Great gifts for writers with great gifts, part VIII: have you considered giving learning experiences?

For the last few posts in this series on gifts a generous, sensitive, and smart Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver (did I mention attractive?) might want to bestow upon a writer, I have been concentrating upon engaging the services of a professional editor. Since that can be a pretty expensive endeavor, I’m going to spend today talking about less costly learning experiences that writers might appreciate — and, still better, ones that might help move their work toward successful publication.

Good writers, and I don’t care who hears me say it, usually tend to be more open to learning experiences than your average bear. Why? Well, it probably has something to do with having a brain that’s wired to notice telling details more than other people’s. To paraphrase HG Wells’ THE WIFE OF SIR ISAAC HARMAN, a writer is an Aolian harp upon whom the winds of society blow, causing us to sing. We have, as Wells said, unusually sensitive nervous tissue.

Aolian harp, in case you don’t happen to have a good mythological dictionary handy, is a fancy term for wind chime.

I love this analogy, because it pinpoints something that the kind folks who attempt to live with us who write must come to understand and accept: we often react more intensely to external stimuli than other people. We’re born extrapolators. You may find this hard to believe, but apparently, non-writers can sit in a restaurant without eavesdropping on nearby tables and creating elaborate life histories about the speakers based upon an excerpted sentence or two.

Or so I’m told. Anthropologically fascinating to hear how other tribes think, isn’t it?

Since we writers work overtime developing our listening skills, taking advantage of them through taking classes makes perfect sense — a common enough view that writing classes tend to be a terrific place not only to learn something new, but to meet other writers at all stages of their careers. Call it a two-for-one deal.

So here’s an idea for writers up for making suggestions about what they’d like to receive as presents: why not seek out a good writing class, either at a local teaching facility or online, and ask your FNDGG to spring for it?

If you immediately thought, “Oh, I don’t have time to take a class — I barely have time to write as it is!”, well, you’re certainly not alone. It makes perfect sense to give some advance thought to the level of time commitment you could realistically devote to a class without eating into your writing time. Allow me, however, to suggest that the less time you have to write, the more benefit you might derive from clearing some time in your schedule to take a class.

How so, you murmur? Well, at the risk of sounding pedantic, it can be beneficial in addressing a broad spectrum of writerly problems. Most literally, a class can give a writer the specific skill-polishing s/he needs to help write better, faster, stronger, etc. There are also plenty of good classes out there — and in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I teach some of them — that will assist a writer in constructing a query, synopsis, or book proposal.

Slightly more nebulously, classes also exist that will help writers revise their work to render it more marketable — agent Don Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel class pops to mind — conform more closely to the parameters of a particular genre, and yes, just write better sentences.

Price tags vary as much as offerings do. As with any other professional advice, however, the buyer should beware: not every class actually delivers what it promises. Marketing help to writers is big business these days, as anyone who has taken a gander at the many, many books offering writing advice of late can tell you, but it’s not as though there is a writer’s guardian angel out there making sure that only those with a proven track record assisting writers improve their work are allowed to advertise.

So it’s in your interest to assess claims carefully, rather than blithely sending off a check to the first class that sounds appetizing. Find out precisely what your potential teacher’s background is and how it relates to what s/he is offering to teach you.

There’s a third reason that I like to recommend that the super-busy and the writing-blocked (two groups with quite a bit of member overlap, I’ve noticed) carve out some time in their schedules to invest in a class: to get into the habit of finding time in their schedules to devote to writing.

Some of you just guffawed, didn’t you? “Um, Anne?” I hear a few cynics point out. “Aren’t you suggesting that people solve a problem by solving it? Just a touch tautological, no?”

Hear me out on this one, oh guffawers. Those who diagnose themselves as too busy to write on a regular schedule and writers experiencing certain types of writer’s block usually share the problem of finding themselves unwilling or unable, for any number of perfectly legitimate and not-so-legitimate reasons, to sit down and write on a regular basis. The hyper-occupied will rush off to do all of the other, higher-priority things they have to do before they can devote time to writing; the blocked will frequently come up with other things to do to avoid the pain of staring at a blank computer screen.

