Writers Conferences – Finding Your Tribe

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Years ago, my husband and I had a good friend named Jimmy Bogle (not to be confused with the American Ninja Warrior). Jimmy was a little person who stood about four feet six inches in cowboy boots.

Jimmy told stories about growing up in the 1920s and ’30s, during an era when little people were considered “freaks” and “abnormal.” Children born with dwarfism were often hidden away in the basement so they wouldn’t bring shame on their families. Many grew up in isolation, never knowing there were other little people like themselves. A few found homes in circus sideshows or vaudeville but career options were pretty limited.

Then came the casting call for Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz.

During the poverty of the Great Depression, parents of little people seized the chance to earn money from their children’s size.

Jimmy was a teenager at the time. He was chosen to take over the role of the Mayor of the Munchkins when the original adult actor (who receives credit on Wikipedia) couldn’t finish the film. Heavy makeup transformed Jimmy into a wrinkled old man.

More than a hundred little people came together and were cast in the movie. Many had never encountered another little person before. For the first time in their lives, they connected with others from similar sheltered backgrounds, with similar problems and feelings. They were no longer isolated but suddenly among friends with whom they had an immediate connection. In 21st century parlance, they’d found their tribe.

Let the celebration begin!

The Munchkin cast was short in stature but long on partying. They drank and danced and pulled pranks. They fell in and out of love several times a night. Full of mischievous exuberance, they trashed the hotel where they were staying.

Knowing Jimmy, we suspect he played ringleader to this merry band of cut-ups.

In 1981, Billy Barty, Chevy Chase, and Carrie Fisher starred in the film Under the Rainbow, a fictionalized account of the making of The Wizard of Oz. Jimmy scoffed at the movie, saying it didn’t do justice to his gang’s shenanigans.

What does this have to do with writing conferences? I’m glad you asked.

Although writers’ families don’t hide us away in basements (at least not usually!), we are often perceived as different from regular people.

Writers work in isolation, living inside our imaginations. Many are shy introverts and are sometimes perceived as antisocial.

That is, until we get around other writers. Then we emerge from our shells.

At my first writing conference, I was a tongue-tied beginner, ill at ease, self-conscious, surrounded by professional authors who, I was sure, wouldn’t lower themselves to talk to an unpublished nobody.

Big surprise. They were welcoming, encouraging, and, amazingly, as plagued with self-doubt as I was. Shyness melted. Friendships blossomed spontaneously from our common passion.

Like the little people who came together as Munchkins, I’d found my tribe.

I became a conference junkie and my dear husband supported my addiction. Instead of birthday gifts, he treated me to various gatherings.

Along the way, I became a volunteer at Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers (TKZ‘s own Jim Bell is their keynote speaker this year) and Pikes Peak Writers Conference. I judged contests, handled the registration table, moderated panels, etc. Working behind the scenes made me appreciate the experience even more, seeing how much time and effort went into pulling together a successful event.

Because I saw many different presenters, I became a speaker wrangler for the Flathead River Writers Conference sponsored by my local group, the Authors of the Flathead. Inviting editors and agents for a fun weekend in Montana is a far easier job than querying (begging) them to consider a manuscript.

I learned they were not cruel gods who cavalierly damned struggling writers to slush pile purgatory. They are human beings who genuinely feel bad about rejecting manuscripts. They struggle with budgets, timing, and marketing constraints. They serve as midwives who are often as ecstatic as the author when a book is born.

And they like to talk to writers. They’re glad to demystify the publication process.

Conferences provide a rare opportunity to interact face to face with editors and agents. If traditional publication is your goal, meeting the pros in person can be a big step out of the slush pile. When you’ve paid tuition, they can see you’re serious about your career.

Whether you go the traditional route or self publish, contacts at gatherings can enhance your knowledge in ways you never imagined. I once spent an afternoon in a hotel lobby listening to an FBI agent and a forensic anthropologist trade stories. My collection of business cards is a great source for experts in all kinds of fields.

While the cost of conferences can be off-putting, many organizations offer scholarships or internships. Volunteer help is always needed and may earn discounted tuition.

You can also cut expenses by splitting the gas bill and sharing lodging. I’ve roomed with three pals whom I only see at conferences. Our reunions are always a blast. Like happy Munchkins, we drink, laugh, and stay up all night, although we don’t trash the hotel…at least, not that I remember!

