Return to Writing Camp

VCCA Blue RidgeI began this final month of 2013 by driving to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, to begin a two-week residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. VCCA is a year round working artist colony that provides work time and space for writers, visual artists, and musicians. Resident artists, called Fellows, are granted a private studio, private bedrooms, meals, and the camaraderie of two dozen other Fellows who have also rearranged their home, work, and family lives to devote a few weeks to creating their art.

This was my second time as a Fellow. I chronicled my first experience at my blog here in posts called Postcards from Writing Camp, Part I and Part 2.

 My first residency was nearly two years ago. I arrived with no clear idea of what to expect. I spent my two weeks there writing in a converted chicken coop, which I fondly called The Ark. I arrived with an idea for a novel, but nothing written. I left with a lot of pages written, and a vow to return.VCCA installation path

This time, as a veteran, I had a better idea of what to expect. I packed a favorite pillow, more shoes, my own big cushy bath towel, and a coffee maker.  Every writing experience teaches me something new. This one taught me, among other things, I needed access 24/7 to a coffee maker.

The reason for the coffee is, when you are charged with doing nothing but writing 24/7, you don’t have to adhere to a 9:00 to 5:00 schedule. Although I am self-employed and work at home (sometimes in my pajamas), I stick to a schedule. This, I have learned as an adult, is how one successfully makes mortgage payments.

But at an artist colony, the schedule went kaput. The three meals in the dining room grounded me, sure, but my studio was in a self-contained cottage: two bedrooms, two studios, a shared bath. The cottage is separate from the converted barn where the other studios are situated, past the fields and the two permanent resident horses.

I was a little sad to be separated from the barn area, but the cottage had perks. I could wake up in the middle of the night in the upstairs bedroom and, quietly so I didn’t wake my cottage mate, sneak downstairs at 3:00 a.m., or 5:00 a.m., or any other a.m., and write in my studio. After about three days, it was bliss.

VCCA cottageWhy after three days? Well, I had a little problem at first. I had the opportunity to write about it in a guest post at Jordan Rosenfeld’s blog. Panic at the Artist Colony exposes a side many writers share, but don’t often discuss: feeling like a fraud. Most of the time, I’m relatively confident of what I’m doing and where I’m going as a writer, but from time to time, I’m not. This time, the uncertainty hit like a truck.

Thank you to Jordan for generously allowing me the space to write about overcoming the fraud feeling, and thank you to the writers who commented at the blog or emailed me personally about your own experiences.

We are not alone. Even in a private studio, at an artist colony in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, writers are a community.

In keeping with this theme, I returned to Delaware to the wonderful news that a collection of work created during the Delaware Division of the Arts’ 2012 Cape Henlopen Retreat is now in print! Thanks to the spectacular editorial team of Phil Linz, Maria Masington, and Beth Evans, the collection of work by 8 poets and 7 prose writers, plus introductions by our retreat mentors JoAnn Balingit and Alice Elliot Dark, was gathered and became Wanderings: Cape Henlopen 2012.


Retreat Report

I spent the past few days at the Cape Henlopen Poets & Writers Retreat, a four-day immersion retreat sponsored by the Delaware Division of the Arts. We stayed in the lovely Cape Henlopen State Park, and housed in the Biden Center, a former naval training center now renovated and open for groups and events.

An immersion retreat is one that focuses on the creative expression of your choice. We were all literary artists: 8 poets, 8 prose writers. Continue reading “Retreat Report”


Absorbing involvement.

This is the definition I found when I looked up immersion, which is my word for the month of February. I don’t usually have a word-of-the-month, but this is a unique February. In two days, on February 1, I will disappear.

No, not like Houdini or Amelia Earhart, but as people do when they plan to be out of pocket for a bit. It’s not so unusual, this plan of mine to go poof! 

Writers call it being “in the hole” as they spend day and night chained to a desk trying to meet a looming deadline. Survivalists build a sturdy shelter in the wilderness, stock up on supplies and ammo, and live “off the grid.” Covert operatives kiss their loved ones and strap on some super-secret spy gear that lets them “go dark.” (Okay, confession: I don’t know any covert operatives, or their loved one, or if the term “go dark” is valid—I just needed a third example, and I didn’t want to use the word “vacay” in any form.)

My plan is not so dramatic. It is not dramatic at all, actually. The cause of my upcoming disappearance is simple: I was awarded a fellowship from the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation that will fund a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. In celebration, and in preparation, I’ve decided to detach myself from technology for the month. At VCCA, my basic human needs (aka food and housing) will be provided by others. All I have to do is work on my writing project. I’m going to do it without the distraction—or benefit?—of email, cell phone, or Internet access.

It will be an experiment in immersion, a chance to try out some absorbing involvement and see how that works.

Au revoir!  See you again in March.  

Get Me to a Colony!

