Thursday, 12 March 2015

Author guest-post: Sarah Bower on the joys of a writing retreat in France

Sarah Bower
As regular readers of this blog will know, last autumn I ran a workshop/retreat for writers in the stunning location of St Ives, Cornwall. This was such a success that I'm running another in April! My guest today is novelist and creative writing tutor Sarah Bower, who will be co-running a guided retreat with Mary-Jane Riley, in the gorgeous setting of the Manoir de la Vieille Douve in Haut Anjou, in late May. The Manoir has been beautifully renovated - do visit the site to see how idyllic it is! 

Here's what Sarah has to say about the value of a retreat for writers:

We are all familiar with the dictum that everyone has a book in them. While it tends to make professional writers suck their teeth and reach for the .9mm or the meat cleaver we keep handy for killing our darlings and anyone else who believes what we do is easy, there may be an element of truth in this belief. We are, after all, storytellers by nature. We have evolved to put things in order because, if we had never learned to distinguish the sabre-tooth tiger from the Neanderthal next door, bald, ungainly apes that we are, we would never have survived, let alone risen to the top of the terrestrial food chain. Storytelling and versifying are methods of ordering which have themselves evolved over time into many forms, from The Wasteland to scripts for Coronation Street.

Perhaps, therefore, what differentiates those of us who manage to realise and publish novels is not so much ability as the determination to see through what is an enormous project, taking months, if not years, to complete and fraught with as many irritations as joys. A large part of bringing a novel successfully to fruition is finding the time to write and the self-discipline to use one’s time constructively. It’s this understanding that lies behind crime-writer M.J. Riley’s and my decision to set up L’Ecrivain Writing Retreats. We have both experienced the challenge of writing novels while working at other jobs and raising families and learned to value uninterrupted writing time very highly.

Mary-Jane Riley
This is a significant part of what L’Ecrivain retreats offer. During the three days participants will spend at the Manoir de la Vieille Douve in Haut Anjou, they will enjoy three or four hours of uninterrupted writing time each day. A writing retreat is a great way to carve out and ring fence writing time because it takes you out of your everyday environment and isolates you from the distractions of work, family, social routines, the garden, the flatpack wardrobe you’ve been meaning to put together since Christmas, the weekly supermarket run and a thousand other obstacles that can knock your writing off-course. You quite literally retreat from the daily round into a space where you can focus on writing and thinking.

One of the reasons we are so easily distracted from writing is that it’s a lonely occupation as well as a difficult one, but if you join a retreat group of like-minded writers, you can practice your craft in a supportive environment, in which both retreat leaders and fellow participants understand and appreciate the need to balance solitude with a sense of common purpose. The guided element of the L’Ecrivain retreat will help you to use this precious time constructively and stay focused on your novel through a mix of group exercises and one to one tutorials. While the exercises are designed to address issues that most writers have in common, including technicalities such as voice, viewpoint or characterisation, or how to tighten up a sagging middle, how you use your tutorial time is entirely up to you. You might want to address specific issues to do with the content of your novel, or you could equally well use this time for personal coaching, to give you tools to take back into daily life that will enable you to keep writing despite the distractions.

Le Manoir de la Vieille Douve
Of course writing is a cerebral activity, but we mustn’t forget the body. After all, that’s where the brain resides. Charles and Chris Appleton, our hosts at Le Manoir, have many years’ experience of running hotels and restaurants and Charles is a professional chef of distinction. They have restored the house and grounds to a very high standard with the comfort and convenience of guests in mind, and the L’Ecrivain package includes full board, with Charles inviting us into his own farmhouse kitchen to share meals prepared from the finest of local ingredients. This was an important factor for M. J. Riley and I when planning the L’Ecrivain programme. We wanted the sense of community that derives from eating together, but, as the retreat runs for only three days, we were reluctant to go down the route of some other courses where meals are also prepared communally. Our time is too precious to let the focus drift away from writing. Even when you aren’t actually putting fingers to keyboard or pen to paper, we want you to be able to devote your time to thinking and reflection on your writing. Planning dinner is a bit too much like being at home!

We’re excited about our plans for L’Ecrivain because we’re convinced we have something to offer which we would both have appreciated when we were starting out. An opportunity to write in a supportive and sympathetic environment, somewhere distant in both a physical and metaphorical sense from the daily round and all its distractions. If you’re determined to finish your novel but not sure how to achieve your goal, we look forward to welcoming you.

You can find out more about L’Ecrivain Writing Retreats at or contact us direct at

Sarah Bower has taught creative writing at the University of East Anglia and the Open University and also mentors other writers. She holds an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia and is the author of three novels. Her short fiction has appeared in many publications, including The Yellow Room and Spiked. She is a regular contributor of articles on different aspects of the writing life to Words With Jam. Her fiction has been translated into nine languages. Sarah's latest novel is Erosion.

A BBC journalist and former talk show broadcaster, Mary-Jane Riley has taught creative writing at the University of East Anglia. She has also taught life-writing in prisons, care homes and universities. Her short stories have been published in a variety of magazines, including Women's Weekly and Bella. Her first novel is to be published later this year.

(My own Fictionfire by the Sea weekend in April is currently fully booked but you can join the waiting list by emailing or join the mailing list to be kept informed about this and other Fictionfire workshops and retreats at