Writer’s Workshop of Chicago – A Review

Reading time: 7 minutes     

Longer than usual, but I wanted to give a thorough review in case you’re debating on attending one of these workshops.chicago

Last weekend, I boarded the train to attend the Writer’s Workshop of Chicago. Actually, I waited three hours and thirty minutes at the Amtrak station and then boarded the train. Even still, I enjoyed the trip.

The train is like a backstage pass to America. I viewed some small-town America Main amtrak chicagoStreets, sure, but I also got to look behind the curtain into the parts of towns you don’t normally see. An older woman hanging her laundry. Chickens scorching the turf in someone’s dirty back yard. A guy sleeping (off a hangover?) in a rusty patio chair. And at ten-thirty on a Friday morning, a shirtless man who could have used a shirt, grilling. A story for every one of them, I’m sure, but you have to make up the story from the train because you can’t stop to ask them.

Saturday brought the one-day Writer’s Workshop. Somehow, the temperature managed to only achieve thirty-nine degrees for my 1.5-mile walk from the Courtyard to the Congress International Hotel on Michigan Avenue. Because I enrolled late, I had to arrive early and see if any agents had a cancellation. I was in luck. Three such instances, one of which allowed me an audience with Marcy Posner of Folio Literary Management.

I’m a conference virgin until 9 a.m., and although Writer’s Digest marketed this as a workshop, it felt more like a conference to me. We didn’t workshop anything. We didn’t confer much either, but we listened a lot. This same workshop travels to various cities in America, so I’ll provide a quick rundown on what worked for me. And what didn’t.

An Overview of Your Publishing Options Today. (** out of 5 stars)

This session talked about the pros and cons of publishing via traditional methods or self-publishing. I’d be surprised if most people didn’t already know much of what was discussed during this sixty-minute session. I can’t tell you one thing I learned. I did hear a few phrases about self-publishing that I didn’t know before and could use some research. But I’m not looking to self-publish, so that didn’t do me any good.

14 Tips for Writing Mysteries, Thrillers and Crime (***** out of 5 stars)

Presented by Lori Rader-Day (The Black Hour), I could have stayed in this session for the rest of the day. Alas, it ended in sixty-five minutes, so that wasn’t an option. I was taking notes so fast, I can’t read some of my own handwriting. Two of my favorites from this session:

  1. Isolate your protagonist: Layer by layer, peel away all the ways your character is comfortable.
  2. A quote from Lee Child: Make people wait for dessert and they’ll like your cake.

Lori delivered a great presentation, wish it lasted longer with more discussion and Q&A. I bought her book, but my lovely wife snatched it before I could even read the note Lori wrote me on the opening page.

Writer’s Got Talent (** out of 5 stars)

This was highly disappointing for me. I expected this to be a four-star session at least and anything less would be a loss. It was significantly short of four stars. Lots of minor issues that resulted in major letdown.

Here’s how it works in case you’re unfamiliar. Any attendees can submit 15 copies of their first page. Submissions are randomly drawn to fit in as many as they can read during this 75-minute session. As a page is being read, an agent raises their hand when they would stop reading and reject the submission. If four agents raise their hand, the reading stops.

Unfortunately, mine was not randomly selected. Major bummer. I was really looking forward to this. One of the reasons mine wasn’t selected was because four of the first-page submissions that were chosen were still read even though the writer didn’t follow basic submission instructions. I cry foul! I get all the BS that we’re creative, we shouldn’t follow instructions that inhibit creativity, but isn’t one of the things agents hammer writers about this: follow the submission instructions on my website/agency site/blog. I’ve seen scores of #10queries where an agent rejects someone because they didn’t follow submission instructions. So here, Writer’s Digest gives us submission guidelines and then doesn’t hold anyone accountable for following. Now that would be fine if everyone was getting read, but in an event where it’s random draw, there should be a way to rise above randomness. One way: Kick out anyone who can’t follow a few directions.

Second flaw of this session: The emcee had a difficult time reading. Not major, but she couldn’t pronounce certain words (Boise) and you can imagine her inflection missing on other obvious errors.

Ultimately, I experienced several minor issues that I won’t bore you with. This was a truly disappointing session compared to my expectation.

Talking Craft and Revision (*** out of 5 stars)

Another session that I was really looking forward to that didn’t measure up to expectations. Two things happened here. I had to miss the opening fifteen minutes or so of this sixty-minute session for my agent one-on-one with Marcy Posner.

By the time I returned, there were no presentation slides to follow because the presenter’s computer was out of power and this hotel, apparently designed during the Lincoln administration, didn’t have electrical outlets in this meeting room. Really? Just, wow.

Ten Keys to Writing Success (*** out of 5 stars)

This sixty-minute session was over in forty, and there was no time for Q&A at the end. I know, right? I guess writers aren’t supposed to be good at math, but c’mon.

There was no handout for this session either. How do you manage to have a session that starts with “Ten Keys” and not have a handout that lists the ten? We heard some good stories here, but content was a bit shallow.

