Literary greats, emerging writers applaud Surrey International Writers’ Conference

Annual conference brings 700 writers, poets, volunteers together from around the world

By Ursula Maxwell-Lewis

According to the 700 writers, poets, volunteers, and board members rockin’ the Sheraton Vancouver Guildford for the sold-out three-day 25th-annual Surrey International Writers’ Conference in October, print books haven’t lost their lustre.

As one successful author remarked: “It’s not my mother that’s buyin’ ‘em all!”

Writers’ conferences abound in North America, but Surrey’s has long been one of the most popular.

Noted authors, editors and agents, as well as emerging writers, call the Surrey International Writers’ Conference “the best.” The award-winning historical fiction and thriller author Susanna Kearsley declared over the hubbub of a Saturday night Romance Writers of America cocktail party, “It’s like a giant house party!”

Generally abbreviated to “SiWC,” the conference began as the brainchild of author Ed Griffin, a former Milwaukee city councillor, under the auspices of School District 36 Continuing Education.

Stickhandled by a five-member board, and fuelled by copious cups of Cloverdale Starbucks coffees, SiWC kicked off one October Saturday in 1993 at Johnston Heights Secondary. Based on a few classroom workshops, and an optional school cafeteria lunch, the day closed in a packed gym featuring a lone keynote speaker, popular Vancouver Sun news journalist, the late Denny Boyd.

In 1994 SiWC made a giant leap to the Sheraton, survived when Surrey Continued Education was discontinued, and – to cut a long story short – hasn’t looked back since.

As Director Emeritus (longest serving founding board member), I decided to dig deeper. Why did writers from Dubai, Uganda, Britain, Europe, and many parts of North America, sell-out an October Surrey writers’ conference by July? Why do scribes continue to plunge into this illusive, rarefied, book market? Particularly in Surrey, British Columbia?

Igor Raffoalo and Tim Rease came from Maastricht, Netherlands. A writing group friend who had attended for about five years encouraged Rease to come in 2016. He pitched a manuscript he’d been working on for 13 years to a SiWC agent, and got the reaction he was looking for. Even with an airfare thrown in, Rease said “the price is right.”

“It’s worth it to sit in front of an agent and pitch your work,” he said.

This year, a new manuscript in hand, Rease received positive feedback from best-selling Kelowna author Jack Whyte’s critique workshop. Again, an agent indicated a future option to represent Rease’s works.

Raffoalo, a member of the same Maastricht writing group, was urged to attend by Rease.

“I also came to pitch my manuscript,” he said.

“It took a lot of work pushing a lot of crazy people together and I was quickly taken by their friendliness,” he said. “I texted home as soon as I got here and said, ‘These are my people’.”

He, too, was asked to submit more spec chapters to an agent.

Iryn Tushabe, a mother of two children and former CBC radio reporter, lives in Regina. Originally from near Kampala, Uganda, Tushabe is the 2017 Diversity Scholarship recipient. Her story, set in Uganda, has already attracted the interest of four agents and a publisher.

Established writers also come to share good news. Former Vancouver lawyer Jay Clarke is better known to readers as author Michael Slade. Slade’s book Headhunter is due to go into production for an eight-part TV series this winter. It’s a mountie noir thriller requiring dark winter weather, so if this year’s filming requirements don’t work weather wise, it will be rescheduled for 2018.

Slade’s Shock Theatre has become popular Saturday night post-dinner entertainment. An unrehearsed spoof written by Clarke involving assorted presenters, high drama, and – invariably – pumpkin smashing, the cast seems to expand annually. Originally based old radio thrillers, I’m waiting for thinly veiled versions of Gunsmoke or Sorry Wrong Number to surface.

Diana Gabaldon, author of the bestselling Outlander series, has been a staunch SiWC supporter and popular workshop presenter for about 18 years. She and Jack Whyte co-sponsor The StoryTeller’s Award. Sporting a $1,000 first prize, the duo (who are also judges) established the award to honour SiWC’s 10th anniversary.

The Outlander TV series filming took Diana to South Africa earlier this year, and frequently has her en-route to Scotland, but Surrey remains constant on her calendar.

A common thread binds SiWC: everyone has a story to tell. Laced with unassuming camaraderie, I could confidently confirm – when asked by three Seattle Gabaldon fans laden with books to be autographed – it is indeed a friendly conference. They felt right at home, and later emailed me to say, ‘see you next year!’.

Although e-publishing is now an established popular format, print books still maintain a substantial market share. Whiling away time at an airport, on a journey, in hospital, or in a coffee shop, is like connecting with a friend.

“Books become a part of you,” said Juliet Blackwell, author of the Witchcraft Mystery and the Haunted Home Renovation series. “You can’t wait for the muse. Never ignore the muse when it strikes.”

The 26th Surrey International Writers’ Conference takes place Oct 19 -21, 2018, at the Sheraton Vancouver Guildford. For more information go to www.SiWC.ca . A word to the wise: book early.

Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is Director Emeritus of the Surrey International Writers’ Conference, and founder of the Cloverdale Reporter.

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