Structuring a Writing Retreat

First, a housekeeping note. Apologies for the lack of posts last week…I knew I was going to be away, but ran out of time to pre-write and schedule posts as intended. At least fellow writer Erin Zarro was here to keep the blog from going dark!

It’s Media Monday here on the blog. I usually blog from the perspective of a reader and fan, but today I’m going to talk writing…

Cabin from our 2011 retreat

Last year’s writing cabin | Copyright Siri Paulson 2011

I’ve just returned from a glorious week of living in a cabin (cottage if you’re an Ontarian) by a lake for my writing group’s annual retreat.We’re only eight people, so our retreat isn’t fancy — no workshops or guest lectures or anything like that. But we’ve been doing it since 2007, and we’ve got it down to an art now. Here’s what works for us. (Your mileage may vary, etc., etc.)

We rent a cabin for a week. Our requirements include plenty of bedrooms (most of our members prefer to have their own), a well-equipped kitchen, and a lakefront lot with plenty of trees and privacy. Cabins that have all of these also tend to have plenty of writing spaces — indoors, on the deck, on the dock, or elsewhere on the land. One thing we try not to get is wifi. So far we’ve gone to a different cabin every year, but the last two were pretty spectacular (while still affordable, since the rental cost is split so many ways), so we may well make a repeat visit.

We do some preplanning. I’ve found that it’s essential to have a clear idea of what I’m going to work on going into the retreat. First drafts work well, as do edits. Brainstorming/outlining/planning, not so much — those things lend themselves more to being done in bits and pieces around daily life, so my mind has a chance to process ideas. I usually try not to start something new, so that I already have some momentum.

We follow a daily schedule that is fairly structured but not rigid. We start early and have long morning and afternoon writing sessions, with individual members taking breaks when they feel the need. Meals and evenings are spent together, hanging out. There’s not a lot of goofing off — we always have at least one campfire, and usually there’s some swimming or boating or a hot tub session — but we’re there to write, not to party or play. Which means…

Staircase from cabin to lake

Staircase from last year’s cabin to lake. Notice all the landings just waiting for a chair and a laptop? | Copyright Siri Paulson 2011

We spend the bulk of the time writing. All our members have their preferences — some like writing on the dock, others prefer to stay indoors, some like the energy of writing in a room with others, some like writing alone — so we tend to scatter around the property if the weather allows. We don’t compete for word count or read our work aloud; we’re each striving for our own goals. Most of us find that four or five hours a day of focused writing is our limit.

We also talk shop. During mealtimes and in the evenings, we compare notes. During the rest of the year, we’re a critique group, not a “writing date” group, so we’re used to helping each other brainstorm and work through plot problems. We do that during the retreat as well. When nobody has any specific issues they want to discuss, we talk about whatever we want. That often means topics related to writing or publishing, but sometimes it means geeky things (since we’re all science fiction and/or fantasy writers) or just plain weird things.

Basically, we act like writing is our job and the other members are our co-workers. Most of us have full-time jobs that don’t involve writing fiction, and significant others who aren’t writers, so the retreat is a chance to live and breathe writing for an entire week. It’s hard work, and we’re generally all tapped out by the end, but it’s also wonderful. There are no distractions, the setting is inspiring, and we’re surrounded by like-minded people. What’s not to love?

Of course, most of these ideas could also work for a weekend or even a single day with a group.

For a more thorough look at the practical considerations, see How to Organize a Writing Retreat by the leader of our writing group, Megan Crewe.

For another perspective on writing in groups (at retreats and otherwise), see The Secret Ingredient to Productivity by Australian writer Ellen Gregory.

Sadly, I don’t have any photos from this year because my camera died, but for a glimpse of retreats past, check out the photos at the Toronto Speculative Fiction Writers Group website. (In the last 2010 photo, I’m second from the left.)

Have you been on a writing retreat? What tips do you have for a successful retreat?

5 responses to “Structuring a Writing Retreat

  1. I love the attitude of a working vacation–this sounds like a great writing group! My little “retreats” are moving out of my living space and taking the laptop to the library a coffeeshop, but I think I’ve got to try the cabin thing sometime ;)

  2. As you know, I’m a total convert. Your retreat sounds awesome – a whole week! I’m a fan of structure – the first retreat I organised, I developed a schedule, complete with optional beach walks and critique sessions. We didn’t stick to it exactly of course, but it really helped us stay focused (amid all the eating and OMG drinking).

    We do sometimes get back to it in the evenings as well. It’s funny, but someone will open up their computer, sitting around the table, and then one by one we all will. It’s uncanny.

    I haven’t been on a week-long retreat before. I believe we have that in mind for next year.

  3. I’m almost out of my mind with jealousy! What a great way to spend the week. Thanks for the post, Siri. You’ve totally given me ideas…

  4. Writing retreat! Sounds heavenly. :D

    Lots of useful info here. Thanks.

  5. Beckony, even a small change of location can help!

    Ellen, I know what you mean. The power of peer pressure… ;-) Hope your group is able to do the full week next time.

    Liv and Rabia, glad you enjoyed the post, and I hope you get a chance to organize your own retreats!

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