MFA + MWW: Why MFA Grads Need to Attend a Writer’s Conference

MWW committee member Cathy Day interviews MFA Grads & MWW Alums

Approximately 175 people attended the Midwest Writers Workshop in July 2012. Among them were two recent MFA grads: Aaron Hoover (University of West Virginia 2011) and Caitlin O’Sullivan (Minnesota State University–Mankato, 2012). I’d never met either in person, but had been Facebook friends with them for a while–Aaron grew up near my hometown, and I used to teach at Mankato long ago. These two saw me yakking about MWW on Facebook and asked, “Would this be good for me?” and I said, “Absolutely.”

CathyWhat made you decide to come to MWW?

O'SullivanCaitlin: Two things: first, I wanted a shortcut to learning everything I needed to know about being a published novelist; and second, I wanted to meet agents. While I came out of my program feeling confident that I could write a kick-butt novel, I knew I had a lot to learn about the business of publishing–how to find agents, write query letters, and build a writing career. I also had what I thought was a pretty strong manuscript in a genre that some of the agents at the conference represented. I figured it would be harder for them to turn me down to my face than in an email.  

HooverAaron: I have this novel I want to publish, and coming into MWW I knew almost nothing about what that would entail. Now I feel very positive about my chances once I’m ready to put the book out there. I also wanted to get back in touch with writing and renew my commitment to the discipline of daily work. It’s very easy, with a family and two jobs, to lose touch with that side of myself. Attending MWW kept me focused on my work and helped to inspire a very productive summer.


Cathy: When you say “writing conference” most MFAers think AWP, but MWW is very different. I’d say that it’s about equal parts “craft of writing” and “business of writing.” Do you think that’s accurate? How would you describe it? What can a recent MFA grad expect? 

Caitlin: The craft classes at MWW didn’t necessarily blow my mind, but that’s probably because I just finished a program in which I’d been thoroughly steeped in craft. I think a recent MFA can expect to learn the most at the business panels, which definitely cover material that they didn’t teach you in grad school.

Aaron: I took more advantage of the business side of things than craft, because it was just what I needed. I quickly learned how the publishing industry categorizes work like mine, how to build a platform to promote my own work, and how best to talk and write to agents. All of this stuff was covered lightly, if at all, in my craft-focused MFA experience.

Cathy: What have been the biggest challenges of your post-MFA life? Did the conference help at all in that regard, and how exactly? 

Caitlin: I was lucky enough to have a bunch of brilliant, supportive classmates and teachers while I was in grad school. When I graduated, it meant that I didn’t get to see them on a daily or weekly basis anymore. While I also love the people I spend time with now, they’re not writers–their ability to help me learn to pitch my novel, fix plot holes, and work out character problems is pretty limited.

Aaron: Far and away the greatest challenges of my post-MFA life have been material. Squaring away the time and money to act like a writer is not easy for me because I do a lot of labor for little pay and have primary care responsibility for two young children.

Caitlin: MWW immersed me back in that writing-centric environment–and because it’s not a giant conference, I made friends that I saw several times each day of the conference. That “pretty strong manuscript”? My MWW friends helped me make it even stronger.

Aaron: This is worth saying too: this conference is amazingly well-priced. It also helped renew my passion for writing by clarifying my vision of how, exactly, I might become a successful, published writer.

Cathy: Why should MFA grads think about attending a conference like this?

Caitlin: Traditional MFA programs are great for instilling the fundamentals of good writing. They’re not so great when it comes to teaching writers how to market their writing, and what’s going on in the ever-changing publishing world. You know the saying “Smart people learn from their mistakes, geniuses learn from other people’s mistakes”?

Aaron: The MFA introduced me to the serious academic world, which changed my life; it connected me with a bevy of amazing artists who are now my friends and helpers; and it bought me some protected time to write a real manuscript. MWW got me out of the cozy, cloistered world of ‘art for art’s sake’ and introduced me to the world of the professional fiction writer – which is, I think, where many of us wanted to end up when we started the MFA.

Cathy: Let me say this as someone who has taught in an MFA program: you’re not being disloyal or ungrateful to your program by saying, “I didn’t learn a lot about how to publish.” I’ve written about this topic elsewhere, actually. (Should We Make It Our Business to Teaching the Business of Being a Writer?) Our MFA programs taught us how to write the best book possible. Without that, you’ve got nothing to sell anyway.

Caitlin: Right. MWW is probably good for skipping at least six months’ worth of crappy query letters, bad blog posts, and misguided social networking. If an MFA program is a writing boot camp, instilling you with skills and knowledge you’ll use throughout your career, MWW is the two-week specialized training that prepares you for your first mission: getting your first book published.

Aaron: I feel like I might, honest-to-goodness, be able to get this manuscript between covers and on the shelves of bookstores; I can see how that might unfold. So I have the kind of inspiration one gets when an important goal is not only strongly desired, but clearly in view. Also, if you were a little blue that your MFA program had little to say about ‘genre’ fiction, you’ll find that deficit remedied here.

Cathy: It would make me happy to see more MFA grads at our conference. Maybe MWW can become a kind of “publishing finishing school.” Thanks you guys for talking with me, and good luck with your books! / @Caitlin_OSully
Aaron’s Facebook / And Blog, Such as it Is.

Mini-conference in Brownsburg, Ind.

