How to hold a DIY Writing Retreat

Could there be a more idyllic front yard?!

Writing retreats: super productive, accelerated write-athons, or an excuse to get together with friends and be a bad caffeine-fuelled cliche full of cheese, wine and chats? Um, is it okay if it’s a bit of both? Because that’s pretty much what my recent weekend away with four writing friends was all about. And as far as I’m concerned, it was a success! Here are the ins and outs of our three-day stay in beachside Patonga, which might be useful if you’re thinking of holding your own DIY writing retreat.

What worked best:

– Rules schmoolz – we kept the structure of the weekend very loose, which allowed for random bursts of writing, workshopping each others’ ideas, brainstorming difficult plot points and critiquing each other’s work whenever, interspersed with beach walks, chats and endless tea. It was a great mixture of work and fun, and something with a more rigid timetable just wouldn’t have had the same vibe. I think this comes down to personality though, and the way you work best. It also meant we wrote and edited when ideas struck rather than because we were meant to.

– Word sprints – You may have seen #500in30 floating around on social media – it was basically just like that. This was where we started a timer for 30 minutes and wrote non-stop, with the aim of reaching at least 500 words. While of course you can complete these in your own time and space,  doing them together felt even more productive. Something about being accountable and not wandering off to the fridge or kettle, perhaps. We did these towards the end of our stay which worked well, as it put all the ideas generated through brainstorming and workshopping onto paper. And speaking of – some people typed while others literally used pen and paper. Whatever works for you!

– Critique swaps – at random times throughout the weekend we’d break off into twos for a critique swap, whether it be a picture book manuscript or a chapter or two. Without printers on hand, we did this by basically swapping laptops and just marking up comments on the document.

What didn’t:

– Not enough ‘stuff’ – It’s hard to find fault with such a great weekend (thanks guys!) but if thinking about it from a ‘next time’ point of view, maybe staying somewhere with more ‘stuff’ would be fun, albeit distracting. We went to a café a few times, but had to drive to the next town over (Pearl Beach), so staying somewhere with a few cafes and shops to explore in periods of down time (let’s call it ‘thinking time’) would be fun. And somewhere to go for dinner would be good, too. The one place to eat out in Patonga (a waterfront pub) was closed for renovations, so we mostly ate food we brought with us (chocolate is a meal, right?), and one night picked up Thai from a couple of suburbs away.

Things to look for in a rental property:

We rented a house via Airbnb, and while it wasn’t the cheapest house around, it felt like the perfect pick. We wanted a place that was within 1-2 hours drive for all of us, coming from various parts of Sydney and surrounds. Patonga on the lower Central Coast fitted the bill; alternatives could be the Southern Highlands or the Blue Mountains.

Hamptons-ish, no?

Space
We were fortunate enough to stay in a fantastic four-bedroom, two-bathroom house spread over two levels, so there was plenty of space for everyone. Despite two people having to share one room, it never felt too crowded. Most of our time was spent in the open plan dining/lounge room and there was lots of space to spread out – two big couches, a dining table and a smaller table with chairs, so everyone had their own writing spot. There was another dining set on the outdoor deck which would have been great in warmer weather. A smaller living area wouldn’t have worked quite as well, so I’d definitely prioritise a spacious communal area over big bedrooms.

Features
Conveniences like WiFi, a dishwasher and heating throughout the house also made the stay a comfortable one, with the kitchen situation great for the gazillions of coffee cups used over the weekend. Without a dishwasher it would have been a whole lot more annoying, with domestic chores taking away from writing time. Another plus was having linen included, so everyone didn’t have to lug their own sheets and towels there and back.


Location

A place on a busy road wouldn’t have been anywhere near as relaxing as our quiet street in a relatively isolated village. Think about the noise factor when picking a place – it’s a writing retreat after all, and the sound of lapping waves is more conducive to thinking time than party noise and traffic. Although as mentioned above, it can be worth considering if you want to be near village shops for cafes, food and other distractions. Or not!

