How to Pull Off a One-Day Writing Retreat

This November, I participated in NaNoWriMo with the goal of finishing the first draft of my next novel. I had a disadvantage, though, because I had family visiting for a week at the end of November. Unsure if three weeks would be enough to finish my draft, I decided to try something new at the end of those three weeks: a one-day mini-retreat.

I checked into a hotel at 4:00 p.m. on a Friday and checked out at 11:00 a.m. the following day. In that time, besides getting eight hours of sleep and eating two meals, I wrote over 12,000 words and got my first draft finished. It was easy, cheap, and invaluable—here’s how I did it.

  1. Get a room. It’s important to get away from your natural habitat, and all the distractions that come with it. If you can afford it, get a hotel for the night. Join hotel loyalty programs like I did, and put your points toward your retreat. If you can’t swing it financially, try a cheaper alternative like Airbnb, or ask a friend if you can hole up in their guest room for a night.
  2. Plan your meals. Snacks are fine, but you can’t get through a write-a-thon on protein bars alone. You need real food to keep those creative juices flowing. If you get a hotel with a fridge and microwave, you can bring leftovers to reheat between writing stints. Or, if there are restaurants near your hotel, you can take a break to grab dinner.
  3. Plan your words, too. When I’m struggling to get words on the page, the problem is never my typing speed—rather, it’s a lack of ideas. Set yourself up for success by mentally diving into your WIP the night before. Think about what you want to work on during your retreat. Make a list of scenes you could write, settings that need descriptions, or characters that need development. When you begin your retreat, you won’t have to waste any time thinking about what to write—just review your list and get to work.
  4. Ditch distractions. When you arrive at your retreat, set the tone for the rest of your stay by organizing your new space, settling in, and writing. For me, this meant clearing the coffee tray and phone from the desk, setting up my laptop, filling my water bottle, and turning on my favorite ambient sounds for writing (they’re Harry Potter-themed, and you can find them here). Don’t turn on the TV. Don’t check your email or Facebook. If needed, send a text message to your loved ones—then silence your phone and put it somewhere out of sight and out of reach.
  5. Adjust your goals as you go. You should go into your retreat with some idea of what you want to get done—preferably, something ambitious yet reasonable. For me, it was writing 9,000 new words. When I hit 9,000 at 9:00 a.m. Saturday, I could have given myself a pat on the back and left early. Instead, I set a new goal: 3,000 more words before checkout at 11:00.
  6. Take breaks. Writing is hard, and exhausting. I kept a pace of about 2,000 words per hour in the first two hours of my retreat, then slowed to half that in the third hour. I realized I was starting to lag; I needed a break to recharge. I stopped for dinner and a shower, then returned to the novel with renewed energy. Don’t feel bad taking breaks—in fact, you should plan to. But you should also plan when the break will end, and hold yourself to it.
  7. Push yourself. This retreat isn’t supposed to be relaxing. You’ll be drained by the time it’s over, but you’ll also have some major progress on your WIP. Be prepared to work hard. Then, when it’s over, celebrate.

Writing Productivity–How Do You Improve It?

I came away from the Colorado Gold enthused and energized from being around other writers, the only people who truly understand that part of my life. Even the best friends and closest family members don’t really get it, unless they’re also writers. I also came away with the realization that I have to find a way to be more productive. I’m convinced all the great marketing in the world is of no use if you don’t publish frequently and consistently.

Not only have I’ve heard this write-faster, publish-faster refrain on writer blogs and at conferences, but I’ve seen evidence of its truth in my experience maintaining a library fiction collection. I’m currently weeding, culling out books that haven’t checked out in four or more years. The majority of books I weed are either one-book wonders or older books that may have checked out well in the beginning, but now just sit there because the author hasn’t released anything new.

Facing this “inconvenient truth”, that I need to finish books faster, I’ve struggled to find ways to increase my productivity. It seems there are two strategies: to spend more time writing and/or, to write faster.

One way to spend more time writing would be to spend less time on email loops and social media. The downside of this plan is that if I give up on the relationships and contacts I’ve built on-line, I won’t have anyone to help me market when I finally do have a book published.

Another idea I had was to change my writing schedule to give myself more productive time. I’ve always written in the mornings. But that inevitably seems like the best time to work on social media. If I wait until evenings after work, I tend to miss things. But maybe I could write at night. I used to do this, especially once I got deep into a book. So, that’s something to pursue.

Then there’s the idea of writing faster. To do this, it seems like I need to change the way I write. I believe I used to write faster, before I was so conscious of the mistakes I was making. My rough drafts these days are usually not that rough, at least in term of the writing. Although I sometimes leaves holes for names, research terms, or information I don’t want to look up right at the moment, my first drafts are fairly clean and detailed. That’s the reason I’ve never participated in NaNoWriMo. The idea of super-fast writing and just getting words on paper seems impossible to me. While I don’t carefully craft each sentence, I do try to make sure my sentences vary in structure and length, as well as editing out my known over-used words and other bad habits.

But maybe I’m taking too much time crafting my prose the first time around. Maybe I should let myself write a little sloppier, in the interest of getting through the first draft faster.

You could argue that that self-editing has to be done at some point, so it all comes out in the end. While that is true, because I plot as I write (Stupid, stupid, I know; but plotting never works for me), taking time to craft my prose slows down the development of the story, which makes the whole first draft take longer. So, one of my strategies to get faster might be to stop self-editing as much. Simply get the story down and worry about the details later.

These are my ideas for trying to increase my writing productivity. I’d love to hear from other writers. How about you, what strategies do you use to get yourself to the end of a book quickly?

Of course, as I ask this, I wonder if the truly productive authors maybe don’t take the time to read writing blogs!