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…”


*is eaten by a Grue*


  • I actually don’t think the money aspect would be a problem at all. I think the real problem would be narrowing down who can attend, especially at a 1 to 1 ratio. There would be hundreds, maybe more interested. How would you decide who could come, who would be a mentor?

  • Since I don’t write SFF, this type of lab wouldn’t appeal to me. But I would totally steal your idea and run with it for the romance genre. In regards to funding, you should check out your local arts commission to see if you could apply for a grant. There’s free money out there for artistic events like this. Good luck!

  • Love the idea. Particularly points 4, 5, 7 and 8.

    I don’t know how you could fund it without asking the attendees to pay. Myself, I’d be happy to pay for a workshop like this.


    And I’d be willing to pay at least something for it, though I love the idea of cost not being a thing, because your subtext about financial privilege is a very real issue, and I appreciate that you’re thinking about it rather than having this workshop be all about making money. (NOT THAT THERE’S ANYTHING WRONG WITH WRITERS AND WORKSHOP TEACHERS MAKING MONEY.)

    Which brings me to my next comment, which is this: Please do it in the summer (ideally July) so that those of us who teach for our day job can attend.

    And four days seems about right. Those of us with young families especially might appreciate that. ;)

    Make it so.

  • Awesome idea. If this happened nearby, the Weisel Hostel at Nockamixon might be an interesting base. And they have a century old stone bridge crossing the Tohickon in the backyard. There’s your Storybridge! Feel free to give a shout if I can help. The family that runs the hostel are good friends.

  • I would save up my pennies for the next five years for the chance to do this. :) I would also be enthusiastic to promote a crowdfunding campaign that would make it possible for this kind of thing to happen without a fee.

    • My understanding of crowed funding is that you usually need to offer the backers some sort of incentive to donate. I’m not sure what you could offer in a situation like this

  • Hi Chuck

    The week-long novel-dissected-by-pros thing was what I wanted, and got, from this: http://www.phoenixpick.com/cruise/cruise.htm

    The format has been changing but when I did it, basically the value of the cruise was to have Nancy Kress and Toni Weisskopf pull apart the beginning of two novels that had already been written and read by them beforehand. The lectures were by people with a lot of experience in the industry. The cruise ship allowed no early escape.

    It wasn’t free for students, and there was a 50-50 split between craft and business focus.

    But all the other criteria were met :)

  • What a great idea! Once the first one is done then you use it as a template for more…and more…and…

    Why not have it 2-3 times a year in different parts of the country?

    NYC could sure use one.

    About money: the fact that some aspiring writers have day jobs and a little pin money shouldn’t be a disqualifier either. I attended an online screenwriting workshop and it was great (and I paid for all three sessions that took place over 1.5 years. Best money I’ve spent so far on learning storytelling).

    Your Zeroes need you to lead them out of the forest. :)

  • I volunteer for the CCA Writers’ Conference in San Diego — the only free writing conference for high school students in the country. (Even lunch is free!) Please google it to see the 23 amazing speakers who are taking time from their incredibly busy schedules to teach and inspire the next generation!

    It is student-run by the school creative writing club. They have wonderful local sponsors and the support of Mysterious Galaxy bookstore, and would love to find out how to get publishers to sponsor it. We believe they should WANT to support the 220+ intelligent and motivated high school students from all over the San Diego area who willing to spend a free Saturday at all day writing workshops.

    And I’d love to go to your retreat any day!

  • ACTUALLY, now that you mention it, Dana Stabenow bought land to make something like this possible. A writing retreat, no charge, in Alaska. Women writers, I think. If you want to find out more, get onto her site (www.stabenow.com) and search for Storyknife. I hope she pulls it off, because I sure as heck want to apply! (She started a non-profit and accepts tax-deductible donations.)

  • I may have hyperventilated a little bit while reading this post.