Too budget-blowing? Try these:

A DIY writing retreat certainly doesn’t have to involve forking out for a fancy beach house, as fun and indulgent as that can be. It doesn’t have to cost much, or even anything at all. Other alternatives are:

– A day (or stay) at a writing friend’s house – preferably one with a big communal space, whether it be a lounge room, back deck or yard, with plenty of spots to sit.
– A few hours at a café – especially one with a communal table and nice staff who don’t seem annoyed you’ve outstayed your welcome (you should totally be on your fifth flat white by now …).
– A room at your local writers’ centre – if you’re a member of a writer’s centre, check their room rental policy. Many allow members to use their rooms free of charge.
– A day out and about – if you’re looking for story ideas or writing prompts, you could meet at an art gallery, museum, market or fun park (SCBWI sometimes runs sessions like these called Scribble and Sketch). Wander around and stop to observe for a while, and use your senses to generate scenes, or people watch for character ideas. Public transport journeys alone can be great for this. The possibilities are endless!

CYA Conference 2018

Sunny Southbank

Um, Southbank – are you sure it’s winter?

What a weekend … I’m not sure I’ve fully processed the whirlwind that was CYA 2018! The highs, the lows … do we have to talk about the lows?! CYA was a rollercoaster of emotions for me as I had the drama of a cancelled flight to contend with and a bunch of missed editor appointments on the first conference day (not to mention missing the dinner, boo!). But thanks to the generosity and flexibility of Tina Clark, Debbie Kahl and the superstar CYA team, and the wonderfully accommodating Sue Whiting, all was back on track and squeezed into the full conference day. Hooray!

All of that aside, the conference was jam-packed. I volunteered for a bit, heard a session for a bit (Claire Saxby’s picture book masterclass – brilliant!) and podcasted for a lot. Nat and I interviewed a bunch of different conference attendees and presenters, and put together a special bonus episode of One More Page revolving around CYA. You can take a listen here.

Books for sale at CYA

Books for sale at CYA – so many fab friends and creators!

Aside from podcasting, another high was receiving two 2nd place awards for the CYA Competition, one for a picture book in the preschool category, the other for a non-fiction picture book. And my One More Page co-host Nat also took home two 2nds and a 1st in the picture books primary category and for a chapter book. Hooray!

It was so much fun as always to catch up with friends, interstate writers and illustrators and meet some new people. We met Zanni Louise which was awesome – after interviewing her remotely for the podcast it was so nice to chat in real life! Post-conference, there was the obligatory dinner and wine with some of the writerly gang, and a next day breakfast and stroll around Southbank. So holiday-ish. So SUNNY!

So after another mega dose of conference fun and writerly inspiration, it’s time to put the writing advice in action. Thanks to the organisers for a fabulous time!

Interviewing Tina Clark

Getting the CYA lowdown with founder Tina Clark

Picture Book Love: Harriet Gets Carried Away

Harriet Gets Carried Away by Jessie Sima

Harriet Gets Carried Away by Jessie Sima, Simon & Schuster US 2018

Harriet loved costumes. She loved them so much, she wore them all the time! On the day of her own dress-up party she went shopping for supplies with her dads (while dressed as a penguin, of course) and got carried away – *actually* carried away, by penguins!

This is an absolutely adorable story that blurs the line between reality and fantasy. It highlights the magic of getting ‘carried away’ and is ultimately about belonging. The purple-toned illustrations with their touches of yellow suit both the urban and Antarctic settings, and lend the book a unique feel. I love everything about the design of this book, from the hot-air balloon endpapers, to the different cover under the dust jacket (Harriet in all different costumes – cute!).

Aesthetics aside, the story is so well constructed and full of memorable one-liners, with a very satisfying ending. It also has one of my favourite lines discovered in recent picture book readings:

Harriet was almost out of ideas
when one emerged from the sea.

Perfection!

 

5 Fun Things – a book launch, awards and quirky new reads

1

Our kids’ book podcast One More Page was just announced a finalist in the Australian Podcast Awards ‘Best Newcomer’ category for 2018! Considering we only launched recently (episode 5 just came out this week!) it’s a huge honour and, well, a huge surprise! It’s been a fun ride so far, chatting to lots of our favourite kids’ book creators, reading and reviewing amazing books and laughing way too much. Our latest episode features authors Zanni Louise and Tristan Bancks, and it’s all about ideas. You can have a listen here.

2

Quark’s Academy, the debut kids’ book by Catherine Pelosi is out! It launched with a bang (er, literally) in a science experiment-filled extravaganza at Sydney bookshop Lindfield Learning Hub. There were super cool Quark’s themed cupcakes, too (which were much too pretty to eat). Oh, and the book is AWESOME! It’s a fun middle-grade read about three kids whose inventions win them a place in the exclusive Quark’s Academy for young scientists, where all isn’t quite as it seems. Fast-paced and visual, Quark’s Academy is a suspenseful ride with kooky characters and inventions, and wonderful, natural writing. Catherine is in my writers’ group (the chapter book one) so it’s super exciting to see her books come to life. And Something for Fleur, Catherine’s picture book illustrated by Caitlin Murray, is on its way!

