Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

11.2: How To Get The Most Out Of A Conference, with Kathy Chung

Kathy Chung runs the Surrey International Writing Conference, which is a professional development event, rather than one of the fan-run conventions, which are primarily reader and/or consumer events. She also helped us put together the 2015 Out Of Excuses event, where we were fortunate to witness her expertise first-hand.

Naturally, we invited her to talk with us about conferences and conventions. She’s easy to talk to, and she knows more about them than we do.

We cover some of the key differences between conferences and conventions (especially from the writer’s point of view,) and, per the subject, how to get the most of them.

Homework: Research conventions and conferences in your area.

Thing of the week: My Name is Red, by Orhan Pamuk, narrated by John Lee.

Powered by RedCircle


As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Conventions, or cons, tend to be fan-based, volunteer run, and the goal is to celebrate readers and have fun. Conferences are more about honing your craft, growing as a writer. To get ready for a conference, first introverts may want to spend some time alone to recharge before you come. Go with an open mind and try things. Bring your notebook! Think about your learning style beforehand, and what helps you capture information. Plan on networking, at meals, everywhere! Strike up conversations. Be aware of BarCon. Business cards are optional, carry a manuscript for your own use if you don’t mind hauling it home again, consider cough drops, sweater, earplugs, eye mask, or other personal comfort items.

[Mary] Season 11, Episode Two.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses. How to Get the Most Out Of a Conference, with Kathy Chung.
[Mary] 15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Brandon] And we have special guest Kathy Chung.
[Kathy] Hello.
[Brandon] Mary, would you tell us how we met Kathy?
[Mary] So, Kathy runs my very favorite writing convention. That is the Surrey International Writers Conference. This is not hyperbole. This is really my very favorite writing convention. She also writes women’s fiction. But the thing that she does with the writing conference is that she creates this wonderful nurturing environment for writers. It’s a professional development conference, as opposed to most of the conventions we talk about that are fan based and where you’re going to celebrate. This is really about honing your craft.
[Brandon] Excellent. Now, we have talked before on the podcast about going to conventions. Why you should go to conventions, how it helped all of us in our careers, but we have an expert here. So we wanted to interview Kathy about conventions and conferences. Can you just tell us a little bit about your conference, first?
[Kathy] My conference is just outside Vancouver, BC, every October. This is our 23rd annual year. We have 75 workshops, panels, and master classes over three days, all focused on professional development for writers in all genres at all levels of development.
[Brandon] Excellent.
[Dan] That is called the Surrey…
[Kathy] Surrey International Writers Conference.
[Dan] Excellent.

[Brandon] Now, I’ve often spoken about the difference between what I call a con, a convention, and a conference. Do you see a distinction between those two things? Have you been to many cons?
[Kathy] My perception of cons is that they are primarily reader events. That they are to celebrate the books and to listen to the authors talk about their books, and less about growth as a writer. Now where there are certainly panels and things that focus on that, it’s not the primary focus of most cons.
[Brandon] I would agree with that. I would kind of expand cons to say they’re about having fun. So even one like WorldCon that has a solid writing track, it has more events that are having parties or going and talking about your favorite episode of Dr. Who or these sorts of things, where a conference really drills down into this is for somebody to learn to be a better writer.
[Kathy] Yes. Where we do have social events and dinners and things like that, the primary focus is professional development for writers.
[Mary] Well, even your social events are very much about building a network, which is again about professional development for a writer.
[Brandon] Mary, can you speak about why you like conferences, specifically over conventions?
[Mary] It is the focus, for me, on honing the craft. That’s one of the things that we have been trying to do with the Nebula Awards, that Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America have been trying to do with the Nebula Awards, is turn it less from a convention which is celebrating the reader and the reader experience and more of a conference which is helping the writer develop further. One of the things that happens to you as you get further along in your career is that you want people who can speak to you about fiction on a higher level that a lot of times you’re able to do in a convention. Not always, and not all conventions. But one of the things that I like about Surrey in particular… And just I’m going to use that as my primary example, is that they will do… Instead of having a panel, they’ll do single presenter. Which allows someone to really drill down into a topic. I will go to things that I’m not on, even if it’s something that I don… I feel like I don’t really need to know anything more about that. Often, that will give me a new lens and a new way of looking at something. Much like actually our conversations will do for me.
[Brandon] Yeah. That’s… I would… You know, I would say that’s it exactly. The difference between panels and classes. Science Fiction cons can be great, but number one, everyone’s there as a volunteer, including the pros, and beyond that, there’s this kind of tradition in the cons of having this big panel that may stay on topic, but might not stay on topic, and it really only ever touches loosely. It’s more about presenting the authors to the audience, and kind of some of their views, whereas a class, a master class, is an hour or two hours of intensive talk about a subject.
[Mary] I do want to say that with a convention, that many conventions are… Want to provide that experience for a writer, that they want to give them the professional development. But because they are frequently not run by people who are writers… And this is not… I really… Because I know that we have people who are… I do not want people to think that conventions are not worthwhile.
[Brandon] No, they’re great.
[Mary] It’s just… It is a different focus. Knowing what the reader wants is useful. It’s incredibly useful. But it is useful in a different way from the conversations that you have when you’re at a conference that is run for writers.
[Kathy] And when every attendee in the place is a writer. That creates a different conversation. It’s not necessarily a better or worse conversation, but a different conversation then you get at a reader event.
[Mary] It’s more focused.
[Brandon] Now, there is something beyond this that I should just mention very briefly. That is like the several week long workshop. That’s kind of the next step. That’s things like Clarion, where you’re going to go and it’s… Like Clarion’s like six weeks, isn’t it?