Sacred writing time. A private work space. Down time with other artists. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Do you fantasize about doing time at an artists colony?

Today is my monthly guest blog gig at the Working Stiffs. “The Gift of Time…and a Boxed Lunch” is a post about my upcoming residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

Conundrum in Confluence

wherein rising water, one road out to town and twelve crime writers on retreat in a flood zone brings to mind some famous words from The Clash, “Should I stay or should I go now?”

If I ever write a horror novel, I’m going to title it The Narrrows.

For the uninformed, as I was until three days ago, a narrow is “a narrow passage, usually connecting parts of a stream, lake or sea; a strait connecting two bodies of water.” If you are in Confluence, Pennsylvania, a narrow is a one lane road with railroad tracks on one side and a steep drop to certain death on the other.

I’m explaining this because I braved such a road (white-knuckled and whimpering, I confess) to get to the Pittsburgh’s Mary Roberts Rinehart Chapter of Sisters in Crime writer’s retreat this past weekend, where I’d been invited as a guest speaker and workshop leader. As last week progressed, it became clear that it was not a good weekend to trek to western Pennsylvania, but this gig had been planned for a long time, and everyone was eager and ready to learn and write and share (and eat)  and it would take more than a little ol’ flood to stop it.

Ha. Hahahahahahaha.

We’d been forewarned that the Youghiogheny River (or the Yuggogheny, for Michael Chabon fans) might rise and flood the area. Not a big stretch of events for a town called Confluence, when the weekend forecast was rain, rain and more rain, and a record-setting amount of snow was upstream, scheduled for an early melt.

So I drove the four and a half hours anyway, confident that there would be no flooding, or danger, or fear, based on the personal meteorological theory I call “But I don’t want that to happen.”

AKA “denial.” Which was why, when that very brief window of “you can leave now or not at all” came, I chose to stay. We had food, the house was safe, we were a group…what’s the worst thing that could happen? A few days’ delay in getting home?

I’m going to allow my fellow retreat survivors to blog about the caravanning into town, a nd the riding in the back of Dan’s van-o-sandbags, and the mysterious hooks in the van, and the debate about walking the train tracks to safety, and  the jokes about Lt. John’s “unit,” and the many, many murder scenarios we dreamed up because, after all, a dozen crime writers trapped in a guest house with a rising river in the back yard, and the only way out is through “the narrows”? Come on! You can’t make this stuff up.

Despite all that Mother Nature threw at us, the retreat soldiered on. You just can’t stop a group of determined writers.  Or, some might say, optimistic fools, but why get into semantics?

The water receded on Sunday, we climbed back into the back of the van. I sat on the wheel hub, grabbed onto one of the hooks (still don’t know why they’re there) and closed my eyes as we drove over the narrows.

It was a great weekend. I’m very glad I stayed. Sometimes, denial is the way to go.

UPDATE: Here are some posts by other retreat survivors!

Annette Dashofy at her blog, Writing, etc.

Martha Reed, today at the Working Stiffs


It’s all about Winning

Wherein I report on how to get a new short story, a writing getaway, a little self-promotion,  and a visit an indie bookshop, all out of one little writers conference.

Last Sunday, I reported that one value of participating in writing contests and/or competitions is that, win or lose the contest, you can end up with a new story. So, even if you lose the contest, new writing is always a win.

In the spirit of the Olympics, I’m continuing this winning attitude.

In December, in preparation for the Bay to Ocean Writers’ Conference I entered the Eastern Shore Writer’s Association writing contest. My story was not selected as the winner. But, I added the story to my story bank and I can send it elsewhere so, again, I lost, but I won.

New Story = Win #1.

On Saturday, my writing friend and I drove through the bucolic, snow-covered fields of rural Maryland to attend this conference. It was great. Workshops about plotting, about social networking, about Internet writing opportunities, about the changing landscape of publishing. I learned a lot.

Studying craft = Win #2

Between sessions, I set out some promotional materials and, throughout the day, chatted up some fellow writers about working with an independent editor.

Pimping my biz = Win #3

Rather than drive back at night, my friend and I stayed at a nearby hotel.  We spent the evening and the next morning indulging in some quiet writing time.

Mini-Writers Getaway = Win #4

Before returning home, we took a side trip to the town of Oxford, Maryland, which sits very prettily on the edge of the Chesapeake. It is a most charming town, and is blessed with a most charming indie bookstore called Mystery Loves Company.

Indie bookshop visit = Win #5

So now, a day and a half later, I’m home, with workshop notes, new friends to email, some fresh business prospects and a bag full of mysteries to read.

Can I get a “win win” here?

Any one of these wins would have been great. The fun is cramming as many into a short space as possible. Judging by my level of brain death, and that I’m smiling while writing this, I think 5 wins is pretty good for a single weekend.


