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/