I attended my first major writing conference this weekend — major meaning that more than 25 people showed up, and the keynote speaker was someone who’d actually hit the bestseller lists.
If you’ve never been to one of these, you’re in for a real treat once you do. Even intense introverts should attend, especially if you’re serious about your writing. I thought I was until I met several attendees, many of whom put my writing activities to shame. Yes, I’ve been published, and yes, I have tons of clips to my name, but if I say that I want to write a book, and I say that for years, and yet I’ve no book to my name despite those years behind me, am I really taking it seriously? Hardly.
Bob Mayer, former Green Beret and keynote speaker, has sold over three million books. More importantly to someone like me, though, he’s an amazing writing teacher. I can understand why he’s so popular among conference organizers, including those of the Maui Writers’ Conference (now the Hawaii Writers Conference). If you’re of a literary bent and want to write the next Great American Novel, he may not be your first choice for a teacher. In fact, you’re probably better off pursuing an MFA, however devastating that may be to your finances. Mayer, on the other hand, has his routine down pat. I attended all but one of his presentations at the conference this weekend (the one exception being “Military for Writers,” for although I’m writing about World War II, the perspective is almost purely from the civilian side); his lesson plan is tight. I heard it quite often, even many of the same jokes and the same PowerPoint slides, but it didn’t diminish from the influence of his teaching. He taught us the basics of structure, character and plot, and at some point during his Plot presentation I even had a flash of insight as to what the climactic scene would be in my novel. Talk about brilliant!
If you have a chance to attend one of his workshops, I highly recommend that you do so. They’re not very expensive — the one he’s holding in Dallas at the end of the month is about $125/day, or $325 for the entire weekend plus a close critique of your query and synopsis — and he obviously knows his stuff. The Green Beret part of him lends a certain air of cold aloofness, so if you’re looking for someone to coddle you and your manuscript, you might want to look elsewhere. But if you’re looking for some tough love, someone to really go through your manuscript and give you some very constructive criticism, you could hardly do better than turning to him.
Aside from Mr. Mayer, the conference had some other useful and interesting presentations. One of my other favorites was the agent panel that kicked off the entire event on Saturday morning. Four agents from around the country — including Canada-based Sally Harding — answered questions from the audience about what they’re interested in, the state of the industry, etc. It was fascinating to listen to them give opposing opinions about publishing. For example, one agent flat-out said that manuscripts with a male protagonist would be a hard, if not impossible sell in this climate, but the others obviously didn’t agree. (A good thing for me, given my own novel’s main character, Thomas.)
The best part of the whole event was simply the chance to meet other writers, published and yet-to-be, all of whom take this whole crazy business as seriously as I do. They inspired me to take a closer look at my work and my approach to it as well as the focus I need to continue to slog through it day after day, even during those (all too common!) times when I think that everything that I’ve written so far is just pure crap. Sometimes I get too wrapped up in my head, cocooned as I am in my home office, that I lose sight of what I’m doing and why, or I get bogged down too long on a particular point or page or chapter, and the inevitable frustration kicks in. It felt good to be among like-minded souls who’ve gone through the same dark days of self-doubt and to know that there are ways around it, that life isn’t all lost.
I was hoping to attend Mr. Mayer’s conference in Dallas later this month, but after much reflection I think I’ll wait until he returns for his next one. My manuscript really isn’t ready for prime time, even for a workshop, especially after all that I learned this past weekend. I want to tear into it some more before I subject it to even closer scrutiny. At the very least, I want to put an end to the whole mess and call it done, if only for now.