The Return of Midwest Writers Workshop – Part 2

I got home from MWW on Saturday evening, and I still feel like I’m riding the high from the experience. I was very pleased with the new incarnation of my home conference, and I am definitely returning next year–and likely every year after that, as I did from 2012 to 2017.

How did my 7th MWW compare to the first six? I’ll start with the most important elements: the overall quality and the all-important “feel” of the conference are just the same–the same atmosphere, the same friendliness and approachability of the faculty and staff, the same type of sessions on craft, diversity, and platform. To me, this is what matters most, and I was so happy to see that nothing had changed in this regard. This is what made me fall in love with MWW in the first place, and it’s what will keep me going back.

The most obvious difference from previous MWWs was the size–it was noticeably smaller than previous years. There were probably about 200 or so attendees (though they never announced numbers); when I first attended MWW in 2012, there were about 330 attendees, and by 2017 it had grown to considerably more than 350 (probably approaching 400), which is why it had to move from the Alumni Center to the Student Center for 2016 and ’17. I heard several people say they liked the smaller size, that they felt it had gotten too big and a little impersonal and less intimate when it moved to the Student Center.

I don’t completely agree–MWW always felt intimate and personal for me–but I share the overall sentiment. I’ve been to writers conferences of various sizes over the last decade, and I think my sweet spot is about 300 attendees. This size seems to offer the most opportunities paired with the intimate and personal feel that makes it easy to make meaningful connections.

One downside of the lower attendance was a noticeable decline in the racial diversity of the attendees (as opposed to the faculty, which was appropriately diverse). I always felt MWW to be a welcoming place with attendees and faculties of all backgrounds; I still felt this to be true with the faculty, but the attendees were overwhelmingly white (more than Indiana or the Midwest as a whole). Hopefully as the conference continues to rebuild and grow, it will attract more writers of other racial backgrounds. Continuing to book diverse faculty is the first step, and that’s in place.

The other big difference from previous MWWs was the absence of literary agents, and sessions on the business of traditional publishing (pitching, querying, etc.). The most significant change the Board made in reorganizing the workshop was to split out a separate Agent Fest in May, and to focus on craft at the summer conference. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about this, since the opportunity to pitch to agents had always been a big draw, but I was pleasantly surprised. As Joe Roper pointed out over drinks one night, not having agents present had reduced the pressure and anxiety that you often saw when someone was preparing for a pitch session, and that made the whole atmosphere more relaxed. I hadn’t considered that, and he was absolutely right. I think I actually prefer not having agents at the summer conference. That probably contributed to the reduced attendance, but I still think it’s an improvement.

As I’ve said in previous posts, other conferences I’ve been to (Writer’s Digest Conference, UW-Madison Writers’ Institute) do a better job of presenting the full range of publication options available to writers (traditional, independent, or hybrid) in a balanced way, while MWW still focuses pretty strongly on the traditional route (even in the absence of agents and specific sessions on publication). This feels a little behind the times, honestly. I gave this feedback in my evaluation, so hopefully they heed that advice.

Overall, I’d give the 2019 return of MWW an A-. It was a wonderful experience, with a few opportunities to improve, and I will definitely recommend MWW in my interactions with the writing community.

The Return of Midwest Writers Workshop

Tomorrow I will return to my alma mater (Ball State University) for the 2019 return of Midwest Writers Workshop’s summer conference. It has always been my favorite writers’ conference, and I really missed it last year. MWW is now run by an almost entirely new Board of Directors (only one board member remains from previous years), and they have completely revamped things, which should be interesting.

As many of you remember, MWW was the center of a Twitter storm in January 2018 that arose from events that took place in the fall of 2017, which concerned inappropriate comments made by a Board member concerning a long-time intern who was nominated for the Planning Committee. Fast-forward a few months, and there was a public call-out on Twitter by a former faculty member that went viral, followed by half-hearted apologies from MWW, and things just sort of blew up. The ultimate result was the cancellation of the 2018 conference. There was more, and I wrote about all of this at length in a blog post on 1/22/2018.

Many months later, I heard privately from people I trust that everything was not exactly as it had been reported. That’s to be expected, of course, but I was frustrated that MWW didn’t publicly correct any misinformation. Since they never took issue with any of the allegations, it was left to all of us to assume (reasonably) that the allegations were all accurate. I was told that they were advised not to argue, and that arguing would only make matters worse. I can see some wisdom in that advice, but I think it only applies to the short-term blow-up. When in the middle of a social media pile-on, nothing you say will change anything; but once tempers have cooled and emotions aren’t so raw, I think it would have been helpful to hear another side of the story, so that reasonable people could weigh both sides and make up their own minds. I feel like we were all robbed of that opportunity.

