Writing Conferences and Courses



So having just completed my Humber School for Writers Correspondence Program final submission, and looking forward to a week at UBC for a writing  intensive followed by a week in Fernie for the Fernie Writers’  Conference, I wanted to write a bit about writing programs and  conferences. Are they worth the expense? Can they take your writing to  the next level? Can they help you get published?

My answer to the first two questions at least is a resounding yes.  They can be expensive, but they pay huge dividends in terms of exposure  to the writing world, other writers and writing techniques. My husband  of course might have a differing perspective on their cost-benefit  ratio, but I have a similar dim view of his bike paraphernalia  purchases. But writing events/classes are not perfect, and each one  offers its own plusses and minuses.

My first foray into any sort of organized writing event/class was the Fernie Writers’ Conference in 2008. I figured a conference in Fernie would be low key and low  pressure and just right for my first exposure to other writers. I went  with my almost completed manuscript full of confidence that it was only a  matter of time before I had a bestseller. Was I ever completely out of  my mind! I learned that not only are there a lot of other writers out  there, making it hard to get published, but even if you do get  published, you are unlikely to make more than $10,000 to $20,000 for  novel that sells well that you have worked on for two years. As a  reasonably well-paid consultant, this news was flabbergasting. Thank  goodness the wonderful and very kind Angie Abdou did not fall out of her chair laughing at me when I announced that I  just hoped to make a very modest $60,000 a year as a writer! I learned a  huge amount about the writing world my first year and I also learned  that my writing is solid but that it can always be improved. I have been  the Fernie Writers’ Conference for three years now and learned  something new each year. The instructors are excellent and so is the  unparalleled Fernie hospitality and relaxed atmosphere. It is like a spa  (or maybe more like a super fun country fair) for writers.

Best Moment in Fernie: When Peter Oliva said, “You had them” in response to my public reading (and seemed to  really mean it), or maybe when Mae Moore complemented me on my reading  (and seemed to really mean it).

Worst Moment in Fernie: When a classmate announced that my writing was indulgent (and really seemed to mean it).

Emboldened by my good times in Fernie, I attended the Surrey International Writers’ Conference in 2009. It is a much bigger affair with more popular genre fiction  writers, agents and editors and had a much different atmosphere. While  the instructors in Fernie focused on language and expression, the focus  in Surrey was much more on plot and delivering what your reader wants.  That is not to say the Fernie instructors do not see the need for a  plot, they just do not present it as formulaically as it was outlined in  Surrey. Nevertheless, the presentations in Surrey were useful. Even if  you choose not to follow the formula, you have to know the formula. I  have to confess I spent much of my time withering in my seat in Surrey  wondering how my writing and I could stand out in a crowd of 500. Surrey  is not a confidence builder like Fernie is, as you realize just how  large a field of want to be writers there are. Nevertheless, I learned a  lot and I will be back, probably to wither again but we can all use  some withering. Surrey also offers the incredibly invaluable pitch  sessions with agents and blue pencil sessions with editors. Those are  not to be missed.

Best moments in Surrey: When an agent accepted a partial based  on my pitch, and when the editor in the blue pencil session said that  my writing is beautiful and that she could do nothing to improve it.

Worst moment in Surrey: When the agent who took the partial came back and said the first chapter wasn’t quite engaging enough.

Once I realized that I did not have the discipline to get through 400 pages of revision on my own, I decided to apply to the Humber School for Writers Correspondence Program in  December 2010. In the program, you are assigned a mentor out of their  roster of accomplished writers and instructors. You have six months in  which to send your mentor 300 pages of your manuscript in installments.  They comment on your installments and you are intended to incorporate  their suggestions into your next installment before you send it. It is  kind of a forced revision schedule in which you know someone is going to  be looking at each page with a critical eye. For me, it was the best  experience ever. I perform best under a bit of pressure, and knowing  that my mentor, Susan Swan, was expecting my revised pages, and planned  to review them in detail was exactly what I needed. Knowing that you  have just six months in which to do the work was also helpful. The only  downside of Humber for me is that my manuscript is 400 pages long. Thus I  will have to make my way through my last 100 pages on my own.  Nevertheless, my mentor has taught me a lot about what to look for in my  revisions. Thanks to Susan, the bad, jarring, purple and hackneyed  sentences and words jump out at me much more than they did six months  ago.

Best moment at Humber: When my mentor said she thinks about my characters even after she is finished reading.

Worst moment at Humber: The stress of getting down to the final month and not being sure I would get through my 300 pages (I did though).

I have attended many other events and taken many other courses over  the last four years since I decided to try to take my writing seriously.  I have taken courses at Selkirk College, the College of the Rockies,  UBC, and SFU. Writing a full-length manuscript through the College of  the Rockies with Angie Abdou was a notable and highly recommended  experience. I have also attended events such as the Vancouver  International Writers Festival and Creston Writes. I learn something at  each event.

So yes, conferences and courses are worth the expense and have helped  improve my writing dramatically (although I am obviously still  committed to the use of ly words). A key element though is that you have  to be willing to take what you learn home and keep writing. Conferences  and classes will not help you if you just attend them – unless you want  to just have fun. Will they help me get published? That will be the  focus of my next blog post.

        Photo Credit: tychay          via Compfight http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/