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MILLLICENT G. DILLON, represented by Harold Ober Associates, is the world’s expert on authors Jane and Paul Bowles. She has won five O. Henry Awards and been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner. I worked with Dillon on her memoir, The Absolute Elsewhere, in which she describes in luminous prose her private meeting with Albert Einstein to discuss the ethics of the atomic bomb. Read more. . .

SASHA TROYAN is a Professor of English at Montclair University and author of the critically-acclaimed novels Angels in the Morning and The Forgotten Island, both Booksense Selections, beautiful stories based upon her childhood in France. I worked with Troyan to develop her new novels, Marriage A Trois and Semester. Read more. . .

LUCIA ORTH is the author of the debut novel, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop, which received critical acclaim from Publisher’s Weekly, NPR, Booklist, Library Journal and Small Press Reviews. I have edited a number of essays and articles for Orth. Read more. . .

BHAICHAND PATEL, retired after an illustrious career with the United Nations, is now a journalist based out of New Dehli and Bombay, an expert on Bollywood, and author of three non-fiction books published by Penguin. I edited Patel’s best-selling debut novel, Mothers, Lovers, and Other Strangers, published by Pan Macmillan. Read more. . .

SCOTT WILBANKS, represented by Barbara Poelle of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency, is the author of the debut novel, The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster, published by Sourcebooks in August, 2015. I’m working with Wilbanks on his sophomore novel, Easy Pickens, the story of the world’s only medically-diagnosed case of chronic naiveté. Read more. . .

SCOTT WARRENDER is a professional musician and Annie Award-nominated lyricist specializing in musical theater. I work with Warrender regularly on his short stories and debut novel, Putaway. Read more. . .

M. TERRY GREEN enjoys a successful self-publishing career with multiple sci-fi/fantasy series set in the Multiverse, based upon her expertise in anthropology and technology. I worked with Green to develop a new speculative fiction series. Read more. . .

DARREN D. BEYER is an ex-NASA experiment engineer who has worked on every Space Shuttle orbiter but Challenger. In his sci-fi Anghazi Series, Beyer uses his scientific expertise to create a galaxy in which “space bridges” allow interstellar travel based upon the latest in real theoretical physics. Read more. . .

ANIA VESENNY, represented by Beverly Slopen Literary Agency, is a recipient of the Evelyn Sullivan Gilbertson Award for Emerging Artist in Literature and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. I edited Vesenny’s debut novel, Swearing in Russian at the Northern Lights, and her second novel, Sandara. Read more. . .

STUART WAKEFIELD is the #1 Kindle Best Selling author of Body of Water, the first novel in his Orcadian Trilogy. Body of Water was 1 of 10 books long-listed for the Polari First Book Prize. I edited Wakefield’s second novel, Memory of Water, and look forward to editing the final novel of his Orcadian Trilogy, Spirit of Water. Read more. . .

GERALDINE EVANS is a best-selling British author. Her historical novel, Reluctant Queen, is a Category No 1 Best Seller on Amazon UK. I edited Death Dues, #11 in Evans’ fifteen popular Rafferty and Llewellyn cozy police procedurals, which received a glowing review from the Midwest Book Review. Read more. . .

JUDY LEE DUNN is an award-winning marketing blogger. I am working with Dunn to develop and line edit her memoir of reconciling liberal activism with her emotional difficulty accepting the lesbianism of her beloved daughter, Tonight Show comedienne Kellye Rowland. Read more. . .

LISA MERCADO-FERNANDEZ writes literary novels of love, loss, and friendship set in the small coastal towns of New England. I edited Mercado-Fernandez’ debut novel The Shoebox and second novel The Eighth Summer. Read more. . .

JEFF RUSSELL is the author of the debut novel, The Rules of Love and Law, based upon Jeff’s abiding passions for legal history and justice. Read more. . .

LEN JOY is the author of the debut novel, American Past Time. I worked with Len to develop his novel from its core: a short story about the self-destructive ambitions of a Minor League baseball star. Read more. . .

ALEX KENDZIORSKI is an American physician working in South Africa on community health education and wildlife conservation. I edited Kendziorski’s debut novel Wait a Season for Their Names about the endangered African painted wolf, for which he is donating the profits to wildlife conservation. Read more. . .

