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 There were plenty of unpublished writers in attendance, but everyone was there to get better.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

Review- Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

It’s already July. July! Summer is cruising right along, so I thought I’d get off my butt and write up a review for a book that I think makes for great summertime reading. I’m tempted to call the review section “Story time with Cogwheel,” for obvious reasons.

Cogwheel 6-22-15

Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Tor Books, reprint June 2011, 320 pages

The first book in Mary Robinette Kowal’s (multiple Hugo Award winner/nominee, Nebula nominee, and all around pretty awesome person. She out-Rothfuss’d Pat Rothfuss once upon a time) Glamourist Histories quintet, Shades of Milk and Honey was a fun read. I’ll admit right up front, I don’t read many Regency/quasi-Regency/historical novels and I think the only work by Jane Austen I’ve read was Persuasion years ago, so Shades felt fresh to me. I’ve read reviews of people who were disappointed because it wasn’t “Austen” or “Austen-enough.” Well, it’s not Austen. It’s Kowal. It’s an alternate history Regency period but with magic (glamour)! I enjoyed it, but if you’re a die-hard Austen fan that wants something that is/feels Austen then this may or may not work for you.

I enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought I would. Again, don’t read much in this particular subgenre. The characters were engaging, though there’s room/need for further development, but since this was the first of five books I think the amount we got to know about each character was enough. The setting and magic element is what really sold me on this and kept me reading. Kowal defines glamour a bit more in the glossary as “[magic that allows people] to create illusions of light, scent, and sound. Glamour requires physical energy much in the same way running up a hill does.” I loved the subtle way glamour is woven into this alternate Regency world in a manner that’s noticeable yet reads as if it’s natural.

That’s not to say the plot is bad—it isn’t—but it is a bit slow to get going and the book reads easily. Again, not a bad thing, but if you’re looking for a book full of purple prose requiring you to reread a sentence over and over to glean every last ounce of meaning from it, then you should look for something else to put on the summer reading list. Shades is mostly about getting to know the characters, their world, and setting the stage for the big conflict at the end. For me, it worked. Even though as I was reading past the halfway mark and thought, “hmm, still not sure what the conflict is going to be/how it affects Jane,” I didn’t care because I was enjoying the journey.

This is the starting tale for Jane Ellsworth, plain in features and at 28 years old, resigned to being a spinster. Jane is skilled at working with glamour, and ultimately it’s her use of the magic that saves the day.

The sibling rivalry between Jane and her younger, prettier, charming sister Melody, sets up the characters and feeds the plot. Melody is well written as the annoying, spoiled, selfish brat that she’s capable of being, with a few dashes of redeeming self-awareness. She’s dramatic, but not unrealistically so. Readers can probably relate to Jane in some way because they either have a sibling or know someone who shares Melody’s flair for theatrics.

The supporting cast is interesting, and I liked them more once I got them sorted out by name. There are a few spots of dialogue that were hard to follow because multiple female Ellsworths were present, and both Jane and Melody are referred to as “Miss Ellsworth.”

Didn’t get a great feel for Mr. Vincent in this book aside from him being the brooding artist. I liked that he wasn’t too emo, but rather was absorbed in his art. It had a bit of snobby, misanthropic feel, but that was tempered by his interactions with Jane. On the one hand, I’d have liked to see their romance fleshed out more, but on the other, it’s more fitting at how it went in the book. Scenes of them courting or walking along a moor don’t fit his character at this point in the overall story. Maybe he gets more personality later on, I don’t know, but he was weird and artsy enough for me to be content with the ending.

And Jane. She’s unlike many of the heroines in the books I read because in some ways she’s not a “strong” character. She physically a bit weak, and though there are times I reallyreallyreally wanted her to hit someone, her character wouldn’t do that. I’m a barbarian. It’s not in Jane’s nature (thus far anyway), she’s too well-mannered, and that can be frustrating. But it fits her. She’s the epitome of “gentlewoman.” She relies on her wit (and some glamour) to enable her to save the people she cares about.

I thought I was going to be irritated and eye-rolling at how kind Jane is, but it was endearing. Her struggles against personal wants while trying to keep the peace felt real. She’s resigned to her fate to never find love, and the inner struggles she has between her own jealousies and wanting good things for her family gave her relatable depth.

The only time where Jane came off as utterly clueless and unrealistic was when she couldn’t begin to guess at who the man was behind Melody’s secret love. I mean, OMG, there’s only three men around their age mentioned in all of the book and one of them keeps hanging around at the house, and is already acting shady. Really, Jane? At 28 I’d think she’s been around the social scene long enough to see her fair share of scandals and love triangles. It’s shown earlier in the book that gossip keeps the social circle afloat, and Mrs. Ellsworth thrives on the stuff. Even if Jane had merely entertained the thought and dismissed it for whatever reasons, anything would’ve been better than her “oh dear, who could it be?”

Aside from that one bit of shaking-my-head-at-you, I liked Jane’s character and look forward to reading more of her adventures in Glamour and Glass. Have a safe 4th of July my fellow Americans, and happy Canada Day to the Canucks.