The guides in my Fan’s Party Planner series usually focus on a particular story from books or other media, but this planner will offer tips and ideas for hosting a party to celebrate and inspire the people who make those stories happen. “Write-ins” are a beloved tradition at Pudding Shot, when we gather with our journals and laptops and manuscripts to write, edit, outline, revise, and brainstorm in good company. These cozy events are great ways to get feedback on projects, meet other writers, and add some exciting variety to an otherwise solitary vocation. I especially look forward to them in autumn, when the changing world inspires us to create and the cool, cloudy days invite us to curl up inside with warm mugs and pen and paper. November is also National Novel Writing Month, so now is a great time for writers and readers to celebrate the hard work of writing and storytelling and offer some moral support to our friends pursuing the NaNoWriMo challenge.
A successful write-in balances the appeal of a friendly get-together with the need for personal productivity: it should be a fun social event, but it also needs to support actual writing. To be honest, we at Pudding Shot usually spend maybe 38% of our time actually writing at write-ins. And that’s not a bad thing. Writing can be a lonely, frustrating process if we don’t find writing buddies or beta readers or friends who like literary discussions. If we include valuable “shop talk” and healthy levels of venting in our definition of “writing,” then our productivity is more like 46%, and I think that’s to be expected more than everyone writing alone in the same room for three hours. With these goals in mind, here are some ideas to help you host a fun, productive “Autumn Writer’s Tea.”
Because writing is usually a solo activity, it can be difficult to imagine how you might accommodate a group of working writers in the same space, especially when you also need to plan for coffee shop or sleepover-type socializing. You will have the most options for customization if you host the writer’s tea in your home, but if you plan to host a larger group than you feel you can fit, or if you have a substantial number of guests you don’t personally know (such as friends of friends, community members, and regional NaNoWriMo groups), consider organizing the event with your local library, a community center, or a café or restaurant. Many libraries, community centers, and other public buildings have conference rooms that you can reserve in advance. These rooms are not always atmospheric, and you will have to check the building rules to see if you can have food or drinks, but they are easily accessible, professionally kept, and often free. Cafés and coffee houses that are used to lingering traffic or laptops may also be receptive to write-ins, but you should expect to make a group reservation and purchase considerable food and drink in order to use their seating for a long period of time.
Here are some other helpful items and space ideas to consider when planning the atmosphere and organization of your Autumn Writer’s Tea:
Candles: Scented candles can be relaxing and very atmospheric in the autumn. However, not everyone likes strong smells or certain scents while they write, so ask your group before you light one.
Cushions and pillows
Lamps and lighting
Plants: Plants are relaxing, and they can add some refreshing, cheery color and scent if the autumn weather has turned dreary.
Quiet zone: Designate a “quiet zone” where guests can go to focus on writing without distractions or recharge their creativity. This can be a separate room or a quieter section of the main write-in area. Guests in the quiet zone must use headphones if they listen to music and keep their conversations at low volume. Like the rest of the writing space, the quiet zone should have good lighting, comfy seating, easily accessible outlets for laptops, and safe surfaces for placing drinks or small plates of food. Indicate which space is the quiet zone by posting a sign or cordoning it off with a curtain or streamer. Make sure guests understand how the quiet zone is used at the start of the party and post a sign with any rules you have established for the space. This will help avoid putting pressure on guests to join livelier activities when they want to write and make it easier for guests to remember to keep their voices down.
Tables and chairs
Writing supplies: The writing process can throw us surprises, so a guest might suddenly need to do something for their story that they hadn’t planned for, like tracking their characters’ timelines or rewriting a scene by hand when they only brought their computer. Keep a small stock of tools like pens, colored pencils, white-out, sticky notes, and highlighters on hand to help them out. Check your junk drawer or desk for materials before you buy anything.
Guests generally understand that both write-ins and teas will have a few finger foods and snacks instead of full meals or fancy hot appetizers, so feel free to keep things small and simple. Presumably, you’re hoping to get some writing done, too, so I’ve focused my suggestions on hearty autumn snacks you can serve with minimal preparation and eat easily while you write.
Cheese platter: For autumn, try sharp cheeses and crumbly, semi-soft cheeses. Serve with crackers and, if desired, sliced hard salami.
Chocolate chip cookies
Tea cookies: Look for small vanilla, ginger, cinnamon, or chocolate cookies. Hard cookies may be easier to find and dip into tea, but soft is fine.
Tea sandwiches: Traditional tea sandwich fillings include cucumber slices and cream cheese, tuna salad, egg salad, and ham and cheese, but you could also make peanut butter and jelly, dried apricot and brie, etc. Keep it simple and choose just 1-3 flavors that are easy for you to make. Use thin cuts of machine-sliced bread to keep the sandwiches light and easy to cut into quarters. Organize sandwiches by type so guests do not have to check individual pieces for the kind they want.
These “showstopper” items are more typical of Fan’s Party Planner advanced entries, so I recommend planning the rest of your menu around their preparation if you decide to make one.
Pumpkin Bread: I made this simple pumpkin bread for a party recently, and I will be adding it to my recipe book as an autumn staple. To make it “fancy” for the party, I baked it in a circular pan, removed it from the pan, and drizzled it with a tiny bit of maple icing before serving, but it will still be perfect for your tea if you skip that last step. I halved the recipe because I only needed one loaf, but I used a bit more pumpkin puree and cinnamon than called for. I think the extra pumpkin gave the bread more moisture, like a cake, and I added the extra cinnamon because I like cinnamon more than nutmeg and cloves. It goes very well with tea and hot chocolate, and you can serve it with a little whipped cream or vanilla ice cream if you want to make it more like a dessert. Cut it ahead of time if you want to have a certain number of slices or provide a knife for guests to serve themselves.