Quarks launch cupcakes!

3

Super cute bookish mail alert – the other day I received a handmade mini-book by Zoe Collins, also known as Hoodlum Friends. I love her quirky illustrations and way with words, and all her behind-the-scenes shenanigans at Girl & Duck and Scribbles HQ. Her book stars a lonely little bird and it’s whimsical and adorable. And it came in a handmade collage-ish envelope to boot. Thanks Zoe!

4

A new picture book love by Jane Godwin and Anna Walker – Go Go and the Silver Shoes! This is totally my kind of story – filled with heart, adventure and a hefty dose of quirk, Go Go is about a girl who wears mostly hand-me-downs, but gets to choose her own shoes. Silver shoes! She wears them everywhere she goes, until one day, disaster strikes. It’s an ode to being unique, special things and finding like-minded friends. The illustrations are stunning (it’s Anna Walker, so goes without saying really). I heart Go Go!

5

And my fifth fun thing is … a writing award! I’ve just won first place in the chapter book category of the Greenleaf Blossoms competition (for the first chapter of an unpublished manuscript). The competition was held by Greenleaf Press, and I’ve scored a manuscript assessment by its owner and prolific children’s author Aleesah Darlison. Yay!

Greenleaf Blossoms announcement

Books and other stuff

The Girl the Dog and the Writer in Rome

Just a few things I’m reading/watching/buying/loving lately:

BOOKS

YA // Between Us by Clare Atkins – compelling new #LoveOzYA about an Iranian asylum seeker, and a boy she meets at school whose dad works works at her detention centre. So well-crafted with alternating narrators, some parts told in verse.

MG // Missing by Sue Whiting – a gripping new middle grade mystery about a girl determined to believe that her mum who’s missing in Panama is still alive. Heartbreaking and had me hooked right to the end.

JF // The Girl, the Dog and the Writer in Rome by Katrina Nannestad – charming, quirky, wanderlust-inducing (and will leave you craving raspberry gelato) – a gorgeous kids’ novel about 10-year-old Freja Peachtree’s adventures with a madcap writer in Rome. Quirky characters, a unique feel and LOTS of delicious food.

My Lazy Cat

PB // My Lazy Cat by Christine Roussey – Boomer the cat arrives on the narrator’s doorstep one day, and quickly becomes her best friend. But the girl decides Boomer’s quite lazy, unlike her with all her activities, from judo to yoga. When her day doesn’t quite go to plan she follows Boomer outside, and discovers the art of doing ‘nothing at all’. Love this story, and the illustrations are adorable!

OTHER STUFF

Shopping: at Miniso – hello, Japanese sheet masks (and other random fun stuff).

Eating: at Sushi Hotaru – favourite sushi train ever, great for a post-Kinokinuya browse.

Sushi Hotaru

Watching: I, Tonya –  shocking insights into Tonya Harding’s background, phenomenal acting!

Listening to: Lots of podcasts, including (surprise) ours! Episode 1 of One More Page debuted last week, and articles have popped up in a few places, like Books + Publishing here and the SCBWI blog here. Exciting times – and it’s almost time for Episode 2 next Wednesday, with our guest interviewee the talented illustrator Nicky Johnston.

Other bookish podcasts I’m listening to lately include That YA Podcast, Better Words, and Words and Nerds, plus long-time favourite So You Want to be a Writer. And in non-bookish pods, excited to discover Wowee!, interviewing artists and creatives, like jewellery designer Emily Green.

November news: A podcast and a prize!

So, it’s November and it’s the Christmas/end of year countdown and I don’t understand how we got here so fast?! Aside from wondering where all the time went, a couple of exciting things have happened lately in the land of all things books and writing …

One is a new podcast. Specifically, a kids’ book podcast co-hosted by my writer/book-freak friends, Kate Simpson and Nat Amoore, and me! It’s called One More Page, it’s starting in February, and you can find out more at our shiny new website here. And here’s a trailer put together by our resident cinematographer, Nat:

As you can probably tell from our cat/frog/chicken personas, we’re aiming for all-ages appeal. There’ll be interviews with authors and other book industry types, along with chats/games/interviews with kids to discover what they’re reading and recommending. It should be fun. And maybe even a little bit funny.

