Writing Retreats

Whether in (mostly) rain-soaked Wales or (mostly) sun-drenched Greece, the aim of a writing retreat is to enable writers to take a break from everyday concerns and have a focused space for writing. Most retreats offer a structure, whether that’s just a post-dinner discussion on works-in-progress or a schedule of more detailed teaching workshops, and some will specify whether they are aimed at beginners or those with some publication experience.

Looking at the wealth of retreats available, how do you decide whether one is suitable for you? Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Are you viewing a retreat as another means of procrastination (e.g. I can put this project on hold until I get to the retreat)?
  • Do you have a project you can take to a retreat or are you looking for a retreat to kick-start or get you back in the habit of writing?
  • Do you want to write or are you more interested in the social side of a retreat?
  • Are there specific skills you want to work on or do you want to be left alone to write?
  • Are you looking at the location and thinking of places to visit/see nearby or are you looking for a location that offers no distractions?
  • How confident are you in your cooking skills?
  • What’s your budget?
  • How important is wi-fi?
  • Will a retreat offer you something different from what’s already available in your locality?

If you’re looking to procrastinate and/or thinking of places to visit, then a holiday without pressure to write might be a better option. A holiday isn’t a waste of time if it also offers chance to dream, think, research and explore ideas in a different environment. Sometimes a break from the notepad or keyboard can bring you back recharged and refreshed.

If you’re looking to work on a specific project or want to be left alone to write, than a retreat without a heavy structure of workshops would be better. If you’d like a retreat to revive inspiration, look for one where the workshops are geared to getting participants to write rather than edit or revise existing work.

Some retreats will ask participants to help with cooking the evening meal. Some retreats may not have internet access. Also check if you are expected to share a room and whether that suits you.

If budget’s a problem, seeking out local or online writing communities or courses might be a more realistic option. Some universities and colleges offer online courses (MOOCs) taught via video and reading materials with online forums to discuss what participants are learning. Some retreats may offer bursaries or local arts funding might be available and these might be worth exploring if you can prove that you have a measurable aim and can show whether you will achieve those aims in attending the retreat.

Signs a Writing Retreat may not be right for you

  • The brochure isn’t clear about the aims of the retreat or there aren’t enough details for you to be clear about what’s on offer
  • The pricing structure isn’t clear about what’s included and what are additional extras
  • The retreat offers workshops but doesn’t say who the tutors are or doesn’t let you know who the tutors are in advance of booking
  • There are no testimonials from previous participants or, if it’s a new retreat, no indication of what experience the organisers have in administering retreats
  • You don’t have a clear idea of what you need to bring to the retreat – “turn up and write” isn’t a plan, but “improve this skill” or “work on a body of poems towards a coherent pamphlet/collection/performance” are.
  • You don’t have a clear idea of what you want to achieve – are you looking to improve technique, work on a specific project or just get together with some writers to revive inspiration and try a new direction in writing?

Like creative writing courses, retreats either fill you with enthusiasm or leave you cold. Neither matters, because it’s about whether it is right for you, but, like most things, research and preparation will enable you to pick the right retreat for you and ensure you get the most out of the experience. A retreat isn’t necessarily about getting published and poems written during a retreat may not be the ones you seek to get published, but those poems do offer practice, experience and will help you develop as a writer.

Does Your Writing Environment Impact your Poems?

Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.

Mary Oliver

Virginia Woolf famously wanted her own room, Mary Oliver prefers solitude and J K Rowling wrote in cafes while her very young daughter napped (although I’m guessing now she has a home office.) Some writers take over the kitchen table after other residents have gone to work or school. Others have an office, some at home, some in a separate building so they have to leave home to go to work. Some write directly onto a computer. Others insist on writing out first drafts by hand.

How much does environment impact on writing?

