Tiaras, shamanic journeys and cake cake cake… the SCBWI Retreat at Dunford House

What do you get when you put twenty-nine writers plus one editor in a beautiful house in the Sussex countryside, feed them with slap-up meals and endless cake? An amazing, stimulating time and some inspired writing says Tania Tay.
We had a pyjama party on our last night. Do we look like we're having fun?

Dunford House
This was my first writing retreat and I couldn’t wait to get there.

Our guest writer was Lucy Christopher (below right - editor's note: look, she's grown her hair!), author of Stolen and Flyaway, who teaches creative writing at Bath Spa University, and the guest editor was Rebecca Frazer (left) the editorial director at Orchard Books. We could book a one-to-one with Lucy or Rebecca to discuss our WIPs.

... an evening of cake, wine and chat about writing - the best kind of evening there is!

From the moment we arrived, the stimulating conversation began over chocolate chip muffins on the lawn. Then we settled into the gorgeous 18th Century rooms of Dunford House. There was time for some to rattle off a few hundred words before an evening of cake, wine and chat about writing - the best kind of evening there is!

Saturday, after a huge breakfast, Lucy Christopher led a workshop on creating vivid settings, and making Place a vital character in our stories. 

Lucy's a very expressive speaker

She explained that her starting point is the setting, above character or plot. It was fascinating to hear how, before writing Stolen, she spent three weeks immersing herself in the Australian desert, talking to locals, absorbing the atmosphere, and making lots of notes. 

For Flyaway, she got a job with the RSPB, and for her current work, The Killing Woods, she lived near the woods. Lucy gave us the exercise she uses herself, to make setting work harder in the story. 

We made notes based on sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. Next we noted the emotions, the fear and/or excitement the setting created. Lastly, we put our character in the setting, moving towards something. We then used our notes to write a short piece. We came away from the workshop totally inspired, ready for a few hours of writing.
Lucy in red silk pyjamas.
She wore normal clothes too

After tea, cake, chat and dinner, Lucy Coats, took us on a shamanic journey. She uses “creative napping” to induce a trance state to help remove blocks. In ancient times, bards and druids - the storytellers - would go into a similar trance to inspire creativity. 

We closed our eyes and relaxed to soothing music and she guided us through a meditation. The visualisation worked for many of us and some had incredible breakthrough visions about their stories.

We came away from the workshop totally inspired.

Sunday, after a morning of writing time, Lucy Christopher was back to tell us about her writing life. She suggested we write the books we do because of presences in our lives, conscious and unconscious. 

She also talked about writing blocks and how she overcame them while writing her third novel, a dark thriller, with the help of poetry, drawing and listening to songs. She then read the first chapter of The Killing Woods to us - even before she sent the final edited version to her publisher – and the power of her writing had us in silence.

In the evening, Candy Gourlay hosted a Tiara and Pyjama Party. Queen Philippa Francis opened proceedings with a poem and others shared their writing. 

All hail, Philippa!
The variety and quality of writing astounded us all. There was everything from poems and hilarious writing for younger ages, to gripping middle grade and YA adventures, mysteries and fantasies. Several writers said they were inspired to up their game….

Monday came too soon, and it was time to pack and go, but not before the last session with Rebecca Frazer, editorial director of Orchard Books. Rebecca was as far away from scary editor as possible – absolutely lovely and really generous with us. 

She gave us the background of Orchard Books, how they see themselves as a boutique publisher with the backing of Hachette. Then she took us through the acquisition process, which explained why there are so many opportunities for rejection along the way. 

She also talked about market trends and what people are looking for at the moment. There is a definite need for more Middle Grade fiction, where humour is important. Marketing trends suggest there is now more emphasis on finding author-led series. In teen and young adult fiction, the 50 Shades effect means that romance is big news, especially contemporary romance and issues stories. 

Rebecca then spoke about pitches and how to pitch our ideas in a query letter. Die Hard meets Rainbow Magic here we come…

 Marketing trends suggest there is now more emphasis on finding author-led series in teen and young adult fiction...

Finally, it was time to go back to the real world. I left feeling frazzled, full of cake, but inspired – and I haven’t quite calmed down yet. The readings made us appreciate being surrounded by the huge range of talent that is in SCBWI. 

I feel really privileged to be part of this gang of lovely, generous and talented writers. Thanks especially to Lucy Christopher, Rebecca Frazer, Lucy Coats, Candy Gourlay, all the staff at Dunford House and, of course, our amazing organiser Teri Terry without which none of this would have been possible.

Teri Terry who organized it all.

Tania has been published in Sable Lit Magazine and is now writing MG and YA fiction. She has an MA Degree in History of Art and is also a professional cake decorator and baker. She is part of the writing features editorial team for Words & Pictures.


  1. That's a great write up Tania, for a great weekend. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

  2. One is most gratified that Tania enjoyed one's poetry.
    HRH Philippa

  3. Brilliant write-up! Wish I could've been there.

  4. the Lucys were inspiring weren't they? I've never written at so many different desks - and in those fabulous 'Cluedo' rooms. You brought it all back, Tania - thanks :D

  5. Thanks, Jo and Sue, it was brilliant and I'm only just recovering... haven't eaten any cake for nearly 2 weeks! Really enjoying hanging out with everyone, Your Royal Majesty's tiara was fabulous - shame we didn't get a good piccy of it... wish you could have been there too, Mel!

  6. Thanks for your write up Tania, it must have been a great wkend. Happy dieting! lol

  7. Tania, you lucky thing! It all sounds amazing - can't believe I missed out on all the CAKE! You'll have to drag me with you next time ;) XX

  8. Brilliant! i was amazed that all that cake got eaten.

  9. You enthusiasm bubbles over Tania! Who wouldn't want to go next year?

  10. A very cohesive write-up, Tania. It was my first retreat and it was wonderful to meet real live Scoobies - a creative, inclusive atmosphere.

  11. Lovely write-up Tania, it was a great weekend all-round. One of my favourite parts was just the nonstop general writerly chat, glass of wine in hand :)

  12. FAbulous - I'm going to try Lucy's idea!

  13. Thanks to Candy for all your lovely pictures too!
    Check out those sausages!

    1. I was going to put in pics of the lamb, but thought maybe that would be too food oriented.

  14. Fantastic write up Tania - wish I'd been there! Perhaps with a few more tips on the guided visualisations we all could?

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