Writing Groups And Conferences

Writing tends to be a solitary profession and, as mentioned earlier, one without an apprenticeship program where you can make a living while learning the craft. Writing groups, conferences, and writing programs try to address some of these problems. There are pros and cons to each—things to be gained and things to be lost in participating in any of them, but that mostly depends on what you want.

Writing groups are usually local—several people who enjoy writing band together and start meeting once a month or so. They read to each other and give feedback. Occasionally they bring in different speakers for presentations.

Groups usually have different focuses—short stories, poetry, novels are the three basic areas. Some groups try to do all, with the resultant problem of having to sit through a type of writing that you might not particularly be interested in—but here lies a hidden advantage: as a novelist you just might learn something by listening to poets or short story writers. Not just might—you will, if you have an open mind. You can learn about perspective and you can also learn about the craft of those other mediums. You can also learn about people—not just through the written word but also by observing those who do the writing. I've found that poets, short story writers, novelists, songwriters—all speak some common language, but there are different angles for each area that can add to your repertoire.

I have found, though, that the people who get the least out of the typical writer's group are the novelist. It is very difficult to read a chapter from a novel and get a good critique, especially if you aren't reading the opening chapter. You have to get people up to speed on the story, then have to weather all the "why didn't you—" questions. About one out of ten of those questions are worthwhile. That's not to say as a novelist you shouldn't attend writers' groups and do readings—there are other advantages—it's just to say be aware of the difficulty of reading from a novel in progress at such a group.

An important rule that I believe is necessary for a writers' group (this is also true of writing classes) to survive is: No critiquing of content. Nothing can tear a group apart quicker than people wading into the subject matter—I saw one group run off several writers whose subject matter was religious. The discussion didn't center on the way the person had written the material, but rather became a theological discussion about the material itself. In the same manner, open-mindedness must exist about such things as sex, "profane" language, political views, etc. etc. I think the person who objects to content is the one who has the problem—not the writer. Remember the 1st Amendment.

I was doing a book signing one day and this old lady came up to me and asked me what "language" my books were in. I told her English. She clarified the question by asking me whether I used "profane" language. Since my books were about soldiers, I told her yes, that sort of language fits for those types of characters. She then lectured me that she didn't believe in such language. That's fine for her and anyone else—simply don't buy the book.

However, over the years, I have gotten to the point where for most of my books, I don't use profanity. That's because I get letters from kids every once in a while who read my books. Unless I need it to serve a purpose, I keep it out. Same with sex scenes.

Some writers benefit greatly from critique groups, others not at all. You have to find what works best for you. I am a believer that the best editor for a book is the writer; if the writer is willing to be honest with him or herself.

Conferences and workshops are important. They are the key to networking and publishing is like any other business—who you know is sometimes more important than what you do. There is a difference in the way a cold query is treated versus a query an editor or agent can put a face to. You also get to put a face to editors and agents.

One of my pet peeves—which you probably don't care about anyway, but since I'm writing this book, I get to put down—is the way participants treat editors and agents as if they walk on water and are the source of all valid information. I will spend a week talking about the business of publishing, then they will have a panel of editors and agents on Saturday, and people will ask the same basic questions as if the answers are going to be totally different.

To be honest, that pet peeve stems out of a simple reality of the publishing business—writers are generally at the bottom end of the feeding cycle—especially unpublished writers. Also, just as writers have to pay their dues to earn a place in the business, editors and agents have to do that also. You might feel bad about that rejection slip in your mailbox, but think how that editor who gets a pink slip feels.

A question you should ask yourself when attending a conference is what are the motives of the people who are there. Why are these writers here? I can give you two main reasons—to make some money and to do the same thing you are, network. Usually it's the latter as most conferences only pay enough for the writers to get to the conference, certainly not to make a profit. Writers who are at conferences are there because they like networking also.

Why are these editors here? To look for new writers? Mostly, but I know an editor who has been doing several conferences a year for over a dozen years and has picked up two properties from all that time. To get out of the office? To network with the other editors and agents at the conference? To get a free plane ticket and lodging? Whatever. The same is true of agents. I have seen some shysters—fee-charging agents who are there to drum up business. This is not necessarily bad depending on what you want. I discussed this topic in the chapter on agents.

One thing to remember is that it is a writers conference, not an editor's or agent's conference.

I have quite a bit of respect for people who are willing to take the time and money to attend conferences so that they can learn. My respect goes up even further for those who are willing to truly learn: who are willing to take criticism and suggestions.

Harlan Ellison is well known for eviscerating writers when he holds writing classes. His point is that writing is his profession and those who want to enter it have to be very, very good and he has little patience for those who approach it without the highest standards. In the foreword of one of his novels, Dan Simmons describes attending that class—and being discovered by Harlan Ellison.

I try to be as honest as possible without being rude when working with other writers. Giving false praise wastes everyone's time, but occasionally there are people who do not like hearing anything negative about their project. There are some people who get perturbed that the instructors, editors and agents do not do more to "encourage" the writers. One of the editors responded that that wasn't his job—that was the writers' job.

If you do go to a conference, be prepared. Many have sign-ups where you get to talk to an editor and/or agent for 15 minutes. Have what you are going to say rehearsed. Have your cover letter and one page synopsis in hand. Pitch your idea and story succinctly and in an interesting manner. Don't ever expect to hand the manuscript to them—remember, most are flying home and don't have the space or desire to haul it with them on the plane.

When you get feedback consider it carefully. Don't argue— it won't change their mind about your book, but it will make them think you would be hard to work with.

