This weekend, we’re doing it. We have the spot. We’ve planned the menus, and arranged the carpools. It’s Writing Retreat Time!
Whether it’s called a Night/Day/Weekend of Writing Dangerously (per NaNoWriMo) or Shut Up and Write (a la The Thesis Whisperer) is incidental. I’ve done a variety of these writing camps/retreats over the years, some with friends, some individually. Some are for academic projects, some have been for fiction. A couple times, it was for reading/studying, not writing. Sometimes it’s an overnight, sometimes a long weekend, and a few times, it was an entire week.
Like a good brownie recipe, the basic approach is the same. Once that part is down, you can throw whatever extras you want in there, serve it in different ways, or experiment with new twists. So the basic brownie for this is: several structured, uninterrupted goal-oriented days of writing/work. And because I am hyper-massive Type A, and love few things more than a bullet-point list, I have all sorts of material that we’ve incorporated. Allow me to share!
If you want to have a Writing Retreat of your own, first of all, it’s recommended that you plan as much ahead of time as you can. You don’t want to lose a chunk of one day running from store to store, or trying to figure out which manuscript you want to tackle. Pre-prepare your SMART goals, make-ahead meals, a rotating shower schedule depending on how many people are there. If you’re just going to order pizza or take-away, know ahead of time from where and when. Write out a schedule, send it out beforehand, and stick to it. (And, if you’re me, plan themes, details, accoutrements, settings, and breaks, too.)
What project(s) do you want to work on? What are your central objectives re: your project(s)? Don’t leave it open and see what you feel like doing on that day, because chances are, you’ll open seven different things and bounce around from one window to the other, trying to figure out where your interests are. Instead, use a Writing Retreat to zero in on a single specific writing project: finishing/starting a draft of something, editing a manuscript, finishing a thesis chapter or an article, writing a certain number of blog posts or flash fiction pieces. Set a SMART goal and center your writing around that:
- Specific (simple, sensible, significant): what are you going to focus on writing
- Measurable (meaningful, motivating): how many words or chapters do you want to write?
- Attainable (agreed): on average, Writing Camp participants can write anything from 5000 words to 25000 words over a weekend program
- Realistic/Relevant (reasonable, realistic and resourced, results-based): Writing Camp is about writing – not referencing, editing, or note taking.
- Timebound (time-based, time limited, trackable): set yourself a challenge to write more than you usually would.
My goal for this weekend is simple but scary: finish this final draft revision of A Scandalous Reputation.
Since I’ve been swamped these last months with critical work, and just finished two huge article revisions, I need to focus on getting this project done. I need to spend some quality time with Margaret and Hal, with my earlier drafts, and with my revision notes, and push through to the end, so that I have more than one manuscript to submit this summer. I have somewhere between three to five chapters left to wrap things up, and a solid outline so that I know basically where things are going. I’m sure there will be surprises, since I’m adding several new scenes to this draft, including new characters and a plot twist, that didn’t exist before. But in general, I have a road map to my final destination.
This time around, we are doing Friday evening to Sunday evening. We’ll kick off each session with goal-setting; at this point, with these people, all of us know who is working on what. It’s five of us who have been doing this here for three and four years now. But no matter what the situation, at a Retreat, it’s important to stop and announce your goals, and to hear others’. That is, in fact, one of the points of these things.
Our days are going to involve at least 6-7 hours of writing, including a breaks for meals, coffee, and walks/exercise/dance breaks. This isn’t a vacation where you sleep in until whenever and do whatever whenever whoever is ready, after all. The schedule helps with accountability, in fact. Also, it helps to make sure that everyone is on the same page (ish) with what times to start or stop, so that if there are three people who want to get up and going at 6am, people like me who don’t function before 8 can plan our morning meet up over coffee accordingly, after they’ve been writing for 2 hours. Luckily, that isn’t an issue this time.
So, our weekend looks like this:
8:30 – 9:00 am: Breakfast
9:00 – 9:15 am: Setting up goals for the day, writing objectives
9:15 – 12:00 pm: Writing, writing, and writing
12:00 – 1:00 pm: Lunch
1:00 – 3:00 pm: More writing
3:00 – 3:15 pm: Break for coffee and snacks, stretching
3:15 – 5:00 pm: Even more writing
5:00– 5:20: Accountability session
7:30: After-dinner walk, writing and/or movies?