ALEXANDRA GODFREY blogs for the New England Journal of Medicine. I work with Godfrey on her short fiction and narrative nonfiction, including a profile of the doctor who helped save her son’s life, “Mending Broken Hearts.” Read more. . .

In addition, I work with scores of aspiring writers in their apprenticeship to this wonderful literary art and craft.

  • By Victoria Mixon

    ‘Tis the season for writers conferences. And last week I told you a story about something that happened at a conference once.

    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.

    I get especially irritable because 99.9% of the people who pay to attend writers conferences give these authors/teachers the utmost in polite, respectful, student-like attention, whether they deserve it or not.

    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.

    Things that should set off your bullshit alarm:

    1. A presenter who can’t teach anything but themself

    2. 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.

    3. A presenter who doesn’t know any writing techniques or standards but those they, personally, accidentally stumbled upon writing their own novel(s)

    4. 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.

    5. A presenter who can’t answer straight-forward questions on the topic of the session

    6. 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.”

    7. A presenter who relies almost entirely on advice out of a famous book on writing by someone else

    8. This one’s a no-brainer: Anne Lamott and John Gardner.

      • For the record, Anne Lamott wrote Bird by Bird, which she says right up front is basically just stories about her own experiences teaching fiction and writing her books.

      • John Gardner wrote a whole slew of intellectual, rather academic books on the craft of fiction, but the one everyone talks about is On Becoming a Novelist. I refer to his books a lot too, along with lots of other canonical writers who also wrote some very perceptive and charming books on the craft indeed.

      • Even worse is the presenter who relies on writing advice by someone whose name they can’t recall. And of course they didn’t plan ahead and write it down.

        So I have to tell them.

        This has literally happened to me: the presenter looks to me (because they know I’m there as a tutor, not a student) and says, “Who said that?” And I say the expert’s name politely and clearly so everyone can hear. And they all write it down.

        Then the presenter nods and goes quickly back to talking about themself.

        Yes, it was Donald Maass who said, “Tension on every page,” and he said it in Writing the Breakout Novel.

    9. A presenter who dispenses their advice from on high and avoids any meaningful human contact outside the classroom

    10. 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.

      Then I run after them into the private presenters’ lounge, and I kick them in the shins.

      You betcha.

      You’re welcome!

    UPDATE: The Other 5 BS Indicators for Writers Conferences



    “The freshest and most relevant
    advice you’ll find.”

    —Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Writing Fiction

    The Art & Craft of Writing Stories




45 Responses to “5 BS Indicators for Writers Conferences”

  1. I just wanted to say that I really appreciate how you’re doing these lists differently now. I love reading them. Thank you very much, and I’m sorry if I complained/rained on your parade some time ago about the lists!

    (Do you really kick them in the shins? ^_^)

  2. Victoria said on


    In my novels.


  3. Terrific post. I suppose the only way to avoid handing over money for this sort of old rope is to check out the credentials of the speakers beforehand.

  4. Victoria said on

    That’s the thing, you know, Roz.

    Hiring an indie editor, paying for conference, all of it: do your due diligence, guys.

  5. I haven’t been to any yet but for some reason I understand all your points. I decided a week or two ago that ALL advice is BS…because it isn’t tailored to me and my needs as a writer or my particular novel.
    I’ve decided that I’m just going to write the best I can and take most advice under advisement…and not treat everything I hear as the Gospel.
    I imagine the issue is that the attendees of the conferences are so eager to learn and succeed that they will listen to just about anything. Always outline. Always pants. I feel like the goal of these things is to make every writer write literature but you know…it’s possible to write crap and sell it too.

    Just write. That’s my advice.

  6. Oh, this is all very to the point. Especially having come across this gem in the programme for a small local festival. I have removed the name to protect the cheeky man, but it really irritated me that he felt this was an adequate way to present himself:

    “Avoiding the conventional writers’ workshop approach, X will offer a personal reflection on his experiences as a writer and his approach to the art of writing and his approach to writing in a number of genres. Poet, short story writer,novelist, biographer, memoirist, screenplay writer and dramatist, X reflects on 30 years of literary experience both as a writer and teacher. In the second half of the programme he will give some readings illustrative of his talk, and will invite willing members of the workshop to share examples of their own work.”

    And you had to bring your own lunch!

    I shall now prepare my forthcoming two conference talks with great care.

  7. Victoria said on


    If he’s trying to avoid the conventional writer’s workshop approach, he’s sure approaching it in the conventional way!

