The stats are impressive: 49,800 words written, 258 pages revised, four short stories penned, two books outlined, and two manuscripts turned in to editors. These numbers spotlight the accomplishments of eight YA authors who spent a long weekend working – and squeezing in some literary-themed playtime – in Steamboat Springs, Colo., from September 12–16. The expedition was the brainchild of Jessica Brody, whose most recent novel, Unremembered, was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in March.
The idea of organizing a writers’ getaway came to Brody at a Los Angeles launch party for Leigh Bardugo’s Siege and Storm in early June. “There are always a bunch of authors who come out to support our friends at these events, and that evening someone was talking about writing retreats,” Brody recalled. “I’d always had the impression that the ‘writing’ part of those retreats was in quotation marks, and that no one got anything done. Morgan Matson, who was at the party, corrected me, and said that you actually work hard on retreats, but you always have to have one person setting the rules and saying ‘It’s time to write now.’ So she agreed to be that person if I organized a retreat.”
As it turned out, Matson (Second Chance Summer, S&S) didn’t need to be the “start writing” heavy. “No one had to be told to work, which is a tribute to the caliber and devotion of the writers who came along,” said Brody. In addition to her and Matson, attendees included Marie Lu (the Legend trilogy), Jessica Khoury (Origin), Jennifer Bosworth (Struck), Brodi Ashton (the Everneath trilogy), Emmy Laybourne (the Monument 14 books), and J.R. Johansson (Insomnia).'
Lu and Bosworth had also been at the Siege and Storm party, and had expressed interest in attending a retreat if Brody organized it. She jumped on the task, rented a friend’s condo at Steamboat Springs, and sent out e-mails to authors she knew, encouraging them to spread the word among other writers who might want to join in. Within a week, all eight slots (the condo’s capacity) were reserved. “I was really surprised, and very happy,” said Brody of the response. “But even while I was waiting at the Denver airport – people came in from Los Angeles, New York, South Carolina, and Salt Lake City – I kept worrying that no one would show up.”
Her concern was unwarranted. All of the authors arrived on schedule and, Brody explained, “You could feel the instant chemistry in the air the moment everyone arrived – and several of these authors had never met before.” The writers dove into four full days of work on various projects: some revised manuscripts, some started brand-new ones, some fleshed out ideas they’d been considering.
Brody had asked each participant to submit “writing goals” for the weekend, which she displayed at the condo to keep them all motivated. The tactic worked for Brody, whose goal was to write 15,000 words over three days; she managed to reach 14,300. “I came pretty close, thanks in part to the word battles we did,” she said. “We’d set a timer for 30 minutes, and all eight of us sprinted, and then announced our word count when the time was up. Everyone rallied and really encouraged the others.”
The retreat organizer also introduced a fanciful writing project based on her online cooperative writing initiative. Dubbed “The Traveling Story Blitz,” the exercise entailed setting up eight laptops around a table, on which each author started a story, After five minutes, a timer went off, and the authors moved one chair to the right and continued the story on the computer in front of them, After each author had contributed to all eight stories, they read aloud to much laughter.
And with good reason. “One story started out as a tame Amish romance and became something completely different,” said Brody. “In another story, Robert Downey Jr. became an alien. I’d say it was probably the most fun of the whole retreat, and the most fun I’ve had in a long time.”
Since returning home, the eight authors have been in constant contact. “During the retreat, I felt like I was among ‘my people’ – especially since writing can be so solitary – and at the end of the weekend my writer’s soul felt revived,” Brody said. “I was sad to leave these wonderful ladies – it felt like the last day of summer camp, when after bonding hard you have to go back to normal life and everything feels kind of empty. But now I smile every time I see a tweet from one of them in my feed, or an e-mail in my inbox. I’d love to do this all over again.”
The Other Authors Chime In
Brodi Ashton, on the benefit of finding kindred sprits: “It's funny, because I write all these words at this epic retreat, and now when I go to describe the retreat, no words come to mind – because there are no words to describe the epic! I wrote more than I ever thought I could in one weekend, but the best part was that I met seven kindred souls. At one point, we discussed the woes of the apostrophe for about twenty minutes, and laughed our butts off. Because writers are geeks. And it’s so good to be surrounded by like-minded geeks. I can't wait to do it again, so we can crack up over the intricacies of the comma.”
Marie Lu, on the camaraderie: “There’s something magical about spending five solid days writing, laughing, and bonding with seven amazing authors in a place as breathtaking as Colorado. After we’d all written our spleens out at the end of each day, we’d still play games that involved words. Now that’s truly finding one’s tribe! I miss the ladies desperately.”
Jennifer Bosworth, on rediscovering her mojo: “At the end of the retreat, I felt the way I do after going on vacation: simultaneously revived and exhausted. I set myself a writing goal of 5,000 words per day, and while I didn’t actually meet my goal, I did manage to get a respectable 35 pages written on a brand-new project. What was even more important, though, was that I came away from the retreat excited about writing again. I’m not going to lie. Before I attended the retreat, I was in a funk. I’d started to wonder for the first time in my life if my calling to be a writer was, as Buffy once said, a wrong number. I’d lost the joy. But spending four days working side-by-side and laughing until I wheezed with a group of writers I respect and adore gave me back my mojo. Call it a retreat or a vacation or whatever you like. In the end, it was what I needed.”
Jessica Khoury, on the creative power of fellowship: “This retreat left me refreshed and invigorated to write! I was so blessed to learn from and be encouraged by the other writers, whom I can now proudly count as friends. By engaging in daily ‘word battles,’ I was able to make huge advances in my manuscript while enjoying fun fellowship. The whole experience – an inspiring setting, an atmosphere of creativity and literature, and the amazing writers most of all – was a fantastic testament to the current literary community. Thank you, ladies!”
Emmy Laybourne, on the rewards of connecting: “I went to the retreat hoping that a break from my routine would give me the distance I needed to outline a new project. It did. I was able to focus and immerse myself in the landscape of my work-in-progress, as well as discuss some of the beats with my fellow authors. But I got so much more than that out of the retreat. We had some massive shoptalk sessions, but there was something deeper at work as well. I found seven other people who love the act of writing as much as I do. I left the retreat with an outline in hand, and with a feeling of connection and belonging to a tribe of authors.”
J.R. Johansson, on the retreat’s powers of rejuvenation: “The Colorado setting was magnificent and my companions exceptional. These other authors motivated and inspired me to make huge leaps forward on my current revisions and I’m so honored to count them among my friends. I not only made progress on my projects and goals during our retreat, but I returned home re-energized with fresh love for what I do. I can’t wait to do it again.”
Morgan Matson, on regretting calling it a wrap: “The mountain scenery of Steamboat Springs was stunning, but it was nothing compared to the epic-ness of our retreat. I met the most amazing, funny, supportive, blow-your-mind talented group of writers, and left with seven new friends. Between the hours-long writing sessions, the literary discussions over dinner, and the talks that left me laughing until my stomach hurt, I never wanted to leave.”