There will be a variety of concurrent sessions during the Okoboji Writers’ Retreat.

Some of the books by Okoboji Writers’ Retreat speakers

You won’t be able to do them all, so put some thought into your choices ahead of time. This syllabus is in no particular order. Most sessions will be 90-minutes in length and conducted in small group settings around tables of 6-8.

Each speaker is terrific. Don’t be intimidated by these exciting opportunities. All of the speakers are coming to help YOU.


  1. Framing a story, asking the questions, getting details by John Dinges. Nonfiction writing from article to chapter to book. Dinges was a freelance correspondent in South and Central America and has written four investigative books using interviews, court testimony and delcassified documents. He edited other writers as desk editor (Washington Post, NPR) and taught writing and reporting at Columbia University.  John Dinges

2. The art of commentary, by John Dinges. Universalizing your personal experiences, grounding observation in detail, using humor and self- deprecation. Formats include the NPR 3-minute commentary, the op-ed, columns. John Dinges

3. Finding secrets, by John Dinges. The basics of investigative reporting and writing. Examples wiil be drawn from my work investigating dictatorships and US policy in Latin America. John Dinges

4. Writing Hot: It’s Not About Sex, It’s About Sensuality, by Rachelle Chase. As a writer, how do you make a scene hot—or rather, a sexy read? A sexy read does not necessarily mean lots of sex. A scene or book can be overflowing with sex and be disappointingly un-sexy. Or it can have little or no sex and be overwhelmingly sexy. So how can you make an every-day, mundane, nonsexual situation sexy? And, when it’s time for that sex scene, how can you make it satisfying for the reader? Whether you need to add a hint of sexiness or sizzling heat, the answer to both is sensuality. In this workshop, you’ll learn the #1 misconception about sensuality, the 3 factors that heighten sensuality, how to use “Sensual Layering” to make the mundane sexy, and the 10 ingredients necessary for a sensual and satisfying sex scene. NOTE: Due to the subject matter of this workshop, attendees must be 18 years or age or older. Rachelle Chase

5.Write the Book You’ve Dreamed of Writing-Even if You Don’t Know What it is, by Rachelle
Chase. Always wanted to write a book, but don’t know how to get started? Have a lot of ideas, but not sure what to put down on paper? Or perhaps you’ve started writing and have a series of scenes, but are unsure what to do or what to write next. Besides being well-written, a book that keeps readers turning the pages tells a story. In this workshop, you’ll find (or refine) your story by learning how to identify what it is, how to narrow – or expand – the focus, the best place to start your story, and tips on how to keep your reader interested, as well as the pros and cons of writing different genres. Rachelle Chase.

6.How to Get Published By Accident, by Rachelle Chase. For whatever reason, you’ve decided that self-publishing isn’t right for you. You’ve honed your writing skills—taken writing classes, completed a project, gotten feedback, and made revisions. Your book or proposal is the best it can be and you are ready to send it out into the world. But how do you get agents or editors to read your book out of the hundreds or thousands of submissions? And how do you get an agent to represent you or a publisher to buy your book? Or how do you get published without an agent? Unfortunately, there are no sure-fire steps to publication or guarantees that your book will sell. But there are things you can do simultaneously to increase the odds of getting published, which may make it seem like it happened “by accident.” In this workshop, you will learn the attitude needed to make it happen, who to network with and how to reach them, as well as get tips on how to get your work read by agents and editors and resources to take home with you to get started, from published author, Rachelle Chase, whose first two books were sold to a New York publisher “by accident” – and within 4 months after submission. Rachelle Chase

7. Commentary, by Douglas Burns, Carroll Times Herald. What I learned in four newsrooms working with Pulitzer winners. How reporting is key to good commentary. Douglas Burns.

8. Social Media, by Douglas Burns. What I learned starting my own digital marketing company. Douglas Burns.

9. Telling a good story, by Douglas Burns. What question aren’t you asking yourself and your subjects and sources. Douglas Burns.

