We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Rules

Alpine 2014 137

Last week I attended the Writers’ League of Texas Summer Retreat in Kerrville, Texas. I was in the Write Away section–didn’t take a class but spent all day writing–and I got a lot done. The week was pleasant. But I’d been to WLT retreats before, and this one just wasn’t what the others had been. Something was off. 

It took me four days to figure out what was missing: Gale.

Austin Mystery Writer Gale Albright and I were retreat and workshop junkies, and we attended them together whenever we could. The highlight was the 2014 WLT retreat in Alpine. We took the class in That Damned Rough Draft, where novelist Karleen Koen told us she couldn’t teach us to write, but she could teach us to play. We spent the entire week engaged in activities designed to stimulate creativity–in other words, playing.

Gale didn’t really need to be taught to play. She was already an expert. Under her direction, we played all over the greater Alpine area–Marfa, Terlingua, Fort Davis, the MacDonald Observatory, Big Bend. We considered taking a side trip through Del Rio on the way home, but absence of a gasoline station in Marathon (I think we were looking in the wrong place) turned us around and sent us back the way we’d come. We enjoyed being crazy, but we weren’t stupid.

Gale died in 2016. Without her, retreats just aren’t the same.

This week, AMW repeats the post Gale wrote about that WLT Summer Retreat in Alpine in 2014 and some of the things we learned while Karleen taught us to play. ~ M.K. Waller

***

Rules for writing?

Outline? No outline? Seat of the pants?

Karleen Koen, instructor for That Damned Rough Draft at the Writers’ League of Texas summer writing retreat at Sul Ross University in Alpine, says there are no rules for writing. And she never said the phrase, “We don’t need no stinkin’ rules.” That’s my inner child cutting up.

She said she wouldn’t teach us to write, but would help us learn how to play. If you play, your inner child, your subconscious, will make itself known and your writing will be the richer for it.

And another thing. Writing a novel is hard–real hard.

We are adventurers, embarking on the quest of a lifetime, daring everything on a wild, reckless throw of the dice. Fame and fortune. Or maybe no one will pay attention at all.

According to Koen, a writer’s tools are her words. An artist has brushes and canvas, a sculptor his clay. We have only words to bring a whole new world to life, a world of our own creation. We must lure and seduce readers to enter our world with our use of words.

Not Rules but Suggestions:

Don’t talk your story away. Energy you need for the story goes out at the mouth.

Writers are looking for affirmation. We never get enough.

Grant yourself permission to write badly. The point is to be writing.

Poetry helps writers with their voice. Karleen Koen always reads poems before class begins.

Writing the rough draft is not a time to perfect your prose. Let your subconscious work with you. A rough draft is not linear. The novel is hard. You have to willing to commit to the marathon. Not the sprint.

Alpine 2014 135You have to pay attention to anything that excites you as a writer.

Nobody can see our hard work if we’ve done our work right. It looks slick. Bumps come with writing novels.

Our suffering is invisible to everyone but us.

Magic and alchemy are part of a story. They take the reader to another world.

You need time and space to create.

Don’t compare. Everybody feels bad when you compete

I need to know what I don’t know. I want to get the story finished. Have I bitten off more than I can chew?

What makes a novel? Hook, plot, tension, character, dialogue, scenes, ending, middle, beginning–magic.

Painters have color

Sculptors have clay.

All writers have are words.

Karleen suggests these daily exercises to tempt forth your magic, muse, subconscious, inner child, whatever makes you tick.

Keep a writer’s diary and write about your writing self every day.

Write three longhand morning pages first thing when you wake up every day, no editing. Don’t think. Just write whatever comes into your  head.

Alpine 2014 114Take photographs and write about them. Take pictures of whatever “pings” in  your gut. Write about why.

Don’t let your editor subdue your creator, even in revision.

Don’t share writing with just anyone. Writing is part of our inner child. Too much criticism shuts you down.

Your first reader is very important. All you want to ask the first reader are three questions about your manuscript:

  1. What did you like?
  2. What do you want to know more about?
  3. Where did I lose you?

This will help shape the novel and show where you are off pace.

