by Elizabeth Van Tassel
Do you need some dedicated time away from the demands of life to kickstart your writing? There are many options—from national conferences to regional conferences to writing retreats. Selecting the right experience for you can be as challenging as finding the perfect book at the bookstore.
Typically, I’ve attended large conferences including Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, American Christian Fiction Writers, and San Diego State Writers Conferences. The caliber of speakers and classes offered at large conferences are amazing, and you’re able to meet world-class authors, editors, and publishers. You get a solid overview of trends and what’s happening right now in the publishing world and what agents are searching for.
After moving to a different city and having a lot of life changes, I decided try a new approach—one that focused more locally. I have a middle grade fantasy I’ve been working on for some time and was searching for my own personal next steps—for the story and also for me personally as a writer. Hoping to connect with authors in my area, I stumbled onto regional conferences and writers retreats, which provide a specialized, more personal experience for writers. (For this article, I’ll refer to them both as writers retreats.) This article covers aspects to consider in making your choice, discerning what your own needs are right now, and finding the secret to making the most of your time away.
Why attend a writer’s retreat? Retreats generally offer time to get feedback on your work and be inspired by successful authors in a low-stress environment. Writing is very solitary, and it can be important to connect with others who understand your experiences and can help on your journey. For me, a good writing retreat breaks me out of my limited point of view and gives me fresh energy to tackle the book, article, or project at hand.
Kinds of writers retreats – Before you start searching, it’s important to know there are different types of retreats. Some focus on actual writing time and prompts, others delve into craft and creativity, and still others give you resources you’ll need to survive with grace and endurance in this competitive industry. Most offer paid critiques of your current work in progress. All of them feature the opportunity to connect with other writers, which is my favorite part. And it’s worth noting that some retreats provide you with beautiful or tranquil locations that nurture your soul.
To ensure you get the most out of your retreat, here are some important questions to ask before you book it:
- What is the retreat structure?
- Will there be writing time?
- Will there be brainstorming for my story, or is it designed to give tools to use on my own?
- Will there be other writers in my genre/target age group? Is that important to me right now?
- Is there a path for seasoned writers, or is this for beginners?
- Is it more focused on the business of writing or the craft of writing?
- Will the conference deplete me or energize me (or both)?
My two options and lessons learned – I chose to attend two writing retreats this year—an intimate regional conference and a writing retreat led by a nationally known author. Both were located near where I live to help keep down costs and to help me build a local writerly community.
An Intimate Regional Conference
The first was a regional conference put on by the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) SF/South region. The event was intimate, hosted at the Asilomar Conference Center near Monterey, California, with 130 people attending. It focused on ways to protect and grow your creative spirit. Authors, illustrators, agents, and editors presented lectures and workshops in both a large room for lectures and in smaller rooms for break-out sessions. Faculty members ate meals with attendees, so there was ample opportunity to connect with publishing professionals.
My Takeaways: I found it very refreshing to think about the physical area where I write and whether it was set up in an inviting way. I received great tips regarding my habits and working with my personality aspects such as writing either early morning/late at night, planning and deep outlining or being more spontaneous, and bringing a fresh perspective to brainstorming by paying attention to cues. They also encouraged us to use variety in approaching creativity—dance, painting, writing poetry, whatever inspires us—to breathe new life into the whole of our writing.
Why I Loved It: It was meaningful to be in a room filled with many other middle grade writers. I usually struggle to find other writers who write for the same age group I do, but this SCBWI conference had plenty! If your retreat features topics or speakers that appeal to your audience, you might enjoy the other attendees almost as much as the content itself. A favorite moment was walking to the beach for an incredible sunset. Next to me there were so many authors and writers being inspired by the painted beauty over the ocean.
An Author-Led Writing Retreat
The second retreat was for twenty people hosted by best-selling authors C.J. Redwine and Mary Weber called The Writers Sanctuary. A friend who publishes young adult fantasy recommended it and flew into town to join me. Wn our three-hour drive through hills and valleys to the seaside town of Cambria, we talked about all things writerly. The retreat location was a quaint lodge among the pines. The retreat leaders took us on a deep dive into how to build a successful writer’s life. The two authors ran the retreat in an interactive lecture style. We were in an intimate setting and could interject questions or ideas. There were some breaks on two of the afternoons for writing, but I opted to use the time for networking with other authors and having a focused critique of my current project.
My Takeaways: I loved the retreat leaders’ perspectives on using the pain and experiences in your life to feed the characters you develop and impact your reader. The authors were offering their best wisdom and fun for us and, again, mentoring a creative spirit in life. It felt like they let me into their living rooms and offered a tray of all their best practices, tips for a balanced and productive career, and in-depth processes for developing characters that really have staying-power over time.
Why I Loved It: My favorite part was meeting up with friends I’ve known from conferences over the years. It was like a mini-reunion. The attendees dined together and had fun side outings seeking out local wildlife and scenery. It was a joy having my minivan filled with fantasy writers instead of tween boys and kids. There was much talk about dragons and sword fighting! My roomie enjoyed the quiet gardens and time to reflect on the lessons in her room before the next session began. She also really benefited from the conversations with authors where she could bounce her ideas around and get immediate feedback.
Perhaps my biggest take-away from both experiences was that as a creative person, there will be bumps in life and it’s helpful to find ways to shelter and protect my creativity despite the circumstances. I’ve got strategies now for embracing difficulties and using them for fuel or ammunition for an evil character or circumstance. Finally, I’ve rediscovered the ability to dream big dreams without limit. It helped to get in a room filled with other middle grade authors and recall a sense of grace and beauty and what a life filled with creativity could be like again.
The single biggest gift you can give yourself at any retreat is to realize you’ve put yourself in a good place with people who excel at your dream profession and let the time unfold. If you’re too focused on specific goals or regimented in your expectations, you’ll miss the golden moments of an unexpected meal with a keynote speaker, laughing over something silly with a famous author, or sharing a sunset with other dreamers by your side.
Elizabeth Van Tassel writes compelling middle-grade fantasy. She brings her knowledge and expertise in the field of gemology to the page and infuses her love of folklore into modern adventures filled with mystery. A wildfire survivor, Elizabeth also understands both the power of loss and the power of hope. She shares her story of resilience, and provides tools for rebuilding at public speaking events and on her blog. Elizabeth currently resides in the Bay Area with her husband, John, and two sons. She can be found wandering the gardens of Filoli House, haunting her favorite coffee shops, and engaging with other writers. You can connect with her at ElizabethVanTassel.com.