Monday, July 30, 2018

Retreat! Taking a step back to move forward (now with scene cards!)

The word retreat is a funny one. It can mean giving up the fight and running away. It can also mean a purposeful step back, a repose or reflection. This year I needed both.

I had dropped my novel entirely in May and June, choosing instead to work on short fiction to match my shorter focus (end of school year teaching + graduating daughter = scatterbrained Samantha). I was having a hard time getting back into the flow and picking the project back up. I felt lost in my own novel. All my momentum had fallen still.

My critique group has a tradition (we've done it three times now, so that's a tradition, right?) of taking a summer writing retreat. We pool our funds and rent someplace nice for a few days in July and go and write our fingers off. This year's retreat was at Pelican House, part of the Trinity Center in Salter Path, NC. I've been on two previous writing retreats here with the RCWMS and when my group said they wanted beach instead of mountains this year, I suggested here.

3 Views from my retreat
Besides the access to the sea and the wetlands, wonderful for walking and thinking or clearing your head, this complex offers a variety of working and contemplation areas and a dining hall, so I can just show up and eat without having to give over any time to meal preparation (anyone who prepares the meals at their house will understand how much time that really is). And, especially for beach access, it was very inexpensive. Just over $300 covered my share of three nights food and lodging. 

But, I'm not meaning to make this blogpost into an ad for Pelican House. I'm meaning to write about the value of a retreat. 

I'm a writer with a full time job (sometimes more than full time: I teach) and a family (a husband, a teen/young adult, a tween, and a rescue dog), so my writing is often in the backseat of my life, crammed into the corners where I can stuff it. I'm pretty good at being productive this way. In the five years since I "went pro" by signing my first book contract, I've completed two more novels, several short stories, and drafted three other novels that are simmering on my back burner now. But, it's not easy. Too often I lose the flow because I can't get enough focus: either I'm short on time, or my mental and emotional energy is pulled somewhere else. 

But a retreat is dedicated time. 
  • I go somewhere else, so I can't get distracted by the state of my house and decide that clean towels matter more than fresh words. Out of my usual element is a good place for fresh starts.
  • I make arrangements for my children and dog (the husband went with me this time, but even if he hadn't, he'd make his own arrangements). I put off any other life business and really, truly live only my writing life for a few days. No teaching life. No home life. No mom life. Just writing. 
  • I go with trusted writing friends, which leaves room for talk and discussion to help hash out ideas if I want it, and makes my company people who will understand if I find a zone and ignore them for eight hours, too. 
  • I go with a clear goal. This year, mine was to map out what I've already written, trying using storycards for the first time to organize my vision, and then to get back into writing this book!

StoryCards for Thursday's Children, Day 1

I feel really good about the progress I made. Not only am I feeling focused on this book, I think using storycards might be my new M.O. 

I've tried doing this digitally with Scrivener and other tools, but it wasn't really working for me. So, I went with paper and pen. Sometimes, changing the tools you use can make all the difference in how it works for your brain. I'm mostly a digital tools kind of writer, but I do find that some things work better for me on paper and by hand.

Orange notecards here are Kye'luh Wade's (my main character). Green ones are Jason Berger. Yellow ones are Malcolm Singletary. Pink ones are rando-thoughts that I didn't want to lose about problems to fix or other chapters to write, sort of my "parking lot" for stuff to pick up later. 

When I sat down to do this, I had about 50K of the novel written, all pantsed. I've seen several different versions of storycards, storyboarding, post-it outlining, or whatever you want to call this process. Most recently, I'd read DIY MFA by Gabriela Pereira (well, part of it; I'm not done yet). Pereira calls this process "scene cards" and says that each scene card should include: a title, a list of major players, a description of the action, and a statement of the scene's purpose. That last part is crucial for pantsers like me, who are always looking to impose structure after the fact. 

So, that's what I did first: made a scene card for each chapter I had already written, adding the color coding element for my three point of view characters to watch for balance among them as well. 

It was enlightening. 

Sometimes I couldn't easily name a purpose for a scene, or I could only name one purpose and it didn't seem like a very important one. Sometimes, I ran into a glut of several chapters in a row with a single character, leaving my other storylines hanging too long.  Sometimes I spotted a GIANT hole where there's nothing to connect an earlier scene to what happens later. 

This was so helpful! It probably also helped that I was far enough into the process to have a little distance. It almost felt like I was the helpful friend examining someone else's books to find the flaws and help fix them, rather than being my own critic. It felt like good useful work instead of self-recrimination or negative self-talk.

So, does this mean I'm an outliner/planner now?

I don't think so.

I think my process will still involve a fair amount of exploratory/discovery writing where I pants my way across the countryside waiting for the story to tell me what it's about. But I think I'll get to a point on each project, where this will become useful and will help me get to the end and build a more coherent first full draft. So, I'm excited about finding something new that works for me!


  1. Just this weekend I was thinking about trying scene cards. I'm starting over with a novel that I had partially written a year ago, one that I've decided to scrap, instead taking a different route with the story. I wondered if scene cards would help me plot out my new idea. Based on your experience, it sounds like scene cards are more helpful in the rewrite phase to determine what works and where there might be holes in the story.

    I'm a plotter, but I spend way to long in the planning stage. This time around I'm trying the plotting as I go approach. I want to get the basic ideas down in my first draft. I think the scene card approach will really come in handy when I get to work on the second draft. Great post!

    1. Thanks! I hope it works for you as well as it's continuing to work for me!

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  3. I enjoyed many elements of your blog. The idea of a retreat is something we all need in some form or another. Very few of us are writing for a living. I also enjoyed the description of the scene interesting new twist.

    1. Truly! My husband and I have started a tradition (we did it for the first time this year) of taking a retreat in January to lay out our hopes/dreams/plans for the year for each of us individually, our family, and our home. It's so valuable to provide designated space and relaxation time!

  4. I've never tried scene cards. I'm a complete panster and love being surprised by the story.

    1. Most of the time, that's me, too. But I was really frustrated with trying to get my momentum back on this one, and this technique really helped me out.