Continuing education

I’ve spent the last two days at the Flathead Writers’ Conference in Whitefish, Montana, my favorite of the small regional conferences. Now, the seminar I was teaching safely over (the essential, mundane one in a field of motivational speeches: I was doing the ABCs of submission. SOMEONE needs to tell the world about standard format!)

There are a lot of these small (under 100 attendees) conferences around the country: unlike the bigger conferences, they tend to be focused more upon craft and less upon marketing and pitching opportunities. Here, there is one agent {name removed at agent’s request; please see post of May 10, 2006 for explanation}, one editor (Kristen Weber of Penguin, which has a policy, the last I heard, of not picking up unagented writers), a very successful magazine article-writer (the wonderful Carolyn Campbell), a screenwriter (the funny Mark Troy), established novelists ranging from the well-known to the less so (Robert Levinson, Pam Houston, Dennis Foley), and yours truly. Oh, and a conference room with the requisite super-dry air inside and gorgeous scenery outside to distract us.

And why is it, I wonder, that writers’ conferences always start at the crack o’ dawn? Just once, I would like to go to a conference that acknowledges that some, if not most, writers are night birds. Fortunately, my class was at night, so I was safely wide-awake without the help of too much of the pudding-thick coffee they like to serve in these parts. (Little Westernisms pepper people’s speech here. It’s one of the only places I know where I am consistently referred to as “gal.”)

Since I’m going to ANOTHER conference next weekend, I’m going to hold off on talking too much here about what a conference is like, for the benefit of those of you who have never been to one. Instead, I’d like to talk for a moment about why those of you who already have agents, or are already published, might want to go to one or two per year – and why, yes, I actually do sit in on classes at conferences where I am teaching.

Continuing education, my friends. As in a tax-deductible (if you file a Schedule C as a writer, that is) way to help improve your chances of success in your chosen field.

Are those of you long-time readers who know me as the iconoclast who keeps assuring you that a fairly hefty proportion of the marketing information given out at conferences is outdated smiling right about now?

Well, it’s still true: of the four novelists speaking here, I am apparently the only one who has ever had to do extensive querying. (If I told you how easily Pam Houston – whose COWBOYS ARE MY WEAKNESS is brilliant, by the way – says she got her editor and agent, IN THAT ORDER, you might well want to throw something through the nearest window.) And that differential is, in all modesty, entirely due to the fact that the other novelists got their agents and sold their first books more than 15 years ago, and I more recently.

The industry has DEFINITELY changed, and don’t let anybody, no matter how well-known or powerful, tell you it hasn’t.

Which is a pretty good reason to keep going to writers’ conferences, actually: what sold 15 years ago, or 5, or even 1, is not necessarily what is selling today. Things change (A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, anyone?), and even though, yes, it is often kind of annoying to listen to agents and editors spout the same old platitudes about how good writing always finds a home and indignantly deny that editors don’t edit anymore, they ARE working in the industry right now and DO know what is and isn’t hot. So it’s as good an idea to consult their expertise from time to time as it is to read Publisher’s Marketplace to see who is buying what.

Although I can’t resist sharing one particularly funny quip: in the midst of said requisite indignant speech about how editors at the major houses do so edit still, the editor – unusual for her ilk – actually offered a bit of proof to back up her statement. “I write a four-page memo on every book,” she said, evidently expecting us all to be blown away by that level of feedback.

Now, four pages of feedback (and editorial memos are generally in correspondence format, and thus single-spaced) are certainly not insubstantial, by any means, even when it probably does not mean any line editing at all. Truth compels me to say, however, that by editing standards in the freelance world, it is a tad on the scant side: it’s not all that unusual for me to write 4 pages of feedback on a CHAPTER. And the editor-who-shall-remain-nameless-here-until-she-makes-an-offer wrote two on my novel, a book that she has not yet bought.

Once again, a translation problem, an expectations gap between what writers think the industry should provide and what people in the industry actually do.

So there is another good reason to do a little continuing ed from time to time: the more you know about the industry, the funnier some of these throw-away lines become. Also, while I believe that talent is inherent, writing is a business, and craft is an array of skills – two of the three, then, can be learned, and what can be learned can be polished up.

I have to say, at my point in the writing game, the benefit I derive from attending craft classes is often from the throwaway lines, rather than the main thrust of the courses themselves. But still, a useful insight is a useful insight. For instance, yesterday Robert Levinson suggested that one way to make a plot compelling is to place your protagonist in a situation in which the reader may have fantasized being, and thus allow the reader to live vicariously something he has always wanted to do.

Now, the operative word here is HE, my professional antennae tell me – Mssr. Levinson does, after all, write in a genre with a heavy male readership, which is in itself unusual for fiction. But since his first book was about an imagined affair between Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe (they were on the 20th Century Fox lot at the same time – although, since she was both starring in and producing BUS STOP at that particular point, I don’t know when she would have had the time), I suspect the gentleman knows just a BIT about dealing with his readers’ fantasy lives. I suspect, in turn, that it’s a pretty good piece of advice.

I might actually use that tip in my current novel revision. Which would alone have justified the price of admission, if I hadn’t been scheduled to teach down the hall.

I could go on and on about what people are learning here, but I should scoot off to another seminar. Details follow later, of course. I’m taking good notes for all of you.

Keep up the good work!

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