03 August 2013

Writers on the River

by John M. Floyd

"I'm away from the office right now--leave your name and number and I'll call you back."

That answering-machine message, thank goodness, isn't one I use anymore. Mainly because my only office these days is my home office, and also because I seldom venture too far from it. After all the globetrotting I did in my job and in the military, I now try to avoid any trip that might take me beyond the boundaries of my zip code. Imagine Paladin's card with the words HAVE GUN WON'T TRAVEL on it. (Also imagine Paladin unemployed but stress-free.)

Today, though, I am traveling--or, more accurately, I'm already there. While you're reading this, I'm participating in a two-day writers' conference in Vicksburg, Mississippi. (Only fifty miles west, but still away from wife and home and easy chair and mystery DVDs.) Here's a link to the conference info.

I've been told I'll conduct two sessions this morning--one on writing short stories and one on marketing them--then I'm supposed to be the speaker at lunch, then this afternoon I'm scheduled to repeat the morning session, and then I'll take part in a panel discussion and a book signing. I have a feeling that tonight I'll be ready to prop my feet up higher than my head and shift my brain into neutral for a while. Actually my brain will probably be in neutral during the day as well; maybe nobody'll notice.

Conference call

Truth be told, I've been looking forward to the conference and I feel fortunate to have been invited. It's being run by a good organization and has become an annual event that draws aspiring and established writers from throughout the South. (Everyone seems to know by now that a writer can't open his or her car door in Mississippi without bumping into another writer. Our literary history includes Faulkner, Welty, Willie Morris, Tennessee Williams, Grisham, Shelby Foote, Carolyn Haines, Thomas Harris, Richard Ford, Stephen Ambrose, etc. – there must be something in the water, down here. Either that, or there just isn't much else to do.) Anyhow, as with any conference, it's a chance to see old friends again and to meet new ones, especially some authors that I might have read but have not yet had a chance to get to know.

I'm also aware that many of the attendees will be poets and writers of nonfiction. As a fiction writer, I always enjoy meeting those folks, but I admit to being a little intimidated by them. I've always felt that authors of poetry and nonfiction are more perceptive and more serious and more, well, dedicated than I am. After all, most contemporary poetry is so profound I can't even understand it, and writing nonfiction seems more like work than play– sort of like the term paper that you know you have to finish by Monday or you'll flunk the course. In other words, I respect those writers but I can't really relate to them; I feel as if I'm the little kid with the lollipop and the cowboy hat in the amusement park and they're the adults who make sure everything works and runs the way it's supposed to. (But, since we're being honest here, it's also the kids who have the most fun.)

Dreamers Anonymous?

As for the authors of fiction--whether they're short or long writers of short or long fiction--I find them not only interesting but helpful. I've gotten a lot of great information from fellow fiction writers, both in and out of the classroom environment, and if you've ever taught school, or night courses, or even conference workshops, you know that the instructor sometimes learns as much from the students as the students learn from you. The bottom line is, it's just fun to meet and visit with others who like the same kinds of things you do, whether it's in a seminar or on a cruise ship or on a barstool. Writing has always been a lonely pastime, and I believe no one understands fiction writers except other fiction writers.

Which brings up several questions. What kind of writers' conferences have you attended, or do you attend regularly? Have you found them worthwhile? Too long? Too short? Too expensive? Do you prefer main-tent presentations where everyone attends, or smaller concurrent sessions geared to specific topics? What do you think of "fan" events that include readers as well as writers? Do you ever pay extra to schedule individual one-on-one sessions with editors? Publishers? Agents? If so, have you found that to be productive? Do you prefer genre conferences like Worldcon or Bouchercon, or those that feature all flavors? Do you get tired of SleuthSayers who ask too many questions?