Get expert help with your writing! Make plans to attend the Midwest Writers’ Mini-conference April 13th at the Brownsburg Public Library, 450 S. Jefferson Street in Brownsburg, where authors will share their writing secrets!

Midwest Writers Workshop will conduct a mini-conference, “How to Ramp Up Your Writing,” Saturday, April 13, 9 a.m.-noon at the Brownsburg Public Library, 450 South Jefferson Street, Brownsburg, Ind.

Three writers will be presenters at the mini-conference, which will include talks about getting published, participation in break-out groups and a panel question-and-answer session.

This 3-hour intensive mini-conference is just $10, and registration is required. Light refreshments will be served.  The mini-conference is a service project of MWW, now in its 40th year.

KathySmith headshotDrake DianneMiller-HollyThe speakers include: Holly Miller, contributing editor for The Saturday Evening Post, a sought-after conference speaker, and co-author of the textbook, Feature & Magazine Writing; Dianne Drake, international best-selling and award-winning author of more than 50 books; Special MWW guest Kate Watterson, suspense author of Frozen. Writing as Emma Wildes, she was named by Booklist as one of the rising stars of historical fiction. Moderator will be Cathy Shouse, workshop coordinator of special events.

Each mini-conference attendee will receive a $20-off voucher for their registration for 2013 Midwest Writers Workshop scheduled at Ball State University July 25-27th.

To register, click here. For additional information: 317-852-3167.

Mini-conference in Cicero, Ind.

Think spring! 

Make plans to attend the Midwest Writers’ Mini-conference, March 16 at the Hamilton North Public Library, 209 W. Brinton Street in Cicero, Ind., where authors will share their hottest writing tips!

Register early! Seating is limited. Midwest Writers Workshop will conduct a mini-conference, “Getting Serious About Your Writing,” Saturday, March 16, 10 a.m.-1 p.m. at the Hamilton North Public Library in Cicero, located in Hamilton County, north of Indianapolis.

Cicero Library

Three writers will be presenters at the mini-conference, which will include talks about getting published, participation in break-out groups and a panel question-and-answer session.

This 3-hour intensive mini-conference is just $10, and registration is required. Light refreshments will be served.

The speakers include: Kelsey Timmerman, whose debut book, Where Am I Wearing?, was chosen as Ball State University’s Common Reader for freshmen, and whose second book Where Am I Eating? will be released in April; Terence Faherty, author of two mystery series, a winner of the Macavity Award, and a short fiction author whose stories appear regularly in mystery magazines; Megan Powell, whose debut urban fantasy novel, No Peace for the Damned, was contracted through an agent she snagged at Midwest Writers Workshop; Moderator will be Cathy Shouse, workshop coordinator of special events.

Faherty Portrait Powell Megan Kelsey

Each mini-conference attendee will receive a $20-off voucher for their registration for 2013 Midwest Writers Workshop scheduled at Ball State University July 25-27th.

Register here. To receive further information, please phone 317-984-5623.

Hank Phillippi Ryan Interview

Hank Phillippi Ryan to speak at MWW 40th

hank-phillippi-ryan-crop-pressHank Pillippi Ryan is an investigative reporter for Channel 7 News on WHDH-TV, the NBC-affiliate station for Boston, Massachusetts. A native of Indianapolis, she attended Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio, and also studied abroad at the International School in Hamburg, Germany. Ryan joined WHDH-TV in 1983 as a general assignment reporter. In 1989, she was named principal reporter for the station’s investigative unit. Ryan has won 28 Emmy Awards and 12 Edward R. Murrow Awards for her investigative and consumer reporting.
Her first published novel, Prime Time, won the Agatha Award for best new mystery of 2007, featuring Boston investigative reporter Charlotte “Charlie” McNally. Her follow-up mystery, Face Time, was published in 2008 (and re-issued in 2009) and was a Book Sense Notable Book.
Her newest thriller, The Other Woman, is the big news! Published by Forge in September 2012, it is nominated for the MWA/MARY HIGGINS CLARK award, selected as one of Suspense Magazine’s Best Books of 2012, and named a TOP BOOK OF 2012 by the Kansas City Star.
“Fabulous! Fabulous! Want to know why everyone is talking about Hank Phillippi Ryan’s sizzling new thriller? Because with its frenetic pace, twisty plot, and superbly realized characters, The Other Woman is the book you need to read next! Don’t miss it!”  ~ Julie Hyzy

For MWW13, Hank will talk about planning your crime novel and ways to jumpstart your writing. MWW committee member Cathy Shouse interviewed Hank about her dual careers and coming to MWW this summer.

Q. Since meeting you at the writing conference in Washington D.C. in 2009, it seems your writing career has exploded with good news. Plus, you have that amazing Day Job. Please give us a thumbnail sketch of how you’ve become an “overnight success.”

HANK: Overnight success! Thank you. Pausing to laugh now, of course. I stated writing in 20..05? When I was 55. I’ve always wanted to write mysteries, but it wasn’t ’til then that I had a good idea! But when I did, I was just obsessed with writing the story. I was such a newbie, I had no idea what to do or how to connect or anything about the system. And that was probably such a good thing–it’s so daunting, isn’t it? And if you understand reality, it all seems impossible. Happily, I was clueless, and persevered. And that has served me well.

I simply–work. I’m organized, I’m driven, I’m curious, I’m happy when others succeed. I’m truly interested in paying it forward. I am open to new things, and to being disappointed and challenged and lucky.

