Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

The Write Stuff: “A Novel Idea” puts aspiring authors through the paces.

Screenshot 2015-07-31 09.57.01Twenty-five years ago, Roger Smith, executive director of the Perry County Council of the Arts (PCCA), wrote a novel that he put his heart and soul into.

“I found an agent,” Smith said, “and she peddled it all over New York City, but no publisher picked it up, and I didn’t know why.”

He put the novel in a drawer, and, while he periodically pined over it, not much else happened.

Fast-forward to winter 2014, when Smith spotted an article about a workshop for writers. Thinking about starting something similar here, he contacted me, and we brainstormed one afternoon over a couple of beers. Thus marked the origin of “A Novel Idea,” a program for new writers under the flag of PCCA.

“So, in a sense, I was the target audience for this one-year writing course,” Smith said.

Taking Shape

We knew the program’s success would hinge on quality faculty. So, short story writer and playwright Lori Myers was one of the first authors we contacted.

“When Don asked me, well, I jumped at the chance,” said Myers. “It’s a win-win. On the one hand, students become immersed in one aspect of novel writing for an entire morning. For faculty, it’s a way to give back to those just starting out or those in the midst of a writing project. We are inspired by teaching them.”

Ann Stewart has taught the creative writing program at the Fredericksen Library for many years.  In her view, one of the most important things for a writer to learn is how to become a masterful editor.

“As the saying goes, you don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression,” she said.  “And, believe me, it’s true when you send a novel to an editor or agent.”

A six-person faculty developed a curriculum, and the class filled quickly. Designed for both new and experienced writers, “A Novel Idea”drew students from as far away as Lancaster and State College to the Landis House in Newport.

Carrie Jacobs felt that she got the most from classes that encouraged a lot of interaction.

“Aside from the instructors, my fellow students were a great source of information,” she said.

Jacobs also was a fan of the materials that the instructors provided, which gave her something to review other than her notes. The social aspect of the program was another highlight.

“I found a great deal of value in the post-class gatherings at Espresso Yourself in Newport,” she said. “Interacting with the instructors in a more casual way gave helpful insight into the writing profession beyond each specific topic.”

Classes didn’t just include the novel-writing process. They also covered the nuts and bolts of preparing and submitting a manuscript.

“My job in the workshop was to address the myriad of things a new writer will need,” said Laurie Edwards, an experienced writer, editor and publisher. “These include writing a query letter and a synopsis, then how to follow up with an agent or an editor.”

The New Class

Building on feedback from the 12-month session, author Cathy Jordan developed a curriculum for the next “A Novel Idea”program, which will begin in September.

This time, writers will be asked to bring a theme for their story to the first class.

“During that session, we can flesh out their premise, then talk about the need for believable characters, a plot that will hook and keep readers, as well as developing an interesting and believable setting,” Jordan said.

The next class will provide a detailed look at character building, the third will address how to develop a plot, and the fourth will focus on how to build a realistic setting. Throughout the rest of the year, workshops will be added on dialogue, setting the scene, story structure and many of the other building blocks needed for a publishable novel.

Parallel to the yearlong writing course, PCCA plans to offer themed, daylong writing workshops.  The first workshop, on Aug. 15, features Jordan teaching “How to Write a Query Letter.” Myers follows on Oct. 17 with her popular workshop, “How to Write a Memoir.”

Future workshops will focus on such areas as fantasy novels, play-writing, writing for newspapers and magazines and short story writing.

Sandy Nork, a student from the first year, recommends “A Novel Idea” for the holistic experience, from the faculty to the content to the fellow students.

“The other class members were as diverse as I expected,” she said. “One of the benefits of this class was hearing how that diversity played into their work. I thought the instructors were excellent, and the topic breakdown made sense to me.”


Beginning Sept. 12, A Novel Ideawill be held on the second Saturday of each month from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. with a break in January. Tuition for 12 sessions is $250 or $30 per session depending on space. A non-refundable deposit of $100 secures a space, with the remainder due by Aug. 28.

Beginning Aug. 15, PCCA’s one-day workshops will be held the third Saturday of every other month from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuition of $75 includes lunch.

“A Novel Idea”and PCCA’s one-day focused workshops will take place at Landis House, 67 N. 4th St., Newport.

For more information about “A Novel Idea” and PCCA’s one-day focused workshops, contact Jasmine Colbert at 717-567-7023 or visit
Don Helin published his first thriller, “Thy Kingdom Come,” in 2009.  His second, “Devil’s Den,” was selected as a finalist in the 2013 Indie Book Awards. His latest thriller, “Secret Assault,” won best suspense/thriller at the 2015 Indie Book Awards. Contact Don at

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