[Brandon] That’s kind of the next level of craziness, as you go down this rabbit hole. I have found personally that conferences like yours are very useful. But I think that in getting ready for them, I know that… I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.
[Kathy] Neither did I.
[Brandon] I would love to… For you to talk to our listeners just about how to prepare for one of these. You’re going to get hit by a firehose of information. Is there anything that you can do to make that work better?
[Kathy] You are going to get hit by a firehose of information. Our goal is that you are going to go home equally exhausted and inspired. I think in preparing for that, because so many writers are introverts, spending some time alone before you come…
[Brandon] Oh. Okay.
[Kathy] And recharging. For people who are introverts, that sense of becoming recharged before you get there because there’s going to be a lot of talking to people and being out in the world when you’re there. Having the mental space for that, I think, is really important. Then going in with an open mind. Sometimes people say that in one timeslot there were four things that I wanted to see, but in the other one, I don’t know, there wasn’t anything that I loved. Sometimes those are where they go to the very best things for them.
[Brandon] It is, yeah.
[Kathy] Because they didn’t know that they needed to know it.

[Brandon] I would say that… Yeah, your notebook is something you want to bring. Maybe not even your tablet to type on. I always find that if I have the physical notebook, I take more notes. Then, when I type them in to like my notes file of cool things I want to do, it reminds me of the whole panel and it kind of tweaks some more things and I write them down. I would really suggest that notebook.
[Kathy] I totally agree with that. People engage more in the class also when they’re writing in a notebook than when they have a computer in front of them.
[Mary] There… This is a tangent, but I will just say that this is actually backed up by science.
[Kathy] Yes it is.
[Mary] That taking notes by hand enables you to retain and process it better and more efficiently than taking notes by computer.
[Brandon] Mary says with her notebook open in front of her where she’s been taking notes at the conference we’re at right now.
[Mary] Yes, indeed.

[Dan] It might be handy just to know, and I hope, as most of us do, what kind of learning style suits you the best anyway. Do you need to be sitting at a desk? Do you need to be lounging on the floor? Do you need to take careful notes? Do you need to be writing… Doing sketches, because you’re more visual? That… These are the kinds of things you can do to prepare, so that when you get there, you’re ready to absorb as much as you can.
[Brandon] What works for me the best, and this is just my unique chemistry of brain, I guess… If I just write down what the person said, it doesn’t do me any good. But if I think about, “Oh, how would I use this in a story?” And actually write down a story idea incorporating that, that is what works the best for me. If I come home with 10 of these really solid story prompts where I’ve kind of added other things underneath it as I’ve been going to different panels, that helps me remember the whole thing.
[Mary] That’s one of the things again that I like about the single presenter tracks at Surrey and other writers conferences, is that they’re able to give you exercises. So you can do things like that, as opposed to just listening to people offering their ideas. But actually being able to do things and try it out in class. The other thing that I like that is useful, and this goes back to what Kathy was saying about going in with the open mind, is that the difference between a conference and a workshop is that a conference is basically a sampler pack. You can go in and experiment with a lot of different things and often find something that you didn’t know that you loved. Or you can, instead of going to a workshop and saying “I’m going to this workshop” and then get into it and discover you don’t actually like writing short stories, that they’re not actually interesting. At a conference, you can try all of these different things and see what it is that clicks for you.
[Kathy] Absolutely.

