Lorin Oberweger is a highly sought-after independent book editor and ghostwriter with more than eighteen years experience in the publishing industry. Her company, Free Expressions, also offers writing seminars nationwide with Donald Maass and others. In addition, she serves as editorial director for the renowned Writers Retreat Workshop. Lorin is also an award-winning author, whose poetry, short fiction, and articles have appeared in well over one-hundred periodicals, including The Montserrat Review, Storyquarterly, and the bestselling anthology French Quarter Fiction, published by Light of New Orleans Press.
We’re thrilled she could be with us today to talk about her various jobs and what we as writers might learn from her many experiences. Welcome, Lorin!
Part 1: Interview with Lorin Oberweger
Q: First off, please tell us about yourself. What is your job, your role?
LO: Thanks for asking! I wear several hats, actually, but the two most notable ones are those of independent book editor (going on fifteen years since I first “hung out my shingle”) and co-creator/Editorial Director of the Writing the Breakout Novel weeklong intensives, with literary agent Donald Maass.
I’m also editor-in-residence of the Writers Retreat Workshop, and have been on the staff of that workshop for quite some time now.
Q: How do larger conferences and seminars differ from small workshop groups, if at all? (Many conferences have small breakout sessions.)
LO: For me, the difference tends to be one of breadth versus depth. Generally speaking, larger conferences and seminars are excellent for receiving a good deal of information about many elements of writing while smaller workshops tend to afford a more focused, intensive approach. Larger conferences often provide opportunities to mix/mingle in an abbreviated way with MANY writers/agents/editors, while smaller workshops tend to provide greater exposure to fewer industry professionals.
Q: How might a writer on a budget decide which type of event would be best for them? Is this something that might change throughout the course of the drafting and editing process?
LO: I didn’t know there were writers NOT on a budget! Seriously, though, I think it’s important to first determine your primary goal for attending a workshop or conference. If you feel your manuscript is completed and absolutely ready to sell, then you’re probably better off at a large conference that affords opportunities to pitch to at least a few agents.
Shorter sessions can also be WONDERFUL for digging into a particular element of writing, for receiving limited exposure to a particular teacher or organization, and, of course, for just filling the well of inspiration when it’s running dry. They can also be great at offering up-to-the-minute info on the state of the publishing industry, agents’ and editors’ current likes and dislikes, etc.
Smaller workshops, such as the Breakout Novel Intensive (BONI), tend to require that the writer have a specific project at which he or she is at work, as well as a strong desire to really dig in and push him or herself HARD during the week. They’re best suited to those who RELISH the idea of something very aptly called an “intensive.” At BONI, you are one of only thirty-five people at each session digging into, dismantling, reassembling, struggling with and triumphing over your manuscript for a full week. This means you’re visible to every staff member and every other student, which can be bad or good, depending on your desires and comfort level.
Aside from obvious issues of what one receives in exchange for workshop or conference tuition (meals, materials, lodging, one-on-one conferences, classes, receptions, and so on), there are the more subtle issues of the expected return on investment. It’s never just an investment of cash; it’s an equal (or greater) investment of time and psychic energy. So, what’s important is to figure out where you are with your writing, where you want it to go next, and which workshop or conference is most likely to help you get where you’re going.
Q: How can a writer get the most out of a conference or workshop?
LO: First, in as much as possible, leave your ego at home. It’s SO tough to do, especially for writers who are at that “almost” stage where they’ve learned so much about craft, are getting really encouraging rejection letters or even have requested MSS out with agents or editors. Instead, writers often want to rush in, deflect constructive criticism, interrupt discussions with stories of their experiences, push their business cards at every other sentient life form, and so on.
This is all perfectly understandable, but in my experience, those writers end up missing out on so much. They miss out on the quiet moments of observation that tell them who an agent REALLY is, what he or she might really love to read. They miss out on making real, lifelong connections with mentor authors or other participants. They miss that kernel of wisdom that helps blow the roof off their stories or their writing in general.
Second, it’s smart to create a realistic set of expectations for your workshop or conference experience. Dreams are absolutely vital, and incredible things happen all the time, but if you have only the first chapter of your novel completed, it’s unlikely you’ll be signed by an agent or sold to a publisher on the strength of your conference interaction.
Determine what the workshop has to offer and establish, say, three concrete goals for your time there. Ideally, perhaps, one might be a craft-related goal–to get a firmer grasp on viewpoint, for example; one might be a social goal—perhaps to meet two other writers with whom you can exchange work on an ongoing basis; and one might be a professional goal—to determine the viability of your story in the current marketplace, maybe, or to put your work in front of an agent you admire. Be directed toward those goals but remain open to mid-course corrections!
Q: Receiving criticism can be tough. How can writers step into a workshop situation prepared to receive criticism and use that criticism to evolve their work?
LO: First, I would suggest they place themselves in “neutral mode” as much as possible when receiving criticism. Listen carefully, write down or record what is said, ask questions for the sake of clarifying issues, but don’t defend, don’t attack. Just absorb.
Repeat that process with anyone who offers feedback on the work. Don’t respond to one individual critique with sweeping changes to your story or writing. Let a couple/few critiques sit for a bit.
If you’re at a longer workshop, wait until a couple of days have passed to sit down and read back through your notes or listen to the recordings. And if your critique came at a shorter workshop, wait until you’ve been home for a couple of days.
Then go back through your sessions and take notes. I highly recommend that the first long session be a close examination of all of the positives that came your way. Write those down first. Really think about them, identify the areas of your writing that seem by consensus to be your strongest. Let that sit with you for a little bit so that you truly absorb those, rather than skip ahead to the criticism. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people come back to me, obsessed with a small point of criticism when I spent twenty of our thirty minutes praising their insightful character development or their complex, original plot, etc. Writers NEED to understand what they do well.
Then go back through for the areas in need of improvement. Again, look for the areas that overlap from one critique to another. If two people had suggestions for strengthening your opening, even if those suggestions were very different, you at least have the knowledge that the opening needs work.
If you feel that someone critiquing your work completely missed the point or didn’t respond to your genre or was just “phoning in” his/her review, dismiss it. It’s not you; it’s them. Let it go.
Most of all, it’s up to the writer to be honest and tough with him or herself where critiques are concerned. Be prepared to do real work, to dig into a thorough revision. Nothing makes my heart sink more after I’ve spend hours reading and commenting on a manuscript (and then meeting and brainstorming with a student) than to have him or her say, “What if I just change “X”? Can I get away with “Y” then?”
To my way of thinking, that’s like saying, “Is it okay to shoot for a ‘C-’ when I could be doing ‘A+’ work?” I’m never going to agree to that! And honestly, this isn’t the economic climate or the time in publishing to be shooting for bare minimum.
So, be open, listen, consider, and then truly dig back into your work. Writers who do that succeed. Writers who don’t…well, don’t!
Golden words, aren’t they? Read on for for part 2 of my interview with the oh so wise Lorin Oberweger!