AT A WRITERS RETREAT | The Defining Moment

That's me in the middle. Photo by Susan Wiggs.
That’s me in the middle. Photo by Susan Wiggs.

As I write this post on Wednesday afternoon, I’m relaxing on my bed in a Hilton hotel room. A few moments of quiet before I start on my writing homework and then meet up with my fellow retreaters for dinner. I haven’t attended a writers retreat in years. Not because I think my level of craft is all that, but … just because. No particular reason, but I gotta tell you I’m having fun here at Wordcrafters in Eugene, Oregon!

The truth is that after so many years in the trenches I find the lessons pretty much the same. About story arcs. About character development. About hooking the reader. What changes as I grow in my craft are nuances and how I approach the writing exercises that the instructor provides. Doesn’t matter whether I’m (almost) published, I still write crappy drafts that need help. And we can all benefit from experimenting with new ways to look at the material we have. These “new ways” aren’t new, really, like I mentioned above, but in a retreat context the old lessons can become new.

We writers at this retreat are lucky enough to be led by New York Times bestselling author Susan Wiggs. She’s so nice and generous, with an infectious laugh and REAALLY cute outfits. I’ve been using her lessons on my work-in-progress (WIP), the second in the County Clare Mystery series.

It’s a pleasure and a privilege to have this time with my manuscript. Best yet, I’ve had some revelations about my protagonist, Detective Sergeant Danny Ahern. Of course, I already knew him because he’s central to KILMOON. However, the first novel in the series centered around Merrit Chase’s story, with Danny as the secondary protagonist.

In the WIP, Danny’s the primary protagonist, so it’s his story arc I need to deepen. Since starting this retreat, I’ve gotten a grasp on what Susan called “the defining moment,” which is a pivotal moment that forever changes and defines a character. In essence, I now know what makes Danny, Danny. Why he became a detective, what motivates him, what his central ache in life is. This is huge.

And since I love backstory, I plan to revise the novel incorporating this information. He’s got a story in his past, oh boy does he. Knowing this stuff gives your stories soul. It really does. I’ve already partially revised a pivotal scene to include more of this soul. The scene works so much better now.

Right now I’m about to analyze another dramatic scene to see if there are ways to amp it up by including the opposite of the expected emotions. For example, you’d expected your protagonist to react with anger when he walks in on his wife doing the nasty with the plumber. What if he also feels relief?

Speaking of defining moments, I had my own during the retreat–the moment I realized that no matter how many books I have under my belt, I’ll always be in the writing trenches, wanting to revisit the age-old lessons with a child’s mind.

Anyone out there have defining moment in your life (or you character’s life) that you want to share?

8 thoughts on “AT A WRITERS RETREAT | The Defining Moment

  1. In general, I tend to hold off on the back story, though I usually know more than I tell. When you spend your whole life writing about the same people, you don’t want to give away too much too soon. 🙂

    The “defining moment” is an interesting idea. I think it may apply more to some characters than others. Hamlet, for example? Well, yes, that’s pretty easy, The moment he decided to avenge the murder of his father, a task for which he was pretty spectacularly unsuited. (I read a book once based on the premise that if you’d flipped Hamlet and Othello, putting each man in the other’s situation, each would have resolved the other’s dilemma in a few minutes and the plays would have been very short.)

    Sherlock Holmes, though? I can’t think of a defining moment. He must have decided to be the world first “consulting detective” at some point, but I don’t think Doyle shows us that. Readers don’t seem to mind.

  2. Hi Anthony! You’re right, the defining moment probably does pertain more to some characters than others. Sherlock Holmes is an interesting example. We don’t know his defining moment, but we (at least I as a reader) always sense he had quite the backstory. Makes me wonder if Doyle knew what this was but chose not to put it in the books.

    1. I tend to think not — Doyle was no Tolkien — but I don’t know for sure.

      I think that way of writing — leading the reader to believe there’s a lot more than is being revealed — can be very effective. Hemingway had his “iceberg theory,” for example. I have a character who has murdered a a lot of people, and I’ve never given a reason why. Nobody’s ever complained (and I find most “explanations” for that sort of thing to be very simplistic anyway).

      By the way, I wrote about Sherlock Holmes’ lack of backstory here:

  3. It’s true, after a while you hear some lessons over and over, but each time, as you progress in the craft, they hit home in a slightly new way. Great seeing you this weekend. I’m looking forward to reading Killmoon!

  4. […] All I can say is “wow.” Today I completed a four-day writers retreat with New York Times bestselling author Susan Wiggs. As I write this (Thursday night), I’m sitting on my bed at the Hilton in Eugene, Oregon. OK, I’m exhausted–but I’m also exhilarated. I got some good work done, which you can read about on my personal blog right here. […]

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