Right now, I'm in the process of putting together the writing workshop track for Context 23. The convention has grown considerably in the past four years, and all our data points to that being the result of expanding the writing programming.
A decade ago, Context had a writing workshop that was similar to the type of writing workshop offered at many conventions. It was a Milford-style critique workshop that went on Saturday and Sunday mornings of the convention, and it was often team-taught by Tim Waggoner and Gary Braunbeck. People would submit short story manuscripts in advance of the workshop (sometimes just a few days in advance, leaving instructors scrambling to get everything read in time). I helped Gary prepare for the workshop a couple of times, and it was a good, solid workshop that most students got a lot out of.
But it occurred to me that the convention could offer much more, if someone would just be willing to roll up sleeves and do some coordination and promotion. There's nothing at all wrong with a critique workshop; many beginning writers don't have access to writers' groups or critique partners, and they crave informed evaluation from a pro. But other writers do have access to critiques, or they're writing poetry or novels, or they're not interested in manuscript critique but possibly very interested in specialized writing topics.
Furthermore, it seemed to me that there's a gap between the casual convention critique workshop and expensive, high-intensity workshops like the Borderlands Boot Camp and Clarion. I was pretty sure that Context, with its focus on reading and writing speculative fiction, could fill that gap.
So, a couple of years ago, I volunteered to become the writing workshops coordinator for Context, and now the con's offering a buffet of workshops that I don't think any other science fiction/horror convention has matched. This year, we had topic workshops on flash fiction (taught by Mike Arnzen, who tackled horror poetry last year), creating plots, writing comic books, writing video games, creating character through dialog, writing openings, and world-building. On top of that, we had Gary Braunbeck leading a short story critique masterclass for published writers, and Tim Waggoner and Paula Guran offering individual critiques of short stories and novel packages. And we had regular writing panels on topics like effective blogging, self-editing and finding agents to supplement the topics offered in the workshops. We offered over a dozen formal workshops and at least twice that many writing panels; you can see a listing of everything on the Context Writing Workshops page.
I'm still recovering from the weekend, but soon I'll start putting together the workshops for next year.
Most any convention could do what I have done; the only catch is that it's a lot of work pretty much year-round, and requires a moderate level of organization. As to who should be put in charge of a workshops track, it helps to have someone familiar with writing workshops and the needs of both writers and instructors. Some convention workshops have failed because the organizers just didn't get that workshops involve a lot of hard work and expertise, leading to instructors becoming frustrated over late submissions and delayed payment.
So, here's my advice to anyone who wants to establish a workshop track like the one we've got at Context:
- Figure out what students want to see. This is your first, basic step to figure out what you'll be offering. Do this early as possible; nine months before the convention starts isn't too early (like any baby, a good workshop takes time to gestate). The easiest way is to poll people who've been to your convention in the past; brain-storm some workshop ideas (popular panels can often become workshops) and see which ones people like most. I've found Livejournal polls fairly useful for this. Once you have a list of popular workshop topics, look around to see if you know instructors who could competently teach those topics.
- Recognize that your instructors are crucial. A workshop is smooth sailing if you're working with professionals who know how to put on a good workshop. I have an advantage in that my husband, Gary Braunbeck, is a skilled teacher who knows other skilled teachers via the Seton Hill University Writing Popular Fiction program. All the instructors we've had from Seton Hill - Diana Botsford, Mike Arnzen, Tobias Buckell, Timons Esaias - has been great to work with.
\Once you've recruited good instructors, treat 'em right. Get them the equipment they need to hold a good workshop, and answer their questions promptly. Make sure they're being paid fairly for their work, and get them paid promptly after the convention is over.
- Yes, you should charge extra for the workshops. You don't have to (and probably shouldn't) charge a lot, but make sure you're charging enough to ensure that the instructors are being fairly paid for their time and work and that the dedicated space that you've rented from the hotel or convention center is being paid for. Furthermore, a small additional fee helps weed out people who are less than serious and who might be disruptive. Conversely, charging too much will limit the number of people willing to sign up, and will make students much more critical of the workshop they've paid for. If you have a dynamite instructor who wants to limit the workshop size, sure, charge more; otherwise, seek the happy medium. We've found $20 per person for a 2- or 3-hour topic workshop works well.
- Keep a close eye on your numbers. Make sure you're not over-selling a workshop, and make sure you always know who's signed up for what. And make sure you know what each instructor should be paid. This basic type of organization is crucial.
- Keep students informed. Regular updates keep students excited about the upcoming workshops. If people have questions, make sure you respond to their concerns quickly and professionally. Even if you think they're being overly demanding or unreasonable, it's important to maintain an attitude of good customer service.
