Takeaways from being on retreat

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I was recently on a writers’ retreat for a week and what a glorious and blissful week it was: fabulous surroundings, fantastic company and space to think and write.

But how to keep that vibe going now that I am home again and normal life has to resume?

Having been in a wonderful bubble of creativity surrounded by like minded friends, it is of course impossible to recreate that feeling back at home when the hoovering needs doing, the dog is barking and there is a teetering ironing pile (heap?) which is calling to be done. But I need to try.

My top five takeaways from my recent retreat:-

1.  It’s important to have time and space to let your imagination off the leash away from a computer screen or notepad.

Otherwise known as day dreaming, it is easy for this vital activity for writers to be crushed by the demands of the everyday. I am pretty good at doing this whether on retreat or not because walking my dog Willow is perfect daydreaming time. So that’s one box ticked.

2.  It’s important to write what you feel.

I went on retreat with a plan of the projects I wanted to work on. I came back from retreat with none of those projects progressed BUT I did come back with a short story/serial which with some polishing I should be able to sell to a women’s magazine and which I am excited to keep working on.

The takeaway here is not to be too stringent with ourselves about what we are choosing to write. The important thing is that we are writing.

3. It is wonderful to have a group of writers who are now firm friends with whom to discuss the mechanics of writing, the difficulties of particular genres, what’s selling and what isn’t and how we see our careers developing.

The takeaway here is that whilst writing is a solitary business, all writers need a support network to fall back on or reach out to.

Social media can fill that gap if you aren’t lucky enough to have a writers’ group close by but nothing can quite make up for a lively debate/discussion over a good meal as the wine flows.

4. It was wonderful to have nothing in the schedule other than to write.

It is of course impossible to recreate that feeling now I’m home but the takeaway is we all need to make time for writing because time won’t present itself and say now you can write. Chores will always need doing, bills will always need paying, day jobs need to be done. It is up to us as writers to cherish and value our work enough to place it higher up the to do list. One hour a day for five days a week is surely doable, isn’t it?

5. I enjoy writing.

That might seem like an odd statement for a writer to make but it is all too easy to forget why we do this job sometimes.   The beauty of taking an idea, working on it and producing something from the rough clay that can be moulded into a finished story is a thing of wonder. One of my New Year’s Resolutions this year was to remember to make writing fun. On retreat, writing was fun. I need to bring that mindset next time, and every time, I sit down at my desk to work. And that’s something all writers should try to do.

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Happy Writing!

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white lies
White Lies by Ellie Holmes http://Author.to/EllieHolmes


On Retreat

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As you are reading this I am presently on a writers’ retreat. We may be minutes from a busy town, but I am happily ensconced in a time warp idyll surrounded by bucolic countryside. A salve to the mind and a huge inspiration creatively.

On Retreat
The view from my bedroom window

I am lucky enough to belong to an extraordinary writers’ group. There are seven of us in the group and we are all novelists, some traditionally published, some indie published, some hybrid and some unpublished. We meet once a month in a local bookshop when we celebrate any successes members of the group have had, usually with Prosecco, we critique two pieces of work, taking it in turns and discuss any writing related subjects that happen to come out of our discussions.

A group of different people, most of whom did not know each other before joining, brought together by their shared love of writing have, as time has gone on, become firm friends. We are a support base, a sounding board, a ready made set of beta readers and a sympathetic ear when things don’t quite go to plan.

In addition to our monthly meetings, we already have a summer meet up for wine, nibbles and chat and a Christmas meal at which a lucky dip of a preloved book is swapped with another member of the group.

It was my idea to float the retreat with my friends in the group. I had always been intrigued by the idea of a retreat. We all lead such busy lives and finding time to write is precious. I had in mind that maybe three or four members of the group might be interested and we could rent a little cottage by the sea.

To my surprise and delight, all seven members of the group wanted to come. Bang went that cottage by the sea. Worse was to come. No one in the group wanted to share a bedroom. First world problems and all that. In my mind, I upgraded from country house to mansion.

A fellow member of the group found the most extraordinary place. Mansion does not do it justice (and no I am not going to tell you where it is because we want to come back!).

We write in our own individual spaces all morning, come together for lunch, have a group session on a particular aspect of writing between 2.00 pm and 3.00 pm and then either take a walk in the garden or the woodland, have a siesta or, if we want to be very industrious we can go back to writing. We break between five and six in the evening for a glass of something fizzy on the terrace and enjoy our evening together over a meal and several bottles of wine.

Everyone, prior to the retreat, was asked to write a piece of flash fiction inspired by the theme or title of May Day. The competition entries have to remain anonymous and have been available downstairs in the hall for all of us to dip into. It has been fun trying to work out who wrote what.

On our last night we have splashed out on a private caterer to come in and cook us a three course meal. At the end of the meal we will each be given a competition entry to read aloud. Then we will all vote (anonymously) for our favourite. The winner and runner up will receive a prize and we will then see how close we all came to guessing which story belonged to which writer. It should be a fun way to end a fabulous writing break.