Also, I won a writing competition! Greenleaf Press, a business supporting writers headed up by kids’ author Aleesah Darlison, held their first picture book manuscript competition recently, and I was beyond excited to discover I’d shortlisted from the hundreds of entries received. Then won! And then I found out another entry of mine was longlisted too, which was a lovely unexpected bonus. The main prize was a detailed manuscript critique from Aleesah, which was very much needed and appreciated.

Aside from that, I’m doing NaNoWriMo to work on a new junior fiction book. I have a love/hate relationship with NaNo as I’m sure so many others do. It’s a way to force some words out in a short period of time and get a draft down, which is a good thing as even if it’s terrible, there’s something to work on and improve. But it’s also an annoying burden, inducing feelings of not-doing-Nano guilt every time you dare to turn your attention to something else (*cough* Stranger Things … and Younger). Anyway, I managed to do the 50K once before (in 2013), so perhaps I can do it again? To be honest I’m really aiming for more like 30k with this book, so if I even make that I’ll be happy!

5 favourite recent reads

On top – cute pop-up ‘Once Upon a Rhinoceros’ bookmark found in Melbourne bookstore The Younger Sun!

Favourite recent reads include my fortuitous footpath find, a (lost? abandoned? manifested!?) review copy of Nevermoor by hype-worthy debut author Jessica Townsend. I tore through this middle grade fantasy, with its enchanting world and characters reminiscent of children’s classics, from shades of Willy Wonka in the eccentric Jupiter North, to a giant cat with an Alice in Wonderland feel. Despite these perhaps subliminal influences, Nevermoor still feels totally unique and fresh. I fell in love with the shape-shifting wonders of the Hotel Deucalion, and the plucky protagonist Morrigan Crow, a cursed girl doomed to die until she’s whisked away to Nevermoor, with a chance to join an exclusive society if she passes a series of trials. It’s a magical ride, with everything from suspense to wry humour, and the writing is simply amazing.

 

In adult fiction, I’ve read and recommend Bridget Crack by Rachel Leary and The Gulf by Anna Spargo-Ryan. The Gulf is a raw, realistic story about fractured families, domestic violence and survival. Teenage Skye will do anything to protect little brother Ben from their situation (think a bleak town, their mum’s loser/dealer boyfriend, constant threat) resulting in a desperate need for cash and escape. It’s a riveting read, and so well crafted – heartbreaking and hopeful.

 

Bridget Crack is historical fiction set in 1800s Hobart, about a convict servant who finds herself caught up with a bushranger group on the run. A key descriptor here could be ‘harsh’, from the treatment of convict women stuck in a cycle of servitude and abuse, to the unforgiving Tasmanian bush landscape so vividly depicted. I have a feeling both of these books will fare well in next year’s literary awards. Fingers crossed for Stella Prize nominations!

As for picture books, there have been two standouts from the ever-growing, library card-maxing stack. One is Once Upon a Small Rhinoceros by Meg McKinlay and Leila Rudge, about an adventurous little rhino with a yearning to see the world beyond her muddy riverbank home. She’s strong and brave enough to dismiss the others’ negativity and take matters into her own hands. Super inspiring – loved it (and bought it, as it definitely transcends a library lend!).

The other is Feathers by Phil Cummings and Phil Lesnie, a beautiful story about a bird that flies across war-torn scenes, fleeing families, and treacherous floods and storms. It loses feathers along the way, offering hope to those who find them. It’s a deep and moving picture book, multi-layered and lyrical. These are two of the most special picture books I’ve come across this year (these two, plus Anna Walker’s Florette).

Writers’ Unleashed Festival 2017

 

Writers’ Unleashed Competition – with Zoe Walton, Rebecca Sheraton and Sue Whiting (pic: Ramona Davey)

Exciting times at the Writers’ Unleashed Festival, a one-day writers’ fest in Sydney’s ‘The Shire’ – not only did I get to experience a day immersed in the world of books (and book lovers), but placed in a picture book comp! Somehow, twice!

The competition results were announced by the judges of the shortlist, Zoe Walton of Penguin Random House and Sue Whiting (ex-Walker Books, author and editor). The lovely Rebecca Sheraton was the winner, and two of my manuscripts placed second and third. A member of one of my writers’ groups, Colleen, was shortlisted too, adding an extra level of yay. It was an exciting (if knee-shaky) moment accepting our awards in front of the whole conference, especially when there was a paparazzi-like swarm taking our pics afterwards (mostly writers’ group friends, but still, SCARY!).