Use the 'free' time constructively. At a conference I recently attended, I sat for two hours in the bar one evening talking with a fellow who had been Bob Hope's top writer for years, picking up information and advice about the business. What amazed me were all the nights I was there, not a single attendee wandered in and sat down and chatted with the authors, editors and agents who were stuck in the motel. Be willing when the conference director asks for people who want to pick up agents/editors at the airport to volunteer. Take them out to dinner. You might be surprised at what you will reap. I've learned more over a one-hour dinner with editors than sitting for four hours in their lecture during the day.

Treat the people who run the conference with respect and courtesy. They are volunteers who have given tremendously of their time and effort to make sure the conference works. It's not their fault the food the hotel serves is bad or that an author or editor missed a meeting.

Do people actually get 'discovered' at conferences? Yes. I just received an e-mail from a successful writer who told me how he got his first book contract set up at a conference. A few months ago a man who was in my group at the Maui Writers Retreat e-mailed me to tell me of his two book deal.

I'm getting toward the close of this book and this issue of conferences brings up something that dovetails into what I've written on all these pages. I recently listened to an agent talk about mid-career writers and the mistakes they make. The next morning I saw him at breakfast and sat down with him and told him that what he had said the previous day had really struck home. The interesting thing, I continued, was that if I had heard what he'd said a year previously, I would have understood it intellectually but I wouldn't have accepted it emotionally.

I think that is a critical aspect of being a writer. Much of what I've written in this book you might have nodded at and said to yourself "well, that's common sense." But do you really believe it? There is a gap between understanding and acceptance. That gap can cause not just writers, but anyone, great trouble in their life. I've noted that my current agent never really confronts me with anything. Also, he sometimes won't give me advice when I ask for it. I've realized it's not because he's bored or doesn't have time, but rather, like a good psychologist, he can point me in the right direction, but he knows that whether I decide to go there or not is totally up to me. In fact, if he did give me advice I wasn't ready to hear, I could end up reacting and going totally in the wrong direction.

Things I wrote in this book five years ago I've since cut out and replaced with words that are the exact opposite. Yet I believed what I had written five years ago just as much as I believe what I am writing now. What happened? Through experience and some open-mindedness, I learned that I needed to change the way I viewed things.

How to find a conference? The Writers Market has a listing. Also, on the Internet, you can go to Shawguides at: http://writing.shawguides.com/


If you've never been to LA, Hollywood in particular, it's hard to describe. There is a rather strange atmosphere in the air there. I love the smell of movie rights in the morning. It smells of—money.

Right. And if pigs had wings they'd fly. Certainly there are big bucks to be made in Hollywood but books being optioned for millions are few and far between. The common option on a book is a couple of thousand and nothing ever happens.

What is an option? An option gives whoever buys it, ownership for the theatrical rights to a work for a given period of time. That person usually then goes around and tries to sell the work to a studio to produce it.

Think of some rather famous books and how long it took for them to get made. Interview With A Vampire made the rounds for many years and several different people, including Julia Phillips, held the option. I recommend reading her book You'll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again, to get an idea of how Hollywood works. She's the first woman to win an Oscar as producer (Close Encounters Of The Third Kind).

The longer I've worked with various Hollywood types, the more amazed I am that any movie ever gets made. It's a brutal business and the amount of commitment by any involved party to be able to see a project through to completion is just phenomenal.

I've noticed a recent trend where people ask me for free options, contingent on the fact that they will take the work and try to market it. I've done this a couple of times but don't think I will do it any more.

However, you do have to be amenable. The production company that owned the option on one of my books called and said they wanted to renew the option but they didn't want to pay all of the money owed up front. I agreed because I felt they were doing a good job trying to get the film made. Which in my mind generates to about a snowball's chance in hell.

I do recommend reading a book about screenplays. I'm not going to get into it much here since I don't know enough about it, but the way a screenplay is broken down is very interesting and can be helpful to a novelist.

Learning about screenplays can also help you with outlining.

In a nutshell, here are some interesting things to know about screenplays (these are generalities—like novels, there are always exceptions):

-A page in a screenplay should equate to a minute of film. Thus the average feature film screenplay runs 100 to 120 pages, considerably shorter than a novel.

-Each page should be roughly balanced between dialogue and action.

-Screenplays have three acts. The beginning (page 1-30), the middle (pages 30-90) and the end (90-120). The beginning is your set up. Then you have confrontation. Then you have resolution. The two transition points from Act I to II and II to III are known as plot point 1 and plot point 2. There are exceptions to these rules. For example, Pulp Fiction did not follow this format and was quite a success. That led to many aspiring directors trying to write the "next" Pulp Fiction. The problem is that the non-traditional format wasn't the aspect of that film that made it such a success—Tarantino's deft and snappy dialogue was. The story without that dialogue would have been a disaster.

-Screenplays have a very specific form that must be followed. There are programs sold that handle that form, but you must do it right, just as you must do manuscript format correctly.

There are some good things I've learned from dealing with people who work in the movies. There are four major areas to be considered in a screenplay:

1. Character


-Whose point of view?

-Character arcs—is there development in the character through the course of the movie?

-What is the conflict?

-Dialogue—is it believable?

2. Plot

-Whose point of view?

-Is the problem to be resolved shown early and clearly enough?

3. Intent

-Does it come across?

-Is it relevant to the audience?

4. Setting

Think about the advantages of film and disadvantages. Then the same for novels. As a writer, you have the advantage of narrative—of being able to give a lot of expository information simply by writing it. A filmmaker has a much more difficult job in this area. However, dialogue in a film is presented realistically while in your book you have only the written word.

These are just a couple of examples. As a writer, you have to start examining every aspect of the craft and art.


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