Conferences provide more than education and professional contacts. They take us out of our solitary world and give us a chance to connect with our tribe. I always come home energized, inspired, and eager to write.

Now for a shameless plug: if you’re looking for a friendly, intimate gathering that offers lots of useful information for a reasonable price, please check out the Flathead River Writers Conference, September 22-23, 2018 in Kalispell, Montana.

Look me up—I’d love to meet TKZers in person. We’ll celebrate like Munchkins.  

 

 

 

When Debbie Burke is not writing suspense and thrillers, she’s on the planning committee of the  Flathead River Writers Conference, now in its 28th year.

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The Joys of Schmoozing

I had a great time at Sleuthfest in Orlando. I got to visit with mystery author friends that I hadn’t seen in a long time, like Donna Andrews, Charlaine Harris, F. Paul Wilson, Toni Kelner, Reed Coleman, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Julie Kramer, Marcia Talley, Mary Anna Evans, and so many more. Then there were people I’ve met online, to whom I could finally assign a face: Jeffrey Marks, Alan Orloff, John Gilstrap, Steve Forman, Joanna Campbell Slan, and so on.

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John Gilstrap is on the far right

And of course, our own Florida MWA members were present. They number too many to list here. We heard great keynote speeches by Jeffery Deaver and Charlaine Harris.

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Nancy Cohen & Charlaine Harris

I got to chat with my Five Star editor, Denise Dietz, and reacquaint myself with an old writing pal, Pat Van Wie, now an editor for Bell Bridge.

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Deni Dietz & Pat Van Wie

I saw reviewers Oline Cogdill and Nancy Pate. And the booksellers from Murder on the Beach manned the sales desk while also in the bookstore room were wonderful raffle baskets designed by talented author Vicki Landis (and I won two!).

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Linda, Joanne, and Sue from Murder on the Beach

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Vicki Landi, Gregg Brickman, Ann Meier

Bestselling author Heather Graham very generously sponsored a dinner party at House of Blues on Saturday night. It was great to loosen up and relax over drinks and fabulous food.

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Heather Graham, vocalist and sponsor

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Michael Meeske, Kathleen Pickering, Nancy Cohen, Traci Hall

Of course I attended panels and participated on three of them. Maybe I learned a few new things.

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But the best part was hanging out with like-minded friends, chatting at the bar, having one-on-one discussions, and finding out what was new with everyone. Sometimes we only see these people at conferences and it may be years between visits.

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Johnny Ray and Joan Cochran

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Joanna Campbell Slan and Elaine Viets

I met new people, too, whom I’ll hope to recognize at the next mystery conference I attend. Several members of RWA made an appearance: Heather Graham, Kathleen Pickering, Michael Meeske, Traci Hall, Rhonda Pollero, Lynnette Hallberg, Marty Ambrose, and more. Forgive me if I leave out your name!

It gives you such a warm, fuzzy feeling to be in a welcoming environment where everyone shares the same hopes and dreams. It’s easy to walk up to a perfect stranger, introduce yourself and say, “What do you write?” Conference goers are interested in meeting new people and making friends. At least, it’s that way with writers.

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Donna Andrews and Deborah Sharp

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Julie Compton, Becky Swets

Our prime goal is to schmooze. Oh, it may be to have an editor/agent appointment and pitch our work, or to speak on a panel and promote our books, but the real gratification comes from the camaraderie. Kudos to the Sleuthfest organizers and committee for a terrific conference!

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Nancy, Miette, Linda Hengerer

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Networking for Writers

It’s always great to gather with other writers and talk about the craft you love. Recently, I had the privilege of presenting a Fiction Writing Workshop to Florida Sisters in Crime. If you live in Northern Florida, consider joining this dynamic group. We met at a library and their community room was filled with over 50 attendees, all eager to take notes.