    This kind of program would have tremendous value. If it were to happen, it would need to be adequately supported. The money needs to come from somewhere. I adore the intent behind “it shouldn’t come from attendees,” I just want to hug you for that, but it needs to come from somewhere.

    A few off-the-cuff thoughts in no particular order. What about a Kickstarter campaign for the startup, with, at least in part, a pay-it-forward model to make it sustainable? If I were accepted into a program like this, I would absolutely, unhesitatingly commit to scholarshipping a future attendee.

    If it were set up as a camping thing, I would volunteer to help organize it; I’ve been involved in the planning and running of gatherings for twenty years, and you can keep costs down.that way. Maybe a camping thing and a venue-based thing in alternating years, or alternating seasons.

    Run it as a preconference, or as a single by-invitation-only track of a small, inexpensive, geographically accessible con? Maybe I’m still mulling on the con post, but some of the most valuable and affordable professional training events I’ve attended have been preconferences attached to big library conventions. The venue is already in place and a lot of people are traveling to it anyway, but you don’t have to commit to the larger program.

    Hell, you’re talking twenty, thirty people at most, with breakout room spaces – a lot of large urban public libraries can support those space requirements, and they are often FREE. They may even PAY YOUR MENTORS if they can run a public program in conjunction with it (say, an author meet and greet evening before the story lab starts).

    Four to five days. If it’s run over a long weekend (arrive Wednesday night, get boozy, get to work Thursday, everybody go home Sunday or Monday night) it becomes much more achievable for people with day jobs.

    • The Kickstarter thing is interesting, but it’s hard to envision tiered rewards — given that the event isn’t about producing new content, it’s not like an anthology would be a product of the event. I mean, you could do the classic: shirts, mugs, etc, but those take their own special cost and administration to work.

      Sponsorship is a possibility — anything from NaNoWriMo to Scrivener to publishers to?

      Part of me thinks a venue is necessary over camping — a venue affords a safer space, I suspect, in a lot of ways.

      Hm. HMMMM.

      — c.

      • “Part of me thinks a venue is necessary over camping — a venue affords a safer space, I suspect, in a lot of ways.”

        Especially with regards to accessibility for those of us who can’t do camping for physical reasons. Campsites in the woods, for example, aren’t very wheelchair-friendly etc.

        • Highly accessible group camping events can be done. I’ve seen them done well. Doing it well and inexpensively is TREMENDOUSLY geographically dependent – some states have state park systems with excellent accessible facilities, for example, and some do not.

          But yeah, remoteness (physical, telecom, and psychological) absolutely has some serious cons to go along with the very attractive pros. (I may have also failed to clarify what I was talking about when I said “camping”.)

  • I … want to help you make this happy in any way, shape, format, or turkey guts you envision (why you would envision this using turkey guts is beyond me).

    Really. Chuck, this would be HUGE for authors. I’m not sure you’re grokking the sheer amount of people a project like this would attract. Or maybe you are, which is why we’re talking about it here.


    Sponsorship will probably be the easiest way to fund something like this. NaNoWriMo would shit themselves over an opportunity like this, though I understand they have their own funding worries.


    You’ve unleashed a beast, sir. I hope you’re ready.

  • Crap! Wrote a long comment on how it could work as an online offering, and the whole thing disappeared when I hit ‘post comment’. Very disappointing.

    . . . or, it was a terrible idea to begin with.

  • I’ve not had a chance to read all of the other comments, so this may have been addressed by others, but:

    “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?”

    Yes, to a-c. D fluctuates (either Clarion, most know, is 6 weeks, Viable Paradise is 1, Taos is 2). There are some “next level” workshops that are “long weekends” (Paradise Lost, for example, which OGH taught at last year).

    I did Viable Paradise in 2012, and agree with Chuck’s assessment that they lead to HUGE perception shifts in refining your craft.

    There is also the question of who’s on tap for instructors. VP, for example, has generally been the same group of instructors for years, and while they each lecture about different topics there’s also a certain amount of “by committee” [other pros available to support or give other examples to the relevant topic].. There’s a continuity of instruction there. Clarions, as I understand it, have rotating instructors each year, with different pros /each week/.