    Perhaps he means he’s simply being honest: “You’re going to pay me to talk about myself. Isn’t life grand!”

  8. I haven’t been to any of these writing conference myself because I am a terrible student. I pretty much avoid anything technical and I am impatient with terms people use to describe things I think are self explanatory.

    However, I do realize that writing is work, which needs organization, planning and following certain rules. I have no patience with people who try to look or sound different and I definitely agree with you to peg it as BS when a writer says he or she doesn’t outline.
    It’s like they say they were possessed into writing.

    I am curious though, what do you think actually happened? Did they simply pretend or they did outline but simply termed it as something else?

  9. Victoria said on

    What do I think happened? I think that presenter stumbled on a good story and got a lot of help from their agent and publisher’s editor (and possibly more accomplished published friends) shaping it. Someone somewhere along the line knew plot structure or the book wouldn’t have been published. We heard later that that particular story was a true story that happened to someone the author knew, not even an original work of imagination, so it most likely came with its series of conflicts and climax built in.

    One-hit wonders often work that way, and those who fall in love with themselves as “published authors” tend to forget to give proper credit for their success where credit is due—or else are sincerely ignorant of its source.

  10. Fantastic post! I’ve been to one writer’s conference, and to tell you the truth it kind of sucked. However, I didn’t pay a ton of money to go, and it was fun meeting writer friends, but the only class I really got anything out of was the self-publishing class that NO ONE ELSE went to except a few other people. That class was valuable. Funny that everyone else was sitting in some other class probably being taught by someone full of themselves.

  11. Victoria said on

    That’s really interesting, Michelle. That was a couple of years ago now. I bet conferences are packed full of self-publishing speakers by this time!

  12. Should that be “full of themSELF?” See, I need to hire you.

  13. Victoria said on

    Yes, you do, my dear.


    I’m just kidding.

  14. I think you are absolutely right. The time spent at conferences and classes could so often be more effectively used at one’s desk writing, in my opinion. Reading your post inspired me to blog on the same topic here: (8/5 entry)

  15. Thank you! I’ve been there – done that – so many times. It took years and many conferences for me to figure out some speakers don’t know any more than I do. I still go to conferences and enjoy the networking and camaraderie. I’ve found if I listen carefully, most presenters do have something worthwhile to share. Not all. I did complain after one agent’s ‘workshop’ I paid extra to attend. I felt I had wasted my money and two hours of my life.

  16. Victoria said on

    Doesn’t that suck, Carolyn? “There’s two hours of my life I’m never going to get back.”

    You are exactly right about the networking and camaraderie. That’s such a great point.

    In fact, I had a conversation with Michelle Davisson Argyle about it once that’s going into my new book, The Art & Craft of Prose: 3rd Practitioner’s Manual. I believe it’s a whole other aspect to the current writing culture that gets completely overlooked in the dialog about whether we do this for love of craft of money.

    It’s Reward X.

  17. Thanks for the post. For the most part I agree with you. Iv’e certainly attended my share of talks where the presenter is mainly indulging in a love fest with him or herself. Not very helpful

    I do want, though, to offer an alternate perspective on the plotter vs panster debate. First, I am a published author with 12 books, and novellas, two upcoming novels and under contract for two more.(I write, by the way, for Berkley Books and Grand Central Publishing, which I mention because I would like to be clear that I have at least some credibility on the issue!)

    I happen to be a panster. I do almost no plotting in advance because, in fact, for me, it’s destructive to my writing. I know this because I tried, oh, did I try, to plot — to do the planning in advance. At one point– when I was not getting published, I had a 70 page outline. When I tried to write that book, it was dead on the page. For far longer than was sensible, every time my story deviated from my outline, I backtracked and deleted and forced the story to stick to my plan.

    The result was horrible — characters that weren’t interesting and oh, I get hives just thinking about that experience. It wasn’t until I gave up the outlining and advance work that I was able to complete a novel. And since then, I have sold every single book I’ve written, most, of course, have been written under contract. My doorstop novel is the one I tried to plot and plan in advance.

    It’s not that I work entirely without structure, but for me it’s minimal and I never look more than about 3 chapters ahead.

    For some writers, the advance planning and plotting is essential. Some writers require that structure and there is nothing wrong with that. For others of us, plotting in advance is frustrating and, as mentioned, completely unproductive. I know, from talking to other writers who are the plotter type. that they are mystified by us pantsers. To them, it seems an impossible way to write. But it isn’t.