As a result, members of both groups tend not to budget a whole lot of time purely for writing, at least not on a regular basis: all too often, they will put it off until some hypothetical day when they are either not busy with something else or spontaneously inspired. Over time, that mythical day’s planned agenda can become downright terrifying: from merely a day (or week or month) to devote to writing, it devolves into feeling like THE day (or week or month) in which one has to complete the ENTIRE project. The bigger the task looming in the mind, the more tempting to put it off.

Then these well-meaning souls wake up three months later and realize that they haven’t made much progress on their writing projects. At that point, they have every incentive to blame this results on being too busy or galloping writer’s block — and once again to put off sitting down with the project. And so the vicious cycle continues.

Now admittedly, there are a million causes for writer’s block, and many millions of obligations that might conceivably render budgeting time to writedifficult. But from a working author’s point of view, the underlying problem above is that the writers have not made time to write and stuck to a schedule. This may or may not be attributable to factors within the individual’s control, but whatever the specific reasons, sitting down and writing somehow isn’t near enough to the top of the writer’s priorities to make it happen on the regular basis necessary to complete a book project.

With me so far? Excellent.

Due no doubt to early childhood training, most of us are better at maintaining a formal commitment (such as showing up for a class) than an informal one (such as a promise to oneself to sit down every day and write a few thousand words). We tend to perceive sticking to something we do with other people (or something we are paying to do) as involving less willpower than keeping a private vow.

In actuality, that’s often not true, but there’s no reason not to put the impression that it is true to good use.

Here’s a proposition to consider: a writer who can figure out how to attend a weekly two-hour class is very likely to discover at the end of it that s/he has two hours per week no longer budgeted for something other than writing; by adhering to an already-established schedule, then, that writer has gained a couple of hours per week to devote to writing. Similarly, once a writer has managed to clear a weekend to invest in a seminar, or a few days to attend a conference, s/he can probably repeat that achievement in order to devote that time to writing.

Will those couple of hours or few days be enough to write an entire book? Almost certainly not. But if repeated frequently, could the fruits of regular writing time add up? Absolutely.

And don’t throw up your hands, please, if you felt uncomfortable in classrooms growing up — writing classes turn up in a lot of forms, from traditional composition classes to paid critique groups run by established authors or editors to weekend seminars on plot complexity to once-a-week online give-and-take. The more specific you can be about what you would like to learn, the easier it will be for you — or your FNDGG — to find a class you’ll enjoy.

One reliably fruitful source of course offerings for writers lies on the conference circuit. Good writers’ conferences tend to be crammed with classes on craft, querying, submission, marketing, you name it. They’re also often wonderful places to meet other writers to swap tips and share sympathy. You might even make a friend or two with whom you’ll feel moved to exchange manuscripts for critique, or to form the nucleus of a writers’ support group.

Not to mention the fact that many conferences offer the opportunity to meet agents and editors and hear about what they like to see in a submission. At some conferences, you can even pitch your book to them, neatly sidestepping the querying stage.

Which brings me to another gift suggestion: why not ask your FNDGG to subsidize a trip to a well-constructed conference? If not to underwrite the whole thing, at least to chip in?

If you choose your conference carefully, you may also derive another fringe benefit from attendance: manuscript feedback. As clever and intrepid reader Susan wrote in yesterday to remind us, some conferences offer manuscript critique sessions relatively inexpensively — relative, that is, to employing the services of a professional editor.

Conference-based critique comes in a number of different flavors; there is no such thing as a generic conference critique, so do make sure before you register which is being offered. Here is a field guide to a few of the more common.

The public examination. At this type of event, feedback is offered during short classes within the conference itself in a manner reminiscent of American Idol: both presentation and expert feedback take place in a public forum. Attendees are invited to show up with a very short excerpt — usually a page or two, either from the text or in some cases, a query letter — dissection and discuss.

The few shy souls out there who just exclaimed, “I’d rather stick my hand into a meat grinder!” need despair: because critique is a time-consuming business, these classes usually attract far more feedback-seekers than time to take a magnifying glass to their work. Most of the time, those who sit by quietly and take copious notes on what the pros say about other people’s pages are more than welcome.

The small-group intensive. Here, critique sessions are couched in multi-hour or even multi-day group classes, often lead by an established writer or editor. An intensive class is generally offered either just before or just after the regular conference offerings, and usually entail an extra charge over and above the regular conference registration fee, so do double-check before you register.

