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  • By Victoria Mixon

    We’ve been talking about 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 conferences:

    1. A presenter who can’t be bothered to research what they teach

      • True story:

        I was at a writers conference once when the presenter sketched a quick triangle on the board.

        “Do you all know the plot triangle?” he said. “I think this is from Aristotle.”

        And he proceeded to “teach” a sort of vague, truncated, misunderstood version of Freytag’s Triangle.

        Now, I’m pretty courteous. I’m not going to raise my hand and say, “Um, excuse me, but don’t you mean you think that’s from Freytag? As in: the nineteenth-century German writer who developed a pyramid structure to describe beginning, middle, and end along the lines of the five-act play? Because that triangle’s really famous. And I don’t think he even knew Aristotle.”

        No, I’m not.

        I’m going to sit there on my hands, and if necessary I will smile. I will not point out in front of a class full of innocent hopefuls that this presenter hasn’t even looked up this triangle he likes to think he’s teaching before sailing blasely into this room to try to teach it.

      • Another true story:

        I was at a writers conference once where the workshop presenter added nothing at all to the critiques.

        She simply sat at the front of the room saying, “And what do you think of what we just heard?”

        This presenter had been snickering to me earlier about how she always accepts invitations to present at conferences because it’s freebie food.

        I was an attendee in that particular session, but I wound up carrying the ball whenever the attendees didn’t know how to sort out a dilemma because the presenter just sat there smirking and trying to hide the fact that she didn’t know either.

        One attendee came up to me later and expressed her disappointment that the presenter hadn’t contributed anything to the workshop. At all.

        Several others came up to me later and thanked me for my help and asked me if I was a professional editor. (At the time I was, but I wasn’t freelancing.)

        Even worse, another presenter came up to me later—a smart, engaging, professional writer—and told me how sorry he was I hadn’t appeared in his session. . .because I’d been in the lame workshop instead.

    2. Associated with this: the presenter who ignores the demographics of their class

      Once I was in a seminar in which certain attendees were local high school students who had won scholarships to the writing conference.

      We all had to listen to the presenter announce gleefully, “I love teaching adults because then I can talk about sex all I want,” and proceed to describe fiction techniques in terms of sex, tell stories about sex, and even read sex-related blurbs from their own books. She told us all about how she was raped when she was a teenager.

      I wound up coping in scribbled notes with a disclosure of traumatic sexual shame from the teen writer I was there to mentor on the craft of fiction.

      We missed a lot of that presenter’s talk.

      The thing is that, whether any particular class is made up entirely of adults or not, that presenter had no way of knowing if they were going to trigger PTSD in some of the attendees. Sex is either a painful or quite private topic for many people.

      Writing conference attendees do not pay to have their personal issues messed with by a stranger in public.

      They pay to learn the craft of writing.

      Sex, religion, and politics: these are not appropriate topics for lecture at writers conferences without serious previous warning.

    3. A presenter who can’t be bothered to plan their session so they actually cover everything they promise to cover

      How many times have you seen this one happen?

      At the beginning of the session, in accordance with popular advice on public speaking, the presenter lists everything they intend to cover before their time is up. If you know anything at all about teaching fiction, it might sound like kind of a lot to cover in one session, but you figure they’re probably going to skim.

      Or maybe they’re just way the heck more organized than you would be in their shoes.

      So you jot down the list, making little asterisks next to the items that look most interesting to you. If you’re really organized and really OCD (like me) you even leave big spaces in between in which to fill in what you’re going to learn about each item.

      Then you spend a good, long time listening to the presenter tell stories about their own experiences with the first few items (probably, “Getting an idea for a novel,” and, “What my agent said about how my novel was the fastest sell in publishing history”), until suddenly it’s five minutes until the end of the session, and they still have half-a-dozen points to make.

      So you and the rest of the class sit and watch them riffle through their notes saying loudly, for your benefit and without looking up, “Uh, plot—don’t be boring. Character—ditto. Troubleshooting—come to one of my classes back home, I’ll give you my card. Professionalism—have it. Any questions? Okey-dokey. All out of time. ‘Kay, thanks, bye!”

      And then you’re in line waiting politely until everyone else gets a chance to ask their question and get their copies of the presenter’s book autographed and make personal friends with the presenter, until the attendees for the next session flood into the room and appropriate the chairs, and the presenter picks up their things and heads out the door, still chatting vivaciously with someone about three people ahead of you in line.

    4. A presenter who teachers misinformation

      And this is the one that really makes smoke come out my ears.

      Because you guys can’t necessarily tell.

      If you already knew this stuff, you wouldn’t be here to learn it, now, would you?