Guidelines and rules
- Come with clear writing goals and specific materials
- Quiet space: no conversation or music without headphones in the main writing area
- Talking space: set aside a space well away from the writing area for conversation and breaks without disrupting others
Each of us is taking one meal prep (I have my waffle iron for Sunday brunch at noon), and each of us is bringing/preparing one snack-related something or other. (I’ve volunteered my famous chai hot chocolate.) We’re going to a friend’s parents’ home, so there will be a few idyllic walks on our breaks, should the weather cooperate. We are doing a variety of projects, not just fiction, so we won’t be using writing prompts this time, however, we have stashes of them for other writing group activities. We also don’t have time for chapter exchanges this weekend, but will likely do that after.
Sometimes, especially with longer retreats, we’ll schedule additional things. Or on my individual Writing Camp/Study Camp weeks, I’ll include extra things in the evenings, like
- Journal writing
- Notebook updates
- Review strategies
- Exchange chapters and critique
- TED talks/podcasts
But there is no end to the possibilities for how to plan your own Writing Retreat, or how elaborate or simple you can make it. You might pick a…
The only thing I love more than a bullet-point list is a theme! I have stacks of cookbooks and recipes related to every possible literary event you could think of. And, as you might guess, I make excellent use of my tea service here as well. Sometimes the logistics of the Retreat itself will suggest a theme. Sometimes everyone will be working on a similar project or, in one case, having an all-night reading of the same book, which will lend itself to a theme. The theme, then, informs everything from food to setting to music to our work itself.
Maybe in future blogs, I’ll do more detailed breakdowns of how to host one of these themed retreats, who knows?
Of course, you don’t have to have a theme. “Writing” is, indeed, enough of a theme. Still, sometimes it helps make it more fun and more effective. Some of the ones we’ve done before included:
- Afternoon tea. Our most regular weekend theme, when we get together for all-day writing. A few people will bring different biscuits, we have our designated scone-baker (because I can make many things. Scones? Not so much), and I regularly stock up on favorite teas and jams at Fortnum & Mason’s. Sometimes my husband will be full-on Alice B. Toklas to my Gertrude Stein, and fix chocolate truffles, or a spiced wine, or custom grilled cheese sandwiches, or rosemary-sea-salt caramels. China and silver and nice tablecloths make the writing more productive, really!
- Spa. Combine writing goals with indulgent pampering! I don’t recommend having a goopy, flaky face mask on while you’re in front of your computer, mind. But augment your writing breaks with some spa treatments, meditation, baths. Write up a schedule that balances both writing time and treatment time. Start and end the day with yoga. After two hours of writing sprints, take a half-hour break for an herbal facial steam. Slather your hands with a softening scrub or cuticle treatment, and then pull on two layers of rubber gloves over it so you can type or write. Soak your feet in a basin under the desk with one of those mouthwash-and-vinegar foot soaks. Tuck your hair, smeared with a whole bunch of cocoanut oil, under a disposable shower cap. Bundle up in a robe that would thrill Emily Gilmore.
Keep your meals on theme, too: have big, fresh salads, or a pot of soup, or smoothies, or a collection of spa cuisine ordered to go from a local place. Have a pitcher of ice water with fresh mint and cucumber slices, or a ginger-herb limeade, or green juice. Get a good night’s sleep.
- Literary. Well, yeah. Obviously. For example, the Boston retreat we did included a bunch of literary sites and references, from a visit to Walden Pond to meals based entirely on things served in Louisa May Alcott and Henry James novels. We’ve done one that was a whole weekend of Harry Potter stuff (I made the pumpkin pasties, which were fab, but the butterbeer was even better). Modernists? Of course. Meals from favorite children’s books? Multiple times. Lit-themed cocktails? Gee.
- Era-Appropriate. If you’re working on a period piece, this can help set and maintain the mood. You can try out things that you might want to include in your WIP, foods appropriate to a Medieval manor home, or the French Regency, or a Montana ranch circa 1890. You can attempt to live like someone in your own work might, and deal with things you might not have realized otherwise, like the logistics of working by candlelight, or how an Edwardian dinner wrecks havoc with your digestion and sleep.
- Luxury. You can combine this with the spa approach, or an era, or whatever. Don’t just do the spa treatments, but get the super-spendy creams and goops and tubes and bottles. Splurge on one of those candles that end up in celebrities’ swag bags at the Oscars. Eschew the grubby stretched-out at-home-wear for pretty pajamas, or a cashmere wrap. Get a bouquet of flowers. A nice bottle of wine. A cheese to go with it. Make your dinner break at a nice restaurant, or order a hamper from one of the tony grocers or a gourmet online place, or just get the nicest, freshest stuff from the local farmer’s market. Experiment with those fancy dishes you’ve been meaning to try. Whatever says “luxury” to you.
- Genre. Is everyone working on genre romance manuscripts? Play up that angle. Is it a group studying for an upcoming exam or finishing conference papers? Go super-academic. Is it you and two other friends, all of whom are working on a presentation on representation in Disney, or James Joyce’s Ulysses, or a joint collection of steampunk short stories? There you go.