    With respect to talks about writing, the problem isn’t in talking about plotting or pansting or something in between or even some other process entirely, but in speaking as if there is only one method. There’s not. Each writer needs to spend some time trying various methods and arriving at the one that gets the book done for them.

  18. Congratulations on your published novels, Carolyn! That’s fun.

    What you’re describing is the fossilization process that’s commonly understood as “plotting,” which gives aspiring writers justification for turning their noses up at structure.

    That’s not plotting.

    I discuss this a lot—A LOT—in The Art & Craft of Fiction. The vast majority of aspiring writers I talk to and deal with have no education in what makes a compelling plot. They sit down and write 70,000 words and then try to compress what they wound up with into a query letter. Then they don’t understand why the get nothing but form rejections (or no rejection at all).

    I’d been writing for over 25 years before I had any idea what makes a compelling plot. It took me about two months to learn.

    There are foundation stones to a gripping story, there are rules of rhythm and timing, there are expectations the reader brings to a novel.They are not rocket surgery.

    They’re part of the thrill!

  19. Carolyn, I was going to leave a comment about the pantsing thing but you said it better than I could. I’ll just add that I’m a published pantser as well (2 novels and novella pubbed, three more books contracted) and I think the method shouldn’t be dismissed.

    Many, many well-respected published writers aren’t outliners. Pantsing doesn’t mean being unaware of story structure. It just means you find structure more organically. And to someone who is a hard core plotter, even the idea of that gives them hives. But our minds just work differently. I’ve tried to outline (and I’ve read so many structure books, it’s not funny). I always WANT to be a plotter but my creativity doesn’t work that way. And that’s okay. It works for me and hasn’t stopped me from getting contracts with a NY publisher. So I don’t think speakers who call themselves pantsers should be dismissed as not knowing what they’re doing. Honestly, if I go to a conference and a speaker is touting that there is only one true way to write a book–that’s when the speaker loses credibility for me.

  20. Hi Roni! I recognize your name.


    I think there may be a difference here not of opinion but of terminology.

    The term ‘pantsing’ is used by a lot of brand-new aspiring writers these days (and there are a heck of a lot of them!) to excuse themselves from learning how stories are written and what readers read them for before they try to sell them.

    Now, you and Carolyn are both published authors, so you know you don’t publish a book that you’ve just wandered through without having a single clue what writing a book is all about.

    This is why I don’t use the term “outline.” I use the term “plot.”

    I talk about this with Joanna Penn in the video interview she did with me, in which she asked me, “Must a successful genre writer outline every scene?”

    Well, no.

    Many of the most successful authors today have already integrated into their subconscious how a story is put together, so they can afford to just sit down and go for it. They already know what they’re doing. And it helps mightily if they’re working in a very specific genre where the rules have already been sorted out beforehand.

    Once we know how to ride a bike, you know, we don’t have to keep planning each push of the pedal.

    However, when we first learn to ride that bike, yeah, we must learn what it’s all about and which parts we’re meant to move at which moments. Otherwise we wind up on our faces in the mud complaining mightily because we have not been accepted into any professional bicycling competitions. And some bikes are easier to ride than others.

    It takes some practice. And it takes some understanding of what it’s all about. And it takes some more practice.

    You’ll see that in my books on writing I always include a long, rather exhaustive discussion of Revision. That’s because nobody writes it exactly right the first time—not plotters, not pantsers, and not the rest of us who understand how books are put together but still write our first drafts simply for the pure joy of the writing.

    In The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual, especially, you’ll see that I treat early drafts as exploratory drafts no matter how prepared the author is, no matter how carefully they’ve outlined.

    This is craft. And both plotting and brainstorming are parts of that craft.

    As it happens, when I work through an full Developmental Edit with a writer like Kindle #1 best seller Stu Wakefield, who made his own video about our work together., we do wind up with a scene-by-scene plan that fully explores all the character traits the writer wants to explore and ends in the scene where the writer want to end.

    But that’s because I’ve been an editor for a very long time. No matter what the genre (I work in most of them) I know how to ask the right questions, and I know what to do with the answers.

    Publishing houses used to offer this service to their authors. If you’ve found a publisher that offers this to you, then congratulations!

    Far too many of them don’t anymore.