Number 1 was “always write the best thing you can.” You heard it here first, ladies and gentlemen. I should have jumped up right then and switched into the session on social media, but I stayed in my chair and soaked up nine more lessons that are hard to argue with and easy to forget. Other end of the list, at number 10: “Put down the remote.” I did that last September, and it’s working pretty well for me. But I didn’t need to travel to Chicago to learn about it.

The one session I couldn’t attend was Everything You Need to Know about Agents and Queries. It was offered same time as 14 Tips for Writing Mysteries and Crime. Bummer. Might have gleaned something new from that one.

Agent One-on-One session (**** out of 5 stars)

No other ten-minute span of your life will go by quicker than an agent session at a conference. James Michener once said it takes him seven pages to say hello, so I can’t imagine how much money he’d have to spend for one of these sessions.

Marcy Posner is super. Put me right at ease. We talked a little about her move from New York to Chicago, a little about why she does these sessions, and a little bit about my manuscript. Either she liked me fine or she pretended to, but either way she gave me her card and said to send her my full manuscript – AFTER the agent I’m working with renders her final verdict.

She told me an interesting story that was different from other things I’ve heard. Her agency (Folio) had been working with a guy, giving him pointers and helping him out with his manuscript. She saw the guy that morning and this person told her he was looking forward to meeting with other agents. She said no you’re not, you’re looking forward to meeting with us. We’ve invested time with you, we’ll take a look at what you’ve got.

Quick caveat: I might’ve been a tad nervous, so I’m only paraphrasing above and none of that is a quote. So I might have gotten it wrong, but I think she was clear: when an agent invests some time with you and your manuscript, common sense says they have right of first refusal. I agree. It’s almost ethics in my mind, but you might be able to argue the other way. Marcy has likely forgotten about me by now, having seen so many people in one day, but I could easily work with her to develop a career.

Bottom line: I’m glad I attended since I’d never been to one before. I would give a different conference a second chance, but I was underwhelmed here. Maybe I already have more knowledge than I thought. Maybe this session was geared toward people with significantly less experience than me. Since it only lasted one day, there was very little networking, so I’d make sure to try a two-day conference if I took a chance on one again. If you already have a lot of knowledge about this industry, I’d recommend trying a different conference or workshop before one of these. If you’re brand new, this might be right up your alley.

Chicago, of course, was like an old friend. Welcoming with open arms, bustling from one end of the day to the other, and swarming me with old memories around so many corners.

6 thoughts on “Writer’s Workshop of Chicago – A Review

  1. John, I did this same workshop in Atlanta. I was very late signing up so my experience was much abbreviated. I did enjoy the 1st page critique (which was smaller version of Writer Got Talent). My page did not get selected either but it was only 6 agents. After each read the agent would say what worked for them and what did not, and I found that useful. Also emcee read well and they did throw out pages where writer failed to follow the rules. It still fell far short of the actual writer’s conferences I have been to, even in terms of being a “workshop”. I think I might try to go to Surrey in October if I can save the money. I’ve always wanted to visit Vancouver so might be fun. Also, it sounds like a much more intense experience from what Julie Weathers told us on the Reef last year. It should be very good for networking if nothing else.


  2. Very informative, I have not been to a workshop before since all my studying was for music education. I did used to go to the poetry festivals in New Jersey with my high school English department and that was awesome, but mostly you just went and listened to poets read their work. I think most workshops tend to have things we consider obvious…and it’s always surprising to find that maybe half the room did NOT know that information previously. Oh well, seems like a worthwhile trip just to sit down with an agent!


  3. Thanks for the report and the heads-up, John. I’m glad your session with Marcy went well. If nothing else, that must have given you a lot of encouragement. 🙂


  4. This was a great re-cap John! I think you were too generous in your ** out of five stars for that one session (Writers Got Talent) given everything you said, and what happened.

    I’m sure there must be “work shops” and conferences worth the $. But, honestly? In my opinion, with the internet, there’s not much you can’t find out about on your own. The only writer event I’ve ever been to was Bouchercon last year, and the only reason I went was to meet Janet. I sat in on some panels (Lori Radar-Day was on one) and listened in, but…I didn’t hear anything I didn’t already know.

    The main thing I noticed? A lot of weirdness. Writers looking to stand out. Well okay, if you want to dye your hair purple, and wear glittery stuff, have at it. Or, if you want to sport a fedora and wear sunglasses inside the conference room, be my guest. 🙂


  5. Thanks for this, John! I’ve also never been to a conference / workshop etc but perhaps there are fewer here than there. Actually, I’d say that that’s more of a ‘probable’ than a ‘perhaps’. Plus, as Donna said – in 2016 with the internet, I can hang out on the Reef and absorb an incredible amount of information, and save myself the entry fee! Although your one-on-one seemed very worth it. Congrats on your feedback, by the way!
    I think that, having read your summation of the day, it confirms for me that I’ll look for the one-on-one opportunities where / when they arise.
    Thanks again!


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