At last summer’s WLT Agents & Editors Conference, in Austin, Texas (June 21-23, 2013), I was finally ready to seriously pitch my thriller, The Jagged Man. I thought the book was ready, too. I had been working on it for several years, but I felt it was finished. A final read-through for grammatical errors, a little polishing and some tightening (it was about 120,000 words then), and it would be ready.
And I had a great pitch. The pitch had undergone at least a gazillion revisions (okay, maybe just a billion). I started revising and polishing it a couple of months before the conference. I had given an off-the-cuff version the previous year, when it was still a work in progress, but then I had been more intently focused on my (apparently unmarketable) very large mainstream novel, If a Butterfly. I tried to only pitch it to the right agents, not those interested in only YA or non-fiction, for example. I had eight “yes, query me” responses before the conference was over. Six were pretty enthusiastic. Number Seven said to query him, but he wondered why the bad guy wouldn’t get bored after 8,000 years (good point), and I think I got the eighth “yes” because it was late in the evening and the agent seemed a little tipsy. Not that I blame her. Facing hundreds of wannabe authors one right after the other, I would want to be a little tipsy too.
Anyway, I was sure the novel could be ready in a few weeks (except maybe for that final scene on the edge of the cliff – the one that I had been carrying in my head for years, but had been avoiding, afraid I would screw it up). As soon as I started thinking about how ready it had to be before I sent it out (one of the agents wanted a “full”), I realized it was actually less finished than I thought.
I needed some help.
After hearing about the Summer Retreat (July 21st to July 26th), I signed up for the “Shaping Your Book to Sell” workshop, taught by Carol Dawson, author of The Waking Spell, Body of Knowledge, Meeting the Minotaur, and The Mother-in-Law Diaries. The workshop was about revising manuscripts, and learning to shift focus from the creative side of the brain to the editing side.
At first I thought I would drive there. It was 600 miles from my house, north of Houston, to Alpine, Texas (out in the West Texas desert). I knew I couldn’t drive that far by myself without stopping for the night somewhere. I searched for hotels west of San Antonio, thinking maybe Kerrville or Comfort would be likely locations. I would still be exhausted when I got to Alpine, so I would probably want to get there the day before the retreat started. That would mean adding the cost of two nights in a hotel room (another couple-hundred dollars probably). I didn’t think gas for my car would be too expensive. I have a Prius, and it gets a little over 45 mpg, so I could do the trip for about 27 gallons, a little more than two fill-ups. I found out that Amtrak made a stop in Alpine, and I could get a round-trip ticket for less than it would cost me for the hotel stays.
I reserved a round-trip ticket on the train’s lower level, in coach, for $195. Not too much less than the cost of two nights in a hotel, The train was a fifteen hour trip, but it was overnight. I could just sleep, and arrive refreshed and ready for the retreat. Right? No, I felt like I was riding in a tubercular ward. Half the people in the car seemed to be seriously sick. Here’s a little fragment I captured on the ride:
She coughs again, a growling percussive sound. I imagine the droplets from her germy throat bursting into the atmosphere the same way miniscule particles of glass spread outward from the impact of a bullet on a beer bottle.
Needless to say, I didn’t sleep well on the ride there. I had a few other adventures once I arrived, some of which because I hadn’t brought my car, and became dependent on others to ferry me around occasionally, although mostly I walked unless I needed to go somewhere in a hurry.
The name Writer’s Retreat (for me) had always conjured up an image of wandering off somewhere, away from distractions so I could focus on a particular piece of writing. This retreat was intended to be different. Each day, for five days, we met in a group from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm, and worked in a group setting, reading excerpts, critiquing, restructuring elements that weren’t working, paring our novels down to their cores.
I discovered, with Carol’s guidance, that I was introducing my heroine early enough in the story, but she wasn’t doing anything related to the action, so most of my notes were related to rearranging sections of my novel (and throwing away dead wood). It was an invigorating experience. On the final day, Carol, who had taken the first five chapters from each of our stories, gave us individual critiques. Her comments were extremely helpful to me, and I returned to Houston with a much better understanding of the process of editing, and a willingness to be ruthless with my own material. I killed my darlings left and right for the next month, and had a much better book for it.
So, final conclusion, if you can afford it, and have material that’s ready for editing, I highly recommend the Writer’s League of Texas’ Summer Writing Retreats. They are well worth it.
Have you been to a writing retreat? What was your experience like?