The last six pieces I wrote – reviews and five poems – were all written in different places under different circumstances:

  • I wrote my reviews in the lounge of a rented apartment, computer on my lap, TV in the background because the person I was with wanted to watch it.
  • One poem was drafted by hand in a notebook while I sat in a parked car, background noise supplied by the breeze and birdsong. The person I was with was playing a game on their phone.
  • Another poem was written by hand in a notebook whilst I was sitting on a public bench overlooking the sea, background noise a combination of lapping waves and seagulls.
  • Another poem was written by hand in a notebook in a noisy café.
  • Another poem was written straight onto a laptop at home. This was probably the only uninterrupted draft.
  • Another poem drafted in the notepad app on my phone during lunch break in a noisy office where the radio leaks from the neighbouring warehouse.

The reviews have been accepted. One of the poems has been accepted, the others are still being worked on and aren’t ready for submission yet. The accepted poem was the one written in a noisy office.

If I needed privacy, a place of my own or insisted I could only write drafts on my laptop or in a specific notebook, I wouldn’t get much writing done. Habit has made the ideal writing environment redundant.

I tend to do a lot of drafting in my head before committing words to paper or screen. I have a reasonable memory and experience has taught me that if an idea is good enough, it won’t get forgotten. It will haunt you until you write it. However, it may start in the form of a rough pottery urn but then may shatter and the shards regroup into an elegant china coffee pot and then it may decide that a coffee pot isn’t much use without cups and a milk jug so will reach out and link to those shapes too, bringing them together on a graceful tray. At this point, I’ll pour the coffee and start writing, wherever and whenever I happen to be. I’m not fussed about drafting by hand or on screen.

Ideally, I’d be able to sit at my desk at home with a familiar keyboard and screen. Reviewing has disciplined me into reading from a screen just as I would read from a printed page so I don’t fall into the lazy habit of skim reading from a screen, although I will skim read a boring article in an online journal just as I would speed reading a boring article in a print newspaper. Ideally, I’d have something close to silence (inevitably nature will intrude, the fridge will hum, the computer itself is not always silence). I can filter out predictable noise such as a radio or background chatter, but it’s hard work and makes the writing process more tiring. I have never been able to filter out someone else humming, whistling or tapping in the background whilst I write a poem, particularly if the humming/whistling/tapping is arrhythmic or I don’t recognise the song and can’t make the distraction predictable.

Habit has taught me to seize the moment and write with the environment and tools available. If I wait until I can get home and sit at my desk with minimal distraction, it would only give me a narrow window of opportunity to write and, of the last six pieces, only one was written at home. I would lose a lot of poems if I waited for the ideal environment or indulged in the luxury of only using a certain type or notebook or pen or downloading apps or switching off the internet hub to make me focus on word processing instead of social media.

For most of us, the best writing environment is the one we create with the place we happen to be in and the tools at hand. Worrying about the ideal environment or creating the right set of circumstances is just like waiting for the muse to strike: procrastination.

 


Leicester University’s Centre for New Writing is undertaking a three year collaborative project, Colonial Countryside, which will mobilise child historians to develop new audiences for cutting-edge research about British country houses’ Caribbean and East India connections. Peepal Tree Press will publish and resource new writing. To kick-start this project, a pilot event will be held with Colmore Junior School in Birmingham and Kenwood and Harewood Houses. A crowdfunder has been opened to pay for 20 children to visit country houses and related archives along with a historian and a writer to support the children in creating a podcast about their experiences.

The JustGiving page for the project is available here: https://www.justgiving.com/campaigns/charity/uniofleicester/colonial-countryside


 

Does your poem end where it should?

I usually talk about titles because a good title will make a poem stand out in a list of contents and could be the difference between the reader choosing to read your poem or the one on the page after yours.

However, a good ending will entice a reader to read and savour your poem again. A bad or underdeveloped ending will wreck the reader’s experience. What makes a good ending?

Have you wrapped up your poem like a ready-made kit?

If you’ve resolved every question, explained every image and tied up every loose end, your poem may feel complete but your reader will find it frustrating. What you’ve done is excluded the reader from interpreting your poem or failed to give them space to develop an emotional connection. Instead of giving your reader the kit and guide, you’ve already made-up the kit and left the reader thinking that was pretty but pointless.

Do you deliver the promise of your premise?

