My Writer’s Retreat

I’ve been wondering if I should do some sort of writer’s retreat to get me back into writing fiction, and as it turns out, all unknowingly, I created my own retreat. Last weekend, beginning Thursday afternoon when my last dance class was over until Monday when the first class of the week began, I did nothing but indulge myself. I started the days with my old workout, the stretching routine and weight training that fell by the wayside when I started taking dance classes. And I worked on my book. Not the whole weekend, of course, because I am not one of those who can sit down and write for the entire day — I need to do a lot of thinking about where to go next — but I did a couple of sessions each day. Even better, I ate only the food I had in the house — good food, no junk. — so I never had to leave my retreat. Best of all, my next room housemate was gone, so I had nothing but quiet (and a bathroom to myself) the entire time. Ah, joy!

A couple of weeks ago, I had experienced a day where I felt blessed, and that feeling has been with me all this time. I have been magnifying the mood by paying attention to the moment because the power of our lives is in the moment. And I’ve been cultivating gratitude, though that particular discipline is not hard to do — tballoon2here is so much in my life to be grateful for in any given moment.

During these blessed weeks, my internal conflict about where to go and what to do has faded because I have made commitments to continue with dance classes at least until the end of the year, to build up my strength, to refrain from worrying. (I worry more than I should about what is to become of me and how I will support myself in my soon-to-be old age.) And so I let the air out of all my conflicts (which is why I haven’t had much to blog about).

I joined an online writing group where the only requirement is to write 250 words a day. It’s a month-long commitment, but every month, I can recommit, which is what I plan to do at least until the end of the year. Even a writer who plods as slowly as I do can manage 250 words in a couple of hours. I usually spend the first hour reading the previous chapter to get in the spirit, to take into consideration past story actions, and to plan the next move. And I still have time to grab 250 words from the vortex of my mind, and sometimes a lot more!

I’ve never been one to write by word counts, so the count in itself is unimportant, but the commitment is. (Oh, who am I kidding. Having written 5,000 words in a week feels great!)

This weekend’s writing retreat will be different than last week’s because I will be performing with my class at a luau on Saturday, but that is still in the realm of creativity.

Dancing, writing, living. Ah, life is good in the moment.


(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

A Place Where I Can Connect With Myself And The Mystical World

It’s amazing we ever manage to communicate with each other, considering that different words mean different things to different people. We do have common ground, though, so perhaps that keeps us connected. We know basically what words mean, such as “desert,” “reading,” “writing,” but we also imbue the words with our own connotations, and that’s where it gets interesting.

For most people around where I am staying, “desert” means a place of rattlers, a place to ride dirt bikes, ATVs, and other noisemaking machines, a place to honk their dogs. (That’s what I call it anyway. They let their dogs run free and drive behind them, honking to keep the animal from straying too far.). But for me, “desert” means a place away from the bustle of everyday life, a place where i can connect with myself and the mystical world around me, a place where I get in touch with the truth inside me (the truth that resides in all of us.) Even those who do see the desert as a place away from every day life, see it as a place to run, all the while connected to an ipod or whatever is connected to those wires coming out of their ears.

For most people, “reading,” fiction, in particular, means entertainment, a way to kill a few hours, an indulgence in fantasy. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course — it makes people happy and fuels the book industry — it’s just not what reading means to me. For me, “reading” means a place away from the bustle of every day life, a place where I can connect with myself and the mystical world of books, and get in touch with the truth inside me. It came as a real shock when I discovered that’s not what reading means to others. It’s often true that people see reading as a place away from the bustle of every day life, but for most people it’s an escape from themselves, not an escape into themselves.

Writers each have their own meaning for the word “writing.” Most often it’s the same as reading — to entertain, to communicate with readers. Sometimes they don’t know what it means to them, except that it fulfills a need. Occasionally, it means a way of making money. It should come as no surprise that writing, for me, means a place away from the bustle of every day life, a place where I can connect with myself and the mystical world of my own story, and get in touch with the truth inside me. Writing bloggeries, such as this one, helps me figure out what I think, but writing fiction puts a “face” on what is inside me, creating a metaphor or a parable for my thoughts and experiences.

I’ve never been one to count words since the number of words don’t count. What counts is what the words say, what they mean. I’ve never been one to inform others of how my writing is going since the writing is for me. Once the book or bloggerie is published, however, it becomes something else, not something that was written so much as something to be read. Does that make sense? I might have walked too long in the desert this morning, and brought some of its mysticism back with me.

Advice to Aspiring Writers

I just got an email from my high school, requesting my participation in a Q&A for a magazine that goes to parents and alumni. The question they want a response to in 60 words or less is, “What advice would you give to aspiring writers?” Of course I said I’d participate. The only hard part is distilling ten years of research and experience into so few words.

I could go with a single word: “Write!”

I could be cynical and say, “Don’t write unless you have to. It’s a heartbreaking business.”

