Creating a Writing Retreat - A Guide
I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard about these mystical and magical events where other people emerge from their dark writing caves filled with caffeine, blink into the light, and gather together to…
Lock themselves into a house also filled with caffeine and write ALL OF THE WORDS and actually get things done.
But seriously I’ve seen different writers post about how they and their friends get together for a weekend (or longer) to write and they come out with fifty million words added to their novels or whatever other writing projects they have going at the moment. Or, there’s the ever elusive (and expensive) Writing Excuses Cruise hosted by the podcast hosts that seriously a dream of mine to attend.
Last year, a writer friend of mine, who has more writer friends than I do, decided we all should get together and have one of these magical events. We got on an email thread together and over the summer we rented a cabin for the night so we could write.
It. Was. So. Fun.
Which meant that six months later, we planned another one. This time for two nights and we’re considering making this a bai-annual thing. Now that we’ve done it a couple of times, I thought I’d share some of the insights I’ve gotten while planning these events.
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Location Location Location
The place you pick is one of the most difficult and important elements of setting up your own writing retreat. There’s a lot of factors that play into what you and your group may need.
Set a budget. Depending on your group, you might have varying degrees of what people are willing and able to spend. Be sure to communicate with one another about what you’re willing to do. One person might be okay with spending a bit more if you can find a better location, while another person is willing to sacrifice some amenities in order to keep costs down. The AirBnB we used was a total of about $310 and we divided the cost among us depending on how many nights each person was staying.
Have plenty of beds and bathrooms. We had a group of six and there were a couple of people who were willing to share beds, while others didn’t. Also, some people were fine sleeping on a couch if necessary. (Thankfully, it wasn’t this time around!) Another thing which was great about our AirBnB was how it had two bathrooms. With three out of the six being pregnant… it was helpful.
Have spacious common areas. Since we made a few of our own meals, it was important we had a good kitchen. There was a full refrigerator, microwave, stove, dishwasher, two coffee makers, and a tea kettle. For counter space there was a long bar area and other spaces to prepare food as well. We had a kitchen table which seated four, several bar stools, and the living room had two small couches and a couple of chairs. To keep that community feel, you need a space where you can all gather to hang out and write together. Also be sure you have table space for people who want to write on an actual table and not just the couch. You need plenty of space to spread out and work.
Decide how far you’re willing to travel. For our group and all of our different work and life schedules, we didn’t want to travel too far. Especially for such a short weekend. If our retreat was able to be longer (5-7 days vs only 3) maybe we would have been willing to go further. Then, some of us lived in Illinois, while others were in Wisconsin. Our first retreat we did up there and this time around we stuck to the Chicago area. I think the furthest people had to drive was about 1 1/2 hours. If this is going to be a recurring event for you and your writing friends, consider alternating which locations you’re going to so the same people aren’t driving long distances more than others.
Confirm details about the location with your host. Our AirBnB host was great and so willing to communicate before the trip and even during the trip. (He even replied to our messages late at night!) Clarify details such as parking, Wifi, how to unlock the doors, if there’s anything additional you need to do when you check in/out, and local places to eat.
ALL THE FOOD
You can’t write all of your glorious and beautiful words without nourishment - right?
Decide which meals are on your own and which are going to be as a group. For us, we were all arriving at different times Friday night and Saturday morning. Which meant we decided to do dinner on our own for Friday, and play it by ear on Saturday. (Although I ended up bringing donuts and we made a Starbucks run on Saturday cause the store had an AMAZING sale on fresh baked donuts and I couldn’t say no.) Everything else we ate together.
Divide up who brings and makes what. I’m the actual worst cook ever and volunteered for beverages and snacks along with one of the other girls. I found this easy winter rum punch recipe so I could make a bulk beverage for the group. (And you added the rum after you made the punch and it tasted great both with alcohol and without - which was perfect for our pregnant friends or those who simply didn’t want to drink!) Then, I put together a big batch of classic Chex Mix for us to munch on. Two of the other girls volunteered to make lunch because they were great cooks and enjoyed doing so. (Paninis and soup!) Another two volunteered to make breakfast for Sunday morning. (French toast casserole with all the toppings!) Saturday for dinner we ordered a pizza. Needless to say, we ate very well over the weekend and it was delightful.
Make a coffee/caffeine plan. This might not be a priority for everyone, but for me and a few other girls in our group it definitely was! We found a Starbucks nearby and it wasn’t too difficult to go to. But, looking back, I can see how perhaps we should have brought our own. Especially since the house had a regular coffee maker and a Keurig. That way, if some people wanted to sleep in or if some people wanted to be up early, they could just make their own or go out as they chose. Thinking it through more may have prevented a few caffeine headaches in our group - haha.
