17 July, 2015

A Practical Guide to Hosting a Writing Retreat

Writing retreats are, in my opinion, one of the greatest treats for any author. Having just hosted one here in Vermont, I thought I'd share some of the lessons I learned.
First off, there are three main things writers:

  • ·         Quiet
  • ·         "Alone" time
  • ·         Coffee

  • And not always in that order.

    Provide a Quiet Space

    When planning your retreat make sure you have a secluded writing spot for each person—complete with desk/table and light, preferably with a door he/she can close. Or at least somewhere they can be, preferably, alone.  That is not to say that two people can't share the kitchen or dining room table as long as others aren't milling about. In our case, we worked in my office, in a small guest room, and used the dining table.  Other available options were the screened porch, living room, and outdoors in a wooded alcove.  

     Wi-Fi is a plus, so is a sharable printer.

    The space doesn't have to be big, but it does need to be quiet.

    Which brings us to Ground Rule #1. Never disturb another writer.  Do not speak unless they look up at you first; do not knock on their door "just to chat"; do not turn on the TV/radio/stereo/laptop speakers until the day's writing is complete.

    Also be considerate at all times of the day.  At our retreat, we were all early risers—up by 6 am—but some people prefer to stay up late and sleep in.  Everyone should be quiet.

    Share the Chores: Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner

    You're a writer and you want to enjoy the retreat as much as everyone else. You're providing the location but not the room service.

    Cooking and cleaning up can divided over the duration of the retreat. Divide the number of days by the number of people and you've got the number of dinners each person is responsible for. That means providing the food and cooking it. 

    Since your guests may be arriving at varying times, it's best for the host to provide dinner the first night.  I served Low Country Boil "hobo" packs which could be assembled early and thrown on the grill when everyone was ready. Wine, cheese and crackers tided us over until dinner.

    I also invited another local writer, one who was not part of the retreat, to stop by for drinks and dinner. More war stories to swap!

    If people travel by car they can bring any food supplies they need, or you can offer to take them to the local market. Dinner need not be a competition,.  Simple is best.  We had home made vegetarian pizza, baked chicken with couscous, tortellini with fresh veggies, and a delicious pork stew.  And lots of fresh salad.

    Breakfast and lunch are self-serve, preferably foraging through the fridge for leftovers.  Make sure to have either a Keurig machine or a coffee pot, plenty of coffee, milk and creamer on hand. I loaded my refrigerator with yogurt and fresh fruit, as well as providing English muffins, granola, eggs and bacon. Also some "munchies" for the mid-morning stretch: potato chips, nuts, cookies. If at all possible ( and in my house, it's not), set up the coffee and treats in a room where no one will be disturbed when others refuel their caffeine levels.
    For lunch, we ate leftovers, sometimes together, sometimes alone. Again, self serve, self clean.

    My wonderful guests treated me to dinner at a local pub on the last night. No dishes and lots of laughs.

    Ground Rule #2. Advise your "guests" in advance of the chore sharing rules and ask each to list any allergies or food aversions.  Beets seem to pop up a lot in the latter category.


    No one can write 18 hours a day—or at least I can't. I'm fortunate that my location is idyllic (no thanks to me): quiet, deceptively isolated, but with plenty to do if you want. 

    It's a good idea to discuss work habits and free-time plans the first night, so everyone is on the same page.  Suggest interesting places to visit, walking routes, etc. and then let everyone decide what they want to do, alone or as a group.

    Maybe you all want to take a walk first thing in the morning, or do yoga.  There are no rules here, just what works for everyone as a group and an individual.

    It's cocktail time.

    I have to admit that we went through several bottles of wine. And one of Irish whiskey. We generally stopped work around 4:30 and began to socialize over wine and cheese while that day's appointed chef started dinner.  

    After dinner and shared clean up, we played Scrabble. Again, you may choose to just talk, watch TV (I don't have TV) or a DVD or do something else.


    We all know that in today's market writers are responsible to building their own platform and generating buzz.   What better way than to stop in and introduce yourselves at the local library and book stores.  Both my guests--Sheila Connolly and Edith Maxwell-- have published books. The local indy bookstore was thrilled to have signed copies to sell. Again we met another author--Sara J Henry--for this outing, in fact she suggested the bookstore.


    Not everyone loves dogs, cats and other pets.  Be sure to let your guests know ahead of time if you have pets, and keep pets away from anyone who is afraid/allergic/adverse to them.  Suggest everyone keep their bedroom doors shut to prevent unwanted visits.  I asked everyone to make sure that the yard gates were always closed and latched so my Houdini Golden couldn't escape.


    Every retreat is going to be different. Writers are at different stages of their careers and at different points in the writing process. During our retreat, I finished my major revision pass, Edith finished her first draft and Sheila plotted and wrote her way through her next mystery.

    This brings us to Rule # 3.  Have fun.  Enjoy time together as well as apart. This is your opportunity to swap experiences, knowledge and advice. Or just enjoy each other's company.