Poems have their own internal logic. If your poem is grounded in an urban landscape, suddenly veering off into fantasy for the final couplet will irritate. That doesn’t mean your urban landscape can’t have a surprising piece of architecture or that your poem can’t end with the narrator suddenly realising that s/he’s no longer on planet earth, but give your reader some clues earlier in the poem. Even in twist-in-the-tale stories, the clues to the twist were in the story if the reader was paying attention.

Have you over-explained?

If you cut the last two lines of your draft poem, does it still make sense? Trust the reader to understand your poem. If you feel the need to explain your ending, then your poem is not ready for publication. You can guide a reader towards the conclusion you’d like them to make, but you must allow for a reader to make a different interpretation.

Have you employed a Deus Ex Machina?

Readers feel cheated if the downtrodden hero/ine who never gambles discovers a winning lottery ticket or some wealthy relative (who hasn’t been mentioned in the story so far) turns up out of the blue or a fairy godmother waves a magic wand. Cinderella’s fairy godmother enabled her to go to the ball, but it was Cinderella herself who left her glass slipper behind so her prince could find her again.

In a poem, the narrator needs to resolve their own problem.

Is the form dictating your poem?

In an early draft, your poem might have looked like a sonnet but, if you’re struggling with the ending, it might be better to release it from a sonnet’s straitjacket.

Writing Genres – an indicator of Writing Talent?

Genres are useful to readers. A reader interested in thrillers is likely to be delighted in finding new thriller writers. A reader that likes experimental poetry is unlikely to be interested in an anthology of poems about nature inspired by Wordsworth. A reader that likes poet A may like poet B who writes in a similar style or on similar topics. A reader who likes a poetry book from a certain publisher would do well to explore the either books from that publisher since poetry publishers are either sole proprietors or a small team of editors with similar tastes. That won’t hold true for someone buying a novel from Penguin Random House. Categorising writing by genre is a useful signpost for readers who want to browse a book shop without checking every book on the (virtual) shelves.

Genres work less well when the categorisation is done by the writer, not the writing. A reader interested in one women writer won’t necessarily like all women writers. A reader interested in books set in South Africa won’t want to restrict themselves to reading only books set in South Africa written by South African writers since that would exclude books by writers set in South Africa who don’t identify as South African but may be living there and/or writing from extensive knowledge and research.

It can also trap writers into writing what’s expected of them or feeling straitjacketed into a specific genre. Some writers don’t want to experiment with genre, just like a pop princess isn’t going to write a death metal classic. But others do and it isn’t always sensible or practical to invent another identity just because book 2 is in a different genre to book 1. Sometimes what initially looked like a great idea for a romance turns into a psychological thriller on execution. It’s not a failure to admit your latest sonnet actually works better as a sestina or that your habit of writing free verse occasionally gets interrupted by a villanelle.

Genres stop being useful when they stop guiding readers to books they will enjoy and become a way of restricting writers. It’s even less useful to pretend there is a hierarchy of genres, as if writing in one genre is more difficult to achieve than writing in another or one genre is superior to another. This pretence of superiority allows writers to be sidelined because writers whose books are not considered literary fiction are assumed to be inferior. It allows poets to be asked when they are going to write a “proper book”, i.e. a novel. This hierarchy dismisses readers who don’t want their next choice of a book to be a challenging read but want to be entertained, terrified, swept away, taken to new worlds or discover a great new poet from the safety of their beach holiday.

What makes writing talent is a combination of two things: gift and craft. An innate love of words and desire to communicate stories will get you started but will only get you so far. A writer needs to learn their craft: how to shape a story or poem and how to develop their writing skills. A singer may have perfect pitch but they still need to learn the lyrics, how to regulate their breathing so they don’t run out of breath mid-way through a song and project their voice. The gift needs to be supported by technical ability. Craft is about cutting superfluity, honing the story or poem back to its essentials, allowing poem or story to find its form, creating fully dimensional characters and keeping a reader hooked. It is possible to write a technically perfect poem or story that’s boring to read because it’s too predictable or it tells us what we already know. A person who wants to write can learn the mechanics of writing but without the talent to explore divergent ways of thinking will fail to give their writing the spark to hook and keep a reader’s interest. Just as the best figure skaters combine artistic impression and technical merit, the best writers combine talent and craft.

