I have had some busy and wonderful days since Thursday night last week, spending most of my time immersed in the world of writing at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. It was my first time attending, and I loved it: the event was very well organized, it was easy for me to get to, the food was good, and the workshops and panels I attended were top-notch.
My brain is still buzzing with ideas, impressions, information and inspiration. The highlight for me was my Blue Pencil session with Cat Rambo (more about that down the page), but I just loved every minute of it (even though it’s left me rather exhausted: but in a good, happy way).
I started things off by attending Donald Maass masterclass about literary techniques: 7 ways to elevate your fiction. This was an in-depth discussion of how to write in a way that makes your readers connect emotionally with your story and your characters.
I came away with deeper understanding of, and insight into how to deepen and enrich a story on an emotional level, and how to make the world the story is set in come alive. More specifically, within the first ten minutes of his class, I suddenly realized why I’ve been having such terrible problems with a short story I’m working on: while it has a “plot” and stuff going on in it, it has no internal / emotional conflict! This is pretty unusual for me (I usually have it the other way around), but while listening to Maass the light-bulb went off in my head. So, yes, definitely a good masterclass!
This was my first full day at the Writers’ Conference, and it was very full indeed. I mainly chose to go to panels and workshops held by people who have written books and stories I like (this helped me choose which of all the wonderful workshops to attend!), and proved a good strategy for me.
I started off with Mary Robinette Kowal’s workshop on how to train your beta readers so that you get the feedback you want and need. Mary Robinette Kowal is an inspiring and energizing presence. I could have kept listening to her all day, and I learned so much not just about beta-readers, but about how to think about my writing and feedback in general. My big “aha! moment” was when she said that the manuscript is not the story. The story is in your head. The manuscript is just a tool to make people “see” the story you have in your head (or a close approximation of it, anyway). So, when you ask for feedback, you are trying to figure out if your “tool/manuscript” is conveying the story in your head successfully. What a freeing way to think about that whole process!
She also broke down the three different kinds of feedback you can ask for in a very easy to understand way: symptoms (how did the reader react to the story?), diagnosis (what were the specific problems?), and prescription (how to fix the problems). Her advice was that you really only want to hear the symptoms, unless you’re specifically asking for more than that.
After that I attended a wonderful SFF panel with Cat Rambo, Daniel José Older, and Delilah S. Dawson about topics in scifi and fantasy. This was a great panel where the moderator used questions from the audience to drive the discussion, and it covered a wide range of subjects in a very thoughtful way. The discussion about diversity, and how you can screw it up as a writer, was deepened by Dawson’s willingness to analyze and discuss the ways she failed at this in her first book, and how she has tried to do better since.
My next workshop was Cat Rambo’s “Literary devices for genre writers”. This was an excellent class, because she used practical examples to illustrate how our choice of style and structure shape a story. Also, her advice that the choice of literary devices and styles should be used to embellish and add to a story, and its emotional core, was one of those tips that I know I’ll keep referring back to in my own work.
Next up was Daniel José Older’s workshop “How To Write The Other”. He did an amazing job here, really driving home the point that all writers should think about things like power dynamics and power structures in society today and historically when they write their stories. Not because it’s “PC”, but because it makes for a) better stories, and b) describes the world more truthfully. To quote Older: “Racist writing is a craft failure”. Also, his advice that writers not just think about whether they can write “the other”, but whether “you can write you” – if we as writers can see through the power structures and privilege that have shaped us… that was powerful advice. Older has a real gift: he can make an audience laugh while he’s handing out (metaphorical) torches and pitchforks to that same audience. It was an eye-opening and inspiring workshop for sure.
The morning started off with my Blue Pencil Session with Cat Rambo. I brought in a story that I’ve worked and re-worked so many times that I felt kind of blind to its flaws and merits. (For a while, this was a 3,000 word story but I recently cut it down to flash fiction length: 1,000 words.) Well, she really liked it! And gave some excellent feedback on ways to strengthen it just a bit more, and then…well, to send it out because it’s good enough to be published somewhere (fingers crossed!). As you can imagine, that made my day (week / month…). Constructive AND positive feedback is always something to cherish when you’re a writer so huge thanks to Cat Rambo for that!
After my Blue Pencil, I caught the latter half of the very lively, entertaining and informative panel “Historical research through a feminine lens” with Elizabeth Boyle, Susanna Kearsley, and Mary Robinette Kowal. This was so much fun: my main takeaway was that yes, history is more amazing than most fiction… and that women have always played a much more active role in that history than mainstream sources might make you believe.
The next workshop for me was with Cat Rambo (I told you I liked her first workshop!), “Moving from idea to draft”. Again, a very informative and enlightening class with a real hands-on, practical bent. What inspired me the most, was her focus on the emotional core of stories, and that it makes for better stories if they have both an internal and an external story arc. That is something I will definitely be keeping in mind even more from now on: and again, this resonated with me when it comes to that problematic story I’ve been working on lately…
Afterwards, I headed to Daniel José Older’s “World-building” workshop. The room was packed for this one, and it was a deep, sometimes roaming but always interesting, discussion about the importance of place and power when you’re writing. Older discussed the gentrification of neighbourhoods as one very vivid example of how power structures and power dynamics shape the world. My main take-away from this workshop was Older’s insistence (in both of his workshops) that we as writers can’t just ignore the politics and power structures of the world we’re putting down on the page. It’s just another part of the craft that we should, and must, pay attention to in order to a) write better, and b) build better worlds on the page.
Next up for me was the flash fiction workshop with Darren Groth. It was a pretty small gathering for this one, but the workshop was excellent. Groth discussed the challenges and rewards of writing flash, and we also got to do some real writing exercises which was a lot of fun. The examples of flash he brought up were also both instructive and impressive: he showed us several pieces of 100-word and 500-word flash fiction that were pretty darn amazing examples of what you can do with this format.
Last day, but there was time for two workshops. My first one was Sonali Dev’s excellent workshop on world-building and culture-building. This was another great workshop about what makes up a culture, and how the culture within your story interacts with the world of your story and the setting of your story. One of Dev’s main points was that the culture in your story strongly influences both the internal and external conflicts your characters deal with: “Culture gives context and meaning to both internal and external conflicts that your characters face”. No matter what culture and world you write about, being aware of and paying attention to the specifics of that culture and world can really pay off in how your story connects with readers.
My final workshop was Larry Brooks: “15 writing tics that give you away as an amateur”. Now, I knew going in that Brooks teaches and talks about writing in a way that sometimes rubs me the wrong way: I feel it’s a bit too “mechanistic”, if that makes sense. However, the workshop was still valuable for me because Brooks focuses a lot on plot, and getting your characters to DO something, and I sometimes feel that this is one of my weak spots as a writer. My big takeaway from this workshop was exactly that: Brooks’ tips and emphasis on giving your characters something to do, and having external things happen in your story. It was a good, structured and informative workshop to wrap up my Conference.
To sum up: it was excellent. I will definitely go next year too. Well organized, wonderful presenters, and a relaxed, friendly atmosphere.
- Surrey International Writers’ Conference
- Donald Maass
- Cat Rambo
- Mary Robinette Kowal
- Daniel José Older
- Delilah S. Dawson
- Darren Groth
- Sonali Dev
- Larry Brooks