Writers Retreats Made Simple: Six Questions, One Answer

[Originally published in the magazine Romance Writers Report, June 2013.]

When I began to take my writing career seriously, more than fifteen years ago, I dreamed of the day that I could go on a writers retreat.  I pored over travel brochures, reviewing likely locations.  (Would I write more in a mountain cabin, overlooking a tumbling river?  Or in a monastery, with enforced quiet hours during the day?)  I studied handouts from established workshops, drooling over possible instructors, fretting over time commitments.  I soaked up every reference I could find on the infant Internet, reading accounts from “real” writers who were lucky enough – or rich enough, or organized enough – to travel somewhere with someone to do something to advance their literary careers.

Several years and multiple novels down the line, I’ve been fortunate enough to attend multiple writers retreats.  The more I learn about retreats, the more I realize that there are many different models.  If you are trying to determine whether a retreat is right for you, you can start by asking yourself six basic questions.

Who?

The basic question of who will attend your retreat influences every other decision you must make – location, activities, timing, etc.  Some retreats are organized by professional entities, businesses that are entirely devoted to providing writers with the getaway experience.  A simple Internet search will return countless links to companies that will take your money and provide you with a structure for your retreat.

Some RWA chapters provide a specialized subset of this professionally-organized model.  For example, the Washington Romance Writers host the “In the Company of Writers” retreat every spring.  Obviously, they focus specifically on the romance genre (an emphasis not found in many of the packaged retreats).

Many writers, though, look forward to a retreat as an opportunity to build bridges with a specific handful of fellow authors – close friends, critique partners, or similar “sisters” in the writing family.  Of course, there’s no right or wrong in defining who will attend your retreat; rather, this threshold question lets you define the basic feel of your retreat experience.

What?

Ask a dozen writers what they mean by “writers retreat” and you’ll get a dozen answers.  For some, a retreat is a chance to leave day job and family behind, to submerge in discussions about the practical business of writing.  For those authors, a retreat includes structured discussions – perhaps assigned presentations by each attendee, or panel discussions by guest experts, or group games that explore genre conventions.

For other writers, a retreat is an opportunity to write side-by-side with other writers, without conversation or distraction.  This type of retreat involves long hours of “quiet time”, with individual writers focusing on their own work.  Specific breaks might be scheduled for meals, or for tourist activities, or for discussions about pre-determined topics, but the paramount focus remains on the physical act of writing.

Where?

The location of your writers retreat will be determined, in large part, by how many people attend.  The largest retreats require hotels, with banquet rooms for meals, conference rooms for presentations, and single- and double-occupancy bedrooms.  Medium-size retreats might rent lodges in state or federal parks, or they might commandeer a small inn or bed-and-breakfast.

Small, writing-focused retreats can take place in an author’s home, provided there are enough beds (airbeds, cots, and couches might count!), enough seats at the dining table, and enough locations for the actual composition of words.  Ideally, the location has a variety of options for types of writing space, accommodating writers who work in a standing position, or on couches with balanced laptops, or at more traditional desks.

When?

The threshold question of timing involves the duration of the retreat.  Are you considering a multi-week “boot camp” approach?  Or a week-long escape from daily life?  A weekend, maybe with Friday or Monday added on?  A single day, snatched from mundane responsibility?

Large retreats often select dates based on a variety of criteria:  availability of venues, discounted room rates, religious or academic vacations, availability of presenters, etc.  Attendees have no voice in the timing; however, they might choose to arrive late, leave early, or extend their retreat stay before or after the “main event”.

Smaller retreats can be more flexible on scheduling.  Groups should make a preliminary decision about whether it is mandatory to find a retreat date that every potential attendee can make.  (Once four or five people are comparing calendars, it can be surprisingly difficult to find dates when everyone is free.)

Why?

Every writer will have a different answer for why she attends retreats.  People who attend large retreats often find encouragement in a multitude of people all working toward a common goal; there’s a cheerleading effect.  Large gatherings also offer an opportunity for networking; in addition to meeting other writers, attendees may have a chance to schedule pitch sessions with editors or agents.  New ideas abound in a large community.

Writers who choose smaller retreats might be looking for the inspiration and quiet time to complete one or more specific works.  Of course, they might also be interested in socializing with writer friends – discussing business developments, sharing positive and negative experiences with sympathetic listeners, and otherwise bonding over the often-lonely author’s life.

