Saturday, 19 December 2015

Week Twenty-Eight: The Importance of Retreating

Welcome back to the main blog after a few guest posts and a random promo. (My debut thriller got to Number One in the UK Kindle chart - yippee! Sorry, my ego is still loving that.) This is where we resume normal service. Assuming it was normal to begin with, of course.

This week I want to talk about the importance of retreating. I don't mean in the face of an enemy offensive, I mean as a writer, i.e. packing up your kit bag and toddling off to some quiet hotel or place in the country or friend's empty flat for a few days or even weeks in order to devote serious time to your current work in progress.

Ditch home comforts, slip a discreet laptop into your rucksack, and slope off for some quality writing time alone.
As the mother of many noisy kids, three of whom are now home educated, I find a writer's retreat invaluable, especially at the start or end of an important writing project. But I accept that not everyone is like me. (It's hard, but yes, I have found a way to accept this strange truth.) Some people may already live alone and not need to get away for peace and quiet. They may have peace and quiet coming out of their ears, and would prefer to write in a floating cocktail party. Others may be like me, but need a change of scenery so their creative brains can recharge (rather than so they can write without endless distractions).

Whatever the reason, it does seem that many writers produce more when they go away specifically to write than when they stay home and follow their usual routine. More words. More pages. More chapters. More books.

I guess this is not merely because of wonderful distractors like kids and spouses, who, darling things though they are, do seem intent on disturbing us right when we're in the middle of an important scene. And often for no good reason at all, it seems to me. Simply because they can't find clean socks, or you've absentmindedly left their pizza in the oven for forty minutes and it's now a charred, smoking wreck.

No, going on retreat also avoids all those boring domestic tasks that get in the way of a good story. Some of these are unavoidable daily essentials like shopping or household maintenance. Typical scenario is you start to write, then have to stop because you're remembered the old fridge is due to be collected by the council. Then the cats need to be wormed. Someone has to find the Christmas tree at the back of the shed - and put it up! Or the milk has run out, so a quick trip to the shop is in order. And that permission slip still needs to be signed. And where the hell did we put last summer's wetsuits?

If all the above are not just part of Novel Avoidance Syndrome, you finally close the door with a sigh and sit down to bash out a few thousand words. But then the phone rings and you spend the next forty-five minutes having a circuitous conversation with Mad Aunt Maud about the aliens she can hear scratching around in her loft at night.

"He crept barefoot across the shards of broken glass and ... " Oh shit, is that the phone again?

Suddenly a writing retreat seems more and more appealing. We open our laptops and book a place, pack our cases, jump in the car or taxi, and vamoose ...

So we retreat to concentrate on our work. On ourselves as writers. Retreating is about creating and ring-fencing an important space in our lives and minds which is for nothing but writing. And the odd panini.

There will be some who can't stand their own company though, or who prefer being with other writers when wrestling with a manuscript. For these, any residential writing course will be useful, but especially a 'retreat'. My own favourite has always been those run by the marvellous Arvon Foundation. I've been on many courses with them, and even tutored one in Scotland. You get to write in a room of your own all day on one of their 'retreats' or to share your work with experienced tutors on a course if you prefer. Plus chat with other writers at meal-times and in the evenings. It's heaven for writers who get enough of their own company all year round. And of course there are many other writing retreat-style courses all around the country.

If retreating alone, here are a few useful things to consider:

What kind of retreatee are you?
If you prefer silence and solitude, a cottage in the woods or on the moors is an excellent choice if your budget will stretch to it. But beware the branch squeaking against the window in the night or the wind moaning under the eaves. If you're writing a ghost or horror story, it might be best not to go for total isolation, especially in winter (when the rents are cheapest).

I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that creaking sound upstairs ...

If you like noise and bustle and people, but anonymity with it, a city centre hotel is perfect. I have gone down both routes and find them equally useful. A budget hotel is often the cheapest option, but make sure the chain you pick has a good desk and chair for working at. And a comfortable bed! (You can always take a laptray for writing in bed if you get sick of the desk.) I usually go for Premier Inn but everyone is different. Ask if there's a coffee shop or restaurant attached or nearby - you will soon find the four walls of your room a little unvarying.

Avoid free wifi if you can, though it's becoming widespread at hotels. You will only end up spending your entire retreat on Twitter or Facebook.

What resources do you need?
Under this heading I include drinks and snacks - a bunch of grapes or a Pot Noodle can be a lifesaver when you're on a winning streak and don't want to go out for food - and books on writing or research materials. Historical or thriller writers often find themselves carting around ludicrous amounts of maps, manuals and background books. Not great if you're travelling by train or bus. If you can get such books on Kindle or iPad etc., all the better, though personally I find it easier to flick to a frequently-consulted page in a paperback or hardback.

I take how-to books on writing with me to all retreats. Like comfort food. Often I never open them. But they're on hand in case I get stuck. The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler is my all-time favourite, full of practical and inspirational - if sometimes oddly couched - advice. It's about screenwriting ostensibly, but can be adapted for any medium.

Other special items (beyond drinks/snacks/research material) to consider taking include:
laptray (for writing in bed or on a sofa/garden bench)
any DVDs that could be useful (not your fav film, in other words, unless you're writing something similar!)
headphones (for excluding outside noise and/or listening to music)
warm and/or comfortable clothing (for slouching around in) 
bedsocks or slippers
a local map or map app
your dongle or whatever you use for internet access (to perform back-ups to Dropbox etc: make sure it's up-to-date/covers that area)
a USB pen/data stick for belt-and-braces file back-ups
any extra pillows or comfort items you need for sleeping
--- and don't forget chargers for all electrical items!

How much should I expect to write per day on a retreat?
I often write very little the first day or two, depending on how long I'm away. If I have a week or more, I like to get the feel of the place first and get comfortable there, like an animal laying down its scent. Then I work hard, maybe ten hours a day at the desk, until the day before leaving, when I start to wind up mentally and look back over what I've managed. If it's only a mini-break, you may need to work from day one all the way through to the last minute, which can be an exhausting process.

Generally, I expect to write between 3000 and 7000 words a day of neat prose, by which I mean prose I've tidied up as I go along. Those who write fast, dirty drafts might do far more. We all write at a different pace, so whatever works for you is perfect.

Well, as I swing off on my latest writing retreat, to a quiet and unassuming city hotel (with free wifi, unfortunately), good luck with your own endeavours!

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