15 November 2014

#NaNoWriMo Alternatives – Retreating to a Retreat 1

Like most writers, I started with a pad and pen on the kitchen table after my toddler was in bed and my spouse on his shift. From there it escalated to a grocery box into which reference books, portable typewriter, paper, etc, could be stored when we were eating. A house move allowed me a small desk in the corner of a bedroom to site a desktop computer. Our current house allows me an entire room, and my “office” has grown accordingly. What hasn’t grown in tandem is my writing output. Should I retreat to a Retreat?

I first came across Writing Sheds while tutoring a course at one of the UK Arvon Foundation’s centres. Dotted in the extensive grounds, they were 6x4ft with a window and the bare minimum of folding chair and writing shelf. A few novelists I know now have larger, more plush versions in their gardens ...where the household jobs aren’t glaring at me. I can certainly see the advantage of that, but do I want to cross a muddy lawn in the pouring rain to a cold shed?

Jex Collyer writes speculative fiction and her debut novel, Zero, was launched this summer. ‘In my experience, a novel demands a lot from you. To keep all the threads of your plot together, to get all the events down, to build a proper pace and keep your characters and style consistent, you need to dedicate a large amount of time to work and in big chunks when you can.’

Too often she caught herself trying to slot writing around domestic and employment responsibilities which was when she first decided to look into using residential libraries and study centres. It worked; the words flowed.

‘I find these offer the best environment as usually they provide an inspirational place to work as well as accommodation.’ And these can prove surprisingly inexpensive. ‘One of the libraries I go to is only £60 a night and this includes breakfast and dinner.’ Country retreats offered by religious foundations such as the Quakers, also prove excellent value.

Alan Wilkinson, a ghost-writer and long-time writer of fiction and non-fiction, needed a creative retreat when he had to complete a book in seven days. ‘It was a lovely old house, and there was a painter and a musician staying, too. Food was all in, and all responsibility of domesticity was removed.’ Even better, it was situated in his original home town, not visited for years. ‘Once the words were flowing I could take time to walk down memory lane. For me, the retreat has to be an adventure in itself.’ 

And these adventures have taken him to the USA. ‘One was in Florida and related to a writer whose work had long fascinated me – being the former home of Jack Kerouac. A second was in Nebraska, close by the home-place of a writer, Mari Sandoz, whose work was the subject of my writing at the time. This winter I’m taking one in northern New Mexico, a place I have lived in, enjoy, and am fascinated by.’

With his writing credentials, Alan has often been able to apply for bursaries, even if they don’t always come his way. ‘This started one dire day when the words wouldn’t come. As displacement I searched “writer’s residencies” and kept following links. It’s amazing the opportunities out there if you are willing to hunt them down.’

Bursaries – financial help towards fees and/or travelling expenses – aren’t just for those writers with an extensive back-list. Check the small print of your chosen centre to see if your circumstances fall within its guidelines.

For Jex Collyer it isn’t the wider surroundings that’s the priority. One of her most productive stints was undertaken in a B&B half an hour’s train journey from home. ‘I’m not a fan of writing where I sleep so I look for somewhere either with a residents’ lounge or a library within walking distance.’ And whereas Alan takes residencies infrequently, for Jex little and often works best. ‘Even if I have a month when I simply can’t afford to go away, I spend a day in a local cafe, library or bar – just so I’m in my own mental space separated from the jobs that are always waiting at home.’

Convinced? I think I might be. To learn how Jex and Alan utilise their time away, join us next Saturday for Retreating to a Retreat 2. This NaNoWriMo series started with #NaNoWriMo is Live - But is it for You?

J.S. Collyer is a Science Fiction novelist from Lancaster, England. She likes narratives that are larger than life. Her first book Zero: An Orbit Novel (Dagda Publishing) is now available internationally in paperback and for Kindle.  
Follow her on Twitter: @JexShinigami
'Like' her on Facebook or drop into her writing blog 

Alan Wilkinson has just completed Chasing Black Gold (The History Press, July 2015). His account of a six-month retreat on a western cattle ranch, The Red House on the Niobrara, is available as an extensively illustrated e-book, or paperback
Visit his website or catch his ruminating blog


  1. I need to do one of these. Yes, I'm getting a lot of writing done these days, largely because I've learned to write faster than I used to (my journey sounds just like yours: table, corner, room), but I'm focusing on short novels to fit with my currently very limited alone time and many, many interruptions. My ability to close the door to my whole room has vanished in the past year. I hadn't stopped to realize that's why I'm having trouble letting myself work on my large tomes lately, but it has to be it. They need too much concentration I don't have.

    Something to consider...

    1. Glad it's made you think (it certainly has me).

  2. Interesting, as ever; but having just returned from the madness of a house with two grandchildren where one of my offspring is trying to launch a writing career, I am compelled to conclude that the answer is, Be Selfish. Outa my way, you lot. I have a job to do - and if you don't let me give expression to my own creative being I will go totally nuts. Now.