Great Expectations

One more thing, regarding writing conferences/workshops. A few months ago I received an e-mail from the Gulf Coast Writers Association (a well-run group, headed up by my old friend Philip Levin) asking me to come down to the Coast and conduct a two-hour fiction-writing seminar. I replied with an e-mail saying I'd be happy to come and thanks for inviting me, and included a question of my own: What would you like for me to cover? I said I could discuss any of several topics: plot, characterization, POV, dialogue, style, manuscript formatting, marketing, etc.– just let me know. Well, several days passed, and when I'd heard nothing back from them, I checked their web site. Imagine my surprise when I found this announcement there: "John Floyd will be at the Biloxi Public Library on Saturday, February 23, 2013, to teach a fiction-writing workshop from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m." It listed the street address and the price of attendance and added, "Topics John will cover are: plot, characterization, POV, dialogue, style, manuscript formatting, and marketing." Whoa.

I wound up covering all those things, and all within the two-hour time period. For the fifty or so students in attendance, it probably felt a bit like drinking from a fire hose, but we did it, and they seemed to like it, and we had a good day. It did teach me, however, to be careful what I propose, when I agree to a session like that. You know what they say about best-laid plans.

Thankfully, I shouldn't have that kind of problem today in Vicksburg. They told me I could talk about anything I want to.

Maybe I'll cover mystery movies …


  1. Mr. Floyd: Being away from wife and home can be stressful. All those authors from Mississippi? It never registered with me before. Maybe it's the mosquitos. What makes us assume modern poets are necessarily profound? That's the biggest trick in book (author unknown). They use words and phrases that are obscure and we assume genius. Look at our politicians. They never say much that makes any sense, either. Yet, we still vote for 'em. And look how that's working out. Enjoyed your insightful post. I would go to writer's conferences if they happened in my area code. Yours truly, Toe.

  2. John, enjoy yourself as I know others will enjoy you.

  3. John,
    Wish I could be there to hang out with you Mississippi writers and learn more about short stories from you. Asked to name great writers from that state before I read your coumn this morning, I would have said Faulkner, Williams and Floyd. Didn't realize there were so many and that makes me want to list and count who SC has produced. Have a great time!

  4. Have a great conference- I'm sure you will give them a ton of worthwhile advice.

  5. John, you are so NOT "less than" poets and nonfiction writers. I was reading some of the stories in your latest collection, DECEPTION, on my Kindle in the hammock yesterday (like peanuts--had to have another...and another...), and you have a tremendous gift. I'm impressed by your command of the puzzle--twist after twist in story after story--the ease with which you handle dialogue, so we don't even think about the characters being real, we're simply right there with them--and the fresh, evocative wisps of description, just a sentence or two or a phrase, with which you set the scene. As for poetry, to me there's no better quality than accessibility. I'm a poet myself, and I'm proud to say that no one has ever said, "I didn't understand your poem."

  6. John, I keep telling you that you're too modest. You're a wonderfully talented writer who writes great stories.

    I'm not sure I agree with your opinion of current poetry being profound, I’m sure some of it is, but no more so than poetry in other time periods. I've written poetry for years and think some of what they call poetry now isn't. That's just my opinion which probably doesn’t mean much to anyone but me. Poetry comes from the heart-not because of a need to impress others with one's great or not so great talent. It speaks to the soul. Hope what I said made sense.

  7. Just got back from the conference, had a great time. Many thanks to Fran, Toe, Janice, Vicki, and Liz, for the comments.

    Fran, I'd love to get you down here sometime. You could probably relate to the heat and humidity--the speakers who were down here this weekend from New York and Philly were burnin' up.

    Toe and Vicki, I'm not saying all poets are deep thinkers--I'm just saying I'm not.

    Janice, as usual I probably learned more information than I gave out. I have to agree with something Terrie Moran said awhile back: the biggest benefit of writing conferences is meeting and visiting with the other attendees. I had a great time--several of us stayed up past midnight in the hotel lobby last night, just talking.

    Liz, what kind words--I appreciate that. Sure glad to hear you're enjoying the stories.


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