- Minimalist. Minimalism is huge these days, and I know academic and writer friends who find taking a completely stripped-down approach to things can help them focus. So simplify. Work in a clutter-free environment. Eat raw, or do those two-ingredient meals. (Here’s to you, avocado toast!) Use only one notebook and one pencil. Go without music, or use an ambient mixer
Setting is important, but that doesn’t mean it has to be fancy to be effective. I’ve hosted and participated in a number of retreats, from a friend’s cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains to our dorm to an apartment on the Île de la Cité to various literary environs around Boston to a corner in the local coffeehouse. If you can plan a get-away to a house in the desert with friends, or a historic site that factors into your story, or a city that’s mid-point for several of you to meet up, great. But there are distinct advantages to the at-home retreat, too.
Most important is to make sure you have no distractions, so you can focus for hours at a time. If your home includes pets, spouses/partners, roommates, kids, laundry, or a noisy neighborhood, consider doing something someplace else. If you’re doing a destination, I’d recommend picking one or two close places and sticking to them instead of involving a whole lot of travel from one place to another.
Also, make sure there is WiFi available. Even if you want to have an “unplugged” writing environment to minimize distractions, some people will need wireless to listen to music, access materials, and even open documents in the first place. During timed writing sprints, everyone can agree to turn off their own computers’ connections.
There are so many beautiful nooks and places in the world, too, and writing retreats give you a good excuse to explore. Try:
- A really nice hotel. Consider a city where you won’t have outside distractions, or the nicest luxury hotel in a less-popular city. Once, three friends and I got an amazing deal on a suite in Vegas. We all hate gambling, crowds, heat, and smoking, so it was perfect to stay in our hotel living room and write all day, then take a dinner break at one of the groovy restaurants, go to a show, and start again the next day. Another time, we stayed at Brown’s, one of the nicest historic hotels in Louisville, for less than we would have paid at a low-end place in a major metropolis. Got a lot of historical detail for fiction that way, too. Note: even in the busiest cities, you can sometimes go into super-fancy hotel lobbies to sit, as long as you are dressed appropriately. One of my favorite stop-ins in London is the Ritz Hotel, where you can sit in the lobby, order tea and cinnamon shortbread, and camp out for hours (as long as you aren’t wearing, ahem “sports shoes”).
- Your school/alma mater during breaks. This has become a regular every-other-year summertime meet-up for quite a few of us, in fact. We can stay in the Alumni House, have a mini-reunion, catch up on who’s writing what, even schedule book events. But the empty library’s fanciest wood-paneled archive room is available for our all-day writing sprints, so there we are. Here at grad school, when undergrads disappear between terms, we’ll take advantage of some of the colleges’ resources, and book the hard-to-get meeting rooms, or take over the nice library alcoves overlooking the river.
- Airbnb. With enough people to split costs, as long as you can get there, there is someplace literally ANYWHERE that you can say “Hey, let’s spend five days in ___ and write!” This is how I’ve ended up in Paris apartments, a Scottish cottage, and a beach house that I could never afford on my own.
- The main branch of your local library. Nothing can compare to my favorite, the reading room at the Boston Public Library, but it’s worth a look.
- Historic/scenic places. Writing a novel set in medieval Italy? Revolution-era Virginia? 10th century Scandinavia? A quirky small town or village in Wales/New England/Taiwan/the Himalayas? A haunted house? A lakeside villa? A tranquil island? Think you might someday? Have a writing retreat at someplace you need for research. Hell, you can get rooms in freaking castles through Airbnb, you know.
You don’t have to go overboard planning meals for a writing retreat like I do. But as I’ve said before, I find cooking a relaxing break from writing, so I enjoy an hour or two of insane kitchen time as part of a retreat, even if it’s just me. Usually, our retreats involve a person or two volunteering to make one meal, and everyone cleaning up after, or some kind of pot luck where each person can prepare something that might be served in their novel/WIP. (This is a fun way to get to know others’ works, too.) However, if you don’t want to bother with cooking anything, much less themed menus, I’ll also say it again: at the very least, plan ahead of time which night is going to be pizza-ordering, and which night is going to be Thai delivery, so you don’t waste valuable retreat time trying to sort things out. But if you’re up for a themed menu, think about:
- Era-appropriate meals. Now’s the time to try those crazy Victorian jellies or Imperial palace cuisine of the Ottoman empire or foods eaten by Kamakura samurai.
