Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Care and Feeding of a Convention Writing Workshop Track

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.)
  7. 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.