More Thoughts on Retreats

Susannah/Sadie here, just trying to keep cool…

A few weeks ago the Wickeds posted about the annual retreat they take to the Maine coast. Today I thought I’d post some tips about how to plan your own retreat. Whether you’re a writer, a scrapbooker, a knitter, or have some other craft or hobby you want to have some uninterrupted time to work on with other like-minded folks, a retreat can be a great way to get away from (most of) the responsibilities of daily life and really focus.

I’ll use a writing retreat as an example for the rest of this post, but this basic template will work for most other types.

First you need to decide whom you want to ask to go on your retreat with you. Think very carefully about your roster. You will be in close quarters with these people for several days. Make sure you choose a team of people who don’t have habits you can’t live with, and whom you can trust to pull their weight with shared chores, and whom you can trust to leave you alone when you are working. Don’t bring a diva along with you, anyone who needs to be the center of attention, or you’ll spend the whole weekend focusing on or distracted by her instead of your work. In a similar vein, make sure the people you ask are at more or less your level of skill and expertise. You don’t want a rank beginner, or you may end up doing more teaching than writing. The group I go with has been together for several years and we know each other well in and outside of the writing world. Although, we’re never really out of the writing world.

Next, you need to decide on a venue. I’m blessed in that one of my retreat partners owns a large, beautiful ski home on a mountain in Vermont that she is generous enough to open up to 8-10 of us twice a year. There are 4.5 baths and 5 bedrooms, good Wi-Fi, and, oh, a hot tub. If someone in your group has a second home somewhere, that might be just the place. If that’s not an option, depending on your budget, you may wish to rent a cottage somewhere, or even go to a hotel for a weekend. Obviously, the size of your venue dictates the size of the group you can take. Make sure everyone understands what kind of shared expenses there will be.

I highly recommend having a focus for your retreat. With my group, we set aside several hours (in two blocks) to work on plots and characterizations. We have a designated time where everyone sits around the big table, and we brainstorm a plot for each attendee. You would be amazed at how complete a story can be hammered out by 10 women in a half hour to 45 minutes. This ensures that everyone gets equal time, is giving as well as receiving, and comes away energized and ready to get to work. Bear in mind that we’ve been working together for a while now. The more times you retreat with the same group, the more efficient the process becomes.

Decide how you will handle meals, snacks, and cleanup. For our Vermont weekends, we potluck it, although we do a little advance planning so we don’t end up with 8 slow cookers full of chili. Anyone who’s crunched for time or not much of a cook can bring wine or offer to do the dishes. Oh, and we consider wine our eleventh member of the retreat.

Depending on where you hold your retreat, you may want to set aside a couple of hours to make a field trip into town. Where we go in Vermont (Manchester), there are both an amazing independent bookstore (Northshire Bookstore) and a yarn shop (Yarns For Your Soul). Do set a time limit so you don’t spend your retreat shopping instead of writing.

Finally, decide on some personal goals for the weekend. Perhaps you have a new project and you want to complete several chapters. Or you’re nearly finished with your first draft and you want to bring that puppy home. Or you have a word count target. Be fairly aggressive with your goal setting. The energy that comes from the group may surprise you. Take advantage of it and get as much, or more, done than you ever thought possible.

Oh, and do something nice for your hostess. Bring her a gift, and don’t leave her with a dirty house to clean after you’ve gone.

Do you go on retreat? Would you like to? It’s not that difficult to organize one!

Myth-Busting, Part III – Personal Editing

WW Editing

Congratulations to Terri Crossley! You are the winner of the Sarah Winston Garage Sale Mysteries. Please contact Sherry at! was used for the drawing.

This month, we’ve busting myths and rules about writing and the writing process. We’ve talked about character bibles and word count goals, and today we’re talking personal editing habits.

Many writers and teachers alike follow the mantra of, “Get the whole first draft down before you edit a word.” It works for a lot of people, especially those who dread the slog of a first draft. But some people say they need to look at what they’ve already done and make it better before they can move forward. So who’s right? Wickeds, what do you think?

Sherry: I do a combination of both. I think I’ve shared the odd way I write before — the beginning, the end, and then back to the middle. Because of this I do some editing along the way. But avoid writing and rewriting the same scene over and over. I think that is a form of procrastination or fear of failure.

Jessie: I am of the “get the draft done, then go back” school of thought. I don’t change anything already written before the draft is done. For example, if I decide to combine two characters into one, I go forward as if that has always been the case from the moment I make the decision. I wait until a revision draft to begin to patch things up. I tend to write quickly during those early drafts and I really don’t want anything slowing down my flow.

