Judith Guest didn't realize she was writing a novel until she was about 200 pages into "Ordinary People."

"I never learned to outline," Guest said. "I don't start by saying, 'I think I'll write a novel today.' I just fool around and fool around and fool around and then I look at this pile of paper and say, 'Oh. I guess I'm writing a novel.' "

Guest was speaking along with Lorna Landvik and Faith Sullivan at the opening night of the North Shore Readers and Writers Festival, held last week in Grand Marais.

No better place to be in spring, or summer, or cross-country skiing season. But in early November, when dark rolls down from the Sawtooth Mountains at about 4:30 p.m., it's quiet.

Over the past year, as folks were planning the festival, "we thought it'd be really swell if 40 people showed up," said Joan Drury, owner of Drury Lane Books and one of the event's sponsors.

Instead, about 140 people signed up, coming to Grand Marais from points along the North Shore, the Twin Cities and elsewhere, to take part in four days of discussions, workshops, craft talks and after-hours readings and celebrations.

You couldn't, as novelist Sarah Stonich put it so gracefully, swing a dead cat without hitting a writer. (And the writers really hoped nobody would try.)

A generous discussion

The opening night discussion by Landvik, Sullivan and Guest set the tone for the rest of the festival.

The three Twin Cities novelists are good friends, and their rapport was obvious: They laughed and teased each other through a 90-minute discussion that was useful, generous and — despite the jokes — sobering.

They talked about the best time of day to write (different for all three of them), the importance of outlining (not at all, for any of them) and of printing out a manuscript rather than editing on the screen, how to find an agent, and how to cope with a clueless editor. (Are there such things?)

"My worst editor was my first, for 'Patty Jane,' " Landvik said. "She was the kind of person who thought anything west of the Hudson was Amish."

(She then told the audience that she is working on a sequel to "Patty Jane's House of Curl," and there were audible thrilled gasps from the room.)

Sullivan said an editor once wanted her to turn a character into an alien. She wept. (And she didn't take the advice.)

When you hear suggestions from an editor, "You have to be able to separate yourself from your writing," Guest counseled, but Sullivan turned to her and said, with passion, "I don't know how you do that! I really don't. It's part of me. It's like a child that came out of my body!"

Guest confessed that working with Robert Redford on the movie version of "Ordinary People" was wonderful (and Landvik fanned herself and tried not to swoon every time Redford's name was mentioned).

"The movie had a lot of scenes that weren't in the book," Guest said. "I'd read the screenplay and think, well, yeah, that happened, I just didn't put it in the book. I just didn't write it down."

A sobering discussion

But despite their success, all three writers have had to adapt to the changing world of publishing.

While each has published with major New York houses, Landvik's last two books were published by the University of Minnesota Press, and Sullivan is happily ensconced at the nonprofit Milkweed Editions.

After five novels and an Oscar-winning movie, Guest is looking around. She has two novels "in a drawer," she said, that cannot find homes.

"I'm looking at self-publishing, I'm looking at e-books, I'm looking at everything."

Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune.