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The Secret to a Productive Writing Retreat


Crazy, I know.

Self-indulgent, yes.

But I can assure you that if you spend money to go sit alone in a room with a bed and a desk, you will become very focused on your manuscript. You do NOT want to pay good money just to sleep in or watch TV. At least I don’t.

My life has been A Series of Exciting Events for the past few months, culminating in The Biggest Thrill of My Writing Life last week. I am one lucky author.

But you’re only as good as your last book, right?

And my work-in-progress was languishing, month after month, while I whirled and spun. Every time I opened the document to re-acquaint myself with the characters, something shiny* would distract me. Or my son would say, “Mom, want to watch Monk/The Office/The Simpsons/etc. with me?” And I love that my son still wants to do stuff with me, even if it’s just watch TV, so I found it hard to say no. Then there were the usual dishes/laundry/dog walks/daily duties needing attention. And once in awhile, my husband appreciates a little attention.

I needed to go away so I could think about NOTHING BUT THE NEW BOOK.

When I broached the idea with my husband and son, they said cheerfully, “Sure! Go ahead.” The gleam in their eyes said, We’ll be fine … eating pizza and frozen waffles … playing video games and falling asleep with the TV on.

I checked into my hotel Friday after work … seven whole miles from my house. Yep. It was NOT about location. It was about that one room with a bed and a desk.



This was only my third writing retreat in three years – I don’t gallivant off every few months. I go when I’m really desperate. :-)

I wrote, I got dinner, I wrote some more, and then I was tired. After all, I’d already worked a full day. I watched 30 – 45 minutes of the Hope for Haiti telethon, but then I started crying too hard to watch any more. kellyrfineman I did get to see Justin Timberlake’s beautiful “Hallelujah.” I now own (counts) five versions of that song. (It’s #1 on iTunes today.)

I went to bed and slept fine. Got up at 6:15 the next morning, brewed my little instant Starbucks (it’s not bad), ate a protein bar, and started writing again. At 7:30 I went out for a walk. It was still dark out, and downtown Portland was still mostly asleep. But as I walked along the river, a new scene for my book presented itself to me fully formed. This scene was such an epiphany that I stopped to take notes. I walked and took notes … walked and took notes.

By the time I got back to my room, it was almost 9 a.m., but I buckled right down to work. The words gushed out.

Then I wrote one perfect sentence.

I sat back and looked at it in surprise.

Then I looked at the clock. 10 a.m.

I broke my “no Internet” rule long enough to email a couple of friends and say, “Sometimes you have to write for an hour to get one perfect sentence.” Then I re-unplugged. **

The hundreds of words that came before that sentence? I don’t know if they will survive. But I’ve got that one. Perfect. Sentence. It would be nice if ALL my sentences came out like that, but o my friends, it does NOT work that way for me.

I went out for lunch and dinner, then I wrote some more. If I wasn’t writing, I was staring into space thinking about my story. That’s one of the most important elements of writing: the luxury of staring into space.

Sometime after 9 p.m. I got tired and shut down the laptop. I watched the last 45 minutes or so of “Meet the Parents,” which is a pretty good way to end the day … a bride with a black eye, sewage spraying all over people, an impostor cat, and a happily-ever-after.

I got up at 6:15 again the next morning (okay, I lied: I hit the snooze button once. I got up at 6:25). I brewed another instant coffee, then I went outside, because my new scene demanded I walk around dark downtown again.

Back to the hotel room for one last burst of writing.

Around 10:30 a.m. I started losing momentum. My gush slowed to a trickle. I checked my word count. Almost 4500 new words in my 40-hour getaway. That’s a LOT, for me. I took a shower, which shook loose one more idea (showers are a great source of ideas), and I added it to the story.

Then I went home.

My husband and son were out with friends. :-)

When they came home, I watched The Office with my son.

* Netflix, book event, DVR’d shows, book event, Hulu, book event …

** Remember that Office episode where Dwight is shunning Andy? But he has to talk to him about something, so he makes a parking-arm gesture and says, “Un-shun,” then “Re-shun.” That’s how I felt.


