Out of the Slush Pile
December 2, 2010
Writer’s Conferences: Part II: Wordharvest
December 16, 2010
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Writer’s Conferences: Part I: Workshopping

Attending an author’s conference, in my opinion, is one of the best investments an unpublished writer can make. No matter your budget or location, there is likely a conference to fit your needs. In the past ten years I’ve attended four conferences, each completely different, and beneficial for different reasons. The first conference I attended was the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop. Tin House is a high-end, big-money conference that draws well-known authors, agents, publishers, screen writers, poets, etc. It’s also very expensive. If the money can be worked out, I would highly recommend it. I wrote a grant and had the complete cost covered, including the travel to Portland, Oregon.

Tin House was my first experience at workshopping a piece of writing. A writer’s workshop basically consists of a small group of writers reading a short story/novel chapter/poem for a particular person before a designated meeting time. The group gathers and discusses the strengths and weaknesses of the piece. One critique usually takes 45 – 60 minutes. The key is, the author must remain silent during the discussion. This gives the reviewers the freedom to discuss the piece without letting the author’s oral arguments intrude upon the actual writing. The focus is what’s on the paper – not what the author says is on the paper. There should be a moderator who leads the discussion, ensuring that everyone gets a chance to respond. The author typically takes notes during the discussion, or has someone else take notes so they are free to listen to the discussion. The participants bring a marked-up copy of the piece and can use it as a guide for the discussion. At the end of the workshop the mark-ups are usually given to the author for further review. The moderator also makes sure a few agreed upon rules are followed. The goal is an honest critique; some idiot on a power trip should never be allowed to dominate and ruin another writer’s hard work.

After the first round of discussion the author is then allowed to comment on the piece, as well as answer and ask questions of the participants. As the author, it is a great way to get feedback from multiple readers. It’s a unique experience, listening to a group of people discuss your writing freely. At times you grit your teeth as you listen to a scene being completely misunderstood by the group, however, if a majority of the readers have the same response, it’s obvious there is a problem. A problem you most likely wouldn’t have caught on your own.

I was in a group led by author, Dorothy Allison. If you ever have the chance to work with her, take it! She was outstanding. I appreciated that she took the critique session seriously. If the writing was weak she wasn’t afraid to discuss what caused the problems. The writer needs a tough hide and the honest desire to improve the writing. Don’t attend a workshop session if you think your writing is perfect. There were several people in our group in tears by the end of their critiques, but I believe everyone found it helpful.

I didn’t intend to describe the workshop experience in such detail, but I had forgotten how much I enjoyed it! This weekend I’ll finish my post on conferences. Meanwhile, anyone care to describe their experiences with the workshop?