  21. Bravo! I have walked out of sessions such as you describe. I have attended many conferences, both as an attendee and a presenter. I resent it when a speaker shows up unprepared, and I won’t stay if I think they’re wasting my time. They also may not realize that I will spread the word that they were lousy and discourage folks from inviting them to future workshops and conferences.
    Like you, I have been in the position of wanting to take over the class and give the students what they’re looking for. It is so frustrating. I particularly hate it when I hear people giving bad advice. I want to jump up and scream.
    Thank you so much for posting this.

  22. 🙂

    You’re very welcome, Sue.

    And what you’re doing is, honestly, the only way I know how to handle it: spread the word.

    Make sure conference organizers know those people are red warning flags that keep attendees away.

  23. Cluttery said on

    Maybe the disconnect here is that writing a compelling book and teaching on how to write a compelling book are two very different things. I try to learn by example. Three notable pantsers, who write VERY different books, are Thomas Pyncheon, Lee Child, and Marilynne Robinson.

    A good class will force a student to look at his/her works from a new perspective. But not everyone needs an outline (or formal training) to write beautifully.

  24. Yes, it’s the confusion between outlining and understanding the process of design that’s throwing people off.

    The term ‘pantsing’ is actually probably the problem. Different writers use it to mean different things.

    John Steinbeck thought about his novels for years. Then he created in his head (or on paper) a design that would explore what he wanted to explore and end where he wanted it to end. Then he sat down and wrote it, scene-by-scene.

    We know this because he recorded it all in his daily letters to his Viking Press editing, Pat Covici, the beautiful Journal of a Novel.

    It wasn’t that he always outlined it. (He did have certain scenes in mind and the cause-&-effect between them that he wanted to explore.) And it wasn’t that he didn’t expect Covici to work through the whole thing with him during the editing and revision.

    It was that he was a professional, and he understood how great novels are written.

    One of today’s pantsers might consider him a pantser.

    One of today’s outliners might consider him an outliner.

    Many writers who began writing long before the term panters appeared don’t even know what it means.

    Because it’s not a law. It’s just a word.

  25. Cluttery said on

    Me again. I do agree with Carolyn that a compelling voice can be ruined with plotting and editing. But it can also shine. The novel that comes to mind is “Push” by Sapphire. It’s stunning in its own way. It LOOKS organic, but Sapphire’s process isn’t. I’m interested to see if I can pick the plotters from the pantsers off the shelves at the library. I don’t think I can. But I probably could pick them from the slush pile, is that what you are saying???

  26. You now, they say the best writers are the ones who make it look easy.

    I can tell from the manuscripts sent to me which writers knew what they were doing and which didn’t.

    Most manuscripts I get these days—I don’t get many rank beginners anymore—have very beautifully-polished early chapters. That’s what’s being taught. . .to intrigue agents.

    And most of them don’t end on the most powerful and meaningful possible ending for that particular story.

    So I help the writer find that ending. They love it!

    This is why I get such charming, over-the-top accolades.


  27. I’ve attended many writing conferences and yes, some are better than others. However, I’ve never been let down. I’ve had a new a**hole chewed when I had my first chapter evaluation by a big NYC agent. She pulled no punches…..the shock of it made me go back to my room. But then I sat down and went over everything she said, and by God, she was spot on. I did this 3 years in a row…KNOWING she was going to sign me for a contract. Each time she tore me up. BUT….by listening to her, I did manage to change my manuscript into a novel: In and Out of Madness sold on Amazon.

    I advise everyone to invest in themselves and go to a good writing conference. One of the best is the Harriette P Austin Writing Conference in Athens, GA.

  28. Thanks for the recommendation. Sometimes I’m asked which ones I recommend, and I really haven’t attended enough to have a list!

  29. Great, great article. I don’t feel quiet like such a loser now for actually being a plotter!

  30. Danielle, you should never feel like a loser for knowing how to plot! An aspiring writer needs every tool in the toolbox.

  31. I have experience with the phenomenom of people believing that outlining kills creativity. I wrote blog post months ago that talked about the differnet writing techniques like “seat-of-the-pants”, outlining, using software, etc. The overwhelming majority of comments were about how anything other than just sitting down and “listening” to your characters was too stifling. I heard a great deal about this at conferences also.

    I’ve had some really great experiences at conferences so far. Professional, courteous, and encouraging editors and agents that really seem to like thier jobs and are passionate about the work. Those conferences were smaller, though, and I’m wondering if that is the reason.