Be that as it may, the cancellation of the 2018 conference left a hole. They scheduled a 1.5-day “Super Mini Conference” for late July–which only caused a second backlash, after they’d announced they were taking a year off to reorganize–but I did not attend. I am looking forward to the return of the full conference this week.

I have met some of my best writer friends at MWW over the years. Unfortunately, many of them will not return to MWW after the events of January 2018, which makes me sad, but I fully support their decision. I will miss having most of my regular crew there with me, but I’m looking forward to seeing some of the others, and of course to meeting new people. As I mentioned above, MWW has revamped the conference, and it won’t be in exactly the same format as previous years. For one thing, it will be 2.5 days instead of 3 full days. I’m eager to see how it goes, and I’ll report back after I get home.

My Writing Process

People often ask me about my writing process. I’m almost always working on two novels at any given time–one in the first draft stage, and one in revisions. Since NaNoWriMo starts tomorrow, I thought this would be a good time to put into words how I work on my stories.

I typically let an idea roll around in my imagination for a long time before I put anything down on paper. The idea will marinate and grow, and some characters will come into focus. This can take weeks or months, depending on the idea. If I like it well enough, I’ll type up a quick summary and save it in a folder on my desktop titled “Novel Ideas.” Sometimes an idea will stay here for years before I do anything with it.

There is supposedly a big divide between “Plotters”–those writers who plot our their stories in advance–and “Pantsers–those who write by the seat of their pants. In reality, many writers fall somewhere in the middle. I’m no exception, though I’m pretty minimalist in my planning, so I’m probably 90% Pantser.

Once I decide I want to write a particular story, I’ll type out a two-page summary of what the story is about–all the things I’ve been imagining about this story and its characters for the last several months (or years). I include major plot points, character names, how characters are related, etc. I like to have a pretty good idea who my main characters are, so I’ll include lots of biographical details about the main characters (that may or may not make it into the final version of the novel). Sometimes I’ll write up a one-page bio of a main character; and sometimes I’ll skip that step. Then, after that minimum of planning, I jump right into writing the first draft.

NaNoWriMo is a great way to start or expand a first draft, since it’s all about turning off the internal editor and just letting your imagination run wild on the page. You just write, and don’t worry about it. It really is fun, and I often surprise myself with what comes out of my brain. With my little two-page summary as a guide, I can usually keep from blowing too far off-course, but I still have lots of wiggle room for creativity and wild subplots.

After November, it usually takes me a couple of months to finish a first draft. I’ll do some clean-up as I go, but no major editing yet (unless I have to fill a major plot-hole). Meanwhile, I’ll submit the story ten pages at a time to my monthly critique group. They get first pass at edit suggestions, and their comments always help me with my second-draft (and sometimes third-draft) revisions. And meanwhile, I’m usually starting a first draft of something else.

It usually takes me about a year to eighteen months to get a story cleaned up enough that I want to give it to a handful of beta readers to review the entire thing, start to finish. This is always a bit of a nerve-wracking time, though also kind of exciting. I have been fortunate to have some great beta readers for my stories, who have provided all kinds of helpful feedback. They help me improve the story in ways that I couldn’t do alone.

Even after all of that, I usually give the story a couple of more read-throughs, catching little things I want to change. An out-loud read always reveals something that doesn’t flow quite right, even after many sets of eyes have been over it. And even after a book is ready to publish, I get a Proof copy of the print edition, and I give it still one more read-through to check formatting, and usually catch one or two little errors here.

So there it is. If you’ve ever wondered what it takes to write a good novel, and why it always takes writers so long, this is why. I hope you enjoyed this little insight into my process!

UW-Madison Writers Institute

I just came home yesterday from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Writers Institute, and it was a very good conference. I learned a lot, met a lot of very nice people, and came home energized and excited about writing and being a writer.

The conference was very welcoming, everyone was friendly, the staff were helpful and nice, and the conference director (Laurie Scheer) was accessible and always available. There were a variety of topics covered, something for every writer, and for the most part I found the presenters knowledgeable and helpful (a couple of them could have been better prepared or practiced, though). At any conference, some of the sessions will be better than others, and occasionally one won’t live up to your expectations of what it would be, and that’s normal–but the presenter should always be polished, and I suggested that as a (minor) future improvement.

I was pleasantly surprised by the level of support and encouragement the conference and its presenters gave to different pathways to publication, not just the traditional–self-publishing was touted equally with traditional publishing, the pros and cons of each path were outlined honestly and without bias, and there were discussions of the different ways to independently publish (do-it-yourself and hybrid/assisted). I found that wonderfully supportive, and notable.

The one big critique I had–and I pointed this out both in person to the director, and on the evaluation survey–is that the faculty/presenters were not very diverse. Of the 38 speakers, all but one were white. There was slightly more diversity among the attendees, but I still found minorities to be under-represented.

When I brought this up in person to Laurie Scheer, she was very receptive, and said that in the past they have had more minority speakers (racial/ethnic as well as LGBT) on the faculty, and it is something that they strive for. She explained that they put out calls for proposals, and send the call to a diverse group of authors/agents/editors; but that this year almost all of the proposals had come from white individuals. I can empathize with her frustration, and know it is not easy, but at the same time I feel that more can be done to ensure a diverse set of voices.

I chose to attend the Writers Institute this year after receiving the sad news in January that the Midwest Writers Workshop for 2018 was cancelled while they restructure and rebuild the conference. I have written previously about what happened with MWW this year, so I won’t rehash any of that here. Overall, I found the Writers Institute had the same general structure and feel as MWW, similar size and format, same Midwestern hospitality, but with a few notable differences.

There were about 300 attendees at this year’s Writers Institute, which is very close to the 330 or so who usually attend MWW. The panels and break-out sessions were structured similarly, and covered a similar range of topics. If pushed, I would say that MWW does a slightly better job of ensuring good presenters, but overall it was very similar. On the flip-side, I would say that the Writers Institute does a better job of spotlighting different paths to publication; I know Jane Friedman always covers this in her annual mid-conference speech at MWW, but otherwise MWW focuses pretty heavily on traditional-publishing. Incidentally, Jane will be one of the presenters at next year’s Writers Institute.

Midwest Writers Workshop is still my “home” conference, and my hope continues to be that MWW comes back in 2019 better than ever–but time will tell. Regardless of what may come with MWW, I would be happy to attend the UW-Madison Writers Institute again in the future, and would recommend it to others.

Concerning Midwest Writers Workshop

The time has come to put together my thoughts and feelings on the recent conflict that has surrounded the Midwest Writers Workshop (MWW). I have allowed myself a good deal of time to absorb and process all of the news, and it has not been easy. To say the least.

It’s no secret that I’ve been a devoted fan of MWW, and have attended every year since 2012. I’ve encouraged other writers to check out MWW. I have made so many good friends at MWW over the years, and it has come to be my “home” writers conference. I always felt it to be a warm and welcoming conference, and a very friendly and welcoming group of people–which only makes it all the harder to realize that this may not have been completely true. I am not exaggerating when I say that the recent revelations have been heart-breaking, and difficult to work through. I haven’t always known how to feel, as what I read seemed so contrary to what I had experienced personally. It’s really hard to look behind a beautiful façade at the ugliness that is hidden from view, which I am sad to say is exactly what has happened. The truth has brought me close to tears several times.

For those who are unaware, here is a brief recap:

Sometime last fall, a young woman who has been a dedicated and hard-working intern at MWW for five years was nominated for the planning committee, along with another individual. Someone on the Board of Directors made the comment that MWW shouldn’t have someone who looked like her representing them; and for clarification, specified that he/she meant someone “fat.” Apparently only one person challenged this, and the intern in question was voted onto the planning committee, along with the other individual. She was never offered the seat, however; the other individual was.

Word of this got out on Twitter on January 9th. The intern in question had been informed about what happened by her friend on the Board who had spoken up. She vented to another writer friend, Roxanne Gay, who called MWW out publically in a twitter thread. It went viral. Writers, agents, and editors who were slated to be on the 2018 faculty pulled out (some publicly, others quietly). Much of the response was ugly. The call-out was completely justified, but as often happens on social media, the vitriol of the response was not entirely warranted. MWW at first attempted lame half-apologies that were later deleted, only making matters worse, and finally posted a lengthy and–I thought–sincere and heart-felt apology on Facebook and Twitter the next day (1/10/2018).

Like many fans of MWW, I was relieved. They offered to work with the victimized intern to make things right, and issued her an “invitation to help us define what ‘making this right’ looks like for her.” I had hope that things could heal.

Fast forward one week. The Board member who had informed the intern of the issue (someone I ‘ve known since 2012) was fired from the board on January 17th for “betrayal of trust.” I was shocked. Any hope that MWW could “make things right” disappeared when they fired the whistle-blower. Many of my friends had already said that they would not attend MWW this year, and our group had on-going discussions about alternatives–but I had still held hope that MWW could make corrections and move on. Now, that hope had been shattered in one stupid move.  It was heart-breaking.

On Friday (1/19/2018), MWW announced that they were cancelling the 2018 conference while they “put together a board and planning committee that are more representative of the population of writers we have been honored to serve.” Much about their statement was good–admitting fault, taking concrete steps to address the underlying issue of lack of diversity on the Board–but they screwed up yet again by focusing in part on how hard this was for their “all volunteer” board and committee. They also failed to address the firing of the whistle-blower.

