The Beginning Writer

Interacting (Part 2 of 3)

© Will Greenway 2000

Conferences and Seminars

You've hit the bigtime, or you've steeled yourself to spend some bigtime mojo. Now were talking concentrated writer interaction—more hearts on sleeves than you can shake ten sticks at—writing seminars and conferences.

It takes an iron resolve, some vacation hours, and a deep pocket but writing conferences are just the thing to either inspire or destroy you. I say 'destroy' because not all conferences are created equal. So, research is ALWAYS recommended. Expect to spend upwards of $500 plus food and travel for the larger week long marathon retreats where the big fish hang out.

Check out ( for a sizable list of conferences and online workshops.

For fantasy and science fiction folk the crown jewel has to be Clarion (East coast) and Clarion West (West coast). A grueling six week marathon of daily workshops that will either make or break you. With a faculty list that reads like a who's who of published authors, this place is da bomb if you can make the grade. They accept 16 students a year, and acceptance is based on the quality of submissions. Clarion focuses on short fiction, and the direction of the education is on writing short stories. Even if you are a long fiction writer this is excellent training. Tuition is not cheap (about $1500) plus a $1000 for lodging and that does not cover travel costs to either Michigan or Seattle. The course has international recognition and is even worth four undergraduate credits. Obviously, the time and money (about $5000 with food and other expenses) investment is beyond the reach for most folks. Still, if you can swing it, few rival it for intensity. This is NOT a beginner's course.

From personal experience the Santa Barbara Writer's conference is probably still one of the best all-arounder conferences. It doesn't hurt that some of the workshop leaders are longtime writer friends... The conference has just about everything. Daily workshops, pirate free-style workshops, nightly keynotes and just a dearth of genre and technique offerings. Again, it isn't cheap, around $600 for the conference (including lodging on-campus and two meals). Given that lodging is included it's not a bad price considering you get 30+ hours of workshops (even more if you're a night-owl with thick-skin willing to brave the waters of the pirate workshops). If you're willing to dive in and give it your best, you can get a years worth of inspiration—and more to think about than you expect.

Those are just two examples. There are many others that I don't have personal experience with. There are some good criteria for selecting a conference that will help you improve and is worth the cash outlay:

  • How long is it and what is the cost/learning return? One or two day conferences generally aren't worth it UNLESS the days are really packed. Balance the cost versus the number of possible workshop hours. Santa Barbara is $600 ($300 of which is lodging). With 30+ hours of workshop, if you do the math, it's about $10 per hour (less if you dive in to 20+ hours of pirate workshopping). Lengthy Clarion (which is about 150 hours for $1500) doesn't do any better except that it's a hard core marathon. Contrast this with a local conference to me—the Southern California Writer's Conference runs around $350 for 3 days. They offer about 3 hours of workshops per day. They do offer pirate after hours workshopping to add more value. That's about $40/hr—much less of a deal. They DO have a lot of workshops (about 60) so at least the classes are smaller and higher quality. Interactive workshops where material is actively read and critiqued (which are mostly what SBWC is about) are worth more than lecture classes. This isn't to crack on lecture (which DEFINITELY has its value), it's just that when somebody is specifically looking at YOUR work you are learning about your strengths and weaknesses. That has the most direct correlation to your skills.

  • Who's teaching and what's the teacher to student ratio? SBWC is huge— usually more than 300 writers. Fortunately, they disperse them among about 16-20 workshops morning and afternoon. Still, those rooms are packed. Routinely, you might get to read two maybe three times in a week long session. This is what gave rise to the pirate workshops at SBWC. More chances to read—and bleed. The quality of the teachers is a harder thing to judge from the outside. That can only be done with research and asking around. Most conferences have a reputation that can be tracked. Many of the more established list alumnis who might be tapped for info.

