SIWC 2015 Recap

Last weekend was my first time attending the Surrey International Writers’ Conference, held in Surrey, BC at the Sheraton Guildford Hotel. This was its 23rd year, and first time selling out!

It was amazing.

It’s a professional conference geared at writers of fiction and/or nonfiction, all genres, and at all levels, though it does assume a level of dedication. Beginners are certainly welcome, but the workshops and content covered are designed in a way that expects you to have a basic understanding of the craft, and really, the dedication to improve. There were plenty of unpublished writers in attendance, but everyone was there to get better. I don’t mean to dissuade newbies from going because the bar isn’t high. If you have the enthusiasm (and can park your ego at the door) and the desire then I highly recommend going. It’ll help if you have a basic understanding of things like plot and character development, but the point of the workshops is to learn and ask questions about how/why/what. There’s a different vibe than the writer panels you’ll find at cons like PAX or Worldcon (no cosplay, for one). Not a bad vibe, just different. Still fun and friendly. But all the offerings are aimed at the craft and business ends of writing. No panels on games, geekdom, or fandom.

Masterclasses were offered on Thursday, the day before the official start of the conference. I was fortunate to get into the class on short stories taught by the fabulous Mary Robinette Kowal. Mary is awesome, and a great teacher. She’s a professional puppeteer as well as an award winning author, and the way she integrates her experience as a puppeteer to writing is unique and informative. The masterclasses were 3 hours, and it was a lot of information to cram into a relatively short window, but I felt that I got my money’s worth. It was nice to have a class dedicated to short stories that looked into their structure, and how they’re similar and different to novels.

SIWC restructured the days for this year’s conference to fit four workshops in a day: two in the morning and two in the afternoon. The day started with the morning session at 9am and a keynote speaker, then attendees had two mornig (and afternoon) sessions comprised of four 90-minute workshops to choose from. You could leave workshops that didn’t work for you and attend others if you wished, and every room had a door monitor to make sure entrances/departures weren’t disruptive (so nice!). This was one of the most organized cons I’ve been to ( a sentiment I heard echoed by several pros in attendance), with lovely volunteers to keep everything running smoothly. There were several hundred (I heard numbers from 400-700) people in attendance and I didn’t run into a single problem. Well, small and slow elevators, but they can’t really change that.

The Sheraton staff were also polite, helpful, and kept the banquet hall running like a well-oiled machine. I purchased the “full conference pass” which included lunch and dinner (full conference and single-day passes included lunch, dinners were only for full passes) all three days in the banquet hall, though there are options to skip the meals if you so choose. But, then you miss out on the keynote speakers, and they were amazing. The food was great too, and the kitchen staff were polite and accommodating for people with dietary restrictions.

Everyone was friendly and inviting, and I didn’t run into a single snobbish person. I went solo (sort of, husbeast came along but went to see his family/friends during the days) to the conference, which is always a bit nerve-wracking. Fortunately, SIWC had a hashtag going and I tweeted a “first timer going, anyone want to meet up?” message a few days before the conference. Got plenty of responses, because that’s just how friendly this conference is, and I found a “tribe” of people which included first timers like myself as well as veterans of several years. I hope to attend this conference annually in the future.

Some particular highlights/things I really liked: the depth of workshops and the time length. Four options every session offered great variety, and with 90 minutes to work with the presenters could really get into some substance. It did make for some really long days though, in chairs that weren’t the epitome of comfort. Due to personal issues, it was a bit rough on my knees.

Keynotes at every meal (aside from breakfast because that was on your own). Variety in speakers who represented different genres, backgrounds, ways to approach the craft, all were motivational in their own ways.

The Saturday luncheon was the “This Day We Write” meal where each table would be joined by a randomly assigned presenter. They didn’t come in until most people had already sat down so that you didn’t know who would be at your table. My table was graced by C.C. Humphreys, and he was wonderful. There were 8 or so of us at the table and he chatted with all of us. He also has a lovely English accent.

Really, all the pro writers I encountered were kind, encouraging, and pretty laid back. Terry Fallis joined my group briefly for drinks after the afternoon session on Friday, and was so at ease with us that it felt like a bunch of friends chatting, not a bunch of unpublished newbs making nervous chitchat with a Published Author.

Door monitors. Enough said.

Blue Pencil and Pitch appointments included in your registration fee. These were fifteen minute sections that you signed up for during registration, and the list of pros available to choose from was amazing. I didn’t do a pitch since I don’t have a novel ready, but I did have a Blue Pencil with Mary. These are quick critiques where you can bring up to three pages of a story, and I was amazed at how constructive Mary was able to be within such a short timeframe. Plus, she uses fountain pens too, so I have huge amounts of geek love going on. There was also an option this year to wait in line for second/third pitches and Blue Pencils if someone dropped out, and from what I heard it was successful.

Things I didn’t love/could use improvement: the armless chairs. OMG, my neck/shoulders/back were sore after every workshop from the hunching over to take notes on my lap. This isn’t really something SIWC can fix since there probably isn’t the space or availability to put in tables, but it sure made me appreciate the Cascade Writers workshop having tables for every group. To be fair, the CW workshop is much smaller, but that has its own set of pros/cons. If you’re in the area go to both, as they’re quite different experiences.

It’d be nice if there could be a first time attendees meet and greet, or a mentor/mentee event since there were a lot of returning attendees as well as many first timers (I think this was the most first timers in attendance) either as an informal event on Thursday night, or on Saturday night since there isn’t anything slated after the dinner banquet.

That about sums it up. Great event and I plan to go next year.

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Cornea Carving…aka LASIK

Sorry for the radio silence, but I swear I really have been writing. However, I thought y’all might be interested in my recent foray into LASIK.

