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Novel-Writing Intensives: An Alternative to the MA

[1]Wouldn’t it be great if writing a novel could be like playing team sport? How great would it be to have teammates jumping up and down on the sidelines cheering for you, or running to your side if you got hurt? For most novelists—especially first-time or unestablished writers—reality looks much different. Instead of a throng of cheering fans, we are lucky if we have a dog sitting at our feet while we write.

When I started working on my first novel, I craved the camaraderie of a team. I wanted a coach and drills and discipline. I needed someone to care when I finished that first draft or finally nailed that tricky scene. Someone other than my dogs, that is.

In my quest to find a writing community, I applied to the Novel Incubator program run by GrubStreet, a writer’s organization based in Boston. Every year the Novel Incubator chooses ten authors from a competitive applicant pool. Together with instructor Michelle Hoover, those ten writers spend a grueling year revising and polishing their books.

I feel incredibly grateful I was accepted into the program in 2017. I revised my full manuscript three times during my Incubator year, and I critiqued my nine classmates’ manuscripts three times each. That amounts to thirty manuscripts in a year, in addition to weekly craft lessons, outside readings, homework exercises, and essays. There were late nights, early mornings, and more than a few tears.

I learned how to pitch my book, write a query letter, and talk to agents (without hyperventilating.)

Then, just when I was starting to feel confident, we graduated from the Incubator and Michelle pushed us out of the nest. I was scared.

Part of my Incubator tuition included admission to The Muse and the Marketplace, a large writer’s conference hosted by GrubStreet every spring. The Incubator hosted meet ups at the Muse for Incubator graduates to connect with agents and editors.

I attended the Muse with my cohort of Incubator grads (the Inkies), sad to have completed the program, wondering how I would survive in the publishing world on my own. But I quickly realized that I was no longer alone.

My classmates were right there, jumping up and down cheering for me. I was no longer writing by myself with my dogs. I was part of that team I had always longed for.

I pitched my book at that conference (and did not hyperventilate.) When I signed with an agent I met at The Muse, the Inkies lifted me up on their shoulders and carried me around Boston Common for a victory lap. (Okay, I made that part up, but it felt that way.) And when I’ve stumbled over rejections, my classmates have been the first ones to help me back up.

When Desmond Hall, the first in my Incubator cohort to sign a book deal, announced he had a two-book contract earlier this year, I couldn’t have felt prouder. Des is part of my team. It was a win for all of us.

In addition to being supportive, these programs produce successful writers. I can’t speak to the publication rates of other programs, but the Des is the fourteenth Novel Incubator to sign a publishing contract.

I feel myself getting sentimental (possibly mushy) when I talk about the Novel Incubator. I don’t have enough words to express my gratitude, not only for the elements of craft I learned and for the support I’ve found, but also for the team I became a part of.

When I tell other writers about the program, I sense a longing in them. They want to be part of a tight community too.

Novel Incubator alums and instructor Michelle Hoover

Michelle Hoover, the instructor who co-founded the Novel Incubator with author Lisa Borders in 2010, says non-MFA novel intensives have been popping up around the country in response to demand for long-form fiction programs. “The other option for students, the MFA, generally treats only short stories due to the semester schedule and limitations on the time of MFA instructors to deal with a full manuscript at such intensity for so long.”

Ann Garvin recently co-founded The 5th Semester program for similar reasons. “The 5th Semester does borrow from the low-residency MFA model of immersion and mentorship, offering those who can’t undertake or don’t want an entire writing degree, and gives them an immersive writing experience so they can finally write the book they’ve always wanted to write,” she says.

I’ve put together this list for all my novel-writing friends who want to deepen their craft, polish their manuscripts, find mentors—and find a team. I was surprised at how many programs I came across, and at how few people know about them.

My research is cursory and I am not endorsing any programs in particular (other than the Novel Incubator) based on personal experience. If you consider any of these programs, please do your own research. These programs range in cost, from less than $2,000 to more than $8,000, but most programs offer scholarships. Some programs have competitive application processes, others are first-come, first-served. The best way to find out more is to talk to instructors and graduates.

