28 December 2012 - 7:26 pm

NaNoWriMo 2012 Part 4: the Writer’s Retreat

As I mentioned in Part 2, every year, I try to do something bigger and better than the year before. Just one thing, because let’s not go crazy. That’d be silly, right? Right. ‘Course.

The end of a NaNo is always a prime time to think ‘how can I top this next year?’, while we’re still caught up in the euphoria and relief of another challenge faced and beaten. Last year, I thought about the awesomeness of our write-ins: 10-hour days of writers in a restaurant, tapping away on keyboards. They’re intended to be drop-in, drop-out sessions, but the MLs aren’t the only ones who are there for the whole time. We have some very dedicated writers. And I wondered: how can we make these even better?

Of course, the natural answer was: let’s go to an island (there’s one handily nearby) and have a weekend-long write-in. Thus was born the NaNoWriMo 2012 Writer’s Retreat.

I knew it was ambitious. I’d never done something like this before; sure, I’ve organised events, booked tables and space, sent out communiqués, etc. But to organise something like a conference, with accommodation and food and transport and money – that’s a whole different ball of wax.

If nothing else, I’ve never had to sort out the payment part before. I hate asking people for money; this is why my Creative Writing Group is free and I tend to arrange events that are free to come to. It’s just a headache that I don’t need.

But screw it, I thought. I’ll have to do it if I want a retreat.

When I polled the 2011 Wrimos for interest in coming to (and paying for) a retreat, I got a positive response, so I knew I’d get people to come. When I went ‘aahhhh’ at my writer friends, I got loads of offers of help. I wouldn’t have to do it all on my own.

Okay, I thought. I’ve got support and an enthusiastic base of writers. I can do this.

So I did. Starting back in June 2012, I got the ball rolling. Sorted out dates, a venue, accommodation and food, and got the booking form set up. I sent the word out to my region, somewhat nervously.

After that, it trundled along pretty steadily. Bookings trickled in, followed by deposits. I continued to work details out with my travel agent and slowly got all the information together.

It was around September when I had enough bookings to make the whole thing financially viable; everything above that was a bonus, and there were still plenty of places available. I could breathe a little easier at that point, because I knew I wouldn’t have to make up any shortfall myself (it was a risk and a cost I couldn’t truly afford, and one of my biggest worries when going into this kind of thing).

Running up to the deadline for confirming numbers, I had to chase people for money (which, as I said earlier, I hate doing), and there was stress over getting it all in on time. A couple of cancellations after the deadline threw a spanner in the works, but luckily the ticket-holders found others to take their places. I got the payments in time to meet the deadlines. Everything was lining up nicely.

One of the biggest headaches I had was the transport. In hindsight, I should have left people to make their own way over to the island, but no, I had to go and try to make things cheap by filling up cars with passengers (the ferry charges per car, so splitting the cost over passengers made it cheaper for everyone). It required a bunch of logistics, including getting everyone to the port at the same time.

This is a good time to point out that there were 35 people going to the Retreat, including me (and a small child, who was coming to distract her parents from writing). 35! That number still boggles me.

I should also point out that I had help. My co-ML was a huge help with wrangling writers and running the weekend. He was tasked with meeting everyone at the port and getting them into cars and on the ferry (by that point, I was over on the island, setting up). And, to my great relief, it all went to plan.

I really don’t know what I would have done without his help. I’m so lucky to have such support.

It didn’t all go perfectly. When I arrived, I had to hurriedly organise a logistical screw-up: the venue couldn’t provide the one thing we needed for the weekend. Namely, a place we could all get together and write. I had been promised by the agent that the deck on the villa we booked would hold up to 50 people with tables, chairs, and laptop power access. It actually only held 20. We had over 30 writers, so this was a problem. You could say I was a little furious (luckily, the agent wasn’t on the island).

After some rapid negotiations with the resort’s manager, we managed to get a closed cafe for an afternoon to all get together, but for the rest of the weekend, we were split over two areas.

I wasn’t pleased (this is an understatement: I’m still pissed that the agent messed up the central requirement of the trip: that we could all write together). But the writers who came all went along with what we had happily and there was no fuss. It wasn’t a disaster in the end, so I’m happy! (However, I won’t be using that agent again.)

The other hiccup we had was the hotel we had dinner at on the Saturday of the Retreat. The agent had promised me it was a 5-minute walk up the road, really close. It was actually a 15-minute walk up a hill. It doesn’t sound like a huge difference when put into words like that, but it was a problem for some of our less physically able attendees (including the 2-year-old). I had to run around and arrange lifts back to the resort for several of them (which put a dent in my ability to drink and relax over dinner).

All of it was stuff I really shouldn’t have had to deal with, headaches I didn’t need. But we sorted it out and made it work and, more importantly, it didn’t spoil it for our attendees.

Overall, the Retreat went very smoothly (despite those things!). People arrived, were sorted into their rooms, and went where they were asked to. There were drinks and games and lots of talking and laughing. People unwound, relaxed, spun stories and played in the ocean. There was a peace train across the floor: backrubs for all! There were no dramas (except in our stories, of course), and everyone stuck to the golden rule of events I run: no hospital trips.

Better than that: the attendees all had fun. I had so many of them stop me to say what a good time they were having and how much they enjoyed it all. They thanked me for organising it and I got so many hugs. When we did the prize-giving at the end of the weekend, one of the writers prompted a round of applause to thank my co-ML and me for the weekend, and it went on for an embarrassingly long time. It’s hard to mind, though!

I was honestly pleased and surprise by the wealth of good feedback I got. The mental overhead of running it and the issues I had to deal with had given me a skewed view of how it really went (for those who are not me). I couldn’t have hoped for a better reaction to the endeavour and I am endlessly stunned by the generosity, understanding, and willingness of my writers. I couldn’t have asked for a better bunch of people to go to an island with!

Here are some fun stats for the weekend:

  • Total words written: 230,407
  • Most words written by a single person: 19,404
  • Largest percentage increase on starting wordcount: 301%
  • Most words written in a 10-minute word war: 1306
  • Most words written in a 15-minute word war: 1605
  • Number of people who hit 50,000 words: 5
  • Number of people who hit 100,000 words: 1
  • Important non-writing lesson learnt: don’t hug the jellyfish (they sting!)

So of course, the next logical question is: what shall we do for a retreat next year? And naturally, I have some ideas. We’ve done an island, so let’s shake it up again. Let’s go up a mountain, to the top where we can walk through the top of the rainforest. I know a couple of places where we can do that.

The notion was floated among friends and attendees, and the reactions are all positive. Ideas are forming already, plans sliding quietly into place. A roadtrip up a mountain to check into the facilities available is coming up in the next couple of months.

Am I insane? Quite possibly. But that’s okay.

I’m better equipped for it this time. I know what questions to ask and what to keep an eye out for. I know more about what I’m doing (and what not to do). And I know I have awesome support to help me make it fun and easy for us all.

And honestly, I can’t wait. One rocking weekend out of the way: bring on the next one.

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