Sunday, December 20, 2009

Conventions, workshops, courses, and groups, oh my.

With the new year comes resolutions. Promises we make to ourselves to finally get around to doing whatever it is we've been thinking about doing. Inevitably, this involves weight loss (50 pounds by June 1) and fitness goals (had been get in shape to run the Battleship half marathon, but my doctor has advised me to invest in a recumbent bike instead.)

The beginning of the year also finds writers, both published and unpublished, setting goals for words written or hours spent writing or projects completed. For many writers, these goals include attending writers' conventions, taking part in writers' retreats or workshops, enrolling in a writing class, or joining a writers' group.

There are national writing conventions and regional writing conventions and writing conventions at universities. I'm cheap, so my advice is if you've never been, start close and free and work your way up. In this age of internetting you can pretty thoroughly scope out likely cons before deciding where to start. Read all the official con information and track down any reviews/accounts of last year's con. (Just because a writer you love will be there doesn't mean the two of you will meet and become creative soul mates.)
Expect to waste your time at your first writing convention. It's inevitable. You won't know which speakers to seek out or what panel discussion will be most useful. The two things you want most to do will be scheduled at the same time a mile apart. Mixing with other attendees you may latch on to the wrong person and end up following her to all the things she wanted to see. Take notes. Write down names and contact information of editors and agents even remotely related to what you write. (Do the same with fellow writers who interest/impress you; see writers' groups below.) Grab any handouts -- particularly instructional materials from workshops you didn't know to register for or don't have time to attend -- and be friendly.
Be prepared to describe the best project you've completed or are about to complete in one sentence in case an editor or agent asks. And have answers to likely follow up questions ready, but don't use them unless an editor or agent asks. (Do the same for a second project in case you're asked about what else you're working on, but do not try to impress with a laundry list of things you're trying to accomplish.)

Participating in a writing retreat or workshop will not change your life. Neither will taking a creative writing course. Well, it will; but not to the extent you may imagine before going to your first. I learned more useful information about my craft and the business of writing per time invested at the Oregon Coast Wrtiers' Workshops, which features concentrated, targeted lessons on writing as a craft and a career. They assume you've already discovered yourself as a writer and intend to earn your living telling lies. Expect to write a 3k short story a day. Many talented writers I know swear by the Clarion workshop, a much more immersive experience.
Of course there are formal writing curriculums at universities, many available over the internet. Though I don't know of a bachelor's program for creative writing, there are several excellent low-residency Master of Arts and Master of Fine Arts programs available. (Plan on weeks of research and correspondence to find your best fit, I'm not covering it all here.) But workshops and courses of this type require a serious commitment of time, money, and resources; a greater commitment than many writers are able to make.
If you're interested in writing, not a degree in writing, there are stand-alone writing courses and workshops offered by universities and community colleges -- many of them part of the free or low-cost continuing education curriculum. Of course these vary widely in quality of instruction and usefulness.

The only way to know for certain if a university program, community college course, or writing workshop is right for you is to take it. But there are things you can look for in advance when deciding whether or not to give it a shot; two which I think are universally important.
First: Is the instructor a working, professionally published writer? (Or a professional, working editor of books that have been published?) If so, check out her titles. Even if she writes in genre you can't stand, you'll see what she has to offer as a craftsman. If the instructor is not published, chances are she's an English major who knows more about deconstructing a novel than writing one. (There are exceptions, but they are rare.) If the instructor's "published" works were produced by a vanity press, run. If the instructor is a reviewer who's never published a novel, run faster.
Second: What have graduates of the course published? In other words, how well does the instructor convey her skills and knowledge to her students? Teaching is harder than writing and great writers do not always make great teachers.

One benefit of writing courses and writing conventions is meeting other writers. Writing is a solitary profession, and for many writers networking with others who "get it" can be a godsend. Look for a group made up of writers in your general stratum -- neither too far ahead of you nor too far behind: you don't want to be intimidated and you don't want to be impatient. In-person groups are essential for some people, but if writers you want to meet with didn't have the foresight to live near you, there's the internet. Be willing to give any group a try, you may be surprised where you fit in. (For years I was a member of a group made up almost entirely of British women who write romances.) But also be willing to walk away at the first sign the group is not right for you. If there are politics, walk away. No support -- or support without substance? Walk away. Mean critiques of you rather than your work? Rants about how publishing is fixed? Walk away.
If you find yourself writing to please the group, run away.

How about you? What experiences have you had with writing groups, writing workshops, writing courses, or writing conventions?

1 comment:

Liane Spicer said...

The info on what to look for when considering a course is timely for me as I'm on the brink of applying to do an MFA program on Creative Writing. It's not on account of my writing, though (not much anyway). I'm thinking of going back to teaching, but won't even consider the high school version of it.

No conferences or retreats, and would like to attend at least one. Close and free would be nice, but not probable because of my location.