Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 9

As a follow-up to last week’s article, this week I’m talking about conferences vs. retreats vs. a degree program

To recap: Writers work alone.  Unless you have a co-writer, the actual writing of a story involves your brain, your notebook, and your keyboard, and that’s it.  Sometimes, while you’re working on a particular project, you need feedback.

But sometimes you need more than that.  Sometimes you need to learn.

I will preface all this by saying that my experience – and the experience of everyone I spoke to while writing this — was hedged by saying “well, it depends.  It depends on the program, it depends on the teacher, it depends.”

Make your own Depends joke here.


Every month, in every city, there are writer’s conferences.  Genre, mainstream, nonfiction, and often a mix of all of the above.  “So And So Big Name lectures there!”  “So and So Big Name Agent will be there!”  “So and So Publisher will be there!”  And so they will.  And many times, this is an excellent place to hear the bits of advice – very practical, useful advice – that you can’t get anywhere else.  You may also get to do hands-on writing exercises that will open up entire lines of thought or understanding about your own projects, writing habits, or blind spots.  I liken conferences to going to the doctor, for your writing life: you’ll either get an “all clear, keep doing what you’re doing” or you’ll be handed a wake-up call about what you need to change, drastically, in order to get/stay healthy.

The problem with conferences is that they tend to change from year to year depending on the faculty, and you’ll never be certain what you’ll get from it, for your money.  Do your homework before signing up for anything; listen to people who have gone before, and especially see if people go back more than once.

At the same time, and I can’t emphasize this enough, beware of the conferences where people talk about it with too much reverence, or return too many times.  This is meant to be a learning experience, not a comfortable habit or teacher-worship scenario.  A conference junkie isn’t getting her book written.


There are two kinds of retreats.  Recently there was a flurry of Tweets from Big Name Genre Authors talking about going off to exotic locations to do nothing but write (and eat food and drink and talk and have fun, but mainly and mostly to write).  The truth is that while it’s lovely to go someone that will entice and inspire your senses, a retreat needs only the following requirements:  a lack of obligations other than writing (no ferrying of kids, answering of phones, or cooking of meals, etc), a comfortable bed where you can actually get a decent dose of sleep, and a sense of security that, at the end, you will come home to nobody dead, on fire, or severely traumatized.

The downsides to a personal retreat are probably obvious to anyone: it could be far too easy to turn it into a vacation, or week-long bull session.  You have to be self-directed and focused; otherwise the time is not used to its full potential.  It’s also probably not practical as a regular routine, but best saved as the once-a year punch in the arm.

The other kind of retreat is a once-in-a-career sort of thing, led by a Name Writer, and you are there to spend the week learning what they can teach you.  Clarion (North, South, and West).  Odyssey.  Hedgebrook.  Yaddo.  Whatever your genre or style, there’s a retreat that will offer you the right combination of isolation/integration/leadership to push you to the next level.  I’ve heard these some of these workshop retreats described as “book boot camp” and that’s pretty much it:  the whole point is to take you OUT of your comfort zone, not keep you in it.

What you should learn during a retreat of any sort is how much writing you are actually capable of, given a directed burst of energy.  You will also discover ways that other writers work, which may  a) work for you or b) give you ideas on how to improve your own routine.  You will also form connections that may last your entire writing career, both social and networking ties that you couldn’t get anywhere else.

My one concern and caution about retreat workshops is that many of them have a very specific style and focus.  If that style works for you, that’s great.  If it doesn’t…  I’ve known some very talented writers go off to a long-term retreat and come home, never to write again.  They are so filled with doubt about their own process, they can’t get over it.  And that can be devastating.  So, again, do your research.  Learn about the particular retreat, and be honest about how it will fit with what you do.

