The Surrey International Writer’s Conference is a meeting for working writers and people who want to be working writers. This was my first year attending, although I had heard good things about it from friends who had been in the past.
There were four sessions per day on Friday and Saturday and two on Sunday morning which I’m not likely to make it to because two hours travel for two hours of talks on topics I happen to be less interested in is not a great trade-off when my brain is already full and I could use an extra hour or two of sleep.
The conference is not cheap. I got the “basic” package which included all three days, no meals, and no evening keynotes and it ran over $400. It did include morning keynotes which with one notable exception were mostly administriva-related, as near as I could tell.
The notable exception was a short talk by a successful romance novelist who shared her struggles, her periodic conviction she was a failure, and her persistence in “writing around, writing through” the other stuff going on in her life (including having a couple of kids and minor things like that.)
I didn’t write much for fifteen years when my kids were young. I had doubts about my ability as a parent and deliberately walked away from anything that I thought would distract me from that. It was hard, but the results were worth it.
Others who are more confident in their parenting abilities are right to make different choices, but we all end up having to “write around, and write through” other things in our lives. Day jobs, most often, other hobbies, friends, spouses, partners, cats, dogs, and other beings that quite reasonably ask for some part of our time.
The workshops and sessions I attended covered a range of topics from the practicalities of freelancing to the mystery of inspiration. Beyond that, one of the unique features of SIWC is there are opportunities to pitch to agents and to have your work reviewed by an experienced writer. I took advantage of both, making two pitches and having one “blue pencil” session with a local writer who gave me some excellent feedback on a difficult scene. You can only for sign up for one of each kind of session when you register, but there is a rush line to get more on the day. One person I know got a literal handful.
From my notes, the sessions I attended were:
1) Freelancing: this was full of good advice from David Paul Williams, who is a freelancer and lawyer. It basically confirmed for me that freelancing is not materially different from the kind of business I’ve done as a consultant, which was a useful context-setting for me. Freelancing has the same mix of work and marketing I’m used to, the same concerns about contracts, commitment, payment, taxes, and so on. Be easy to work with, communicate clearly and often–especially when you think you’re going to miss a deadline–and build solid relationships. Business 101, but good to be reminded of.
2) Action Scenes with Sam Sykes, who seemed under-prepared. There were a couple of useful take-aways (action is a conversation, and action should have consequences for the characters, not just be an interlude while the story takes a break) but otherwise was a bit thin.
3) This is Not Your Country–about writing the Other–with Q Lindsey Barrett was excellent. She was clear on the difficulties anyone who dares step out of the box of class, gender and ethnicity faces, and up-front that anyone who does so will face automatic and vitriolic criticism. Her attitude is, quite reasonably, that these attitudes border on censorship, and they are simply something artists have to face head-on. I’m OK with that. I have an interest in the history of British Columbia, which means I have to write about native peoples. There only alternatives are to not write about my own people’s history, or to pretend natives don’t exist. Neither alternative is palatable.
So I’ll go ahead and write what I write, and face the automatic criticism by reflexive haters head on. It was a very positive and validating experience, knowing that others have faced the same issues. People like me–who sit at the very pinnacle of the pillar of privilege–arguably have a responsibility to be respectful of the cultures our ancestors wiped out, but that doesn’t mean they are off limits to us. What unites us, our common humanity, is greater than what divides us.
4) Holly Löricz’s talk on editors was excellent. I’ve resisted paying the high price of professional editing, leaning instead on a suite of fairly experimental tools to handle copy-editing tasks, and intelligent first readers to give me the feedback a developmental editor might give, but I do see the logic of it, and maybe I’ll eventually go that way.
That was Friday’s sessions, interspersed with pitches and blue pencil, which resulted in a couple of expressions of interest to see proposals. I’m going to cut 50,000 words from Darwin’s Theorem before submitting the proposal, though. It needs it, sad though it makes me. The advice to “kill your darlings” is the most difficult for any writer to take.
5) Saturday was even better. It kicked off with a good session with Hallie Ephron on secrets and lies, and how to use them while being fair to the reader. Darwin’s Theorem has plenty of secrets, and I struggled with them a lot. I think this session gave me some tools to understand how to do better in future.
6) Next was another Holly Löricz session on proposals and pitches. I had already bought her book (co-written with Chip MacGreggor) on proposals, and found the talk useful and practical. I have a hard time summarizing my work, and the practical, actionable advice she gave looks very useful. I’m vaguely excited about writing my next proposal, which is not the way I’ve ever felt before.
7) After that came Chip MacGreggor on branding, which was interesting. It’s always nice to see someone with a PhD who has wandered far afield and done well with it. My “brand”, insofar as it exists, is “cerebral, visceral, and poetic”. That’s the promise I can keep to my readers. Dunno what the value of it is, but that’s who I am.
8) I saved the best for last: Jasper Fforde on “The Last 5%”. It was amazing. I’ve enjoyed Fforde’s writing, and it was fun to see him in person. It was more fun to see him break into a long discourse on poetry immediately after I had written “He’s looking for the poetry” in my notebook. It was even more fun to figure out what’s wrong with my prose.
He was talking about the levels of quality in writing from amateur to adequate to professional, where most of us can reasonably expect to end up. But beyond professional is inspired, and he was concerned with how to bring about that “unteachable” transition.
One of the things he talked about in a diverse, fluid and intelligent talk was a model of human beings as “spikey balls”: he depicted someone he knows who is an academic who has a couple of very long spikes representing his expertise in his field, but not much else. Boring. He encouraged writers to cultivate an interest in “stuff”: all kinds of diverse topics.
“OK,” thinks I, “that’s pretty much me… so why is my prose so pedestrian?”
And the light dawned.
Severe arrogance alert.
I am a very good poet. I don’t know if my poetry will last–it barely has any following today–but I am completely comfortable in saying it’s really good.
And one of the things I’m aware of as a poet is how much of the weird knowledge I have gets into it. Because that’s the other really arrogant thing I’m going to say here: I know a lot about a lot of things. I originally put a list of topic areas I’m reasonably expert in here, but that was too arrogant even for me. Suffice to say while listening to Fforde go on about the importance of knowing a little about a lot of things I found myself wondering if that was so important to writing inspired prose why was my prose so, well, prosaic?
The thing is, I don’t know a little about a lot. I know a lot about a lot, and I see connections between everything.
My poetry is constrained by the form and focus of the poem. It’s too short to fit everything in.
My prose, on the other hand, is over-connected. I have the same problem in improv, often missing offers because I see a dozen possibilities where there is in fact just one clear one to a normal person.
This is my fundamental insight: my prose is over-connected. That’s what’s wrong with it. That’s what is keeping it at the professional, pedestrian, level.
So I came away from Jasper Fforde’s talk with a much clearer idea of what I have to do to improve my prose: find ways to impose disciplines on myself that will constrain my writing to the same tight focus that my poetry gets from form. That will reign in my tendency toward over-connection and free my prose to be inspired.
This is something I can do.
Ergo: the Surrey International Writer’s Conference is the third in a series of conferences, workshops and festivals that have contributed enormously to my development as an artist in the last three months, starting with Joe Bill’s intensive in August, passing through Bill Binder’s workshop on the math of improv at VIIF (and also Brad McNeil’s action improv workshop and to some extent Adam’s game class) and ending here.
The person I did the blue pencil session with objected to a paraphrase of Elliot’s line from Little Gidding that she felt was too close to the original to pass muster. I’ve not made up my mind about that, but I’ll use it here in any case. I have come back to the place of my beginnings, to know it properly for the first time.