I could be business-like and say, “Learn everything you can about good prose, story elements, query letters, promotion, and publishing because the competition is fierce — millions of people have written a book want to write a book. But no matter what happens, keep writing.”

I could be philosophical and say, “Start with a single word. That’s how every book through the ages was written — one word at a time. By stringing single words together, you get sentences, then paragraphs, pages, chapters, an entire book.”

I could be more story-oriented and say, “Ask yourself: what story do you want to write? Why? What do your characters want? Why? How are they going to get what they want? Who is going to stop them getting what they want?”

I could plunge into the action and say, “Sometimes it’s hard to find the confidence to bring complex scenes to life, to juggle the many elements that comprise a compelling scene, so plunge headfirst into action. Write fast and fearlessly; let the words fall where they may. You can always clean up the mess in rewrites.”

So, what advice would you give to aspiring writers? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you? What was the most helpful advice you ever read?

My Topsy-Turvy Writing Life

NaNoWriMo is good practice for me, this writing without stopping to think.

I’ve always been a slow writer, but I can also see that the way I wrote and the reason I wrote created the slowness. I used to write at night when all was quiet, then the next morning I would read the work to my mate. The piece had to be cohesive, well written, and most of all entertaining because that is why I wrote — to entertain us. That way of writing taught me to pull someone immediately into a scene, to make characters come alive in a few words, to add a hook or reward on almost every page.

I had my reward in his smile. Whenever I saw his lips curve in a secret little smile, I knew I’d hit the scene perfectly.

He and his smile are gone from my life. I’ve had to find a different way of writing and a different reason. For now, meeting the challenge of NaNoWriMo is reason enough. The very nature of the challenge is helping me find a new way to write. Instead of searching for the perfect word, I write any word that comes to mind, trusting that during the rewrites I will find the right one. If no word comes to mind, I leave a blank space and continue with my train of thought.

I also have no need to write a coherent story from beginning to end for there is no one to follow along as I write. I jot down whatever scene is foremost in my mind. I also write in the morning since it’s quietest here then. Also, by writing in the morning, I can come at the task in an oblique way before excuses begin to get in the way.

Some of what I’ve written will need little revision. Other bits read more like notes for a novel than a fleshed out scene and will need to be completely revised. Other parts are redundant and will need to be junked. But I am keeping up with my word count (probably because I am leaving out the hard bits, like descriptions and sensory details), and that is an important achievement.

I’m getting into the rhythm of this topsy-turvy life. From being one of a couple to being alone. From living near the mountains to living near the desert. From writing at night to writing in the morning. From writing beginning to end to writing whatever scene catches my attention.

I’m still writing the same type of book, though — a non-literary literary novel. The way I understand it, a literary novel is a story that addresses the major themes of life, and the way it is written — the choice of words, the sentence structure, the imagery — is more important than what is written. I fail in the second part — I strive for a simple, easy to read style that doesn’t detract from the story — but I do address major themes, especially in this work. Life. Death. Love. Grief. Relationships. The meaning of life. All while telling a good story. At least, that’s the plan.

I’m hoping someday you’ll be able to tell me if I succeeded.

The Best Thing About Writing Fiction

This morning, author Lazarus Barnhill posted an article on the Second Wind Blog about why he writes fiction. He wrote:

”When you write about a controversial issue, you don’t have to make it the center of your story to express it fully.  You just work it in.  For instance, when I wrote The Medicine People, I dealt a lot with the quiet underlying bigotry Native Americans and Western European descendants still harbor for one another but never express out loud.  And while it was essential to the story, it didn’t overwhelm the novel.  Stories have the power to make an issue live in the mind of the reader the way a speech never can.

“And the best thing about being a fiction writer is, you don’t have to brag to get your point across.  The best writer is one whose reader gets absolutely lost in the narrative.”

When I began writing, I had a lot to say about the way we are manipulated to suit the needs of big business and big government, and that theme underlies my first four novels. Though that theme was important to me, I tried to make the story even more important so as not to overwhelm the readers. I used up that theme, so I don’t know what I want to say in my future books, which is perhaps why I haven’t been able to write — I don’t know what I want to say, or rather, why I want to say it. I tried to write a story simply for the story’s sake, but that manuscript is stalled halfway through. I do have a theme for that — freedom vs. security vs. responsibility — but the book is not a thriller, has no mystery, is more of an apocalyptic allegory, which is something I would never read, so I don’t imagine anyone else would want to either. The point being, I write fiction because . . . Apparently I have no reason since I am not writing fiction at the moment. 

So, why do you write fiction? What is the best about being a fiction writer? What do you hope to accomplish with your writing? How do you make sure readers get lost in your fiction?

Let’s talk.

The group No Whine, Just Champagne will meet for a live discussion about writing and the writing life on Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 9:00pm ET. I hope you will stop by — it would be nice to see you. You can find the discussion by clicking here. If you can’t chat live, we can chat on this blog.