Intensive sessions usually concentrate on a short excerpt — the first chapter is a common choice — or require participants to write fresh material in class. Again, if feedback on material already in hand is your goal, check.

The professional assessment. Sometimes these are group endeavors where a dozen people will sit and confer with an agent, editor, or established author, but they are more commonly one-on-one. Almost invariably, though, these sessions are touted as a big selling point for a conference.

Attendees are invited to submit a short manuscript excerpt — usually the first 5-20 pages, although some conferences will allow an entire chapter — which the agent, editor, etc. will undertake to read prior to the meeting. The feedback is usually quite a bit less intensive than what a freelance editor would provide (you’re unlikely, for instance, to receive commentary on particular lines of text), but if you’re looking for an uninterrupted five-minute conversation about how a professional reader like Millicent might respond to your opening pages, this can be a terrific place to start.

The pitch meeting. Pitch meetings rarely involve anyone reading manuscript pages and giving feedback on them, but I thought I should include them on this list, as conference brochures sometimes give the (often false) impression that a professional assessment is a pitch opportunity, and vice versa.

At a pitch meeting, a writer gives a verbal presentation to an agent or editor, a sort of verbal query letter, in the hope that the pro will be so taken with the pitch that s/he will request the writer to submit pages for later consideration. Face-to-face pitching is a learned skill, so if you are considering attending a conference where writers have the opportunity to pitch, please take a gander at the PITCHING BASICS category on the list at right.

As you may see, these types of conference-based feedback opportunities differ widely. The trick to benefiting from these sessions is to do your homework before you get there — which is important to know before you start looking for events to attend, since this is homework that generally needs to be done not only before the conference, but before one even signs up to attend it.

Why so far in advance? Well, several reasons. First, as I mentioned above, conferences usually require writers to submit pages for critique well in advance, generally at the time of registration. Sometimes, the deadline for submission is months before the conference, so do try to send in pages that are not likely to change radically in the interim, if the rules allow it. (Most don’t: the first chapter or 10-20 pages plus a synopsis is a fairly standard requirement, as those pages require less set up to follow, by definition.)

Also, since virtually every critique-offering conference fills personalized feedback slots on a first-come, first-served basis, you may have to be speedy to take advantage of this perq. At a conference that offer many critique opportunities, you may be able pull off registering in the month or two immediately prior to the conference, but for the vast majority of such conferences, the number of slots available is in the low double digits. They tend to go fast, so once you’ve picked your conference, register early.

One caveat to bear in mind while you’re conference-searching: as with feedback from critique-offering contests and every other source, the quality of the feedback varies by the experience level of the critiquer — and more specifically, the critiquer’s familiarity with the submitted manuscript’s book category. Even if the scheduled feedback giver has been editing romance at Harlequin for a decade, s/he may not be able to give you insight into why agents have been rejecting your thriller.

As with finding a freelance editor — or an agent, for that matter — fit between the feedback-giver and the manuscript is important. Some conferences randomly assign writers to feedback-givers, but most of the larger conferences will allow registrants to express preferences. Do a bit of background checking before you commit; you’re far, far more likely to walk away from a critique session with feedback you can use if your critiquer has a solid track record in handling your type of book.

Another factor that radically influences the quality of conference-based feedback is how much time the critiquer has actually invested in reading the pieces before commenting upon them. I don’t mean to frighten you, but do be aware that advice clearly based upon barely-skimmed submissions or, even more hurtful, only the first paragraph or two of a chapter-length submission is a perennial complaint voiced by writers attending such feedback sessions, especially those conducted by agents and editors: the habit of simply ceasing to read as soon as they’ve made up their minds about a submission can be pretty firmly ingrained.

Before anyone out there takes umbrage at the notion of paying a conference for this level of feedback — which doesn’t necessarily entail a more solid reading than Millicent might give a first chapter; the difference lies in hearing specifics about why the screener stopped reading — lack of familiarity with the materials to be reviewed is not always the critiquer’s fault. It’s not at all uncommon for critiquers to be culled from the speakers, agents, and editors invited to the conference, some of whom may not receive the pages for critique until they actually arrive at the conference.

Or — brace yourselves — on the day of the meeting.