Q. What is the best tip–or three, you would give writers in the early stage of the journey?

HANK: *Anything is possible, right?  If you persist?

*You never know what wonderful thing is around the next corner, so don’t quit five minutes before the miracle.

* Thinking of writing a whole book is incredibly difficult –but thinking about writing a page a day isn’t so tough. So set reasonable goals, ones you can meet–like writing a page a day. Do that and you’ll be finished with your book in just a year!

*Celebrate a good chapter, or a good idea, or the solution to a problem.

*Have fun! It’s fun, it’s rewarding, it’s creative.

*Don’t worry–because worrying will not make a spot of difference.

Okay, that’s more than three. How about: Embrace editing.

Q. Midwest Writers Workshop 2013 is mere months away. What do you aim for as a writing workshop instructor?

HANK: If people in my sessions can go home with just one terrific life-changing idea or inspiration, I’m happy. Everything I teach won’t be valuable to everyone every day–but I live for the moments when I imagine someone at their desk, writing, and saying,”OH! That’s what Hank meant!” That’s a terrific vision.

I love to hear the dilemmas individual writers face and work with them to untangle their thoughts and come up with solutions. Sometimes writers know SO much about their stories, it’s difficult to see the narrative path. I am eager to help them find their way. Sometimes writers don’t know enough about their stories–and I use my TV interview techniques to encourage them to imagine and think and suppose…and then send them on their way.

My goal is to inspire! And then watch other writers be happy. 

Q. At Indiana Romance Writers of America a few years ago, you spoke on how working in TV news helped your writing.  What is one tip from that presentation? 

HANK: Just do it. You know? Just write. Don’t fuss, don’t procrastinate, don’t make excuses. As a TV reporter, I have to have my stories done by deadline. Sometimes, I don’t feel like doing it. Doesn’t matter. Sometimes, I know my writing isn’t the best it can be–but the news isn’t going to wait. When I have a deadline, I have no choice. So I translate that to my fiction writing. I have a word goal for the day, and I do it. Sometimes it stinks. That’s fine. Unlike TV reporters, as fiction authors, we have the true luxury of being able to tweak and edit and fix and change…but as Nora Roberts always says, you can’t fix a blank page.  So pretend you have a deadline. You do.

Q. Everyone’s goal seems to be to write full-time. What advantages are there to keeping the Day Job, if any? 

HANK: Well, first of all, I love it. I’ve been a TV reporter for 37 years! And every day is a joy. (Well, almost every day.) I’m curious about the world, and this job lets me explore that with a kind of access most people don’t have. I get to talk to–and interview and confront-all kinds of people and go all kinds of places.  So when people ask–did you do a lot of research for your new book?–I say well, I’ve been doing research for the last 37 years! Now, I get to spend my day as a journalist, and (informally) do book research at the same time!

It does make writing time more precious and difficult to schedule…and as a result, I have to be incredibly organized and focused. Luckily, knock on wood, I am.

Q. Tell us about your Indiana roots and anything else, quirky or serious, that we should know before meeting you in Muncie in July.

HANK: We moved to Indianapolis from Chicago when I was five…I went to–School 53? Is there such a thing? And then we moved far out into the suburbs, to Zionsville, when I was 10 or so. It was so rural back then, we could not see another house from our house. We used to ride our ponies into town. I went to Pike High School, when I was the geeky nerdy Twilight-Zone watching outcast. As a senior, to my enduring shame, I was voted “Most Individual.”  It was years later when I realized that was a good thing. I worked at the Dairy Queen in Zionsville–that was my first summer job! I also worked for two summers at the Lyric Record store. (Records. Remember?) I still have family in Indiana-in Carmel.

And my first grown-up up job was in Indiana too, as a staffer on several political campaigns. Anyone old as I am and remember Matt Welsh? Terry Straub?  My first job in broadcasting was at WIBC Radio–remind me to tell you about that some day! And then in television at WTHR. (With Paul Udell and Renee Ferguson-anyone? Anyone?)

Q. Is there anything you would like to add, and please include your next release or whatever you are working on?

HANK: SO delighted to say–THE OTHER WOMAN is now in third printing, hurray, and made several “Best of 2012” lists in including the Boston Globe, Kansas City Star, Oline Cogdill, and Suspense Magazine.

The Other Woman by Hank Phillippi Ryan
The Other Woman by Hank Phillippi Ryan

My next book, THE WRONG GIRL will be out in hardcover from Forge this fall. What’s it about?  I’ll have to practice this-but “What if you didn’t know the truth about your own family? Jane Ryland suspects a top-notch adoption agency is reuniting birth parents with the wrong children.” It’s scary, let me tell you! I love to write stories about everyday things that are not what they seem.

Very excited about that! And now I am on the hunt for the plot of the next book. Where do ideas come from?  That’s the most difficult one of all! But that’s a question for another day. Can’t wait to see you all!


Interview with MWW fave John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of nine thrillers, the latest of which is Damage Control. His previous books include Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Six Minutes to Freedom, Scott Free, Even Steven, At All Costs, and Nathan’s Run; four have been Literary Guild selections. His novels have been translated into more than 20 languages.

For MWW13, John will present “Writing Commercial Fiction,” as well as sessions on writing a series and suspense writing. MWW committee member Cathy Shouse interviewed John about his MWW appearances and his writing career.

Q.  How many times have you been on the MWW faculty? Any special memories you’d like to share? Mine would be MWW 2010 when you and Marcus Sakey did a rowdy, memorable “secrets to getting published” session. Finally, how has being on MWW faculty impacted your career?

