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“The Essentials For A Great Writing Retreat,” By Amanda Saint

Interview with Amanda Saint about Writing Retreats
Amanda Saint has been organizing and running retreats since 2012

“For residential retreats, a beautiful setting has to be a top priority…

“Somewhere that is going to make the writer feel very removed from their normal life”.

Amanda has worked with well over 100 writers at retreats since 2012. Many of them have since become published authors.

Here, Amanda lays out the key benefits of a writing retreat. Find out why choosing the right location might be most important of all…

What are the benefits of a writing retreat that writers just can’t get any other way?

There’s something about being removed from everyday life and being given permission to only focus on your writing, that seems to work creative magic.

Also being surrounded by other writers all there to do the same thing creates a very special atmosphere.

It frees your mind to go deeper into your writing, your thinking, as you have nothing else to do and there’s a creative energy surrounding you from so many writers focusing on their work.

What kind of person tends to respond best or benefit the most from attending a writing retreat?

I don’t think there is any particular kind of person.

All the writers that have come on one of my retreats have learned a lot, got many new words written or edited, come up with new story ideas, and made new friends – from the most gregarious to the most introverted.

I suppose if you were a writer who thought you already knew everything you needed to know, you wouldn’t get much out of the workshops. But then why would you come if you felt like that?

What are the essential things a writing retreat needs to be beneficial for writers?

For residential retreats, a beautiful setting has to be a top priority. Somewhere that is going to make the writer feel very removed from their normal life.

Good food, wine, and a relaxed atmosphere are also essential.

Even though we work hard during the workshops on the retreats I teach at, the sessions are still fun and relaxed.

Down time is important too, so that writers can digest what was covered in the tutorials, have a chance to write, take a walk, have a nap, and do some daydreaming.

But often I also give them a bit of homework to do for the next day’s session!

I’ve always believed a room of your own is essential too. Lots of writing retreats have shared rooms but for me this would never work. As an introvert myself, and most writers are too, I need time alone to go and recharge for the social elements of the retreats.

There are essentially two main types of writing retreat – the kind where people just get away from home to concentrate on their writing, and the kind where they do writing exercises and try to develop themselves as writers. Which kind of retreat is better for which kind of writer, in your experience?

I think both kinds are excellent for all kinds of writers.

We all need to keep learning and developing our writing, and tutored retreats offer an excellent opportunity to do this.

But we also need time just to write and get the words on the page, and time to edit to make stories shine. I go on un-tutored retreats every year to have the time to work on my own novels and short stories.

I don’t often go on tutored retreats myself as I just don’t have the time, but I regularly do online courses to keep developing my own writing.

How did you get started with teaching writing retreats? What do you enjoy about them and what are the challenges?

I needed to learn more about the art of fiction writing and couldn’t afford to do expensive, lengthy courses that required a huge financial investment and you to be in a certain place every week for six months, or a year.

At the time, online creative writing courses were not as prolific as they are now. I’d just moved out of London to Exmoor and came up with the idea of running residential retreats in holiday homes and inviting the authors I wanted to learn from to come and teach at them.

That was in 2012 and after a few years of running the retreats and a lot of creative writing competitions, I had learned enough about novel and short fiction writing to start teaching follow-on sessions from the guest tutors building on what they had taught.

Then a little while later, I started teaching online courses and live workshops and started running retreats where I was the sole teacher in 2016.

The most enjoyable thing is seeing writers discover things about their stories through the work we do. Seeing friendships blossom is also great. Lots of writers I know have met in person for the first time on one of my retreats and are now in regular contact online and off.

It can be challenging managing all the different elements – teaching, hosting, cooking, cleaning – and not burning out. Which is why I’ve changed the retreats in recent years.

Last year I used a venue that provided all the catering, so I just had to turn up to teach and host. I’m doing a lot fewer now too as the publishing side of the business has got a lot busier.

Besides the retreat in Italy, I am only running one other retreat this year, which takes place in a holiday cottage next door to where I live so no travel required and I can do a lot of the food preparation in advance.

How many writing retreats have you taught at? How many people would you say you’ve taught at writing retreats in your career as a creative writing tutor?

I’ve lost count now of how many I’ve taught at.

I have been running them since 2012, but for a few years I was learning too rather than teaching. But a lot of retreats and a lot of writers!

At a rough estimate I would say probably around 15 or so retreats and between 5 and 10 writers a time, depending on the size of the venue.

Aside from improving one’s writing, or giving a writer time and solitude in which to write, what are the secondary benefits of a writing retreat, in your experience?

Time out from home and work life responsibilities means that it also helps you feel relaxed and revived.

Thinking is also a really important part of writing and retreats give you the headspace you need to do this vital element, as well as actually getting words on the page.

How many writing retreat students have you had who’ve gone on to get published or to self-publish their work?

Lots of the writers who’ve been on my retreats have been published, some of them since coming on a retreat, others were published before they came.

The teaching can help writers at different levels of experience, from those writing their first novels to those with a few already done.

I also run short fiction retreats that are focused on generating new work and experimenting with voice and style, rather than teaching ‘how to write a short story’ and work from these gets published online and in journals and anthologies.

Some of the writers that come don’t have publication goals though. They just enjoy learning, writing for themselves, and spending time in that kind of environment. 

Many people out there might argue that writing retreats are an expensive luxury or they’re not necessary. What would you say to that?

I’m not really one for arguments.

If that’s what they believe, then that’s their prerogative and they don’t have to come on one. But for many people, they are how they choose to spend their holiday time as well as an opportunity to develop their writing.

For me as a writer, they are essential. As I work at home, if I don’t take myself off somewhere to work on my fiction, I don’t give it the focus it needs as there’s always things at home that will distract me. But when I’ve saved up to go on a retreat then I am going to get on with my fiction writing!

What has motivated you to teach a writing retreat in Italy?

You inviting me! The location looks perfect for a writing retreat. Natural beauty all around, quiet, sunny and different to home.

Being in a foreign country can work wonders for the creative mind as it is experiencing so many new things.

This helps what appears on the page to take on new life.

What will you be teaching at the retreat, and which kinds of writers would you say are likely to benefit the most from attending?

I’m focusing on plot and character and how the two need to be combined to deliver a story that’s pacey and also has emotional resonance, no matter what genre you’re writing. Having the two working together is how you write stories that people don’t forget.

Writers that have trouble plotting will really benefit from it. I don’t like to plot and am very much a pantser writer, so the plot tools I have devised allow writers the freedom to let the story find much of itself in the writing, while also having main plot points to guide them.

Adopting this approach myself helped me get first drafts written much more quickly.

When I first started learning novel writing, in the books I read and classes I went to, the focus was very much on plot and character development being things you did separately. I’ve realised that they are completely intertwined so I show how you keep the two feeding into each other all throughout the book.

In the editorial work I do helping people develop their manuscripts, often their characters are not coming alive fully enough and I show them how they can easily make them three dimensional, real people.

So, if a writer is struggling with a character’s voice, motivations and feeling like they’re not quite working, they’ll get a lot out of it too.

How are you getting the word out about the retreat?

Initially as it was only open to bookings from our subscribers, we just included information in the emailers we sent out. Now that bookings are open wider, we’ll be letting all our social media followers know too.

If you’d like to read more information about our upcoming writing retreat with Amanda, click >>here.

Read my interviews with My and Ruby.

Or if you have any questions, or you’re interested in organizing a retreat of your own, drop us a line using our contact form.