Many authors share the same daydream while slogging at day jobs: someday I’m going to write that novel. For me, hitting 50 meant it was time to get serious. I’d done NaNoWriMo three years in a row and written three 50,000-word skeleton mystery novels. But they needed some meat on their bones.
I knew they weren’t ready for prime time but I didn’t know how to get there. I read lots of how-to books but the reality remained, I was stuck. Fate intervened in the form of fellow author and neighbor Richard Guimond, who introduced me to his editor, Diane O’Connell.
She was hosting a Writer’s Retreat soon after I met her, and after reading a sample of my work, invited me to attend. I chose one of my skeleton books and said yes, which turned out to be the best decision I ever made. During the retreat Diane helped me find the key that unlocked better plotlines, more sympathetic characters, and deeper story twists. She guided me through what was working and what wasn’t, which gave me the confidence that I was on the right track. Having five other authors to bounce ideas off of and immerse ourselves in wordplay over dinner was an unexpected bonus to the weekend.
By the end of Retreat Day 2, I knew what was missing from my book. By the end of Day 3, I knew how to fix it. We created a plan to repair the broken parts, tossed what wasn’t working (yes, we killed a few darlings) and added new intrigue. Diane’s methods, expert guidance and non-judgmental approach strengthened my manuscript as well as my skills. Plus, her handbook gave me a “pocket editor” I could take with me. The follow-up session with Diane not only helped me put meat on my manuscript bones, but turned it into a living, breathing story. Sort of the opposite of a murder mystery, come to think of it.
I was so excited with the result, I returned for a second retreat the next year with a new novel for my series. Once again, I left with a clear idea of what was needed and a solid plan on how to finish it. As writers, sometimes we get so close to a project we can’t see the forest for the trees (forgive my cliché, but it’s true!).
I believe attending the retreat was an integral turning point in my fiction career. We’re all busy, many of us have day jobs and it’s hard to get away. Give yourself the chance to submerse yourself in your book for a few days, whether it’s the Guided Novel Writing Retreat or one with your writer’s group. It’s a great prescription for what ails your writing focus.
I am now querying agents with both books and am on the way to publication. It’s a long road – querying agents, marketing yourself, keeping the faith – and in a future blog this spring I’ll share some lessons learned along the way. It’s worth it!
DM Sterrett is author of the Penny McKenna nautical mystery series set in the classic yachting world. You can read more about her and her books by visiting her website.