Friday, May 6, 2022

Finding the Best Writing Class or Conference for Your Book Right Now

A blog reader suggested this great topic: what's the best way to go about finding the "right" writing class or conference for my book, my writing, right now?

There are so many out there, good ones and not so good. How do you choose wisely?

First, let's talk about the need for writing classes or conferences. What do they offer a writer? How can they possibly benefit you in your book-writing journey?

I'm a writing class junkie; I'll admit that first off. I love taking them and I usually love what I learn.

But it's been a long road of discovering the best ones, the teachers I really resonate with, the topics that are especially productive for where I am with my book project at any one moment. I've taken some truly bomb classes. In these posts I've already ranted about one weeklong course I took at Iowa Summer Writers Festival that was such a bad experience, I didn't write for a year. The instructor was very renowned, well credentialed. I learned a lot that summer about what works for me and what doesn't.

Right now, I'm a big fan of on demand online classes. These run over a few weeks to a few months and they are asynchronous, which just means you can log on anytime to read the lesson or post comments or work for feedback. I've been taking them every month since January through the Loft Literary Center and Grub Street. Grub offers more of these on demand classes; the Loft offers more live online classes, where you meet on zoom for an afternoon or evening. The on demand works well for my life right now, and they give me time to ruminate about the lessons, rather than be on the spot as I sometimes feel on zoom. But live on zoom has the advantage of real-time interaction, which is also helpful.

But I select different kinds of classes based on what my writing/my book actually needs.

Some classes are designated as "generative," which means you get exercises and ideas to generate new work, critique is low-key if at all, and mostly there is support for learning.

Others are "workshopping" classes, where you can expect to read and respond to other writers' work, as well as get feedback on your own.

When I'm working on new material, I usually opt for the generative classes, which demand and offer less critical feedback. They are mostly about my own learning; I have to spend less time on others' material. But I don't usually come away with much in the way of feedback, except from the instructor. Many times, this is fine. I'm in the middle of such a class now--four weeks on characters. It's all generative, so I am successfully producing new work and not spending much time on critique.

I recently took a short story class that was mostly about critique; I needed it because I have stories ready to submit. That took more reading and commenting time, but the group was very helpful with their feedback on my pieces.

So first look at the type of class: what's expected of you, how this fits with what you want. And consider whether you learn best by taking your time and working on your own (on demand) or being in a live meeting (live zoom or in person).

The biggest challenge, though, is not in type of class or format. It's in the instructor's ability to create community and offer outstanding ideas and material. For that, I go to (1) the instructor's bio and (2) the reviews. On the bio, I look for credentials such as an MFA, publication, and years of teaching experience. I know both the Loft and Grub Street vet their instructors carefully and pay attention to student feedback. I've rarely been disappointed with a class from either school.

What about immersion experiences, such as conferences or weeklong courses? Conferences are all about crowds, a wide range of offerings, and the chance to network, in my experience. I don't get to learn and practice skills as much at one of these--my usual goal has been to meet other writers, listen to big-name presenters, and get exposed to what's going on in the publishing industry. If I attend a conference hoping to write a lot and get feedback, I'm usually disappointed. I have attended a lot of these in the past, and they were useful at different times in my writing career, for sure. It's a "see and be seen" kind of experience, in my view. Not something I need when I'm neck-deep in new work and feeling vulnerable about it. Then, a conference would mostly lower my belief in my work. But when I was agent-shopping, these kinds of events were gold.

I enjoy weeklong retreats or courses at a destination. These vary a lot too. I remember one year when I taught a class at Madeline Island School of the Arts (a wonderful destination school, by the way) and a student in someone else's class asked to transfer to mine midweek. She had come wanting to get information, clear instruction, and the actual steps to create a book. But she signed up for a generative class by mistake--the instructor gave great exercises and mostly left the writers on their own. She felt lost. My course was advertised as a storyboard intensive, which was more what she needed.

Here are the questions I ask myself when perusing the course catalogs to choose a class:

Do I need generative or instructive or workshopping time?
Do I want to be live with others (on zoom or in person) or work on my own (on demand)?
Is the topic meaty enough for where I am right now with my book?
What are the instructor's credentials?
What do other students say about the instructor?

Most schools, if you call their education department, will help you out if you have questions. The Loft, for instance, contacted me regularly with students asking about my classes and if they'd be a good fit. I'd answer honestly, of course--the last thing I wanted was an unhappy participant. If not a good fit, I'd steer them towards something else.

It takes time to find a school you trust, whose offerings are consistently good. But it's worth it. Writing, for me, is a lifelong pursuit; there's always more to learn, so I'm going to be taking classes as long as I can.

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