I’m back from the Surrey International Writers’ Conference and have been playing a bit of catch up the last few days, but I wanted to post about the conference now that I’ve had a little time to think about it. It was a lovely few days, just as I anticipated, partly because I have done this particular event before and I’ve gotten to know a number of the organizers and other presenters, and partly because it attracts a diverse group of people that always make for an interesting and entertaining long weekend.
Each year, I probably do something in the neighborhood of a half dozen conferences, not counting trips to speak at the meetings of various writers’ groups. They all have their specific features and appeal to me for different reasons. Surrey is a broad conference, one that attracts writers across genres, and can boast an attendance somewhere between 700 and 800 people. It’s flexible, in that writers may register for the entire conference or pick and choose, attending for a day or two, or even coming early for a day of master classes. Attending writers have the chance to book a pitch appointment with an agent or editor, or sign up for a blue-pencil session with a published author. There are workshops and panels scheduled during the days, and often hilarious entertainment during the evening, plus inspirational keynotes sprinkled throughout the conference.
From an agent’s perspective, I love the Surrey conference for the variety of attendees. Many of the conferences I participate in are genre-specific, so it’s fun to switch it up and have the chance to hear pitches from writers across the spectrum. I also get a chance to do a panel and/or workshop. This year I did Surrey Idol for the second time. This panel involved four agents sitting at the front of the room, while author Jack Whyte stands at the podium. Writers submit the first two pages of their manuscripts anonymously, and Jack pulls them at random to read aloud (with his wonderful Scots accent that makes anything sound just a little bit better). We agents consider the reading as we would a submission, listening to the point where we would have stopped reading ourselves, then raise our hands. Once two of us have our hands up, Jack stops reading and we say what was working and what wasn’t. It’s always a highly entertaining panel and sometimes you find a gem in all those pages. This conference we heard several partials that really shone.
Aside from that, I love that the organizers of the Surrey conference remember that presenters are people too. Yes, we’re happy to work with the attending writers, to sit with them at lunch and dinner, have drinks with them in the bar, and generally make ourselves available. That is, after all, why we’re there. But at the same time, I appreciate that presenters get breakfast in a little room on our own, giving us time to chat to each other and jump-start our day. We also have a bit of downtime in our schedules, allowing us to go check e-mail or even to checkout a workshop ourselves — something I was excited to do this conference. It gives us time to network, to catch up with people we haven’t seen in a while, and to make new friends. I left on Sunday aware that I’d done a lot of work over the weekend, but it had all been enjoyable, and so mixed with playtime that it felt more like a retreat than an actual conference.
For those of you thinking about attending a conference, Surrey is one I would recommend, but of course you must consider what is important to you — what you hope to get out of a conference experience. Think about size and manageability; are you interested in a small, intimate conference — perhaps focused on writers of a single genre, such as romance or mysteries — or would you like a big, varied conference that allows you to get both general and specific information on both writing and the publishing process? Are you looking just to pitch or meet agents and editors, or would you expect to participate in workshops where you have the chance to pick up some new tricks or generate ideas? Some conferences allow writers to submit pages for critique ahead of time, and then set up meetings with the agent or editor who read the material in order to discuss it.
If you’re a published writer, you might consider participating in a conference from the other end of the spectrum, giving back to the writing community by sharing some of the things you’ve learned along the way. And of course, cost is always a consideration, including not just the conference itself but travel and accommodations. There are conferences all over the U.S. and Canada, as well as around the world. It’s important to check around and see what meets your criteria, but it also might be worth it to save for a year or two if there’s a larger, more pricey conference that appeals to you.
Writers’ conferences are listed in writing magazines and online, through writers’ organizations and formal writing programs. Resources for finding genre conferences include the Romance Writers of America, Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, and the Horror Writers Association. Word of mouth is also a great way to learn about new conferences. Ask friends what conferences they’ve attended and get some inside perspective on the events. You can also visit the websites of your favorite writers and see if they are scheduled to present at any conferences.
Attending conferences is part of my job but a wonderful part. Like many writers, I work alone most days in my office. There’s a flurry of e-mail and plenty of phone calls, between clients and editors and my fellow agents the other coast, but I don’t get much face time with people in my industry. Conferences are a chance to learn things, to build your business, but they’re also a time to socialize, to rub elbows with people who speak the same language, this language of writing and books and publishing. You can come away inspired.