Saturday, August 19, 2017

 Midwest Writers Workshop 2017
Margaret S. Hamilton


The third week of July, I attended the annual Midwest Writers Workshop at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. I was alone, as I was last year, but joined conversations every time I sat down at a table. Writers like to talk, about everything from books and movies to what to wear while pitching an agent when it’s ninety plus degrees outside, and not much cooler inside (a sleeveless business dress and cardigan for the occasional frigid room).

On Thursday, Matthew Clemens taught an intensive, five- hour developmental editing class. Because I am preparing for a developmental edit of my debut novel, I was anxious to learn how the process works. Instead, we reviewed an editing checklist and received individual critiques.

Friday and Saturday were devoted to fifty-minute workshops. I found Jess Lourey’s sessions on plotting a mystery and editing a novel invaluable. I endured an agent’s fifty-minute power point presentation on how to stalk an agent on twitter without being creepy, and learned the importance of a clever profile photo. Good fodder for a short story.

During the twenty-minute “buttonhole the experts” sessions, Brenda Drake discussed Pitch Wars and Dianne Drake, an accomplished author of medical romances, talked about navigating publication without an agent.  John Gilstrap walked me through how to give an author presentation, and Jane Friedman discussed the time-saving software she uses to organize her schedule and business expenses.

I finished up my three days at the workshop with John Gilstrap’s guns and explosives session, which gave me enough information so that I know what questions to ask my local police department.

I received two informative manuscript critiques and query letter critique. I was astonished by the responses I received from the two agents I pitched my debut contemporary mystery:

"You can’t write about THAT!”

"I don’t rep genre fiction.”

I don’t think the first agent was familiar with the broad scope of mysteries—cozy, traditional, historical and contemporary. I learned that “genre fiction” is another term for “commercial fiction.” Agents are looking for the next best thing in literary fiction, but that’s too exclusive a category, with a limited market, so they term literary fiction with a compelling, character-driven plot and movie/television potential “upmarket fiction.” In other words, the next Gone Girl.

Writers, have you attended a workshop, and what did you learn?


  1. You never know what tidbit or great idea you’ll get when you attend a conference, and even the worst conference I attended had some value in addition to rubbing elbows with other authors.

    ~ Jim

  2. Lovely pictures, Margaret, and I'm glad you had a good time there and learned a lot.

    I've attended two at the same college by the same person. I only went the second year because one of my writer friends wanted to go. I got very little out of either of them although I do think one person was interesting. Most of the talks were by the same person. Fortunately, it was not much more than an hour away.

    I also went to Seascape two years that was in southern Connecticut. That was much better with Roberta Islieb, Hallie Ephron, and the second year Hank Phillippi Ryan came for one day, too. I also got a critique of my first book as yet unpublished at that time. We had to send 50 pages in advance for each in the group we would be working with to read in advance. That was a good writers' event. I don't know if they still have it or not.

  3. I've been to several conferences, but not enough writing workshops. How fun to focus on writing, especially for a whole weekend like that.
    "Upmarket fiction" "genre fiction" - I can't keep up!
    I've found that the manuscript critique part of conferences has been truly hit or miss. Mostly miss. Most memorable was the agent who didn't read my manuscript (and yes, I paid to have this critique) and tried to bluff her way through it. Ugh.

  4. Like Shari, I have been to conferences but not to workshops. I'd like to try it.

  5. Great pictures, Margaret, and the workshop sounds interesting especially for the variety of presentations. John Gilstrap is amazing. I spent time with him in a standing room only class at Writer's Police Academy a few years ago. It was worth every second!

    Sorry about the agent comments. The first one sounds so out of place. Of course you can write about THAT - it's just that the agent doesn't rep it. Heavens.

    Unlike others, I've not attended a conference yet - It's on my to do.

  6. Jim, you're right. Though I attended sessions covering many different topics, I learned as much by sitting at a table chatting with my fellow writers.

    Gloria, I attended a workshop in Hamilton, Ohio last fall with Hallie Ephron, including her critique of my WIP. It was a terrific experience.

    Shari, I had good, solid critiques, particularly from Jess Lourey. Jess is an experienced teacher, which made a huge difference.

    Warren, it's different and fun. MWW is exceptionally friendly and low-key. Lots of YA writers, some memoir writers and poets, lots of women's fiction, and a healthy representation from the mystery and thriller community.

    Kait, I loved John Gilstrap's weapons and explosives talk. He did a five hour intensive on writing a thriller which I heard was awesome.

  7. I love conferences and conventions where you not only meet some of the experts but also can interact with other authors. In fact, seeing other people who are interested in the same things I am is the biggest attraction of things like Malice Domestic.

    I haven't been to a workshop-type gathering in a while. Maybe it's time to look into them.