And the Loser is…Me.

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgIn a recent short story contest, I had the pleasure of coming in…I don’t know what place, because only the winner was announced. Which means I could have placed Second or Third. Or 250th, but who’s counting?  The point is, I was not the winner, so why am I calling it a pleasure? Because the contest was sponsored by a magazine I enjoy, judged by a writer I respect, and won by a story that was light-years better than mine.

Most importantly, I wrote a new story to enter into the contest. Even though it didn’t win, I was happy with that story. I sent it through my critique group for pummeling and polishing and now it’s in my story bank. I can submit it elsewhere. Without the contest, I would not have written it. So although I lost, I really won.

Right? Right.

I’ve blogged before about the value of applying for an artist grant or fellowship. This post is a cousin to that one–some nuts and bolts about entering contests. Lately, several of my editing clients have mentioned contests, so I thought I’d share some ideas and points to keep in mind for those brave souls frantically getting their entries ready.

To verify my street cred on this topic, let me announce that I won my first writing contest in the fifth grade–a patriotic poem competition sponsored by the local Veterans of Foreign Wars. My winning entry began like this:

“The grand ole flag of the USA,  Flies in the wind of a windy day.”

Yes, it drips with the hokey, but the VFW didn’t mind, and I won over every other patriotic fifth grader in the state. I was invited to an awards dinner, where I was presented with a framed certificate and a $50 savings bond. (My first paying gig!) I also had to read the poem aloud.  (My first public reading!) No one warned me about this, so I had to do it cold.  (My first panic attack!) BTW, I brought along my dad. (My first date! :-))

What I recall most is walking away from the podium on shaking knees, and a kind-hearted vet stopping me, shaking my hand, and telling me that he’d fought in the Battle of the Bulge, but I was braver than he was for  reading in public. I’m sure he was BSing me, but I appreciated it at the time (and still do.)

I’ve entered and won and lost other writing competitions. My prizes include cash, medals, engraved Revere Ware bowls, certificates, free critiques by the judge/s, comped tuition to conferences, gift certificates, a sterling silver page marker (that I cannot use without thinking would make an excellent murder weapon) and my personal favorite, publication.  Most of the time I enter myself; sometimes, my story or article gets entered after it’s been published. Sometimes I write new; other times I enter a story in my story bank if it fits the contest.

I only enter a few times a year, which means I lose much more often than I win. If I were a mathematical type of person, I might figure out my win-loss percentage and be discouraged by the dismal number. Luckily, I’m not a mathematical type of person, so I ignore the odds. If I see that a publication I like is hosting a contest, I enter. Win or lose, I’ve never regretted the effort, so there really is no such thing as losing.

So that’s the pep talk. How about some pointers?

Ramona’s Top Ten Rules for Entering Contests:

1. Follow the stated contest rules.  Duh, you say, but there’s a reason for deadlines, word counts, number of copies and so on. An easy way to get disqualified is to break a rule, or send to the wrong email address. For snail mail, double check if the deadline is a date received or a postage date. If the reading is blind, make sure your name is not on the entry. Don’t make a mistake that will waste your time and effort and get your entry kicked without being read.

2. Make sure your entry is appropriate. In other words, don’t send a genre story to a literary magazine’s contest. Don’t send an adult novel to a contest for juvenile fiction. Don’t send a whodunit to a magical realism contest. Don’t send a poem to a prose contest….you get the picture?

3. Research past winners. Many contests will post links to past winners on their websites. Read  those stories. Don’t try to imitate winning stories, but you can enhance your chances if you can get a feel for what the publication or sponsor likes.

4. Research the judge/s, if posted. Same as #3. Don’t try to write like the judge/s, but do see if you can figure out what kind of writing the judge/s like.

5. If the contest has a stated theme, write to the theme in a meaningful way. For instance, if a contest has  a “water” theme, don’t just set your action at a river bank. Try to incorporate the theme in the story as more than setting. Water has purifying powers, but water also erodes the earth. We can’t live without water, but we can drown in it. Also, don’t try to plug a theme into a story  unless it truly fits. If you are entering a contest with a theme of “alienation,” don’t pull out a story you wrote about cancer and just switch the words. Respect the contest enough to create something appropriate, or pass.

6. Make your entry pretty. By pretty, I mean no coffee rings, crumpled edges, and such. But don’t make it too pretty, a la  scented pink paper, unless it’s the Elle Wood Story Contest. (I made that up. There is not, to my knowledge, a Legally Blond Writing Contest.) Clean copy, white paper, readable font. ‘Nuf said.

7. Make sure your entry is polished. No typos. At all.

8. For a novel contest, send a beginning.  If you are not confident enough in the beginning of your novel to enter it into a contest, it’s probably not strong enough to engage a reader to buy it.  A grant app or contest might ask for a “writing sample.” This does not mean samples of your writing, as in a page of this, a few pages of that. The judges want to see that you can sustain the narrative of your choice. Send the best beginning of your best work that is appropriate for the contest.

