Now this week and next I’m going to re-run these two posts I wrote a couple of years ago about writers conferences for all of you out there (or heading out) into the trenches this month.
Because I think it’s really important that you get your money’s worth.
All over the country, hopeful aspiring writers are breaking open their piggy banks and digging their savings out of tin boxes under their mattresses and hieing themselves off to invest in their commitment to their craft.
I salute you people.
You bet I do.
You finance all those writers conferences.
However, I’m here to tell you those conferences—while often brilliant, thrilling, and enormously helpful—are not always all they’re cracked up to be.
I’ve been to my share, and I’ve also taught plenty of fiction myself. So when I show up at a writers conference these days and find myself rubbing shoulders with authors/teachers/presenters who are only there for the free doughnuts and expensed party out of town, with little or no concern for the people who actually paid to be there. . .I get a little irritable.
And because writers conferences themselves are billed as opportunities to meet and connect with professionals in the writing industry.
So while you’re out there attending (and evaluating!) writers conferences, folks, be aware that you’ve paid for something, and if you’re not getting it you have the right to complain.
A presenter who can’t teach anything but themself
Say you show up for a seminar called Make Your Novel Happen!
You’re ready, by god. You’ve got a novel (or at least a bunch of pages you think of fondly as a sort of misshapen favorite manuscript). You’ve got love of the craft. You’ve got a basic understanding of the enormous amount of sweat and dedication it takes to produce a really good work, and you’re under no delusions about how much of that you might not yet know.
You’re here to learn.
And you spend two hours sitting in a hard, uncomfortable chair in a room full of strangers listening to someone possibly quite animated and charming talk about. . .how they made their novel happen.
Huh, you’re thinking. I didn’t know I signed up for a seminar on their novel. I thought I signed up for a seminar on mine.
But you imagine the publishing industry as made up of professionals who approach the work professionally, and you’re willing to approach this work professionally.
So you’re willing to listen to a presenter talk only through the lens of their own work as much as you possibly can.
Hey, you’re thinking. Everyone’s style is different. This is this presenter’s style.
And you’re a good sport.
They’re enthusiastic about their novel. Oh, boy! Maybe they’re even entertaining about enthusing over it. So when they burn up a certain amount of class time trying to find someone with copies of their books and, when they do, jump up and run over to see if what they’re thinking about is in the copy somebody pulls out, you’re willing to roll with it. Maybe there’s something important in that book they want to read to you, and they somehow simply managed to forget to bring a copy from home.
But when they hand the book back, saying, “Yeah, this copy has it,” and go on with their talk about themself without relating either that book or the class time they took asking around for a copy or what they found in it to what they’re saying in any way. . .
Yeah. You’re a teeny bit disgruntled.
A presenter who doesn’t know any writing techniques or standards but those they, personally, accidentally stumbled upon writing their own novel(s)
All over out there I hear about “pantsing,” as in, “I never plot. I don’t have to.”
And I find this extremely bizarre, because writing a novel is not filling out the crossword puzzle on the back of a cereal box. It takes an enormous amount of foresight and planning and note-taking and delving.
(“‘When is he going to delve?’ I was asking myself.”—Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.)
And I walk around scratching my head, wondering where on earth aspiring amateurs got the idea they could write an entire salable novel without paying any attention to how they’re doing it.
Because, let’s face it, none of us is as brilliant as E.L. Doctorow. Even John Steinbeck planned out his novels for years before he sat down to write them.
So when I see a presenter at a writers conference stand up and say, “Don’t plot. It sucks the creative juices out of your story. It doesn’t take into account the life on the page,” a lightbulb goes on over my head, and bells ring in my ears, and suddenly I know exactly where aspiring writers get that idea: from ignorant presenters at writers conferences.
Now, have I ever pantsed a novel?
Of course I have! I’ve pantsed five novels. Then I learned how to plot, and that’s how I found out which way produces a marketable work.
How about that.
Does plotting”suck the creative juices” out of a story?
Not if it’s done properly. If it’s done properly, plotting itself draws the creative juices from you, until you’re sitting in a veritable puddle of them and it’s all you can do to scribble it all down as fast as humanly possible.
Plotting is all about taking into account the life on the page, so you can bridge the abyss between how it looks to you and how it looks to your reader.
Then plotting continues to take that into account, drawing your creative juices in a controllable flow throughout the process of writing your novel, which is what you need in order to make it all the way through 72,000 words of storytelling.
Practicing any technique improperly is likely to confuse you and steer you wrong to the extent that you conclude it’s the technique itself that’s causing your problems.
It’s not the technique.
It’s not being taught how to use that technique properly. And authors/teachers who haven’t happened to stumble across how to use a technique properly in their own work are the ones telling you not to use it at all.
A presenter who can’t answer straight-forward questions on the topic of the session
Because, it turns out, they don’t know the craft of fiction.
They only know themself.
You’ve figured out that they’re mostly only going to talk about their own novel. You got that after the first forty-five minutes. So you’re listening politely, taking notes, thinking as intelligently as you can about how to apply what they’re saying to what you’re doing with your novel.
And when you simply can’t find the connection, you raise your hand and courteously ask for clarification on a particular technique.
But you don’t get an answer on that particular technique. Or, rather, you get an answer on that technique as that author happened to use it in their novel.
Of course, since you just spent the last hour listening to how that author wrote their novel, you’re already pretty conversant with that.
So you ask again, still courteously, how to apply such a technique to your own work. (You’re not going to take up class time describing your beloved manuscript, but you do want to know how to apply such a thing in generic terms.)
“Hey!” says the presenter excitedly. “Something shiny!”
And the next thing you know, they’re off answering someone else’s question, which—if it’s about that presenter’s novel—turns out to have an answer it takes the rest of the session to fully explore.
Now, this is quite a delicate situation for me personally, because I kind of want those aspiring writers to get the answers to their questions. But I don’t want to appear to be rudely taking over someone else’s class.
So I wind up trying to remember what that aspiring writer looks like and finding them later to say, “Here’s my website. I answer these questions free on my advice column. There are real answers. Please—ask.”
A presenter who relies almost entirely on advice out of a famous book on writing by someone else
This one’s a no-brainer: Anne Lamott and John Gardner.
I don’t know how many times I’ve watched aspiring writers show up full of hope over the promise of meeting and talking with professionals in the industry—because, after all, that’s one of the promises writers conferences hold out as an enticement.
And then I watch them get dismissed time and time again by presenters who are too Big And Important to be seen on the quad talking in all human connection with some plebeian who isn’t even published yet.
I watch these presenters get caught answering questions outside the classroom as quickly and unhelpfully as possible, refuse to make eye contact, and disappear without saying good-bye.