Little Writing Retreat on the Prairie, Part I: Goals and Expectations

I had barely gotten back from Europe when I had to pack again to get ready for my writing retreat at Windbreak House. A gift from my parents for my birthday last December, the retreat had not been possible for me during the school year. But I had a short window while my kids were still away at German camp.

The Windbreak House writing retreat is close to Hermosa, SD, on a ranch owned by Linda Hasselstrom, whose relatives established and ran it before she did. She now leases her land to other ranchers and works as a writer and writing teacher full time. There have been writing retreats at Windbreak House for 20 years!

Before I left for Europe, over a month before the retreat, I sent Linda the first ~50 pages of my novel, Hallie’s Cache. Hallie’s Cache began life as a NaNoWriMo draft a few years ago, inspired by one of my favorite books of all time, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. It was written as a “pantser,” that is, by the “seat of my pants” without outlining.

What I felt I needed from the retreat was not so much line editing as something more basic and fundamental: help with the novel’s structure. I had already shown the first 2-3 chapters, or first 10 pages, or whatever was asked for, around to several beta readers–mostly online–and I won’t lie, that had been a difficult experience, leaving me somewhat paralyzed and unable to move forward any further.

I’d been told that I should have only one viewpoint character for a young adult novel, and that teenagers wouldn’t care about the adult viewpoints–so I’d taken most of those out, while at the same time rebranding the novel as straight SF and not YA.

I’d also been told both that there was too much confusing information coming in at the beginning and that there was not enough that was new and different about the world in the year 2074 that I was describing.

One review I had gotten from an online author’s group had felt particularly devastating. That reader (who started out with “don’t hate me”—probably not a good sign) had said “nothing happens,” she had referred to backstory as “BS,” and she had insisted that there was no way that my main character Hallie was 12 years old. I’d been told by others, in gentler terms, that it “took too long to get the story started.”

Much of the reason that I found these critiques so discouraging was that I recognized their truth. But I didn’t know how to fix the problem.

I did kind of know what wasn’t helping. What wasn’t helping was being repeatedly told that “you have to capture the readers’ attention in the first page/paragraph/line.” I already knew that, and didn’t need to hear it again; it just made feel hopeless and out of touch. I felt inundated with quotes by editors and agents who threw manuscripts away and/or sent them back if the first line of a submission didn’t grab them by the neck and throttle them. I didn’t want to hear that Stephen King said it. It also wasn’t helping to hear that I had to kill my darlings in the name of tension and suspense. My whole book was my darling.

But Linda’s voice, over email, sounded different from this. Science fiction, and young adult fiction, weren’t necessarily her specialty, but she gamely dove in anyway. Her book, No Place Like Home, exhibited a real sense of place and community. I was hoping that she might be able to engage with me on that aspect of my own book, even if all the places and communities I described therein were totally made up.

I would have the retreat house to myself: no other retreat-goers with me. I wondered if this would be lonely, but I also thought that I would enjoy the uninterrupted writing time and being the sole focus of Linda’s attention. Like many 20th-century girls who loved books, I loved the “Little House” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I went then, to a little house on the prairie, to follow in her footsteps.

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“Little Writing Retreat on the Prairie” – The Set
–A series of blogs describing my experiences at Windbreak House, a women’s writing retreat in South Dakota run by Linda Hasselstrom

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2 thoughts on “Little Writing Retreat on the Prairie, Part I: Goals and Expectations”

  1. Karen! I didn’t want your post to end! I wanted to hear more about it. Also THANK YOU for your candid response to feedback. It’s so good to know my own reaction with Glencara’s Bane was normal!

    Liked by 1 person

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