NaNoWriMo 2013 Writer’s Retreat

After the success of last year’s (2012) Writer’s Retreat, my co-MLs (Municipal Liaisons) and I were enthused to do another one (in 2013). Our first attempt had proven a few important things to us, including:

  • People wanted to come and were willing to pay the ticket price.
  • Getting money out of people wasn’t as stressful as I had feared (I really hate asking people for money).
  • We got loads of writing done.
  • Lots of people were interested (and jealous!) when they heard about it, and wanted to come the next time.
  • North Stradbroke Island is pretty easy to get to, and gorgeous to boot.
  • It was possible, feasible, and doable.

We also learned a few key lessons that helped us to plan this year’s excursion:

  • Don’t use an agent. Our agent steered us wrong on several points, some of which were the main downsides of our experiences last year. This included a ‘5-minute walk down the road’ to a hotel which turned out to be a 15-minute walk up a hill (which was a major difference to some of our attendees), and a deck we were assured would hold 35 people that was actually only able to hold 15. Liaising directly with the vendors (venue and catering) gave us a much better idea of what we were getting and the options available to us. As a result, there were no nasty surprises this time!
  • Go visit the venue. It was so very helpful to be able to see what we were signing up for, and the managers were only too happy to show us around and give us an idea of what our weekend away would be like. We got to see into all of the rooms and were able to ask questions, none of which would have been possible from a distance.
  • Get a dedicated room for the activities. It’s a NaNoWriMo Retreat, which means lots and lots of writing time, and the whole point of doing a mass excursion is for us to write in the same location. Having a dedicated conference room to ourselves was key. It also meant that we weren’t encroached on by anyone else, we were protected from the weather, and we could be rowdy if we chose.
  • Don’t try to write and leave on the same day. Last year, we returned home on Sunday evening, and this meant that the group’s focus was split for the whole day between packing, moving out of villas, organising travel back to the mainland, and writing. It wasn’t a very productive day for most people. So instead, we decided to stay an extra night this year, and return on Monday morning.
Ready to write on our balcony, with a wonderful view. (Photo: mine)

Ready to write on our balcony, with a wonderful view.
(Photo: mine)

This year, we went to Anchorage: a resort located right on the beach. Beautiful views from the rooms, an air-conditioned conference room, reasonable prices, and flexibility with sharing. Plus, the room that became ‘ML HQ’ had its own mascot: a friendly kookaburra who liked to visit our balcony and hang out with us. We called him Kitten. A couple of the guys even got close enough to stroke him.

The rooms were much more comfortable than last year, the views were spectacular, and the conference room was a huge hit. We were able to write as a group and run breakout events with everyone. It was also a lovely, air-conditioned hub for the weekend.

Kitten the Kookaburra. SO FLUFFY. (Photo: mine)

Kitten the Kookaburra. SO FLUFFY.
(Photo: mine)

Some writers chose to go off and sit elsewhere for the bulk of their writing, and that’s fine. They enjoyed the lovely poolside area or the beach, and most importantly: they got lots of writing done. I think it’s good to be flexible and let people write the way that works for them, and I’m happy that they had an enjoyable, productive weekend.

This year, we tried a few new things as well, all of which went well! Thanks to one of my lovely co-MLs and the help of one of our Wrimos, we got special stickers for the Retreat attendees. They came out awesome. The stickers were part of our welcome packs, which were another new thing. They helped make the Retreat feel more official and professional, and simplified the registration/check in process.

We tried a new activity as well: the Plot Bunny Herding Session (PBHS). I’ll tell you a secret, shhhh, but we didn’t actually plan what this was until about half an hour before it started. It sounded good, though, and it got a lot of interest, so we put it on the schedule anyway, believing that we’d pull something out of the hat in time. Because we’re awesome that way.

What we ended up doing what having each person in the group write down up to four plot bunnies (those ideas that crop up and demand attention, but don’t fit into the story you’re writing at the time) on a piece of paper. Then everyone handed their sheet to the left. We went around the circle, introducing our story and reading out the plot bunny from the sheet we’d been given that best fit into what we were writing. There were some hilarious results, and some scarily appropriate plot bunnies, and one or two that made it into the actual novels that were being written. It took a long time (an hour and a half, three times what we’d budgeted for it), but it was so much fun that no-one minded.

Our bonfire on the beach. The best way to end such a weekend.

Our bonfire on the beach. The best way to end such a weekend.

The other thing we tried this year was doing a bonfire on the beach. To prepare, we had our attendees write down names on two pieces of paper: one of their own characters and how they die; and a character from popular fiction that they wish would die. Then, once the fire was going and everyone was assembled, we read out what was on the papers and sacrificed them to the flames.

