Broke Hack Mountain: A Recap, and Tips for Planning Your Own Writing Retreat
(Top to bottom, left to right: Josh Bazell, Dan Krokos, Todd Robinson, Rob Hart, Erik Arneson, Jon McGoran. Photo by Jon McGoran's iPhone.)
It started with a message from my pal: author, editor, and bartender extraordinaire Todd Robinson.
He saw a literary magazine was sponsoring a sleep-away camp. It was $300 for a couple of nights. Private room, shared bathroom, meals included. Time to write during the day, group activities, and opportunities for editorial input from the magazine staff.
He asked if we should go. I was hesitant for a couple of reasons:
- We weren't in the market for editorial input. Not to say we've got nothing to learn, but that made it seem more geared toward people cutting their teeth, rather than two guys trying to meet their deadlines.
- 'Group activities' made me think of orientation week at college, where we all sat in circles and played dumb games to get to know each other. Forget that noise.
- There was one shared bathroom space for everyone, which is a big no bueno.
- Since our books are not about the ennui of Millennials living in Brooklyn, there was a good chance we'd be relegated to the Kid's Table of Genre Fiction.
But the idea had legs. I suggested we do our own thing: Find a place on Airbnb, get a few other people on board to defray the cost, and buckle down for a few days of writing.
Thus was born Broke Hack Mountain.
Finding a place
Desk with a view.
This turned out to be the toughest part, and I felt like the whole thing would fall apart a couple of times. I didn't want to drive much more than three hours outside New York City—preferably less. We wanted something remote enough to be quiet, which scratched off anything in a dense neighborhood. And we wanted something rustic, because when in Rome, it's nice to be a in cabin... or something.
I considered at least two dozen properties until I found one that fit the bill: Two bedrooms, four beds, two full bathrooms, no internet, spotty cell signal, on an 11-acre piece of property in a small town in the Catskills. Big but not too big. The lack of internet, while a bit of a nuisance, wasn't that bad, and at least would guarantee we wouldn't spend most of the trip on Facebook.
Not everyone would get a bedroom, but there was a grill, and a stocked kitchen, and we didn't need to bring our own linens. We ended up with six guys. Total cost: $130 per head for three nights. That ain't bad. I considered sharing the link to it but won't—it was really nice and I don't want to find this place is booked when we schedule Broke Hack Mountain II.
The guest list
The nerve center.
Besides me and Todd, there was Josh Bazell (author of Beat the Reaper), Jon McGoran (author of the Doyle Carrick books), Dan Krokos (author of the False Memory and Planet Thieves books) and Erik Arneson (former Shotgun Honey editor and accomplished short story author).
Building a guest list is hard. You're in tight quarters and it's quiet. You want to be there with a group of people you know you'll get along with.
In the end, six guys was just about ideal. It was enough to keep things varied and interesting, but there weren't so many people we were climbing on top of each other.
A lot of jokes were made about how it was going to be a weekend of manliness, and to be honest, we were open to making it a co-ed venture. We're all adults. But, alas, it ended up being an all-boys trip. Maybe next time, though!
Food shopping and cooking
Not enough bacon.
Here's where things got kind of rough. Planning out meals for three days is hard. The plan was to hit a supermarket on the way up, load up on the essentials (eggs, bacon, steak, chicken, snacks, drinks, etc.). Then we would check in at the cabin to see what was in the "fully-stocked kitchen" (most of what we needed, except they were very low on cooking oil). The next day we would go to the local market to fill in the gaps.
In the end, a lot of our meals were grilled: Burgers, chicken, skirt steak, sausages. I tried to get some vegetables in there (grilled asparagus, roasted broccoli) because, besides Dan, we're all old men now. We need our roughage and vitamins.
On the last night, we went out to an Italian restaurant in town. One, because it was nice to have someone cooking for us, and two, because then we wouldn't have to do any dishes on our last night. It was a nice change of pace.
Oh, also: Booze and coffee. I can not overstate how important these things are. I bought a big bottle of Bulleit Rye and was like "Man there is no way we'll finish this" and then boom, it was gone.
Luckily when we got there the fridge was full of this:
Devassa, by Playboy.
I have seen and drank a lot of beer in my life and have never heard of this.
It is so blandly inoffensive, I ended up drinking like seven the first day we were there. That was not very smart!
The sad (and wonderful) truth
Todd and Dan. Pals 4 Life.
I know a lot of you are wondering who woke up with a severed finger in his mouth, or which one of us went screaming into the night whilst in the grip of madness. Certainly, people who weren't involved were building it up in their heads. At a Noir at the Bar reading in Queens a few days before we left people were telling me we'd be going nuts, barely sleeping, etc.
Spoiler alert: Nothing crazy happened, unless you count Todd accidently peeing on a frog. I think the latest we were up was 1 a.m. on the first night. The next two nights we were in bed around midnight. We all ate too much. That's about it.
As we sat around the kitchen table on the second day, eating lunch and talking about kitchen remodeling, Josh Bazell summed up things nicely when he said, "If only the ladies could see us now."
Really, we spent a lot of the time writing.
I walked in with a first draft of my fourth novel, The Woman from Prague. I ended the weekend having completed a full rewrite, plus some really good notes on what I want to do with the third draft. It's due to my publisher in January and it feels nice to be ahead of the curve on it.
There's something really nice, too, about dedicating a long stretch of time to your writing. With a full-time job, a part-time job that feels full-time, and a baby (who is now walking and is therefore a constant source of both wonderment and danger) it's tough for me to get more than a few hours at a stretch.
And doing it in a group is even better. Whether it's tossing ideas into the air to bat them around, or just reading a line we wrote that we're particularly proud of, it's nice to have the camaraderie of fellow writers at hand. Especially since writing is usually such a solitary act.
Todd, the only one with consistent cell phone signal.
It wasn't the easiest thing in the world to coordinate—you're dealing with a lot of moving targets. But overall, it was a success. I think we all came out of it with something. Certainly it's something we're thinking about doing again—maybe bi-annually, once in the winter and once in the summer. There are always more words to write.
And wintertime means more fires!
Further tips on planning a writing retreat:
- Pick up cooking oil. It's such an essential item, and if you have too much, it doesn't really go bad. You can leave it behind and that's a nice thing to do.
- However many bundles of firewood you think you need, buy at least one more bundle. Maybe two. Fire is fun.
- Also useful: Earplugs. At night it was like listening to a running lawnmower that was thrown in a wood chipper and then the whole thing was dropped down the side of a cliff into the mouth of a starving elder god.
- Since I planned the whole thing I called dibs on the nicest bedroom. It had a door, which helped with the cacophony of snoring. It pays to be the guy who plans the trip.
- This would have been a much better article if I had logged all our food items and associated costs, though I'm sure it would have just made me feel bad. When we left the supermarket I thought we bought way too much stuff, and most of it went quickly. Erik Arneson's wife gave us a ton of fruit and we were like "We'll never eat all this fruit!" and then most of it was gone by the second day.
- This is the kind of thing where you have to accept that you're going to eat stupid amounts of food. Best not think about it too hard.
- Double-check to make sure you have your laptop! I almost left without mine.
- Speaking of, before you go, make a checklist of stuff you need to do. For example, I made a file with notes and saved it to the Dropbox folder with everything for The Woman from Prague. But I had to make sure to sync everything, so I had the most up-to-date files when I got to my internet-less location. What I'm saying is: Don't plan a big writing weekend and then squander it by not being ready to hit the ground running.
- I forgot my headphones. Nothing ever goes completely to plan. Roll with it and have fun.
To leave a comment