On Writing Intensives

Catherine Maiorisi

In 2010 I was invited by a casual writing friend to take her place in an invitation only, one week intensive writing workshop with James N. Frey in Portland, Oregon. I was scared but I went. It turned out ten of the twelve writers had been working with Frey for years and they organized and held this workshop every year at the house of one of the participants. It really was intense. Each person read a chapter every other day. After the eleven other participants critiqued the reading, Frey offered his comments. Sometimes his comments were brutal, though he was pretty gentle with me. In between the morning and afternoon critique sessions, he taught a master class.

Spending that much time in a room with other writers and a master teacher was exciting, energizing and exhausting. I’ve never done anything like that since but I think it’s something I would probably get even more out of at this point in my career.

Have you ever participated in a writing intensive?

Connie: A friend of mine went on an intensive writing retreat in Tuscany several years ago, led by Elizabeth George. Wouldn’t that be amazing?

Catherine: That would be amazing. George is a favorite. A number of years ago, I went to a week long workshop led by SJ Rozan in Assisi, Italy. Unfortunately I had to leave after two days due to a family emergency but even that short time was wonderful.

Sharon Ward

As you might expect from someone as focused as me, I LOVE intensive classes. When something interests me, I want to learn everything I can about it, as fast as I can.

I was lucky enough to be accepted into the Yale Writer’s Workshop a few years ago, and it was absolutely amazing. At the time, they had week-long genre-specific tracks, and our instructor for the week was the incomparable Hallie Ephron.

Not only did I learn a ton about plotting and writing in general, but I made some close friends that I am still in touch with years later. We have a “virtual” writers group where we meet everyday, time permitting. It’s very informal, show up if you have time–if not, no worries. We read each other’s stuff, but only by request, so you don’t have that pressure of “I need X pages by Friday” or “I have to read this stuff I hate and find something nice to say about it.”.

 More than anything, the people in that group are cheerleaders for each other. We celebrate all the highs and commiserate during all the lows. We meet for virtual cocktail parties every now and then. I adore the women in my virtual writing group. I wish everyone could have a similar group, because they are now my dearest and most supportive friends.

I attended one of those week long classes in Tuscany. It was a great experience, but I have to say, nowhere near as valuable as Yale. The caliber of the writing was all over the place, from abysmal to perfectly polished, and the genres were equally diverse. 

Also took a semester in a “low-residency” MFA program, where we met in a group of 6 with an amazing professor for a couple of hours every morning for 10 days, including weekends, then spent the rest of the day in classes on every topic related to writing that you can imagine. Everything from how to do a proper citation to how to use a library for research to how to define a character or map out a series. Hugely valuable, and again–a rigorous acceptance process. And we had to read our work out loud to large groups of people.

Because of those two experiences, I now have a rule that I don’t bother with classes that anybody can get into if they have a credit card. Like the MFA program, Yale had a rigorous acceptance policy, including submitting extensive writing samples. Some of the people in my group were multi-published authors, screenwriters, and playwrights. One had even won an Oscar for a screenplay.

Talk about feeling like a poser. As a newbie writer, I was in awe of everyone. And I learned a TON.

Catherine: I’m in awe that you did these things as a newbie. And I’m jealous of your group. 

Connie Berry

Years ago I attended Seascape Writers’ Retreat in Connecticut, led by Hallie Ephron and Roberta Isleib. Hank Phillippi Ryan stopped by to give a couple of lectures. We were divided into two main groups of about a dozen writers each. We shared our WIPs and got some individual advice from Hallie and Roberta. The most helpful comment (at least that I remember) came from Hallie who pointed out that I needed a much more compelling reason for my protagonist to get involved in the crime. She was right. I learned a lot that weekend and made several good friends. I’d love to do that again sometime. Or maybe just a private writing retreat. 

Catherine: Maybe Miss Demeanors should plan a retreat.

Sharon: Connie, that Seascape writing retreat is legendary. Lucky you!!

Susan Breen 

You are very brave, Catherine! I’ve never done anything like that, but I did go to Bread Loaf some years ago. Our workshop group met every day and then there were all sorts of lectures and then there was a barn where you could listen to people read from their work. The barn was open 24 hours a day, so anytime you wanted you could wander in and listen to someone. My idea of heaven. The whole experience was exhilarating, and exhausting. I feel like at this point in my life, what I’d like to do is go to a little cottage in Truro and just sit by myself. 

Catherine: Brave? I don’t think so. Reading my work aloud was terrifying. But I was determined to learn the craft and improve my writing. In a way doing it across the country with people I didn’t know was almost easier than doing with writers I know.

Sharon: Catherine, I agree with that. I used to have a job where I basically did presentations all day, evert day. I could talk to groups of 2 or 3 or groups of 1,000-plus equally easily. The only time I’d get nervous was if there were people I knew in the room. Sooo much easier to do it in front of strangers.

Keenan Powell

Honestly I don’t have anything to add. I’ve never been to an intensive.

Emilya Naymark

No, I never did anything like that. I’ve generally been averse to leaving my home and family for any period of time. I’m much too codependent! Once, I even had a small chance to travel to the Olympics in Japan for work, but made it very clear I wouldn’t for the above reasons. 

I think I might enjoy something like a writing intensive if I could come home at the end of the day and if the classes were held someplace pleasant. Like in a garden.

Catherine: I understand Emilya. That was then. Now, I’m reluctant to leave home or go to any events held inside. Writing in the park or in a garden sounds good though.  

Connie: I think there are retreats like that–where you can opt to stay or go home every night. There are also online retreats, but I’ve never really looked into them. I think they’re best for emerging authors who need feedback and guidance. What appeals to me is renting a cottage somewhere peaceful and having an entire week without interruptions to just write. May never happen, but one can dream!

Tracee de Hahn

Catherine, I think that the way you arrived at the retreat is the best way to go. Casually, and then, OMG what am I in for! I’ve never attended one, but think it’s a great idea. I’m not one for ‘back in school’ with prompts etc. but would enjoy a pressure cooker of deadline and the feedback of colleagues. Seminars dribbled in about craft would be a bonus. Sadly, now it will be some time before I sign on for an indoor multi-day event . . . 

Catherine: Tracee, I agree about ‘back in school’ with prompts. This workshop was about reading from something we were working on and didn’t involve writing to prompts and reading to the group. 

Alexia Gordon

I’ve never been to a writing intensive. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t because I’m more of a solitary writer than a group participant. I have been on solo writing retreats, where I go off alone to focus on writing without the distractions of everyday life. I’d be willing to try a group writing retreat where sharing is optional and inspirational tours of whatever exotic locale the retreat is being held in are part of the package. 

Catherine: Alexia, I’m always shy about sharing so I think it should always be optional. But, that said, for me one of the most valuable things about an intensive workshop is getting feedback from other writers and a master teacher that, hopefully, helps elevate my writing.

Thanks for the responses, everyone! 

Catherine Maiorisi

Catherine Maiorisi is the author of the NYPD Detective Chiara Corelli Mystery series featuring Corelli and her partner Detective P.J. Parker–two tough women, fighting each other while solving high profile crimes. A Matter of BloodThe Blood Runs ColdA Message in Blood, and Legacy in the Blood are all available as ebooks, paperbacks, and audiobooks narrated by Abby Craden.  

In addition to publishing multiple mystery and romance short stories in various anthologies, Catherine has authored four romances novels. Her latest book, The Disappearance of Lindy James, was awarded a GOLDIE for Best General Fiction.

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