Recapping my weekend at Surrey International Writers’ Conference

This was my second year attending the wonderful Surrey International Writers’ Conference (SIWC) at the Sheraton in Guildford. I love this event because a) it’s so close to home that I can go home every night, and b) because the workshops and the atmosphere are fantastic.

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The honey!

Friday

My first workshop of the conference was Writing from Sensory Input with Amal El-Mohtar. This was a fantastic and very hands-on workshop. El-Mohtar brought three different kinds of honey (and yes, we got to taste each kind!) as a way to make us think of how we’re affected by our senses, and how to use all our senses in our fiction-writing. It was a very inspiring workshop that helped shake loose at least two different story ideas in my head, and also resulted in some truly amazing honey-inspired poetry from writers in the audience.

Next up was Diagnosing Story Problems with Mary Robinette Kowal. I attended one of her workshops last year, and I knew I did not want to miss this. (Note: If you get the chance to attend one of Mary Robinette’s workshops, do it. She’s funny, engaging and structured at the same time, plus, she gives you useful tools to help in the writing process.) In this workshop, she talked about how to be aware of and deal with problems in the writing process – from creation and revision, to finding and fixing plot problems. It was a workshop that left my brain buzzing with tips and info. Two things really stuck in my head:

  • One way to make a story emotionally satisfying, is to close plotlines in the reverse order in which they are introduced. Meaning: the final end-resolution of the story should resolve the first plotline you introduced. This might sound formulaic, but I think it’s a good “trick” to think about your story: save the resolution of the first plotline that initially got your readers invested in the story for last.
  • The other thing she talked about was how you resolve the issues your character(s) face. Do they achieve their goal? The answer can be “Yes, but…” or “No, and…” This sounds so simple, but to me it was an epiphany, and also gave me another tool to use when I look at my own stories: “yes, the character achieved their goal, but…this happened”, or “no, they did not achieve their goal, and then…this happened.”

The Worldbuilding-panel with Amal El-Mohtar, Mary C. Moore, DongWon Song, Greg Van Eekhout, and Mary Robinette Kowal was fantastic. So much great input from the writers and editors on how to create a world that feels real and is a good setting for your story. Some of the many things I took away from this discussion:

  • Worldbuilding isn’t just something that happens in science fiction and fantasy, but in all fiction
  • Don’t overload / infodump your worldbuilding – allow it to appear in the story bit by bit, revealed in tune with the characters and the plot.
  • Think a bit deeper about your world: where do the items come from, who makes them?, and be sure to put in a texture of differences in your fictional world, meaning different classes, opinions, languages, etc.

I only had time to attend about half the Kicking it for Kids & Teens: Writing Middle Grand and Y/A panel with Art Slade, Robyn Harding, CC Humphreys, Eileen Cook, kc dyer, but it was a very lively discussion!


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Anne Perry.

Saturday

Saturday morning I tackled a workshop about something I am really bad at outlining. The workshop was simply called Outlining, and the author was Anne Perry (yes, that Anne Perry). It was a great workshop that gave me a lot of food for thought, and Perry gave us plenty of examples of how she uses outlines when writing her novels. Perry believes outlines are especially useful (and might even be necessary) for mystery novels where you have to control the way information is revealed quite carefully. She also said that her outline helps her work even on tough working days, because she knows what scene she should be writing and can at least plod away at it. Perry also believes outlines are useful for plot clarity, continuity, and pacing.

My main takeaway from this workshop was that outlining might be very helpful as a way of analyzing a story both before your write and after you’ve written it. For short stories you obviously don’t need a long outline, but a rough outline (even done after the story is written) might be a useful tool to analyze potential problems with a story that doesn’t feel like it’s working. The workshop was very enlightening, even for a die hard pantser like me.

Next up was the Rejected But Not Denied workshop with agent Robert Mackwood. This was a great no-nonsense talk about the realities of querying and how to go about finding someone to represent you and hopefully get a book deal. Mackwood really emphasized the importance of persistence, and also how important it is to do your research before you send out query emails, by finding out which publishers and agents might be interested in your work. He also talked about how to write a good query letter (one page!), and covered some important “dos and don’ts” for how to approach agents with your work (don’t do a mass mailout with all the emails addresses left visible, for example…).

After that, I got to see Mary Robinette Kowal again (yes!) in the workshop Short Stories: A Proportional Understanding of Pacing. This was another fantastic workshop, packed with info, tips, and inspiration. Kowal covered so much about how to craft stories that engage and enthrall readers, and especially liked how she made clear over and over again that her way is one way of telling stories, not THE way. A few tidbits:

  • Try to ground your reader in the first three sentences of a short story, letting them know something about the where, the who, and the genre.
  • The first thirteen lines of a story is a good place to let the reader know the stakes, and get them invested in the story.
  • Same thing for the end: the last thirteen lines is round about where you start to really wrap things up, and the final three lines are the end-end. (Again, this sounds formulaic, but I think it can be a very helpful tool when you think about a story, even if you don’t apply it mathematically.)
  • Evoking a physical response in the reader is a great way to engage that reader: Kowal demonstrated this by telling a story that literally made us all gasp and flinch. Point taken!

The last Saturday workshop I went to was DongWon Song‘s workshop Decolonizing Your Fiction, and oh my gosh, this was another excellent workshop: densely packed with ideas, entertaining, and thought-provoking. He talked about how to write better fiction by avoiding unconscious bias. DongWon is a captivating speaker, and there was so much good stuff covered in this workshop that I am still processing it a week later. Some tidbits:

  • He prefers the term “decolonize” rather than “diversify” when it comes to fiction. Meaning, you should try to identify how/if your writing might be reinforcing old, colonial patterns of oppression and to avoid unconsciously (or consciously!) repeating these tired old patterns.
  • Some ways to do this is to consider who should really be at the center of your story; IF you can/should tell this story; and to be very aware of your own built-in biases and work to avoid blindly and thoughtlessly stuffing them into your fiction.
  • Tips on how to avoid stereotypes and slipping into old patterns: always be specific – treat characters as individuals rather than as stereotypical group-members, and don’t treat any group of people as if they are homogeneous – look for complexity and nuance.
  • When you discuss this subject, online and elsewhere, be aware that even though you might be entering the discussion for the first time, it was on-going before that: take some time to listen rather than pontificate from your own limited perspective.

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Sunday

Last day of the conference, and I started off with the both hilarious and informative panel No Write Way: Talking Process with the Whisky Chicks with Elizabeth Boyle, Susanna Kearsley, Mary Robinette Kowal, Nephele Tempest. This was fun, light-hearted, and wonderful with some great writers talking about what their writing process is like, and how differently they approach both writing and research. Takeaway advice: find the process that works for you, because there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

My final workshop of the conference was The Care and Feeding of Tropes with DongWon Song. It was another amazing hour and a half that stuffed my head so full with ideas and inspiration that my mind was pretty much bursting at the end (in a good way!). DongWon used examples from movies and fiction to show that tropes are not inherently bad, as long as we understand how to use them. He talked about how important it is to understand the tropes in the genre your write in, and then do interesting  things with them, whether you conform to the trope, or whether you break the trope. Two of the key phrases he used were “subvert & transform” or “conform & satisfy”. The main advice: use your tropes wisely, understand the tropes and the genre and reader expectations, then mess with those expectations.


Another fantastic thing that happened at the conference: meeting writer Jaime Mayer (once we finally managed to ID each other using our Twitter-photos!).

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