How to make a DIY writing retreat

A couple of years ago, I decided to make a DIY writing retreat for myself. I needed to work on my novel, but I just could not get it done in Croatia. I don’t know why. Too many distractions: life, learning, love, they all take their toll.

As a freelance writer, I don’t have a tonne of money, so a ‘proper’ writing retreat was never going to work for me. Well, that, and I don’t really like other people much. Spending money to spend time with other people seems like a really dumb idea 🙂 Also, I wasn’t sure what benefit I’d get exactly out of that sort of environment. Frankly, I just wasn’t ready for it.

So I decided to do my own retreat. A DIY writing retreat for one. Here’s how it went, what I learned, and what I recommend to other writers.

Get away, far away

The key to a successful DIY writing retreat is, I think, to actually get away. If you’re too close to home, to bills, to work, to your normal life, you will not achieve your goals.

I went to Bristol and Bath. I spent about two weeks in Bristol and a week in Bath. I didn’t know very much about either place before I went – I just thought I’d give it a go. My main character, for reasons that only the deep recesses of my brain could ever understand, is from Bristol, so I thought it would be a good place to do research.

I can’t say that I actually did a lot of research. But getting away enables you to establish a routine really quickly. Your day becomes structured around when breakfast is served, what time the library is open until, how meagre your budget is. Trust me, these all work in your favour. I would have the hostel breakfast, go straight to the library, work for a few hours, have a Tesco salad, and work for a few more hours until the library closed. You have nowhere else to go, nothing else to do. It’s work or perish, really.

Ideally, you should be at least a 3-hour bus ride away from home. You have to be far enough away that your husband can’t guilt you into coming back for something trivial, that work will realise they can deal with whatever drama comes up without bothering you. You don’t have to get on a plane, but you do have to get distant. Leaving yourself without your own transportation, relying on public transit, is a great way to really get away from civilisation. You can’t just hop in your car and come back.

Because you are away, far away, deep inside your novel where you should be.

But having said that…

Choose somewhere with a good library

This is mega important. You might picture yourself sitting in a beautiful cosy cafe, sipping a latte, while excitedly working on your novel. The honest truth is, though, that a lot of time spent at your computer is spent staring at the screen, thinking through scenarios, jotting down crazy ideas that will go nowhere, and generally feeling despair.

Doing this for two hours in a cafe is fine. But on a retreat, your goal is more than two hours. You have taken time off work for this. You have left your girlfriend in Australia for this. You have spent money for this. A cafe is just not going to cut it.

Also, ordering drinks in a cafe adds up to some serious dough. And that’s not the point of a DIY writing retreat, right? You chose this option to not spend too much money.

So the very first thing you need to research when it comes to your location is what is the library like? What are its opening hours, does it have free wifi, will there be a power point where you can plug in your computer (not all libraries allow this), when is kid’s hour (you don’t want to be there then), is there a supermarket nearby for lunch, is it centrally located, etc.

You must, must, must choose a location with a good well-appointed central library or you will spend too much money or waste a lot of time.

Choose an interesting place

Having said all that, at the end of the day, the library closes. You will turn off your computer, shut your notebook, cap your pens, and pack your bag.

Then what? You’re alone in a strange town and you’re probably an introvert.

I found myself going to Evensong in Bristol cathedral most evenings. It was a nice way to round out the day, plus it was warm and free.

And of course, I wound up in a pub every night. I did a pretty thorough exploration of Bristol’s pubs, finding little gems here and there. I also went to the theatre to see a tremendous production of Jane Eyre. There were loads of events on, many of them free, not only in Bristol but also in Bath.

If you’ve put in a solid day of writing, you do deserve to do something fun. Or, perhaps you’re the sort of person who will go back to your hotel/hostel/Airbnb and write for another two hours. You do you. But knowing that there’s a tour or a market or a show on the weekend can help to be your motivation.

Just do it – but be realistic

Writers really do dream of doing a writing retreat thinking that somehow it will transform them. That they will emerge as brilliant writers who have conquered all the odds to produce a startling masterpiece.

Well, no.

A writing retreat is just an opportunity to write. To devote time, to give yourself permission to focus on your writing. That’s why I advocate the DIY approach – it doesn’t have to be expensive but it also doesn’t have to be pressured. This is your time to do your thing to work on your project.

If a 3-day getaway means you write 5,000 words, that’s awesome. If a week in campervan leads to 10,000 words, that’s brilliant. And if five days by the seaside leads to a tan and just 1,000 words, well, that’s still 1,000 words more than you had before you started.

Set your goal, and just do it. Book the train, pay for the hotel, plan your extracurricular activities, choose which writing project to work on, and then just do it.

If you keep it cost-efficient enough, it’s mostly just going to cost you time.

So just do it. Book yourself a DIY writing retreat and give yourself permission to do nothing but think about your book for a few days. You deserve it 🙂

The results?

After 3 weeks away, I wound up writing about 20,000 words. I have since shelved that particular novel, but I do believe I’ll come back to it again when I’m ready.

In any case, giving myself permission to focus on just one project really did give me a kick in the butt. It made me realise exactly what’s involved in a long project, what I need to commit, and what I must be willing to sacrifice. My girlfriend was in Australia enjoying the sunshine, while each evening I huddled in a church just because it was a cheap way to spend an hour on a winter’s night. I read books left in the hostel reading room, books I would never normally read, but because they were free I tried them out. I ate Tesco salads and scotch eggs because I couldn’t afford to splurge on restaurants and cafes. I had a harsh budget, and I demanded a lot of myself.

As I say, I did not finish that project, but I learned a lot of lessons that I have taken into my other projects.

So what are you waiting for? Give yourself permission to focus on your work, your writing, your passion. You can do it as cheaply and as easily as you like. The important thing is that you make time for yourself.

You have to make time for yourself and for your projects.

Good luck 🙂


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Nat Newman

Nat Newman is an award-winning writer of short stories, content, podcasts, feature articles, drunk text messages and, soon, a novella.


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