No one genre is superior to another. Different genres have different purposes and place different demands on writers, but readers don’t read books for the same reason. Some want the writer to focus on the story and don’t care too much about the elegance of the prose. Some want the writer to focus on the scientific details and don’t care too much about the characters. Some want elegant, experimental prose and don’t care too much about the story. Some only want to see poems written in traditional forms and will reject anything that doesn’t rhyme.

Dismissing one genre as inferior to another is like dismissing someone else’s choice of an apple instead of an orange. Maybe they don’t like oranges. Maybe they’ll choose an orange tomorrow. If you plant an orange seed alongside an apple seed outdoors in the English climate, only one will grow. That doesn’t mean the orange seed lacked the potential to grow. It means that the conditions weren’t right for the orange seed. The conditions of a genre may suit one writer but not another, that does not indicate a lack of talent.

Be Wary of Writing Advice that begins “Don’t”

We all have our bugbears and prejudices. Most of us are aware of what works in our own writing. Those writers who read widely have the advantage of knowing what’s currently trendy/frowned upon and can tailor our writing to suit. Reviewers have the advantage of knowing that what’s trendy now won’t be in five years’ time and what’s frowned upon now may well become trendy in five years’ time. The rhymed/free verse, page/performance debates have circled inconclusively numerous times.

But most writing advice given on this blog has been done so in terms of how to do something. When I use ‘don’t’ it’s in the context of ‘don’t disadvantage your poems by not following guidelines’ or ‘don’t turn up at an open mic with an armful of bangles which will bang against each other and drown out your reading’.

What I do not do is dictate how you should write or how you should perform your poems. I do not recommend you follow exactly what I say. I do recommend you read my advice and follow your own instinct.

When a writer says “Don’t use these words” or “Don’t use this device”, it’s time to evaluate what’s actually being said.

  • Often it points to reader fatigue: the writer is simply tired of reading over-used words or the same plot devices occurring again and again.
  • Sometimes a writer is urging others to avoid one of their bugbears.
  • Sometimes a writer wants others to pander to their prejudices.
  • Sometimes a writer can be quoted out of context.
  • Sometimes a writer has developed ‘big fish in a small pond’ syndrome.

It’s good to avoid cliches and it’s generally good to stick to the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule but there are occasions when the word ‘shard’ is not only the best fit but also the most appropriate word, where ‘medicated sweet for sore throats’ is too clumsy when ‘lozenge’ conveys it better, where telling the reader doesn’t hold up the plot (particularly in a fast-paced fight scene). But it’s also good to examine the words you are using to ensure they are the best ones in the context of your poem. It’s good to examine if the plot device you’re using is the best one available or whether you’re just introducing it because your favourite author uses it.

Be wary of altering your writing to fit someone else’s preconceptions. Writers do tailor what they write for the market they have in mind, but a writer’s job is to communicate and you can’t do that if you take out a stanza that’s crucial to your poem or you give a minor character too much significance. Do listen to advice from writers you trust or advice offered by editors, but pick your battles, and don’t alter anything major.

Writers have to be aware of their own prejudices and limitations. You may be an expert on the 18th century, but that doesn’t qualify you to write about the 10th century. You may be biased towards nature poetry but don’t ignore urban poetry. When your characters speak, do they speak in character or do they become ciphers for your own views? When someone else comments on your work, do they do so from an open mind or a closed one?

Media reports are often second hand and deadlines can often get in the way of research. If you read an article about a lecture a writer has given, be aware the article’s aim is to draw a reader’s interest, probably with a clickbait headline. Where possible, put the article in context. Look at the examples the writer used. Was the writer giving an lecture on a specific topic to general students or was the lecture on a specific aspect of a writers’ publications to a special interest group. Was the writer actually saying “don’t do this” or “don’t do this unless you’ve carefully thought about why you’re using this device and it is in fact the most appropriate device to use.”