Honestly, I was a bit nervous about this, as I wasn’t sure how the group would react. But they all seemed to take it in the spirit in which it was meant, which was all a bit of fun. It was interesting to note the differences in tone between the two types of sacrifices: it was more solemn when sacrificing their own characters and more gleeful for those characters we wish would just die. Overall, it went down really well, and it was a lovely wind-down to the weekend, chilling on the beach, watching people try (and often fail) to toast marshmallows.

The Retreaters on the last night. Such an awesome group of people.

The Retreaters on the last night. Such an awesome group of people.

It was a lovely weekend. More complex than last year from an organisational perspective, but less stressful by a mile. Everything went smoothly, and when we solicited (anonymous) feedback, it was all wreathed in praise and happy writers. Suggestions and complaints were very few, and that makes me happy.

So, things we’ll take forward to the 2014 Retreat planning:

  • All the new stuff was good, keep it.
  • The extra night was worth the cost. Sunday was a much more productive and Retreat-centric day, plus we had the bonfire night to cap off the Retreat.
  • Keep the same venue. It’s gorgeous, the staff are great, and it has everything we need.
  • Change up the catering. The food was good but not great, and we can do better.
  • Have a mixer/get-to-know-you session earlier in the weekend. The PBHS was great at getting everyone talking about their novels, but it was on Sunday afternoon when people were starting to wind down. We should do something closer to the kick-off of the weekend for this to help people mix more easily, possibly on the Friday after registrations are all done with.
  • Have it later in the month. We were constrained by venue bookings to an early weekend, which left less chance for new people to get involved (though some did!). It also clashed with Supanova, which is a mainstay for many of those who would otherwise have come.

It’s a lot! But it’s wonderful and worth all the effort. I’m so proud that I could help make it happen, and I can’t wait to get started on the next one.

What do you think of this post?
  • Awesome (3)
  • Interesting (0)
  • Useful (0)
  • More pls (0)

Novels and Retreats

It’s coming up to that time of year again: time to think about this year’s NaNoWriMo and all the fun stuff we want to do therein. It’s a bit early to be thinking about November, I hear you say? Never, I reply. When you are as ambitious about NaNo events as my co-MLs and I are, it’s never too early. If anything, I think I’ve been leaving things a bit late (I can’t believe it’s almost June already).

The Municipal Liaison sign-up-again forms were released yesterday. I wasted no time in filling it out and confirming that yes, I fully intend to be an ML again. And this year, it looks like I’ll have not only one, but two lovely people working alongside me in the ML role! I can’t tell you how grateful I am for them, and for all the Wrimos who offer their help and support as well. They allow me to go nuts with the stuff I want to do.

The Retreat crew from 2012. It wouldn't have been awesome without them.

The Retreat crew from 2012. It wouldn’t have been awesome without them.

Last year was all about trying out this new ‘Writer’s Retreat’ thing and figuring out how to make it work. This year, we know what questions to ask and what we need, and I think we’re better equipped to make the Retreat even more of a success this time around.

A few months ago (before I started to get sick and had to focus on other things), the three of us MLs went up a mountain in search of a new Retreat venue. We found a truly stunning venue, with exactly the facilities we need and an inspiring milieu for transporting the stories from our heads onto the page. I can’t tell you how much I’d love to hold a Retreat up there.

Can you hear the ‘but’ coming? Because yes, there’s a but. And it is: but the price tag is a problem.

We have to be honest about the audience that we’re catering for here. NaNo crosses so many boundaries – social, economic, age, race, religion, species (well, maybe not species, but you never know who’s an alien these days) – but some things ring true for the majority, particularly for the majority of participants who get involved in events. There are a lot of people with little in the way of disposable income in that majority, for many reasons: they are students, unemployed, on benefits, or have hefty life overheads to deal with. This is just one of the things that we have to keep in mind when formulating a plan for this year’s Retreat.

We want the Retreat to be as open to our Wrimos as possible. This isn’t about being elitist or exclusionist: I want as many people as possible to feel that they can come (even if they don’t necessarily want to). And with all that in mind, we have to try to keep the cost of the Retreat as low as we can.

The mountain is beautiful, but it is pricey. My co-MLs and I have looked around at other similar mountain-bound facilities, and they all seem about the same in terms of cost.

The mountain resorts are not easy to get to, either. Another consideration that we have to keep in mind is that not all of our Wrimos drive; probably less than half. Ease of access is a necessity (or a potential headache for us MLs to sort out, and we don’t really need more of those if we can avoid it).

I really wanted to go up a mountain. But it looks like it’s not going to happen this year.

We have been looking around at many alternatives. The island was a hit last year and I’m quite happy to go back there, so we’ve investigated some options and come up with a venue that might work for us. There were a few glitches with the venue we used last year, and I’m all for trying new places to see if we can improve things, so it’s going to be a bit different.

At least we already know how to get everyone to the island; that’s a problem off our list.

Comparing it with the mountain venue, it’s about half the cost. You can see why we’re leaning towards the island at this point.