It’s funny, some people have asked me, ‘So, what was the prize?’ as though prompting for details about piles of sweet, sweet cash and a gazillion-dollar publishing deal, but the real prize (for me, anyway) is encouragement to keep going.

 

Pic overkill alert! Colleen, me and Rebecca (pic: Amelia McInerney)

Tips from the festival sessions

Aside from the comp announcement, there were some great sessions like Sandy Fussell‘s talk on all things tech and social media for writers (she’s a fan of apps like Trello, Feedly and buffer to schedule posts). YA author Sarah Ayoub spoke about creating relatable female characters, with a focus on identity and diversity. She made an excellent point about not taking away someone else’s chance to tell their story, but instead, weaving in diverse secondary characters. And there was a fantastic picture book masterclass held by Sue Whiting. Some of her key tips include recording yourself reading your manuscript aloud to discover the clunky bits, figuring out what your story is about at its core so every word can drive the story, and to be specific about details to develop your characters and make your story stand out (she used Gus Gordon’s Herman and Rosie as an example, where even a yoghurt flavour is mentioned). Children’s author and everyone’s favourite podcast host Allison Tait was there too, talking strategies on making time to write (which I sadly missed). By all accounts it was excellent. Overall, an inspiring (and encouraging!) day.

August Update

Recent reads (and what I loved about them)

 

Remind me how this ends

Remind me how this ends by Gabrielle Tozer

Milo and Layla are childhood friends reunited, and whether or not they’ll end up together keeps you hanging until the end. Authentic characters, tonnes of feeling, a believable dual narrative, and a trip back to that moment of change and uncertainty post-school, pre-the rest of your life.

 

The Secrets We Keep by Nova Weetman

A wonderful, realistic middle grade read revolving around 11 year old Clem, and the aftermath of a house fire. Heartfelt, empathy-inducing, and well-paced, with secrets withheld right until the end.

 

The Catawampus Cat

The Catawampus Cat by Jason Carter Eaton and Gus Gordon

A picture book about the effect of a crooked cat on a kinda boring town. I loooooove this book. Both the story and Gus Gordon’s amazing illustrations, incorporating collage and all things vintage. Quirky, comedic and cat-tastic. (Catawampus = lopsided, I had no idea!).

 

Boy + Bot

Boy + Bot by Ame Dyckman and Dan Yaccarino

A boy, a robot, misunderstandings and friendship – this story is full of quirk and charm. Have been seeking out all books Ame Dyckman lately, so good!

 

Nevermoor

The current read:

Nevermoor by debut author Jessica Townsend – I miraculously (magically?!) found a review copy on a lonely patch of footpath! It’s not out until October and getting major buzz already, so it was pretty exciting to stumble across. As well as Nevermoor, I’m also reading Wormwood Mire by Judith Rossell and the first Pippa’s Island book by Belinda Murrell.

 

What else is happening?

  • I’m going to the Writers Unleashed Festival later this month, a one-day event in Sydney’s Sutherland Shire with talks and workshops by Allison Tait, Sandy Fussell, Deborah Abela, Sarah Ayoub and more. Lots of favourites, lots of fab topics – can’t wait!
  • I’m partway through Scribbles, a creativity course run by children’s author and community-building, advice-wielding extraordinaire Jen Storer. It’s idea-generating, creativity-unblocking and I’m loving it.
Scribbles

Stuff for all things Scribbles!

 

  • Another bookish thing I’m loving is Picture Book Book Club, a monthly Twitter chat you can stalk or even better, participate in at #picbookbc. It’s a great opportunity to ask questions of the special guest author or illustrator, discover new PBs to seek out, and chat with a bunch of like-minded picture book obsessives.
  • I went to a SCBWI meeting at Woollahra Library the other weekend, and wow, what a library. It has envy-inducing plant walls, cool murals and even a slide! It was fun to catch up with friends, meet some new members and hear about Michelle Morgan’s foray into self-publishing. We also heard from Anna McFarlane, one of Allen and Unwin’s children’s publishers who gave us an inside look at what they’re publishing, interesting stats and more.
  • Other than that, I’m: plugging away with a junior fiction novel and several picture book manuscripts, thinking about the next JF idea, planning a Melbourne weekend (hooray!), eating too much kids’ party food(!!), obsessing over podcasts (try Literaticast if you’re looking for a new writing one), and dreaming of future, far-flung trips …