 How?

Money:  Each retreat must determine its own budget.  For large retreats, a non-negotiable fee is generally quoted up-front.  Typically that rate includes room, board, and programming; travel costs are extra.  There might be surcharges for single rooms, spa activities such as massages, tours to nearby sites, etc.

A small retreat leaves more room for fiscal negotiation.  Members might alternate who pays for meals, or each attendee might be responsible for preparing specific meals.  Attendees might put money into a “kitty” for group purchases of snacks, movie rentals, and other common charges.  Each writer has more freedom to discuss the limitations of her personal budget and to suggest alternative activities that might be in keeping with cost expectations.

Food and drink:  Writers are notoriously hungry and snack-happy people.  Large retreats typically rely on catering from the venue and frown on attendees providing outside snacks and beverages.  In fact, state and local laws likely control the consumption of alcohol at such a retreat.

Small retreats again prove more flexible.  At some retreats, three meals a day are eaten in a common space.  At others, writers grab their own breakfasts, and sometimes lunches; the only scheduled gathering is for dinner.  One or more meals might be eaten at a restaurant.  (Typically, the check is split among the attendees; the host does not pick up the cost of outside meals.)

Focus:  Large retreats usually have structured programming.  Writers who find specific events unhelpful typically “duck out” of the activities, heading off to their rented rooms, or to public spaces in the venue.

Focus can be the greatest source of friction at small retreats.  One writer might expect absolute quiet during writing hours, and she might become frustrated when others chit-chat.  Another writer might tolerate conversation, but she absolutely intends to write from early in the morning until late at night.  Others might look forward to hours of relaxed conversation, board games in the evening, or wine- or spirits-tasting breaks.

The key to resolving these disparate expectations is communication (and a good set of earphones).  Ideally, each writer will have a chance before the event to discuss her expectations.  When a minority of attendees wants to work (or socialize), the ideal setting will have room for them to do so, even while the main group can pursue its preferred activities.  Writers should endeavor to explain their needs simply and without confrontation – passive-aggressive communication can be deadly to even the best-planned retreat.

A Personal Ideal

My ideal retreat is an intimate gathering of no more than six friends.  We get together three or four times a year, for a three-day weekend at each gathering.  We stay in the home of one author, often doubling up in guest rooms.  We focus on solitary writing – I typically set an aggressive-for-me goal of drafting 25,000-35,000 new words.  While we take occasional evening breaks for gossip (er, “industry evaluation”) and we talk a lot while eating our meals, our primary purpose is to create new words.

At our retreats, the host provides three meals a day.  Breakfast is typically cereal or bagels, and lunch is make-your-own sandwiches.  Dinners are usually easy-to-prepare casseroles, ordered-in pizza, or similar low-effort foods.  The host is also responsible for setting the table and doing the dishes, although attendees tend to help out.  Each attendee brings a favorite sweet snack, savory snack, and beverage.  (Confession time:  We each typically bring multiple “favorites”; there’s a lot of eating that goes on at our retreats.  We also drink prodigious amounts of caffeine!)  Sometimes, we go out to dinner on our last night together.

During the retreat, we usually work together in one room (a basement rec room, or a living room).  Writers who are “on a roll” sometimes skip meals to finish their work.  Some of us awaken quite early; others stay up until nearly dawn, then don’t rise until after lunch.

When I attend a retreat at someone else’s house, the entire weekend costs me approximately $100 – gas money to travel there and back, meals along the drive, the cost of my shared snacks and beverages.  When I host, the cost increases; I spend approximately $500 over the course of the weekend.  (Some of that cost, though, is for ingredients or foods that can be eaten after the retreat.)  Incidentally, my home is too small to host a retreat for more than one other writer.  I “host” at another author’s home, assuming the meal-providing duties of host.

I provide this summary of my personal retreats as a sort of checklist for you to consider as you plan your own.  Does six people feel too insular for you?  Plan something larger.  Does the thought of preparing seven consecutive meals disturb you?  Distribute the responsibility.  There is no one formula for the “right” retreat.  By examining your goals and exploring options with like-minded writers, you can build a retreat that works for you.