born or made.

Jack Kerouac wrote an article on this subject in 1962 where he clearly sides with the born ones. Others like Stephen King, believes that writers are made, that becoming a writer is the result of the person’s will.

I am not a determinist, and I find it difficult to believe that individuals are born with some special features that will push them in one direction or another in life. The idea that only those who are born with the “literature genes”, or the “math genes” will stand out in their fields is disheartening and untrue.

Every artist was first an amateur – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Newbie writers ignore many elements of the craft, and so do long time writers. A writer is always trying to learn something new, to improve his writing skills.

Writing, as Mr King, says, is first and foremost a matter or will, then a matter of time, then a matter of work and last a matter of talent.

You say you want to be a writer, right? Then, let me ask you this: “how much do you want to write?” Writers want to write badly. They want to write even when writing becomes a chore, or when their words look and sound all wrong. Writers are willing to get up early in the morning to write an hour before they commute to their stupid day jobs. Writers are willing to lose sleep because they have to jot down an idea they had in a dream. Writers have that kind of will. 

Now, how much time will you invest in your writing? I’m not speaking about finding an hour every day, or writing on weekends, but about the time you’ll have to devote to the craft, learning new skills, honing the ones you already have, patiently editing your manuscript, waiting for a publisher to accept your novel, and dealing with rejections that will happen again and again. Writers don’t resent the time invested in their writing because it might pay off in the end.

writers are made
Ernest Hemingway becoming an even better writer… by writing

 You have the will and you have the time but how hard are you willing to work? Writing is hard and that’s that. I have never met one of those “natural” writers, full of the ideas that seem to flow towards them from nowhere. I don’t know any writer who doesn’t need to review, and edit what has written…many times. No real writer is free from brain racking, procrastination or self-confidence issues. The truth is that, for most writers, not writing is easier than writing. Going to the gym, watching TV or having a couple of beers with your buddies is easier than sitting at your desk, looking at the screen and realizing that you have nothing to say. Real writers, however, pull themselves together, roll their sleeves up, and do the hard work, because the results might be amazing.

Last of all comes talent, that special ability that allows someone to do something well. I won’t deny that some people have a knack for playing music, or for mixing colours, or for putting words together. Michelangelo, Mozart, Doris Lessing or Margot Fonteyn are all considered exceptional artists, but did they settle for the talents they were born with? No way! They learnt, and practiced, and improved their arts and crafts until they became the genius we all admire.

If you ever doubt about your ability to become a writer, don’t worry. As long as you have the will, the time and the energy to work hard, you’ll be a writer. If you’re also talented, you might become a bestselling author.

Featured image: http://sunvic.blogspot.com.es/2010/08/random-sketch-1.html

Primping and bad writing

Primping and bad writing

One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple – Jack Kerouac

Primping you writing, adding endless finishing touches will do nothing for a clear, easy to read style. And such a clear style is something all writers should aim for.

Overwriting is like quicksand. You’ll only know that you have stepped into it when you find yourself trapped up to your waist. And then, it’s damn difficult to get out.

Newbie writers, being more insecure than their more seasoned fellow writers, are prone to primping their manuscripts. It’s funny,though, that the less experienced a writer is, the more he tries to reach a superlevel of perfection.

The writers I work with will tell you that my first recommendation is to write their draft in one go: no rereading and no rewriting until the article, the story, or the novel is all out and on paper. However, they can’t help doing exactly the opposite: going back to what they’ve written so far, and add an adjective here or –God forbid– an adverb there. They never subtract a word. For a writer, primping always equals adding.

The more they add, the more complex their sentences become, the less clear their writing is. Soon, they’ll have a bunch of bored readers, lost in a jungle of superfluous words. And a bored reader is one that will never recommend your novel, let alone pay for it.

Then, there’re those writers who’re never happy with what they’ve written. There’s always some flaw, something that is not “quite right”. For them, tweaking they manuscripts is almost a religion. “I want this to be perfect”, they say. “My readers deserve only the best”, they claim. But their readers are either getting nothing at all –because the writer will never deliver the story– or what they get is stale, almost dead, after being tampered with so much. What’s the good of so much perfectionism, then?

Polishing and finishing a sculpture
Henry Moore working on one of his small sculptures

Many of you’d have heard that good writing is rewriting. This is one of the foundations of the craft: you write once, and rewrite several times. What your readers will get is that final, polished version of your article, story or novel, stripped of all that’s unnecesary. I use the adjective “polished” on purpose, since I compare the act of rewriting to the work of an artist, carefully polishing his sculpture, brushing away the little imperfections, the too-sharp angles that prevent the marble from shining.

A good writer, as a good sculptor, should never add anything more to what’s already simple and clear. Grandiose, obscure words won’t do any good to your prose. When writing, forget about primping.

Writers & Copycats

Writers & Copycats

Writers are always worrying about being original. We worry about it so much that we discard perfectly good ideas because we’d once read something similar. We don’t want to be copycats, so we’d rather not write if we can’t  write something new.

Writers are seldom original. It’s nearly impossible for a newbie writer not to be influenced by the authors he reads, loves and respects. Even Stephen King isn’t immune to outer influences. As he says in “On Writing” (a book every newbie writer should read), when he started writing he copied the style of the writers he read and admired almost without realizing it.

Imitation (not plagiarism) makes an excellent writing exercise. Writing in the style of Edgar Allan Poe will teach you something about lengthy descriptions; writing in the style of Ernest Hemingway will teach you about plain, unadorned writing. You can imitate almost every writer in order to improve your writing skills. If you’re looking for good exercises on this topic, try the ones David Morley suggests in his book “The Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing“.

Copycatting, imitating and being inspired by other writers is just a necessary step on the writing ladder, one that’ll help you to hone your skills and will eventually lead to your developing your own voice as a writer.

We all write about the same basic, universal emotions: love and passion, death, family relationships, friendship, courage, being adventurous, hidden secrets and dark plots, money and greed… What make Romeo and Juliet different from Wuthering Heights is not the themes (love, social differences, passion, hatred, vengeance…) but the very personal vision of Shakespeare and Emily Bronte, the author’s unique voice. It’s the same with The Odyssey and The Lord of the Rings, or Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

art masterpiece inspiration
Las Meninas by Pablo Picasso. Inspired by Velázquez.

Copying an art masterpiece might be forgery, but it’s also a good way to improve painting skills. The same applies to writing. Your own style and personal voice will develop on due time, and as long as you’re respectful and honest, there’s nothing wrong with seeking inspiration in the writers you love.

If you’re still feeling uncomfortable about copycatting, take Jim Jarmush (and Jean-Luc Goddard) advice:

Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.
[MovieMaker Magazine #53 – Winter, January 22, 2004 ]”

 Featured image by Tom Pokinko (http://oup051011.blogsCopycatspot.com.es/2011_06_01_archive.html)