Run your own writing retreat
What do you do if you can’t find a writing workshop that seems to suit your needs? You can follow the example of my writing salon, the Edge Writers, and run your own.
ROWAN House is reputedly haunted, but when the Writers on the Edge workshop took over the Sunshine Coast bed and breakfast, it was filled with a different spirit entirely. For five days in September 2005, I joined five other aspiring writers at the charming B&B at Maleny to workshop stories in development.
Under the eye of tutors Sean Williams and Robert Hood, and with the hospitality of Rowan House owner, and author, Prue Mason, easing the way, the week was an intense yet companionable experience which even the tutors found invigorating and worthwhile.
Adding to our sense of accomplishment was the fact we had organised the retreat ourselves.
The idea to run our own retreat was inspired by the EnVision speculative fiction workshop. EnVision was the brainchild of Brisbane writer Rowena (Cory Daniells) Lindquist, and provides writers of horror, science fiction and fantasy to work on novel-length manuscripts under the tutelage of published authors in those genres. The Writers on the Edge formed after the first EnVision in 2003, united by our common interests in mainly fantasy and horror writing as well as complementary levels of skill and personality. We have continued to meet regularly, as well as using the internet to critique each other’s work and provide moral support.
The other founding members of the circle are Redcliffe-based writers Nea Bovill and Paul Garrety, Brighton’s Michele Cashmore, Mark Curtis of Carindale, and Deborah Soukup of Toowoomba.
While EnVision (since ceased operation) was a powerful opportunity to develop stories, skills and industry contacts, by 2005 the members of the Edge group had a dilemma: the EnVision tutors were already familiar with most people’s work, and not everyone in the Edge had new material to take. So it was decided to invite experienced authors from outside of EnVision to act as mentors for a self-organised retreat based on the EnVision model.
One of the hardest hurdles to overcome was simply arranging a week when all six Edge members could step out of their lives to concentrate on their writing. Once the date was settled, the question became one of venue.
Fortunately, Paul had stayed at Rowan House earlier in the year for a few days to work on his manuscript, and reported glowingly about the house’s atmosphere, host Prue Mason and the view from the hilltop site over the Sunshine Coast. Prue, a 2005 Queensland Premier’s award winner and author of several young adult titles, promoted Rowan House as a writers’ retreat, but one has to wonder if she knew just what she was letting herself in for when she accepted our booking which filled the house’s accommodation to near capacity.
With Paul and Mark in the top-floor gallery room, myself in the adjoining cosy attic room, the three women sharing the separate cottage and two tutors in the basement room, most of the soft horizontal surfaces were taken. Parking space was at a premium.
Laptops and printers proliferated in the living room, and wandering writers could be found seeking inspiration in the landscaped grounds, along local roads, staring at the view from verandahs … and at nearby bottle shops and the quirky Little Morgue Winery down the road at Nambour.
The key to the retreat, though, was having the right tutors, and here the generosity and camaraderie of the Australian speculative fiction community came to the fore.
Being self-funded, we could not afford to pay industry rates for tutors. In fact, we couldn’t afford to pay them at all. But we were able to cover airfares, accommodation, food and expenses (including a steady supply of chocolate!), and guaranteed free time for the tutors to work on their own projects. No one we contacted was worried about being paid. One writer didn’t feel qualified to act as mentor, but another half-dozen we approached were enthusiastic: if only they didn’t have clashing schedules. As it turned out, however, we were able to attract high-quality talent: Robert Hood, from Wollongong, one of Australia’s most respected horror writers, and Sean Williams, from Adelaide, one of the country’s most prolific and awarded genre writers with publications across the spectrum. Sean also brought with him experience as a tutor at Clarion South, a top-shelf, six-week boot camp for speculative fiction short story writers run in Brisbane. (Rob has since also been a tutor at Clarion South.)
We decided to use two tutors because the EnVision experience had shown us the benefit of getting more than one point of view about a piece of writing; different writers identify different aspects of each piece according to their own strengths and preferences.
All six Edge members sent a maximum of 50 pages to each tutor ahead of the workshop: five worked on manuscripts, one on short stories.
DOWN TO BUSINESS
The first meeting of the retreat, on Monday afternoon once everyone had moved in, was a group critique, with each of the students commenting on work and then the tutors making their remarks. Armed with these suggestions, the group split to write, with each member also getting a personal meeting with the two tutors to further discuss their edits. Time was allotted on Wednesday for further meetings with the tutors so the students could check progress, with Friday being given over to final progress reports based on rewrites handed in on Thursday.
While the days were filled with writing, by dinner time, the social aspect of the retreat kicked in. The flow of the retreat was greatly assisted by the provision of Monday’s dinner and daily buffet breakfasts and lunches by Prue, which meant we had only to organise four of our own evening meals, culminating with a farewell feast at a Montville restaurant.
Conversations around the dinner table invariably digressed from writing to movies to current affairs to travel, and our host was keen to join in discussions about markets, agents and publishing trends. Work ethic was up to the individual: after dinner could be taken up with drinks and more conversation, reading, or more writing. Or, as on one night, a horror movie night crammed into the attic room! The work flow was up to the individual but the atmosphere was a curious combination of writing zeal and relaxed informality.
While both tutors had pending deadlines for new material and edits, they found time to chat, browse the Maleny video store for DVD bargains, and test the offerings at the aforementioned winery.
On our return to Rowan House after the final Friday night meal, Prue lit the fire in the main living area and we broke out the night caps. It was then she told us the tale of the house’s ghost, being the apparition of an elderly lady who once had lived there. No one reported seeing the friendly spirit, but we shared a remarkable five days devoted totally to the spirit of writing. The value should linger for many years to come.
Footnote: IN 2006, the Writers on the Edge headed to Stanthorpe with tutors Jack Dann and Annabel Blay.
My short story, Pain Threshold, workshopped at Rowan House, has since been published in Agog! Ripping Reads
2008: Back to Bribie, again with Sean, now a virtual Edge member, and Margo Lanagan.
2009: Possibly our last visit to Bribie, given the complex is being farmed off due to government cutbacks, and our biggest group so far (pictured below). Sean again stepped up to the crease as tutor, joined by Alison Goodman. During the year, Paul picked up a two-book deal with HarperCollins, and Kirstyn a book deal with Picador.
2010: The group moved to the superb Eumarella Shores, a lakeside bush retreat (pictures here) outside Noosa with catered lunch and dinner. Rob Shearman and Jack Dann (again!) filled the mentor shoes and Sean has slipped across the divide to join us at the table as a kind of writer in residence.
Very happy to say that my novella Salvage, written over the three retreats at Bribie Island polished off at Noosa, has since been published by Twelfth Planet Press.