Cool down between drafts.

Learn to play with words. Be creative and loose.

Find a niche that’s well calibrated to your interests and your talent.

You can only develop your voice by writing.

Enter your story and take us with you.

Know how your hero/heroine is going to be transformed by the end of the novel.

Sometimes revision can lead to beating a dead dog. You’ve been to the well too many times.

You adventurer,  you.

Alpine 2014 206My inner child likes murals. Is there a novel in them?

By Gale Albright

A Christmas Pomodori

River Bluff Writers' Retreat 020Star Date: December 13, 2014

It all started with a weekend retreat. Don’t mysteries always start  like that? (Well, some of them.)

It’s like the beginning of a typical forties noir film. Think of a battered private dick, his face wrapped in bandages, trapped in a blindingly bright spotlight at the Hollywood police station. All in black and white with lots of shadows. The police want to know about a murder. When he starts talking, the scene dissolves into a flashback.

Except in my case, everything was in color, in the twenty-first century, and by the San Marcos River in Central Texas–not Hollywood.

What on earth are you talking about? I hear someone mutter. Why, I’m flashing back to how I wrote my fast-paced, hard-pulsing, heart-stopping crime melodrama, Holly Through the Heart, a live radio play done in person for an enthusiastic (I hope) audience (captive) of Sisters in Crime: Heart of Texas members.

I had come up with a daring (hare-brained) scheme in September. Why not have an old-fashioned live radio murder mystery play for our Christmas party on December 14? Then I proceeded to ask (beg, cajole) people to be in the cast. I had everything set up. But there was just a tiny, wee problem.

I was having trouble with the play itself. As in, writing it. There were three lovely paragraphs, almost a whole first page done. It was very promising. But I was stuck.

To myself, I said, “Self, you have asked all these folks to be in your play, and we are going to have to rehearse before the show debuts on December 14, so what are you going to do?”

Then fellow AMW critique partner Kathy Waller said we should have a writing retreat the first weekend in October, so we did, at a cabin on the San Marcos River. The cabin was lovely and rustic, surrounded by giant pecan trees and nestled in rural obscurity—except for the eleventy-million trucks hauling monster barbecue smokers in and out of the property next door. There was a barbecue cooking contest being held in close proximity to our cabin on Friday and Saturday. I thought there would be lots of noise and craziness going on next door, but perhaps we might be invited over to partake of delicious delicacies.

But no. There was no offer of succulent meat, but the noise level was kept to a decorous level down by the river. So I couldn’t use loud music and barbecue overdose to excuse my almost nonexistent radio play.

What did I do, you might ask. On Friday night, we went to the Sac ’n Pac on the highway and purchased delicious burgers for our supper. Then we sat around and talked and talked and talked and finally went to sleep.

On Saturday, some troublemaker brought up the fact that we were technically on a writing retreat and that maybe we should write. If I remember correctly, fellow AMW critique partner Valerie Chandler said we should use the Pomodoro technique to write something. We limbered up our laptops and did the Pomodoro. What is the Pomodoro, you may ask? Here’s the word from Wikipedia:

“The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. The technique uses a timer to break down work into intervals traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks. These intervals are known as “pomodori”, the plural of the Italian word pomodoro for “tomato.” The method is based on the idea that frequent breaks can improve mental agility.” Taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pomodoro_Technique

I knew I was not motivated. But I sat there, hands poised over the keyboard, the timer went off, and I pounded away for twenty-five minutes. Took a break and then pounded for another twenty-five minutes.

And guess what?

I wrote the whole script.

That Saturday night, after we had gone back to the Sac ’n Pac to get pizza for dinner, we sat around and talked and talked and talked some more. One of the subjects we covered was my anguish over my current book plot. It needed help. So we all brainstormed, lying on couches, eating Goldfish (the baked cheese kind) and cookies and solved my plot problem.