Make a Schedule and a Plan
This sounds simple, right? It’s a writing retreat! You go! You write! Have fun! But, it’s good to have somewhat of a plan going into the weekend so you can get into the right mindset. If you don’t, it’s easy to fall into just hanging out and socializing all weekend. This element is super important and you need that for sure! But… you also want to get some work done. Based on the two retreats we’ve now done, here is a sample schedule combining what we’ve done over the two different weekends:
Goal: Arrive at AirBnB, Get to Know Each Other, Relax, Get into Writing Mode
Everyone arrive at various times. Do meals on your own.
Socialize/get to know each other/ice breakers
Do writing prompts and sprints as wanted
Early morning: Each person gets up, make/get coffee/tea, get ready, do an early writing session as they want, wait for remaining people to arrive.
9am: Breakfast and Introductions
10am - 12pm: Writing Session
12pm: Lunch, socialize, and check in on progress
1pm - 3pm: Writing Session
3pm-5pm: Break/Socialize/Free Time
7pm - 8pm: Writing Session
8pm: Break/Socialize/Free Time/Continue Writing in the rest of the night, everyone goes to bed at various times
Goal: Finish Any Writing Goals and Check Out
Early morning: Each person gets up, make/get coffee/tea as they want, get ready, do an early morning writing session in as they want, etc.
9am: Breakfast and socialize
10am: Clean and pack up
11am: Check out
Obviously, you don’t have to stick to this schedule and this is SUPER basic and relaxed. Even for us, the times and activities varied. This is just a sample so you can get ideas of what you want to do.
The key is to know what your main goal of the weekend is. Is it to get to know other writers? To get your word count up? To learn more about craft and get feedback from one another? For us, we mainly wanted to get writing done and get to know each other, vs. forming critique groups and workshops. For your group, you might want something different.
What to Pack
Of course there’s the obvious things like clothes, toiletries, etc. But here’s a few other suggestions based on what I brought.
Your laptop/computer/tablet - whatever it is you’re writing with! This should be pretty obvious, but it’s also the most important. How are you going to write and be productive without it?
Extra chargers and extension cords. Both retreats we’ve stayed at a house, so I was confident that we’d have plenty of outlets. However, that didn’t mean we knew where those outlets were. If people were writing at the kitchen table and there wasn’t an outlet nearby and their laptop was getting low on batter, that’s a problem! Whenever you have people who are using multiple devices, it’s always good to have the spares just in case.
A blanket and slippers/cozy socks. I debated back and forth on if I was going to bring a blanket with me and if I should even bring multiple this time around. I was so glad I brought both a regular throw and my electric blanket. The house we got was nice and had a thermostat - but it was also old and the windows got really drafty which makes it difficult to keep warm. I spent most of the weekend curled up under a blanket so I could warm up! Then, one of the house rules was we weren’t allowed to wear shoes inside. My toes would have frozen off if I didn’t have my slippers with me!
Journal, pens, markers, pencils, planner, and other writing supplies. This should also be a given, but some people have all their notes and such on their computers or tablets. That’s the case for me and most of my outlines, ideas, and research. However, there’s something about regular old pen and paper that helps to get my mind going.
Writing Activities, Prompts, and Ice Breakers. This helps with multiple things. One, if you don’t know everyone in the group, it’s a great way to introduce each other and set the tone for the weekend. Our first retreat, someone brought a book themed game that was similar to Apples to Apples or Cards Against Humanity and it was so fun! We really got to know one another and we stayed up far too late drinking wine and playing. This second retreat, one girl and I had arrived early and were sitting around hanging out but couldn’t get our minds switched into writing mode. We found a writing prompt, set a timer, then wrote. Once the time was up, we shared what we did. It had absolutely nothing to do with the projects we’d brought to work on for the weekend, but was such a great way to put ourselves into the writing mindset. Also, they were really fun.
Your own paper plates, cups, utensils, etc. A lot of AirBnBs provide all of these things for you, and many also have a dishwasher. That’s awesome! Our group wanted to cut back on washing dishes as much as possible though because none of us felt like doing it and wanted to use that sort of time to socialize and write. Just be sure to bring an extra trash bag too though, just in case!
Overall, we had a really fun weekend. It’s great to be able to get to know other writers and work together.
Has anyone else gone on a writing retreat? Did you build your own, or did you join an already established one? What tips would you give to someone who’s planning one?
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