(Continuing my series of blog posts about the Writer’s Digest Conference 2016 in New York City.)

One session I attended at the Writer’s Digest Conference was not particularly useful in its explicit content, but served as a cautionary example.*  The talk was titled “From Storytelling Mire to Page-Turning Momentum:  Three Common Plotting Mistakes that Keep Writers Frustrated, Unpublished, and at the Bottom of the Slush Pile.”  Here’s what was wrong with the presentation:

1.  The title was too long.  It was by far the longest one on the program.  It should have been half as long.
2.  There wasn’t a lot of content.  Basically, it condensed down to saying most people have a) too much backstory b) not enough conflict c) poorly paced tension.**
3.  The whole thing was basically a way to get people to subscribe to the presenter’s mailing list, pay for her services, and add to her platform.Now none of this necessarily a downside, even the last one.  Heaven knows, all the presenters there, even the keynote speakers, were building their brand and marketing their work.  But it’s a matter of balance.  You can’t have the marketing completely overshadow the content; that is the rationale of clickbait and pop-up ads, and it’s one of the sins of the age.The presentation had some upsides.  The presenter was cheery and peppy.  As her website says, she is an adjunct professor, a writing coach, and an author.  She co-authored one book, has another coming out soon, and is pitching a script.  She encouraged people to sign up for her email list, and followed up on social media with cheerful comments on everything accessible.  The website has useful testimonials, is professional-looking, and offers content.  (However, it is formidably breezy in tone, and has a typo on the publications page.)  ***But that didn’t outweigh the killer downside:  Everybody I talked to at the conference – and I mean everybody – saw her presentation and her follow-up as simple platform-building without enough content.  She came on too strong, promoting herself rather than offering help, and people were turned off by it.  +

She has clearly done her homework and is working hard, and her credentials sound good (she went the Middlebury route for her writing education) but if she wants to get an audience and a clientele, she will have to recalibrate.  ++

It was a good lesson.  Meanwhile, though I came away from the conference feeling energized and was determined to do my bit to build my online profile, it has become clearer and clearer to me that no matter what the “business of writing” is, my main priority has to be writing.  For the foreseeable future.  The goal is “butt-in-chair” for the time being, not “cart-before-horse.”  +++

* I worried about writing this entry because I hate giving people a hard time about their public performances.  Heaven knows it’s hard to get right.  But it was such an important lesson to me that I finally had to put my thoughts down.  I am sure this presenter has a lot to offer.
** And good content it is, too.  “Too much backstory” is such a besetting sin for would-be writers.  Yes, your world should be consistent.  But you are not writing a history of the whole world.  It’s like the basement for so many people.  A friend of mine has lost the use of her basement because she has all her parents’ papers and possessions stored there, along with her deceased husband’s stuff.  She has appointed herself archivist of the entire family, and is making progress; she has carefully presented all kinds of people with the gems from her collection.  But it’s getting moldy down there.  And it weighs on her.  We talked yesterday about setting a fire in the back yard after picking ten really good things from each person’s archive.  A fireman of our acquaintance was with us, and he said it was illegal technically, but in practice it depended on your neighbors, and besides the evidence would be gone by the time anyone got there.  I’m not saying set fire to your backstory, but for heaven’s sake stop at some point, pick some things, and get rid of the rest.  Otherwise you end up with The Silmarillion, which I actually read at one point and regretted reading.  Unless your hobby is not writing, but world-building.  Then by all means go ahead.  Just don’t make me read it.
*** Again, not a major fault in my eyes.  But it’s a deal-killer for a lot of language prudes, to the point where they won’t even consider the ideas of someone who makes typos.^  She’s a writing consultant, and should be setting an example in her own work.
+ If it was just me, I’d dismiss it as my usual scorn.  I certainly have plenty of scorn to go around.  An inflated opinion of one’s own writing and speaking skills should be an essential part of any writer’s toolkit, along with a hide of alligator skin.  Otherwise we would all live under a carpet behind the armchair, crying.
++ Many of my teaching colleagues, including some of the English teachers at my school, went to Middlebury, either for Bread Loaf Conferences or for other creative writing education.  Bread Loaf is well known and its attendees laud it, and Middlebury has a strong reputation for its writing program.
+++ Here is a nice book with the title Butt-in-Chair.  I will not buy it.  I have already today added a writing book to my TBR list, and I haven’t even finished typing up my notes from the conference or reading the first of several books I bought at the conference.   There are limits.  Reading too much about writing gets in the way of actual writing just as much as marketing does.  Go write something.  Go ahead.

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