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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Highlights From #SIWC2012

I had a FABULOUS time at the Surrey International Writer’s Conference last weekend. I always do, and yet every year I seem to debate whether or not I’ll be able to go again. I get so much out of this event, I NEED to go, even if it means sacrifices. Somebody please remind me of this next July.

So much inspiration. So many new tools for my writerly toolkit. I wanted to share a smattering of my favorite bits from workshops and keynotes over the weekend, but this is by no means comprehensive. Many of the workshop notes will be available through the SIWC blog or website, or through the individual authors’ websites, in case you were unable to make it.
Here are a few of my favorite snippets…

The Room Party
We started meeting with our made-of-awesome Calgary friends a few years ago in one of our rooms with several bottles of wine. It has become an event, and it seems to grow each year. Here’s a little snapshot (thanks Trish Loye Elliot) from this year’s get together:

Yep, we can pack a lot of people into a hotel room!

Pitches and Cardiac Arrest
During my early years at the Surrey conference, I spent at least half my time in the “pitch room” giving pitches of my projects to agents and editors in 10 minute spurts (this is how I actually met my editor, the fantastic Anica Rissi, for Losing Faith) or sitting in terrified silence as published authors read and dissected my work during Blue Pencil appointments.

I arrived at this year’s conference knowing I didn’t need to pitch anything, but thinking maybe I should make a Blue Pencil appointment for one of the many works in progress I have on the go. I arrived at the table outside the pitch room where you make appointments, and my heart started to beat faster. It wasn’t really fear, but the memory of fear. And it also had this addictive quality. I felt like once I booked my first appointment, I’d probably end up standing in lineups and booking ten more. This year I chose to walk away and try to get the most out of the workshops instead.
It was a good choice, because there were some AMAZING workshops. But...I have to admit, my pitch addiction didn't go completely unused over the weekend. I ended up sitting with an agent during one of the lunches, and though I have an agent I'm thrilled with, I couldn't seem to help from pitching my friend's book (and getting a request from him to see her manuscript (!!!)

The Workshops

Here are a few of my favorite snippets…
On Writing Dialogue, with brilliant Eileen Cook:
“You can’t un-know what you already know. The author knows it all, but to a reader, it may just seem like random clapping.”
“In fiction, dialogue needs a purpose, or even better, multiple purposes. It should advance the plot, reveal characters. What people say or don’t say gives us a lot.”
“Avoid adverb overload. “You bitch,” he said angrily. – How else would he say it?”
“Think about how upbringing and social status affect your character’s word choice. How does a low income person express anger? How about a British high roller?”
“Is this dialogue happening at the worst possible place or time?”

On Inspiration in Writing with the Ultra-Inspirational Tanya Lloyd Kyi:
One of my favorite things from this workshop was a writing-prompt type exercise. Tanya handed us each an envelope and three slips of paper. We wrote a character name and description on the first slip, then put it in the envelope and passed it to someone else. Then we wrote out a setting, placed that in the new envelope and passed it to someone new. On the third slip, we wrote a problem, then passed the envelope along.
Then we wrote a scene based on the envelope we were each now holding. Some of the scenes were hilarious, and really wonderful! I hope to use this interactive exercise when I’m giving workshops in the future!
She also had some wonderful bits of advice. Here are a couple:
“To nurture creativity, we have to maintain a sense of childishness and play.”
“Start your day with writing prompts instead of Twitter.” (easier said than done, Tanya!)
“Our eureka moments usually come when we’re generating or combining other ideas.”

On Standout Characters with deep-thinker Donald Maass:
One thing I always love about Don Maass’s workshops is that he always asks lots of great questions that really help me get to the depth of my characters and their situations. What’s their best quality? What’s the opposite of that quality, and how can you show it? What’s an injustice in their world? What would make them react strongly to that injustice?
Plus, here are a few great quotes:
“How characters are when they are at their best is what we care about – brave, funny, good, principled.”
“We back away from suffering. We don’t back away from hope. Readers are drawn to hope.”
“Find a way to make your character strong, real, and filled with hope. This is how to make our readers care about our characters right away.”

On Advanced Social Media with tech-savvy Sean Cranbury:
“The main things you need are Twitter, Facebook, a blog, and Google Analytics connected to your blog.”
“Iterate, Share, Measure, Learn, Connect, Repeat.”
“It’s not either/or anymore. It’s either/and.”

On Writing Teen/Tween Mysteries with sleuth-smart Linda Gerber:
“In a mystery, what will happen if they don’t find out the answer? It has to be a personal thing and it has to matter.”
“The hero is only as exciting as your villain. (An exciting villain will push your hero farther.)”
“In teen novels, you can plant unreliable witnesses all over the place. Teens will often say things that aren’t true for their own benefit.”
“Things to avoid: The clue that changes everything, deus ex machina, schizophrenia, stupid characters, adult intervention, clichés.”

On Pacing with the quick-thinking Boyd Morrison:
“Leave out the boring details. Describe a character with one very distinct characteristic – a scar above his lip tells a lot with so little. You can imagine the whole character.”
“A thriller should be like a roller coaster. Build suspense to the first hill. Release and exhilaration on the fall. The biggest hill should be the last one. Without the quiet in-between scenes, you can’t build up the energy and adrenaline.”
“Dialogue speeds up the pace – especially short and snappy dialogue. Your eye moves quickly down the page.”
“Enter late, leave early, or the Law & Order technique. Leave out the transitions, travel, and boring details.”
“Leave the reader wanting more.”

The Keynotes
ALL of the keynotes were awesome, but I didn’t pull my laptop out and make notes for most of them. So here are just a few short snippets…

From the fabulous and funny Jane Espenson:
“When characters are filled with emotion they get very, very simple. So much more is said by what they’re not saying than by what they’re saying.”
“You don’t have to look good or smell good to be a writer.”

From the forward-thinking Donald Maass:
"New York is like a fortress and your catapult might seem small" but "these are exciting times in publishing."
“Dig deeper. Go further. Change the world.”
“I think the destination ahead is a place we are going to like.”

As I said, this is only a very SMALL amount of what I took in this weekend. This conference is so worth the money, and I think all writers need to find some yearly thing to rejuvenate them. I’m so glad I found the Surrey conference. I hope to see YOU there next year (and make sure to find me and ask about the room party!)


  1. It really was a wonderful weekend! So much to take in! I have reams of notes I want to review -- you've done well to extricate your highlights so quickly. I only get there every second year, but each time I go I come away re-energized and realize I ought to figure out a way to make it every year.

    (And who knew one hotel room could accommodate so many of us and our accompanying acoustics???)

  2. I had the most amazing time. Loving spouse said I was on a travel moratorium after this conference, but I'll bake cookies, pimp my book that comes out in March, or even consider turning tricks on 118th Ave so I can go back. This is IMPORTANT STUFF.

    Again, thanks for showing the newbie a great time, you guys!

  3. Oooh, I feel like I just got a sneak peak at a bunch of workshops I missed. Thanks, Denise! And thanks for the kind words!

  4. Some great highlights, Denise! It sure was a fantastic conference. Loved seeing you again! :)