Getting the Most Out of a Writers Conference

Today I’ll be speaking at the Montgomery County Community College Writers Conference. Over the past few years, I’ve spoken at a handful of conferences in addition to this one, and I’ve found them all to be valuable in one way or another. For one thing, they give writers an excellent opportunity to escape the solitude of banging out words and to talk to other writers in person.

In this sense, conferences present an excellent opportunity to network; attendees can meet other writers, discuss ways to deal with various problems that come up over the course of the writing process, and get the good feeling that comes from realizing that one is not alone in one’s struggles. We writers tend to be a solitary bunch, and it’s just nice to talk to other people from time to time.

Of course, there’s that other sense of networking to consider as well: not just meeting other writers and possibly striking up friendships, but meeting professionals in “the industry.” For better or for worse, the focus of many writers conferences is publication, and most writers conferences offer attendees opportunities to pitch their ideas to agents and editors.

Yet while meeting with an agent or an editor can be an especially valuable experience for anyone whose manuscript is completed and as close to “perfect” as it’s going to get without further professional input, I worry that the emphasis that so many of these events place on such meetings takes away from the real value of writers conferences: learning about craft.

Perhaps one reason I’m especially sensitive to this issue today is that my talk on novel writing is scheduled in the same time slot as the “pitch sessions” at this particular conference, but I really think that the focus that many conferences place on finding an agent is a bit like putting the cart before the horse. Personally, I started learning a lot more about writing when I stopped going to conferences with the intention of wooing an agent with my half-completed manuscripts and, instead, started listening to what the speakers and panelists had to say about the actual day-to-day stuff of writing.

Here’s how it usually worked for me: I’d spend the whole day obsessing over what people in the industry would call my “elevator pitch.” That’s the one-sentence explanation of the novel that you give to the agent or editor you’re meeting with in the hopes that they’ll like your idea enough to ask for the first ten or twenty pages of your manuscript. The trouble was that I’d keep going over it my head and, as a result, I wouldn’t hear anything that anyone was saying during any of the workshops or lectures I’d paid good money to attend.

To boil it down to dollars and cents, I was basically spending somewhere in the neighborhood of $90 or more per conference to speak a single sentence to a complete stranger when I should have been getting my money’s worth by shutting up and listening to the collective wisdom of writers who actually write. Math has never been my forte, but once I figured out the crass economics of the situation, I started listening and, more to the point, I started learning.

Personally, I think that the best way for a writer to get the most out of a writers conference is to forget about the agents and the pitch and concerns about getting published. All of that will come with time — and only after you’ve honed your craft. Sure, it’s good to have a basic understanding of how the publishing business works. But for my money, the best writing doesn’t occur when writers have “the industry” at the forefront of their priorities, and it certainly has very little to do with being able to boil a 90,000 word novel down to a single sentence. Rather, it occurs when writers sit down and focus on their work, and conferences are a great place to learn how to do that.

Insider Tip: The Editorial Review Sheet

In addition to writing and teaching, I’ve sat on the editorial boards of a few different literary journals, and I’ve also served as the acquisitions editor for a small literary press. One common thread through all of these endeavors has been the use of a review sheet to help the editorial staff keep track of what they like and what they don’t like about submissions under consideration.

Some of the most common terms I’ve seen on editorial review sheets over the years are defined below.  If you belong to a writers’ group or are thinking of starting one, you might want to use these terms to discuss the work that members of your group submit for review. Using these terms can help members of your group provide specific feedback to each other and move beyond general comments like, “It was good, but something was missing.”

  • Character Development: Basically, readers want to be able to believe in the characters you’ve created. This goes beyond being able to picture them in our minds; it’s more a matter of getting to know them as “people.” What do your characters want? What makes them tick? How have events in the story changed them? By the end of the story, we want to miss the characters in some way. We want to wonder what happens next in their lives. We want to care about your characters.
  • Plot: Plot refers, as most writers know, to rising action, climax, and resolution. But in character-driven fiction, plot is not just a matter of forcing a plot on a character (or a character into a plot). In many ways, the plot and character need to depend upon each other. In other words, don’t just give your character an obstacle (or set of obstacles) to overcome. (That’s how video games work, not short stories.) Give us an obstacle that’s meaningful to your character; make sure your character’s sense of self is somehow relevant to (and preferably changed by) the events that occur in the story.
  • Language: Another word for language is “style.” By and large, readers want stories that are told in a clear fashion. Flowery prose is okay in some instances, but not if it gets in the way of the story. Along similar lines, your grammar also needs to be polished. A proliferation of grammatical, punctuation, and spelling errors (and by a “proliferation,” I mean more than two or three in a manuscript), will make readers less likely to enjoy your story.
  • Voice: In many ways, voice is similar to language. One way to draw a distinction is to think of language as how the story is told and voice as who is telling it. The best advice I can give in terms of voice is to avoid putting on airs. In other words, don’t pretend to be an Elmore Leonard when at heart you’re a Leonard Cohen. Many journals and magazines aren’t necessarily looking for a specific style, but the editors and their readership do expect you to be consistent in the kind of language you use. In other words, if you start off using the Queen’s English, then shift into vernacular, and then end with a more academic tone, you’ll confuse your reader.
  • Flow: When you consider flow, think about whether all of the parts of your story build upon each other. If there’s a “detour” of sorts, you should probably take it out. In many instances, the flow of a story can be disrupted by pieces of trivia or other matters that the author may have found fascinating but that don’t advance the story.
  • Subject Matter: Just as different readers have different interests and tastes, editors (and, by extension, journals) look for different kinds of material. The best way to know if you’re writing about the kinds of things a specific editor or journal likes to publish is to read that journal.Keep in mind, though, that it’s best not to write about a subject because you think an editor will be interested in it. It’s best to write about things that matter to you and find journals that are interested in those subjects. If you’re commenting on a submission for a writers’ group, this could be a good place to suggest that the author submit to a particular journal based on its usual content.
  • Overall Impression: This category can allow you to sum up your feelings about a particular submission that you’ve been asked to read. Here, you can talk about the ways in which all of the other factors in the story come together to create a unified whole. Alternately, you can talk in more general terms about how making changes in one category might improve the story as a whole.

By discussing work in terms of these categories, your writers’ group can have more focused, nuanced, and, ultimately, productive sessions.