Program: The Novel Writing Project

Organization: The Loft

Location: Minneapolis, MN

Details: A year-long intensive that meets weekly and includes craft instruction, workshops, and introductions to industry professionals. “You’ll meet best-selling authors, luminaries in publishing, distinguished booksellers, and local literary agents. But most importantly, you’ll develop the resources and relationships to move ahead with a writing life once the project is finished. After 12 months, your manuscript will be submission-ready, and you’ll be equipped with the knowledge and confidence to pitch to editors and pursue publication.” (From the Loft website [2].)

Program: The Novel Incubator

Organization: GrubStreet

Location: Boston, MA

Details: A year-long intensive that meets weekly and includes craft instruction, mentorships, workshops, and introductions to industry professionals. “Our students not only receive the feedback and expertise of the instructor as well as the second reader, but also the feedback and expertise of their class of ten students as well as a powerful alum group that continues to support and promote our writers long after the course is finished,” says Michelle Hoover, instructor. (More here. [3])

Program: Novel in a Year

Organization: StoryStudio Chicago

Location: Chicago, IL

Details:Novel in a Year: First Draft Cohort A (formerly Novel Novice) is a unique opportunity for less experienced writers to study the art of fiction, refine their craft, share their work, get and give constructive feedback, and join a supportive, educational, and literary cohort of fellow writers.” (From the website [4].)

Program: The 5th Semester

Organization: Ann Garvin and Erin Celello, founders

Location: Low residency, with two weekend residencies and online instruction

Details: The four-month program includes story development and feedback, support, a built-in writing community and access to agents and editors. “The 5th Semester is an immersive writing program taught by published authors who are also educators; they know how to teach what you need to know. We give you the personalized guidance and tools you need to take your manuscript from inspiration to publication,” says Ann Garvin, co-founder. (More here [5].)

Program: Breakout Novel Intensive Lab (the first pilot lab is underway)

Organization: Donald Maass and Lorin Oberweger, founders

Location: Online and in New York

Details: The program includes four in-person weekend meetings, and monthly online critique, homework, challenges, chat and ongoing support. It is limited to twelve participants, who are chosen from applications. “It is a program of supported manuscript development from inception (cocktail napkin idea) to a completed and revised manuscript,” says Donald Maass, co-founder.

Program: Book Project

Organization: Denver’s Lighthouse Writers Workshop

Location: Denver, CO

Details: “The Book Project is an intensive, two-year program aimed at giving writers of book-length manuscripts the classes, advice, and moral support they need to draft, revise, and—most importantly—finish.” (From the website [6].)

I know there must be other programs out there. If you know of any other non-MFA novel intensives please share in the comments. I’d love to hear from folks who have participated in any other programs. What was your experience like?

About Julie Carrick Dalton [7]

Julie Carrick Dalton [8] is a writer who farms. Or maybe she is a farmer who writes. It depends on which day you catch her. Her debut novel WAITING FOR THE NIGHT SONG is forthcoming from Forge Books (Macmillan) in January 2021, with her second novel, THE LAST BEEKEEPER, following a year later. WAITING FOR THE NIGHT SONG won the William Faulkner Literary Competition, The Writers’ League of Texas Award, and was a finalist for the Caledonia Novel Award. Julie is passionate about literature that engages climate science and is a frequent speaker on the topic of Climate Fiction. Originally from Annapolis, MD, (and a military base in Germany,) Julie is a graduate of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator, a year-long, MFA-level novel intensive. She also holds a Master’s in Creative Writing and Literature from Harvard Extension School. Her work has appeared in The Boston Globe, BusinessWeek, Inc. Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Electric Literature, and other publications. She is represented by Stacy Testa at Writers House and Addison Duffy at United Talent Agency (for film rights.) Julie also owns and operates a 100-acre farm in rural New Hampshire. When she isn’t writing, you can usually find her skiing, kayaking, trying to keep up with her four kids and two dogs, cooking vegetarian food, or digging in the dirt.