  32. I’m so glad you’ve had good experiences, Raquel! We should start a list of the conferences writers recommend.

    Sometimes smaller is better. But even some of the small ones can be a little bizarro.

    Your reference to “stifling” is, interestingly enough, becoming dated. You made that comment two years ago. These days, plotting is much more commonly-accepted than it was then.

    This is because far more professionals have spoken up in the meantime to the growing mass of unpublished aspiring writers to say, “Truly, folks. We do have to know what we’re doing before anyone will buy it from us.”

  33. Jean Lewis said on

    Went to Antioch in Ohio many years ago. The keynote speaker was Natalie Goldberg, a woman most respected in the writing community. I was wild to hear her speak. I spent a week in her class. But when she stood up at the end of her keynote and told everyone who had paid to be with her that she would not be having lunch with any of us, had not come to be friends, well, most of us were mortified. It was a shame. I still love her books on writing. And, she tried a fiction book. Totally sucked.

  34. Victoria said on

    I’ve read some strange things about Goldberg. She seems to have a few—ahem—issues.

    Writing Down the Bones is a milestone work in the history of books on writing, and I do recommend it wholeheartedly to aspiring writers.

    Like certain others of the greatest books on writing that came out of that period, though, it focuses upon becoming a writer more than upon handling your material once you’ve become one.

    This explains why the novels of these authors are so poor. They’re very good at becoming fiction writers—just not necessarily great at writing fiction.

  35. Love this “They’re very good at becoming fiction writers—just not necessarily great at writing fiction.” And yes, there are lots of them dispensing BS at a lot of conferences. Love this post

    Another type right now is the presenter who is selling a monetized blog or other service. Same deal of talking entirely about themselves and teaching nothing, but now they’re trying to get you to follow a blog or hire an editing or cover designing service.

  36. Victoria said on

    Crap. Are you joking me, Anne? Monetized blogs—is that really going on?

    I saw that “independent editor” had hit the airwaves at conferences. All I can say to that is, “Ho, ho, ho, people: do your due diligence.

    The last time I was at a conference, I was constantly asked, “Are you an editor? Can I hire you?” I was still in the corporate world then, so I couldn’t take on clients. But I sure saw the hunger there for real, useful guidance.

  37. I will admit to attending only one writer’s conference. I gained a good bit of info that was very good but the one thing I wasn’t really wild about was the promised face to face time with the “expert”. To me it was the big draw of the conference but it was the thing that left a semit bad taste in my mouth. While the gentleman was complimentary about my writing style, especially the dialogue portions, he admitted to me first out of the gate that he had no experience or knowledge with the genre I was writing and that he had only read my pre-submitted 50 pages the night before. He knew nothing about the paranormal/fantasy market; couldn’t even give me names of people in the industry who might be interested in it. Hello!? I wanted to ask if he’d been uder a rock for a while but I thought that would be in bad taste so I sucked it up and took away with me the nuggets he could hand out. Does this happen often? I would think if you submit a story in a genre that no one at the conference knows anything about, they could at least have the balls to let you know that ahead of time.

  38. Victoria said on

    Yeah, this happens a lot.

    It’s easier to understand if you see if from the perspective of the conference organizers:

    1) This is what they do; and in order to finance it, they need aspiring writers to sign up (i.e. pay)

    2) Then they need to find people to teach the class to those aspiring writers, so they find whom they can. Some of them have more, um, intelligent rules about this than others. The good conferences find good presenters. The great conferences find great presenters. The rest scrabble around among the pool of English Literature and Creative Writing teachers they can find in their roll-o-dex.

    I once contacted a writer’s conference I knew of that I thought must be scraping the bottom of the barrel for invitees. I suggested the possibility of inviting my friend Luca Orth, who is a critically-acclaimed novelist (NPR, Kirkus, plus being nominated for the top national-level prizes, which she is too humble to let me keep mentioning everywhere).Lucia also happens to be a long-time professor. I sent them her website.

    The response I got? “I didn’t see anything on this person’s website to show she teaches.” (They’d have had to click through onto the About page, which apparently they didn’t.) “And we only invite the very best presenters.”

    Considering that half the BS indicators in these two posts came from that one conference, I found this just a teeny-bit on the outside of plausible, much less beyond the bounds of professional courtesy.

