Eleven other writers and I participated in the Novel Writing Intensive on Whidbey Island in mid-October. This three and a half day retreat combines seminars, focused critiques and one-on-one consultations. The seminars and critiques were led by well-known authors Steven James and Robert Dugoni. Participants were also offered consultations with the authors and with Pam Johnson, an independent editor.

If you’re working on a novel, no matter the genre, do yourself and your writing a favour and add this retreat to your must-do list. Here’s why:

Unbelievably Helpful Feedback

Imagine having an accomplished, critically acclaimed writer like Steven James or Bob Dugoni read fifty (yes, fifty) pages of your novel and then devote over an hour discussing them with you. An hour. In depth.

We divided into six-person groups for the critiques – for those of you who get hives when you think of workshop critiques, put the antihistamines away. These feedback sessions were positive. The only person to deliver comments on the participant’s work was the critique leader. The rest of us were there to listen, cheer and learn.

Things that a writer did well were praised and used as teaching moments. Things that could be improved were pointed out in a supportive and constructive manner, and were also often the basis for teaching moments. But the feedback went further than simply pointing out what could be improved – both Steven and Bob brainstormed solutions to story glitches and offered practical, editorial solutions for scenes that weren’t doing the job they should.

Instructive Seminars and Materials

Over the course of the retreat, Steven and Bob led seminars on topics such as plots, endings, subtext, tension, character, troubleshooting and revision. The seminars were supplemented with handouts and suggestions for writing exercises to put the lesson into practice.

Steven and Bob are not your standard-continuing-education-sleep-inducing speakers. They are both excellent speakers and teachers – engaging, energetic, humorous, knowledgeable. Able to address questions quickly and with good examples of the how-to or why.


In my view much of the success of a retreat such as this one – where a small number of participants spend three and a half days together in a location somewhat removed from town – depends on the participants. Get the right group of personalities together and you’ve got a roaring success. Get the wrong mix …

The Novel Writing Intensive was a roaring success. In part because it was a retreat for writers. And writers are just plain interesting, fun, collegial people. But also because of the inclusive, supportive, and collegial atmosphere that Pam, Steven and Bob established.

I judge events by three things: whether at the end I am smiling, satisfied, and energized. The Novel Writing Intensive scored this way:

Smiling?             Oh yeah, more like grinning

Satisfied?            Yep, big value received

Energized?            PUMPED.

If you’re thinking of signing up for one of these retreats – here’s a link to the website. The next sessions (two of them) are in June, in Tennessee. I understand there’s a healthy waiting list, so you might not be able to secure a spot in the next sessions – but contact them anyway: I was able to attend the one on Whidbey Island because not all the people on the waiting list could make it.