|Don Maass giving the closing keynote at SIWC 2016|
I spent the weekend of October 20 – 23, 2016 at the Surrey International Writer’s Conference in Surrey, British Columbia, a suburb of Vancouver. I had an absolutely fabulous time. This conference was a boost of inspiration. It was also the kick in the pants I needed.
I arrived on Thursday morning and in the afternoon I took in Diana Gabaldon’s master class on Writing Sex Scenes. I figure if anyone knows how to write sex it’s her. And she didn’t disappoint. That evening, agent Donald Maass in his master class called “Fiction Mastery“, talked about questions to ask yourself and your protagonist about your story. He was the first presenter of the weekend who talked about digging hard for story. That was the beginning of the “kick in the pants” theme.
For the next two days I took in many interesting workshops from great presenters. As per fellow Word Wrangler Margie’s recommendation, I took in two of thriller writer Robert Dugoni’s workshops – one on setting and about avoiding common writing pitfalls. She was right when she said he was a very good presenter. I learned a lot. The key note speakers were funny and inspiring. Most made some mention of the importance of digging hard for our stories, for not settling for the first story or plot point to pop into my head. I wondered if I had been playing it safe in my writing.
That feeling gained momentum when I went to my first pitch appointment. The agent didn’t sound thrilled when I told her I was pitching contemporary romance (“a very crowded field,” she said. True enough.) but after I read my pitch, she gave me her card and asked to see the first 50 pages. Later that same day, I arranged a second pitch appointment and pitched the same manuscript to another agent. (On sober second thought, I wished I’d pitched a different story, but c’est la vie.) Anyway this agent politely declined seeing any more of my story, saying it didn’t sound like it had enough conflict. And I had to agree with her. Why hadn’t this occurred to me before? I felt like I’d made a rookie mistake. More on that later.
The next day I did a blue pencil session with author Cathy Yardley. In a blue pencil session, the writer takes a maximum of three pages of writing to the presenter, who gives a quick critique, offers suggestions and/or answers any questions the writer may have. In our fifteen minute session, Cathy Yardley offered some suggestions that I think will give my opening (a different manuscript from the one I pitched) more tension. It was a very positive experience.
One of the really wonderful things about the weekend was meeting so many interesting, friendly, fun fellow attendees from all over North America, and even one from Australia. People were willing to give advice, share names of editors and just talk to people they didn’t know. The volunteer staff was friendly and efficient, and despite the large number of attendees (this year sold out more quickly than in any other year), everything hummed along smoothly. Best of all, there’s a very happy, collegial atmosphere at SIWC. Several presenters and key note speakers mentioned it. Presenter and thriller writer Hallie Ephron said that SIWC is “the best, and sweetest” conference she’s ever attended. I wholehearted agree.
About that kick in the pants. Sure, I was disappointed that the second agent turned me down and the first agent was only lukewarm about my work. But I didn’t let it get me down over the weekend, and I won’t let it stop me now that I’m home. The inspiration I soaked up at SIWC will keep me going for a while, hopefully till next year’s conference. I’m determined to rework my story to make it the best it can be. It won’t be just “a” story. It will be “the” story.
What’s the best conference you’ve ever attended? How do you "discover" the story you should be writing?