MWW is one of my favorite conferences.  How many have I been to?  At least three, I think, but there might have been a fourth a long time ago.  (That would actually make it the first, wouldn’t it?  Ah, well . . .)

I agree that that session with Marcus was a highlight. Not just because he’s a great guy and a brilliant writer, but because the entire session was ad-libbed.  The writer he was originally paired with that day suffered a family emergency and had to back out at the last minute.  I was asked to pinch-hit, and was more than happy to step in.  The timing was such, though, that Marcus and I had no time to compare notes or choreograph anything.  Since we’re both comfortable in front of an audience, we decided to wing it, and it ended up going really, really well.

Truthfully, I enjoy every aspect of the conference, from teaching the sessions to critiquing manuscripts.

Q. As a New York Times Bestselling author, you must have had many high points in your career. What’s been your favorite award/recognition/memory?

Probably my most significant pinch-me moment came when my family and I were invited to Dino DeLaurentiis’s 80th birthday party on the Isle of Capri in Italy. There we were on Dino’s boat on a beautiful day, swimming off the side in the Mediterranean. That was pretty special. Most special of all, of course–and I think this is probably true of most novelists–is that first phone call telling me that my agent had sold my first book.  It felt every bit like the new beginning that it turned out to be.

Q. Catch us up with the latest– what you’re working on now, releases, etc.

HIGH TREASON, the fifth book in my Jonathan Grave series will come out next summer, and right now, I am working on two projects within the same series.  One is the sixth book, as yet untitled, and barely even plotted, but first there’ll be an e-book novella that will chronicle how Jonathan Grave and Irene Rivers–the director of the FBI in the series–first met.

Q. What are some advantages for pre-published and published authors to attend conferences? How did conferences influence your writing, if you attended any before publication?

I didn’t even know there were such things as writers’ conferences when I was penning the book that became NATHAN’S RUN.  Having been in the biz now for over 15 years, I think that conferences can be extremely valuable to writers of all stripes and at all stages in their careers.  The trick to learning from sessions and panels is to listen with an open yet skeptical mind.  This is a creative business, which by definition means that there are no rules for storytelling.  What works for me may have no value to another writer, because we all sift our stories through the filters of our own imaginations.  It’s important to take from any session that which resonates, and to feel free to reject that which does not resonate.

From the business side of writing (as opposed to the artistic side), the best value comes from time around the bar.  Like any other industry, this is a business of networking and contacts.  All else being equal, the chances of success increase dramatically with each new contact you make.

Q. One year, you shared with our attendees the downside of getting a large advance. How do insider tips and knowledge of how publishing works help a writer?

Quoting from that cinematic masterpiece, ANIMAL HOUSE, “Knowledge is Good.”  Many new writers make the mistake of believing that their aspirations begin and end with the creation of a work.  The reality is that our little corner of the entertainment business is exactly that–a business.  It makes no more sense to enter into a book contract without knowing about the publishing industry than it would to open a restaurant without researching the food service industry.  Authors walk into traps every day–willingly, it seems–with their eyes closed.  Standard book contracts are predatory and awful.  It takes a good agent or a lawyer to cut through the crap to give the author a chance of success.

I advise writers to assume that their novel is their million-dollar retirement plan, and to perform all the due diligence research for a book sale that they would do to invest in any other business.

Q. Is there something about a writing career that you wish you had known sooner?

I was surprised how isolating it is.  Not only is a book produced in solitude, there are precious few people in any one community to talk to about it.  In fact, more than a few people are put off by the fact of one’s being a professional writer.  At one level, I think that everyone believes they could write a book if only they could carve out the time to do so. It’s not until they give it a shot that they realize how damn difficult it can be. Eight years ago, I became so frustrated by the isolation that I went back to a high-pressure day job. To date, I am the only artist I know who walked away from full-time writing to go back to the daily grind. Curiously, I’m more prolific as a part-time author than I ever was a full-time author. Go figure.

Q. Is there anything you would like to add?

Just that I’m looking forward to another July in Muncie!


John’s quote from MWW 2010…”Over the years, I’ve participated in more conferences than I can count, but time after time, Midwest Writers Workshop ranks among the best of the best. The students are anxious to learn, the faculty comes to teach, and the result is electrifying. Anytime you want me back, just say the word, and I’m there.”


John’s first Jonathan Grave novel, No Mercy, mentions Muncie, Indiana??

Jonathan Grave has an extraordinary job. He covertly rescues people. Moreover, he operates under his own system of justice. He does not go out of his way to abuse or kill people, but when he deems it necessary he does so without qualms. He does not so much operate in defiance of the police but rather, since his objectives are different, outside it. If it is necessary for some people to die in order that those objectives be fulfilled so be it.

For his services Jonathan is well paid. He has some military experience which is useful in developing rescue plans and he has connections which allow him to literally fly beneath the radar. He has handpicked his assistants, most notably, Venice (pronounced Ven EE chay) Alexander whose computer skills know no limit.

In this endeavor, Jonathan has been hired to find and rescue Thomas Hughes, the college age son of Stephenson Hughes. Thomas was abducted from his girlfriend’s home in Muncie, Indiana.


Memories of MWW12

In the words of The A-Team’s Hannibal Smith, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

All that planning, all that organizing, all that creative energy from the Midwest Writers Workshop committee, faculty, tutors and volunteers sure paid off. According to evaluations, tweets, posts and blogs, the 39th MWW was a huge success!

