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 There were plenty of unpublished writers in attendance, but everyone was there to get better.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.