My Two Cents

Today’s Review: Surrey International Writers’ Conference

by Nov 30, 2011Reviews9 comments

Where can you watch a writer imitate a marionette entangled in its strings, hear another writer inspire the gathering by delivering Aragorn’s speech at the Gates of Mordor, and enjoy a third as he reads, no – performs – first pages of manuscripts in a resonating Scottish burr?

SiWC. The Surrey International Writers’ Conference.

That answer won’t surprise you if you’re a veteran of SiWC. I, on the other hand, had not attended SiWC until this year.

Yes, I know. Pitiful, isn’t it? Apparently I have lived a shuttered life. That’s my excuse for standing around at the conference with a stupid grin on my face half the time, giggling at inappropriate moments, and carrying on a gleeful conversation with myself in the car on the trip back to Vancouver every day (more on that idiocy later).

SiWC is a conference with a Personality. Upper case P. They all have personalities. If you didn’t know that, I’m here to tell you, oh yeah, they do.

If SiWC were human, she’d be your outrageous best friend. Your favourite aunt after a glass or two of sherry. That great teacher who made learning fun and somehow conned you in to trying harder.

SiWC is not merely personality. Nope. There’s substance too. So, let’s get down to it – here’s what I thought worked and what I might have tweaked a bit.

  • Variety of seminars and panels

Seminars ranged from poetry to social media, sports writing to inner journeys, history to speculative fiction. There were agent and editor panels, workshops on pitching, and panels on writing teen fiction. You had to work hard not to find something that interested you.

Unfortunately for me, many of the sessions I wanted to attend conflicted. I know that scheduling concurrent sessions is difficult and it’s impossible to work out a schedule that is without conflicts. One solution might be to organize the sessions in “tracks”, and give participants a map of sorts. For example, tell us the seven sessions to consider if we’re interested in marketing and publication, or the six sessions targeted at novice fiction writers. And then try to schedule those sessions so that they don’t occur in the same time slot. Easy for me to say.

  • Excellent masters class

These sessions took place the day before the conference “officially” opened. I can judge only from the one I attended (Donald Maass) – honestly the rest of the conference could have been a total disaster and I would still rate it very high, just on the strength of his session alone.

  • Well-organized meetings with agents, editors and writers

Meetings were scheduled every 10 minutes, which allowed time to speak with an agent or editor without rushing. Agents and editors had opportunities to mingle with the participants during the conference – they were not hidden away in a separate room for the duration. Definitely a plus.

One of the best features of SiWC’s system of agent and editor appointments is that you can book the appointment (date and time slot, no less) online when you register. As well, at the conference itself, participants who have not yet booked their first appointment are given priority. Unbelievably fair.

  • First page panel – the SiWC Idol – was entertaining and enlightening

In case you’re not familiar with the first page panels – participants submit the first page (or two) of their manuscript, the host (in this case Jack Whyte) selects samples at random, reads them aloud, and the agents indicate when they would stop reading. If Jack reached the end of a sample before two of the four agents said stop, the writer had cause to celebrate. That happened for one writer in the room.

The success of this type of panel depends on the people on the panel. The four agents at SiWC gave thoughtful, sometimes humorous, feedback on the samples. They did not tramp all over a piece of writing. They pointed out what worked as well as what didn’t. I learned a great deal about writing from their comments, and much more about the agents and how they evaluate a submission.

  • Bookstore – well, somehow I missed it

I think that’s because it seemed to be reserved for one evening of the conference, and I was looking for a bookstore that was accessible during the entire conference. If I had my druthers, I’d have a bookstore open during the full conference, and schedule times for authors to sign their books off and on throughout.

  • Meeting people – this is what you make of it

SiWC puts all the participants together, gives you the opportunity to mingle, and let’s you take it away. I reconnected with several writers, so for me it was a mini-reunion. But still, I don’t think I took advantage of all the opportunities – and that’s because I wasn’t around in the evenings or at meals.

  • Venue

Great hotel and staff; fabulous area with computers and printers (and a very patient techie guy who guided some of us through what was apparently an easy process for logging in and printing materials – for most people).

  • What I’ll tweak next year

I’ll register for the full-meal-hotel-deal. Because I live in Vancouver I told myself it didn’t make sense to stay at the hotel. Of course that meant I missed the meals and all the after-dinner fun. I short-changed myself of chances to meet people.

And I had to drive the highway, which is under construction. In the rain. And it rained for three days. Yes. I agree. Idiocy.

Overall? An excellent conference, tons of fun, lots of learning, interesting people and well worth the registration cost. And the T-shirt is fabulous.

I’ll be there next year. And I’m booking the whole enchilada.



  1. Kathy

    Thanks for the terrific review, Charlotte. Your description of SiWC’s personality is quite possibly my favourite thing I’ve read about our conference. 🙂 See you next year!

  2. Charlotte Morganti

    Kathy, thanks for your comments. You all made it look effortless, but I’m pretty sure the organizing committee worked hard! And it paid off – you delivered a great experience for participants.

  3. Ursula

    Charlotte, thank you for the generous accolades.
    It’s thanks to generous attendees like yourself spreading the word, and support from our marvellous presenters that keep the show on the road.
    Our first “Roaring 20’s 2012” Board meeting is next week. We’re excited, and look forward to seeing you again in 2012.
    Hope these pix bring back good memories.
    All the best
    ~ Ursula

  4. Charlotte Morganti

    Thanks for the pictures, Ursula, and the comments. Roaring 20s! Does that mean we can expect people to dress like flappers (is that the correct era?) Best wishes for successful planning!

  5. Ursula

    We would love that! (It has crossed our minds…). What do you think?

  6. Kathy

    Thanks! We’d like to quote your review on our website. I hope you don’t mind!

  7. Charlotte Morganti

    Kathy — of course! Quote away, and many thanks.

  8. Charlotte Morganti

    Ursula, is there a “theme” dinner? (I, of course, missed the dinners because I opted not to book into the hotel….) But not next year! Just give me enough advance warning to start shopping….

  9. Ursula

    Charlotte: Knowing the enthusiasm of this Board I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised! It’s just the kind of idea they love. Start practicing your Charleston and Black Bottom (you might have Google that one!). We’ll keep you posted.

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