EVENTS Writing Retreat 2024


How does the sound of a long weekend in the middle of the English countryside with other writers, plenty of laughs and lots of cake sound? Well, that’s exactly what I experienced recently when I went on a SCBWI writing retreat in deepest darkest Worcestershire, writes Iqbal Hussain.


My writing buddy Anne Elicaño-Shields and I travelled up on the train on Friday morning from Paddington, arriving two hours later at Evesham station. There we bumped into two more writing retreaters, all giddy with excitement at the weekend ahead. We waited for our respective taxis, having booked them weeks in advance as “We are no longer in London, Toto”, rendezvousing at The Cropthorne Bell for a much-needed lunch and an informal getting-to-know session with other retreaters before we all made the short walk or drive to Holland House, scene of our three-day writeathon.


Holland House is a large (partly) Elizabethan mansion set in three acres of beautiful grounds, with lots of benches, outbuildings and even a swing from which to ponder life and the best-selling middle grade novel that’s going to make your fortune. Most of us turned up around the same time in the afternoon, where we were met by the very capable Debbie. Unphased by our excited chatter, she calmly handed out room keys and a reminder that home-made cake was to be served in the reception area at 4 o’clock, in case we were still hungry after our fish and chips at the pub.


The rooms are comfortable but won’t win any prizes from Homes and Gardens magazine. Their sparse, unadorned nature hints at their monastic past. With just a single bed, a sink and a kettle, and a Bible, that’s probably all you need to survive. Shared toilets and bathrooms are along the corridor, which made me finally achieve my dream of being at Malory Towers, Enid Blyton’s boarding school-set series that I loved reading as a child.


You won't go home hungry. Much of the food at Holland House (except cake!) is homegrown.
 [Picture credit: Françoise Price]  

One thing that quickly dawns on you on a SCBWI retreat is that you’re not going to go home hungry. You are literally fed and watered every couple of hours. The food frenzy begins with cock crow (okay, 8.30 am) with a full English and all the trimmings. In case you’re still peckish a bit later, you’re treated to home-made biscuits and a cuppa at 10.30.  Then it’s lunch at 1pm, which includes pudding. The aforementioned cake at 4pm, and the dinner at 6pm, with another pudding just in case you were still feeling hard done by.  I have never eaten so much food in my life. And yet I got used to it very quickly, like it was a perfectly normal state of affairs to roll around sated like a Roman emperor during my waking hours.


In between all the eating, you might force yourself to do some writing. There’s absolutely no pressure to do so. The writing part of the retreat is entirely self-led, so if you wanted to stuff your face with another piece of sticky lemon drizzle cake and then make yourself giddy on the swing outside you’d be very welcome to. There are no expectations here and definitely no judgements.


A large part of the retreat is spent getting to know everyone else. It’s refreshing to be with others who share our writing passion, rather than being stuck in our metaphorical garrets when at home while we pen our masterpieces. There were a good two dozen of us in total, so that’s a lot of people to work your way around, and plenty of source material on which to base characters you’re yet to write. Only kidding. Or am I? 

Roadside view of the original Elizabethan section of Holland House. 
[Picture credit: Françoise Price 


I was really struck by what a warm, sociable bunch we SCBWI writers are. It was always a pleasure to hear what people were working on, or to find out how their day had gone, or to hear their thoughts on the chocolate brownies versus the ginger biscuits earlier. You begin the day with a big dose of chatter over the scrambled eggs and you finish the evening with a glass or two of wine in the comfy lounge and another big dose of chatter. If the thought of all this socialising is making you feel a bit sweaty around the brow, fear not. There are plenty of writerly nooks and crannies in which to secrete yourself, including a splendidly creaky, stuffed-to-the-gills library that I didn’t know existed despite this being my second retreat.


Apart from the splendid home-made cakes, each day is broken up with a 90-minute session in the afternoon devoted to craft or writing and publishing in general. On the Saturday, we were lucky enough to have YA author Kathy Evans take us through the intricacies of voice and points of view and how to relate this to our own characters. We all found the session hugely instructive and there were plenty of opportunities in which to ask questions or to read out bits we had written.

Sunday workshop led by Kirsty Collinson in the conference room. 
[Picture credit: Iqbal Hussain] 

On the Sunday, fellow attendee and tech/publishing entrepreneur Kirsty Collinson gave us a glimpse into the secret world of publishing facts and figures, which elicited many gasps as we were told factoids relating to such things as what the top selling fiction book of all time was (A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens) to the bestselling children’s book last year (A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, by Holly Jackson).

On the final night we went around the room and listened to everyone’s writing. 
(Pictured standing) Philippa Francis reads her story. [Picture credit: Iqbal Hussain] 


During the weekend, there were also one-to-one sessions with Kathy for those who had signed up for them. And on the final night we went around the room and listened to everyone’s writing, whether from the weekend or another time. This was definitely one of the highlights for me, as it really brought home what a talented bunch of writers we were and how there were so many amazing ideas for everything from darkly hilarious comic books (take a bow, Candy Gourlay) to touching verse that brought a lump to our throats (bravo, our very own Susan Bain, who when she isn’t being organiser extraordinaire for the retreat writers rather splendid words herself).


And then, just like that, it was all over, coming to an end as all good things must. The success of a retreat is measured by many things, but for me it’s never about the amount of words written, but more about the enthusiasm, excitement and reinvigorated love of words with which I come away. I came back with several ideas for new books I’d like to write; the strengthening of old friendships and the forging of new; and half a stone extra around my girth from the sheer quantity of food taken in during the weekend.


As our carriages arrived to spirit us away (well, Ken from the village and his Vauxhall Astra), we waved each other goodbye, promising to keep in touch and counting down the days until the next retreat, when we would once more indulge in writerly chat, enchanting storytelling and another slice of lemon drizzle cake, if you insist.


*Header image: Françoise Price


Iqbal Hussain’s debut novel, Northern Boy, about being a “butterfly among the bricks”, is coming out in June, with Unbound Firsts. His debut middle grade children’s novel, The Time Travelling Misadventures of the 7th Son, is due out on submission shortly. His work appears in various anthologies and has also appeared in WriteMentor and Aquila magazines. Iqbal’s nature writing can be read on sites such as The Hopper and caughtbytheriver.
Twitter and Instagram: @ihussainwriter


Françoise Price is Deputy Editor of Words & Pictures magazine. Contact


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