Thursday, 22 February 2018

Should you go on a writing retreat? YES

by Teri Terry

Have you ever wanted to go on a writing retreat but weren't sure what you might get out of it? I love writing retreats! Especially the SCBWI variety. But the reasons why have changed over the years.

Back when I was unpublished and unagented, I wasn't sure I could justify the time or expense of a writing retreat...

It took me a year of thinking about it before I finally took the plunge and went to my first SCBWI retreat.

I didn't write at them very much the first few times - in fact, the first one I went to, way back in 2010, I spent all the scheduled writing time reading Jon Mayhew's Mortlock, which I'd brought along for him to sign, and having unscheduled naps and weird Mortlock-related-dreams. This was my very first retreat, and the last one in the midlands; one of the last few ably-organised by the very much missed Sue Hyams.

It still stands out in my mind all these years later: 

1. the sheer joy of being around other creative types for a whole weekend. I started to feel less alone. If other people out there talk to the characters in their heads all the time too, maybe I'm not completely bonkers?

2. a one to one with Lee Weatherly with a ghost story I still may go back to one day: she said my voice was just right for YA!

Lee's latest
3. a talk Lee gave also, where I still remember one of the things she said: that if you've had a full manuscript request somewhere - even if it's a no - it shows you can write; keep going, you'll get there. I'd been in just this position around that time and was feeling down about it, and she made me turn it around and see it for the encouragement that it  was.

4. a picture book talk with Pippa Goodhart! 
I wasn't sure why I was even going - I didn't want to write picture books - but I went along, and I still remember something that she said: that animals are often used in picture books because it makes it less scary than if it were a child. This is something I came back to in other contexts when I was thinking about the appeal of dystopian novels: put something in another world or in the future, and you can look at scary issues in a way that might feel too confronting in our world.

Retreats then moved to Dunford House in West Sussex:
I've been to every one, and even volunteered to organise it myself a few years. The reasons I went changed over time and the years merge together a bit in my brain:
my Dunford Houe library writing buddies in 2011:
Christian Colossi, Jo Wyton, Tina Lemon

1. writing time: more and more I was using the retreat to focus on my work in an intense way that can be hard to do at home with family & work commitments.

2. friends! Writing friends! No one else wants to listen to us agonise over a word or point of view choice or plot point like they will; no one understands the agony of rejection and dusting yourself off again like they do; no one else is quite the same cheer leading section.

3. it made me feel like a writer! Which can be elusive sometimes in those pre-published stages.

Then in 2011 I got a publishing deal, hurrah! Slated was published in 2012. Things were changing ...

Once I was agented and published, I wasn't sure I could justify the time or expense of a writing retreat...

Why go if I don't need one to ones, I'm less interested in going to workshops and talks, and now that I'm writing full time I don't really need the dedicated writing time away?

I kept going. I couldn't not go, somehow.

1. writing time! I still loved having this weekend to focus, away from home/family.

Writing buddies in Dunford House library, 2018
Dunford House
2. writing friends! I think I said it all above: they're the best.

3. Dunford House! more and more it was becoming a place I loved going to every year; an annual ritual; my favourite weekend of the year
Dunford House Conservatory one May

What about solo retreats?
Another point about retreats: I know authors who go away on their own for a week or two to write. This doesn't work for me; I've tried it. I get too morose being on my own 24 hours a day. The SCBWI retreats - also Charlie's residential retreats in beautiful Devon - work for me because I can write all day but have lovely chat with friends at meals and in the evening.

I almost didn't go to the SCBWI retreat this year: 
I've been travelling too much. I've got 
Scooby, the World's Cutest Puppy.
I did miss her dreadfully
some intense deadlines. We have a puppy. Lots of things were falling through the cracks and I didn't register for the retreat: it was sold out. I also didn't plan a book launch for Deception, the second book of my Dark Matter trilogy.

But Dunford House is closing soon so it was the last one there, and I found I couldn't stay away. Someone sadly had to cancel and I got their spot! And then I remembered my very first retreat, and Jon Mayhew bringing along bottles of bubbles after Mortlock was published ...
blurry Jon Mayhew pouring bubbles - back in 2010?
I think it was 2010
... and I had a cunning plan:

A book launch! Prosecco! a writing retreat!! What's not to like?

Prosecco! a glass! no free hands for the book,
but Susan Bain snuck in to help out
Thanks so much to everyone for being there! And thank you to Mel Rogerson and Alexandra English for organising everything so wonderfully. 
Thank you to editor Rosie McIntosh for coming along, and to Dom and Hachette Children's Books for the Prosecco, and to everyone at Dunford House for making this retreat - and my book launch - as memorable as all the others.

And thanks also to Candy Gourlay and Kathy Evans for making the trek, and for the photos!
Books! bookmarks!
from left: Kathy Evans, Nina Wadcock, me, and Candy Gourlay's selfie magic
Editor Rosie McIntosh saying lovely things

So cheers to SCBWI, Dunford House, writing retreats, and writing friends everywhere! 

Thanks to Sue Hyams, for talking me in to going on my first retreat.

the dedication page in Contagion

Please share: writing retreat happenings? things learned? writing retreat successes? haunted rooms? things forgotten/lost? hangovers?


  1. Teri, your post covers all the wonderful reasons for going on a retreat! I almost didn't go to my first SCBWI retreat. I didn't think I was ready yet, but Tania and Miriam convinced me otherwise. I'm so glad I went to Dunford House (5 times!), and that I have such fantastic memories of friends, workshops, and writing time there. I'll miss it but I'm looking forward to going on more retreats in new places, too.

    1. Ah, that sounds just like me when I went the first time. Sometimes it takes a little encouragement!

  2. ... And memories! Retreats are for making memories! It was lovely to be there for your launch (ripping off Jon Matthew's idea), I didn't want to leave once I was there! Must start saving for next year's!

    1. of course it'll be at a new place: I don't like change *wibble*


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