I took this picture from my cabin.

How to Plan a Writing Retreat, Part 2: The Schedule

So you’ve got your writers’ retreat going, but what do you do from there? Without a structure, the whole thing will deteriorate into drinking and board games. Yes, I know you’re all a bunch of nerds.

This post is all about supporting the goals listed in my first article. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you take a few minutes and head that way. If you’re ready to move onto the next topic, learn about the food requirements.

It’s all fine and great to say you’re at a writers’ retreat to write. In fact, I’m sure each and every one of you thought that was obvious. I’m equally sure that, without someone stepping into a leadership role, that’s never going to happen. You’ll spend the mornings chatting about your favorite Doctor Who episode, then we can get on to the numerous failings of the Terminator series, and when it’s finally five o’clock, we can all start drinking to forget how much money we wasted.

It doesn’t have to be this way. A fantastic retreat can have an ironclad, militaristic structure, and no one will notice. They’ll just work, get the job done and be grateful for such a fun time. As the organizer, you can take care of them. In fact, you’re a shitty organizer if you don’t.

This makes no attempt to codify the cooking schedule. Food will be covered in another post.

Breakfast: 8 am

All meals are served in a common area, because we want writers to interact and bounce ideas off of each other. This is the most important meal of the day, and it has to happen at 8 am. Your writers are a bunch of lazy bastards, and if you don’t cook them some breakfast, you’ll be prying them out of bed with a crowbar. Then, they won’t have written a word by the time readings roll around. And finally, they’ll be sad at the end and feel like your retreat was a waste of time.

Pro-tip: Cook bacon. People can smell bacon no matter how sleepy/drunk they are.

Select two of your writers to wash dishes. I recommend making a list ahead of time so it’s fair to everyone.

Morning Writing: 9 am – 1 pm

Find your happy place and go write there. Mine was in front of the panoramic window on the fourth floor of a mansion, with a commanding view of a mist-kissed, snowy valley. But, you know, whatever. Two of our writers stayed locked in a windowless room while they worked. To each their own, I say.

Lunch: 1 pm

Eat something hearty or spicy. Something that’ll wake you up for the traditional 2 pm lull everyone experiences. Avoid super-greasy, rich or fried foods here.

Lunch is a magical meal, because this is where you’ll see the most writers solving writing problems. They’ve been at their manuscripts all morning, and they might’ve hit a roadblock. Lunch is the time where writers can fix that in the company of the smartest people around.

Don’t forget to wash the dishes!

Afternoon Writing: 2 pm – 6 pm

The afternoon session was always the most challenging for me, because it was the time when I would hit my writing goal for the day. For my retreat, I set a goal of 3,000 words every day, but some writers went as high as 6,000 or more. Afternoons for me were all about buckling down so I could hit my goal and hop in the hot tub before…

Readings: 6 pm – 7 pm

Ready to feel like a writer? There’s nothing more refreshing than reading raw prose in the presence of your fellow writers–who’ve toiled away the day in service of the same thing. We developed a pretty good system for our retreat, and there are a couple of important dimensions to it:

Everyone has to read.

If you don’t read, you’re asking people to bare their souls while you keep yours to yourself. Participation is critical to maintain fellowship. Each writer will read no less than five minutes and no more than fifteen minutes.

No critiques allowed.

The stuff we read at the retreat is newborn fiction, and all newborns are hideous. They also have thin skin and won’t survive in an adversarial environment. I don’t care how good your story is, it can be torn to shreds when it’s hot off your keyboard. Even if a writer desires a critique, the readings aren’t an appropriate place for that. It wastes the time of other, uninvolved readers and can accidentally foster feelings of competition.

We set up our reading groups every night with a random distribution of playing cards. We had sixteen readers every night, so I took the face cards from a deck of playing cards and shuffled them up, randomly handing them out. Hearts were on the fourth floor, diamonds on the third, clubs on the second and spades on the first. By the end of the retreat, we had some folks complaining that they wanted to read with certain others at least once, so some cheating happened on my part to grant those wishes.

Whatever system you use, just make sure that decisions get made. Someone has to read first, someone has to keep time, and everyone has to make sure the readings are a safe place to share new fiction.

Cocktails: 7 pm – 8 pm

This is when you nurse the wounds dealt to you by your manuscript. Take five, because you deserve it.

Dinner: 8 pm – 9 pm

This is the rich, greasy, fried meal you’ve been wanting. You did your work, and now it’s time to shut your brain down and bask in the afterglow. Our dinners became a place of reflection for the problems we encountered during the day. Some of our writers recruited ad hoc critique groups (outside of the format) during dinner, then disappeared to discuss their work. That’s allowed, because there’s no pressure to join in.

Games/Hot Tub/Drinking: 9 pm – Pass Out

Go, my nerds. Go and frolic amongst your kind, secure in the knowledge that you’ve done your best. And sleep well, because you have to do it again tomorrow.

Free Wednesday

Our 8-day writing retreat is a long one. Since we like to meet near Gatlinburg, we allow ourselves a free day to go and explore all of the kitsch wonders the Smokies have to offer. Sure, some people may decide to hang back at the cabin and write, but it’s not required. I personally wanted a day to blow off steam and I’m sure the cooks did, too.

Let the writers eat the substantial leftovers on Wednesday and give the cooks a break. They’re suffering, too!

7 thoughts on “How to Plan a Writing Retreat, Part 2: The Schedule”

    1. No problem! A great writing retreat is heaven on earth, so I’m always eager to share my formula. Will you check in and let me know how it worked for you?

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