Nicole Melanson ~
Author Megan Jacobson recently kicked off a Twitter conversation about the unaffordability of writers’ residencies for those still making rent or mortgage payments given they also necessitate taking time off paid employment. Other authors chimed in to lament the difficulty in going on retreat when you have dependants to look after.
Before I had children, I used to spend every Northern Hemisphere summer conference-hopping around the U.S. I attended similar programs in Australia, but the more babies I had, the harder it became to steal away. I turned into a bit of a festival junkie instead, spending a morning here or an afternoon there, attending talks and workshops when I could.
An entire week’s residency is still an impossible luxury for me, but I’ve found the next best thing: the 24-hour mini writing retreat. About once a year, I hole myself up in a hotel for the weekend and do nothing but work from check-in to check-out. Here are my tips for getting the most out of the experience:
Be clear on your objectives
Don’t be tempted to skip this step—it sets the tone for your whole retreat.
24 hours is not enough time to write a novel, especially since you’ll likely spend some of that asleep. It is enough time to work on character development or a high-level outline. Maybe you have a scene that’s tripping you up, or you’re trying to put together a synopsis and a pitch?
I did two retreats for my novel, The Accident. The first gave me a chance to focus on a couple of scenes that were killing me. The second provided me with the silence and head space to do a complete readthrough with a view to making final edits before beginning the query process.
Figure out what you hope to achieve, and map out a plan of attack.
Decide if you’re going solo or with company
Usually by the time I go on retreat, I’m craving solitude and need to be alone with my thoughts, but perhaps you prefer to get away with a group of like-minded writers? Be clear on whether you want to put your head down and push yourself hard, or hang around talking shop and swapping manuscripts with others.
Maybe the best option for you means working alone all afternoon with a communal cocktail hour on the cards, or scribbling through the night and meeting up the next day for brunch? Whatever your ideal, decide before you go.
Select an appropriate venue
Venue is a huge consideration for me because I am neurologically crippled by exposure to mold or water damage. As such, I like my retreats in high-end hotels. I appreciate this is out of budget for many—especially writers—but I have a few tricks for bringing down the cost.
For starters, I stay nearby, so there are no associated travel fees. Secondly, I prioritize rating over location; since I’m not planning to leave my room, it doesn’t matter if there’s nothing to do in the environs. Thirdly, I look for last-minute deals and take whatever’s available.
If a budget retreat is more your style, there are lots of ways to make that happen. Again, don’t worry about location—you’re not there to sightsee or hit the clubs. You just need something clean and safe, with electricity and decent lighting.
Check out local motels. Book a private room in a hostel or see what you can find on Airbnb. Scope out holiday cabins and cottages, which can be very reasonable off season. If you’re adventurous, hire a campervan for the weekend, or stay in a tent—just remember to bring your own light!
Lastly, don’t overlook the possibility of organizing a swap with a fellow writer friend. Even if your apartments are on the same street, just being away from your own laundry can provide creative freedom for you both!
Don’t forget to bring your tools
This is especially important if you’re staying somewhere far from shops, or where everything closes at four. You do not want to turn up for a weekend writing and realize you left your laptop power cord at home.
On my last retreat, I went to use my mouse and realized the battery was dead. Bring spares of everything you need.
Above all else, do not forget to bring whatever you’re working on! If you’re the kind of person who gets butterflies every time she packs a suitcase, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine remembering your fuzzy slippers at the expense of the poems you’re revising.
Make yourself at home
Most hotels are set up with business travellers in mind, so there’s usually some kind of desk and chair with a light source nearby. However, I am ridiculously particular about interior design and usually spend my first fifteen minutes anywhere completely rearranging the room. (Yes, I put everything back in its original place before I go.)
Your aim is to sit down and work as long as you can, so make sure you’re comfortable and feeling at ease before you begin.
Stay focused and work
This is when booking yourself into the middle of nowhere comes in handy. The less distraction you have available, the better.
Pro tip: If you’re somewhere really remote, sort out what you’re going to have for dinner before it’s dark and you’re out of options!
Consult your project plan before you go flicking on the television or relaxing in a long bath. Ask yourself if you’ll still manage to achieve the objectives you set for your retreat. (Relaxing is one of my objectives—I just don’t exceed the amount of time I’ve allotted for it.)
Then, you know the drill—it’s off to work you go until they kick you out!
Pro tip 2: A lot of hotels will happily grant a late check-out gratis, particularly if you request it when you check in. I find this especially true if you mention you’re there working on a book as writers are still vaguely mysterious and intriguing creatures to many. Just be polite about asking, and leave your room in great shape for the maid so s/he can turn it quickly.
That’s pretty much all it takes for me to get a great weekend’s work in. What about you? Have you found any successful alternatives to the traditional writers’ residency?