Brie Bake: Brie bakes are one of my favorite special occasion foods. It’s a fairly common and easy recipe, but for the version I make at home, you’ll need a round or slice of brie approximately the size of a cereal bowl, Dijon mustard or raspberry jam, a canister of “ready to bake” crescent roll dough, half a stick of butter, and a mix of Granny Smith and Gala apples. First, lay the crescent roll dough on a cookie sheet with raised edges and place the brie in the middle. Leave the rind on the brie, otherwise the cheese will run everywhere when it melts in the oven. Second, spread a layer of mustard or jam over the cheese. Next, pull the edges of the dough over the cheese and press them together so they stick. You can hold rebellious corners together with wooden toothpicks. Cut the butter into small chunks and scatter them over the dough, especially around toothpicks and points where different dough pieces are stuck together. Bake the brie at the recommended temperature on the packaging until it is flaky and gold brown. While the brie bakes, slice the apples into finger food wedges to eat with the cheese. In my family, we eat the brie bake by scooping parts off with the apple slices or placing a piece on the apple like a cracker. Serve the brie bake on a platter wreathed with apple slices and provide a knife for guests to serve themselves.
Tea: Prepare a kettle of hot water to shorten the line for the microwave. Offer plenty of different varieties and additions like milk, cream, sugar, honey, and lemon. If you’re having an adult writer’s tea, consider providing the ingredients for guests to make hot toddies.
Apple cider: Serve hot or cold.
Brain Breaks: Writing is hard work, so invite guests to take breaks to play games or enjoy something silly. Short, creative games like Bananagrams, Boggle, and “Exquisite Corpse” are good for quick breaks that keep guests in the realm of verbal and literary thinking, but you can also have longer breaks with games like Pictionary and Apples to Apples that will encourage guests to relax their writing brains as they use other skills. You can also provide coloring sheets or small crafts like origami and cookie-decorating for guests to use at their own discretion whenever they need a break. Putting some funny YouTube skits or cat videos on the TV can be fun, too. Depending on the space and materials available to you, you might also offer some physical exercise breaks with a short walk around the block or a few yoga poses. You can choose whatever activities work best for you and your guests, but remember to accommodate your guests’ individual writing processes and desire to participate. Writers might want to pass on an activity if they’re in a steady writing flow or need to focus on some difficult part of their story, so organize your breaks in a way that respects their need to concentrate. For example, avoid loud or distracting activities like dancing, video games, movies, and games with buzzers or sound effects unless you have a separate room that will minimize the noise and visual distractions. Also keep in mind that some activities like very competitive games or outdoor sports may make it difficult for guests to return to the writing mindset when they are finished.
One way to make this easy is to decide which break activities you will offer and make a schedule ahead of time. This way, guests can plan their writing time and will not be startled or interrupted by sudden flurries of activity. For example, a guest who knows that she will find quiet breaks folding cranes more helpful than watching YouTube videos but doesn’t want to miss a few rounds of Bananagrams with the group can plan to move to the quiet zone when the YouTube videos play and work to finish her thoughts in time to play Bananagrams. Most write-ins/writer’s teas are about 2-4 hours long, so plan your more intensive or group-based breaks for every 45 minutes or hour. This should give guests plenty of time to get work done even if they need a few self-directed breaks with a book or at the snack table. Guests will likely converse and snack the whole time, so unless you want to have a very intense NaNoWriMo party with nonstop writing, it seems silly and stifling to schedule this. I do, however, encourage scheduling the reveal of any special food items like cakes or hot snacks; food is exciting, and even your most cloistered guests will likely be happy (and feel no guilt over their word count) to break and socialize over special foods.
Silence is Golden: One “activity” option for your writer’s tea is to call for a period of focused writing. The whole writing space essentially becomes the quiet zone. Set a timer and tell everyone that they must work on their stories until the timer is up. Guests can write, outline, edit, revise, do research, sketch characters, meditate, etc., anything related to their writing, but there will be no “brain break” activities going on at this time. Make sure guests know they can do quiet, self-directed non-writing things if they want, because we don’t want to scold anyone for having writer’s block or needing a break, but the point of this period is to eliminate all potential distractions and support productivity. Keep these periods relatively short, like 30 minutes for shorter teas or an hour for longer write-ins, and consider having one of your bigger brain breaks scheduled afterwards.
No Network, No Problem: Another “activity” option is to institute a period of Internet-free writing. Most writers work on their computer at some point in the process, and most of the computers are connected to the Internet, which really enables writers’ common habit of procrastinating. So, to encourage folks to get off Facebook or Tumblr (or this blog) and write their own work, shut off your wireless. You can tell people to turn off their computer’s receptor or simply unplug your router for a little while. If you want to be really devious and technologically savvy, you can disconnect everyone and then change your password for 30 minutes or more. Surprise! You won’t be able to stop people from looking at their smartphones, but hopefully the Internet-free event will encourage them to only use them to google a quick research question. If someone uses a web application to do their writing instead of a word processor, trust them with honor code to be an exception. That, or give them some paper.
As always with Fan’s Party Planner guides, you don’t have to do everything on this list. Less is especially more with writer’s teas, when people really just want a peaceful, comfortable place to get some work done and slack off from that work with their fellow writer friends. The ideas here should help you strike a good balance of supporting productivity with some fun and social energy. Good luck, and happy writing!