This was the summer of the 30th Summer Olympics; it was also the summer of gold-medal performances from the MWW faculty at the Midwest Writers Workshop! While the Olympic athletes were pursuing “Faster, Higher, Stronger!”, the MWW participants were pursuing “Better, Finer, Fresher!”

Of the 170 writers at MWW12, most were Midwesterners, but others traveled from 13 states, coast to coast. Repeatedly overheard during the three days was MWW’s great sense of community, its relaxed atmosphere for all ages and writing levels, from the 16 year olds to the 80 year olds. The planning committee is proud that we’ve created The Midwest Writers Workshop Community, overflowing with hospitality, friendliness, and personal attention.

We didn’t give participants much time to turn sideways as the days were packed with sessions on craft, business, social media consultations, manuscript evaluations, query letter critiques, agent pitches. What struck Lee Martin about MWW was “the broad stroke with an emphasis on craft.”

We were rewarded to see writers energized and enthused, learning and growing. We continued the successful and popular sessions: Manuscript Makeover, Message in a Bottle Readings, Buttonhole the Experts. Then we added extras this year: in-class writing craft sessions, social media consultations, query letter critiques. The brilliant Ball State social media tutors offered free consulting sessions and helped 50 participants learn how to use Facebook, Twitter, and blogs effectively. We also had a live Twitter feed set up in the atrium which streamed Twitter posts throughout the workshop.

So much great advice… so much fun… so much community. Literary citizenship. Tax information for writers. Inside the world of publishing. Building your website. And such wonderful interaction between faculty and attendees… that we’ll award our faculty Gold Medals!


“The 30 pitches I heard at MWW were better than the 170 I heard recently at a west coast writers’ conference.” — Kathleen Ortiz, literary agent, New Leaf Literary & Media

“This has been one of the best conferences I’ve yet attended.” — Brooks Sherman, FinePrint Literary Management

“As I tell everyone who will listen, MWW is the best writers’ conference there is!” — D.E. Johnson

“What an amazing batch of writers you have there — the participants’ talent is remarkable. I’ve rarely encountered that many truly talented non-published authors, and never all in one place at one time before. You’ve created a fabulous garden to grow writers. Thank you for allowing me to be part of it this year! And… personally… I had a blast! Everyone was so welcoming and warm.” – Julie Hyzy

“Just wanted to let you know I am proud to say I was a part of the 39th MWW! You and your committee have truly fostered a family-like atmosphere for both the faculty and the attendees, and it was great to feel like a member of the group. I have already started to receive material and I am looking forward to seeing if I can make a match!” — JL Stermer, Literary Agent, N.S. Bienstock, Inc.

“I wanted to let you know how great the conference was. You did a fantastic job creating a friendly atmosphere for everyone involved. Thanks so much for inviting me and I hope you’ll remember me for next year!” — Sarah LaPolla, Curtis Brown, Ltd.

“Each year I come home saying this was the best MWW yet, and I said it again this year. A big thank you to you and your committee for a wonderfully organized and presented workshop. You always seem to anticipate what we writers need to know, and you provide excellent professionals to share that needed expertise. This year’s social media consultants were a perfect addition for those of us who require an informed “nudge” into the world of twitter, blogs, etc. My tech savvy son will be shocked when he receives a tweet from me–that will give me splendid satisfaction 🙂 I appreciate all of the hard work, knowing a workshop the caliber of MWW doesn’t just happen.  Ah, I am among friends and fellow writers here. — Sally Nalbor


Jeffrey Ashby @JeffreyAshby: @jamabigger and the whole #MWW12 crew, because of MWW I had a short story published and even won an Editor’s Choice in Indiana Crime 2012!

Kelsey Timmerman @KelseyTimmerman: My favorite moment of #MWW12 was watching @Fizzygrrl tell @jamabigger about her agent pitch sessions. Can’t wait for #MWW13!

Brooks Sherman @byobrooks: Thanks, @jamabigger & @MidwestWriters, for a great conference! @KOrtizzle, @sarahlapolla & I agree it’s 1 of the best we’ve attended! #MWW12

Kathleen Ortiz @KOrtizzle: @byobrooks and @sarahlapolla were a blast to hang with this weekend at #mww12.

Summer Heacock @Fizzygrrl: So, #MWW12 was pretty much the most amazing thing ever. I am so glad I went, and big snergles to all the wonderful new friends I’ve made!!

Jessica Montgomery @JessyMontgomery: I was so glad that #mww12 was the first conference I attended. It was everything I thought it would be and more! I can’t wait to come back!

Erica O’Rourke @Erica_ORourke: Blown away by all the smart, dedicated people at #mww12. One of the best conferences I’ve been to. Thanks for an amazing time, guys!

Aaron D. Hoover @hooverad: Writer friends, you NEED to come to #mww12 next year (when it will be #mww13). It has remedied the deficiencies in my education AMAZINGLY.

Truly, all participants will describe their MWW 2012 experience differently. You just had to be there. Because in the end, it’s the attendees, swooping in with their enthusiasm, talent and energy, who make MWW what it is. None of us wanted it to end. And, in a way, it goes on, as we incorporate what we learned into our writing over the coming months. And as our MWW Community stays connected via SOCIAL MEDIA!

If you weren’t able to attend this year, we missed you! And we hope to see you for the 40th annual MWW, July 25-27 2013. We can hardly wait!

