I’ve been on quite a few writing retreats. And as you read this blog, I’m probably off on another one. If you’re reading this blog after 20th March, though, you’re too late. I’m back 😉
This post is about writing retreats in general, and what I’m hoping to get out of this particular one. I’m also looking at some of the benefits of writing retreats and — sorry, but I won’t lie to you here — the pitfalls.
Writing retreats : what are they? what do writers do there?
Some writers may do writing retreats by themselves, though I don’t know anyone who does. Most of my writer friends do writing retreats in groups, sometimes just a couple of good mates, sometimes a larger group of writing friends.
Writing retreats do, essentially, what it says on the tin. A group of writers go away (retreat) from their normal writing milieu. They go somewhere else for a couple of days, or longer, and they write there, individually (or, occasionally, jointly). With luck and a following wind, they return home fired up and remotivated and with a goodly number of new or edited words under their metaphorical belt as well.
What’s not to like?
Writing retreats : what are the essentials?
The somewhere else mentioned above needs to be conducive to writing. No new location is going to have all the home comforts of an author’s writing room, complete with research library, filing cabinets, printer, and so on. But do we need all those all the time?
A completely new location can be energising — provided each writer has the basics she needs to work. If pushed, most of us would say that we need a room of our own with a desk and a comfortable chair. Possibly a decent desk lamp as well. We’ll obviously be supplying our own laptop or — for those who still prefer pen and paper — our own writing materials.
Do we need more than that?
If I’m honest, I’ll admit that quite a lot of us like to have our own bathroom/shower room as well, though it usually puts the costs up.
Wi-fi? There are differing views about that. Yes, wi-fi allows writers to access emails, social media and the like. It ensures the internet is available for research. But the purpose of writing retreats is to write. Maybe if there’s no wi-fi, more writing will get done? We can always make a note to do that vital bit of internet research after we get back home.
(I’m writing this blog at home and going off on retreat tomorrow. If I manage to respond to any comments on Sunday and Monday, it will be because there IS wi-fi on the retreat. Otherwise, I’ll be responding to comments in mid-week, after I get back home.)
Friendship and tolerance
The other absolute essential is to get on with all the other writers on the retreat, because you’ll be spending a lot of time with them, including most meal times. (Drink may also — just possibly 😉 — be involved.)
Obvious? Yes, of course, but if Ermintrude Gutbucket’s way of slurping her soup drives you up the wall, you would probably be well advised to avoid retreats with said EG. You want to be relaxed when you fall into bed each night, not cursing under your breath about EG’s lack of table manners.
How many writers?
Two works. Up to ten will probably work too, provided they all get on pretty well and are all at roughly the same stage in their careers. There might be problems if, say, a group consisted of 5 multi-published writers and one unpublished writer. But if they were all good mates, even that might work. The depth of the trusting friendship matters much more than the number of people, I’d suggest.
Some writing retreats are strictly writers only. On informal retreats, partners may be welcome, provided all the writers already know the partners and agree to include them. But it’s important to apply the Gutbucket test: if any of the writers doesn’t get on with one of the partners, there might be problems. If so, the diplomatic course is to ban all partners.
Partners can have their uses at writing retreats, though. After all, the writers want to be writing, don’t they? If the writers need a volunteer to fetch the papers, do the washing-up, fetch the order from the chippie, why not a partner? Partners who can cook for the retreaters may be welcomed with open arms, but most writers on retreat will happily settle for partners who volunteer for chores when required and disappear discreetly when writers need to write.
At the end of the writing day, partners can add to the fun, too. And they’re useful for pouring the wine while the “workers” relax…
Writing retreats : what kind of venues?
The venue needs to be affordable for all those who take part. The usual venues are a hotel, or a hired house. If the writing retreat involves partners, it’s a good idea to pick a location where there’s plenty for partners to do or places to visit while the writers write.
Hotels will usually expect to provide breakfast and (probably) evening meals, and to charge for them, of course. That last requirement often means that hotels can be too expensive because of the cost of their restaurant (and their bar). They do have to make a profit, after all.
But some hotels do offer excellent value with meals included so it can be worth seeking them out. It’s very convenient for participants not to have to worry about doing the cooking.
With a hired house, the costs are known at the outset and all the participants can chip in for the food and drink or bring contributions with them. It’s normal to share cooking duties among the participants. (The Arvon Foundation does that too, I think.)
If there’s a pub nearby that serves food, or a local chippie, that’s a bonus because participants may not want author-cooked nosh every night. Plus, going to the pub saves on the washing-up.
Writing retreats at home?
If you’re brave — and provided you have an understanding and supportive family — you can do writing retreats at your own house. Sophie and I usually have a retreat, for just the two of us, a couple of times a year at my house and we’ve found it can be very productive. That’s the upside.
The downside is that any home-based retreat does tend to push family life into second place. If I’m supposed to be devoting 3 days to our writing retreat, I can’t really be doing laundry, shopping, family expeditions etc at the same time. Also the family, and the fellow-retreater, will expect to be fed throughout, so home writing retreats need advance planning. A freezer definitely helps.
With the right people, home writing retreats can be great, I’d say, and they’re much cheaper than the alternatives. Probably not for more than two or three writers, though.
Writing retreats : the mechanics
You go on writing retreat. You sit at your computer. And you write. That’s it, isn’t it?
I’ll admit to having once spent ages agonising about what I was going to write, rather than actually getting the words down. And it’s very easy to get deep into displacement activity, especially if there’s a good wi-fi connection. Quite frankly, that’s a huge wasted opportunity.
One approach that has proved helpful on writing retreats is this: before supper on arrival day, each of us tells the group what she is hoping to have achieved by the end of the retreat. And we write it down! If we’re creating new work, we usually couch our aims in terms of thousands of words. If we’re editing, we’re more likely to be aiming to have reached a particular stage in the process. Whatever we’re planning to do, our aim needs to be concrete.
Because on the last night, we go round the table and each writer ‘fesses up. Some will have surpassed their target. Perhaps by miles. Others will have missed it. There will be cheers for the former and commiserations for the latter. (Probably!)
Plans for this time?
I’m working on a new timeslip novella. I’ve barely begun it and I don’t yet know where the story is going, because I’m a pantser. So, vague though it may be, I’m planning to come back from retreat with a much clearer idea about the arc of my story, and at least a few thousand words of it written. I’d love to reach 10,000 words. However, I know my own weaknesses: I do, after all, have a PhD in Displacement Activity. 😉 I will possibly need the encouragement and/or threats of my writing mates to get anywhere near my goal.
I’ll let you know how it goes… One thing I’m very sure of, though. It’s going to be great fun. And for most, maybe all of us, it will be really productive. Writing retreats rock!
And what actually happened?
Monday night, post retreat report: I can say that everyone did pretty well. One member, having committed to writing 7-8000 words, reported that she had managed 10,000 words. This was greeted with a spontaneous chorus of “We hate you, Ms X”. Ms X smiled knowingly and allowed us to barrack. She knows she’s winning. For myself, I didn’t make 10,000 words, but I did discover that my timeslip novella wasn’t a timeslip after all. That took a day of agonising, and a lot of writerly support. Having discovered that, I managed to write 5,500 words of the novella in its new form in the next two days. So I am modestly pleased. All I have to do now is finish it 😉