Gone Writin'

Last weekend I enjoyed the sublime privilege of spending a few days with the editors of MiFiWriters at their inaugural open-to-the-public writers’ retreat. The event — held at the Transformations Spirituality Center at the campus of the former Nazareth College in Kalamazoo — began around 4 p.m. on Friday and continued until around 4 p.m. on Sunday. A total of eight people attended.
The MifiWriters produce the well-regarded Division By Zero annual anthology series — the oldest speculative-fiction anthology that emphasizes authors native to Michigan.
Activities:

  • I arrived on Friday in time to check into my room and enjoy dinner with the group in the presence of the retired nuns of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph. The facility, besides offering space for events and conferences, also serves as a retirement home for CSJ sisters. Who were, I must say, uniformly charming. We enjoyed an entire wing of the third floor to ourselves, as well as sole access to the beautiful Sun Room. After dinner, from roughly 6:30 until 11 p.m., we engaged in group critiques. Attendees spent more than 45 minutes on my 2,300-word short story Ashes of Another Life, which has already benefitted from one round of peer review. The consensus comments and suggestions were, alone, worth the weekend’s modest registration fee.
  • Saturday was “writing day.” After our strict 7:30-to-9 a.m. breakfast window, we wrote until lunch. Then we ate lunch. Then we wrote until dinner. Then we ate dinner. Then we did critiques from 6 p.m. until almost midnight. Got some great feedback on a middle-of-the-book chapter from my almost-done novel Six Lost Souls. Of note: Vlad the Bat visited us. He flew into the room and terrified most folks, then he left and we couldn’t locate him. Three of us, I among them, elected to write after the critiques, not retiring until around 1 a.m.
  • Sunday after breakfast was free writing. Then lunch. Then critiques from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. I nominated my flash piece, Regret, which has already been workshopped four times. Nevertheless, I still got some valuable comments back from the group. When critiques were over, we disbanded — with a sense of sadness at how quickly the time had passed. Oh, and Vlad made an unexpected daytime cameo.

I must bestow mellifluous and multitudinous accolades upon the MiFiWriters editors — Sue Ann, Matt, Tim, Kirsten and Steve — for their excellent work. They were uniformly welcoming and helpful — no judgmentalism, no snark, just earnestly helpful support and obvious engagement with pieces presented for critique. I’ve worked with them before, for the Get Published! conferences they’ve hosted the last two years, and this retreat solidified just how decent these folks are as human beings, as well as how skilled they are as wordsmiths. Authors intimidated by peer review will find this group to be a gentle yet helpful introduction to how critiquing can be simultaneously in-depth and enjoyable.
Oh and it was great writing with Dani and re-acquainting myself with Kelli.
And — mirable dictu! — I managed to not only get my personal slush pile into order, but I also wrote a complete 8,000-word novelette. Stretching beyond my ordinary comfort zone, I completed the first draft of Conversion Therapy, a dark horror piece about a modern-day gay vampire whose world-domination plot takes a disastrous turn. The story exclusively follows the vampire’s point of view. ‘Twas a lot of fun. Wrapped it up about 20 minutes before lunch on Sunday.
Some take-aways from the weekend:

  • Taking time away to write, if you’re a writer, is essential to both productivity and good mental health.
  • I like the MiFiWriters approach to critiquing — which is to create a shared Google Drive folder and paste a story into a Google Doc. The author reads the entire piece aloud while everyone makes comments (in “suggestion” mode) as they follow along. No matter how long or short the story, the author reads it in its entirety. Then, there’s a round of open discussion about what did and didn’t work about the piece and, where helpful, suggestions about alternatives to improve the story. There’s no time limit; it goes until it’s done. One story had 20 minutes of post-read discussion; another had 90. Everything else fell in the middle. Per story, per day. Their critique approach differs from what we use at the Grand River Writing Tribe, which requires that the piece be submitted in advance and edits completed individually, either on paper or electronically. Then, we read a very short story or a passage from a longer piece before beginning a conversation informed by the notes we each developed in advance.
  • A deep engagement with the writing-in-progress of others is a deliciously intimate and eye-opening experience.
  • I get more done sans feline overlords.
  • The Transformations Spirituality Center offers a great location for retreats both secular and religious — not only was it an ideal location for the writers’ retreat, but I also got the chance to sit in the chapel a bit on Sunday morning. I even brought my breviary and on Friday night, prayed full Compline.
  • The most frequent lesson reinforced by the MiFi editors is that conflict matters. They emphasize a few things — early hooks, an avoidance of data dumps, logical consistency — but the most significant “craft of writing” lesson I learned is to establish the story’s core conflict early on and to allow the conflict to drive the plot instead of letting the plot hint at conflict. It’s a subtle but crucial distinction. I too often look at plot as a timeline of events rather than the scaffolding upon which the conflict’s long-run evolution unfolds.

This past weekend proved a salutary tonic to this bitter writer’s soul. 🙂 I look forward to the next opportunity.

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