Interview with Lorin Oberweger, Part 1

LorinLorin 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!


About Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed in 2006. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, was named a Best Book of 2014 by Library Journal and BookRiot. Her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, sold to Random House in a two-book deal in 2008, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books, and was a Target Breakout Book. She's never been published with a lit magazine, but LOST's Carlton Cuse liked her Twitter haiku best and that made her pretty happy.


  1. Nancy Laughlin says

    I’ve attended a lot of conferences and one to two day workshops in the past and got to a point where I kept hearing much the same advice over and over. I continued reading books, but again, they all seemed to say the same thing.

    But I knew, my writing was missing something. I knew there had to be another level of skill, learning, out there that I was missing. When I found the BONI intensives, I found out what that was.

    Conferences and short workshops are great, but they don’t have time to drill into the meat of most matters. They only have time to cover surface issues. Intensives like BONI provide so much more!

  2. Janet Brook says

    I first learned about BONI from a fellow student during a Writers Online Workshop. (Yes, networking is important) I attended my first weeklong intensive where I met my online friend in person for the first time and wound up sharing a flat with her. We’ve been best buds ever since.

    For me, it was like learning how to swim by diving into the deep end of the pool. I learned more about the craft and magic of writing in one week than I had in years of struggling along on my own with grit, determination and a shelf full of How To books. I also learned that writing does not have to be a solitary occupation. The friendships I have made from attending two BONI’s and one of Don Maass’s four day tension workshops have sustained me, galvanized me, and when needed, provided the right amount of butt-kicking to keep me moving forward. We’re family!

  3. Bernie Bourdeau says

    I have attended a BONI intensive and a Tension workshop. Lorin’s advice about checking your ego at the door is right on target. But if you do, you will learn so much. And if you apply what you learned, you’ll start hearing your critique partners saying “wow, this is so much better.” And the best part of that is that you will know why it’s better. I see the Free Expression workshops like a visit to an old fashioned hardware store for writers. Even if you’re not sure of the source of the problem, you’ll leave with a better understanding of the problem and the right tools to fix it. From there, it’s up to you.

  4. Jo Cooper says

    Loved the interview. Lorin’s style of teaching knocked my socks off. Quietly authoritative and kick ass at the same time! There’s something about a person who is authoritative because they actually know what they know. Her years of experience with BONI and Free Expressions make it easy to shut up and listen (and for a talker that is saying a lot!). The level of trust among the staff is encouraging, which transfers to students.
    I look forward to part two of the interview.

  5. Donna Lodge says

    Excellent analysis of the macro and micro, with details only an experienced editor and insider would know. Excellent interview. Part II?

  6. Sammi Soutar says

    I’ve been listening to Lorin’s sage, editorial advice for years. She’s never steered me wrong.

  7. Claudine Rogers says

    What an insightful, articulate interview!
    I’ve attended two BONI’s and have been so thrilled with the honest feedback and generous encouragement I’ve received. Lorin, Don and the rest of the team are so good at what they do, that I find myself constantly thinking, “I can’t believe I get to talk to all these brilliant minds a once.”
    Lorin brings up a really good point about actually applying what you hear during the one-on-one-critiques. I suppose it’s akin to what a doctor feels when the patient doesn’t take the medication/advice offered. Which makes me think: since I’m fortunate enough to avail myself of Lorin’s guidance/mentoring services right now, maybe I should really listen up myself and (ahem) pare down my many POV’s.
    Looking forward to the next article!

  8. says

    An excellent posting Lorin! A must read for any writer considering investing their time, energy & money into attending a conference.
    I’ve been fortunate enough to attend the Surrey International Writers Conference where Donald Maass is a regular presenter and he certainly knows the business from many angles. Perhaps one day I’ll see you there too!
    Looking forward to reading your next post.

  9. says

    An affirming and informative post. I was thinking along the lines of this issue today when I posted on my blog. It’s so important for a writer to be open and honest with themselves about their ability/skill level and be open to objective feedback.

  10. says

    Thanks for all the positive comments, all. Folks are going to think I’m hanging out twenties to former participants. :) (Sorry, only fives this year.)

    Lorna — I would love to come to Surrey and have wanted to do so for years. Unfortunately, it always seems to fall over a time when I have other commitments. Will keep my fingers crossed for 2010!

    June — You’re so right about that. Again, I think it’s natural for any writer to come into a workshop setting with a lot of fantasies running at full bore and a lot of expectations about the feedback they’ll receive. But being able to still all of those voices and really absorb truly makes all the difference. And at each workshop I see people who are able to do just that and whose novels grow by LEAPS within just a few days. Makes an already phenomenal job even greater!