Barb: I am also of the “never look back” school, partially because I don’t know what needs to be fixed until I’ve gotten to the end, read the whole first draft, and made some decisions. I could waste a lot of time going back and fixing stuff–and then end up cutting the whole scene for one reason or another. Sometimes I KNOW I’m creating continuity issues, but I soldier on.

Julie: I write the entire draft. But, I use inline edits in Scrivener, and also use brackets and write myself notes like this [fix this later] [find out what you called her in the second chapter] [add more clock stuff here] [is this true or did you make it up?]. I’ve learned to trust my plotting, and keep on going.

Edith: I also like to crank out the sh**ty first draft, as Anne Lamott said. I try not to stop for research while I’m writing, instead typing [CHECK THIS] or a variation on one of Julie’s notes. One of my first editing passes is to search for left square bracket and then go check for answers to those questions. That said, every morning when I start writing I reread what I wrote the day before. I do some minor editing, fleshing out, tweaking. It gets me back into the story and reminds me of what’s coming up next.


Photo by Lisa Risager (blue socks for a feminist) via Wikimedia Commons

I think it’s interesting that this approach we all pretty much share would not work in some other art forms – like knitting, for example! Can you imagine knitting the rough draft for a sock and then polishing it? Although it might work for a painting. I wouldn’t know, not having talents in that direction, but I can imagine an artist might lay down the rough idea for a picture and then fine tune it.

Liz: I always intend to write the first  draft through, but when I get stuck I find that if I go back and do some editing, I end up making changes that get me unstuck. I don’t love that it works that way because I always feel like I’m never going to get the entire book done, but it seems to work – even when I’m churning out the last chapter after the rest of the book has been revised a few times!

Readers: What do you crank out and then refine, and what kinds of projects do you have to make your best on the first try? Writers – anybody out there write just one draft, ready to submit?

You Can Go Home Again

By Sherry — who in this heat wave is contemplating a move to a cooler climate

I’m giving away a set of Sarah Winston Garage Sale Mysteries — details at the end of the post.

They say you can’t go home again, but I did last week and it was fabulous.

IMG_9907When All Murders Final! came out I knew I wanted to do a signing in my hometown of Davenport, Iowa.

IMG_9573When most people think of Iowa they think of cornfields, small towns, and flat land. But Davenport is a small city, 100,000, in a group of small cities with a population of around 400,000. Since it sits on the Mississippi, river it’s anything but flat.

I worked in the tall building which was a bank.

I worked in the tall building which was a bank.

I’ve only been back twice since my parent’s moved away in 1991. But every time I go back I’m struck by how lucky I was to grow up in a place with great schools, lots of parks, a museum, an art gallery, and so much more.

I’m not crazy about doing signings alone so I asked my friend Matthew Clemens to do the signing with me. Matt graduated the year after me from the same high school but with classes of over 700 we didn’t meet until a couple of years ago, first via Facebook and finally in person when he was in DC doing research. Matt might not have known me, but he had my dad as a math teacher in seventh grade.

I had two other purposes for the trip: to spend time with high school and college friends, and to show my daughter the places that influenced what made me, me. Since my husband was in the Air Force, my daughter had only been to Davenport twice — when she was one and six.

IMG_9557The first part of the journey was meeting my friend Carol in the Atlanta airport. She was the one with the short turn around time and I was the one that was supposed to throw myself in the doorway of the plane to hold it until she got there. Of course nothing ever goes as planned so her plane arrived thirty minutes early and I ended up running through the airport as our plane boarded.

Carol’s brother picked us up at the airport and entrusted us with his car. He also took us to a beautiful restaurant on the Mississippi for dinner.


We stayed at Hotel Blackhawk which back in my teen years no one would have gone to. It’s been restored, is stunningly beautiful, and has a bartender that makes the most amazing dessert martini’s.

It even has a bowling alley! (And our last night there we bowled.) The next day more sorority sisters joined us and there was talk, laughter to the point of crying, and more martini’s.

A classmate told me that Cary Grant is supposed to haunt the Hotel Blackhawk. He had a massive stroke there right before he was going to do a performance at the theater next door. He died at the hospital. One of my friends and I were sitting in her room. There was a knock, knock, knock on the door but no one was there or in the hall.

IMG_9648Maybe Cary stopped by to say hello.

One of the many beautiful buildings downtown.

The day of the signing dawned. I always get nervous. What if know one shows up? What if I let the store down? So Carol and I walked around downtown reminiscing about high jinx, talking about the windows of department stores at Christmas, and how much downtown had changed.

