World of books: Ready to write your own best-seller?

You've spent too many summers reading novels, isn't it about time you started to write one yourself. Jennifer Howard selects the best of the world's writing retreats 

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The Independent Culture

Your boss doesn’t care if you finish your novel. Your partner would rather not hear about the memoir you’ve been threatening to write. Feeling discouraged? It may be time to escape the creativity-quashing grind and reconnect with your muse in a lovely locale.

Whether you like lakes in America’s Midwest or Icelandic hot springs, there’s a writers retreat for you. Here are half a dozen programs where you can spend quality time with your journal or get started on the next bestseller:

For the Nordic-lit set

Iceland has a rich literary tradition that encompasses 13th-century sagas, the in-vogue Nordic noir and a Nobel prize-winner (Halldor Laxness, 1902-1998). So many books are released in the run-up to Christmas that they call it the “Jolabokaflod” or Christmas Book Flood.

That literary bent, along with the spectacular scenery, makes the country an appealing setting for the Iceland Writers Retreat. Writers at any level are welcome to this one week annual retreat. Included are excursions such as a literary twist on the Golden Circle tour, which features the Great Geysir and the famous Gullfoss waterfall, as well as a visit to Iceland's “ancient seat of learning, Skalholt”.

The twist: you’ll see these sites in the company of writers such as Hilton Als, Alice Hoffman and Gwendoline Riley. “You’re in a workshop with them or sitting next to them at lunch or on a tour with them going to see geysers, so you have an opportunity to interact,” says Eliza Reid, who founded IWR with Erica Jacobs Green. Reid also happens to be Iceland’s first lady, and her enthusiasm for the country and its literary life is both winning and good public relations.

Anyone can sign up for the IWR, and everyone does, Reid says. “Our participants really run the gamut from professional writers to people who write cookbooks to people who just keep a diary.”

Cost and duration: Approximately £2,500 for four nights. Applications for April next year open in July. Visit:

For ​foodies

If you’re equally serious about food and writing, a cookNscribble retreat might be the secret ingredient you've been seeking. Molly O’Neill – cookbook author and former New York Times reporter and food columnist – created cookNscribble for writers who didn't have access to the kind of training she had early in her career. (Promoting community is a common theme of writers’ retreats.)

O’Neill began with online courses and added an intensive food-writers residency in Upstate New York, her home base. She also puts together several in-person retreats a year in culinary meccas such as La Pitchoune, the French summer home of Julia Child, one of O’Neill’s mentors. For this fall, cookNscribble has organised a retreat in a “super-cool unknown part of Tuscany in a castle repurposed as a food learning centre,” she says.

Why go? “You’re in a beautiful place, people are pretty darn motivated, and people get work done,” says O’Neill. “And lives change. That’s pretty cool.” And you will eat well.

Cost and duration: around £2,800 for seven nights. Visit:

For culture connoisseurs

If tapas and flamenco are more your thing, the Summer in Granada retreat, sponsored by Cambridge Writers’  Workshop n the US, promises a warm cultural bath: “Let the old city stimulate your writing with its winding streets, Moorish history, and evocative landscapes,” the website says.

Summer in Granada is part of a series of retreats created by writers Rita Banerjee and Diana Norma Szokolyai. They describe their retreat model as a kind of roving salon, with previous sessions in Paris and at a chateau in Picardy, among its envy-inducing locations. “All of these places have a very alive and electric culture, a culture that exists on the streets, in the imagination,” says Banerjee .

This summer, participating writers will enjoy an experiential tour alongside workshops and writing sessions. Fiction writer Tim Horvath will teach a “writing from the senses” class that includes a visit to a “museum of smells”, a visit to a chocolatier and a tapas tour. “No matter how intellectual writing gets, you always want to draw in the senses and immerse the reader,” he says. (Did we mention chocolate?)

Cost and duration: around £2,300 for four nights. Some scholarships available. Deadline for applying for August stay is 20 June. Visit:

For runners

If you'd rather burn calories, Writers Who Run could be your cup of tea. Founder and director Christie Wright Wild has two passions: running and writing. Days at her retreat in the mountains of North Carolina begin with a 7am trail run, a challenge for those normally still fumbling for the coffee pot at that hour. Wild says: “It wakes up the mind, wakes up the body” and it’s a good cure for writer’s block.

Post-run, participants take two two-hour workshops on the “craft and the business of writing” with instructors such as fantasy novelist Alex Lidell and “Social media Jedi” Kristen Lamb. Evenings are for socialising – “simple things like s’mores, journal-making, a dip in the pool,” Wild says. The final day involves a 10K race through the woods along a course marked with inspirational signs about writing and running.

Cost and duration: around £1,200 for four nights. Kicks off Monday. Visit:

For women only

Men need not apply for Storyknife Writers Retreat, a program in Homer, Alaska, founded by mystery-novel powerhouse Dana Stabenow. For her, Storyknife is a way to repay a creative debt. Early in her career, she attended Hedgebrook Farm, a women-only writing retreat on Whidbey Island in Washington State.

Why women-only? “It’s still true that women are underrepresented in publishing,” Stabenow says. “It’s different when you’re just concentrating on women writers. There’s more of a focus. It’s a total removal from their ordinary, everyday life.”

Stabenow’s Storyknife, which is nonprofit, has raised money for three cabins so far, with a main house and three more cabins planned; This year 65 people applied for four slots, one of which will be taken by a yet-to-be-published writer. Stabenow expects to host four writers again in 2018.

Cost and duration: Free (includes small stipend to offset transport costs); one month. Visit:

A ‘generative retreat’

If cranking out fresh pages is your top priority, try a “generative” retreat. At the Interlochen Writers Retreat in Michigan, participants pick their genre - memoir, personal essay, novel, short story or poetry - and spend four days generating material under the tutelage of established writers.

About 45 percent of participants are returning students; three-quarters are female, most from the Midwest, many in the 45-64 age range. (Many writers retreats skew towards women.)

Katey Schultz, Interlochen’s artistic director and author of the story collection “Flashes of War”, attributes the high return rate to an atmosphere that’s supportive but not coddling. Students don’t arrive with manuscripts in hand only to “get destroyed” in cutthroat MFA fashion, she says. “You’re there to make and create and feel the energy.”

“You’re writing all week,” says Mary Kay Zuravleff, a Washington-based novelist who teaches at the Interlochen Writers Retreat. “Every time you meet your class, there’s a writing prompt. Every craft lecture, there’s a writing prompt.”

Interlochen attracts a mixture of experience levels. “Whether your novel is just a twinkle in your eye or you’re on your second draft,” says Zuravleff, “come on in”.

Cost and duration: £400 (lodging not included); four or five nights. Visit:

Practicalities and caveats

A retreat can be great for networking but it is not where pro writers go to hobnob with peers, agents and publishers. It isn’t a high-wattage artists colony like Bread Loaf or Yaddo. Except for the cost, which can be alarmingly high, most retreats work on an egalitarian, all-are-welcome model that is too rare in literary life. Lodging, some meals and excursions are usually but not always included. Expect to pay for your own transportation. The more glamorous the destination, the higher the cost of travel. Also, keep in mind: retreats fill up, and registration closes at different times of year for different programs; if you’ve missed this year’s windows, there’s always next year.

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