The Surrey International Writer’s Conference (www.siwc.ca) is only three days away, and I’ve been seeing several posts and commentaries about what one should or should not do at a writer’s conference. This year will be my seventh SiWC, so I like to think I am now a wiley veteran of this conference.
The SiWC is dear to me. It is where I learned my craft (or as much of it as I’ve been able to cram into my empty head), and without the people who make up the conference, both the presenters and the staff/volunteers, I would have no ability to write at all. I guess the folks there have done their jobs well, because this year I’ve been invited to participate in a “Success Story” panel, with three other conference alumni.
That being said, I would like to share a few of the things I have learned, and wish someone had told me before I ever showed up, about the writer’s conference. Let’s call it a survival guide, of sorts. These things might not be important to everyone, but I’ve found them important to me, and I hope you might find them useful.
1. Wear layers of neat, comfortable clothing.
The SiWC (and most conferences that I’ve heard of) is held in a really big hotel, in a whole bunch of different rooms. The climate in these rooms seems to range from luke warm to arctic, and I’ve always found it best to wear something that leans towards warm. For me, that means an undershirt with a dress-shirt. For you, that might mean a parka. If you show up wearing a tank top, you might have regrets a few minutes into the first workshop.
Bear in mind, also, especially if you are attempting to pitch your work to an agent or editor, that writing is a business. As low key and casual as the conference is, people are less likely to want to work with you if you look like a complete slob (unless you are astonishingly brilliant – which is probably unlikely), so wearing your favourite, stained t-shirt, that proclaims your love of beer and strippers probably is not your best bet. I’m not saying you need to wear a three piece suit, but I’m thinking you might want to avoid your plaid pyjama pants if you want anyone to take you seriously.
2. Make sure you eat.
Despite the fact you’ll be sitting most of the day, the conference is exhausting. You’re in class by 0930hrs in the morning, and you’ll probably be up, socializing, networking and harassing the bar staff with horrible jokes (anyone who knows Michael Slade knows exactly what I’m talking about), until the small hours of the morning. You need to get some fuel into you to sustain you through the day, so make sure you get your meals in.
I’ve always opted for the full conference package where lunch and dinner are provided, and the food put out by the hotel is generally awesome. Despite where you eat, make sure you get in a good serving of something rich in protein – it makes you feel full without feeling bloated or tired.
Also, make sure you hydrate. The hotel provides big water coolers (they’re black, with spigots on them), so you never have to look far to get some fluids. If you’re fed and watered properly, and not worrying about the low-blood-sugar headache you’ve got coming on, then you’ll enjoy the conference more (learn more, too).
3. Remember, we’re all just Folks.
Everyone at the conference is a person, just like you. They have their faults and foibles, the things that tick them off and the things that make them smile, just like you. If they get accosted in the elevator by someone pushing a sheaf of paper into their face while screaming madly and acting out the more interesting scenes from their novel, they are liable to scream for help, just like you.
You will meet famous people at the conference (Diana Gabaldon, Jack Whyte, Michael Slade, Robert Dugoni), as well as people (agents and editors) who, if they like your work, can make you famous, as well. Despite their fame or importance, they are still people who don’t want a crazy person jumping up and down beside their table in the lounge while they’re trying to eat a sandwich. So, don’t be that crazy person.
By all means, talk to Diana; give her a high five and tell her you love her books, she likes to hear good feedback as much as anyone else. But don’t try and hug her while she is talking to someone or trying to get to the next workshop she is expected to teach.
By the same token, the agents who attend the conference are doing so in the hopes of finding new and promising clients. But don’t chase them down the hallway and try to stuff your manuscript into their briefcase (once again, they are liable to scream for help). If you get the opportunity, tell them about your story, and if they like it they will ask you to email it to them (don’t carry around a 400 page manuscript – it is a giant waste of paper and ink, and no one will take it from you).
After attending the conference for nearly a decade, some of these people are very much my friends, and I am liable to respond when they call for help. No one wants that. Especially the person harassing them.
4. Make new friends.
While you are remembering that we’re all just folks, bear in mind that goes for your fellow attendees, too. Everyone there loves stories and the crafting of them. Everyone loves books, and talking about them. Several people will also be there for the first time, and are hoping desperately for a friend to sit with them at lunch so they don’t have to look around in the hopes they won’t be the only person sitting at a table by themselves (been there, done that, wrote a story about it, and it sucked – both the story and the experience).
Intoduce yourself, shake hands, ask questions. In my experience, the majority of the people who show up at the conference are of the highest quality (except for that crazy person flapping their manuscript at a fleeing agent), and are very much interested in hearing what you have to say. You just have to open up and tell them what that is.
I have made lifelong friends of the people I’ve met at the conference. You will not have to look far, and you will too.
5. Keep an open mind – and take lots of notes.
I read a story once, about Bruce Lee trying to teach Steve McQueen Wing Chun Kung Fu. McQueen thought he already knew enough, and was apparently a little reluctant to accept criticism in his technique. Lee poured tea for him, and when the cup filled then over-flowed, he kept pouring. When McQueen protested, Lee said “You are like this cup. You are so full there is no room for anything else. To learn, you must empty your cup.”
As you go through the conference, come with an empty cup.
Writing, and the judging of it, is deeply subjective; nothing anyone says is going to be the absolute gospel. But you need to keep an open mind, be receptive to new ideas, if you are going to have any hope of growing. If anyone offers constructive criticism on your story, it is not because they revel is seeing you fail, it is because they want to help you. If you come with the attitude that your story is awesome, and you know more than everyone else at the conference, you might as well stay home and bask in your awesomeness without getting any on the rest of us.
As you go through the workshops, try to absorb everything you can. Make copious amounts of notes so you better retain the ideas that are discussed (I also like to jot down the words I don’t understand so I can look them up later). And remember that everyone there is trying to help. Why? Cause we’re all just folks.
6. Above all else, have fun.
You paid for the bloody thing, so try to have a good time. Not everything you hear will help you, but a large quantity of it will.
Then, once you’re done and gone home, get back to writing. Your tool-kit will now be a little deeper, and your stories a little better.
As always, thanks for reading, and I hope to see you there.