Some writers are reluctant to stray out of their comfort zones. They like teaching a group of students or they like running an open mic night or like chairing a workshop. Some don’t like going to groups organised by others or discussing work outside of a classroom, preferring instead to guide small groups towards a set way of thinking or critiquing work. They often become defensive if a newcomer asks questions or challenges a viewpoint. If you attend a group, course or workshop and feel you are being constrained or pushed towards writing in a certain style, it may not be a good idea to stay.

It’s always worth remembering words fall in and out of fashion, writing devices similarly become trendy and then overused, people have prejudices and bugbears, not all writers are media experts and some writers allow their own preconceived ideas about what a poem should be to influence the criticism and feedback they give to others. So, if another writer is saying ‘don’t’, evaluate what’s being said and decide on its relevance to your writing.

Too Many Poets, Too Few Readers

Or why some magazines have started charging submission or reading fees. Most poetry magazines have two main problems: an overload of submissions and a scarcity of subscribers. The latter means most editors are working for free because the magazine only brings in enough income to print the current or next issue. In some cases, the editor is also putting their own money in to fund the magazine as well. The former means that editors are keen to reduce the level of submissions coming in. Ideally everyone submitting to a magazine would at least buy a copy and preferably subscribe to help keep it afloat, but that doesn’t happen.

A submission fee is a quick fix: if writers have to pay to submit, maybe they’d ensure they only submit their best work to magazines that are the best fit for that work.

However, submission or reading fees are a problem

  • They exclude writers who can’t afford to pay. Even though reading fees might seem a small amount, writers don’t submit once to one editor, they submit several times to different editors so even small fees can add up.
  • Not all magazines charging fees pay for acceptances so the reading fee is not recovered by the writer.
  • Writers who can afford to pay may decide not to submit on principle.
  • It deters writers from becoming subscribers. Most writers who subscribe to magazines do so because they are planning to submit to that magazine at some point and given a choice between paying a submission fee or a subscription, most will choose the former over the latter because writers only have a finite disposable income and it makes more sense to use that to work towards publication than reading.
  • The magazine restricts its pool of contributors to those who can both afford to pay and are willing to pay submission fees.
  • Since magazines typically accept only 1-2% of submissions, the writers whose work isn’t selected are subsidising the writers whose work is accepted.

Funding for magazines has always been a problem.

  • It’s frustrating for editors to see submission after submission from poets who don’t subscribe, but poets can’t always afford subscriptions and some will subscribe after an acceptance. Some poets are subscribing to magazines but not necessarily every magazine they submit to.
  • Arts funding streams are usually focused on one-off projects or are not suited to repeat funding to subsidise an ongoing project, even during the start-up phase where a magazine is launched and seeking subscribers.
  • Crowd-funding too is fine for one-off projects e.g. setting up a new magazine but not designed to provide ongoing funds and it’s difficult to run a crowd-funder without a lengthy list of contacts who can be relied on to both contribute and spread the word. It also has the inbuilt complication that crowd-funders will expect rewards for their donation. A magazine that can only offer an issue or a subscription might attract lots of low-level donations with the risk of not hitting its target.
  • There’s also the age-old problem of wannabe writers who don’t read and don’t see why they need to support poetry magazines through buying copies, but are often first to complain when a magazine ceases publication.
  • Guilt-tripping submitters (whether successful or not) into subscribing (“the magazine won’t survive unless you subscribe”, etc) is rarely successful.

It’s easy to see why reading fees, which can be used towards publication costs, are seductive.

How can publications avoid charging for submissions or using reading fees?

  • Be ruthless in rejecting writers who don’t follow the submission guidelines.
  • Consider using reading windows so writers can only submit at certain times (and automatically reject writers who submit at the wrong time)
  • Place limitations on how often writers can submit e.g. only submit once during a reading window, do not submit for a year after publication, do not resubmit until the next reading window after a rejection.
  • Consider soliciting contributions as well as unsolicited submissions – this could help redress gender/racial balances too
  • Check that submission guidelines are clear about writers submitting work in the right format for the magazine so that less time is wasted typesetting and reformatting contributions.
  • Consider being more prescriptive in describing the type of work included in the magazine. Asking poets, who are not always the ideal judges of their own work, to “Send in your best work” is an invitation to being flooded with submissions.