Degree programs:

I’ll be blunt.  I think that – for a writer of fiction, and especially a writer of genre fiction, most writing degree programs are useless.  Not because you won’t learn anything, but because I’m not sure that you will learn the right things.  Far too often a MFA program is designed to create writing teachers, not working writers, and some of them (especially the non-residency ones) are outright cash cows for their host facility.   That said, a good program can be like the very best of a retreat and a conference combined, pushing you out of your comfort zone to learn new styles and approaches while also exposing you to different professional experiences and outlooks.  The best of such programs give you the tools needed, not only to become a better writer than you were, but to continue building yourself into the writer you want to become.

As with the above examples, a lot depends on who is teaching the program.  Again, and I really can’t repeat this enough: Do your homework before you sign up for anything. Make sure that they are open to the sort of work you create (anti-genre snobbery is so writer’s friend).  I had the great fortune to go to work with a professional writer who, while knowing  nothing about the genre* was able to give me solid core writing advice, as well as some of the best professional advice I’ve ever gotten:  “if you love it, and think you can make a living at it, do it.  Don’t let anyone, not even me, tell you that you can’t or shouldn’t.”

That alone was worth the tuition.

*he later went on to win a World Fantasy Award.  Also a Pulitzer.  Not for the same work, tho


Coming up in Week 10:   How Much Research is Enough?

Laura Anne Gilman is a former editor with Penguin/Putnam, and the author of more than a dozen novels, most recently the urban fantasy PACK OF LIES, and WEIGHT OF STONE, Book 2 of the Nebula-nominated Vineart War trilogy.  Her first collection, DRAGON VIRUS, will be published by Fairwood Press in June 2011.  For more info check her website, her BookView Cafe bookshelf, or follow her on Twitter (@LAGilman)  And yes, her nickname really is meerkat.


About Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne is a recovering editor-turned-novelist, with an Endeavor Award, a Nebula nomination, another Endeavor award nomination and a Washington State Book Award nomination under her belt. Her most recent series is the award-winning "Devil's West" trilogy, starting with SILVER ON THE ROAD, and her same-universe story collection, WEST WINDS' FOOL, AND OTHER STORIES OF THE DEVIL'S WEST. The novella GABRIEL'S ROAD was published by Book View Cafe on April 30th, 2019. Her Patreon, featuring original fiction, writing advice, and original Rants, is at Learn more at, where you can sign up for her quarterly newsletter.


Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 9 — 5 Comments

  1. You say:

    At the same time, and I can’t emphasize this enough, beware of the conferences where people talk about it with too much reverence, or return too many times.

    But what if you return to a conference year after year simply because it’s the place you learn the most about writing? There isn’t a lot of opportunities to learn about writing where I live, and there’s one conference within an affordable distance where I can really learn from industry professionals. So I go every year.

  2. BJ – if you’re going back every year because they have new instructors, or an advanced level course, then that’s great. But if you’re going back to hear the same things said again and again I think it’s time to stop and ask yourself “what am I getting, for my time and energy (and money). Why haven’t I started -building- on this, rather than repeating it?

  3. Great timing on this post as the Rain Forest Writers Retreat is in full swing in the wilds of the Olympic Peninsula in WA state.

    My collaborator is there with the specific goal of editing a book we wrote together. This loosely structured retreat allows him to work solely on this, share meals, then get back to work. There are occasional workshops, but they are optional.

    I think the best time for a retreat is when you have something specific to work on that can consume all of your time and focus. To go just to recharge your brain is what a vacation is for.

  4. I have mixed feelings about this, as with me a lot rests on the idea of ‘permission’ to write. Courses and retreats tempt me because they seem to offer some kind of formal permission status. And yet, and yet… The taught retreat I did had great tutors, who helped me hugely, and yet I came away feeling utterly undermined by the class dynamic, because I felt out of step (and thus, of course, wrong). I suspect you need the right personalities for this sort of thing to work well.

  5. Kari – Yes. I turned down the chance for a workshop, back when, because I knew damn well that I would be so emotionally bullied by the dynamic there that I’d come away feeling defensive, not empowered. That didn’t mean the workshop was a bad one, just that we wouldn’t have been a good fit.

    This goes back to the earlier post on “know why you write,” I suspect.