Trust us: We will keep asking writers what they like, what they want, and what we can do to keep wowing the heck out of them.

Interview with agent Brooks Sherman

Meet Brooks Sherman!

Introducing one more agent coming to this summer’s Midwest Writers Workshop.

Q. Another MWW 2012 faculty member Chuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest interviewed you in the past. Is this information still correct?
About Brooks

Brooks : Brooks Sherman is thrilled to be living once more in Brooklyn, after a two-year stint with the Peace Corps in bucolic West Africa and a one-year stint in the savage jungles of Hollywood. He joined FinePrint Literary Management as an intern in 2010 and now, as an associate agent, is actively seeking a range of both fiction and nonfiction projects. You can find him on Twitter at @byobrooks.

He is seeking

: On the adult side, literary and upmarket fiction running the gamut from contemporary (with an eye toward multicultural or satirical) to speculative (particularly urban/contemporary fantasy, horror/dark fantasy, and slipstream). Brooks also has a weakness for historical fiction and a burgeoning interest in crime fiction. For nonfiction, he is particularly interested in works that focus on current events, history, and pop science/sociology. On the children’s side, he is looking to build a list of boy-focused Middle Grade novels (all subgenres, but particularly fantasy adventure and contemporary), and is open to YA fiction of all types except paranormal romance.

Brooks is specifically seeking projects that balance strong voice with gripping plot lines; he particularly enjoys flawed (but sympathetic) protagonists and stories that organically blur the lines between genres. Stories that make him laugh earn extra points. Recent favorites include Whiteman by Tony D’Souza, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, the Monstrumologist series by Rick Yancey, The Thieves of Manhattan by Adam Langer, and Horns by Joe Hill.
All still true!

Q. How do you think attending a writing conference and speaking with you personally helps an author seeking representation and have you found some of your clients at writing conferences?

I have not yet signed a client from a writing conference, but I am looking forward to the day it happens! I think writing conferences can be invaluable experiences for writers, as they help you network in the larger writing community, as well as give you face-to-face time with publishing professionals and get answers to those questions you’ve been dying to ask. I don’t often give detailed feedback in my responses to queries I receive — I simply don’t have the time in my day-to-day work — but I make a point of giving specific, constructive feedback to any writer I sit down with at a conference.

Q. In addition to the above, please be as specific about the fiction you are seeking as possible, to include whether you represent category romance, thrillers, and women’s fiction? Any type of fiction that is a definite rejection from you or any action or approach that you dislike?

I am seeking thrillers, but I’m afraid I am not the right agent for category romance or women’s fiction. As for approaches I dislike, I’ll echo what a lot of my fellow agents have to say on this matter: if I pass on your query or your manuscript, it does not help your case to argue with me. Also, there are hundreds (if not thousands) of other literary agents out there beyond me — why waste your time trying to convince someone who didn’t connect with your project to work with you? Ideally, you want your agent to be someone who loves your work, and who will champion it to publishers.

Q. What are some insider tips for making a successful pitch to you and how should someone who did not get an official pitch session approach you (if you are okay with that)?

The best advice I can tell you when pitching an agent or editor is simply this: relax! I know it can seem like a lot of pressure, you having to sum up your entire novel or nonfiction project in a few sentences, but believe me, if I see that you’re nervous, it’s going to make me nervous. (Then we’re both going to feel awkward together.) For me, the best pitch is when a writer is simply talking about their project with pride, enthusiasm, and excitement — a pitch with that kind of energy behind it will shine. Also, if I connect with your pitch, I’m probably going to start asking you questions, so be prepared to have a conversation instead of delivering a speech!

Q. Would you like to add anything else about general tips for writers?

Lately, I’ve been receiving a lot of queries for self-published books. I’m afraid I’m almost always going to pass on these projects, and it’s not because I have a problem with self-publishing. (Actually, I’m pleased that the digital revolution has done so much to erase the stigma that self-publishing has labored under.) The hard truth is that unless you’ve already sold thousands of copies of your self-published book, I’m going to have a great deal of difficulty convincing a publisher to buy it, because it already is published, and they aren’t going to acquire it now unless they’re convinced it is worth their investment. So, if you’ve just self-published your book, and you’re looking for the next step, you would probably best be served at this time seeking a publicist or marketing strategist, rather than an agent. Once you’ve garnered some respectable sales, it will be easier to generate some interest from a traditional publisher, and then you can decide whether you want to work with an agent.


Interview with agent Sarah LaPolla

Meet Sarah LaPolla!

LaPolla Sarah LaPolla is an associate agent at Curtis Brown, Ltd. She studied creative writing at Ithaca College, and has an MFA in creative nonfiction from The New School. She joined Curtis Brown, Ltd. in 2008 as the assistant to the foreign rights department, and became an associate agent in 2010. Sarah represents both adult and YA fiction. For adult books, she is looking for literary fiction, urban fantasy, magical realism, mystery, literary horror, and has a soft spot for short story collections. On the YA side, she welcomes contemporary/realistic fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, magical realism, mystery, and horror. No matter what age the intended audience, Sarah tends to be drawn to voice-driven narratives, strong female protagonists, and complex characters.  Sarah runs a literary blog called Glass Cases and can be found on Twitter.

Q. What is the advantage to writers meeting and pitching you at a conference and do you think they are more serious and perhaps their decision comes faster, as examples? Have you found clients at conferences in the past?

