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.

Spring 2017 Update

It’s been a while since I posted an update, but there is a lot to report for this spring.

First, In a Safe Town has been well-received, earning five 5-star reviews on Amazon in its first three months. This has been very gratifying, and I am so happy that readers are enjoying the story.

I have been working on two manuscripts since November–The Jade Dragon, and the prequel to The Swiss Conspiracy that I wrote during NaNoWriMo this year–and both should be in the hands of Beta readers in the next few weeks.

On March 25, I attended the Indiana Writers Center’s annual Gathering of Writers. It was great to reconnect with some local writers, and to meet a couple of new writer friends. Bryan Leung delivered a great keynote address, and as usual there were insightful tips in the breakout sessions.

I’ve signed up for not one, but two writers’ conferences this summer. I’m excited for my sixth annual trip to Midwest Writers Workshop in Muncie in July, which is always a highlight of the year for me. I will also attend the Writers Digest Conference in New York in August, and I am very excited about this new opportunity, especially their much-lauded agent pitch slam. This will allow me to pitch Gray Paree to dozens of prospective literary agents in a very exciting atmosphere. Plus, I love going to New York.

The Jade Dragon should be available for purchase on Amazon by the end of May. My hope is to have the yet-to-be-titled prequel published in June or July. Watch for future posts!

Release This Weekend

I am very excited to announce that In a Safe Town (fka Murder at Sutton’s Pond) will be released in eBook format this weekend, and available on Amazon. The paperback edition will be released next week, and will also be available on Amazon. I have been working on this novel for many years, and I am so happy to finally make it available to readers.

I continue to work on The Jade Dragon, my next mystery, and plan to have it ready for release in early 2017.

NaNoWriMo is just around the corner, and I plan to use the month to write the noir-style mystery prequel that I began this summer featuring Martin Schuller, who is the protagonist of my (unpublished) WWII spy novel The Swiss Conspiracy. I have a basic plot in mind, along with some secondary characters; I’ve done a little research, and I’m excited to see where the frantic pace of NaNoWriMo takes this story. This will be my fifth consecutive NaNoWriMo, and it is always a thrilling experience.

It is a very busy, but very exciting time!

What I’m working on

It’s been a busy summer! I’m working on quite a few projects right now, in different stages.

First, Murder at Sutton’s Pond is going through its final revisions, and getting ready for cover design. I’ve been working on this story on-and-off for a really long time, so I’m very excited that it’s entering its final stages.

I continue to submit Gray Paree to literary agents. It’s gotten positive feedback, but no offers yet. I really believe in this story, so I continue to persevere.

I’ve begun revisions on The Jade Dragon, and I’m excited to get back to this story after almost a year.

I also recently started a new manuscript. It’s set in 1939 New York, and I see it as a noir-style detective mystery, with the same protagonist as The Swiss Conspiracy–so a prequel of sorts. I have been in edit mode on other stories for three months, and it felt really good to write something new again. I know I need to focus on the revisions to Jade Dragon right now, so the bulk of writing this new story may wait until NaNoWriMo in November.

I have another incomplete manuscript, set in 16th Century France during the Wars of Religion; I set this story aside in May at about 75k words, but I continue to workshop it with my monthly critique group. I have not drafted anything new with this story, but I make adjustments from the feedback of my critique partners. I really like the protagonist of this novel, and I’d like to see where his story ends up. Hopefully I’ll have time to get back to him before too long.

So, only five projects in the works at one stage or another. Busy summer!