The past five weeks have gone by in a blur and it seems all too soon Midwest Writers Workshop 2017 has come to an end. As one of the 8 Ball State University students who had the great fortune to intern with and help organize this amazing conference I’d like to take a little time to reflect on the highlights of my experience. As interns we worked for 5 weeks up to the beginning of MWW reviewing books of visiting authors, conducting interviews, organizing pitch schedules for the agents, and of course, blogging about all of it and engaging on social media. With so much content to work with both leading up to the workshop and during it I hardly know where to even start. Perhaps, it would be best to begin with how my workshop experience began.
Best Part of Interning with MWW
One of the best parts of attending MWW as an intern was the opportunity to work closely with the visiting agents and authors and getting to know them on a more personal level than you might typically see if you were just pitching with them or attending a panel. So as an intern with a car I quickly jumped on the opportunity to drive visiting authors and agents to and from the airport before and after the conference. The hour and a half trip from the Indianapolis airport to Muncie where the conference is help was a perfect stretch of uninterrupted time where no one had to worry yet about pitching sessions or preparing for a presentation and could just relax and engage in casual conversation.
Between three trips I got to discuss how to find accurate information to write realistic weaponry and explosives with author John Gilstrap, peruse my mixed tape collection with agents Jessica Sinsheimer & Roseanna Wells, and get lost on I-465 with Brenda Drake, YA author founder of Pitch Wars and film producer/debut novelist Nina Sadowsky (an occasion later commemorated by an impromptu trip to the photo booth).
Things started out a bit rocky between navigation issues and me actually getting pretty sick the morning of the first day, but between a quick trip to the doctor and a lot of understanding (and humorous outlook) from my airport passengers everything turned out pretty well in the end. I really hope I get to help in the future with the Midwest Writers Workshop (and next time I promise not to get lost on the interstate >.<).
Pitching, Queries, Manuscripts and More
Helping to organize the pitch, query letter critiques, and manuscript evaluation schedule for agent Eric Smith was my other main responsibility as a MWW17 intern. Most of this was managing what times Eric had open and making sure I got him to his panels on time between sessions. It was a lot of fun seeing so many people go through pitches or receive feedback on their query letters or manuscripts. I got to hear all kinds of interesting stories from people working on everything from autobiographies, to YA Lit, sci-fi/fantasy genre, and so much more.
I think the most important experience I have to take away from this is just how excited and engaged Eric always was, giving constructive feedback to each person and helping to direct them towards other agents who may be able to help them on their path when he found something he loved, but didn’t quite fit his usual work. No matter whether it was someone he would work with personally or not, he always gave constructive advice from which they could take the next needed step forward, whether that was focusing on a point of revision or querying a suggested agent or even the instances where he asked to see their manuscript himself, each person seemed to walk away with a renewed enthusiasm for continuing their work.
I also got some experience in maintaining an ever changing schedule, as people throughout the weekend came asking if Eric had any room left for more pitches, connecting people with other interns who worked with different agents, and helping the convention attendees double check their own schedules as changes where made both in the couple weeks leading up to as well as the days of the conference. Most of these were simple things to do, but just the fact that there was someone there, either us interns or some of the more regular faculty who run the conference made a world of difference to many attendees who sought out our help.
Even later at the conference I saw spoke to several of these individuals who expressed just how grateful they were that the Midwest Writers Workshop existed and thanked several of the interns time and time again for helping to make the convention experience enjoyable for everyone. As someone who is interested in pursuing a career either as an agent or in organizing conventions I couldn’t think of a better way to help the community grow and support one another.
The Personal Experience
While the opportunity to work directly with agents and authors is a bit unique to the interns helping with the conference there were still other opportunities for the average con attendee to make these connections.
Buttonhole the Experts took place on two different days and allowed the writers attending the conference to pick tables where they could chat in small groups with the various authors, editors, and agents regarding their expertise in their given field. The event was organized so that you could chat with the people at your table for 10 minutes before switching to another for a total of 3 times (6 between the two days it was held), and while 10 minutes may not seem like very long, I was surprised at how much we were able to discuss in such a short time. I credit this to the fact that the groups were kept relatively small, no more than 8-10 people per table at a time, and sometimes even less, making the experience much more personable and direct and allowing more time for direct one-on-one conversation.
