“Calm Down. Write a Book.” : What I Learned at the 2013 Midwest Writer’s Workshop

mww-logo-40Three days.

One six-hour intensive course on writing commercial fiction.

Ten possible, diverse sessions on everything from storytelling to dialog, e-formatting to tax considerations.

Three panels and a Buttonhole the Expert Event.

A query critique, a manuscript evaluation, two agent pitches.

Several hundred talented writers, five agents, a sprinkling of publishers and editors, terrific instructors, energetic and knowledgeable staff, and a group of kick-ass interns.

And, of course, one amazing roommate.

The Midwest Writer’s Workshop was overwhelming, informative, encouraging, exhausting,  and something of a personal wake-up call—in a good way.


Which is where the amazing roommate came in.

Honestly, if you’re going to go to next year’s MWW—and you should—try your best to room with, or next to, Sherry Stanfa-Stanley.  She brings beer, diet Coke, and snacks and shares.  She hauls you off-site for food when you’re about to drop from a combination of self-doubt and low blood sugar, and tells you that you can too write, so knock it off (I’m paraphrasing).  She throws various objects at the automatic light sensors* when your room is once again plunged into darkness—literally and metaphorically.  She assures you multiple times a day, with remarkable patience, that your hair and makeup look fine (but get those bangs out of your eyes).  She listens to your pitch so many times, she can recite it better than you can, and figures out how to convey that one bit of vital information you can’t quite parse.  She teaches you that half a packet of hot cocoa mix makes even slightly burnt, stale coffee into the drink of the gods.  And even her snores are quiet, melodic, and restful.**

She was the one who told me about the MWW in the first place, and I owe her a lot more than my half of the room payment (the check will be in the mail as soon as I can find a stamp, Sherry!).

As usual, I’ve put together, some favorite (mis)quotes*** and moments from the Workshop, as taken from my notes and memory.

Book Explosion

John Gilstrap, ^who ran an intensive workshop called “Adrenaline Rush: how to write commercial fiction”:

—You gotta write crap and make it less crappy.

—THERE ARE NO RULES (there are, however, some really reliable suggestions)

—This is not a sprint for a goal—this is a marathon for a goal

—We make movies for the reader to read.

—The beginning of the book isn’t necessarily the beginning of the story.

(Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code starts with Robert Langdon waking up in a hotel bedroom and getting a mysterious visitor who starts Dr. Langdon’s journey.  But the story begins with Leonardo putting all this stuff in his artwork and why)

—A storyteller’s greatest sin is to waste drama.

—“No, I don’t think [your book] sucks.”

Book Explosion

Roxane Gay, on getting published:

—If you’re patient and persevere, good things will come.

—Calm down.  Write a book.^^^

Book Explosion

Matthew Clemens, author, instructor, Sarcasm Master:

—Dialog, communication, isn’t just verbal.

—I’m a big believer in “said.”  That’s really all you need.  My characters don’t declare, articulate, pronounce, or exclaim. And they never ejaculate.  Bet you didn’t know that F. Scott Fitzgerald had Gatsby ejaculating.  Right there on the page.

—Bad guys don’t start out bad . . . something broke somewhere.

—“Hey, a guy who has books on the bestseller list thinks your book doesn’t suck.  That’s a major victory!”

Book Explosion

Hank Phillippi Ryan:

—Write what you love.  Write what you want to read.

—It’s not how the MC works on the situation, it’s the way the situation works on the MC.

—Setting is important.  [A thriller about stopping a nuclear disaster] couldn’t really happen in Pickatown, Kansas.

Book Explosion

I learned so much that I’ll be processing it all for weeks, but here are a few general things I grasped:

—Talk to everyone.  With maybe one or two exceptions, a simple remark will start up an interesting conversation and earn you a business card^ and maybe a new friend.  And if they can help, they will:   people who see you pacing and sweating before your agent appointments will tell you that you’ll be fine and ask you later how it went.

—Bring snacks.  It’s a long time between lunch and dinner, especially if you hail from another time zone and tend to skip breakfast.

—Pitching an agent for the first time is scary, yes, but survivable.  Pitching an agent for the second time is less scary, even if he’s waiting in the buffet line and other people are listening.

—When an agent or editor teaches you how to write a query letter, you’re actually learning about that agent or editor’s specific preferences for the queries s/he receives.  But if you take notes on what three or four agents and editors would like to see and merge those lists, you can get a good idea of what absolutely needs to go in a query.  And also what absolutely shouldn’t.

—Children do not think that the sturdy paper sacks marked “Turkey” that you saved from your lunches are good souvenirs.

MWW bag—Anyone who has read this far and leaves a comment will get the chance to win the extra swag bag I nabbed on the way out.  It includes a nice-sized blue bag, a February copy of Writer’s Digest Magazine,  a copy of Hank Nuwer’s Freelance Writer’s Desktop Companion, a pack of generically-gendered Bic pens, and a pack of Ball State sticky notes.

—Always take the day after the conference off, so you can recover and write an insanely long blog post . . .  


*The hotel we were staying in had just installed these sensors, which  are meant to turn off the lights if they don’t  sense movement for about ten minutes.  This is a great energy/money saver, but there were a few problems:

—the sensors for the main lights in the room were next to the door, pointed at the closet-nook, around the corner  from where any activity was going to be.  Sherry and I could have been doing the can-can on our beds and the sensor wouldn’t have seen us.

—And even if the sensors had been placed into the room, Sherry and I are writers—and writers don’t move much when they’re writing.  Heck, some of us—by which I mean me—don’t move much regardless.

—the main sensors also ran all the easily accessible outlets around the room, so we had to unplug the clock, the bedside lamps, and the TV to charge our laptops and phones, via cords that weren’t always long enough for the job.  Furniture may have been moved.

—the main sensors did detect when the bathroom sensors kicked in—vibrations from the fan, maybe—so whenever one of us tiptoed into the bathroom after midnight, there was a possibility that the whole room would suddenly light up.

**And she put up with me for four days and three nights, which should earn that woman a purple heart for my snores  alone, which were neither melodic nor quiet.  I’m surprised the main light sensors didn’t pick ’em up.

*** Please for to remember that all this is all filtered through my (overloaded and severely overcaffeinated) brain and I scribbled down what I heard, which isn’t necessarily word-for-word what was said.

^If you get a chance to take one of his workshops or attend a panel with him or have him assess a few pages of your manuscript, do it.  He’s funny, patient, and a good instructor, which isn’t always true of good writers.   And if you haven’t read his books, you’re missing out, because damn, but he’s good.

^^Watson and Jane helped me run some up the night before—so much easier than scribbling the information down on little scraps of paper:

Business Card Sample

^^^I’m cross-stitching this one and sticking it up by my desk.  I have such a braincrush on this woman, I can’t tell you, and I covet her tattoos.