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In Retreat

10409188596_c7f7d9c766_z [1]I recently returned from my first writers’ retreat where I was lucky enough to spend five days (not long enough!) in the company of three other very talented writers.

You see, my life is … hectic. I still work as a lawyer (I am a partner in a law firm), and I write books in my spare time (the answer to the question you are asking yourself is: robots). Since my first publication in Canada in 2010, my books have been coming out at the pace of one book a year (and sometimes more when you put in French releases and US releases) which, while it took me much longer to write them than that (I had three completed manuscripts when I got my first deal), has meant that I have essentially been on a publicity hamster-wheel for some book or another since the fall of 2009.

Now, I’m not complaining. I am extremely lucky. I have both a secure job, which I enjoy and pays the bills, and some success as a writer. But the reality of the writer’s life these days – as so many people have written before me and will likely remark on again – is that it is not just about the writing. Sometimes it feels like it is not even principally about the writing, which makes me a little sad to tell the truth. And it’s not that I don’t love connecting with readers or other writers – I find resources like this one, or the online book club I run, to be a source of support and inspiration. But there is a part of me that longs for the quiet I used to write in, where the only noises were the voices in my head saying, “Write about me. I’m interesting. I promise.”

I first started to realize this in a concrete way this spring when my fourth novel came out in the States. A funny thing happened this time around. This novel was being published by Lake Union, a division of Amazon Publishing. [Insert Evil Empire joke here if you must.] Whatever you might say about Amazon, my own publishing experience with them has been fantastic all down the line from the professionalism of the people at the publishing house to the marketing efforts they put behind the book. You see, I had something really magical happen. I got hit by what I call the “pretty stick”™. I was one of the titles they chose to focus their mighty marketing machine on in the months following the book’s release. Which meant I didn’t really have to do anything. No chasing after blog tours (though I did one with some fabulous bloggers who’ve been supportive of me since the very beginning). No constantly feeling like I needed to post about the book. Or tweet about it. Or stand on my head in a YouTube video strumming my guitar. Or find some cute kittens to post about because I don’t have any kids or animals and … You get the picture.

Suddenly, there was quiet. Suddenly, there was space.

It took me a while to notice it, but when I did, I wanted more of it. Because, suddenly, I could write with an ease that I haven’t felt in years. I had room to let my mind roam free and find words and let the characters speak to me. I had the energy to do what they wanted, exceeding the 500 words a day (if that) pace I’d been writing at for the last couple of years. Suddenly, my fifth novel, which seemed a distant possibility, was halfway done.

But my life is still hectic, and I needed even more space – once you give a girl something, of course she wants more of it! And so when one of my writer friends suggested a retreat, I jumped at the chance. Five days in the mountains without a phone and with sketchy Internet? Yes, yes, yes.

The retreat was not that quiet, of course. Nowhere when I am present is that quiet. But I had the space to write. And better yet, I had the ability to walk around a corner and find a writer I respect and ask them: what do you think of this? How would you solve that? And when they asked me similar questions, it was thrilling to help. To see a suggestion take root and take flight.

Oh, and did I mention the food and the wine and the gin and tonics?

One last thing. We four women were all at very different places in our careers. One of us has just had a phenomenal New York Times bestselling book. One of us was relatively new at the game, her first novel just having published and in edits on her second. One of us hadn’t written in a year and was trying to find a way back in after disappointments. And I, while certainly at the best place I have ever been in my writing career, have had other issues and setbacks that were distracting me from the work. (Have you ever noticed how, in this business, no good news is left untouched? Subject for another post.) And yet, our common threads – writing, having been through the business, having had disappointments and comebacks and setbacks – made those differences unimportant. We could talk about this business AS A BUSINESS. What people get paid. How much they sell. What lessons we’ve learned about deals to take and which to turn down.

It was so refreshing so be able to have that kind of discussion, which is often so absent in this business, though I’m not sure why. Is it the mix of mercantile and art? I have many theories. But I do know that there is knowledge in power, and to the extent that we play the “shush we can’t talk about such things” game, we are cutting ourselves off from a source of it.

So lessons: it is good to retreat, but not too far. It is good to share with trusted friends. It is good to know as much about this business you are in or hoping to be in. There’s no degree in being a published author; you’ve got to get that on your own, but there are people who can help you along the way.

And thank god for friends, and wine, and gin and tonics.

About Catherine McKenzie [2]

A graduate of McGill University in History and Law, Catherine McKenzie practices law in Montreal, where she was born and raised. An avid skier and runner, Catherine is the author of 11 bestselling novels, including HIDDEN, THE GOOD LIAR, I’LL NEVER TELL and YOU CAN’T CATCH ME. Her most recent novel, SIX WEEKS TO LIVE, releases in Canada April 20 and the US May 4, 2021.