Tuesday, 15 October 2013

The anatomy of a writing residential

I've just come back from a writing residential weekend. You know, the sort of "get away from distractions" trip to get some serious writing done that so many aspiring authors dream of.

I haven't been on such a weekend since December 2008, and that was organised by the university at which I was taking a diploma in creative writing. This was a little different, in that I organised it, not just for myself but for the ten-strong critique group I attend.

A few other writerly types have asked me whether it was a worthwhile exercise (in summary: yes) and what sort of things we did. So, in the absence of anything better to blog about, I thought I'd describe what we got up to. Maybe you're planning a similar writing retreat, in which case maybe this will be helpful.

Enough waffle then; here's what we did.

1.30pm Convene at a nearby country pub for lunch. The pub was very busy, so we had a bit of a wait for food, but it was worth it. Alcohol was resisted by all present.
2.45pm Openings exercise. Brighton Rock by Graham Greene has a famously excellent opening. The task of this exercise, aside from being a "warm-up", was to attempt to write an opening of one's own in the style of Brighton Rock's. And when I say style I don't just mean tone but also word count, sentence structure, paragraph length, the whole shebang. It's hard, let me tell you, but most people seemed to get something out of it
3.45pm Adjourn to residential venue for check-in. The venue is very important. Peace and quiet is essential. A few distractions to break up the writing are good (not too many though, you don't want to be too distracted). A catered venue is great - you don't want to be spending precious writing time preparing meals and washing up. Our venue was a blissfully quiet rural conference centre adjoining a convent, hence mostly used for ecclesiastic and other genteel pursuits. You open the window and there is only silence. Perfect.
4.00pm Free time. I wrote 1,058 words. Others read or had a nap. No-one braved the tennis courts (too cold).
6.15pm Logistics and health & safety briefing from the site manager.
6.30pm Dinner. Chicken curry followed by peach crumble and custard for me. See? I told you getting a catered venue's worth it...
8.00pm Having adjourned to the bar lounge, the last real exercise of the day was to read from, and eulogise about, a piece of writing that we love. Everyone goes away from this with a list of recommended reading. I read from, and heartily endorsed, Let's Kill Love by Mark Kilner. Alcohol flowed merrily, lubricating the evening's discourse.
10.45pm Art and literature pub quiz (I'd nicked this from the Telegraph website - it's here it you want to try). I even provided a prize: a nice hardback edition of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. We all scrawled messages inside for the eventual winner (who scored 52½ out of 60, by the way), and joked that when we were famous writers it would be worth a fortune. Like I said, we were all quite lubricated by this point.
1 - 3am One batch retired at 1, another at 2 and the last men standing (myself included) at 3.

8.30am Breaky. Croissants, fresh fruit, a boiled egg, orange juice. Lots and lots of tea, of course.
9.30am Free time. I read a little (The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson), and proof-read a few pages of my novel-length work in progress.
10.45am Morning tea and biscuits.
11.00am Workshopping, part 1. Those that wanted to have a piece reviewed, myself included, had circulated it for reading before the residential. This was where we fed back our comments and discussed the pieces.
1.00pm Lunch. Roast beef, yorkie pud and all the trimmings, followed by a sticky toffee date pudding and custard. I may have gained pounds as well as word-count at this residential.
2.00pm Workshopping, part 2.
3.45pm Afternoon tea and cake.
4.00pm Wrap-up, agree to do it all again next year (possibly for two nights) and depart.

So, questions.

  • Was it worth it? Yes.
  • Did I achieve anything? Yes (1,058 new words, 1,900 words workshopped and six narrow-lined sides of A4 proof-read and edited for a start, plus a list of books I want to read as long as your arm).
  • Was it a lot of fuss to organise? Not much, and when you're as selfishly self-motivated as I was, not really at all.
  • Would I do it again? Yes - haven't I already mentioned "same time next year"?
  • Would I do it on my own, i.e. if I wasn't part of this wonderful critique group? Probably not. Where's the fun in that?

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