I have never been on a writing retreat before but as I was the one who suggested we do this it would have been bad form not to go along. I am so glad I did. I feel as though we are living in a creative bubble and leaving here and going back to reality will be hard to do.

We are already talking about making this an annual event.

I made plans about the projects I wanted to work on but staying in such an extraordinary setting has swept me along. Voices of characters I never thought I would write about have  demanded that I tell their story. Four and a half thousand words later, I have a short story or serial that is ready to go. I also have the memories: fabulous company, great food, lovely surroundings and brilliant weather. As writing retreats go, I think we struck gold.

I cannot speak for writers’ retreats generally and going away with strangers may have been more problematic but if you belong to a writers’ group or if you have a set of writing friends who all get along well together, why not find a house to accommodate you all and step back from real life for three or four days to rest, recuperate, fill the creative well and write. Like me, I am sure you will be really glad you did.

Happy writing!

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white lies
White Lies by Ellie Holmes http://Author.to/EllieHolmes


Would you like to share with the group…?

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Writers are often encouraged to belong to writers’ groups and there are certainly plenty of them around. In all shapes and sizes, you will find them in most small towns and every city. So finding a writers’ group in your local area should be relatively easy. Finding the right sort of writers’ group, however, is a much trickier proposition.

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Firstly, you have to determine what you want to get from a writers’ group and, crucially, how much you are willing to give in return. That old saying about you only get back what you put in is as true for writers’ groups as it is in many other areas of life. Someone who shows up to as many meetings as they can, who actively engages in the group’s activities and makes an effort to get on with everybody is going to find participation a lot more enjoyable than someone who holds themselves aloof and doesn’t really want to engage.

Odd One Out
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If you are a novel writer, a poetry group may be an interesting diversion but it is unlikely to help you develop your skills as a writer in anything other than an abstract way. If short stories are your bag, people launching themselves into a 100,000 word novel are going to have a whole different set of reference points to your own. Find a group that specializes in the type of writing you do. You don’t have to be genre specific if you are a novel writer. Indeed, I think belonging to a group with a mix of genres is best because it gives you a different perspective on how other types of novel are created.

If you are serious about writing and have specific career goals, you want your group to be comprised of like-minded individuals. Lots of writers write for fun and are happy to be hobbyists but a group made up of hobbyists will not be suitable for a career oriented writer who wants to grow and push themselves.

Sickly sweet
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Ideally your group will consist of writers at different stages of their careers. This gives you a wonderful overview of the writing world in general. From the creation of material to the approaching of agents and editors and, if you have published authors, indie or otherwise, amongst your number an insight into the actual business of writing – marketing, sales, publicity.

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Writers should never underestimate the power of a writing group. A good one can energize and inspire you. They can also be there for you during the down times. Whilst family and friends try to be supportive only other writers can truly understand your frustration at trying to nail a particular character or work out a fiendish plot twist. To have members of the group at the end of an email between meetings is invaluable as a kind word or constructive advice can be the difference between turning the laptop off and indulging in a spot of reality TV or ploughing on and working through the problem.

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Once you have identified your core group and if you have the time and the inclination, you can always stretch yourself and join a second group particularly if you have split disciplines or just a hankering to do something different.

Odd One Out2
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I am fortunate enough to belong to two writers’ groups. One is a group for novelists. We are an eclectic bunch writing at least 9 different genres (some of us writing in more than one!). The mix of genres is brilliant. Each genre brings with it its own particular set of intricacies and problems. We critique a section of writing from two different writers each meeting. We always ensure that whilst the critiques are honest they are also constructive. Writers’ groups should not exist to batter writers’ egos into submission or to massage them. They should be there to quietly and consistently encourage, so that everyone progresses no matter what stage they are at. We learn as much from critiquing other people’s works as we do from having our own work scrutinized.

Defining Learning
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The second group I belong to is a flash fiction group. I was unsure about this group at the start purely because I don’t write a lot of flash fiction. I found it fiendishly difficult to begin with and sometimes still do but it is also very enjoyable and they, too, are a great bunch of people. We pick out a title from a tin of suggestions and have to write a piece of flash fiction as homework which we read out at the next meeting. Then, at the meeting itself, we pick out another two titles and have to write pieces of flash fiction during the meeting itself.

It was utterly terrifying at the start and is only marginally less so now! I have mixed results so far as quality is concerned but this group is all about testing yourself and writing completely different things than you are used to. It’s all about saying goodbye to your comfort zone and pushing yourself. I have written pieces that I would never have written without this group and yet have thoroughly enjoyed producing them. I can literally feel my writers’ muscles being stretched at each meeting and that can only be a good thing.

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If you don’t yet belong to a writers’ group, I hope I have whetted your appetite and that you will hunt out one that suits you.

If you do belong to a writers’ group please share with us what you get out of the experience.

Today’s blog is the fourth in my Flower Seller Thursday collection of writing related blogs leading up to publication day of my first novel The Flower Seller on Thursday 2nd June #FlowerSellerThursday

The Flower Seller by Ellie Holmes