John Clark here:
It’s easy to rationalize not going to conferences: The dog needs someone to let him out, it’s too far/expensive, I won’t know anyone, everyone’s more successful. Fact is, none of these excuses help one become a better or more successful writer. It’s also true (but easily forgotten) that hanging with other people who share your passion is not only tons of fun, it’s energizing as hell.
I’ve gone to BOSCONE several times in the past. It’s in Boston, is for fantasy and sci-fi writers as well as fans and has a killer art show that you can bid on, as well as a cool huckster’s room. Each time, I’ve come away determined to do more writing.
Since I’m a regular here at MCW and had a story in this year’s Level Best Anthology Stone Cold, I decided it was time to explore a conference out of my comfort zone. Looking back at the last three days, I can easily say it was one of the smartest moves I’ve made in the past ten years. Herewith are snippets as viewed by a Crime Bake newbie as well as some of the things I came away with that are wicked cool.
Friday started off with two Master Classes. I signed up for “Writing the YA Mystery” given by Peter Abrahams. Those who read the blog regularly know I really liked his Echo Falls series. Among the nuggets he shared were; fiction is about reversals, torment your protagonist, push everything as far as possible, Make sure what you are doing advances the story and be original. When he made the following observation, my ears really pricked up. Peter said the only difference between YA and adult fiction is the age of the character. While that (to my mind at least) isn’t 100% true, the point behind it is. Namely, that YA fiction has far less language and action constraints than does juvenile or middle-grade fiction. Peter also noted that when marketing middle-grade fiction, you need to focus on schools and libraries because they do most of the buying in this age range. His final observation made me sit up and really pay attention. Numerous publishers in NYC are interested in middle grade mysteries, because the demand is rising and the number being written is not.
Next up was Paul Doiron’s class on pacing. Here, too were nuggets well worth mining. He read sections of some of his favorite books and then pointed out what it was about each one that made the idea of pacing so important. Among them were Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Ethan Frome. Having them read aloud really brought home what Paul was saying. Nuggets from his session are as follows: Imply a question first, then answer it later in the story. Pacing is often the act of asking one question after another without answering any up front. This forces the reader to stay with you. Sometimes pacing is deliberately slow in order for the reader to identify and process an accumulation of facts. Readers need a chance to pause and ponder those issues you have raised so they can start sorting them out before you hit them with additional questions.
I started seeing fellow MCW bloggers and people who had stories in various Level Best anthologies. I also took the advice, printed on the welcome sheet: Talk to people, they’re not strangers, just interesting folks you don’t know yet. This was dead on. I did this every time there was a session, a break or a meal and each time got involved in conversations with people who were friendly, interesting and interested in what I was doing. It was also really amazing to walk past person after person whose books I have read and loved over the years.
A pizza party followed the master classes. I sat with a woman who is working on writing her profession into a mystery. She teaches yoga and has a protagonist who is a recovering alcoholic ex-cop who became a yoga instructor. He’s gotten pulled back into the world of crime and is finding it difficult to reconcile the old him with the new. Sounds like a very interesting protagonist.
Friday evening ended with the “Practice your Manuscript Pitch.” This is where you work with other people and an agent, honing your pitch for the following day when you have 5 minutes with an agent to pitch your manuscript. I brought Afternoon Break, the thriller (or so I thought) I started during last year’s NANOWRIMO. The agent listened to my initial pitch and said,”That’s not a thriller, it’s science fiction.” My heart dropped, mostly because I had no clue whether the agent I chose liked Sci-fi.
She also chopped up my pitch and gave me suggestions to make it better and tighter. I left that session realizing how far out of my comfort zone I was at that moment. I’ll be completely honest, I thought about being safe and bagging the whole pitch idea on Saturday, but kicked my comfort zone to the curb.
By now, most of you know I’ve been in recovery for a while (33 years to be exact). I needed the resilience which that brings when Saturday came around. Kate and I were just exiting I-95 when her phone rang. It was my wife Beth calling to tell me we had a burst pipe in the cellar. Instant quiet meltdown. I was 230 miles away, it was a Saturday and she was supposed to be at open house at Husson University. What could I do. I told her to call the water company, have them come shut off the water, then see if she could find a plumber. I killed the impulse to bag the conference and drive home.
