Writers on retreat

desk by window

Imagine how much writing you’d get done if it was your sole priority. If you could press pause on the other demands on your time – hold off cooking the family meal, collecting the kids from school or walking the dog, and avoid the daily commute and office job. This would be impossible on a day to day basis but taking a writing retreat every so often can turn you into a productivity superhero. I talked to three writers about their temporary escape from life and share their tips for a successful retreat.

Juggling working and writing

Work gets in the way of writing, but writers, even successful ones, need to pay bills. Evie Wyld told me how she earned money while she wrote her first book. “I worked a variety of jobs – PC World, promotional jobs that involved giving out free samples of things in supermarkets and on the street, then a more civilized job in an art gallery. Towards the end of the first book I worked in the shop, Review, which I now run.”

Evie’s novel, the prize-winning After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, was incredibly well received and acclaimed by critics. But there was no giving up the day job. Instead she developed tactics to help fit in writing whilst working in the bookshop. “I used to get up early and try to get 1,000 words done – not good words, but words none the less. The initial writing tends to be the bit I need quiet and space for – I’m much better at editing, though, if there are people around me, so I’d go to The Royal Festival Hall on my days off.”

“The initial writing tends to be the bit I need quiet and space for” Evie Wyld

It wasn’t until she started working on her second novel, the Costa nominated All the Birds, Singing that she had the opportunity to leave the day job behind, albeit temporarily. “With the second book I was lucky enough to go on a couple of retreats which really helped – a week here and there dedicated to writing. But not more than a week – anything more than a week and I find that I treat it as a holiday and take days and nights off and it becomes pointless.”

When the day job is writing

Charlotte Guillain is a full time writer who works from home. She combines writing with looking after her two children. I asked her how she managed to juggle writing and child care. “I either have a very short working day, realistically about 9.30-2.30 once I’ve taken the kids to school and picked them up, or it’s the school holidays, like now, when even if I’m scheduled to work, the family is in and out of the house throughout the day, disturbing any train of thought I might have dredged up. I find it much easier to write commissioned non-fiction work or short picture books when time is bitty and interrupted like this, but it’s much harder to work on a longer text where you need to immerse yourself in a narrative for longer.”

She recently started writing with her husband Adam and they found this worked because they helped each other focus. Their first picture book Spaghetti with the Yeti was shortlisted for the Roald Dhal funny prize so this method worked. But she struggled to find time for her personal creative projects – Charlotte felt the only solution was to escape the chaos at home for a couple of days.

“All I asked for was a desk, a chair and wifi.” Charlotte Guillain

“I arranged a mini writing retreat as I want to write a young fiction title for children aged 8-10 of around 10,000 words. I usually write much shorter books for younger children and as I have a family myself, I have found the chaotic nature of my working day has made it hard to immerse myself in a longer narrative. So I booked into a B&B up the road in a quiet village. All I asked for was a desk, a chair and wifi.”

writers' room

Kickstart a project

The need to concentrate on writing may be most pressing when developing an idea, this is the experience of children’s and young adult author Liz Flanagan: “I needed a retreat because I think that total immersion without all the usual pressures is vital to the creative process – not all the time, of course: soon I’ll be back getting up at 6am to scribble for an hour before the kids are awake – but to either kickstart a project or accelerate towards completion, it is invaluable. This time I’d had the kernel of an idea months ago, but I hadn’t had time and focus to dwell on it and nurture it into life.”

“total immersion without pressure is vital to the creative process” Liz Flanagan

Liz booked a cottage for the weekend with a friend and dedicated herself to writing. “To be in a quiet house with a focused writer friend was perfect. We came together for tea breaks and dinner, supportively discussed progress and then just left each other to it! No kids to tend, dog to walk, meals to make (we took all meals and reheated them), or TV to distract. We didn’t even switch the internet on, though I did a little cheeky googling for idea-related queries using 3G.”

The importance of setting goals

I’m a great believer in setting writing goals and both Charlotte and Liz were clear what they wanted to achieve before they went away. Liz explains: “My goals were to try free writing and develop some new ideas.” Whilst away she found that she “steered off down one new idea and ignored the rest. I came away with pages of notes and main character sketches and 4,000 words of first scenes.” Liz felt “chuffed” with what she’d achieved and rightly so.

“I’ve paid to be here and the kids are missing me so I need to pull my finger out!” Charlotte Guillain

Charlotte planned to start on her fiction title for children. At the end of her two-day retreat she had “written seven out of what I anticipate will be 12 or 13 chapters in total and have a much better idea of how the detail of the ongoing story will work. All in all I wrote nearly 8,000 words while I was away.” I asked Charlotte how long it would have taken her to write this much around her other commitments “I reckon I’d have been lucky if I’d managed a chapter in a week.” That’s quite some progress – two days away from the pressures of daily life produced what could have been seven weeks of writing.

Top tips for planning your retreat

  • Locate your bolthole – it could be a country house with a well-stocked library and catered meals, a B&B down the road or a friend’s spare room. There are retreats for all budgets.
  • Keep it short. Evie suggests no longer than a week otherwise it turns into a holiday. Don’t underestimate what you can achieve in a day or two.
  • Plan ahead and buy your food in advance, or like Liz, prepare your meals to reheat while you are away.
  • Set goals – know what you want to do and focus on achieving it. If you are too ambitious and set lots of goals, realise you might not meet them all and celebrate those you do.
  • Use breaks constructively. Charlotte used ‘foraging’ trips to the supermarket to think through her story and even managed to fit in a quick swim to mull things over.
  • Don’t get distracted. Arvon has no internet in its writing houses. Decide if you need to access the internet for research and if you start browsing, don’t get side tracked into checking social media.
  • Leave your internal critic at home with the washing up, hoovering and tax form.
  • Just write! Unless you have come away to edit, use your writing time to write. Don’t re-read or edit at your desk, save that for evenings or when you get back home.

Bec Evans About the author: Co-creator of Prolifiko, Bec has spent a lifetime reading, writing and working with writers. From her first job in a bookshop, to a career in publishing, and several years managing a writers’ centre, she’s obsessed with working out what helps writers write.