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Conference Insider: Write-by-the-Lake

Dive deep into craft at this intensive five-day retreat on Lake Mendota.

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Christine DeSmet, director of Write-by-the-Lake Writer’s Workshop and Retreat, has a favorite part of the annual five-day gathering on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus: Open-mic night.

“Many people have never found their voice, on paper or in speaking, before this week,” she says. “They get up behind a microphone with the support of everyone in the audience and read for two minutes, and they’re so pleased. People are in tears, clapping – it’s a wonderful party experience.”

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The event invites writers to spend a Monday through Friday in June on Lake Mendota, taking genre-specific workshops and master classes in the morning, writing in the afternoon, and touring the college town of Madison in their free time. “People go canoeing and boating and take dinner cruises on the lake,” DeSmet says. “We give people plenty of time to explore the city and to write.”

Write-by-the-Lake, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2018, attracts participants looking for focus and insight on a particular writing project, such as a novel. “You can spend five years messing around with your writing,” DeSmet says, “or spend five days getting it done and making new friends. It’s like two semesters of an MFA program. You work so hard and get so much to take home with you.”


What you’ll learn

DeSmet teaches a master class for novelists, limited to six participants. She requests a full manuscript and chapter synopsis two months before the workshop and retreat. She reads and critiques each one and distributes her notes at the event; attendees then focus on plot points and story structure by both chapter and scene in class.

“Story structure is the No. 1 thing that gets people rejected by agents and editors,” she says. “Looking at your book with new eyes and five other writers in the room really shows you how to deepen the fiction and sell that novel.”

Participants in her master class get a full year of coaching included with their fee as well. She looks at pages and answers questions long after workshop and retreat participants have returned home. “A lot of people don’t realize it can take a while to write a good novel,” she says. “It might take you another two years to hone that manuscript.”


Many participants have gone on to publish their work, both traditionally and independently. One of these is Bibi Belford; Sky Pony published her middle-grade historical novel, Crossing the Line, in July 2017. Blair Hull participated in the same master class as Belford; Apocryphile Press published her mystery, St. Mary’s Private Dancer, in March 2017.

“One of my students from the retreat – when I taught the section on how to write first novels – has now returned this year as one of the instructors,” DeSmet says. “That’s Ann Garvin, the author of excellent women’s fiction, including one book that made the USA Today best-seller list. It was fun to see somebody go from blank page newbie to successful author, with her start being here at our retreat.”



Featured presenters

Retreat participants can chose between 14 different sections at the retreat, described in detail on the organization’s website. Most are limited to 15 participants. Garvin teaches writers how to create compelling plots, while veteran editor and storyteller Christopher Chambers leads participants in a study of the basic elements of short fiction.

Writer and history professor Theresa Kaminski teaches a section titled “Writing Women’s Lives” designed to explore the particular challenges women face as writers. “Understanding the nature of those challenges will provide you with further insight into your characters’ motivations and/or limitations,” she notes in the section description.

Writer Angela Rydell teaches a master class focused on the first 50 pages of a novel manuscript. Limited to eight participants, the class focuses on when to introduce a sympathetic protagonist in a novel, how to introduce a problem and a narrative trajectory, and how to incorporate strong characters and subplots.



Advice for first-timers

Enrollment for Write-by-the-Lake opens in January, and classes fill up quickly; however, some instructors take a waiting list in advance. DeSmet advises writers to contact her with an indication of what class they want to take. “Master classes always have a waiting list of six to 10 people,” she says.

She advises new participants to realize they’re among friends. “Writers are introverts, scared and unsure whether they should even leave the house,” she says.

“Here, you’ll meet introverts from both coasts and the states in between, all scared and nervous. People leave feeling so good about all they’ve accomplished. I feel good about them going home with that feeling of finding their voice.”


Contributing editor Melissa Hart is the author of the middle-grade novel Avenging the Owl (Sky Pony, 2016). She teaches frequently at writing conferences across the Pacific Northwest. Web:

Read about more writing conferences in our Conference Insider series or search our database of writing conferences.



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