That’s my story, coppers, and no matter how much you grill me, I won’t change my tune. That’s how it all went down.

So now, as I write this blog post on the evening of December 13, waiting for my pot roast to get almost done before I put in the potatoes (battered private dicks sometimes cook), and anticipating putting on the play tomorrow at 2 p.m. at the Book Spot in Round Rock, I think it’s going to be great.

We’ve rehearsed, given feedback, and worked on sound effects. I’ve had directorial angst, but I feel good about the whole thing.

Kudos to Kathy for setting up the writing retreat and for Valerie’s and Kathy’s help with Pomodoro sprints and book plot brainstorming.

Tomorrow Holly Through the Heart has its debut performance far from Broadway, at the Book Spot in Round Rock, Texas. But the journey begins with a single Pomodori, does it not?

I only wish, Valerie, that you had not gotten me addicted to Goldfish, but then artists must suffer, I suppose.

Star Date: December 14, 2014

Book Spot Dec. 14 SINC 028

From left to right: Alex Ferraro, Kathy Waller, David Ciambrone, Gale Albright, and Valerie Chandler, cast of Holly Through the Heart, an old-time radio mystery drama performed live at its debut at the Book Spot on December 14, in Round Rock, TexasBook Spot Dec. 14 SINC 030A  cookie script of Holly Through the Heart, created by culinary genius Valerie Chandler.

By Gale Albright

Don’t Cry for Me, Austin, Texas

0kathy-blog

Posted by Kathy Waller

*****

On Saturday, Gale and I will leave on a seven-hour drive to Alpine, in West Texas. We’ll attend the Writers’ League of Texas’ 2014 Summer Writing Retreat.

  • Big Bend National Park. By Kathy Waller.

    Big Bend National Park. By Kathy Waller.

    I’m almost ready to leave. All I have to do is

  • print out and re-read all email correspondence from the WLT concerning the retreat;
  • put together and print at least fifty pages of my rough raft, which isn’t too rough considering all the revising and polishing I’ve done, against all the best advice; (putting together the draft entails sorting through the many files I’ve saved under a variety of names, none of which makes sense now);
  • buy new sneakers (the retreat doesn’t require formal dress) and a passel of socks to replace those the dryer has eaten; buy new khaki slacks if I can find a pair whose legs don’t drag the ground (petites are usually sold out);
  • pile everything I need to take, and a few things I don’t, on the guest room bed beside the suitcase, which is closed to prevent William and Ernest (big, hulking guy cats) from sleeping in it;
  • find my favorite novel, Harper Lee‘s To Kill a Mockingbird, for class, even though the book violates the cardinal rule of novel-writing by beginning with several pages of backstory and getting away with it;
  • buy a notebook, even though I have several, because a week-long retreat merits a new one, and pens in a variety of styles and colors;
  • make sure the laptop, the cord, the mouse, and my camera are stowed safely inside my
    More prizes!

    More prizes!

    green Austin Mystery Writers tote; make sure my charged cell phone and the charger are stowed safely inside my purse;

  • confirm with my husband that the car will make it to Alpine and back;
  • do one last load of laundry; pack;
  • get up early, load the car, pick up Gale, and head out.

Gale is probably ready to leave now. She is organized.

Some people would say we’re crazy, driving half-way across the state to do homework every night. Before my first retreat, three years ago, I might have said the same.

But at the end of the first day’s class, I was so energized that I couldn’t stop writing. I wrote long emails that made better reading than anything else I produced during the week. (I had a friend patient enough to read them and kind enough to say, “Send more.”) I might even have done some blogging. After all that, I completed my homework.

The person responsible for my sudden productivity was Karleen Koen, novelist and teacher, whose class was titled something like Writing Your Novel, but who actually taught creativity, with activities designed to quiet the internal critic and allow ideas to surface. One of the ten-minute writings I did in class later turned into a thirty-page story for the Austin Mystery Writers’ anthology of short stories.* Anyone who can pull me out of the doldrums and start me on a creative binge, as Karleen did, is an exemplary teacher.