With all of this considered, I have to say that at this point I can’t see myself participating in MWW in the future. I hate having to write that. I can’t describe how much I hate it. MWW still has a LOT of work to do to regain the trust they have lost in the writing community. The best thing about writers, something I love about most writers, is how supportive we are of one another. To find out that my beloved “home” writers conference does not actually support all writers, is just heart-breaking. I know I’ve used that term “heart-breaking” a lot in this post, but I have no better word to describe how this all feels.

I will be fine. The other writers I know and love will also be just fine. There are a lot of good writers conferences out there, and this has prompted me to spend time investigating more of them. I hope and pray that someday, Midwest Writers Workshop can regain our trust. With what we’ve seen this month, however, I am not going to hold my breath.

Writers Digest Conference 2017

I just got home from the 2017 Writers Digest Conference in New York, and what an experience! The presenters were fantastic, and I learned so much.  I went to WDC determined to learn more about the business of being an author, and I was not disappointed.  Of course, I also learned more about the craft of writing, and met some amazing authors and future authors.

I have been to many writers conferences over the last eight years, but this was my first WDC.  I’ve wanted to go to this conference for many years, primarily because of the location (I love New York) and their famous Pitch Slam.  I was not disappointed.

During the pitch slam, 150 attendees are released into a big room with about 60 agents at tables around the perimeter, and you pitch a project to as many of these agents as you can in one hour.  You have three minutes with each, and then they ring a bell and you move on to the next agent you want, usually waiting in line.  I did some research before, and narrowed my list to eighteen prospective agents who seem to like the kind of work that I write, some higher on the list than others.  I didn’t have any serious strategy going in, having never done this kind of thing before, and in the end I was only able to pitch Gray Paree to five agents during the hour–but four of them requested pages, and two were very enthusiastic about the story and said they were looking forward to it.  I can’t tell you how amazing that feels!

Other writers I talked to afterward pitched to anywhere from five to eight agents during the Pitch Slam, and most got requests from at least a couple.  I felt very good about getting requests from four, so in the coming days I will be working on that.

The conference was much bigger than Midwest Writers Workshop–about 1,000 attendees as opposed to about 400 at MWW–and as a result it felt a lot less intimate, not as easy to get to know other writers, a little easier to get lost in the crowd.  At MWW, you run into your friends all the time, and can chat about sessions, where they’re going next, what they’re doing for lunch, etc.; at WDC that happened a lot less–I would occasionally run into people I’d met, and have to make my way to them through the crowd to chat for a few minutes, but if it was sort of haphazard, and not easy to make plans, even with people I had gotten to know beforehand through the Facebook group page.  Even so, I’m pleased to have met a handful of people with whom I’ll keep in touch.

WDC and MWW are very different conferences, and there were things I liked better about each.  The content and the energy at WDC were amazing, and the Pitch Slam was well worth it–and who knows what future impact those agents may have on my career? I got four requests, y’all! The nurturing atmosphere of MWW, its location close to home, and lower cost mean it will continue to be my “home” conference that I attend every year, without fail.  I will most likely go back to WDC in the future, but probably after a few years.

All About the Characters

Almost a year ago, I received a very nice personal rejection letter from a literary agent that I had met at Midwest Writers Workshop, and in it he described Gray Paree as “literary fiction,” which he does not really represent.  This really surprised me–I have always queried or pitched agents who represent historical fiction and mysteries, and have always considered my work to fall in these genres.  I expressed this surprise to a writer friend (who also happens to be represented by this particular agent), and she said that he was almost certainly correct.

Fast forward to May of this year.  This same friend served as a beta reader for The Jade Dragon.  Among her many awesome and insightful comments, she noted that the story reads to her as upmarket/literary historical in style, more than genre mystery.  She noted as example all of the complex character development, and the focus on the character arc more than the mystery itself.

I have long strived to write good character-driven fiction, and I love exploring the psychology of my characters, and especially how their family and/or religious backgrounds inform the way they interact with others (and themselves).  To me, that’s some of the most fun in writing fiction! For some reason, though, I just never made the connection between this as my personal style, and the label “Literary Fiction”–which carries with it both status and baggage for a writer.

Wikipedia notes that literary fiction generally focuses on:

  • “concern with social commentary, political criticism, or reflection on the human condition”–Check!
  • “a focus on introspective, in-depth character studies of interesting, complex and developed characters, whose inner stories drive the plot”–Check!
  • and “concern with the style and complexity of the writing…”–OK, not so much.

Still, two out of three should tell me something, right? It’s Pride Month, a time to be ourselves openly and honestly, so in that spirit I’m embracing it, and even celebrating it–I write upmarket/literary historical fiction! That’s me.  That’s who I am as a writer.

And that feels good.