Can We Make Writing Conferences Better?

There are two writing conferences I try to attend each year:  the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation Conference in May, and the Rose State Writing Conference in September. Both usually have fantastic lectures, workshops, meet-and-greets, and it’s a great excuse to hang out with other crazy people who have invisible friends in their heads all the time. 🙂

But there’s something that’s been lurking in the back of my mind for a while:  how much can you really ‘get’ from a writing conference?

I truly believe you can learn something in almost any situation. But take this year’s Rose State conference as an example. As I looked around at the other attendees, I saw one of two things:  they were either much younger than me or much older than me. But they were all beginning writers.

In one session, a YA discussion, the presenter mentioned that her first novel had gone through nearly two years of overhaul between her agent and editors. TWO YEARS. I really couldn’t wrap my mind around that, even though I’ve seen it firsthand! I’ve seen the slaughtered pages, dripping red ink, returned from the editor in a FedEx box. Heck, I do it to myself for fun. 🙂 But I could see the other audience members . . . and that number wasn’t sinking in. Maybe because I’m a teacher, I could see that they weren’t ‘getting it.’ In fact, you could almost see them thinking Wow, well, that won’t happen to me. 

So I raised my hand and asked the presenter to explain just what kinds of rewrites were required of her. She noted that her agent had requested some, and then her first editor had read it and said, “Look, there’s too much supernatural stuff in here. Cut all that.” And when she did . . . it gutted her book completely. She had to start over and restructure her entire plot. And you know what? I still walked out of there with the sinking feeling that most of the writers still had that it won’t happen to me mentality.

Which makes me wonder . . . is there a better way or a different way to approach this idea of writing conferences?

Lots of conferences have 1 or 2 people giving the equivalent of an hour-long lecture. Some have panel discussions, where audience members ask questions and the 3-5 people on the panel answer them. That limits how many questions you can have.

For some people, a writing conference might be their only chance to interact with other writers and talk about their craft. Maybe they belong to online writing communities; maybe not. Maybe they have a local writing group; maybe they don’t, or maybe it’s rubbish. So should writing conferences do things differently? Rather than two days of lectures, should we have more workshops instead?

Rose State does this a little – they have the fabulous First Page Panel during lunch on Saturdays – but this year, I think we only read 12-15 of the 55 submitted first pages.

I understand that workshops would, by their very nature, require more time and fewer participants.  I also know that there’s a lot of people who would be very reluctant to submit their work – and conversely, those would submit their work and reject any and all criticisms. That’s just the nature of the workshops. Plus, how would you run them? Have everyone read some of their work aloud? Provide ten minutes to read a page or so?

Well, that’s if you workshop items. But what if you did it the other way around?

I attended a writing workshop many, many years ago (don’t ask how many), in which we were required to do things like “give synonyms for ‘said'” and write a first paragraph based on a few items. It was great because it gave us something to do. We weren’t passively receiving the information; we were being guided in our learning.Think about it:

  • First Page panels could give way in the afternoons to First Sentence and First Paragraph workshops. Now that we’ve seen the need for attention-grabbing openers, how can we tweak yours to make it better?
  • ‘Creating Character’ lectures could give rise to ‘here’s ten minutes, and here’s your scenario:  create a character that doesn’t belong here, and then explain why he/she does.’ Or working on attendees’ own characters. What works, and what doesn’t?
  • Explaining why dialogue needs to actually work could give way to a page or two of published examples – and then attendees could bring along their own manuscripts and start to look the over with partners, figuring out where their own dialogue needs tweaked, rewritten – or scrapped altogether.
  • Or, attendees could be given the same page from a manuscript (real or not) and asked to identify why X and Y (dialogue, let’s say) does’t work – and then have them rewrite it so that it does work.
  • Research – why not? Everywhere has wi-fi these days. Have attendees bring laptops and tablets, and put them to work researching. Have everyone bring a list of things they need to know, and then work with them as a small group to figure out how to research it.

Workshops could be easily ‘ramped up’ and ‘ramped down’ to adjust for experience and expertise. You could even have two tracks – one for beginner writers, and one for experienced writers who have a manuscript they’re polishing. Maybe the same workshops could be offered both days – so let’s say the mornings could be the basic lecture-type sessions, and then the afternoons would give way to the workshops. Allow attendees to do two workshops a day, at 1 1/2 hours each, and voila! You’ve given them something to do. 

And before you ask:  NO. I don’t for one second think that conferences should charge more for those workshops. Writing conference are, frankly, too expensive as it is.

If most writing conferences are attended by beginning writers, then it stands to reason that this sort of workshop would work best for them – a solid block of time for guided exercises, giving them a toolkit they can take home and put to work.

Would it be easy? No, of course not. For one thing, most presenters at writing conferences are agents, editors, and – of course – published authors, and for good reason:  they’re the ones in the know. And I don’t for one second think they should be scrapped from the program. Not at all. We love picking their brains and hearing their experiences. We need that. But not all of these presenters would necessarily make good teachers for the workshops. They’d have to be chosen carefully, to ensure that they have the ability to lead those sessions. But can it be done? Of course it can.

Anyway, these are my thoughts. I’d love to hear from writers who’ve attended conferences and see what you think about them. Do you have further suggestions? Other ideas? Let me know!

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