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:
A presenter who can’t be bothered to research what they teach
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.
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.
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.
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.
A presenter who indulges in snark, bad manners, or irritability
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.
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
MILLLICENT G. DILLON, the world's expert on authors Jane and Paul Bowles, 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.
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 debut novel, Mothers, Lovers, and Other Strangers, published by PanMacmillan.
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.
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.
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 his second novel, Memory of Water and look forward to editing the final novel of his Orcadian Trilogy, Spirit of Water.
ANIA VESENNY 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.
TERISA GREEN is widely considered the foremost American authority on tattooing through her tattoo books published by Simon & Schuster, which have sold over 45,000 copies. Under the name M. TERRY GREEN, she writes her techno-shaman sci-fi/fantasy series. I am working with her to develop a new speculative fiction series.
CHRIS RYAN drew acclaim from the New Yorker for the hook to his novel Heliophobia. He is the author of poetry collection The Bible of Animal Feet from Farfalla Press. I edited Ryan’s debut novel The Ishmael Blade and worked with him to develop Heliophobia and his work-in-progress Pogue.
JUDY LEE DUNN is an award-winning marketing blogger. I am working with her to develop and edit her memoir of reconciling her liberal activism with her emotional difficulty accepting the lesbianism of her beloved daughter, Tonight Show comedienne Kellye Rowland.
In addition, I work with dozens of aspiring writers in their apprenticeship to this literary art and craft.