The Midwest Writer’s Conference, in Muncie, Indiana, is a three day program that allows writers to focus on a specific genre for one day, with a variety of related sessions the remaining two days. There are also agent pitch sessions. I pitched Amy Boggs from Donald Maas and blew it. I’d worked so hard on my pitch that she asked me some tough questions about the plot and I froze up. Before we even started, my shoe broke on my way to her table. I tried to hold my sandal under my foot by gripping it with my curled up toes which gave me an awkward shuffle/limp. In all, it was an embarrassing experience. However, my manuscript critique with Marcus Sakey was excellent. I had submitted my first ten pages to him a month or so before the conference. He wrote comments, typed up a one page response, and we met for 20-30 minutes to discuss his reaction. Spot-on criticism.
A note on manuscript critiques. Each morning before the Midwest conference writers gather at tables in a commons area for coffee. The morning of the critiques I sat at a table with three other writers who had all attended the conference previously, and had all participated in the critiques. Two of them said the critiques were a waste of time. They claimed the authors picked their manuscripts apart. One man said the author completely misunderstood the point of his story. I thought to myself – shouldn’t that be a clue there might be a problem with the story? If people don’t get what you are trying to say, you might need to say it differently! Marcus Sakey commented on the critique sessions as well. Writers want the critique, but they want to hear they’re brilliant and ready for the bookstores. The critiques aren’t designed to validate, but to improve the writing.
Many universities around the country that offer MFAs or writing programs also offer summer writing conferences. And, the cost is often much less than the big name conferences. I attended the Indiana University Writer’s Conference a few years ago. There were 2 options. The workshop, currently $500, is a five day session that included the writer’s workshop experience I wrote about last week, as well as daily classes and readings. (Tin House cost $1,000 for 5 days.)There is also a classes-only option for $250 that would be great for new writers. IU and Muncie both offer competitive scholarships to attend the conferences as well. One of the guys in my class was awarded a scholarship that paid for most of his class.
Last thought on conferences – if you plan to participate in a critique or workshop, do some research on the author you’ll be working with. Not all authors are great teachers. At the IU workshop, a well-known female author who writes literary books ran a writer’s workshop. She went beyond thorough criticism to comments that demeaned participants and seemed intended to convince certain writers to give up the dream. The Simon Cowell approach. But, these people weren’t interviewing for a TV show, they were paying good money for help that in some writer’s opinions, she did not provide. She was a hot topic that week, and I would never attend a conference with her as a session leader. My own conference leader, Samrat Upadhyay, was excellent!
Next up… editing.