Writing retreats – building your own

photo of Killoran beach on Colonsay to illustrate a walking retreat

Writing retreats sound wonderful, right? Before I outline my DIY approach, I want to highlight that this is not a substitute for a proper writing retreat. Seriously. You’ll have no dedicated tutor available in person, no peer group to work with, no catering magically providing lunch.

If you don’t have time, money or both to invest in an organised retreat, you can still do something to create (head)space to write. This is not a manual on an idealistic writing life: this is about reconnecting to what you say you really want to do. Take away all the distractions and excuses, add a pinch of inspiration and what happens?

A time and space of one’s own

Having said one of the benefits of a writing retreat are other people, a key thing for me is an escape from the everyday. In the past I’ve rented cottages in Cornwall or the Hebrides but I had one memorable time when I was sent to Edinburgh during the Festival and hid in my company-paid accommodation for a few hours each evening. The key thing is the removal of the various wonderful procrastination tasks lurking at home.

You might only get a day, or a weekend, so be realistic about what you can do in that time. Or if you’re able to wrestle a week of time, you can really dig in. I had a week, so the suggestions below tie to that. Day to day, I work in co-working spaces or the library once a week to avoid making excuses for myself.

At least one virtual tutor

I used the creativity podcast ‘Start With This‘ for this. I forced myself to really listen to it, not to listen whilst scrolling social media or playing games. That meant I was getting 30-40 minutes of tutorial each day.

That particular podcast is around writing for podcasts and theatre but there were ideas that apply to any field, and they set you tasks at the end of each episode. One episode triggered an idea that I know use regularly (I’ll come back to it in detail in a future post).

You can try other creativity courses. This January I’ve joined the #31DaysOfCreativity challenge to give me daily prompts. That’s designed for internal communicators but, as with the podcast, creativity doesn’t care what field you’re in. Metaphorically or literally.

Set daily goals and a schedule

Ask yourself what you want by the end of the retreat. Story ideas? 10K of prose? Three completed stories ready to submit? Block out time accordingly.

One way to estimate the time you need is to do a single pomodoro and look at the word count. Then work out how many 25 minute bursts you can manage in a day. My typical fiction first draft speed is 500 words in one pomodoro, so six bursts result in a 3K story. It’s surprising how tiring that can be in one giant go though, so really think about how to build a schedule that works for you.

Get moving

When you schedule, plan in some physical activity you enjoy, based on what works for you. I tend to favour long walks, so that’s why I pick places with walking routes. The key thing is to get completely away from keyboards and the tyranny of the blinking cursor. Sitting at a computer is not writing.

Don’t bring books

Alright, bring one book. I get tempted to just read all day when I’ve no other time commitments, so I only take one book and I make it part of the end of the day. Make it a good one, and savour it. Think about it, analyse what the author is doing in terms of structure and language, so that even your wind-down is contributing to thinking about writing.

Outsource it after all!

The approach above can work but you might be thinking this sounds like a lot of sorting out for you and maybe an organised retreat makes sense after all. All the logistics are done, and you get some additional bonuses. Ask around about good workshops. Really think about your goals and look for courses that meet that, rather than picking one purely on location or tutors.


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