As part of my New Year’s Resolution to write more, I pledged to write 1500 words a week.

To say that it’s been a colossal failure would be a colossal understatement.

In an attempt to jump-start my writing, I decided to take a pseudo-impromptu mini-retreat. I’ve taken days off for hard-core writing sessions before—me hunkered down at my desk with nothing but gummi bears and microwave meals to sustain me—but that’s been a lot harder to do with a toddler running around the house. In addition, my work-life of recent has flared up EVERY TIME in go on vacation—which means that when I’m in town, I go to the office, vacation be damned.

So this time, I decided to travel. Good-bye Austin. Hello Chicago.

The plan was simple—I’d meet up with VCFA chums Rachel Wilson and Mary Winn Heider, and we’d write. I was working on edits to The GREAT GREENE HEIST (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2014). Mary Winn was finishing a second draft for a funny middle grade. Rachel had just turned in edits for her debut YA (tentative title: DON’T TOUCH, Harper Collins, 2014) and was working on a short story and new novel. And we stuck to the plan.


I arrived in Chicago at 9:30 AM on Thursday morning and made my way to Mary Winn’s place. Being the urban commando that I am, I took the train and the bus. I only missed my stop by three blocks and only got honked at once for jaywalking. (I’m counting that as a win.)

Mary Winn and I spent a few minutes catching up, then we got to work. We set our cell phone timers for 1 hour to 1.5 hours chunks, and we wrote (or in my case, edited). We took breaks every once in a while to take a walk or each lunch (Bean and Bagels—highly recommended), but we always went back to the timed writing.

Later that evening, we met up with Rachel, ordered a mushroom / artichoke / olive pizza from Fireside Pizza (also highly recommended), and got back to writing.

(Interesting bit of randomness—Mary Winn’s neighbor is author James Kennedy. James and I shared an editor at Delacorte—Stephanie Lane Elliott. James is also famous for his 90-Second Newbery Film Festival. James was hosting librarian / author / celebrity Betsy Bird, who was in town to promote her picture book—GIANT DANCE PARTY (ill. by Brandon Dorman, Harper Collins, 2013). So for future reference, that’s how you meet famous authors—camp out at Mary Winn’s place. It’s where all the cool kids go.)

Friday through Sunday was more of the same. We played around with the length of writing time—two hours seemed like too much, while 40 minutes didn’t seem quite enough. We’d take little breaks between each session to talk about what we were struggling with, or to just take a walk (or in my case, to make out with Rachel’s dog, Remy), but we always went back to the writing. And whenever I would try to steal a peek at emails on my phone, Mary Winn would take it from me. We discovered that if we worked really hard during the day, we didn’t feel too guilty about stopping at 5:00 or 6:00. We were pretty wiped out by then anyway.

By the time we reached Sunday afternoon, this is what we accomplished:

Rachel wrote 4677 new words and revised 2100.

Mary Winn wrote 9,777 new words, or 33 pages, bringing her to the end of her second draft.

Varian edited 150 pages, and wrote one synopsis and a rough outline for a new novel (2686 words).

We also went through four bags of gummi (though one was accidentally—but completely—filled with water). Other snacks/candy consumed included one bag of licorice, half a bag of jelly beans, some chocolate, and a bag of popcorn. Oh, and lots of coffee. And wine.

(We also went to an awesome fundraiser put on by Rachel and Mary Winn’s theater group, Barrel of Monkeys. Mary Winn was a cheerleader / cat at numerous points during the night. Rachel was a witch. And a twelfth-year senior. And prom queen. It was awesome.)

Looking back on our boot camp, I’ve found that I really learned a number of things about myself and my process:

1) I had never set a timer to keep myself focused on writing, but I’m going to try it more. It’s similar to when I write during lunch or before I go to work. When I have a full day available to write, I find that I let the time trickle away. When I’m on a deadline, I punch the hell out of my keys.

2) It’s so much easier to be productive when the people in the room with you are being productive as well. It makes you not want to cheat.

3) Walking does a body (and mind) good. It’s a good way to relieve tension.

4) Never let Mary Winn make coffee. EVER. I had the shakes for two days.

5) When it doubt, make out with a dog. They love you whether you wrote all day or not.


I’m a lover, not a fighter.