Matt and I met at Barnes and Noble (him cool, calm, collected, me — not so much). But then people started to arrive, classmates, teachers, family friends. It was amazing. Time flew by.

We stayed longer than the two hours, and barely had time to speak to each other. It was interesting to see where our lives intersected, who Matt knew that I knew. It almost seemed impossible that we’d never met.

IMG_9856After the signing we adjourned to The Filling Station, a place I spent a lot of time in my late teens and early twenties. Lots of people came and it was like a mini high school reunion. It was so great to catch up with friends.

Sunday was the day to show my daughter around. The two houses I lived in growing up. The second one was built by my father and some of his fellow teachers.

We also drove by the schools I attended and where my parents taught, parks that I played in, and the beautiful old homes in East Davenport.

Monday morning we left to visit Kirksville, Novinger, and LaPlata, Missouri and then St. Louis but I’ll leave that for another post.

But the glow from my wonderful time is still with me so to share that glow I’m giving away a set of the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mysteries: Tagged for Death, The Longest Yard Sale, All Murders Final. Leave a comment for a chance to win.

Readers: Where is home for you? Can you go back?

Feeling Reflective

Or, A Letter to My Younger Self

Edith here, yes, feeling reflective toward the end of another New England July.

We’re in full summer here. Our glorious short-lived tomatoes are ripe and dripping deliciousness. Corn is starting to come in. The blueberries have been fabulous. The beach is primo. And it’s been nice and hot, as summer is supposed to be. Hey, remember, it’s going to snow soon! I try to soak it all up, all the flavors and aromas and sensations, while summer lasts.


John David and Allan Hutchison-Maxwell

Still, the days are getting shorter already, and I’m getting old enough that it makes me think about my own days inevitably getting shorter. I’m still thriving, don’t get me wrong, and just recently have even managed to corral a couple of runaway aspects of my health. All good. And I have two awesome, healthy, handsome, generous, fun, self-supporting sons (ages 30 and 27), which makes me the happiest mom in the world.



At Indiana University,  1980

But all this makes me think of what I might want to tell my twenty-something self if I had the chance. What might be better about my life now if I’d done a few things differently back  then?

So here goes. Dear Edith (or Edie, as I was known for most of my twenties),

Please consider not lifting the heaviest thing you can. You’re little. You don’t have to prove anything, and it’s going to be hard on your joints. Also, use the gears on your ten-speed bicycle. You don’t have to use the hardest gear at all times, especially going up hills.

Reflect on what you say to your elders. You didn’t invent these freethinking new ideas, and your parents and other older people might have also thought them, both back in the day and now. Go easy on them; don’t be a know-it-all.

Remember those short stories you used to write in elementary school, and the one titled “Viking Girl” you actually got paid for when you were nine? Try your hand at fiction again before you turn sixty. You might find you’re good at it.

You could think about heeding the advice Dr. Mackler [battleax old-style female doctor]
gave you when you were sixteen about staying out of the sun, instead of going 100-percent tanning at the quarry or roasting in your bikini at the beach. You’re a pale-face Celt, girl, and you don’t have the kind of skin that can tolerate burns or even tans. You don’t want age spots and pre-cancerous lesions later on – do you?

But otherwise yolettertoself (2)u’re doing fine. Keep living life to the fullest, keep telling those you love you love them (you’re good at that), keep following your dreams, wherever they lead you. It’s all going to be material one day!

Love, your Older Self

Readers: What would you tell your twenty-something self? Any regrets from those days? Anything you’re particularly proud of from that era of your life?



What’s my brand? What does it matter? And a giveaway! by Daryl Wood Gerber

Hey all, Liz here – and today I’m happy to host the lovely and talented Daryl Wood Gerber. She doesn’t need much of an intro with this crowd – so take it away, Daryl!

blue_small_headshotBranding oneself – what does that mean?

When the first Cheese Shop Mystery came out, I “branded” myself as the cheese lady. I did my research. I became knowledgeable. I had fun. Readers at conferences didn’t know my name, but they knew I was the cheese lady.

When the first Cookbook Nook Mystery came out, I re-branded myself as a culinary  or foodie mystery author. It was a no-brainer. I know food. I love recipes. The Cookbook Nook Mysteries are set in a cookbook shop and feature food. Plus I was already posting GTS_coverrecipes and photographs on Mystery Lovers Kitchen.

However, when I decided to publish a stand-alone suspense novel, I hit a wall. How was I supposed to brand myself so that readers knew what they were getting? Would my readers feel that I had betrayed them? What about the food and the recipes and the small town flavors they had come to expect from me?