      • Did Aristotle invent Freytag’s Triangle?

        No, he did not.

        Aristostle invented the Six Elements of Drama, which any presenter worth their salt can discover in two minutes by googling Aristotle. Or Aristostle’s Triangle.

      • Did Syd Field invent three-act structure?

        No, he did not.

        Syd Field wrote a terrific book called Screenplay in which he describes three-act structure and explores the ways and means behind why it works.

        Our current understanding of three-act structure, according to some sources, actually dates back to (are you ready?) Aristotle’s Six Elements of Drama. It has been immortalized in our lifetime in books on screenplay by Syd Field, Robert McKee, and Yves Lavandier.

      • Should aspiring writers plot?

        Hell, yes, they should.

        Otherwise Freytag’s Triangle and three-act structure are no use to them whatsoever.

      Oh, I could go on and on and on about this one. So many of you innocents come to me asking about the misinformation you’ve been taught, and I’m here banging my head on my desk thinking, Who is doing this to these poor people?

      And then I go to writers conferences, and I find out: academics who earned degrees or aspiring writers who got lucky with publication without actually learning the craft.

    5. A presenter who indulges in snark, bad manners, or irritability

    6. And this one makes smoke come out of everyone’s ears.

      Or it ought to. Only too often conference attendees assume that, because they’ve paid to be taught by these pillars of the publishing industry, any snark or bad manners or irritability that falls on their heads they brought on themselves.

      You know what professionalism is?

      Professionalism is being friendly and polite and encouraging to everyone you meet, regardless of how silly or ignorant or ill-informed you find their questions and comments. Because they’re human beings. And they’ve paid you to treat them professionally.

      If a presenter has trouble with an attendee who’s sincerely a problem, they go to the conference organizers. That’s what they’re there for.

    7. A presenter who makes no bones about being there solely for the party with the other presenters

      “Oooh, look,” these presenters say to other presenters at the presenter/attendee social mixers. “They have square dancing in this town.”

      “How’s the room they gave you?” these presenters say to other presenters five minutes later. “Have you been to the beach yet?”

      “Oh, my god, you’re wearing the orange plaid!” these presenters cry from the podium when another presenter sidles into the room in the middle of their lecture. “I put the dishes in the dishwasher—your turn next time!”

      “Are you a local?” these presenters say to random attendees without even pretending to be interested in them. “How do I get home from here?”

      When I was the editor of my high school newspaper, I once got my butt kicked by our teacher for running a gag front-page article about how to set up a “directions booth” downtown in our lovely vacation town to tell rude tourists right where they can go.

      What these presenters who ask me for directions don’t know is that I’m a fiction writer because I like to lie.

    Folks, these people are trouble not just for you, the attendees, but also for those presenters who really are prepared, who really did come to make themselves available to aspiring writers, who really do take these conferences and their function in the world of fiction seriously.

    Those presenters can’t blow the whistle on such shenanigans without sounding petty, competitive, and unprofessional. So they walk away smiling politely and shaking everyone’s hand, while inside seething on behalf of the paying attendees they’ve just spent several days watching being duped.

    But you can.

    You can blow that whistle loud and clear.

    LAST WEEK: The First 5 BS Indicators for Writers Conferences

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    —Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Writing Fiction

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    A. VICTORIA MIXON, FREELANCE INDEPENDENT EDITOR

    VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN

    12 Comments

12 Responses to “The Other 5 BS Indicators for Writers Conferences”

  1. Cluttery said on

    Victoria, I’m new to your site so forgive me if this has already been covered, but which writing conferences or workshop experiences do you recommend?

  2. Victoria said on

    Cluttery, I haven’t covered this question, mostly because I don’t attend enough conferences to do it justice. And it could get me in hot water if I started naming names about the ones I do attend.

  3. […] and a really sharp writer! Here latest lists hit the target of the bullseye, as always – Five things that should set off your bullshit alarm at writers conferences – Victoria, thanks for providing an excellent website full of your insights & advice – […]

  4. I have never been to a writer’s conference, but I did work as a driver/all around volunteer at a large convention where my son served as an escort to Japanese speakers. (He speaks Japanese)

    There were some very nice seminars put on by some of the artists, but the other half of the seminars were staffed with speakers who kept asking me where their next meal was coming from. A Brazilian steakhouse the first night with drinks and dessert, An American steakhouse the next night with drinks and dessert, catered lunches from fairly expensive local restaurants (elbows were flying) – it was all about the food. Hundreds of kids just freaking out trying to catch a glimpse of the guest speakers (one of whom sent me to a rental agency to pick up a red carpet for her appearance on-stage) and these people were largely indifferent to the attendees. They minimized their contact with the fans, spending time in their rooms getting plastered on the convention’s tab when they weren’t forced to make an appearance.

