Monday, August 2, 2010

Thoughts on the Midwest Writers Workshop

How was your weekend, Esteemed Reader? Mine was wonderful. It didn’t hurt that we had a visit from big time literary agent Daniel Lazar. That was awesome. But I also had the good fortune to attend the Midwest Writers Workshop, which is held every year in Muncie, IN, my old stomping grounds. This was my second year attending the conference and I’m definitely going again next year. I hope I’ll see you there, so let me tell you about my experience in the hopes of enticing you to come:

Midwest Writers Workshop is a smaller conference, which means fewer agents, editors, and writers come, but to me size is the conference’s biggest advantage. It’s quality, not quantity. I’ve heard horror stories of major conferences in which the group of industry professionals cowers in a corner, facing an onslaught of hundreds of unpublished writers as though they are the only humans in a zombie movie.

That’s all good and well for New Yorkers (mostly kidding), but here in Indiana we do things a little different. All three days at the conference I was able to chat with our industry professionals and to get to know them. I’m now on a first name basis with one of my new favorite authors, Marcus Sakey (I got to shake his hand and everything). He is off the chain hilarious and brimming with great writing advice. He also writes a heck of a thriller and I highly recommend his books. Did he take time to help me perfect my elevator pitch to agents? You bet he did. And he was able to do it because I was with him in a class of about thirty people as opposed to a group of two or three hundred, though I have no doubt he could draw that sort of crowd.

Sakey and our old friend John Gilstrap put on a little comedy show you had to see to believe (they also answered publishing questions). Our good friend Kelsey Timmerman was in attendance, and I got to hear great talks from Jane Friedman, D.E. Johnson, Dinty Moore, and Shirley Jump. There were many other fantastic professionals on hand, but even at a smaller conference I didn’t have a chance to meet or hear from everyone (alas). And did I get us some interviews to be posted in the coming weeks? Esteemed Reader, what sort of ninja would I be if I hadn’t?

Now I hear what you’re saying. Thriller and romance writers are nice enough, but what about us middle grade lovers? Well, how about YA author Laurie Gray? She gave us a chat on perfecting one’s online presence. Needless to say, she had my rapt attention and she gave me some great ideas for how to spruce this blog up.

And Esteemed Reader, I have a new hero. I got to meet and talk with children’s author Candace Fleming and until you’ve seen her grinning maniacally and laughing while discussing how best to be cruel to the young protagonists of children’s stories, you haven’t lived. She took us through an exercise that forced us to be mean to a five year old girl, so… I wrote about her being attacked by a badger. It wasn’t my fault! Candace Fleming made me do it and then encouraged me to read such an awful business aloud and clapped at how badly I had hurt this poor, innocent (but fictional) girl. I like to think of Candace as a much younger and more attractive version of Ian McKellen’s character in Apt Pupil, but you know, the middle grade version.

Joking aside, she gave one of the most wonderful presentations I have ever attended. And whatever I may call myself, Candace Fleming is a true ninja. She had polish and poise and a way of presenting herself that drew people to her. I didn’t leave the conference without a signed copy of one of her books and I’m sure I’m not the only one. I yearn to have that sort of presence. She simply radiated professional children’s author and she captivated anyone within her radius. When I wasn’t listening to her, I was watching her and studying how I could make my feeble ninja skills as finally tuned as hers.

And that’s the reason to attend a conference. You just can’t get this visceral information from reading industry blogs or author webpages. Some things, you have to see with your own eyes. And a great blog can’t always offer you specifically wonderful words of encouragement and a friendly hug like the one Candace gave me (okay, she’s a really, really nice version of Ian McKellen’s retired Nazi).

Yes, yes, again, I hear what you’re saying. Meeting writers is swell, but I want to meet an agent who will sign me and sell my book for a bajillion dollars and make me so famous J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer have to take turns coming by to mow my lawn and trim my hedges. That’s pretty ambitious of you, Esteemed Reader, but don’t worry. The Midwest Writer’s Workshop is the place to meet agents because you can just walk up and talk to them without fighting hoards of other unpublished writers.

I read Janet Reid’s blog religiously and meeting Suzie Townsend was sort of like meeting a character from a favorite book. But, of course, she’s real person and very kind and very funny. I was able to talk with her about books and publishing (my favorite subjects). And she sat with me and helped me revise a query letter. I can read the query shark every day (I do) and still not get that sort of personal attention and help. My query crackles now.

I also got to chat with the wonderful Amy Boggs of The Donald Maas Literary Agency. And I don’t mean like a nervous hello in an elevator chat, I mean like a conversation you might have with somebody you meet and want to be friends with chat. We talked about our mutual love of The Duff and science fiction/fantasy and all sorts of other cool stuff. She showed me her ereader and how she reviews manuscripts (can’t get that on a blog). She told me about her client’s upcoming book and she was so excited and passionate about it you would have thought it was her book. Anyone who can get Amy to feel that way about their project is a lucky person indeed. Oh, and she filled my head with an idea for a fantastic book I probably shouldn’t steal, but I want to so bad. I can’t reveal the details, but it involves evil babies and it’s just a great idea that I can’t stop thinking about.

And I talked with Dr. Uwe Stender. If you get a chance to meet Dr. Stender, jump on it. He’s also very funny and I learned more about the world of literary agents in a couple hours talk with him than reading a hundred books on the subject. He described the queries he gets and his process for sorting them in as frank a manner as I’ve ever heard. He even showed me the portable device on which he reads them and examples of queries that would or would not interest him. He was real and genuine and if you want to know what happens with your query after you send it, he’s the guy to ask.

There are so many other experiences I could share like the afternoon I sat with Marcus Sakey and two former police officers and watched the way he watched them as they told us stories from the job and you just knew he was imprinting research details in his brain for a future book. Or the great chats I had with other writers about the craft and the lifestyle. But I’ll stop now.

I just wanted to encourage you to get out of the house and get to a writers conference. We writers spend too much time alone in front of a computer screen. It’s a joy to rediscover there’s a whole world out there of other writers and like-minded people who truly care about books. For a little money, a professional expense to be sure, you too can take a seat across from them. Me, I worked two jobs to pay for my degree in English and I didn’t learn nearly as much about publishing and professional writing as at the Midwest Writers Workshop. Think of the money you spend as money you'll save not mailing out bad manuscripts and quries.

Next year, you come to and we’ll have a cup of coffee together.


  1. Thanks for an enjoyable recap of MWW! I was there, too, only as a planning committee member. We learned just as much as you did. See you next year!

  2. Hey, Ninja, I missed this conference recap because I was on vacation when it first posted. (Came here via your current post on Marcus Sakey. Seems that Senor Sakey is everywhere nowadays, as his name has popped up on several other blogs. Serendipity?) You did a nice job with these 7 questions. Your blog is terrific.

    I don't know about coming to Indiana. When you're published (which I believe will be only a matter of time) will you come and give a presentation in Oregon?

    BTW, your line about JKR and Stephenie Meyers and the hedges is priceless! You are one witty dude (er, ninja).


Thanks for stopping by, Esteemed Reader! And thanks for taking the time to comment. You are awesome.