And yes, this frequently occurs even at conferences that require writers to submit their pages months in advance. Why? Beats me; organizational acumen seems to be wildly unevenly distributed across conference-giving groups. When I’ve inquired about it — say, at a conference where I had been engaged to give such feedback, but did not actually see a syllable of the writing involved until a couple of hours before I was supposed to meet with the people who wrote them — I’ve heard every explanation from shifting schedules to lost paperwork to an elaborately polite insistence that giving me the pages early enough to spend some real time with them would have inconvenienced me.

They didn’t want to impose, they said.

I’ve been on both sides of this particular phenomenon, actually: some years ago, I was in residence at a New England artists’ colony that shall remain nameless. as well-established sculptors and painters dropped by to give emerging artists feedback on their works-in-progress, the colony had taken the trouble to import a famous author or two every couple of weeks to impart wisdom to those treading the earlier steps of the path to greatness.

Or, slightly more cynically, the colony helped supplement the established’s income by offering informal teaching gigs. The first of these authors spent a week on-site and was quite charming, at least to those of us whose work she liked. She read excerpts, gave constructive feedback, helped writers over manuscript difficulties, and even gave a couple of impromptu lectures on craft.

A couple of weeks later, the feedback environment altered considerably. The Living Legend scheduled to shed her effulgence on the residents sent word that she would be arriving a trifle late, but she was reading the excerpts we had submitted to her industriously. One forgives such things in National Book Award winners, naturally. When she arrived late on day 3 of her week-long residence, she announced that she could stay for only a couple of days — the absolute minimum, the cynical speculated, to collect her honorarium for meeting with us — so she wanted to meet with each of us right away.

Practically the moment I walked into my scheduled meeting, she launched into a vigorous diatribe about the inherent weakness of a particular scene. The only trouble was, I hadn’t written the scene that had so upset her sensibilities; the writer with the appointment after mine had. As nearly as I could tell from her tirade, she had decided that I must have written the short story in question — although I do not write short stories — because the character in the story looked a bit like me.

As do hundreds of thousands of adult women of Mediterranean extraction, I might add. But I digress.

It took me several minutes to convince the Grande Dame of Literature that I was telling the truth about who I was and what I had written — and for both of us to realize that she had not yet read my piece at all. Embarrassed for her, I offered to reschedule our appointment on the following day, but she was adamant that she was only prepared to give me (her phrase) an hour of her time. As about 35 minutes of that time had already elapsed, I proposed that we should devote it to chatting about the writing life in general; again, no.

After an intensive five minutes of rooting about in her briefcase, she finally managed to dig up my pages. With a sigh of irritated relief, she plumped herself down to read them in front of me. I sat uncomfortably, marveling at her speed-reading prowess. Fortunately for my ego — or unfortunately; I’ve never been able to decide — she evidently did not find any error glaring enough to point out. I suspect it would have been a relief to her if she had.

After she finished, she glanced up at me warily. “It’s good,” she conceded, clearly cudgeling her well-laureled brains for something constructive to advise.

Having been well brought-up, I waited politely for her to continue — and I must say, I’m still waiting. To fill up the remaining five minutes of our meeting, we chatted about the writing life in general.

I wish I could state positively that La Belle’s behavior was exceptional, but the sad fact is that one hears similar stories about write-your-way-in conferences and artists’ retreats that offer on-site professional feedback from well-established authors as an incentive for writers to apply for residencies. It just goes to show you: not all feedback from professionals is professional feedback, nor will all of it be helpful. But I’m relatively certain that had I not already sought out and received scads of genuinely thoughtful, well-informed critique of my work before I watched the Famous Gentlewoman unsuccessfully trying to critique my work on the fly, I would have been crushed by her lack of professionalism.

The moral: just because someone famous reads your work doesn’t necessarily mean that their feedback is going to be useful; just because a conference brochure touts a critique opportunity doesn’t mean it will be a good fit for your manuscript. Do your homework, invest your conference-going dollars carefully — and accept that sometimes, you’re going to encounter a dud. That’s the nature of one-size-fits-all critiquing.

Oh, dear, I meant to spend today’s post recommending conference attendance, not repeatedly hissing, “Caveat emptor,” let the buyer beware. Well, I suppose that’s not a complete surprise in a blog that so frequently cautions caveat lector, let the reader beware.

On that dubious note, I shall sign off for today. More gift-giving tips and general chat about the writing life follow anon. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

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