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Thursday, November 6, 2008

Fast Times at Surrey BC

In 2006 I was first invited to the Surrey International Writers’ Conference (SiWC) in Surrey, British Columbia (just outside Vancouver). I enjoyed it immensely, so I was delighted to be invited back this year.

SiWC is similar to many other writers’ conferences in providing a weekend packed with information for aspiring writers of commercial fiction in multiple genres. Workshops address varying aspects of the writing craft and the publishing business. The conference also provides direct contact with representatives of the publishing industry, including opportunities to pitch completed work to editors and agents and get on-the-spot critiques. SiWC is large – something like 800 attendees – very professionally run, and attracts a terrific faculty that, I’ve got to say, intimidates me! This year it included Diana Gabaldon, Anne Perry, Phillip Margolin, Robert Sawyer, Meg Tilly, Jack Whyte, and many others.

So what did I do in my four days?


First off, a master class. Master classes are intensive three-hour workshops given on the day before the conference proper. Attendees must pre-register. Mine was called Unforgettable Characters, and combined information from a couple of shorter workshops on characterization and voice that I’ve done at other conferences. I thought three hours would give me tons of time for exercises, but darned if I didn’t find that the “text” ended up filling the time available! OK, we did get in a couple, but most of those I’d planned got sent home as homework. It was not half so exhausting as I expected – though I’ve got a much better idea now of what actually FITS in three hours.

On Friday morning the conference proper began with opening ceremonies and introductions. During the day’s program, I sat on a panel discussion on The Science of Inspiration. Six of us gave our personal “how we got started” stories, and talked about how we approached creativity. We could have delved a bit deeper with fewer panelists (something I’ve learned at sf conventions) but attendees did have time to ask some interesting questions.

Next I had the first of my two blue-pencil workshop sessions. Blue-pencils are a standard at Surrey. Visiting authors sit for 90-minute sessions, offering 15-minute consultations to attendees. The attendee can choose to talk about publishing or ask specific questions about writing or marketing, but most choose to use the time for the author to review the first few pages of their manuscripts. I think it's a terrific idea.

Before I did my first session in 2006, I was really nervous. What if I couldn’t think of anything to say? What if the writing was truly awful? Much to my relief, neither was a problem. After about ten years of critiquing, I’ve learned to read on multiple levels, from grammar to plotting to voice, which means I can always find something to say – even if it is, “Wow, I really have nothing but nits to give you about this great piece! Is it finished?” [I actually said that to one attendee this year.] And on the other side, the pieces were good, better, and excellent. No true duds.

Day Two started with another opening session at which I gave a short “keynote” speech. I talked about my experience with my first writers’ conference, where I felt like I found my home in the community of writers, and the one a short year later when I read the opening of Transformation for the editor who would buy my first seven books. It was pretty simple compared to some of the other morning and evening talks! But people did seem to appreciate it. And I got in a plug for fantasy as not only a legitimate genre, but the oldest literary genre. Always have to be the apostle of fantasy!

I also did a workshop on fictional world building and another blue-pencil session on that day.

On the last morning, I pulled out one of the first workshops I ever did, about how to write a novel without outlining. Interestingly, I think this one was the best received of all of them. I think it gives hope to those who, like me, find it impossible to conceive the progress of an entire story before actually writing it. Every author has to find his or her comfortable position on the spectrum from complete, detailed outlining to "typing Chapter 1, then saying, 'what next?' ”

In between all these activities were opportunities to network with other faculty members, and visiting agents and editors, and spend time with the attendees at meals. The SiWC staff are lovely, welcoming, and take really good care of both faculty and attendees. It was stimulating and fun. I’ll go back any time!

7 comments:

Deb S. said...

Carol
Sounds like an amazing conference, and what great workshop topics! Maybe one day...

Anyway, thanks for the comments here on outlining. Glad to know I'm not completely dysfunctional in my aversion to the process. I did try it recently for the first time, and happy day! I churned out a completed 150,000 word manuscript in no time. Only one problem...it was awful. Yikes.

Creatively, I'm clearly better off coming up with an idea and letting the characters and events dictate the journey. Only then I'm back to meandering middles and general procrastination. (More on that another time:) Seriously though, it seems like the trick is to apply the structure of an outline to my writing habits, rather than to the writing itself.

Loved the Lighthouse books BTW!
Deb S

carolwriter said...

Deb, no, you're not dysfunctional at all. Every author finds a place on the no-outlining to full outlining spectrum. The farther I progress on a book, the better idea I have about what comes next. I like the way you phrase it: the trick is to apply the structure of an outline to my writing habits, rather than to the writing itself.

And I'm delighted you enjoyed the Lighthouse books.

Deb S. said...

Carol
I don't know if you've been over to Deep Genre yesterday or today, but your fellow authors have posted some really interesting stuff on kings, gods and politics in fantasy. Thought you might want to check it out. I'd love to see your comments added to the mix if you have time.

carolwriter said...

Yes, I've read what's up. Really good stuff. I hope to contribute, but I'm snowed under right now.

Sarah said...

I always enjoy your ‘chronicles’ of your conference days. I find these
conferences so interesting, too bad that I have no choice to attend. The best
thing, for me, is the possibility a would-be-writer has to come in direct
contact with the publishers and the author.

Here in Italy there is basically no connection between would-be-writers and
the publishing market. If you are an aspiring author, you’re likely to remain
that forever (no, unfortunately, I’m not joking). But after all, this is why I’m trying to write fiction in English.

As for outlining, I never outline my short stories, I just go :-)
But I can’t do the same with novels. I tried just once and it was a disaster!
Now I usually write a long, detailed outline (like a short story, basically, I
find that more manageable) and then I loosely go along that outline.

Sarah

Laura said...

Hi, Carol! I just wanted to say how much I got out of your workshops at Surrey, particularly writing without an outline. Do you know if you are returning for Surrey 2009?

carolwriter said...

So glad to hear the workshops were useful.

I haven't heard about Surrey 2009. It is a great conference, and I would love to come back some day, but I would guess they like to vary their guest list from year to year. We'll see.