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Jan. 26th, 2010 02:51 pm (UTC)
I completely get this. I used to check into a motel once a month, but then we got our little Corgi man and I didn't want to leave him home, and I didn't want to coop him up in a room, even in a pet friendly hotel. My solution is to go to Disneyland with my fam, kennel my little boy at the Dland kennels, kiss the daughter, and go off to write. I check in with everyone every 3 to 5 hours (required at the kennel) and usu. we all check into a pet-friendly hotel, Marriott Resience Inn, which is within walking distance and has suites with multiple rooms. Then I work in another room. Not perfect, but hey, Disneyland!
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 26th, 2010 03:28 pm (UTC)
Wow, I'm so glad you posted this, Melodye. I think it's my favorite new version!!

You make me long for a writing weekend, Lisa. It's so wonderful to focus on THE STORY for 48 hours.
Jan. 28th, 2010 01:34 am (UTC)
Thanks, darlin'.

Jan. 26th, 2010 03:30 pm (UTC)
Yay for you! I so need a writer retreat or writer camp.
Jan. 26th, 2010 04:45 pm (UTC)
I'm so glad you shared this! I would love to do something similar, though I confess having a toddler at home makes the thought of sleeping uninterrupted almost as appealing as getting writing done :) And once your new book comes out, please tell us what the 'perfect sentence' was!
Jan. 28th, 2010 01:35 am (UTC)
Boy, I longed for uninterrupted sleep when my son was little ... I couldn't do retreats back then. I didn't like to be away from him, since I was away at work all day.
Jan. 26th, 2010 07:47 pm (UTC)
So jealous. I'm definitely doing this sometime in the near future. Otherwise the WIP will never get done...
Jan. 26th, 2010 09:40 pm (UTC)
Wow, Lisa, that sounds like a fantastic weekend! Congratulations on knowing what to do and doing it! Looks like a nice hotel room, too. I once read that Maya Angelou did that, and it struck me as unimaginably self-indulgent and wonderful. Now I can imagine doing it, if I were at the right place in a project that needed it. :-)

Have you heard of the Writer's Dojo? Inexpensive space in NoPo to write, during the days at least. It's not private, but it's serious. http://writersdojo.org/benefits
Jan. 28th, 2010 01:36 am (UTC)
Hi Kristi - yes, I've heard of that place. Maybe one day ....
Jan. 26th, 2010 10:15 pm (UTC)
That sounds marvelous! And I'm impressed with your output.
Jan. 26th, 2010 11:18 pm (UTC)
I'm writing this in a hotel room right now. Albeit, I'm out of town for school visits, still I get sooooo much done on the road!
Jan. 28th, 2010 01:38 am (UTC)
I've wondered how you can be so prolific with all your school visits! Now I know: you are able to write on the road. I've heard lots of authors say they can't manage it.
Jan. 27th, 2010 12:03 am (UTC)
Good for you! Way to make it work, like Tim Gunn says:)
Jan. 27th, 2010 03:35 am (UTC)
You are so right about the retreat thing. Only you don't actually have to pay for it in cash. You can pay for it in, say, guilt. My lovely Aunt Martha and Uncle Jim have been kind enough to offer me the use of their condo in NH for writing retreats for the past few years - to the point where they rather expect me to turn up with angeladegroot and writerjenn. And because I have friends there working, I'd feel guilty if I weren't also working. And because my aunt & uncle are all patrons-of-the-arts about it and wanting to know how my writing is going, etc., I'd feel guilty if I didn't get things done. And so even though I pay zero dollars in rental, I still pay for it in a sense of obligation - and that is the real price, I think, that matters.

Also? Isn't that duet version amazing? It brings my collection of versions to three - Jeff Buckley, kd lang (*swoon*) and the new JT/Matt whatever version. I've never heard that song as a duet before, and it's effing brilliant. So glad you like it too!
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