We covered fiction writing essentials in the morning and business aspects in the afternoon. In between, people met each other and mingled. That’s the best part of conferences, too. You never know who you’ll discover sitting next to you in a seminar or at the bar. You’ll make new writer friends, greet old acquaintances, and learn the industry buzz. Everything I’ve learned about the business of being a professional writer, I have gained from other authors.
This past weekend, I attended a meeting over on Florida’s west coast. The Southwest Florida Romance Writers meets regularly in Estero, located between Naples and Fort Myers. Whoever wants to meet for lunch first gathers in the Bistro downstairs at the Miromar Design Center. The meeting with a speaker begins at 1:00 on the third floor. Member Michael Joy shared some tips he’d learned during a residency in a Master of Fine Arts program. I enjoyed his teaching technique as much as the tools he mentioned on creating realistic dialogue.
Writers are very generous in sharing what we know. Attending local meetings, reading online blogs, going to conferences, and entering writing contests offer a tremendous amount of valuable information and feedback. In Florida, we have branch chapters of RWA, MWA, and Sisters in Crime. This year the Ninc national conference in October will be held here, too. It’s New Rules, New Tools: Writers in Charge, an essential and dynamic topic. And in case you didn’t already know, Sleuthfest will be moving to Orlando next March so you can bring your families along.
Don’t know what all these abbreviations mean? Then jump on the bandwagon and find out. There’s nothing more gratifying than schmoozing with fellow authors and sharing industry news. Join as many different writers organizations as you can afford and attend meetings. Get to know authors in other genres and exchange ideas. Let’s mingle!
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If you live in SE Florida, there’s still time to sign up for the remaining classes at the Author’s Academy. All workshops are held at Murder on the Beach Bookstore, 273 NE 2nd Avenue, Delray Beach, FL. Instructors are multi-published authors. Call 561-279-7790 or email murdermb@gate.net for reservations. $25 per person per class.
Saturday, September 10, 10am – Noon
How To Get Published. Learn what it takes to get your work published.
Instructor: Joanna Campbell Slan, author of Photo Snap Shot.

Saturday, September 24, 10am – Noon

Finding an Agent. Query Letters, Synopses, and the Pitch!
Instructor: Nancy J. Cohen, author of the Bad Hair Day mysteries.

And More Local Author Events:

Tuesday, October 11, 6:30 pm – 7:30 pm
, Sun, Sand & Suspense Panel, “Three Dangerous Dames,” Nancy Cohen, Elaine Viets, and Deborah Sharp; Broward County Main Library, 100 S. Andrews Avenue, Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33301, 954-357-7444

Saturday, October 29, 2:00 – 3:30pm,
Florida Romance Writers Panel Discussion and Signing, Delray Beach Public Library, 100 West Atlantic Avenue, Delray Beach, FL 33444

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A Class Act

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I’ve just returned from a great weekend away at the Malice Domestic conference where Mary Higgins Clark received a richly deserved lifetime achievement award. From the first moment I met her in the elevator I was struck by both her graciousness and her humility. In all her speeches and panels she provided wonderful advice with an air of total professionalism. She was, in short, a class act.

Although almost everyone else I encountered was similarly professional I did witness, on occasion, behavior that convinced me it was time to address the delicate subject of ‘conference etiquette’ (or as I like to subtitle it ‘how not to make an ass out of yourself’). My draft rules of etiquette (and believe me, I’m hoping for your comments to add and refine these) are as follows:

  • Remember, if you happen to be a published author of any ilk, that arrogance like pride, usually comes before the fall. I couldn’t believe how some authors treated aspiring authors (or even other published authors) with barely concealed disdain – as if that somehow made their work seem superior. I know it’s a cut-throat industry but dissing others will not get you ahead.
  • Remember that marketing does not include foisting your book on a reader without their permission. I was actually at a session where I was told to ‘write my name’ on a slip of a paper only to realize (I was never told) that this meant I was now in an enforced raffle for someone’s book who was not even a participant on the panel I was attending…People need to be asked if they want your book or marketing material….
  • Remember the basic common courtesies – don’t push in, cut people off, ask rude questions (and yes, demanding to know some person’s print run may constitute a rude question if they don’t know you!) or crash other people’s parties.
  • Smile and be generous to those who are waiting on you at functions, serving you coffee, helping with the AV or volunteering. The snafu is rarely their fault…
  • When on a panel do not hog the mic, be rude to the moderator or generally act as though you are far too superior to impart your esteemed knowledge on the attendees (believe me, I actually saw all three occur!)
  • Remember the unwritten code of published and unpublished authors – we’re in this together – so never denigrate, belittle, bitch about or undermine a fellow to author to anyone else, least of all an editor or agent!

