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Organizing a Writers Workshop: Pre-Publicity (Part 1)

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Today's guest post is by NO RULES regular Susan Cushman, director of the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop. Pictured above: Three participants at the Yoknapatawpha Summer Writers Workshop in Oxford last June. L to R: Karen Rasberry, Gretchen Hargroder and Oxana Ribacova.

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Last November I was one of three co-directors for the 2010 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference, along with Neil White and Kathy Rhodes.

The conference drew about 100 participants, and was manned by a staff of three co-directors, a dozen or so volunteers, and a faculty of fifteen, including speakers, workshop leaders, and panelists.

I could never have put on an event of that magnitude by myself.

One of the co-directors, Neil White, is author of In the Sanctuary of Outcasts, and owner of Nautilus Publishing in Taylor, Mississippi, just south of Oxford. Neil has lots of contacts in the writing and publishing world (and he’s such a nice guy that people just want to say “yes” to him), so he made most of the contacts with our faculty and sponsors. And his wife teaches at the University of Mississippi, the location for the conference, which was also helpful.

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I’m saying all of this up front to set the stage for what it takes to organize a writers workshop.
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The difference in a conference and a workshop is that, while a conference may contain workshops (as the CNF Conference did), usually its main focus is on the presentations and panels, which are open to all participants.

A workshop, on the other hand, focuses primarily on manuscript critique, with presentations and panels added to sweeten the pot. This 2-part series is about a WORKSHOP rather than a CONFERENCE.

For this month’s post, I’ll focus on everything that must be done BEFORE publicizing the workshop. (Come back next month for my post on how to publicize and promote a writer’s workshop.)

BUDGET
Yes, it has to be about the money, because you can’t just offer an event like this for free. I decided to limit the number of participants to 20, in order to give each person’s work 30 minutes of dedicated time during the manuscript critique sessions.

20 people @ 30 minutes/each =
10 hours of manuscript critique sessions

Next, I set the workshop fee at $350/person. So, if we have 20 participants, our budget will be $7,000. Sounds like a lot of money, until you map out the workshop expenses, which include faculty, venue, housing, meals, social events and marketing/advertising. Here’s how it breaks down.

?FACULTY EXPENSES
You’ll need 4-6 faculty for the workshop. One to two will be manuscript critique leaders, so they’ll be expected to read and critique 10 manuscripts (up to 10 pages each) prior to the workshop, and then lead two 2½-hour critique sessions during the weekend.

This is a lot of work, and usually the faculty recruited for this part of the workshop are folks who teach creative writing. So, in addition to their travel, housing, and meals, you’ll want to pay them an honorarium. The other faculty will be doing “craft talks” (presentations) and/or serving on panels, so their honorarium is a bit lower, but you should still pay them what you can.

VENUE
I was hoping to hold this workshop in downtown Memphis, on the Trolley Line, near the (Mississippi) River and Beale Street, to take advantage of the atmosphere that downtown has to offer. But the downtown hotels were just too expensive.

Thankfully, I discovered the Fogelman Center at the University of Memphis, which was reasonable, and also located near the Cooper Young District, home of Memphis’ oldest independent bookstore and some really cool restaurants.

If you’re planning a workshop without the benefit of support from an organization or grant, it’s important to find a venue that doesn’t require up front money. That way, you’re not at personal risk of losing money if the workshop doesn’t fill.

HOUSING
Again, the downtown hotels in cities like Memphis can be the deal-breaker for a small workshop. You’re already asking participants to spend $350 for the workshop, plus travel and some of their meals, so you want to offer a deal on housing, right?

Check out your local university and see if they’ve got a hidden treasure like the Fogelman Center, which is offering guest rooms for $85/night because of the meeting space and meals we’re procuring from them. (And these rooms have queen beds and free wi-fi.)

MEALS
During a weekend workshop, meals can really add up. If you can roll some of those meals into the workshop fee, it’s all the more inviting. I was able to get a better deal on the workshop meeting space by including two lunches and one breakfast into the mix. An added value for workshop participants, too!
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SOCIAL EVENTS
With Burke’s Books nearby, I’ve scheduled a workshop faculty reading/signing event on one of the evenings of the workshop, followed by dinner at a nearby restaurant. Both evenings, the hospitality suite will be open back at the Fogelman Center, where I’ll offer complimentary drinks and snacks, and time to wind down and network with faculty and fellow participants.

In Part 2, I’ll address marketing and advertising. [Thanks so much to Jane Friedman for allowing this guest post, which is a big part of that marketing!]

I hope this inspires you to organize a writing workshop in your area. Feel free to contact me if you have questions, and I’d love to hear your comments on any writing workshops you’ve attended, or things you’d like to see included in workshops. I’m all ears!

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You can read Susan's blog here, and follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

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