  • What is the level of interaction? Some conferences offer one-on-one with an author or teacher who give you a reasonable chunk of time to go over a sample of your material. This can seem really great, but the hidden gotchas are genre boundaries. Taos writers workshop offered such a thing and some intense workshopping (5-to-1 teacher ratio) as well. I was rather disappointed when I was matched up with an author who simply couldn't make heads or tails of fantasy. I was already writing at a level above where he felt safe to critique. Oh sure, he had a point or two that I used, but because of our genre differences he just didn't have any epiphanies for me and that was something of a let down. I enjoyed the conference, and had a productive week... but it just didn't have that extra umph I had been searching for in a small-format high-intensity conference.
    Smaller is not necessarily better, however, the more times you get to read the more learning you'll do. If the conference offers a written critique of a submission is also a plus.

  • What level of student is the conference aimed at? Obviously if you're a semi-pro you won't get much out of a beginning workshop. If you are a beginner you can still get something out of a pro-level seminar but are you going to get enough to justify pro-level conference costs? Something to think about and research.

  • What genres does the conference represent? Let me tell you a funny story about SBWC. Every year their keynote speaker is Ray Bradbury, the father of science fantasy. Would you believe when I first went there, they didn't have any workshops for science fiction, fantasy, or horror? In fact, the workshop leaders actively shunned people who tried to read it. Myself, and several workshop members from my group of cronies protested loud and hard. SBWC shook its head, "No interest," they said. So, myself and a few others created a pirate-pirate workshop for fantasy, science fiction, and horror and we stuffed the suggestion box with requests for a dedicated SFF&H workshop. After all, Bradbury was a the patron of the conference! We had 30 people a night in our pirate-pirate read and critique, and the word got back to the organizers. They caved, and hired a friend of mine (Matt Pallamary) to run it. They haven't been without an SFF&H workshop in the 12 years since.
    So, persistence pays. However, the "shunned" thing can really suck—it did for me. For maximum return on your dollar, make sure your writing matches up to the genres the conference provides workshops for. If you're not sure, call and ask. Don't go and be frustrated.

  • Are you ready to bleed? This may seem needlessly graphic, but it really addresses the issue of maturity and self-confidence. Depending on the conference and how tightly monitored the read-and-critique workshops are—you will be slammed. You might be brilliant but in a big enough conference I guarantee there will be some one joker who most VIOLENTLY disagrees with you and is more than willing to pull you down a peg or ten.
    You never know what you'll get, so intestinal fortitude is a must. Bring the emotional armor because there are some sharp people out there that have all the tact of angry badger. They won't be kind. They find a flaw and beat a drum. In front of a room full of thirty people it can create a feeding frenzy that will leave your ego in a smoking ruin. If it sounds like I've been there... I have. At the SBWC pirates you read at a podium, through a loudspeaker, to thirty or fourty sleepy writers who may or may not have had enough red meat that week. My particular drubbing started over the validity of a character stereotype and spiraled outward to what boiled down to a character attack. In a word—ugh. I think questionable parentage and religion would have been worked in if the room could have figured out how. Thankfully, the workshop leader finally reined them in while I still had to some hide left.
    I know I paint a horrid picture of the worst case scenario. However, if you are ready and braced for the worst, when you get strokes instead, it's rather euphoric. One good positive workshop response can keep you motivated for weeks.

To wrap it all up. Conferences are exciting high intensity high energy endeavors. They are great to get a person motivated as long as you go prepared to weather the storm. Being around other writers, drawing on the creative "force" is an something that every serious writer SHOULD experience at least once. Unless you are really sequestered, there's probably a good conference within striking distance. Writing is a fairly universal insanity, and there are such conferences all over the world.

Not enough good can be said about the whole "vibe" one gets from a good, well organized retreat with a large congregation of writers interacting. The only really bad things are that they are expensive and that good as they may be they are usually just for a short duration.

For the long haul you need something close by, something reasonably priced, and something you can do all year long. That brings us to read-and- critique cadres. That we will deal with in the third and longest segment of the writer interaction section.