I haven’t found a client at a conference yet, but I have made requests at conferences that I might not have just through receiving a query. I think writers who pay to go to conferences are serious, but I don’t think writers who can’t do that are any less serious. That said, being able to speak with a writer in person makes a difference. If I need a writer to elaborate on query, it usually means the story isn’t being conveyed well enough. I don’t have time to engage in a conversation with everyone who queries me, so those usually just get rejected. In person, I’m able to ask questions and see their enthusiasm for their novel.

Q. We have a list of what you don’t want in the comments that follow. What exactly are you looking for, and please be specific. For example, suspense and thrillers are not easy to define. Are you looking for either and please give a quick description of what they are?

I represent both YA and adult fiction, and the genres I look for in both of those categories run pretty parallel. I prefer contemporary stories to historical, unless there’s a very good reason for it to be historical. For “genre” fiction, I love horror, mystery, science fiction, and fantasy, but I look for the word “literary” before any of those headings. Think Shirley Jackson as opposed to Dean Koontz for horror, or Gillian Flynn rather than Sue Grafton for mystery. If I’m not in love with the characters, it’s hard for me to pay attention to much else. I also love magical realism, which is hard to define and is a very specific type of writing. My quick definition is: A subgenre of literary fiction that infuses fantastic/surreal elements to the story that are not essential to the plot.

Q. What else would you like to say? Also, I’ve seen that you are not keen on self-publishing. Why not?

I’m actually quite keen on self-publishing, but if you asked me this question two years ago I may have answered differently. I still think traditional publishing is a better route for most writers, but in some cases self-publishing is actually the better option. I think the quality of writing in self-publishing has gotten better because writers are voluntarily choosing it now. They know that a good book needs editing and marketing, and they are doing the jobs of ten different people to get their book in the hands of readers. Not all writers want to do that or even can do that, but the ones who are deserve to be taken seriously. A few years ago, it felt as if self-publishing was where writers went after they got too many rejections, and the quality of the work reflected that. That still happens, for sure, but the self-publishing landscape is definitely moving forward and I respect it for becoming a legitimate force in the industry.

Q. Do you have a personal list of automatic rejection criteria for queries and submissions?

I answer everything I receive with usually a form rejection, and then a personal rejection if it’s something I requested. (Or, the better case scenario, with an offer of representation!) There are two exceptions: When a query is attached instead of in the body of the email, it gets instantly deleted. The other “delete-without-being-read” query is when I see other agents copied on it. Writers should query multiple agents simultaneously, but they should be choosing specific agents they think will be a good fit for them. Mass emails show carelessness and a lack of professionalism.

Q. What premises or plot twists are you tired of seeing in your inbox?

1) Teenage girl or boy leads a normal life until he or she meets [insert love interest and/or paranormal creature here].

2) Main character’s parents are dead/neglectful/drunk/other excuse for absent, so main character must find self-actualization through a “wild” best friend or perfect soul mate.

3) A main or supporting character is or becomes a vampire, werewolf, or zombie. (Sadly, this is still all-too-common in my query pile.)

4) Dystopian worlds that don’t do anything new with the genre. I love dystopian, but it’s too hard to sell in the post-Hunger Games market so 99% of the time I have to pass on it. Conspiratorial governments, characters living in a post-apocalyptic world, and the one girl or boy (sometimes with super powers) who’s meant to save the day are the “basic” elements of dystopian that can’t stand on their own anymore.

Interview with agent JL Stermer

Meet JL Stermer!

Introducing another New York agent you can pitch to if you register for Part II of Midwest Writers Workshop:

StermerJL Stermeris an agent in the literary division of talent agency N.S. Bienstock. She is currently seeking both fiction and nonfiction. On the fiction side, she’d love to see both commercial and literary fiction as well as graphic novels. On the nonfiction side, she is looking for cookbooks and food-related narratives, prescriptive health, diet, and fitness, how-to, reference, narrative nonfiction, current events-related projects and all things pop-culture (science, business, technology, art, music, humor, crafts, DIY.)

Always looking for fresh and exciting projects, JL brings her enthusiasm to clients while helping them navigate the world of book publishing. From spotting trends, to finding the right editorial match for a project, she takes pride in being involved with her clients every step of the way. JL also teaches a class at the Gotham Writers Workshop: How to Get Published. Prior to joining N.S. Bienstock, she was an agent at the Donald Maass Literary Agency. Born and raised in New York City, and a graduate of Columbia University, she currently resides in Manhattan solidifying that she is forever a city girl through and through.

Q: What are you looking for right now and not getting?

I’d love to see some fiction that reflects some of today’s more interesting “reality” projects … a protagonist who is:

….a judge (or contestant or a behind-the-scenes staff member) on a talent/food/addiction/fashion/weight-loss show

….on the front lines of current political revolutions/weather disasters/culture wars

….a social media developer/maven

…basically I am looking for any characters we might see in our daily lives (in all forms of media) and think: “I wonder what their days are like?”

In nonfiction, I am always looking for people with fresh twists on ideas that have been strong sellers in pop science, food, technology, health, diet, exercise. Nonfiction’s greatest hits!

Q: What’s your best piece(s) of advice?

