Chip MacGregor

April 25, 2012

More on teaching at a writers’ conference…


Continuing our thoughts about teaching at a writing conference…

6. If you go as a teacher, take some time to talk to people. YOU are one of the reasons they chose to attend. Look, in reality, I’m not a big deal, and I always figure people are going to be disappointed when they finally meet me. But giving writers the  opportunity to meet a “real agent” or a “real editor” or a “published writer” is part of the reason people attend. So don’t try to skip out on actually talking to the newbies. Schedule one-on-ones. Sit and talk with people at your table. Don’t ignore the beginners — they’re paying the bills.

7. If you’re evaluating proposals, don’t tell everybody “send it to me.” Doing so officially qualifies you as a weenie. (Besides, your in-box is going to be swamped with bad proposals for weeks.) If you’re looking at proposals, find something good to say about each one, then give the writer a couple ideas for improving his or her craft. But if it’s not very good, be honest and tell them it’s not ready. If you know if doesn’t fit your organization, tell the author you won’t be publishing it. If it’s a bad or wacko idea, tell them you don’t think it is salable, or doesn’t reach a wide enough audience, or is only going to appeal to people on medication. But don’t give a bad writer the false hope of thinking that he or she is GOOD when they are not.

8. Learn to speak the truth in love. Yeah, I’ve been accused at times of being too blunt. And yes, I’ve had people start to cry because I didn’t like their book idea. I once snapped at a guy for trying to hand me his proposal while I was standing at a urinal. (Yes, that’s a true story. It was at a conference at Seattle Pacific University. And yes, I yelled at the guy. I should have just turned to talk to him…) But the goal at a conference is to help people WRITE better, not just help them FEEL better. Authors who work with me know I don’t have a mean streak — I’m not trying to hurt someone’s feelings by saying a manuscript isn’t ready, I’m trying to help them understand how tough it is to be good enough to get published. Part of my job is to help them improve as writers. We have a tendency to “nice” ourselves into accepting bad work at conferences. We see crap and call it creme brulee. But that’s lying. Learn to tell an author something isn’t great. Learn to share lessons with writers that will help them improve.

9. Go to some of the sessions. You might learn something. Even if you’re an expert. (And don’t misunderstand me… I rarely go to the big-group gatherings at a writing conference. Usually they’re at night, and I’ve been teaching and meeting people all day. I’m worn out, and I won’t be bringing any value to the big group meeting. But that’s me – you might love the general sessions. And this doesn’t mean I can’t get something from some of the workshops. I always like to hear what other experts in the field are saying, and I try to make it to one or two workshops at every writing conference.)

10. My friend Cecil Murphey likes to ask a good question of prospective conference teachers: “Why do you want to teach?” I was away from conferences for a while, thinking I’d said everything I really had to say, and, besides, people needed a break from me. Then a few years ago I did a bunch of conferences again, frankly because I needed to let everyone know that I had started my own agency. I wanted to get my name out there and remind people that I really do know what I’m doing, even if I got the axe from Time-Warner. But the fact is, I also find teaching at a conference a ton of fun. I enjoy speaking. A conference gives me an outlet where I’m helping people, not just pitching them. I love the mentoring side, talking to people who are just starting out. I can’t represent them all, but I can certainly take an hour to talk with them in a class, or 10 minutes to review their latest book idea. I probably won’t do very many in the next couple of years – once again, I’m feeling as though I’ve said all I have to say. But the past year or three have been a great time for connecting with newbies. You may find it helpful to think through your own motivation for wanting to teach at a conference.

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  • Cindy Scinto says:

    This is so great to have–relevant and practical for those teaching. With many conferences behind me as an attendee and quite a few as an instructor, I still need these reminders. I’m teaching three classes at Write-to-Publish this year, and will print out your blog posts to read and re-read before I get there. 8^) 

    Cec Murphey is blunt too (lovingly vs. myself) and as a New Yorker, so am I. (I just spent some one-on-one time with him. Yowza!) Blunt stings for the recipient, but I’ve never been sorry that I received honest feedback. While I perceived it as harsh, I realized it always was essential. 

    My first–very first appointment with an agent/editor was with Steve Laube in 1989. His advice made me feel so little at the time, but that was my own insecurity. Later, I realized he was right on! Thanks, Steve, your points stay with me even today.

    Over the next month as I travel to conferences from Seattle to Wheaten, I hope to live up to your advice on teaching writers. TANX! 8^)

    [disclaimer: must go to sleep … late … typos possible … wait … more than likely — wait, is that a cliche?]

    Cindy, signing off.

  • David Thomas says:

    But the goal at a conference is to help people WRITE better, not just help them FEEL better.”

    If they learn to write better, they WILL feel better — much better!

  • Rajdeep Paulus says:

    On the contrary Chip! When I met you, I was so nervous, the first word out of my mouth was “Ubedabedabeda…” or some kind of gibberish. And you were gracious enough to step out of the way and give me a chance to share my book idea when you could have asked for a translator, questioned my sobriety, or simply walked away. 🙂 Thanks for giving this newbie an ear… and a chance! 🙂

  • I’m so glad you caution against telling everyone “send me your proposal.” I’ve been at conferences where friends felt like they’d won the lottery because an agent or editor asked for the proposal. I once heard an agent tell a room full of writers that having someone ask for your proposal basically means “you’re idea doesn’t stink.” It was a much needed reality check in a business that’s a major roller coaster ride! I’d much rather have honest feedback on fixing my proposal than false hope on selling it. Thanks!

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