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!
New Novel Alert
Immerse Yourself in the Haunted World of Edwardian England
An English ghost detective apprentice-turned-master building an investigative team while hiding his sexual identity. A troubled practitioner of telekinesis hiding from a childhood of dark magic. A half-man half-beast struggling to live a human life while hiding from his deeper urges. You’ll meet this compelling trio in The Ghost Finders, the latest novel by Adam McOmber. It’s the third book I’ve read by the VCFA faculty member (and, spoiler alert, the reviewer of my manuscripts the last two novel retreats) and it’s just as compelling as The White Forest and Jesus and John.
Add Some Writing Craft Books to Your Nightstand Pile
One takeaway for me from the VCFA Writing Retreat was a lengthy list of must-read books. There were too many novels and short story collections recommended to list here. I’ve chosen instead to list a few books on the writing craft that came up with some regularity.
FYI, if the book is currently in stock at bookshop.org, I chose that link. I learned of this website at the retreat; when you order from it, the order is processed by an independent bookstore. You an even identify which one you’d choose to order from by location. I like this quote from the Chicago Tribune: “Bookshop.org hopes to play Rebel Alliance to Amazon’s Empire.” I still like my Kindle and my Audible account, but this is a great alternative to support both authors and independent bookstores (and should I ever meet an author I like, it’s hard for them to autograph a digital or audio file, so there’s that).
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