Nothing is set in stone just yet. My co-MLs and I are arranging a trip to the island next week to check out the new venue to see if it’s all it’s supposed to be, and maybe poke at some other options while we’re over there. The venues are booking up fast, so we’re going to have to make a decision fairly quickly.

The balls are rolling. The Writer’s Retreat is taking shape.

Curious about this new venue? Well, without giving too much away: it’s right on the beach, has a proper conference room for writing in, and enough accommodation to hold us all. I’ll give more details once we have them nailed down.

And what about other NaNo plans? I’m sure they’ll follow along soon. I’m starting to get my thoughts together and will be comparing them with those of my co-MLs in the near future. There are party bags to fill, write-ins to schedule, write-outs to coordinate, a Kick-off Party to plan… lots to do! Watch us go.

On a more personal note, I’ve also started to think about what I might write for this year’s NaNo challenge. No more trying to blitz through whatever web serial I’m writing at the time (as I’ve done for the past few years); this year, I’m going to do a more traditional (non-rebellious) NaNo and start something new. Will it be a novel? Maybe. Or it could be the start of a new web serial. I have a few irons in the mental fires, and I’m turning them over one by one to see which one is going to be chosen. I’ve started making notes on some of them.

As I shake off this recent bout of sickness, I’m looking forward to the next few months. To planning and preparing, and grabbing up all my lovely Wrimos so they come along for the ride. It’s time to get moving and shake it like I’ve got a purpose.

I can’t wait. How are your NaNo preparations coming?

What do you think of this post?
  • Awesome (0)
  • Interesting (1)
  • Useful (0)
  • More pls (0)

Mountain high

The view from on high.

The view from on high.
Photo by the lovely Jess.

I have been doing a lot of writing-centric posts lately (yay!). Here’s one about the semi-writing-related stuff I’ve been up to lately, just to mix things up and because I’m struggling to get another advice piece up at the moment.

Last week, I had a break from work. It was a good chance to decompress and take things easy, even though my to-do list was daunting. In the end, I didn’t get to most of my to-do list, but seeing as the week was intended to be a rest for me, I don’t feel bad about that.

I got the important stuff done. Like taking a drive up a mountain with my lovely NaNoWriMo co-MLs, to check out a conference centre and resort for this year’s Writer’s Retreat.

Of course, Queensland weather being what it is, we were hammered by storms early last week: there were trees down and landslips everywhere, and going up a mountain is a tricky endeavour at the best of times. Luckily, Queenslanders being who they are, by the end of the week most of the damage had been cleared away, and even my poor little car managed to make the trip up to the top (~1,000ft above sea level).

It is gorgeous up there. It’s a subtropical rainforest at that altitude, so as you go up, you pass through fields and woodlands, and then into dark avenues through the forest. Exposed rockfaces, dangerous inclines and landslip areas, ferns and palm trees. Sudden vistas of trees rippled into valleys and stretches of green to more mountains, hazy in the distance. The talk of dinosaurs was only natural in that setting (I suspect at least one of us went home and watched Jurassic Park afterwards!).

(Also, you know you’ve been playing too much Guild Wars 2 when you see a beautiful view and start wondering where the jumping puzzle to the vista is.)

We got to see so much of the mountaintop once we got up there. The lovely conference manager at the resort showed us around, which involved climbing in and out of a 4×4 to navigate the tracks and ‘roads’ (I use the term loosely). He showed us everything up there, from a little out-of-the-way BBQ shack with a dirt floor, to a precipice leaning over a sprawling view, to cows (they farm up there, wtf), to the flying fox, to the conference centre and villas.

In the resort and centre, we got to see inside all the rooms and villas, and looked at all the options available to us when we put our retreat package together. It’s lovely. I wasn’t the only one to fall in love with it all, and I can totally picture us there for a weekend, clutching our laptops, typing furiously… and taking breaks in the infinity pool that spills down towards the edge of a cliff. Plus there’s a spa in the conference centre, and a good massage never goes amiss for poor, overworked MLs.

What’s the downside, I hear you ask? Because we all know there has to be one. Well, it’s more expensive than last year’s venue. I know that’s going to impact some of our attendees pretty significantly. We’re looking at the options available to see where we can slide in some savings, as well as alternate venues, but it’s still going to come out more expensive. This is part of why we’re starting work on this so early, so we can let everyone know and they can start saving. But it’s going to be so worth it.

It’s also not the easiest place to get to. However, we have a couple of things in mind to mitigate that, like coach options. I’m sure we can work something out. (If we can get 35 people to an island and back, I’m sure we can get ’em up a mountain.)

Overall, while we still have a lot of planning to do, I’m feeling really good about the Retreat this year. It’s going to be even better than last year. Can’t wait to get moving on it!

What do you think of this post?
  • Awesome (0)
  • Interesting (0)
  • Useful (0)
  • More pls (0)

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.

What do you think of this post?
  • Awesome (0)
  • Interesting (0)
  • Useful (0)
  • More pls (0)