How can Poets Help?

  • Do support publishers and magazines through subscribing and buying books, pamphlets and magazines when you can afford to.
  • Do share your publication successes on social media (with a link to the publication).
  • Consider reviewing and championing the work of others (you may get reciprocal shares and reviews in return).
  • Check submission guidelines and double-check your submission complies before submitting.
  • Resist the temptation to flood a publication with submissions. If an editor’s accepted a poem, they are unlikely to accept more until your poem’s been published and even then there may be a rule about not submitting for a year after publication. If an editor’s rejected your work, they might welcome further submissions, but not within five minutes of their rejection. Look at what’s been rejected and consider whether the poems you’d like to submit are the best fit for the magazine before pressing send.
  • Don’t submit outside submission windows.
  • Don’t think submission guidelines don’t apply to you.
  • Gain a beta-reader or join a workshop/online forum/spoken word evening where you can test your poems on readers and listeners before submitting to a magazine. Your latest poem may be the best thing you’ve ever written but a fresh pair of ears will notice the tongue-twister in line five and a fresh pair of eyes will notice the stray apostrophe in the first stanza.

Personally, I’m uncomfortable with reading/submission fees because good writing comes from talent, knowledge of writing craft and practice, not ability to pay. Putting up entry barriers in a field that’s already got issues with accessibility – unpaid internships in publishing, the VIDA Count’s demonstration that women writers are less likely to be reviewed, that most writers need a second job to compensate for the low income directly from writing, the lack of visibility for BAME writers, etc – I don’t think is helpful.

However, writers also need to acknowledge that they can’t expect to be published if they don’t buy books and magazines when they can afford to, don’t head out to spoken word nights and poetry readings where possible, and don’t help support publishers and magazine editors through reviewing (even a one line review on a seller’s website/online forum is useful) and publicity.

NaPoWriMo 2017 Complete

NaPoWriMo 2017 is complete and I now have 30 poems and a lot of editing to do. One poem, “A Staircase of Knives” has been accepted for publication and four more are good enough to submit to editors. Of the others, a couple are too personal to send out to editors. But the rest will now be edited over the coming weeks although that process may be interrupted by new poems.

What did I write about? Most of the poems this year were based on news stories. One was a tribute to Carrie Fisher, one celebrated “Adrian Mole’s” birthday, one was based on a title generated by a random book title generator, a couple based on memories. I always find music a big source of inspiration.

The biggest hurdle in NaPoWriMo is the stamina to keep going. It’s easy to spend the last few days of March clearing the review pile, gathering a list of prompts and having ideas bubbling at the back of your mind in readiness. Sometimes life gets in the way: the unexpected event, family illness, some problem or issue that needs to be resolved. Generally, keeping the momentum going post the halfway point, is doable. It’s often at the two-thirds mark that momentum stalls. It’s the point where there’s already twenty poems but one more to the pile doesn’t seem to make much difference. The end isn’t quite in sight and inspiration seems to dry up. For me, that’s generally the time that hayfever starts and my energy’s depleted.

It helps to have a trick or two up your sleeve: sure fire exercises that trigger inspiration. Sometimes that might be reading other poems, listening to music or reading new stories. The golden shovel form (in a nutshell: take a line from a poem, use each word in the line as the last word in each line in your poem) is a good exercise – it results in a poem that later might be rewritten so it doesn’t need the line that acted as scaffolding to create the poem in the first place. Music’s good, it has a rhythm, influences mood and there could be inspiration from the lyrics, remembering where you first heard a particular song or trying to figure out what the songwriter was thinking when writing the lyrics. With news stories,  you can research into the story’s background, a item in the story or try and retell the story from the viewpoint of a minor character in the story.

A full list of my NaPoWriMo poems are here. I always say titles are important. If your poem is published in an anthology or magazine, what will draw readers to select your poem above the others?