- Pay attention to your facilities. Make sure that the room dedicated to the workshop will physically hold the number of people in the class, and that the room will be set up to accommodate them. Also, make sure your instructors will have access to the necessary multimedia equipment (laptops, projectors, TVs, DVD players, etc.) and make sure to test the equipment before the workshop starts to avoid awkward delays while you run home to find a TV remote because you didn't realize the channel buttons on the TV are broken. (Sorry about that, Gary.)
- Promote, promote, promote. Students won't sign up if they don't know the workshop exists, or if they don't know what they'll get out of it. We've had good luck posting at writers' message boards and sending flyers to local universities. Start early, and keep at it; the economy isn't good, so good promotion is crucial.
If all that sounds like a lot of work ... well, it is! But there's nothing like seeing a good workshop come together.
Labels: convention, writing, writing workshop
I met Chuck Palahniuk at this past weekend's Bram Stoker Awards convention in sunny Burbank, CA. Palahniuk's phenomenal short story "Guts" was up for the short fiction award (surprisingly, it didn't win). The convention's organizers didn't expect Palahniuk to attend; they figured he'd be too big-name and literary and Hollywood to have any interest in such a small genre con.
Turns out, the organizers were wrong; Palahniuk seemed really pleased to be there, and looked like he got a huge kick out of the assortment of horror fans and California goths who attended his late-night reading and signing the following day. When he signed books, he also put one of two stamps inside: one read "Haunted Tour 2005" and the other "Prison Library Copy".
As much as I admire his work, I dreaded meeting him. It's not uncommon for big-name novelists to be complete jerks; success leads to swollen, infected egos, and many authors begin to act as if dealing with fans and "lesser" writers is dreadfully beneath them. For instance, nobody's been able to identify who the murdered Guest of Honor portrayed in Sharyn McCrumb's novel Bimbos of the Death Sun is based on because there are so very many spoiled, nasty authors who fit that mold in real life.
My fears were unfounded; in person, Palahniuk is a very pleasant, gracious man. I sat across from him at the awards banquet; he preferred salmon over steak and has phenomenal table manners. With long hair, he looks a bit like a healthy version of Iggy Pop; with short hair, he bears a bit more resemblance to a thin Clive Owen. You might be tempted to apply the adjective "nice" to him, but "nice" just doesn't cut it considering the sheer intensity of his work.
Chuck Palahniuk (left) and Gary A. Braunbeck:
Before he read "Guts", Palahniuk talked to us a bit about a writing workshop he'd belonged to as a beginning writer. The workshop's leader had a background in acting, and thought it very important that his students learn how to be good readers of their own work.
So, to toughen his students up, the workshop leader would arrange for them to do readings of their work in wildly inappropriate places. Instead of quiet libraries and bookstores, he'd sign them up (often with no advance notice) at loud, busy coffeeshops and sports bars.
"This would lead to situations where someone would be reading their touching story about their child's bout with cancer in some bar full of drunk guys who were watching the Patriots play on the big-screen TV. And these guys would just not give a shit about the person reading," Palahniuk said.
The experience led Palahniuk to start writing each story as if he was eventually going to have to read it aloud in a place where he'd have to compete with a blaring football game for attention.
"Guts" is just such a story, and Palahniuk is an excellent reader. It's hard to tear your attention away, even if the faint of heart might want to after Palahniuk reaches the horrifying meat of the story. He says that when he's read the story for the public before, some people fled; those who could not flee have doubled over with their heads between their knees, trying to not listen to a tale that's going to stick in their heads like an icepick.
The extremity of Palahniuk's fiction was also formed by his admiration of Shirley Jackson's work. When her short story "The Lottery" came out in The New Yorker, many readers were completely horrified by it and promptly cancelled their subscriptions with outraged letters of protest to the magazine.
"In this day and age, what kind of fiction would you have to write to get that kind of extreme reaction in readers? What kind of fiction has that power?" Palahniuk said to us. "And so that's the kind of fiction I've tried to write."
Palahniuk engaged in correspondence with one of Shirley Jackson's daughters, and one thing led to another (he said he couldn't go into exactly what), and in the end the daughter sent him part of Jackson's cremated remains.
Palahniuk still remembers the day he got the cremains in the mail. His then-roommate hovered nearby as Palahniuk opened the box to find a foil package inside.
"Don't you dare open that at the kitchen table!" his roommate exclaimed.
Palahniuk sent Jackson's ashes on to his publishing company, who has them under lock and key.
While Palahniuk the man is far too kind and gracious to do anything untoward at the dinner table, Palahniuk the author will mix the ashes right in with the mashed potatoes. And if you dare take a bite, you'll find it's really very tasty.
Labels: convention, horror