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A Writers' Retreat

A few months ago I attended a small, intensive writers’ retreat and I want to share the experience, as I think it’s a wonderfully productive thing to do for your writing.

I went to the retreat with ten other authors, renting out an old guesthouse by the beach. We came from all corners of Australia, and one from new Zealand. Most of the participants live hundreds of kilometers from any other romance writer.

The number of participants was limited by the number of bedrooms in the house — each person had their own room (nobody was allowed to share) and every room had a table we could work on — that was one of the criteria when the location was being selected. We found that eleven was big enough for variety and small enough so that the people who didn’t know everyone could leave at the end as friends.

We all write different kinds of book: some series and some single title, but we are all romance writers.

It was very much a working retreat — we made a plan and listed topics for discussion and questions — mainly about publishing and the business of publishing. eg publicity and promotion and the value of different approaches.

For each discussion a leader was appointed, and we all shared our knowledge and thrashed out ideas, theories and approaches. It is so rare we get a chance to do this sort of thing. We scheduled a morning and an evening discussion, and lots of writing time.

Some of us met before breakfast for a walk along the beach. On the first morning we saw two seals diving for fish, while the full moon set in front of us and dawn broke behind us. It was a magic start to a magic week.

Each morning after breakfast we discussed the topic listed — we basically pooled our knowledge, experience and ideas and thrashed out questions of concern to various members of the group. None of us was an expert, and half the time we didn’t come up with solutions, but we certainly came away from those sessions much better informed.

After the discussion sessions, we either hared off to our rooms and wrote, or some of us broke into small brainstorming groups.

The brainstorming was brilliant — we found that groups of four or five people worked best. By the end of that 5 day retreat, each of us had a story (or a part of one that was a problem) brainstormed and worked through to our satisfaction. Plus we learned so much from ‘playing’ with other people’s stories. It was very inspirational. We all left those sessions invigorated and with fresh enthusiasm for our stories.

We also had topics to discuss and activities after dinner. One of these activities was an evening collage session. Only a couple of us had collaged before, and some of the others were a bit doubtful as to whether it would be productive. Well — it was amazing how everyone clicked with the process.

We hit the local charity-shops and bought a heap of different magazines and some cheap scissors and glue and sat there ripping pages out and passing some along that we thought might suit someone els. And chatting. There was lots of laughter!

Once we had enough pictures, we put them together individually, arranging them, letting our unconscious guide us. Some people used wrapping paper as the backing sheet, others used a manilla folder opened out flat. One person used fabulous tropical print paper as her backing sheet.

The purpose of collaging is not to make a piece of art work — it’s a gathering of images for the story, a kind of visual brainstorming.

The next morning the house was eerily quiet, except for the occasional sound of ripping, as people holed up in their rooms and quietly completed their collages, lost in the world of their story.

And the results were extraordinary — we saw each writer’s story come to life in pictures. Four of the participants were writing a continuity (a series of four connected novels, each one written by a different person) and it was wonderful seeing how they recognized each other’s characters and settings and how excited they all got when they realized how harmonious their vision of the linked stories was. In fact we were all pretty much like kids in our excitement at the final collages.

One of these collages was for a Harlequin Presents book, the dark, intense and sexy line and is for two linked books involving sexy Russian heroes. Another is for Harlequin Tender — the more tender, heartwarming romance line. And one is for a sexy, intense Harlequin Desire. Can you guess which collage is for which book?

And don’t the different book-worlds these collages evoke all look so appealing?

We really did a lot of writing. I got almost two chapters done. Others did more. Some did less in actual production of written pages, but so much in terms of working out stories. Some arrived with no story and left with a clear and inspiring vision of their characters and plot.

We also found inspiration everywhere. We even made a labyrinth in the sand. (A labyrinth is a meditation tool, not a maze) Later we watched the waves wash it all away.

And then there was just the sharing. We talked a heap in between the work sessions. We walked and talked in big groups and in small ones, and shared our woes and also laughed our heads off. Sometimes we simply wandered along the beach on our own, thinking. We all left feeling much closer to each other, and with a much better understanding of how we each work.

This group started with just a couple of people finding the right place, then inviting a few like-minded people. It was made clear from the start that it was to be a working retreat, and we got people thinking about what they wanted to achieve before we started. It was definitely a working retreat — we are all serious, professional writers but we also had a lot of fun. Plus it was so inspiring.

And by the way, on the last night we went to a lovely restaurant by the beach — before renovation, the building was used for a gorgeous Australian romanic comedy series called Sea Change and the building was known as Diver Dan’s. What better place for a bunch of romance writers to go? That’s it on the right.

The retreat experience was a brilliant for all of us — some had written only a couple of books, others more than sixty — but we all got so much out of it, we’re already planning another one next year. So why not try it?

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