Create Your Own Writing Retreat: Cancun Edition

Back in November, Rob treated us to his wintry writer retreat on the cold beaches of Cape Cod.

Well, grab your sunscreen. This is the Cancun edition, where I regale you with the story of five days spent on the beach — all in the service of my novel. No, really!

One spring, I had the perfect storm of opportunity: A soul-sucking project at work got cancelled and a one-week break from my Novel Incubator class loomed on the horizon.

Normally, I would use a vacation to regroup, relax, enjoy the rejuvenating spray of the ocean upon my face. But I was in the grips of a novel so wild it refused to be broken and a submission deadline creeping up on me like the Blob.  I seized the opportunity to eject myself from the clutches of another Boston winter, packed a bag and headed for Cancun, courtesy of airline points. Just me and my novel.

After a Goldilocksian pursuit of a room …

The first room had been painted midnight blue and featured a broken patio door. The second room was so bright I could see the ghostly remains of strawberry daiquiri puke on the bedspread (among other things). The last room was just right: an ocean view room on the fourth floor, with a desk!

… I settled in for five days of hardcore noveling free of cell service, affordable wifi and the everyday distractions of housework, returned emails or the siren song of social outings. As Stephanie recommended in her recent post, ritual was my key to focus and productivity those five days.

Morning: Revision

No matter how many times I’ve tried, I cannot make the creative magic go from the fingers to the keyboard before 1pm unless a snarky email to a friend is in order. That left revision for the morning hours.

The first morning of my self-created retreat, I tried dining in the restaurant but the servers couldn’t fill my coffee cup quickly enough. The fault lies with me, not them. I require an egregious amount of coffee in the morning. Therefore, on the second day, I opted for room service and an early start at 6:30am. I figured, when you consider the average price of hotel buffets, room service isn’t that much more expensive, right? And I saved money by opting out of tours of the cenotes or Tulum, as on previous trips. This trip, I traveled south to go South, to the backwoods of my fictional town, Drear’s Bluff.

“Just you?” the server asked when delivering my carafe of coffee and ham and cheese omelette.

“Just me,” I said and fist-bumped him, awkwardly.

Just me and revisions until 10:30am.

Mid-day: Reading

Towel and SPF70 in hand, I headed to the beach post revision.

“Just you?” the lifeguard asked. (Alone does not equal lonely, people.)

Just me and some heavy-duty manuscript reading on the beach. Prior to leaving, I emailed the most recent version of my work in progress to my Kindle address, not wanting to lug all that paper and wanting to read my novel as if it were a real novel, one that could be purchased digitally and swiped like a REAL book (when you’re unpublished, your work feels not quite magical, but definitely surreal. Could I really have spent all those hours and neglected all of those friends? Did I imagine these past eight years?)

On the beach, I read and created a punch list of edits for the next morning. I took short breaks in the water to pretend like I was on a (real) vacation and hit the poolside cafe at noon every day to eat ceviche and fried plantain chips. And, I ordered a pina colada. Because beach.

After lunch, I returned to the water’s edge for more manuscript, more sun, more getting knocked down by waves and losing another pair of sunglasses and numerous hair ties.

Night: Writing

“Just you?” the guy asked every night when wheeling in my room service chicken dinner.

Yeah, just me. After dinner, I took out my punch list and prioritized the edits I’d marked during my daytime beach reading. As is the case in real life (vs. novel life, which feels exceedingly important but I realize in moments of sanity isn’t), my high priority list grew to a breadth and depth that left me borderline inconsolable. I recalled the reply of one of my Grub Street instructors when asked, “How do you know when revision is complete?” His response: When all the niggling doubts are gone. I tackled the niggles thus (in priority order).

  1. High priority, low effort: Plot holes and structure. Ensure the story is readable, not flushable.

  2. High priority, high effort: Characterization fixes. Highly important, but highly head-hurty.

  3. Low priority, low effort: Typos, grammar, whether or not I named the dog in the 13th chapter. (Note to self: In a crunch, kill the dog.)

  4. Low priority, high effort: Sentence finesse. Finding and replacing every single instance of “just.” I found 373 instances in the last round. Painful.

Some people write gorgeous sentences from the get go. I am not one of them. Plotting is an easier task for me than combing through every sentence to avoid 4000 occurrences of sentences that start with He/She/They. Based on the catastrophe that was my first submission, I learned not to spend time on text that has a high potential to be cut in the future. For me, this phase of my manuscript was about ensuring the story was on the page, not just in my head — by the deadline.

I picked a priority and hit it head-on. When I finished, I picked another. Then, another and so on until about 10pm, at which point I turned on the TV to watch Bruce Willis movies dubbed in Spanish to cover the “untz-untz-untz” that drifted from the discotheque across the water.

For five days, I repeated the process, without fail. By the time I checked in for my return flight, a new version of my manuscript had emerged along with a sunburn and a new confidence in my ability to produce something solid in a short amount of time. Just me, a non-negotiable deadline and a foreign destination devoid of friends or family and replete with expensive wifi.

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