9. If there is a page or word count limit, send as close to the limit as you can. For example, if there’s a 10 page limit, 5 pages is too short; 8 or more is better; 10 is best. Try to stop in a logical place that either brings a scene to a close or leaves off at the precipice of something interesting. Likewise, for a short story contest with a word count limit, send a full story. Crop if necessary. If the contest is for 10 pages, don’t send 10 pages of a 12 page story.

10. Be brave! Try something new and different. Judges will be reading lots of stories. How can yours stand apart? One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever received came via a contest judge. She liked my story (and I was awarded) but she said that it would have been an even better story if I had not ended it quite so neatly and cleanly. She said to think of what would happened to the characters if the problem I’d written had not been solved.  I thought about it and changed the ending–to a much better one. That judge, and the above mentioned veteran, are two people who’ve helped me to be brave about writing.

Those are my Ten Rules. Anyone have others?

Also, if anyone needs some well wishes for a contest, let me know and I’ll jab my voodoo doll with a white pin on your behalf.

Enter away–and bon chance!


UPDATE: I am receiving questions about where to find contests and contest fees. Next week, I will revisit this topic with those questions in mind. Stay tuned!


A Writers’ Getaway Weekend


I am typing very quietly because, on the other side of my hotel suite is a writer working diligently on her novel. A minute ago, so was I. Honest. But I am taking a short break to write my Sunday night blog post.

This week’s topic: A Writers’ Getaway Weekend.

I should amend that to A Successful Writers’ Getaway Weekend. I’ve had a few of the other kind, where I booked a hotel room for a good rate during the offseason and packed up my laptop and work notes and headed out full of piss and vinegar, determined to get 50 new pages written in one weekend.

Yes, 50 new pages. Did I ever actually write that many? No. Not even close.

Here’s why. In the past, my getaway destination was Lancaster, PA, which is close and affordable, and a very nice place that’s kind of a city and kind of a town. The really special thing about Lancaster is the presence of the Amish. I had this idea that the ambiance of hard work and clean living would seep into my consciousness. The Amish’ steadfast work ethic would inspire me to hole up in my room and write without stopping.

But here’s the thing about the Amish. They don’t just toil the fields and ride around in buggies. They bake pies and grow vegetables and sell them at farmers markets; they sew quilts and make handmade furniture that fill local antique and craft shops; they cook scrumptious foods and serve them family style in restaurants.  Somehow, in Lancaster, my writer’s weekend always turned into me stomping my work ethic into the ground while I stuffed my face and power shopped.

Not this time. Why? Because this time, I changed locations, and I brought along another writer.

For years (literally), my writer friend Joanne and I said what so many writers say, “Wouldn’t it be great to go away for a weekend sometime and just write.” You know, one of those things you say and never do. But two weeks ago, a newly renovated hotel in Rehoboth Beach emailed me a “shopper’s weekend” special, near the beach, in a suite, for a price that will never happen again. It seemed like an ironic omen to turn the shopper’s weekend into a writing one.

So here we are. Okay, sure, we did a little shopping on the way in, and of course we  had to eat, and there may have been a couple of walks in the sand, but there is also a chapter in my novel that is no longer a long boring info dump, and I rewrote some scenes that were full of clutter, and I figured out how to make my protagonist sound less like a talking head while explaining the history of her culture.  

Why did I get all of this done this time, when I couldn’t when I was alone? Simple. I may be willing to distract myself, but I refuse to distract another writer who is working.  Ergo, I work, too. The more she writes, the more I write.

So here is a recipe for a Successful Writers’ Getaway Weekend, for two:

1. Drive at least one hour to reach your destination. The drive gives you time to brainstorm and gets your creativity in gear.

2. If possible, get a suite. I’m working in the bedroom, she’s in the sitting area. There’s a partition that we can close for more privacy.

3. Bring snacks. Wine. Soft drinks, candy, popcorn. Hard work requires sustenance. Goals deserve rewards.

4.  Set realistic goals. Was that 50 new pages ever going to happen, in any location? No. But a couple of revised chapters, and some reworked problem scenes, and 20 new pages over a two day period is not bad. I set a small goal for each period and didn’t stop until I had reached it.

5. Plan the day in increments. Work for a couple of hours, break for lunch. Work in afternoon. Break for dinner. Repeat as necessary. 

6. Leave the room to eat and take walks. During these breaks, take turns discussing your work.  Talk about what you’ve accomplished so far, and your next goal. Keep your head in your story.

7. Avoid the Amish.

There is it, as simple and sweet as shoo-fly pie. Enjoy!


PS – Here’s where you can find Joanne, but don’t disturb her now; she’s busy writing: