Guest post by Donna Hanson

As writers we know that writing is all about the writer and the writing medium, be it pen and paper, keyboard and blank screen. Put in a nutshell, writing is the transferring of ideas from one’s head to the written word—a lonely endeavour that only other writers can understand.

But writing doesn’t haven’t be so isolating and such an endeavour. Other writers can make great buddies. They can talk about writing, critique your writing (in return for critiques of theirs) and write alongside you. What better way to do this than go on a writing retreat?

I’ve been on seven retreats now in different places in Victoria and New South Wales. I even went to one in New Zealand. We call ourselves Fantasy Writers on Retreat. And we are a bunch of writer friends who go on writing retreats once a year.

I find I’m at my most productive at a retreat. Except for one retreat, they have been two weeks in length. The core set of people have been the same, but others have come along to fill in gaps and have become core themselves. That continuity allows us to plan ahead when someone drops out or can’t make it one year.

Here are some tips if you are thinking of starting your own writing retreat group. Firstly, you need to find a bunch of writers and get to know them. If you write speculative fiction, the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild has a bunch of writers, a really big bunch actually.

Once you have some writer friends, you can do warm up exercises so you don’t have to dive into a writing retreat with your eyes closed. You might want to find out first whether you can tolerate your companions (and they you) and whether you can actually work with other people around you. Some writers don’t want to work in a group and deal excellently on their own and like it that way. Some don’t know until they try it so it’s best to start in small doses. A good test is getting together with writer friends for a writing afternoon, either at someone’s house, a café or the library. This way you can feel your way around the notion that you can write in company. You could then work yourself up to a weekend retreat. It’s not a big commitment, particularly if you can organise one close to where you live. A bunch of writers I know went to Yass to a Bed and Breakfast for the weekend. It’s a good way to start.

The key things you need to do organise a retreat is have a group of writers between 4-6 (more if you can find a place large enough) who get along well and feel they’d like to try to get away for a while to write. If you’ve done some writing dates with these guys and they look like they are your kind of people, then the next thing you need to do is find a time that suits you all. We seem to have our retreats in January as it matches school holidays, slow periods in the public service etc. You should also work out the length of time, one week or two. I find two weeks works for us. We get enough done to make it worthwhile. The next step, a hard one, is finding a venue. If one of you has a house large enough to accommodate the others then that’s the least expensive. However, the downside is that the person whose house it is will feel obliged to play host etc. In my case I have family who will want to come around and that can be disruptive to others on the retreat. So neutral territory is probably the best.

Finding a venue is pretty easy on the internet. Don’t be afraid to contact the owners or the agents to ask questions and obtain quotes as sometimes you can get a deal on a house that isn’t advertised. For example, taking over a whole bed and breakfast for two weeks, sans breakfast. However, venues are not cheap. From memory, accommodations costs for two weeks have ranged from $750 to $1100 per person. Food has been around the $250 mark per person, including some wine. Add to that travel costs.

We’ve been through quite a few iterations of what works for us on the writing side. At the first retreat, we all worked in our rooms and required tables and chairs. Invariably one person or two had rooms not very conducive to working in and they had to commandeer a common area. That person then had to get disturbed as people went to make a cup of tea etc. In our subsequent retreats, we’ve been working on the same table, well most of us have. There is total freedom to work anywhere else, but we find that it works for most of us to work together. Although the pressure of someone typing madly while you’re stuck on a sentence can be a little unsettling. If you have a competitive streak and want to write the most, you may be disappointed. For a while, we only took houses that had two dining rooms so we could work on one and eat on the other. This last retreat we didn’t seem to care. We just packed up at wine O’clock and had dinner. Computers could return later, but often didn’t. Sometimes we set goals, serious goals. I believe we even had white boards with progress, but maybe that was my white board!

The format of our retreats have also evolved over time, but you never know they can evolve right back again. In our first retreats we read a sample of what people were working on before the retreat and then started off with a little critiquing then rolled into the writing. Some retreats we have sat around near the end and read what we were working on to each other and got comments. It really is up to the people at the retreat to decide what works best. But mostly it’s just writing when you want to. We do take days off to veg out as needed.

Food wise, we split the cooking and the expenses and find time to go out at least once for a meal. Food and drink is a problem. That problem being too much food and drink! On our retreats, we all cook our best meals to share. There’s a lot of drinking. A lot of unwinding. Sometimes there’s ping pong. I believe I eat way too much junk at retreats because I’m letting my hair down. I’m writing all day, or I’m talking writing or I’m reading. I’m not thinking about the bills, or the housework or anything. I’m totally in the zone with too much chip and dip.

Personally writing retreats work for me, but I know they aren’t for everyone. I get so much done. I have fun being with people I like and who I have writing in common with. What I write during a retreat maybe a rough first draft but it gives me something to work on and revise and edit. That’s my style though. Some other retreatees come to revise their work or take up copy edits. It’s a writing retreat and it’s no one’s business but your own what you write.

So get to it. Don’t be shy.


This article originally appeared in the March 2014 edition of ACTWrite, the magazine of the ACT Writers Centre.

Donna will be presenting a session at the Conflux Writer’s Day called “You are not alone-the power of writing relationships”. Check out the previous posts by Writer’s Day speakers: The Elements of Novels by Chris Andrews, using technology to help your writing by Marcus Amann and on Step 2 by Ian McHugh.