Leave Your Warm-Up in the Gym

By John Gilstrap

Week before last, I had the honor of serving on the staff of the Writing Away Retreat in beautiful Breckenridge, Colorado, where we awoke to snow, only to have it melt in the 70-degree afternoon sunshine. 

Here’s how it works: Twenty writers (as many as 31, actually) gather in this massive mansion of a house just off Main Street, where they spend five days together in the most nurturing, creative environment that I have experienced outside of teaching I used to do at Virginia’s Governor’s School for the Humanities and Visual and Performing Arts.  Cicily Janus, the Retreat’s creator and hostess, is a gourmet chef who creates outstanding meals out of only fresh and natural foods.  We’re not talking granola and seeds here, folks, but rather fresh beef, fresh eggs, fresh fruit and vegetables.  Mac-n-cheese lunch day is a nearly religious experience.

As faculty—a position I shared with a number of other professional writers, editors and literary agents—my job was to critique 10,000-word submissions from the attending writers.  That accounted for a few hours of every day, and the rest of the time allowed me to write nearly thirty pages of HIGH TREASON, my Grave book for 2013.  I confess that it was a little intimidating to consider offering an honest critique and then dining and partying with the people on the other end, but I was thrilled to see that this was a group of realists, who understand that honest criticism is part of the writing journey.

As far as I can tell, no one ever turned on a television, unless it was in their private bedroom (this is a BIG house), and every attendee found the inspiration they needed to take the next step forward on their manuscript.  Folks, if given the opportunity to attend one of these events, I recommend that you pounce on the opportunity.  (I have no idea what people pay to attend, but when you factor in the four-star lodging and five-star food, I’m sure it’s worth the price.)  I will forever have fond memories of the alcohol-infused marathon 8-Ball tournament with Andre, Signe and Eric.  I’m sure I didn’t win, but I have no idea who did.

There’s a talent bell curve in any event like this, but I have to say that overall, I was highly impressed with the level of talent among the students.  Two stories in particular have what I think is tremendous commercial potential.

While strengths and weaknesses vary, though, nearly 100% of the submissions shared the same weakness: a first-chapter digression to backstory.  They’d launch with a terrific hook, they’d get some good momentum going, and then they’d slam on the brakes to tell me stuff that I really didn’t need to know.  The rationale was always the same: “I need the reader to understand where my character is coming from.”  Or some variation thereof.

No, they don’t the reader needs to be pulled along by compelling real-time, on-stage action.  Motivation can wait.  Motivation can always wait.

We all do it, folks.  very writer on the planet makes the same mistakes.  What separates the professionals from the hopefuls is the ruthless, critical eye that allows us to carve up our beloved creations with a dull machete.

Of the submissions I critiqued, a full 30% included the recommendation to kill the first chapter and start with the second.  In one case, I suggested that the book start on page 25.  It’s as if we address the daunting task of writing a book with 2,500 words of warm-up.  Twenty-five hundred words of tuning.  Rehearsal, maybe.  That’s fine.  Whatever gets the creative juices flowing.

And now that the juices are flowing, erase the rehearsal from your recording CD.


Okay, now there’s one bit of shameless self-promotion (as if I need to burden you with more of that).  I learned earlier this week that Threat Warning was nominated for a Shamus Award from the Private Eye Writers of America.  It’s one of the big ones, and I’m totally jazzed.