- Literary dishes. Pick a book. Pick an author. Pick a series. Chances are, you can find cookbooks, websites, even critical articles (like my own!) written about the meals and foods consumed in the books. A word of caution: if you want to have an Alice in Wonderland themed “Mad Tea Party,” remember that the point of the actual tea party in the book was that Alice never got to eat anything. It was all dirty cups and crumbs. So all of the wacky cakes and things people fix for a Mad Tea Party have exactly nothing to do with the book. (Yes, of course that matters.)
- Genre-appropriate dishes. I mean, really, if you and four other mystery writers are getting together for four days of writing, you can have a lot of fun with this. You don’t have to make it a whole activity, but there are possibilities with spy-themed foods, with Nancy Drew and Edgar Allen Poe and Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes menus. Us romance writer could have a meal that’s all the supposedly-romantic food in the fiction, the strawberries and champagne and oysters. Or in An Unnatural Woman, I have an entire buffet of foods that are supposed aphrodisiacs, so there you go. When I was working on certain articles, I tried out entire menus on our writing group during various retreats, everything from a turn-of-the-century chafing-dish party from college fiction to the aforementioned Louisa May Alcott meals.
Despite my jokes about whiskey, I generally don’t drink a lot of alcohol in general, and I’ve found that too much of it on a writing retreat is not great for productivity. That said, I know a few friends have had much fun with a night or two of drunk editing, so YMMV. There are certainly a ton of literary-themed cocktail recipes and books out there, too, so a ceremonial glass raised a la Hemingway and Parker is not amiss. But I’m more likely to have a pot of hot chocolate or tea, or a carafe of (I hate to use the term, but still) “spa water” instead of bottles of hard stuff for a Writing Retreat. But that doesn’t mean a bit of good port at the end of the day might not be acceptable. Some of my favorite writing beverages include:
- Tea. This is one of my favorites, followed by this. So when I say the teapot’s on, this is what is likely in it
- Chai mocha or chai hot chocolate, using the syrup recipe here, or chai teabags
- Ginger limeade. I used to get these as a favorite place in Los Angeles. When I make it at home, I use ginger syrup
- Spa water
This weekend’s writing camp will involve headphones, because a couple participants can’t write with music on. But in past retreats, we’ve had a couple of approaches, including everyone taking 2 hours of music with their own WIP playlists. Obviously, any reader of this blog knows my own penchant for soundtracks based on what I’m currently writing. I also recommend playlists of:
- Literary-themed music. If a song is based on a work of literature or references literature in some way, it’s on this rather eclectic playlist. I’ve discovered some fun artists this way, too.
- Era-appropriate playlists. Are you working on a romantic story set during the Elizabethan era? Cue up the madrigals and lutes. A romance-mystery-thriller? Try some dark electronica or songs that evoke a Los Angeles noir aesthetic. There are comprehensive Jane Austen playlists online if you go a-searching.
- Movie soundtracks or love songs. Think of all those swoony romantic movies you love so much. Even I still melt when I hear the love theme from Romeo and Juliet! Make a playlist of all your favorite movie love songs. Listen to the soundtracks from your favorite epic romances or rom-coms. Look online for playlists made of up “romantic soundtracks” or “best movie themes” and see what you end up with.
- Music for sex.
- Music for studying. Everyone’s heard of the “Mozart effect,” the fallacious belief that listening to certain classical music will “boost your brainpower!” or “make you smarter!” That’s not exactly true. However, as several of my classmates have studied firsthand, certain kinds of music can help the brain engage in different ways, can have cognitive effects. It even just makes you feel better so you read/study more effectively. I’ve found that baroque classical compositions and cool jazz and be-bop are the most useful in this way. Supposedly, because of the musical structures and chord progressions, they engage both the right and left sides of the brain. (I usually loathe jazz post-WWII, but I’ve found it effective in my IRL writing groups.) So I have a playlist specifically for studying or focused writing sprints made up of Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, Scarlatti, and a few classical composers like Mozart and Haydn, plus experimental jazz musicians, including Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, and Bud Powell. (On this playlist, I don’t include my favorites, the lush romantics like Chopin and Beethoven and Grieg, the glorious Impressionists like Ravel and Satie and Debussy, nor the dirty blues I adore, Robert Johnson and Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong, “Ma” Rainey and Muddy Waters.)
What to Wear
Sure, you can throw on the ratty sweatshirts. (I don’t recommend costumes. No matter how skilled at steampunk/cosplay/garb you are, you do NOT want to sit all day writing in a corset. No.) But I know I feel more deeply creative when I’m in one of my designated writing t-shirt. Yes, I have a stash of them, and yes, that stash is specifically for writerly events and off-hours at conferences. My all time favorites are:
So what about you? Ideas, suggestions, shares? Want to set some goals for this weekend…?
Because you know the teapot’ll be on, darling!