Ty Rushing

10. Commentary, by Ty Rushing. Tips for factually expressing your opinion. Rushing has won multiple awards from the Iowa Newspaper Association for commentary and reporting. Ty Rushing

11. Using Social Media, by Ty Rushing. Build your digital audience. Ty Rushing

12. Tips For Better Storytelling, by Ty Rushing

13. Shaping Your Memoir. A great memoir doesn’t tell your whole life—just a slice of it. Choosing the right slice is the key. How do you frame your writing within a period of time that’s compelling and transformational? And out of an entire lifetime of events, how do you decide which moments serve the story you want to tell? Deb Landwehr Engle

14. The Story’s in the Details. Every great story includes four elements: Characters, setting, plot and dialogue. And all of them hinge on one secret ingredient: Specific details. We’ll talk about how to make your writing more specific, and why your attention to detail will make your stories sing. Deb Landwehr Engle

15. How to Write Spiritual Nonfiction: Whether you’re writing self-help, inspiration or how-to, the category of Spiritual Nonfiction is booming. How do you choose a “hook” that sets your writing apart? How can you teach without being preachy? And how can you launch online classes and workshops based on your spiritual nonfiction writing? Deb Landwehr Engle

16. Memoir writing and research. Why it’s important to write your family’s story. The five most important official documents in genealogy. Why each is important. Where to find them and how to get them. DNA testing: Why you should do this even if you think you know everything about your family’s history. What to do when you hit a wall. The importance of the places your ancestors lived. Arnold Garson

17. Telling a good story. Keep it simple: Give it a beginning, a middle and an ending. How to construct each. Arnold Garson

18. Writing Tips and Techniques. The writing process: Four books on writing that Garson uses regularly. Be prepared to devote the time it will take; finding your own pace. Setting up a workspace. Arnold Garson

19. It’s all About Relationships. Editors receive hundreds of emails a day. Learn the best techniques to ensure your hard work gets published. Rachel Weber

20. Find Your Niche: It’s impossible to be good at everything, but Rachel guarantees you’ve got an area of expertise. Learn how to hone in on what you’re best at so you can gain the confidence to get that first gig. Rachel Weber

21. The Art of the Gram. If you’re a visual story teller, Instagram is your place to shine. We’ll walk you through how to write a bio, what kinds of photos to share, and why it’s important to backlink your personal website. Rachel Weber.

22. The Art of Writing a Memoir. Find a thread of meaning and truth in your life and follow that thread. Your reader will come to know you in an intimate, memorable way. In this workshop, you will hone the focus of your life story, consider how to organize it, and write one page that captures an event, experience, character, or scene to share with others. Bring your questions and ideas. Diane Glass

23. Be Your Own Publisher. Searching for an agent may not be the best approach for you. Consider the possibility of self-publishing. Growing in popularity, self-publishing allows you to get your work out into the market more quickly, control its contents and promotion, and use it to build your audience as an author. In this workshop, we will look at what’s involved in self-publishing: the tools, resources, challenges and rewards you can expect. Diane Glass.

24. Tell a Story that Captivates Your Audience. In this workshop, you will learn how to enliven your story through use of dialogue, scenery, characters, and plot. We will each tell a short story in which one of these elements is emphasized and then discuss which approach works best. Bring examples of stories you would like to share and identify the audience you have in mind. Diane Glass

25. Writing a non-fiction narrative. James O’Shea will conduct small group sessions for those who want to write in this genre. You’ll learn how to create a narrative, be a better reporter and find your voice as a non-fiction wrier. He is the author of three well reviewed non-fiction books, including a best seller, and contributor to a fourth book as well as many newspaper and magazine stories. James O’Shea.

26. Generating ideas. Feeling dull and uninspired? This session will give you strategies to reignite your creativity. Lyz Lenz.

27. Social media for writers. You’ve been told you need to build a platform. Okay, here’s how you do it. From practical tips to pitfalls. This session will help you use social media to promote your work and find more work. Lyz Lenz.

The wild, untamed, Lyz Lenz.

28. Research for Writers: Research is a necessary way of coming up with ideas, adding depth and dimension to all your work, yes even poets. This talk will talk through tips and tricks for research and reporting. Lyz Lenz.

29. The way you wear your hat, the way you sip your tea. Using writing exercises and prompts, we’ll tap into memories of small but significant moments that form the basis of a good memoir. Along the way, we’ll hear excerpts from well known authors to study their techniques. We’ll share our writing, and encourage each other. Finally, we’ll begin writing an essay of about 500 words that incorporates what we’ve learned.  Nancy O’Shea participated in several creative writing and memoir writing classes. She learned how to motivate herself to write how to overcome stage fright and accept comments when reading her work to peers/classmates. Nancy O’Shea.

