Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Seascape Writing Retreat: What We've Learned from Teaching

HALLIE EPHRON: Lucy and I are in the throes of planning this year's Seascape "Escape to Write," our fifth annual weekend retreat. It's for writers who want to get together with like-minded writers, kick back, and really focus on improving their writing. Over the Seascape weekend, we meet with a small group of writers to take a good hard look at the opening pages of their works in progress from several perspectives.

We've opened registration for our fifth season (September 14-16 in Chester, CT), and this year we're adding special guest instructor, Hank Phillippi Ryan. She'll be there, talking about (among other things) how to use techniques TV journalism to pump up your novel.

This year, we had great news that three of our alums have landed book contracts. Barbara Ross, Edith Maxwell, and Liz Mugavero all have multiple book deals. We are doing the happy dance with them.

And here's the thing: there are a bunch more enormously talented alums who will most certainly be signing their own book deals soon, too.

The day after each retreat, I am exhausted and exhilarated. Here's one of my favorite morning-after emails came from KB Inglee, who was with us in 2010. She wrote: "I think I will finish killing Charles this morning. I have found it really gratifying to do it with violence."

We always feel we learn as much as the participants. So we thought we'd share a few insights. Here are a few of mine:

1. Don't judge a writer by their writing: I've been astonished, year after year, by the amazing growth that takes place for some writers, just over the course of a weekend.

2. It's easy to see the flaws in your own work in the work of others: why this is I cannot tell you, but it's very satisfying when you see that light bulb go off and the writer says, "Oh, NOW I get what you're talking about."

3. One of the most important take-aways: Put the characters in the driver's seat.

4. Viewpoint is still one of the biggest stumbling blocks for new writers.

LUCY BURDETTE (AKA ROBERTA ISLEIB): I have to second Hallie's excitement about the Seascape weekend. It's different from most of the workshops and conferences out there, because everyone does a lot of work ahead of time, and then we talk and talk and talk.

Here are a few of the things I've taken away.

1. Anything can be fixed. But you have to write it first. This probably comes directly from you Hallie, but I couldn't agree more: Just hold your nose and write!

2. Stay as close to the real experience of the characters as you can and let them lead--rather than trying to jam them into your plot and your story.

3. The mystery writing community is so generous. We've seen over and over on this weekend how the participants get excited about each others' stories and really work hard to make them better.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: What I hope to bring to the party?

1. Writing a good book is difficult. When you start thinking--whoa. This is hard! Then hurray. You're a writer.

2. Anything can be fixed, I so agree. Worrying does not help. Sometimes the best secret is to let go. Give yourself a break, and let your mind bloom. The characters will tell you what will happen if you listen to them.

3. There is no writers block. Working in journalism teaches you how to banish it. I will share!

Hurray for KB! And can't wait to be part of the stories we'll all be telling next year.

HALLIE: Registration is open. More information...

Have you been to any kind of retreat, writing or otherwise, and did you come away with a nice big fat Aha! Please, share!


  1. Wow, that's fun, to see my picture right there on my favorite blog! And that of my buddies Barb and Liz. Thanks, Hallie.

    Seascape made a huge difference in my writing process. What a weekend it was: meeting in our small groups, studying with our teachers, cementing friendships with fellow writers, and yes, drinking wine at night. I even snuck in a swim in the Sound with Christine from Australia.

    It was particularly helpful to meet one-on-one with each teacher. I asked them each the same question: how do I get my arms around the whole story? (I was about 2/3 through writing the first draft at the time and was having trouble keeping it all in view.) I got a different, useful suggestion from each and it enabled me to go forward.

  2. "How do I get my arms around the whole story?" It's such a great question, and Edith had the sense to ask it. I still struggle with that as I'm writing. Where are these characters going, and why are they doing all this stuff. Each word and page may be lovely, but there's got to be a point to it. Scary.

  3. "Just hold your nose and write." That's wonderful advice.

    Edith, could I have a hint about what your book's about?

  4. Oh, Hallie, this sounds heavenly! I envy all your participants. The ocean and wonderful teachers and talented students--and wine!

    I love your question, Edith. That's always the big one for me with each book. Congratulations to you and Barbara and Liz on your contracts! That's exciting!!

  5. Would love to attend. Sounds amazing.

  6. I am a huge proponent of Seascape. As Lucy says, you do a lot of work ahead of time, which enables you to gain the maximum from every minute of the workshop. It's the gift you give yourself to spend a weekend totally focused on your writing.

    I also met so many wonderful writers there, many of whom are still such an important part of my "writing community."

    Thanks for the shout out, ladies! I'm very excited about the new series, and it's especially cool to be sharing this time with Edith and Liz.