    3) This is why writing conferences wind up with such ignorant presenters. Because sometimes the organizers don’t have the brains god gave a little baby flea.

    Seriously, people—complain. Spread the word about the lousy conferences.

    Send recommendations to your local writers conferences of whom you’d like to see presenting.

    Those organizers are always operating on a shoestring, and if they’re crappy enough organizers and everyone knows it, no one will attend. Their conferences will go away, and innocent aspiring writers will stop paying money to be duped by them.

    It’s a buyer’s market. Use your muscle as a buyer.

  39. Victoria said on

    Hey, you know who you ought to complain to? Victoria Strauss at Writer Beware and Dave Kuzminski of Preditors & Editors.

    Maybe they’ll start a special section for conferences.

    Maybe they already have.

  40. Steve Godden said on

    Hi, Victoria

    Good post. Useful. Do people really treat paying customers so badly? Astonishing. I haven’t been to any conferences or conventions. Seen a lot of that behaviour in blogs and the like though. However people aren’t ‘paying’ for that. I’d be a little bit miffed if I paid good money and got a load of BS back in return.

    But…there’s always a but 🙂

    I’m a pantser, a pure pantser on first drafts. But I don’t call the opposite method ‘plotting’ any more, because of course I plot. I just do it on the fly. What I don’t do is plan anything in advance.

    So I use ‘planning’ as the term for the opposite of ‘pantsing’ these days.

    Because otherwise, when I get into …um…robust debates with people about writing methods, they take everything I say and twist to show that I do plot, which is accurate but hardly the point when they are also calling me deluded or worse. So I call it ‘planning’ to avoid any confusion about what I mean.

    Of course I plot.

    I understand structure, three act, seven act, rising tension, if the ending doesn’t work then the problem is at the beginning, archetypes, tropes, declining tension, climaxes, and so on.

    And I use them all as I write the first draft, as I revise and then write the second draft (I even — if the story is complex enough to require a point by point timeline — outline between the first and second draft), and as I review the finished story before I started polishing the prose, I review with story structure, character arcs, and the needs of the reader in mind.

    But I don’t sit down and write a plot outline and then write a story. I sit down and start writing, I discover who my characters are, what the setting is like, what the story/plot is, as I write. Each revelation constrains what happens next: the characters actions define who they are, the world has to be consistent, the story can’t jump around like a loon and become a tangled mess of plot-lines that go nowhere.

    I honestly can’t plan or outline a story in advance. It kills it for me. I wish I could, it would make life a lot easier. I’m not some ‘I’m so special artiste’ who simply stumbled onto a single novel. I consider writing to be a craft that occasionally rises to the level of art.

    There are as many ways to write a novel as there are writers on the planet. No way is inherently better than anything else. Writers have to try all the different methods until they find the one that works for them.

    And you’re right about plotting. It does draw the creative juices out of a writer.

    Which is why I always do it 🙂

  41. First, your question: yes, some people do treating paying customers badly in all fields, in all situations. And some other people are a joy to learn from, returning the investment in gold.

    Second: yes—writing an entire novel is a complex, overwhelming task presumably designed for creatures of much greater stamina and vision than the simple human animal.

    We’re all wrestling the angel when we go through it.

    I talk a lot in the Revision section of The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual about how to go back through your first draft of your manuscript and reconstruct your story in a fresh design that tells your story even better that your first plan did. It’s a lot like turning your brains inside-out to see what’s inside. But it does keep you focused upon what story you intend to tell, why it matters to you, the telling of it.

    Just last night my husband read out loud to me over the dinner table parts of the Foreword that JRR Tolkien wrote for the 1960s Ballantine edition of The Fellowship of the Ring, in which he explains how he wandered through the Lord of the Rings year after year, all the while with an over-arching idea in mind and in the context of his constant work on the historical and linguistic material that was his real interest in the story.

    Fascinating stuff!

    The life of a writer.

  42. […] conference month, including 3 Ways to Make Friends & Enemies at Writers Conferences and 5 BS Indicators for Writers Conferences (with its up-coming sequel next […]

  43. […] writers conferences here, in particular how to make friends and enemies at them. And as I promised last Monday, here are the other five things that should set off your bullshit alarm at writers […]

  44. […] and what to watch out for in the way of presenters—the bullshitters and the non-bullshitters, part one and part […]

  45. […] if you were busy all month actually attending those conferences you can catch up with us here, and here, and here, and especially here (a story of […]