    I agree that cost and time are huge factors – that’s why I went for VP.

    Interesting proposal… would definitely be interested…

  • I’m down. Always loved the idea of a writing workshop specifically designed for novelists. Never really found one that was just right. THIS. RIGHT HERE. Is pretty damn close to just right.

  • Since we’re in the dreaming phase (well, some of the commenters are working out the details and offering ways to make it real, but not me), wouldn’t it be nice if some ridiculously rich old lady kicked the bucket and instead of bequeathing her massive fortune to her cats, she bequeathed it to the establishment and maintenance of this writers’ retreat? That’d be so nice. Her fortune would be vast, so that the interest from the principle would be enough to fund this program not once, but twice a year. Ah, happy dreams. Beats my dreams last night, in which I was trying to figure out how old Kiefer Sutherland was and whether or not Donald was still alive. And that got me thinking about Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which got me thinking about horror flicks from that era, and that led me down a dark and disappointing path that ended with the 2010 remake of Piranha. *sigh* But, yay for your idea. I hope it your dream comes true a-la Disneyland.

  • First of all PLEASE tell me this post is not just a wonderful dream I’m having, and that at some point I’m going to wake up and find out it never existed in the real world. I will CRY LIKE YOU HAVE NEVER SEEN A HUMAN CRY if that’s the case.

    And then…. this sounds like EXACTLY what a padawan novelist needs. This needs to exist some way, somehow! Heck, I’d sign up right away if I could. The only problem I can foresee Chuck is that you will most likely be IN-UN-DATED with applicants, to the point that you might have to hire someone to regularly dig you out from underneath the pile of application letters.

    But please, if there is any way on this little blue rock to make this happen, please let’s make this happen. And I would totally be up for it. I’d bring cake too. Really nice cake.

  • A novel-lab version for SFF would be an ideal venture for many authors.
    From what you’ve described, I’d put in my application for a chance if it was ever to be
    made. About a week would keep the atmosphere electric, you wouldn’t feel too buggered down.
    Having a story-centric system and nixing most if not all of the business aspect is something I’d adore.
    Working with mentors in order to refine my finished MS would be like a dream come true. Terrifying.
    But it would lead to a wonderful end.

  • Definitely has the potential to spin off into all genres. Love that you stay away from the business side, which creeps in waaaaay too quickly in any discussion of writing (cart before the horse!). No peer-critique, sounds awesome (easy to get that elsewhere, variable worth). This would be a horrifying and transformative experience. Sign us all up ;)

  • I can’t speak to how a Kickstarter campaign would work or if it would be nothing more than a place for all the people who want to attend to “donate” money so it could get off the ground and most could attend by hiding in and around the retreat while the chosen few get to work with mentors (at night you would be able to see the glow of their night-vision goggles in between the trees as well as just outside the windows).

    How about an online version (as someone mentioned earlier)? Maybe that would be a way to start slow and just gauge interest (because, you know, based on the reactions above there aren’t that many people who want to do this…not) and what it would take in terms of scale, mentors, etc.?

    This is such a great idea. You might regret having come up with it. :)

    • It’s hard to make a buck in writing. So I’ve been wondering how many writers would give up their time to work on this at a cut rate or gratis.

      But then I had a very cool thing happen to me this week. My 23 year-old son has Aspergers and has had trouble getting past a first interview with his new bookkeeping career.

      One of his board game buddies is an IT dude at a Quickbooks business of some sort. The man picked my kid up for the interview, was coaching my son through the interview and even gave him some feedback. I was floored. Turned out that a professional had given board game buddy the same sort of helping hand at the start of his career, paying it forward.

      So here’s hoping we have writers looking to pay forward for the next generation of writers.

  • Perfect. If you ever make it real, any chance you could visit the UK, say for a con, then stay over and run one here???

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