  7. @Darlene, the book I worked on at Seascape is called Speaking of Murder and features Quaker Linguistics professor Lauren Rousseau. Looks like it might finally get published this year or next (stay tuned for THAT news).

    The three-book contract I landed with Kensington Publishing is for the Local Foods Mysteries, and Book One is tentatively titled A Tine to Live, a Tine to Die. Organic farmer Cam Flaherty finds her recently fired farmworker dead in her greenhouse, and we go from there. has more details about both series. Thanks for asking!

  8. I'll happily give a testimonial on behalf of this excellent weekend. Just the experience of immersing yourself for three days with other writers is terrific. As Barb pointed out, the pre-retreat work gives you a head start and an introduction to your fellow writers and their work. The guided sessions gives you a chance to hear how others perceive what you're trying to write.

    Plus, you meet wonderful people, both teachers and students. Thanks to the Interwebz, you can stay connected!

  9. If I write another book on writing, it's going to be called "Just Hold Your Nose and Write." I really do believe it. As long as you later on let go, smell the roses and not-so-roses and REwrite.

    Sadly "Seascape" lost our oceanside venue (the house is closed for renovations) so we should probably rename it Woodscape since we're not out in the woods.

  10. Congrats to all your alums!

    Interesting sidenote: Yes, it is easy to see flaws in others, but I find that seeing those flaws in others sometimes helps not just their light bulb, but my own light bulb go off.

    So critiquing someone else's work isn't an entirely selfless. There are benefits!

  11. Last year's Seascape was the highlight of my year. I loved it and it was so helpful with my writing. My only wish is that I could be back again this year. I'm hoping I'll be able to return next year.

  12. Right now I wish I didn't live on the west coast! That sounds like a great weekend. :-(

    I've had the pleasure of working with Elizabeth George in three workshop settings. That woman is a fabulous teacher. One time she sat down with me 1 on 1 after a session and showed me what she meant by "orienting the reader." She took a pen to my pages, and with quick edits, she blew my mind away. It was so basic. Sometimes the best lessons are the basic ones.

    In another workshop, I was trying my hand at omniscient for the first time, and Elizabeth explained everything I was doing wrong. Huge click! I finally got it about omniscient voice. Now, I can spot novels in which the author thought she had omniscient, when what she really had was muddled, shifting close-in thirds.

  13. This sounds like such fun! And congrats to Edith, Barb, and Liz!

    I love Edith's question, "How do I get my arms around the whole story?" It always happens to me. I think I have the book all planned, all under control, then suddenly (usually when I've worked through all the set-up chapters and laid out the major investigation) when I realize that even though I know who, how, when, and why, I have no idea what happens NEXT! Then it's back to the drawing board: blocking out all the story lines, then feeding that into a chapter/scene outline all the way to the END of the book.

    Just because I know the process works doesn't make it any less frustrating...

  14. Deb, I'm at that point with a first draft -- stymied by the WHAT NEXT! My problem is that I don't have enough faith in my process to know that I will eventually get through to the end. That might be because I don't have a set process for writing moments like this. Knowing that you also go through stymied periods fills me with hope. C'est possible!

  15. Ah, yes, the what happens NEXT problem. That's my definition of writer's block. And the answer is just plow ahead.

    I keep an OUT file where I save every single thing I cut from a manuscript in process. The manuscript I'm finishing is 309 pages, about. Its OUT file? 105 pages. And I've written books where the OUT file is longer than the manuscript itself.

    BE FEARLESS! But don't be afraid to SLASH AND BURN.

  16. Hi Hallie,

    I call mine the CUT file. It does make it easier to slash and burn, knowing that the words I slaaaved over :-) still live in a document somewhere.

    I love reading about other writers' processes. It's so heartening! (Especially that your OUT files have been longer than your drafts. Wow.)

  17. I've been to a couple of retreat/workshops and found them, at the risk of sounding all "airy-fairy," transformational. At least, "transformation" as far as my writing is concerned.

    One was a retreat that Charter Oak Romance held with Mary Buckham. Mary sat down with me and bounced around ideas with me on which of the dozen or so opening scenes I'd written would be The One.

    (Mary, if you're reading this - thank you. People seem to like it. :) )

    Anyway, I'm looking forward to and have registered for "Woodscape" after KB, my Crime Bake roommate, talked it up so.

    I probably should start a list of questions to ask while we're there?

  18. Questions R Us! Definitely, Rhonda!

    Transformational! That's indeed something to shoot for.

  19. Edith, congratulations to you - Barbara and Liz, as well!

    Hallie, This sounds wonderful. I've never been on a retreat, myself. I did go to music school one summer but was too excited having fun with other teens to actually learn anything except the being a teenager stuff. Was fun.