Honing the Craft
Lessons from a Week-Long Creative Writing Retreat
One cannot achieve perfection in creative writing. A work can always be improved, and a writer can always grow in the craft. I find that fundamental truth exhilarating and exasperating. Both reactions accompanied me in a week-long novel retreat hosted by the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
I will probably need more distance from the experience to fully process how it changed me as a writer and as a person. Here are three early takeaways:
- Reader feedback is critical: Writing is a solitary profession. As an introvert, there’s much I like about that. Of course, the goal of a writer is to be read, and a key to achieving that is benefiting from readers during the writing process. I have failed so far to build a critique group here in San Diego, but I welcomed the feedback I received at the retreat, from hot takes on one-page submissions in a daily workshop to the deep-dive full manuscript review I received from a VCFA faculty member.
- Be prepared to work: The word “retreat” might evoke the sound of a tranquil stream or the feel of a deep-tissue massage. This retreat simply meant I was away from my day job for a week. I was working harder than ever. Writing. Revising. Reviewing critiques. And figuring out what work lies ahead. Which leads me to point #3.
- Know when to pivot: For the last several months I’ve been pitching the first book of an urban fantasy trilogy, one that was improved substantially after feedback from the 2020 VCFA Novel Retreat. I’ve received some very encouraging feedback, including extensive phone and email conversations with one literary agent. Still, I’ve been thinking I might have started shopping it too soon. For this retreat I submitted a very early rough draft of the trilogy’s Book Two. In the process of that manuscript review I realized there were more revisions needed with Book One. So I’ve hit “pause” on pitching Book One to return to a manuscript I thought was done. I was a bit bummed at first, but now I’m enjoying the revision process.
I mentioned that this was my second VCFA novel retreat. Both were virtual. I’ve never been to an in-person novel retreat, but I can imagine what it would be like. Regardless of the format, it is amazing to disconnect from the world—day job, life responsibilities, etc.—and instead spend it with your muse and fellow writers. I know some participants, given the virtual nature of the program, struggled with truly separating themselves from their personal lives. For me, as an empty nester whose wife chose to visit her family for the week, it was a bit easier to disengage. I’m grateful for the opportunity. Now, however, I need an actual vacation!