I defy anyone to completely compartmentalize a broken pipe while trying to participate in a conference. It doesn’t happen, but I gave things my best shot. After cheering the winner of the Al Blanchard Award (something I’d encourage every New England mystery writer to want to win before they die) and the four honorable mentions, it was time for a panel on longevity with Robin Cook, Linda Barnes, Meg Gardner and William Martin. Perhaps the best quote, and one I heard repeated numerous times later, was when Robin said, “I’m a doctor and a writer. Nobody ever heard of doctor’s block.” Other interesting observations.
1- Having a story sense is an important asset.
2- I sit in my office and play with my imaginary friends all day-Linda Barnes
3-In Hollywood you are what you call yourself-William Martin, who also said don’t take no for an answer. You have to write your way through no. If you can’t get in the front door, kick in a window.
4-I don’t finish a book, I abandon a book-Linda Barnes
Next up was a panel called Cooking up a Good Mystery that was funny as well as thought provoking. Two of the panelists admitted they do not cook. One noted that we use food as a way of communicating.
That was followed by a panel on writing YA fiction. Several observations from that were really interesting fodder for me. Among them: The YA narrator is an unreliable narrator. For the Ya narrator, everything is new. If you’re writing about a crime, you need to know the complete details of it before you write the book. (This might be obvious to many writers, but it struck me as being important to pass on.). Ask yourself, do big issues come as planned plot or out of your character? In YA you can mix multiple genres and teens won’t care.
Perhaps the one which is still germinating in my head as I write this because I can see where I’ll take it is this. Kids think their families are the norm and when they start experiencing other families’ dynamics they start wondering whether those are better or if their friends’ families are more together.
I’ve signed a few books at library talks in the past, mostly Level Best Anthologies. It was a total rush to sit with a dozen other authors whose stories were in Stone Cold and sign book after book for 20 minutes. I’ll hold that mental image for those moments when the little guy on my shoulder starts the ‘you suck’ chant. Later in the day, we assembled for a really neat group photo which you see here.
It was time for the pitch. I had been able to let my anxiety over the uncertainty of whether the agent even liked this genre and the ‘what the heck is happening with the broken pipe’ quandary spar with each other in the back of my head all day. Now it was reality time. I said the Serenity Prayer twice for good luck, walked into the pitch room and started talking. I had another heart stopping moment when the agent said, “It’s unique, I like it and I handle science fiction. Send the manuscript and a synopsis to me.” Dazed hardly described me as I walked out of that room.
Mystery writers really know how to have fun. Note the costumes at the Trouble in Paradise party. It was one of the largest collections of Hawaiian shirts seen in North America and everyone was having tons of fun.
When I was able to, I called Beth, expecting to hear a horror story about getting the broken pipe fixed. Instead, she said that the water guy and a plumber (on a Saturday no less), worked together to fix things, even to the plumber using a portable pump to bail out our canoe which was right under the leak. Big relief time.
Sunday consisted of three more presentations. Dr David Page, a surgeon and author, did an excellent job of talking about how to make your violence real, Some of the slides were pretty graphic, but helped get the point across really well. He showed us a formula he thinks helps C+T+E+A+SE=.
Character, plus time frame, plus environment, plus anatomy, plus severity equals a really good violence scene. He asked us several questions to think about. The one which stuck with me is this: How will the injury impact the victim’s self-image?
The next one was a stimulating and funny exercise where Robin Cook, Hallie Ephron, William Martin and Julia Spencer-Fleming took character names, crime possibilities and locations from various table groups and stated brainstorming aloud to come up with a victim, a crime, a sleuth and a location. Watching these four minds at work was really something and the results generated plenty of laughter.
The final workshop might have made me really ill had it not been done in context. Lieutenant Brian Thiem, a retired Oakland, CA homicide detective and author walked us through some pretty gory crime scenes, juxtaposed with pictures of TV and movie cops. He gave us valuable information on the chain of command, what the differences would be in terms of city vs town vs rural crime scene procedure. What would happen when and how evidence is collected and handled. He was excellent.
I came home wowed, excited and slightly terrified. Not only do I have an exciting possibility ahead of me in terms of an existing manuscript, I have the concept for a juvenile mystery set in Maine with a rough outline of my protagonist, some of the supporting characters and the crime. Anyone reading this who has been on the fence about going to the Crime Bake should be sure they trash their doubting persona next year and go. I didn’t meet a single person who wasn’t fun, interesting and willing to listen.