If I Did A Novel-Writing Story-Lab, What Would It Look Like?

This started on Twitter because I was saying that the Sundance Screenwriting Lab was really very formative for me as a writer. Basically, prior to the Sundance Festival, you end up in the mountains for five days studying with mentors who help you pick apart your work in a variety of ways. It’s a very narrow focus, in what was for me the best way possible. You mostly work to dissect your own script, and you also get the benefit of hanging out with peers and professionals and share meals and watch movies and have roundtable talk sessions about, well, all kinds of things. Plus the pros do presentations and — well, it was really great. The isolation, the focus on the script rather than writing new material, the aversion to business with a strong leaning toward craft and story. Precious in the best way possible.

I think it would be super amazing to do something like this for novelists.

Now, this exists, to some degree, already.

Taos Toolbox, Viable Paradise, Clarion, Odyssey, etc.

I did not attend any of those, though my understanding is:

a) you pay for them?

b) they focus in part on workshopping/critiquing one another?

c) they focus a little bit on writing new material?

d) the programs run about two weeks?

My understanding of those may be incorrect, so feel free to correct me. Further, this idea of mine is in no way meant to speak ill of those programs — those who have done those programs have spoken incredibly well of them.

Here’s how my own pie-in-the-sky “novel lab” would work:

1) It has to be free to both mentors and program attendees. Sundance has an application fee, and that’s as far as it goes. Being a writer in particular is not generally a career where you ROLL AROUND IN A ROOM FULL OF MONEY, and so I think it’s vital to start off with zero cost for the lab. That definitely means room, board, food. Not sure about travel — ideally that, too, would be free. Note, I have no way to pay for this because ha ha ha I’m pretty much just winging this idea right here, right now. But I expect some combination of crowdfunding (KS + Patreon), donations, and sponsorship from publishers or writing software companies or, I dunno, whiskey distillers. SHUT UP IT MAKES SENSE. But really, taking the burden of cost away ideally helps obviate some of the privilege intrinsic any time money enters the equation.

2) Can’t be two weeks. Two weeks is a long time. I think a week or less is just right.

3) Gotta be somewhat isolated. Like, not MURDERSHACK isolated, but — an island. Or the mountains. Or a secret moonbase. Or we can all cram in my battleshed and fight for dominance.

4) No workshopping between participants. I mean, if you want to, fine, and everybody can read everyone else’s work, but this would very explicitly be about deep dissection of your completed manuscript draft with a series of chosen mentors in 1-on-1 story sessions. It is about having a completed work submitted and then that work gets broken apart in the hands of mentors, and you and those mentors (say, three to five of them per book) give you their take and you hash it out with them. Vital not to have just one mentor, but several. Creative agitation is king. (Note that I have no problem with workshops or critique groups, but personally I have never found them fruitful and I think there’s really no guarantee that just because your peer can write means they also know how to critique or edit. The mentors selected would be capable in this regard, though.)

5) No writing new material. Again, you can write new material on your own time, but the focus would very overtly be about breaking apart existing material and thinking about what you already have, not about what you want to write in the future.

6) Very minimal overall focus on the business side of things. (So minimal, might as well be zero.) Not that writers don’t need advice on publishing — they do! But if this is a shorter workshop, then focusing it on the story is key.

7) Pros would have talks or presentations.

8) Might also be worth having a book club component — one book that everyone reads and dissects during the lab. Again, just to keep everyone thinking about story as a larger thing.

9) Sundance has, I think, a limit of 12 projects and that feels like the upper end here, too. I might even say 10? So, you get ten unpublished novitiate authors and roughly the same number of mentors present — mentors being published, proven authors across a variety of genres? I’m admittedly viewing this as a genre thing. Probably SFF, though there could be an argument made for incorporating mystery or thriller novels, too. The ten novitiate authors selected would not be selected by one person but by the mentors themselves, I think, and inclusion would be a priority. Diversity in genre, too, has value, so not just ten epic fantasy novels or some such — a really interesting cross-section of SFF would be ideal, with a YA component, too.

10) I do wonder if there’s value in having presentations from editors and agents, too, at this thing — though there, that’s the business side creeping in, so maybe not? Hm.

11) Minimal down-time. Fairly intense. Creative compression.

12) Must be a safe space in all ways.

So, that’s the gist of it. A lot unconsidered and again, this is all very rosy-cheeked perfect-world nonsense that will likely never come to fruition. But if I ever did set up a “novel-writing lab,” it would look a whole lot like this Sundance model. I might call it, “Storybridge…”

*dreams*

*is eaten by a Grue*