Writing Retreats : Pleasures and Pitfalls

woman reading book in hammock against dark sky

Writing retreats do NOT include this. Sadly.

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.

writer in mist with candle

With luck, a following wind, maybe some magic?

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?

The basics

writer smiling sitting at laptopA 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.

writer's desk with laptop and coffee cupsAnd, of course, we need access to tea/coffee/drink of choice throughout the day.

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

html under magnifying glassWi-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

cartoon Ermintrude whose jaw click when she eats

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?

group of friends discussing writingTwo 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.

Partners?

partners holding handsSome 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.

woman working at old-fashioned stovePartners 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

glamorous hotel dining table

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.

Hired houses

Queen's Head Pub, SpringfieldWith 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?

blazing fire at homeIf 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?

Depends.

woman at computer screen looking beatenI’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.

stern woman with glasses halfway down noseAnd checkable. [Gulp] Yup, we’re all on a hook of our own making.

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?

head inside question markWhat am I planning to achieve on this writing retreat?

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!

Joanna Maitland, author

Joanna

And what actually happened?

Busy fizzMonday 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 😉

14 thoughts on “Writing Retreats : Pleasures and Pitfalls

  1. lizharriswriter

    An interesting post, Joanna. I’m off on a retreat with writer friends at the end of this week. The retreat will be held in an ideal location, which combines many of the requirements you mentioned – a lovely large house in Devon, in a room with my own bathroom, and food provided so need to think in advance, or when there, about catering needs. And there’ll be wine, too. Yes, bliss! Good luck on your retreat – I hope you all achieve your goals. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Joanna Post author

      Yes, we do have wi-fi which is, in my opinion, a mixed blessing. (Confession: I’ve just been reading the Sunday papers online.) I hope your retreat works well, Liz, and you write zillions of words. My tally so far is… er… meagre. But at least I’ve done some.

      Reply
  2. Elizabeth Bailey

    Only done this once. House at a beach with a painter friend one week and my dad and his wife the next. I think it was about 10 days. I completed the first draft of a novella so it was worth it and the venue turned up in the story. I’ve never done it with fellow writers and suspect talk would be more inviting than writing!

    Reply
    1. Joanna Post author

      You’re right, Liz, that the talk is fascinating but, mostly, we limit chat to mealtimes and after supper. The partners here were eagerly watching yesterday’s rugby and I will admit to having been tempted by the Calcutta Cup match. (Well, I am Scottish!) My excuse is that I was on supper duty last night and so I was cooking while watching. Am hoping that today, when I’m not cooking, will be more productive, word-wise.

      Reply
  3. lesley2cats

    And if you have the facility to stay out of the way all day – as I do – it really does work. It can have a lot more positive results than simply breaking the back of a novel, too. Writing retreats do indeed rock, but with the right people.

    Reply
  4. Michele Clack

    As an awful cook I would be too scared to go on a retreat that wasn’t catered! I do enjoy the hotel based tutored ones that Alison and Janet run. Great hotel, ensuite rooms (wouldn’t go anywhere without) and a chance to get advice. Came away with a much clearer view of two projects. It’s lovely to meet up with other writers too.

    Reply
    1. Joanna Post author

      Welcome, Michele. I can reassure you that not everyone cooks, at least, not on my retreats. We’re here for 4 nights and we went to the pub on night 1, so only 3 nights were left. I volunteered to cook last night (which gets me out of clearing/washing up 😉 definitely a bonus). Sunday and Monday nights will be done by one partner and one writer. Some of our group do not cook at all on retreat, and that’s absolutely fine by the rest of us. Some cook breakfast, as a treat for the group. Horses for courses. What matters is the right group so that no one feels pressured to do things they’re not comfortable with. Just my opinion.

      Reply
  5. liamlivings

    I’ve organised and been on 5 budget short writing retreats over the last 2 years. It’s budget because we go on a caravan site, staying in one of those 3-4 person ‘vans’ and it’s short as it runs Friday afternoon to check out Monday morning, plus it’s self-catered. Everyone makes an evening meal and pudding one night, breakfast and lunch is do it yourself. I’ve done them for less than £50 per person for the 3 nights.
    We don’t have our own bathroom facilities for that price! We have designated quiet writing time during the day, with designated break time. In the latter, everyone is free to continue writing, or visit local attractions / have a walk around the site.
    The great thing about the vans is it can grow incrementally, so we’ve had retreats of 3 people, and the next one I’m going on has 11 of us in 3 different vans, including one of lesfic authors.

    Reply
    1. Joanna Post author

      Sounds like a very sensible (and affordable) move for those who can do without en-suite facilities. Sadly, I’m not one of them 😉 but I admire those who can. And it underlines how valuable writing retreats can be, however they’re organised. I was impressed that you made no mention of alcohol which figures a fair bit in retreats I’ve attended, I have to admit. Looks like you’re stronger-minded than I am, Liam.

      Reply

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