The 13th ingredient

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Helga’s Post # 82:  A new milestone: Joe just posted his 100th, great post. No, it’s a fantastic post and his followers are lapping it up. A writer’s candid journey to be continued. It’s a break-out story and we are here to cheering you on, Joe.

Another milestone: The Surrey International Writers’ Conference just opened its doors to register for the October conference. For anyone who has never heard of it, SiWC takes place every October in British Columbia and has done so consistently for the last 22 years. In their own words, “It is the most comprehensive conference of its kind in Canada. SiWC offers writers in all genres — from beginners to experts — the opportunity both to hone their craft and to expose their work to the international literary marketplace.”

This is no small claim. Having attended five years of SiWC, I believe this is a rather modest claim. How can one argue with 22 years of consistently drawing anywhere from 500 to 700 or more writers, aspiring authors and published authors to meet for three days and celebrate the act of writing? It’s an amazingly successful conference, as evident from its presenters and keynote speakers of bestselling authors like Diana Gabaldon, Anne Perry, Elizabeth George, and that’s just scratching the surface. There have been hundreds of published authors in attendance over the years, generously offering practical advice to writers at all stages, sharing their successes, and yes, failures. Not to mention some of the most capable writing gurus in the English-speaking world. They have taught me the nuts and bolts of writing and then some. See Joe’s comprehensive and useful list of what it takes to create a good book. I believe he too has learned some of it from attending SiWC.

In case you think I have a vested interest, let me assure you, I do not. I may not even attend this year. But I owe the conference a great deal. I don’t think I would have persevered all these years as a writer if it had not been for SiWC. There is something special about sharing time and space with hundreds of kindred spirits soaking up all that sage advice. Especially when it comes from people whose names are household words for writers, names prominently displayed in bookstores around the world. Their books often translated into ten languages, or twenty, or more.

Sharing a late night drink at the bar with folks like that and hearing about how they started out is a real treat. Learning that they too got dozens or hundreds of rejection letters before an agent had the right instinct to take them on. And how they never lost confidence in their writing skills. How they carried on, regardless.

That’s inspiration. Like fertilizer to a garden. Like water to a parched landscape.

Like almost anything in life, there are downsides. To some. When a writer pitches his or her manuscript to a literary agent – which the conference offers free of charge – and does not get an invitation to submit it to the agency. I have seen writers crushed and in tears in the washroom after their 10-minute allotment for pitching that failed to produce the desired results. We all think our manuscript has merit and the world would be so much better off if our work gets published. How dare an agent, perhaps twenty or thirty years younger, to say, sorry, not for us. And upon further prompting, to hear, well, your characters are sort of cardboard, and furthermore, I would stop reading after the first paragraph (and not infrequently, after the first sentence!). And in any case, you haven’t been able to tell me in all but ten minutes what your book is about.

Harsh words indeed. Chastening words. But likely the most valuable feedback a writer can receive. Because let’s face it, literary agents don’t make a living by rejecting manuscripts. They do so finding the perfect ones, those that have a chance to attract readers and have them pining for the next book from that author. And if they decide to reject you, it’s most likely for solid reasons.

So this too is a benefit that SiWC is known for – the free pitches. Not for the faint of heart to be sure, or for writers whose egos are larger than their talent or quality of their written work. We are like any other professional in that regard. Some can take it and benefit from it, using feedback as a springboard to improve, while others will stop trying and give up because they didn’t hear what they wanted.

So, yes, feedback is what you get at the conference. Plenty of it, so be prepared. If you can’t take it or think you don’t need it, this may not be for you. But do consider its benefits. Think of feedback as a gift to help you take your product, your writing, to the next level, rather than letting it destroy your self-confidence. I recall from my professional working years that some people are simply unable to accept honest feedback. They are so mired in images of the high quality of their achievements that they are crushed when someone points out that they have a way to go yet. But that lofty self-image alone will not change mediocre or poor work into something superior. Conversely, those writers who listen and learn and are able to put their ego on the back burner have a much better chance to get published.

American film director and musician Fred Durst puts it succinctly: “To walk around with an ego is a bad thing. To have confidence in yourself is a great thing.”

That’s not to say that writers don’t thrive on positive feedback. They do, like everyone else. Often it depends on the way it’s given. Not everyone is equally gracious, and as Dale Carnegie reminds us, ‘Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain but it takes character and self control to be understanding and forgiving.’

But we writers better grow a thick skin and learn to live with honest advice. If more than one agent, or your critique group tells you – politely or bluntly – that your story has no legs, and no one will care about your protagonist, we better listen up. Better to silence that monster, our ego, and start something fresh and new. After all, it’s just another story, one of thousands and more waiting to be told and written. Any time we want. As often as we want.

So here I am adding ingredient # 13 to Joe’s excellent post, ’12 Steps to creating a great book’:

Grow a thick skin and accept feedback as a gift. Be strong enough to keep your self-confidence but humble enough to listen to what you need to improve.

If you are anywhere in easy traveling distance to British Columbia, try to attend the Surrey conference in October. You might be surprised at how much you’ll take home with you. How much it will change you as a writer.

Will I attend this year again? I haven’t decided. I really would like to have a manuscript to pitch, and at this point I regret to say, I don’t. Not yet. But that’s still four months away. You never know.

11 thoughts on “The 13th ingredient

  1. Your description of the Surrey conference brought back a flood of great memories. I think I attended maybe 10 almost consecutive years. Because I’ve presented at perhaps 25 or more conferences, I can bring the perspective of confidently saying that the SiWC is the best of the best. Aspiring writers have grown into published authors in great part to the guidance they received from this conference. A quality of the conference I’ve seen in none other is the good humor, the comedy, integrated into the running of the show. Jokes and down to business. I miss this conference.

  2. Thank you, Elizabeth. Glad to hear about your positive experience at Surrey. I do recall your workshops and Blue Pencil feedback of my first pages, all first class. And I frequently reach for your books, especially ‘A Writer’s Guide to Fiction’ and ‘Manuscript Makeover’. Hoping you will be back. We writers need you!

  3. I love, love, love the SiWC!!! I’ve been half-a-dozen times in recent years and always come away rejuvenated. I wish I could go again this year, but the budget won’t allow it, so I’ll have to live it vicariously through my daughter who *is* going again. Anyone who hasn’t attended a good conference like this one is missing a huge chunk of their writing education. 🙂

    • Sorry you won’t attend this year, Carol. Maybe next year. Glad to hear that your daughter will go and I am sure she will share with you lots of wisdom dispensed over the three days. What I always found amazing is that every year I learned something new again. And of course you always meet lots of new people. A networkers’ dream. Thanks for your comment.

    • I missed last year at SIWC after going for many years … And suffered withdrawal. I just registered for 2014. Sorry we won’t see you this year Carol — maybe next year?

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