30. Writing tips. No matter what your subject or audience, there are tips we all can use. This session will examine common mistakes and remedies. We’ll discuss how to take an awful first draft (they’re always awful) and polish it by rewriting and editing. The difficult but necessary process of paring down words (or entire pages) is often referred to as murdering your darlings. Nancy O’Shea has written about many different subjects (science, business, features, etc.) for a variety of genres (magazines, newspapers, press releases, speeches, etc.), and understand how to tailor a piece to best reach the intended audience. Nancy O’Shea.

31. Getting over the speed bumps. Writing is hard. We all experience discouragement and rough patches. In this session we’ll learn from each other. Bring your stories of how you shifted gears and got going again.  Nancy O’Shea.

32. How I Did It! Jean Logan retired and created a whole new chapter in her life by writing historical fiction. She will share her journey of self-publishing. Jean Logan

33. Fiction Writing: Rachel Yoder has written countless short stories and a novel. She holds two MFAs, one in fiction. Rachel Yoder

Nightbitch launch: July, 2021

34. Getting Started: Yoder publishes a journal focused on process. She used to host a podcast about creativity and failure and has spent the last decade thinking and talking about process. Rachel Yoder

35. How do I find an agent? Yoder has answered this question a lot and has been in the literary world for 20 years. She has a lot of perspective on how one might approach finding an agent. Rachel Yoder

36. How to win a Pulitzer Prize and have a documentary film produced about you: Art Cullen, the Storm Lake Times, will address the whole group on Monday afternoon. Here’s Julie Gammack’s column about “Storm Lake” and Art Cullen. Art Cullen.

37. Finding Your Voice, telling tough truths. Developing the three key ingredients to write a good opinion column. Rekha Basu

38. Sometimes it takes the right music. We all get writer’s block, and sitting at the keyboard and staring at the screen isn’t usually the way to overcome it. You may need to get out of your head and stop overthinking things. Rekha Basu

39. Make it relevant to the readers. You can be the best scholarly writer and have the most pertinent facts but still not get newspaper readers to care about what you are reporting. It takes reaching them where they live. Rekha Basu.

40. The View From Behind the Desk of a Top Literary Agent. Are you ready to ‘meet’ an agent? Here’s one of the best. Jane Dystel will be joining us via Zoom from her office in New York. Dystel appeared at several writers’ retreats organized by Gammack in the 1990s. She has ‘discovered’ many successful authors, including a young Barack Obama, whom she represented in his first book. Check out her bio and website for a list of her extraordinary clients. Jane Dystel

41. Pros and cons of self publishing. Pros and Cons of Self-Publishing. Process of manuscript development. Formatting. Finding an Editor: Developmental, copy, format, cover art, genre
How to submit your manuscript: print and ebook. Jean Logan

Leigh Michaels

42. At the heart of romance, by Leigh Michaels. Romance novels are the largest-selling portion of the paperback and ebook markets in the US. What makes a book a romance novel (rather than a love story)? And why is a romance novel more than just boy meets girl? Leigh Michaels.

43. Writing History — Fiction and Fact, by Leigh Michaels. Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, details are key. Setting your novel in a historical era is more than just learning when your characters could first enjoy potatoes. Thoughts and attitudes are even more problematic than anachronism for the 21st century writer, when you’re creating characters who lived in a different era. Leigh Michaels.

44. Writing Between the Sexes, by Leigh Michaels. Have you read a mystery where the heroine sounds like an oversexed gangster? Or a romance where the hero sounds more like a girlfriend than a man? Chances are, the oversexed heroine was created by a male author and the tender, emotional hero was created by a female author. Men and women think, act, and talk differently – which causes problems for writers who are trying to create characters of the opposite sex. Learn about the most common gender differences and how to use them to create believable — though not stereotypical — characters of the opposite sex. (And along the way, you may get some great ideas about how to deal with your husband, boyfriend, boss, big brother, or other assorted males. Or for the first time, understand what’s really going on inside the head of your wife, girlfriend, mom, little sister… all those women who have been confusing you.)

Co-facilitator, Richard Gilbert, will help introduce speakers and facilitate the room along with co-facilitator and retreat organizer, Julie Gammack. Richard Gilbert.

Not enrolled? Why not?