For nearly twenty years I’ve needed corrective lenses of some sort. I started with glasses in grade school, and graduated to contacts in junior high (my school district’s equivalent of middle school). I wore contacts for 14-16 hours a day, every day, for about thirteen years. My eye doctor wasn’t that pleased, and in law school I started having “floaters” appear in both eyes and signs of “laddering.” I received a stern lecture about the necessity of wearing my contacts less. Something about corneal detachment may have been mentioned but it’s been a while and I can’t really remember. “Wear contacts less or else,” was the gist of it. I tried to wear my glasses more, but back then, “more” meant taking my contacts out in the evenings. Maybe.

At the end of 2012, a car accident and the resulting recovery period forced a return to glasses. I can count the number of times I’ve worn contacts since then on one hand. It helps that I finally got frames that I liked (funky little shop in Wallingford called 4 Your Eyes Only). And, things were great. I’d thought about LASIK before, but my vision hadn’t been consistent for a year (one of the requirements), and the thought of having my eyes held open for ten minutes was freaky. But, as I met more people who’d had it done, I started thinking about it more. So, here I am.

October 1– Went in for LASIK at 9:05am and was out the door at 10:15. The actual laser surgery part is quick—maybe 10 minutes in the chair. It’s all the pre-op stuff that causes the appointment to take an hour or two. I was told to expect to be there for 2-3 hours, but I was the second person in the chair so I got done early.

This is kind of the best “surgery” I’ve had thus far because you get to eat breakfast in the morning. And, the surgeries seemed to run on time. Win-win. That may seem like nothing, but for anyone that’s had an 8am surgery scheduled and still been waiting come the afternoon and no food or liquids since midnight…yea.

There’s paperwork to start, mainly confirming what procedure you’re there for and the follow-up schedule. The first med I received was an anti-anxiety liquid that looked like dark cherry cough syrup and tasted about as bad. Then there was the first of many rounds of eye drops, and an alcohol swab over the eyes (disinfectant?). As I said earlier, I was most nervous about having my eyes held open for several minutes. What do they do about your eyes tearing? Doesn’t it burn? Nope. Eye drops to slow eye movement, capillary action (I think?), numbing, etc. No burning or tearing.

For me, the most uncomfortable part of the whole process was having the eyelid spacer thing put in. I have small eye openings, so there was a chance that I’d either have to have a blade-made flap (microkeratome) instead of a laser-made flap on my cornea. Whether using the blade or laser for flap creation, the machine needs to get good suction on your eye, and the laser one is slightly larger (it’s not as bad as it sounds). Fortunately, they were able to get the laser one to work. The eyelid spacer in my right eye was the only part that “hurt” in the entire process, and I hesitate to say “hurt” because it’s really more a discomfort. Accidentally poking yourself in the eye hurts; this doesn’t.

I was getting eye drops all the time (it felt like), and during the flap creation part it looks really weird. You can’t feel it aside from a sort of removed pressure, but you can “see” it happening. There’s no change in vision (that I noticed. I went in with -5 eyes though), but you can see/feel them peeling the flap back. It sounds gross, but I thought it was cool.

Once the flap was made in both eyes they do the actual laser correcting. I basically just sat there looking at a red dot. I didn’t feel the laser, but I could hear and smell it. It sounds like a machine rumbling near you, not overly loud, and smells like burning. It reminded me of what it smells like when you get a cavity drilled. They put a clear contact in to protect the flap at the end.

That was it. My vision fluctuated noticeably the first day, and it’s expected to for the first few weeks with gradual changes for a few months. My vision was markedly improved as soon as I sat up in the chair, but it’s not at the same level of clarity as with my glasses yet. My vision was blurry immediately upon getting up (they said it’d be like opening your eyes underwater, but honestly it’s been so long since I could do that I can’t say if that’s an accurate analogy), but it improved throughout the day. 5 hours after surgery most of the blurriness was gone. My nearish vision is good—I can see the TV from the couch!—but not yet to the glasses level.

For the first four hours after surgery I was instructed to put in artificial tears every half hour, then every hour until bed. Starting two hours after surgery, I’ve been putting in an antibiotic and a steroid eye drop. The antibiotic continues 4x a day for a week, the steroid continues until the bottle is empty. Artificial tears are as needed/frequently for the first month, & likely on a regular basis thereafter. I want to say they said my eyes would return to the same dryness level they were at before surgery, but I can’t remember. I was given a pain relief eye drop but didn’t feel the need for it.

My energy level was good after surgery and I didn’t find that LASIK impeded my normal activity. I didn’t spend much time in front of a computer during the first four hours after surgery, but I was at it in the evening without a problem. However, I’ve been wearing Gunnar glasses and will continue to do so for a while to reduce eye fatigue.

October 2– So, the plastic eye shield you have to sleep with the first night is the most irritating thing in the entire process. I found it annoying to try and sleep with it. My eyes were kind of blurry when I woke up, but after I put some artificial tears in they cleared up and are blur-free. Still not at glasses-level clarity/accuracy, but getting there. No pain. Have my one-day follow-up in a few hours.

Follow-up recap– Everything looks good according to my follow-up appointment. Healing well, and it looks like I’ll have 20/20 (or close, I was able to get half the letters on the 20/15 setting) vision once my eyes stop fluctuating. At this point it seems like what I’m lacking is crispness of images. During the vision test, I could see the letters but they appear blurry on the edges. This should resolve in a few weeks as the flap finishes healing. They took the temporary contact out & said everything looks good.

So, yay. If you’re able to get LASIK, I’d recommend it. It’s really not scary or painful and the results are fantastic. My surgery was performed at PCLI in Bellevue, but there are a number of LASIK surgeons in WA (and beyond, obviously). Blahblah disclosure, PCLI didn’t ask me to do this review, but if you’re considering LASIK I’m happy to chat more in depth.