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#Publishing Workshops: Do we really need them anymore?

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Years ago, in an experience not unlike boot camp, I attended the Banff School of Fine Arts for a summer of The Banff Publishing Workshop. Each session was a grueling two weeks each, one for books and the other for magazines. I had the first of two panic attacks in my life there. And it changed my life in all sorts of ways.

Some nights, we didn’t sleep at all. The faculty flew in and while visiting hot shots were enjoying Banff National Park, we were slogging away making up book and magazine covers and planning publicity campaigns and pitches.

 If you want the pure knowledge gained, you don’t necessarily have to do a program like this (and people are fleeing traditional publishers. Publishers are not hiring.) You may want the knowledge to inform your DIY publishing operation. There are books that help in this regard. I’d begin with the AP Stylebook for the nitpicky stuff and read the Chicago Manual of Style cover to cover for a headstart. (A surprising amount of technical and editorial stuff I learned was cleverly concealed in the Chicago Manual of Style.)

Here are the three things Banff did for me (and how technology has changed everything):

1. Credibility. I was one of a few who went through the program and one of a very small number who graduated from both books and magazines. (They called us Lifers.) When I went back to Toronto with that on my resume, employers knew I was serious.

It’s much less important now to appeal to authority. Start asserting your authority through the power of your knowledge base and your actions. You can publish a cool book or a graphic novel or make a film without Daddy. You don’t have to ask anyone else’s permission now. (Just do it was a much better slogan for Nike than…whatever it is now.)

2. Contacts. Friends, professional and non-collegial, were really important at that time and a network of people are just as important as ever, but now for some different reasons. (And now you call many of them you tweeps.)

Then it was about getting a job. Now it’s about knowing people to reach out to who have information you need and who are willing to assist you. If you start up your own publishing company, you don’t have to work so hard at connecting with people. If you get out there, you’ll soon find they are coming to you. Technology makes for an entirely different narrative to your work.

3. Personal transformation. This one aspect made the entire experience of Banff worthwhile because somehow, in just four weeks, I got back something four years of journalism school pounded out of me: a sense of humour.

I used to be angry all the time. I preferred people to fear me because I mistook that for respect. I wasn’t friendly and open because I was too afraid of criticism. When you’re a hater, you think everyone else is, too. In Banff, I bounced back from the panic attack in spades with a magazine presentation and reading that blew everyone away. I learned to let go and, when I relaxed, I found I could make people laugh and I didn’t have to act like a tough guy anymore. (Testosterone poisoning is insulting, but maybe it’s appropriate in this case.) Maybe you don’t need to improve yourself like I did. Or you can achieve the same results in a yoga class or years of therapy. I don’t know. I can only say, whether you’re writing alone in a basement or out there in the cold slogging, seek out new experiences and maybe some of them will be transformative. (See post: 10 Lessons Learned from An Evening with Kevin Smith.)

Addendum: This year at a writing conference, the (now defunct) Banff Publishing Workshop came up over lunch. An old and well-respected editor who made her name at Penguin muttered that, in her day, she didn’t need to attend any such program. She achieved her status through just doing the work. Yeah. Kind of bitchy.

However, maybe the circle is now complete. Maybe you don’t need to go to some fancy publishing program and pay a whack of money for the privilege of sleepless nights and nasty remarks from visiting know-it-alls. It seems the old editor’s time has come again and, as I’ve described, the ticket to the show is simply to get up from your seat and climb on stage. In a world where we’re all authors, publishers, editors and poets, now you can.

Filed under: Books, DIY, Writing Conferences, , , , , , ,

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