Next week, I’ll spend five days in another of Karleen’s classes: The Damned Rough Draft: Reframing and Reimagining Your Novel in Its Beginning Stages. Gale is registered to take the class, too. I have a vision of two roommates writing busily away every night.

Of course, we’ll also sit on the porch of the little 1950s tourist court where we’re staying (and where I once ran into a lizard in the shower), enjoying the cool, clear, mosquito-less evenings in a town that, every night, turns off all lights and lets the stars shine through.

And there’s the restaurant in nearby Marfa that serves pistachio encrusted fried chicken breast. I hear they’ve added pistachio encrusted steak to the menu.

Some of our Sisters in Crime will be there. We’ll definitely run into them and will perhaps cook up some mischief.

And there’s the extra day Gale and I will spend after the conference roaming around the countryside. Fort Davis. The MacDonald Observatory. Balmorhea State Park, a cool oasis in the high desert. Big Bend National Park. Endless possibilities.

But I’m going out there to write. I’ll do nothing to distract us from Karleen Koen’s class. Based on my experience, it will be too valuable to play hookey, even mentally.  But we will play, because Karleen believes that’s where creativity comes from.

And that’s how my August will begin.

English: This is Alpine, Texas with the six-th...

English: This is Alpine, Texas with the six-thousand foot plus Ranger, Twin Sisters, & Paisano Peaks in the foreground. (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Public domain. By Rebelcry (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

So, ‘though I’ll be far away from beautiful Austin, Texas for an entire week, there’s no reason to pity me.

I’ll be in the mountains, doing what I love.

 

 

 

 

 *****

*Have you heard about the AMW anthology? If not, you will.

 *****

Kathy Waller blogs at To Write Is to Write Is to Write.

Karleen Koen blogs at Karleen Koen–writing life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where Do You Find Hope?

0kathy-blog*

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Posted by Kathy Waller

*****

This isn’t a kindergarten for amateur writers. I’m sorry, Mr Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.” ~ Rejection from the editor of the San Francisco Examiner to Rudyard Kipling

*****

What makes a successful writer?

Aside from a working knowledge of the language and a certain amount of talent, answers generally include persistence, organization, initiative, professionalism, practice, vision, confidence, tolerance for criticism and rejection, vision, confidence, self-discipline, resilience, motivation, creativity, empathy, patience, courage, flexibility . . . Well, it’s a long list.

But Ralph Keyes, in The Writers’ Book of Hope, says aspiring writers need two basic things: a knowledge of how the publishing industry works, and hope.

Publishing has changed considerably since Keyes’ book was published just over ten years ago, and the Internet has made it easier to find what beginning writers want to know.

Hope is a different matter. There’s plenty of pessimism and discouragement out there. Where does a writer seeking publication acquire hope?

In my experience, much of it comes from other writers.

Last month I spent a Saturday morning in a class sponsored by the Writers’ League of Texas and taught by novelist Karleen Koen. I first met Karleen three years ago, when she taught at the WLT Summer Writing Retreat, and I’ll see her again at the WLT retreat this August. Last month’s class was a “sneak peek” at the August class: “The Damned Rough Draft: Reframing and Reimagining Your Novel in Its Beginning Stages.”

I’m not the only one of Karleen’s students who keeps coming back for one more course. She’s a good teacher. What she knows, she shares. She also acknowledges both the highs and the lows of her own writing life. (The title of this year’s class–“The Damned Rough Draft”–is evidence of her empathy with students.)

Karleen doesn’t promise the people sitting in her classes will become novelists, but she makes the possibility come alive. She is generous. She offers hope.

Who are other hope-givers?

Members of Austin Mystery Writers, and similar groups, who read and critique thirty to fifty pages every week. Beta readers, who go through entire manuscripts–hundreds of pages–to offer criticism. Strangers who read blog posts and Like or Reblog or Tweet or leave comments. All readers who tell the truth–both positive and negative–in a way that says, “I believe in you. Keep writing.”

It’s your turn now, writers: Who gives you hope?