[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week. Mary’s actually going to tell us about My Name Is Red.
[Mary] My Name Is Red is written by Orhan Pamuk. This book is only… You could argue that it’s not a fantasy novel, but I think it is. It is the story… It’s set in 1400s, in the Ottoman Empire. There’s a murder. The first chapter is from the murdered person’s point of view.
[Brandon] Oh, that’s sweet.
[Mary] Every chapter is from a different person’s point of view relating their experience of this.
[Brandon] Oh, every chapter’s different?
[Mary] We do repeat occasionally, but it’s… The person who is murdered is a miniaturist. So each chapter is like a miniature capture of this person… Of people’s experiences of this thing. Everything is looking at the details.
[Brandon] Wow.
[Mary] One of the things that is fabulous is that one of the narrators… They’re all first-person. One of the narrators is the murderer. He says, straight up, “I’m not… I’m going to tell you what happened, but I’m going to disguise my style so that you cannot identify me.”
[Brandon] Oh. Wow.
[Mary] So what actually winds up happening is that you, the reader, are the detective trying to figure it out.
[Brandon] Yeah. Which one of these is… That says there the murderer, which one of the other first-person viewpoints does it match enough to prove…
[Mary] Yes. It is a wonderful book. It’s not… It’s completely outside of what I normally read, and just loved it. My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk. You can go over and pick up a copy on Audible. It’s narrated by John Lee. So just go to for… Just sign up for a 30-day free trial membership and pick up My Name Is Red.
[Brandon] For free.
[Mary] For free.
[Brandon] Nothing’s better than free.

[Brandon] So, Kathy. We mentioned networking earlier kind of briefly. I think this is one of the primary goals of going to a conference like this is to network, not just with pros and agents and things like this, but with your peers. It is so hard for a lot of people. Do you have any tips for people going who want to network? How they can go about finding their peers and talking to them?
[Kathy] Absolutely. If you are going to a conference like ours, pay to come to the meals. They have a package that allows you to come to the meals. Come to the meals. Because you are forced to sit at a table with people, because it’s a big ballroom and you have to find a seat and it’s a very good start.
[Brandon] Excellent.
[Kathy] Because it gives you a chance to talk to somebody. Sit in the bar. Go to BarCon.
[Mary] The other thing that I will say about meals, particularly for introverts, is that it gives you a smaller group of people to deal with at one time.
[Kathy] It’s a smaller group of people to deal with at one time, and it gives you something to do with your hands. Something you’re focusing on other than being forced into a conversation, because you’re eating a meal. It’s a little bit easier.
[Mary] You can talk about the food.
[Kathy] You can talk about the food, and all the people there are writers. So there is already common ground. There’s a subject to start with, even if you are introverted or shy or any of those things, that you know you have common ground. “What are you writing?” is an easy starter question.

[Dan] Just to really let you guys know the importance of networking. We have done the Writing Excuses cruise, our own conference now three times. When we asked people what they got out of it, almost invariably, the thing they value the most is the relationships. The networking they’ve had, not so much with us, but with the other attendees, the other writers, the other aspiring writers. So they’re coming to see us, but that’s not really the great thing they’re getting out of it. We’re peripheral to the primary benefit, which is now I have this incredible support group, I found all these other writers, that… We’ve spawned I’ve lost track of how many writing groups over the years. Some really great stuff happens when you come out of your comfort zone and make friends with these strangers.
[Kathy] That is the feedback that we get, also.
[Dan] That’s fantastic.
[Kathy] They come for professional development or to pitch to an agent or to have a blue pencil appointment, but what they leave with is also the people that they’ve met. They come back for that as well as for the rest.

