In 2013, a friend and I decided to take a long weekend, get a cabin in East Texas, and focus on writing for a few days.
It became an annual thing until last year, when — like so many other events — we canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With both of us now fully vaccinated, we decided to resume the retreat.
A Strange Place
The retreat couldn’t have resumed at a better time. I’ve all but reached the end of submitting the current novel, and I’m nearing a point where I’m prepared to call it quits with submitting fiction entirely. (I would rather record and release short stories on Not About Lumberjacks. And because the current book being submitted is the first novel in a series I want to finish, I’m not willing to stop and jump to the next thing that might sell.)
It’s a strange place to be for someone who decided to take writing seriously at 20. My entire adulthood has been spent pursuing commercial publication. Along the way, I’ve had successes and met some of the best people I’ll ever know.
You learn something with each book that doesn’t sell, and I know that were I to write either a straight-up “serious” novel or a full-blown genre novel that I’d have better odds. The current book has had partial and full requests by agents representing some of the biggest writers alive (and, in some cases, the estates of those who ever lived), so it’s not a matter of, “You don’t write well.” It’s more about, “This was a lovely literary thing until it became infused with too many genre elements.”
So I come out of this year’s writing retreat a different writer, focused on one to two more books I know will not sell.
A Great Place
Daingerfield State Park is a great place to think. It’s as though a tiny pocket of the places I’ve been in Wisconsin and Canada were transported to a small state park in East Texas. It’s a place where feelings of outdoor nostalgia mingle with who I am today.
If someone told me the lake, there, was created by a tiny glacier, I’d believe them; it has that kind of feel. It reminds me of a particular small lake in the town where I lived in northern Illinois before moving to Texas when I was fifteen. Seeing people lounging on a floating platform in the swimming area of the park could be a photo from some of the places I’ve camped farther north of where I grew up in Lake County.
Throw in hiking trails, tall pines, and so many birds, and it’s one of my favorite spots in the Lone Star State.
The Results of Thinking
This was a retreat more about thinking than writing…although I did get some writing done. For my friend, it was a return to writing after years of setting it aside. (He decided he was tired of corporate life after a layoff a handful of years ago and made a mid-life career change to becoming a nurse.) Much of the thinking he did was about the novel he was making progress on before he tackled some college classes and entered (and completed) nursing school.
He walked away knowing what needs to be done to finish that novel. The writing retreat is one of the few times we talk about the specifics of works in progress — and where he’s going makes a very fun book infused with philosophy even more full of heart and structure than what was already solid from the start.
For me, most of my thoughts were about what’s next for me as a writer. I didn’t walk away from the retreat with grand plans, but I know Not About Lumberjacks will become even more important to me. I also thought about my day job quite a bit. As a technical writer with some years behind me, I’ve reached a point where I should probably become more…technical. But the thought of learning more about APIs, coding, and a handful of other things…doesn’t frighten me, but it’s not something that fires me up, either.
Because I’ve focused on fiction for so long, I’ve always viewed my day job as just a thing I do to make enough money to get by. Time is more important than income because, with time, I’m able to focus on writing stories. While I’ve worked overtime/off hours at work around software releases, I have never had work email on my phone. I don’t allow people at work to contact me outside office hours, unless it’s my manager and an absolute emergency.
My job is just a job — not at all a reflection of who I am. I do what I do better than most in my position, but my job is not a thing that defines me. (My job allows me to do the things that do define me, though…and in that sense, it’s very important to me.)
There is no career change on the horizon, but a bit of a shift in focus is in order in the coming year or two. It’s not that I dislike being a technical writer, but I’ve enjoyed times I’ve supported training groups and done instructional design more than documenting online help systems, so…if it comes down to spending a bit more time on day job things, I’m more likely to enjoy future positions if I put effort into learning how to properly record and edit audio and video than the haphazard way I do those things today. And given the choice of learning more about coding and APIs or doing even more with audio and video, the thing that transfers to what I will still do with fiction makes the most sense.
(This is the first time I walked away from the annual writing retreat thinking about work as much as the stories I write…maybe even a little more.)
Regarding Nebulous Ideas
I’m glad I didn’t expect to leave this year’s retreat with answers to any of the questions bouncing around in my head. I hoped some nebulous thoughts I’ve had became more clear (they did), and that I’d walk away with at least some bearings to follow (yep!).
While I am done with querying agents, I have friends in publishing who have offered to help me in the past. As I’ve mentioned before, I am terrible about asking for help.
I will ask for help, though…and have a plan to make it easier on those people if they want a taste of the current novel.
I will obviously keep writing fiction. Not About Lumberjacks is a thing wholly my own, where whatever I want to write has a home. And through it, I know so many stories that would have likely seen rejection for various reasons have become stories meaning so much to people.
I’ll be so bold to say it: I can think of only one other fiction podcast like Not About Lumberjacks, and The Dog is Dead ran 14 episodes before reaching its end. There’s nothing else currently out there like what I’m doing.
I no longer have to contend with rejections like, “You are a great writer. This is a wonderful and ambitious project, but…I don’t know how I’d market it.” Worst case for my novels, now: they get their own feeds on my quirky fiction podcast and will at least be out there for those so inclined to listen or read.
Nothing needs to be decided to move forward, so I’m not racking my brain trying to come up with solutions.
I enjoy writing, and have a place where people have easy and free access to what I write with my podcast, so I know that much is working. It’s not a thing I want to monetize, but that doesn’t mean it can’t become a thing leading to things that do make some money.
In time, all the cloudy ideas in my head should develop into something more tangible. But if they don’t — even if they dissipate into nothing — I’m all right with that.
In a weird way, nearing the end of viewing what I write as something potentially commercial is freeing. (I know enough people who push off projects they want to do more than anything for things that are more likely to sell.) Every novel I’ve written to a readable state came with the hope of publication; now, I get to write one or two more novels for no other reason than I want them to exist. (I know you don’t sell the second or third book in a series if the first “fails,” so they will never be submitted to anyone.)
It’s only now that I realize how productive this year’s writing retreat was. Yesterday I rode home from East Texas thinking more about how it was nice hanging out among the pine trees with a best friend than I did about writing. We talked more about music and life than about writing. And it was nice; aside from seeing my mom a handful of times this past year and some months, my friend Deacon is the first person I’ve spent time with who was not my wife in over a year!
It’s not been until writing this that I’ve realized how much got done these past few days.
What’s next might still be a bit hazy, but I’ll figure it out and get there…
Paul Lamb says
I know a few writers who have had some publishing success who are now saying that they are finished with submitting to agents and publications and instead doing something on their own. (One man I know is setting up his own press.)
I’d like to know more about this.
Christopher Gronlund says
It has always seemed that, with the exceptions, so many people who end up published eventually don’t. Or perhaps they have a couple successes and then see work published, but it doesn’t come with much more than another book they can point a handful of people toward.
For me, I have outlets with podcasts. And were I a bit more secure in “real world” life (i.e. a house, some security, and a retirement fund), I’d be even more okay with where things stand for me.
I think of all the mornings we’ve chatted with each other on our blogs and how much it’s meant to me over the years…and I think of other people I know (in person and online because I choose to write), and it’s wonderful.
Maybe sometime in the coming weeks it will hit me, but right now, when I think about the realities most writers face, I have this weird little pocket of people who listen to my stories online. With effort, I can probably increase how many people listen, perhaps to a point beyond those who might have read my novels were they published.
Ultimately, I just want to write. It would be nice if it made some supplemental income, or was “the thing,” but I know I’m fortunate to do it at all, and I’m glad there are others like you doing the same.