As I was redesigning my website, I came up with some food terms that I thought might help define my work: Tasty ~ Zesty ~ Dangerous.

Tasty and zesty are pretty self-explanatory. Why dangerous? Think of it like three-alarm-chili dangerous.  At first it was a designation for some of my short stories. They are not all cozy. Then I realized that dangerous could also work for my future suspense novels.

However, I got to wondering if that was the brand that would help my fans feel comfortable reaching for my other genre titles on the shelves? I asked myself: Why have my readers truly enjoyed my books? It can’t be just because of the food element. I’m not a celebrity chef.

Then it hit me. My readers like that I write about family. The protagonists in all my books are closely bonded to family. They are loyal. They follow their hearts. Not all families are built the same way, of course. In the Cheese Shop series, Charlotte’s family includes her darling grandparents, her cousin and his daughters, and her good friends Delilah and Meredith. In the Cookbook Nook series, Jenna’s family includes her dad and aunt but also her good friends, Bailey and Katie. [Just between you, me, and the lamppost, I think she would like to make Rhett family sometime soon, too.] No matter what, the protagonist’s devotion to protecting those she loves is vital to her—just like it is to me.

So, though all my novels might be tasty, zesty, or dangerous, the theme is always family.

For example:

GOTR_pngIn Girl on the Run, when Chessa wakes up beside the body of her husband, nauseous and confused, unable to explain to the sheriff why her princess costume is covered in blood, she runs. Over the course of the novel, she must delve into the truth about her husband and her family.

In Grilling the Subject, Jenna’s father becomes the suspect in the murder of one of his neighbors. The woman and he have been at odds over property rights. Jenna won’t sit back and let him go to jail. She has to prove him innocent.

Now, a question you might ask: can my cozy readers read my suspense even though they are categorized as dangerous? Yes. I still avoid using bad language. I do not write explicit sex or violence. The pace is faster, the ante greater, but the theme—family—is the same.

Some might wonder whether writing in multiple genres means I’m scattered. I don’t think so. I’m creative. I have lots of ideas. There are plenty of authors who write for more than one audience. It can be done.

What’s next for me? I’m going to publish another suspense. It will come out in November. I’m going to continue writing more cozy mysteries, too.

No matter what, each novel—whether tasty, zesty, or dangerous—will focus on family because family matters. That’s my brand and I’m sticking to it!

Daryl, thanks for visiting!

Readers, leave a comment for Daryl for a chance to win any of her published books in print or e-book format: Cheese Shop Mysteries (1-7), Cookbook Nook Mysteries (1-4), or Girl on the Run. 

Agatha Award-winning and nationally bestselling author DARYL WOOD GERBER ventures into the world of suspense with her gripping debut novel, GIRL ON THE RUN. Daryl also writes the bestselling Cookbook Nook Mysteries. AsAVERY AAMES, she pens the bestselling Cheese Shop Mysteries. Fun tidbit: as an actress, Daryl appeared in “Murder, She Wrote”. In addition, she has jumped out of a perfectly good airplane and hitchhiked around Ireland by herself. She absolutely adores Lake Tahoe, where GIRL ON THE RUN is set, and she has a frisky Goldendoodle named Sparky. Visit Daryl at
Twitter: @darylwoodgerber

Welcome Reviewer Extraordinaire, John Valeri!

Hey friends, Liz here. Today I have the pleasure of introducing one of my favorite pals – and hardcore book reviewer – John Valeri. John and I met the first time I attended the Seascape Writer’s Retreat (jeez, was that in 2007? How can that be??) and I was immediately captivated by his love for books, his contagious laugh and his obsession with everything Scream. Today, John has made quite a name for himself in the world of book reviews – a name that no doubt will continue to grow in popularity as he moves into a proverbial new chapter. He’s here today to tell us all about that chapter. 

Take it away, John!

John ValeriOn June 25th, my Hartford Books Examiner (HBE) Facebook page reached its 1,000th like.

On the 28th, I was at R.J. Julia—Connecticut’s illustrious indie bookstore—when a patron shared with me that her attendance at three recent events was a direct result of learning about them through my column (the ultimate validation for those of us who wonder if anybody’s actually reading our stuff).

Three days later, scrolling through Facebook, I learned that the forces behind had pulled the proverbial plug—and that my seven-and-a-half year reign as HBE had come to an unceremonious end. (How cliché that I’d learn of this through social media, right?)

A brief moment of panic.