    Lots of other stuff occurred that made me realize the organizers of the convention had absolutely no interest in the welfare of their guests. I hated it.

    It will take attending a really amazing conference for me to ever get that nasty taste out of my mouth, and I am so sorry to hear that it probably won’t be a writer’s conference.

  5. Victoria said on

    It can be pretty hard to see the performance from behind the scenes, can’t it, Kathryn?

    I’m waiting for someone to come to me with a recommendation of a really amazing writers conference.

    When I was at Squaw Valley Writers Conference, there were a number of people there who’d just arrived from the Napa Writers Conference. They said the difference was like night & day. They’d felt completely nurtured and listened to and guided in their writing at Napa, while the Squaw Valley Conference seemed to them to be all about getting an agent.

    To be fair, one of the best lessons I ever had in finding your novel’s Hook I had from a teacher at Squaw Valley—I just don’t remember they guy’s name. And I actually got an agent at Squaw Valley, so I couldn’t argue with their logic there.

    But I live not too far from Napa, so it has occurred to me that, at some point (when I feel like traveling for work), that will be the first conference I contact about doing a presentation.

    Then I’m going to go get my friend Lucia Orth to do one too. She’s an incredible novelist and can make time for conferences now that her kids are grown—in fact, I met Lucia at Squaw Valley.

    Watch for us!

  6. Marilyn Buehrer said on

    You’re cynical and honest, and you cut through the bullsh….I like that. Keep it up. I’m making my office look just like yours…now how’s that for being a real fan?

  7. Victoria said on

    Good luck keeping that damn cat off your desk!

    🙂

  8. I’ve been going to the Central Coast writers conference in San Luis Obispo on and off for over ten years. First as a student, and now as a presenter.

    It’s a nice, inexpensive local conference–on the beautiful Cuesta College campus– where they often have some pretty heavy hitters doing the presenting. Last year Mark Coker spoke, and the year before, Nathan Bransford gave the keynote address. I like it because it’s just a day and a half and small enough that you get to meet everybody in a conversational atmosphere.

    I have to admit that I don’t always time my presentations perfectly. The wild card is questions. Sometimes people interrupt everything you say to ask questions, like “when are you going to get to point 5?” And I have to say, um, after I finish point 4″ (I always have a handout with an outline of my talk.) Then sometimes when you open up to questions…nobody says a thing. There you are with 10 minutes to fill. This can happen when the talk is in a large lecture room and people get intimidated.

    But all these points are valid–and I’ve run into the “BS” presenters way too many times. The good thing? They usually don’t get invited back.

  9. Victoria said on

    Oh, absolutely, Anne.

    And now I’m getting private emails, “What conferences do you mean?” and I have to say, “None that I can publicly name.”

    However, I’ve never been to the Central Coast Writers Conference. . .so I can say publicly it’s not them!

    I know—you never can predict what people are going to do in a live situation. But, hey, that’s part of the tight-wire act of being a presenter! You’re not just a resource, you’re also a performer. You have to be able to work the room you’ve got. It’s what Bono meant when he said, “Mick Jagger is the one who taught me to flirt with the audience.”

    Not that I flirt (now I’m going to get myself into trouble. . .) But I do have to be the one forging that connection even when it’s not necessarily coming the other direction. I have to know what to do when there are no questions. (This actually, in my experience, never happens to an independent editor.)

    I do this with new and potential editing clients every day—in fact, I just took on a great new client the other day who said, “I was going to query other editors, but you got me in your first email with your sense of humor.”

    The BS presenters are the ones who make it so difficult for people like you and me, who are prepared, who do have valuable lessons to teach, who do know how to give a professional-level presentation.

    And that’s why I kick them.

    🙂

  10. […] Friends & Enemies at Writers Conferences and 5 BS Indicators for Writers Conferences (with its up-coming sequel next […]

  11. […] This is writers conference month here, and actually I’m in San Diego right now taking my son to the San Diego Wild Animal Park and laughing at the bad jokes of my father-in-law and just generally hanging out while my husband gives a presentation at a computer conference. A few weeks ago I taught you guys how to get people all riled up at you at a writers conference and what to watch out for in the way of presenters—the bullshitters and the non-bullshitters, part one and part two. […]

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




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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, tragic and 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 her three sci-fi/fantasy series based on her dual careers 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 worked on every Space Shuttle orbiter but Challenger. In Casimir Bridge, the first novel of his debut sci-fi series, Beyer uses every bit of 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. . .


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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. . .


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