With 33 topics and only 6 time slots to choose from I had to think carefully about what topics would benefit me most at my current place in my writing career, and with so many interesting topics and people to choose from it wasn’t an easy decision to make. I’m sure many other con attendees felt the same, so for those of you who didn’t get to attend the same tables I did I’ve included the most helpful advice or even just highlights I got from my own time at these tables below.
My first day I attended Brenda Drake’s table to discuss Pitch Wars (which I plan on submitting my manuscript to here in a couple weeks) to learn more about the process as well as the inspiration and backstory behind creating the contest and how it evolved since it was first implemented. The competition helps to connect aspiring writers with agents, editors, published authors and other professionals in order to fine tune you manuscript in the hopes of finding representation and/or publishing deals. It helps to connect these professionals with the kinds of stories they are looking for and offers a sort of mentorship by which these writers can improve their craft. The next session opens August 2nd and the submission window will continue through the 6th. Applications can be sent to up to four mentors, with the option to apply to 2 extra with a donation.
I also attended Lauren Smulski’s “SciFi/Fantasy Worldbuilding” table as this is the main genre I write in to talk about worldbuilding that blends both sci-fi and fantasy elements (and example of which would be Start Wars, where advanced futuristic technology is used by most, but which also has the Jedi who have what seem like magical or psychic like abilities). We talked about how the more advanced readership you have, the more important it is to have a clearly defined system for how magic or tech work or even just the history, mythos, and culture of the world. For younger audiences some of these things may not need to be explored as in depth and sometimes leaving a bit of mystery can be a good thing, but the older your audience gets the more important it becomes for the structure to clear and well understood in order for the world to feel complete and make sense to readers.
And of course after hearing so much about Nina Sadowsky’s experiences in film production (both from my previous interview with her as well as out rather eventful trip from the airport) I absolutely had to find a spot at her table for the topic “You Oughta Be in Pictures: Is your book right for the silver screen?” We discussed so many different aspects of adapting books to film, from the traditional movies to the growing popularity of TV adaptations and how Netflix Original series are changing the market opportunities.
I learned a lot of interesting information regarding casting for film, pitching your story, and what kind of productions work best for different stories. She had us contemplate the question “How would my story be best told?” For plots that develop slowly over a long time, a TV adaption may work better than a traditional movie. Past that you also have to consider the content. TV companies will often try to show content that appeals to the broadest demographic. Basic cable is commercially driven meaning they may take on slightly riskier content and have more flexibility as far as time constraints are concerned, and for those of us who write more graphic content (typically sex or violence) stations like HBO, Showtime, and Starz are the way to go.
With the second day I decided to focus on more career focused topics. I sat down at the “Everything You Need to Know About Finding and Using Critique Partners” table by Annie Sullivan whose advice helped me work up the nerve to ask a few of the other attendees if they’d like to work as critique partners.
The next two tables I went to where Jessica Sinsheimer’s “Chat with an Agent” and Eric Smith’s “Day in the Life of an Agent” to get advice on submitting queries and an insider look on what it might be like to pursue agenting as a career.
From Jessica the most helpful advice I received were the following. Organize your agent choices into three categories 1) Top Choice, 2) Middle Choice, and 3) Maybe/Low Choice. Send our your queries in rounds, assigning 5 agents to each category (and don’t tell them which tier you categorized them in of course). This allows you a good sample size from which you can evaluate if something needs to change either in your query or manuscript before sending out submissions to more agents.
Don’t query all you top choices in the first round, as you don’t want to blow your chances with all of them with a bad query letter. As for how to write a good query letter, one of the best techniques you can take advantage of is having “query voice.” Many query letters come across as flat, so reading a query letter where the agent can clearly hear the author’s voice is a rare thing and is sure to get the agent’s attention.