Not because I’d have to find some new job to replace the $12 of income they paid me every month (that’s an approximation, and probably a generous one) but because I feared losing my place in the community that I so adore. So much of my identity had been wrapped up in a title. What would I do with that being taken away?

I had been granted intimate access to hundreds of authors, invited to moderate panels and one-on-one discussions at prestigious events, received complimentary books by the dozen, and found pull quotes of mine featured on, and in, books by the likes of James Patterson, Wally Lamb, Shania Twain, Mary Higgins Clark, and Debbie Macomber. Even Marcia Clark—yes, that Marcia Clark—who had been a hero of mine since the age of twelve.

It seemed I had a lot to lose.

But then? My paranoia was replaced by an overwhelming sense of … freedom.

While I am deeply appreciative of for providing me a forum, I had increasing frustrations about their poor compensation and maddeningly inconsistent editorial feedback. Still, I had hesitated to part ways because so many people knew me as an extension of that platform.

And then I realized something: Everything that HBE had become was my doing. I was the one who committed myself to writing multiple articles per week at the cost of sanity and sleep. I was the one who tirelessly recruited guest authors to appear virtually before they knew what was (but would later be so inundated with requests that I couldn’t keep up). I was the one who wrote the content that had been pulled for use in books and web sites and any number of other literary things.

Sadly, I also found that my voice, my very personality—which had been absolutely integral in branding HBE—was being silenced by nameless, faceless cyber superiors who thought they knew my readers better than I did. I firmly believe that professional and personable can coexist.

When I announced my liberation on Facebook, I was met with an overwhelming outpouring of support and encouragement from authors, bloggers, booksellers, readers, and other friends who I’d connected with since 2009. It soon became evident that my place among them was never in jeopardy. And if there was a common sentiment, it was this: Start your own site.

So I did.

Actually, my wife did. Chelsey—who is far better at all things requiring a modicum of tech savvy—immediately set about building my own personal web page. (She probably suspected that my initial elation at finding myself untethered would soon turn to abject terror.) On July 4th, I declared my creative independence with the unveiling of, a virtual home where I can continue pushing my bookish agenda with reckless abandon.

While this new endeavor has only just begun, I’m excited knowing that the next chapter is mine alone to write.

John, so excited that you’ll be starting your own site. Best of luck to you – and we’re all here to support you! Readers, leave John a comment and wish him well!

Myth Busting Part II – Word Count

Last week, we started tackling the (many) myths and rules that fly around about writing and the writing process, and busting them.

This week, we’re talking word count. Some say you have to decide on a word count to hit each day (or week) in order to declare success. So what do you think, Wickeds? Do you have a word count goal? Do you feel like you need one in order to feel like you’ve had a productive day/week?

Edith: I do use word count to push myself when I’m writing a first draft. I know some people don’t, and I’m not saying anybody else has to! But for me, to set a word count goal of 1500 or even 2000 words for a day keeps me in my seat, which is where the words flow onto the page. I started the first draft of Quaker Midwife #3 at the start of June, and I finished it at a too-short 56000 words last week on the 13th – which is fast even for me. And I accomplished that by setting word count goals.

Liz: Some kind of goal is helpful for me to stay on track, but it totally depends on where I am in the process. If I’m writing a first draft, I try to do a thousand words a day – but I’m also realistic enough to know during the week sometimes I won’t, so if I log a good number on the weekend instead, it’s ok. If I’m in the plotting phase, which I’m just trying out, maybe it’s 1-2 scenes a day, and then a few more on the weekend. And if I’m editing, I try to do a certain number of scenes, depending on how much work they need.

scrivener project targetsBarb: When I’m in first draft mode, I use word count to push myself. I leave the Scrivener project targets window visible at all times as a motivator. (“When I finish this, I can go for a swim.”) A good, comfortable day for me is 1200 words. For revisions, I have a number of scenes as a goal, or a number of pages. Often I’ll work on one day of the narrative.

Sherry: Early in the process I do a steady 1000 to 1500 words a day. I usually cover the word count on the computer so I focus on writing instead of the number of words.

Julie: I love that Scrivener helps with goals and word counts. I am a plotter, so I try and write a scene at a time. Wish I could say I wrote a scene a day, but having a full time job makes that tough for me. But I try for 4-5 scenes a week. Average manuscript has 60-65 scenes. I would love to establish a 500-1000 words a day habit, but I have trouble enough keeping up with my steps.

Edith: FYI for our non-writer reader friends, 250-300 words makes a page, usually. You can translate our daily goals for yourself.

Readers: How do you keep track of project goals, whether at work or at home? Writers, does word count motivate you?