[Brandon] You mentioned BarCon. Let me quickly define that. Every con I’ve been to, science fiction con, and most conferences have this informal gathering that people hang out in the bar and kind of digest what they’ve seen over the day and things like that. Or what they’ve heard. We call that informally BarCon. If you go there, you will find people and they’re very open to talking, even if you’re, like myself, a Mormon kid. The very first interaction I ever had an editor was going to the bar at the Nebula Awards, ordering myself a Sprite, and striking up a conversation with the person next to me. I’m kind of more extrovert than introvert, so that wasn’t terribly hard for me. But it was still kind of nerve-racking to do. You will get better at it as you go more and… Sit next to somebody in a panel, and then if you see them in the bar, go up and say, “Hey, what did you think of that panel?” Strike up those conversations, you’ll have lots of opportunities.
[Mary] That is actually one of the advantages of going to a lot of panels, is that it gives you a common ground and something to talk about. Sometimes the people that you address are the people that you saw on the panel. One of the things that I suggest is when you are watching the panel, thinking about what it is that you particularly liked about it, so that when you see someone you have a ready-made starting point for conversation.
[Dan] Yes. Several years ago, when WorldCon was in Denver, they had a really great business track of business-related classes. So I went to almost all of those, and noticed another woman in particular who was in almost all of those. I went up and introduced myself and went, “Hey, I’ve noticed you’re at all the business things. Are you a writer?” That was Gail Carriger.
[Dan] We became good friends and struck up that kind of networking conversation, because we’d been at all the same panels.
[Kathy] It also works being at other panels. We have multiple tracks, so people talk in the bar, “Well, what did you see?” “What did you like the best?” “What did you see?” And share that information.

[Brandon] Excellent. Is there anything that you’d recommend that they bring? Other than a notebook? Are business cards a thing?
[Kathy] Business cards are not a big thing at conferences, but lots of people do like to use them as an easy way of sharing information. The agents and editors and stuff are not going to be interested in your business card…
[Brandon] Yeah, they don’t care.
[Kathy] But some of your peers might be.
[Brandon] Should they bring a manuscript?
[Kathy] For their own use in their hotel room? Absolutely. And possibly some of the workshops, if they’re working on works in progress. No one is going to take that away with them, other than the person who brought it to the conference with them. But yeah, it can be useful to have a copy with you, for sure.
[Brandon] That’s why I asked. People think that they can hand an editor… You’re probably not going to do that.
[Kathy] Oh, nonono.
[Brandon] Cough drops? I’ve always found cough drops are a good thing to bring.
[Mary] A light sweater.
[Brandon] Earplugs. A light sweater. Earplugs. Bring your earplugs. You’ll find that very useful… Any time you go to a hotel. You go, and you find some random noise… The person in the room next to you is snoring or whatnot.
[Mary] I use an eye mask. Which helps. But I do this because I travel a lot. But it helps give me some consistency in my environment. Because one of the things is that you won’t function as well at these if you aren’t rested.
[Kathy] And hydrated.
[Mary] And hydrated. Oh, yes. Thank you for saying that. Really important even with BarCon. Alternate between… If you are someone who imbibes, alternate between alcohol and water. Actually, since I am the one on the panel… The podcasters who is not Mormon, let me talk to you about BarCon. It is really, really, really important that you do not get drunk.
[Kathy] Oh, yes.
[Dan] Absolutely.
[Mary] This should not be advice that I need to give to you, but… Conventions as well, in addition to conferences. If you are there as a writer and trying to be professional, it is very easy to have a lot of fun and to forget that you are there and trying to make a professional impression. I would limit yourself to one drink, and have a glass of water, and then see how you’re doing. But do not. Get. Drunk. Really, like the moment you feel that buzz, switch to something else. Because you do not want to be that person.
[Kathy] We really do not want to be that person.
[Brandon] They will remember that person.
[Oh, yeah]
[Brandon] They won’t remember you for your writing, but they will remember you for that.
[Mary] Yep.

[Brandon] Well, Kathy, this has been wonderful. Thank you for coming on the podcast with us.
[Kathy] Thank you for having me.
[Brandon] We are going to have you give us a little bit of homework, or at least our audience a little bit of homework.
[Kathy] I think that people should have a look, research some cons in their area, in their genre, and beyond.
[Brandon] Right. Do some research. Find out what cons are near you, what convent… Conferences are near you, and ones that are far away but are specifically to your genre and things like that. That’s great. Thank you so much. You guys who are listening… This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.