One of the things I stress in the classes I teach at Gotham Writers Workshop is persistence. When submitting query letters persistence is key, but authors must be smart about their approach as well.  Make sure you have a well-curated list of agents you are going to query. Make sure they are truly a good fit for you. Keep meticulous notes during the process. And if you get any constructive criticism–do not be defensive and shrug it off–see if you can use it to make your pitch better. So many people give up after a few rejections. Keep the process moving by honing your letter as well as your manuscript/book proposal. And stay positive!! This is a hard one, I know, but bitter and frustrated authors send out that vibe and I can always sense it–in person and even in query letters…you are selling your project, sell it with a smile on your face.

Q:  How do you think attending a writing conference and speaking with you personally helps an author seeking representation and have you found some of your clients at writing conferences?

Attending a conference helps make it “real” for so many people. For the many writers who are cocooned in their own worlds, oftentimes this is the first chance they get to really identify as an author–to meet an agent, give their pitch and take that step into the business side of writing. I like to think I give authors confidence and inspiration (even if I am offering a critique). I try to take the scary element out of the equation by answering questions and being an attentive listener. As to clients, I do have a handful who I have met at writer’s conferences, but most of them are still works-in-progress. I have faith in them!

Q. In addition to the above, please be specific about the fiction you are seeking, to include whether you represent category romance, thrillers, and women’s fiction?

I am not looking for category romance. My colleague Paul Fedorko is always looking for a great thriller (WWII stories are his go-to favorite) so I am always happy to pass something great to him. And as for women’s fiction, yes please. Commercial and up market are welcome and I am very open regarding topic. As long as I am connecting with a distinctive voice and feel invested in a complex protagonist, I will follow her anywhere.

Q. What are some insider tips for making a successful pitch to you and how should someone who did not get an official pitch session approach you (if you are okay with that)?

One of the most important things is to take a deep breath and smile. Try to shake those nerves when you sit down for a one-on-one. Having your pitch be concise is important–you don’t have a lot of time to get it all in. I’d like to meet the protagonist right away as well as a few secondary characters, but not too many. If you try to cover everyone, you run the risk of losing me as I try to keep up with you…

As far as approaching me outside of an official pitch session, I’m okay with this but I’d rather not be pitched in the bathroom (!) or while I am chatting with another person. Other than that–that’s why I am here, to meet everyone and see if I can find a good match!

Interview with agent Kathleen Ortiz

Meet Kathleen Ortiz!

Time is running out! If you’ve been waiting to register for MWW 2012, do so now and pitch your book to an agent yet this summer. Plus, get valuable knowledge to take your writing career to the next level, or five!

Once again, MWW brings four New York agents to our workshop and offers participants registered for Part II the opportunity to pitch their manuscript ideas.

K OrtizKathleen Ortiz is the Subsidiary Rights Director and Literary Agent at New Leaf Literary & Media, Inc. On the children’s side, she is interested in acquiring all genres of YA (she especially gravitates to darker YA), but would specifically love a beautifully told story set within another culture (historical or modern, in the vein of Blood Diamond or Memoirs of a Geisha). She’s also looking for darker middle grade for older kids (especially in the vein of Labyrinth). On the adult side, she’s looking for lifestyle or technology non-fiction, as well as urban fantasy or paranormal romance. Please, no picture books, chapter books or adult books outside of romance.

Q. Please explain what you think the advantages are from your POV of meeting a potential writer client at a writers’ conference. Have you signed clients at conference?

Some advantages of meeting someone in person at a conference are getting to know them face-to-face and being able to see their passion for their work. I’ve never signed someone from a conference (though I certainly still have hope! I’m here, right? :)), but my colleague, Joanna Volpe, has! In fact, she signed three from this conference a couple of years ago: Veronica Roth, New York Times bestselling author of Divergent and Insurgent (Katherine Tegan books, Harper), Megan Powell (No Peace For The Damned, 47North, Amazon), and Rita Woods.

Q. What is the advantage for a writer who meets you at a conference, meaning is the wait for a decision shorter, do you look at a manuscript differently having met the author and are you more likely to request based on meeting someone?

I don’t look at the manuscript differently, because at the end of the day, it’s the writing and story that matter most. There are many, very nice people who query me whose stories just aren’t quite right for my list now. However with conferences, I do try to get back more quickly to those who pitch me than those who query me via our traditional submission guidelines.

Q. Sometimes writers have trouble knowing what their manuscript’s genre is and/or their story has elements from several genres. How does this cause challenges in representation and what can a writer do about this?

If an agent is looking for one genre and not another, it can definitely hurt their chances of even having a query read. For example, I’m not really open to YA paranormal at the moment. If your MS is really a sci-fi but you pitch it as paranormal, I might feel that you’re telling me it’s light on the sci-fi and heavy on the paranormal. On the flip side, if you have a YA paranormal and you try to pitch to me as sci-fi (to avoid being rejected on genre alone), and I can tell it’s paranormal, I’m going to assume you’re not well read in the genre, which means the worldbuilding and characters may be lacking.

Q. Would you like to add anything else to help writers prepare for a pitch to you and/or what are the most common mistakes you see?

Don’t talk for the ENTIRE pitch. Write a 2 sentence pitch. Keep it under 30-40 seconds. Then wait for the agent to comment / ask for more. If you talk the whole time, it doesn’t leave us much room to give feedback / ask questions. You WANT us to ask questions / want us to want more. It can be nerve wracking to pitch for the first time, but I promise you I’m not mean. I don’t bite. And I’ve not made anyone cry (so far). So I promise I’m nice 🙂

Follow her on Twitter: @KOrtizzle