My First Virtual Writing Retreat

It began with us bellowing at the top of our lungs, “I AM A WRITER!”, a primal scream echoing throughout Zoom. 

It would end with 20 kindred spirits becoming friends and bonding over writing.

Proclaiming yourself a writer to others is a courageous act.

I spent last weekend at the #5amwritersclub’s Unforgettable Characters & Incredible Journeys Virtual Writing Retreat doing exactly that.

Since the pandemic began, I’ve attended several virtual lectures and seminars about writing, but never a writing retreat, so I didn’t know what to expect. 

Author Ralph Walker opened the retreat to writers who wanted to improve their current works. I was one of the lucky applicants who made the cut, and wasn’t disappointed. 

Nineteen participants joined Ralph over Zoom for two and a half days, sharing their work and learning about developing characters and strengthening plots. This is like boot camp with beta reading, hourlong writing sessions, and discussing our work. 

But Unforgettable Characters & Incredible Journeys (shortened to the hashtaggy #UCIJRetreat2021) allowed us to exist in a judgment-free safe space. Thanks to Ralph and the other participants, I overcame my own anxiety and worked out a problem I had with one storyline. 

Boxes filled with writer heads on your computer screen! Comparisons to The Brady Bunch opening titles were made, and I’m unfortunately Cousin Oliver.

We were taught to consider memorable characters from fiction and why they’re so unforgettable. What makes them tick? What drives them forward? How do they deal with obstacles? How do they change during the story? 

The more details you throw in your character study, the more fleshed-out and real your characters become. 

This technique also works for antagonists and side characters. Don’t create two-dimensional cardboard cutout characters. Breathe life into them and reward your readers with kick-ass heroes and villains they’ll remember.

We used graph paper and mapped out the character’s journey with one-page outlines, focusing on motivation and the various plot points. I hadn’t used graph paper since my Dungeons & Dragons days in the 1980s (meticulously drawing all those dungeon crawls and traps) so using it again was like coming home. 

The outlines are divided into external and internal journeys. As the characters move through their world and have their physical adventures, they also undergo an inner journey and the knowledge they obtain transforms them.

I enjoyed mapping out the character’s journey, and applied the same technique for the love interest in my mystery WiP. Both characters in my story begin as optimistic new reporters and end up disillusioned by what they uncovered. Seeing how their stories unfolded was a revelation to visual learners like me.

These journeys shouldn’t be uncomplicated or easy. Throw as much chaos and turmoil at your characters and make them squirm. Be a sadist. Hit them with obstacles, sticky predicaments, and insurmountable odds. Then have them extricate themselves or sink deeper. Let your protagonists sweat and keep readers turning those pages until the end.

Before the retreat, Ralph mailed each of us a boxful of retreat swag! A workbook, #5amwritersclub stickers and coffee mug, some tea bags and coffee beans, candy and toys. We wore the beaded necklaces, played with the noisemakers and drank our brown caffeinated wakey juice from the mugs. Swag is always a nice touch. 

A package of swag arrived weeks before the virtual retreat. Who doesn’t like swag? Even the name is fun. Swag!

At various points during the retreat we opened mystery envelopes THE CONTENTS OF WHICH ARE TOP SECRET AND CANNOT BE REVEALED HERE. These REDACTED materials enabled us to REDACTED and write REDACTED and helped REDACTED our REDACTED. 

Only attendees know what the envelopes contain, and we’re not telling.

The synergy we had with each other inspired me. Reading and discussing our work in small groups (virtual or not) is a bonus. Since large groups intimidate me, these small sessions comprised of four participants each and were my favorite.  

What can I say about the friendships I made over that weekend? 

It’s three days later and I’m still thinking about them and our conversations. During our last discussion, I started missing everyone. When I switched the computer off, those feelings still lingered. 

I love my writer peeps!

These are dedicated scribes who devoted their time to improving their writing craft. I’m grateful for their feedback and guidance.

Writing is a solitary affair. We all sit in front of our keyboards and arrange words on screens and tell stories by our lonesome. Bonding with my fellow writers made me realize that I’m not the only traveler on this freaky journey. Other sojourners are trekking down the same well-worn path. Some are snagged in potholes while others have merged onto the highway. 

We’re in this wordsmithery thing together.  

Ralph Walker is a rock star. He’s a patient and kind teacher who wants writers to realize their potential and succeed. 

Writers should always continue learning, evolving, and refining their work. This retreat, which will be offered again later this year, will help you do that. 

I recommend it for any writer, no matter their skill level, who wants to up their game and connect with other writers. #UCIJRetreat2021 is an informative event forged with the admiration and love of writing. 

Attend it and grow. 

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