With Eric I learned about the process of working as an agent. A typical day starts with looking at the recently received queries and when something catches your eye a quick trip to the internet to investigate the writer further, looking for indicators in social media and throughout the web as to whether the writer is someone you would like to work with. Eric also talked about his early experiences as a new agent attending conferences in order to make connections with other professionals in the field, keeping up to date on industry news, and a horror story of the worst query letter he ever received.
As always one of the most enjoyable part of a convention is the opportunity to attend the various workshops and panels that run throughout the weekend.
In Jess Lourey’s “Editing Your Novel: Quick and Dirty Tips to Superboost Your Writing” I got tips revising each scene to ensure it benefits the story with the ARISE method. Scenes that don’t satisfy one of these needs are cut, while ones that only provide 1 one them are beefed up to include another category. Any scene with at least 3 is great, while scenes with only information fall flat.
When structuring the plot of your story you want to make sure that each scene is pushing the story forward, continuing to build suspense as the plot progresses. The stakes need to keep rising as one scene feeds into another. One thing to look for in order to evaluate the story progress is this:
If the transitions between you story start with “and then” you’re fucked.
Stories that lead with “and then” are boring, and don’t really go anywhere. Try to write scenes where the transition is “because” or “and therefore/but this happened.” These transitions focus more on causation between each beat and help to drive the story forward as well as build suspense.
Jess also suggested techniques for line editing (once your manuscript is complete and you’ve finished content editing) such as the benefits of reading out loud yourself versus having other people read it out loud. Reading it yourself will help you catch clunky writing, shifting tone, and grammar errors, while having someone else read it will give you a better indicator if your writing is accomplishing what you want. If the reader stumbles over a spot, then the tone of the moment may not be clear and probably isn’t achieving the desired effect. For any kind of editing make sure you get the perspective of multiple readers.
Live Tweeting from the Panels
Perhaps the most useful technical skills I learned at the Midwest Writers Workshop was finally figuring out the methods behind live tweeting at events. I’ve seen other writers make use of this technique to build platform and social media presence while providing interesting and useful highlights of live events (especially panels) but honestly didn’t feel like I had any clue how do to it myself.
In class our teacher had encouraged us to give this a shot when guest speakers came to present their knowledge, but I always felt lost trying to figure out how and it just kind of never happened, but as it always seems to turn out with me, something I thought was scary or intimidating or just plain confusing actually turned out rather easy. I quickly started to pick up this skill at the All Agent Panel Q&A with Eric Smith, Jessica Sinsheimer, Monica Odom, Brooks Sherman, Jennifer Laughran, and Roseanne Wells, on Friday morning, and began to refine the skill after sneaking into the tail end of the Diversity is Not a Trend Panel Saturday with Monica Odom, Becky Albertalli, Angie Thomas, Brooks Sherman, Ashley Ford, and Terri Bischoff.
Both of these panels provided a host of inspiring, hilarious, and wildly useful information, much of which was easy to convert into tweet and certainly worth sharing. It was a bit of a struggle at first, trying to find a way to summarize what the panelists had said while still keeping their voice and the importance of what they said. Sometimes I could direct quote, with a specific line that perfectly summed up what they had just said, and other times I would have to summarize a part of it to fit the character limit.
One technique I learned from other live Tweeters I saw was to quote my own tweets by ending the previous with /# so readers could follow the whole quote in order when it seemed imported to provide the whole quote exactly as the panelist spoke it.
While live Tweeting certainly has benefits for building an author’s platform the thing I love most about it is the opportunity to record the memories in a way that will both help me remember these amazing experiences as well as share the ideas and voices of the panelists for those who couldn’t be there. It’s exciting to think that years down the road I can look back on those Tweets and remember the time I spent at Midwest Writers Workshop 2017 and all of the amazing, wonderful, and inspiring people I met there.
Also for Tweets, photos, advice and more take a peak at some of the fun that occurred over the weekend check out these memories recorded by various participants and compiled by MidwestWriters Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3.
The experiences I had this summer helping with the Midwest Writers Workshop are some of the best moments of my college career. As a senior looking to graduate next spring sadly I may not be around for the next MWW but I sincerely hope I have the opportunity to attend this wonderful conference again and with any hope I will see you all next year for #MWW18!