So those are some of my initial rules… What would you add or amend? What conference faux-pas/ breaches of etiquette/ acts of unbelievable rudeness have you ever witnessed?
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Panels from Hell

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne


This weekend I am going down to Carmel (a favorite spot of mine) to do a panel at the Harrison Memorial library with the very talented Hannah Dennison and, since I also just received my panel allocation for Malice Domestic, I am mulling over the whole ‘what makes a successful panel’ issue. Believe me I have seen some stinkers in my time – I dread being on the panel from hell more than just about anything (except perhaps being moderator of the panel from hell…) – but what makes or breaks a panel?

  • First of course, the topic has to be interesting and one that resonates with the panelists. I was once put on a panel about hot sex and had to admit from the get-go that basically there was no hot sex in any of my books! (The panel still was great, despite that:)). However, even with the most exciting of topics there’s still a risk of boring the pants off the audience. I have seen plenty of excellent presentations on some of the most mundane topics (and let’s face it, there’s a limit to how many topics there can be on mystery writing…) and some of the most boring presentations on the hottest of topics…so there must be more to it than merely topic alone.
  • A terrific moderator – a good moderator can ameliorate against some of the worst panel sins (microphone hogging, long-winded answers, blatant and constant self-promotion) – but I’ve been on panels where it is immediately clear that the moderator hasn’t even bothered to read up on the panelists work! In my mind a terrific moderator is prepared, professional, witty and unafraid to step where angels fear to tread in order to prevent the above mentioned sins from ruining a perfectly good panel presentation. What I think turns off many in the audience is a moderator who either sits back and lets the panel degenerate into a rant/lecture/ego-fest, or one who is so intrusive it is as if she (or he) was a panelist rather than a moderator.
  • Well prepared participants. There’s no point being on a panel if you think you can just ‘phone in’ your answers without giving the topic any thought. Some of the worst panels I’ve been on have had an author who clearly spent no time at all thinking about anything except how to promote his (or her) next book at any given opportunity. The best panels I’ve been on have been where the moderator has given everyone a heads-up on possibly questions first, though this is still no guarantee that the panelists will have anything interesting to say about them!
  • Professionalism – as with all the worst panel sins mentioned, the most horrible panels occur when one or more of the participants completely takes over and (disregarding any professional courtesy to others on the panel) hogs the limelight. Equally well, the authors who ramble on for ten minutes answering the question are just as unprofessional in my book. I believe authors should treat the panel as a showcase for themselves as both a writer and a member of the writing community – so no unprofessional behavior please! My motto: Be gracious – dress for the occasion, act for the occasion, and shut-up when necessary.
  • Pass on the Jerry Springer moments. I’ve only witnessed one panel degenerate to this kind of in-fighting – but some authors do allow themselves to get carried away. As far as I’m concerned arrogance and vitriol needs to be left at the door.

So have you had any horrific panel experiences? Any tips from being on a panel or from being in the audience on what makes (or breaks) a panel? What was the best (or the worst!) panel you ever saw or participated in?

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Approaching Agents at Conferences

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne


Writers (and fan) conferences provide unpublished writers with a great opportunity to approach and talk about their work with agents. Recently there have been a few email threads on MWA as well as Sisters in Crime about how writers should go about approaching the whole ‘agents at conferences’ thing, and I thought I’d lay down what I think are some of the basic ground rules.

1. You need to do your homework.

Obvious, I know…but all too often this doesn’t get done. I’ve been at conferences where writers have pitched an idea for a western/science fiction cross-over novel to an agent that only moments before announced that they do not represent either of those genres. It is a waste of everyone’s time and energy to pitch your work to an agent who is clearly not interested in representing the kind of work you do. Almost every agent has a website or an entry in publishers’ marketplace so do yourself a favor – check before you pitch. Don’t rock up at a conference and pitch to every agent you meet – target your approach – check the attendance lists, research which agents represent the kind of writing you do (and the writers you admire) and make sure you know who you should pitch to (and by extension who you should not).

2. Your manuscript must be perfect (and finished).

I remember chatting to a writer at a SinC meeting once, and she told me she had met an agent at a conference who had requested to see her work – only problem was, it wasn’t ready to be sent out. The writer asked me whether I thought it would be okay for her to send the manuscript out now (some 12 months later)…My answer – good luck with that! The agent probably has no idea who you are by now. The moral of this story is obvious – you need to be ready to send the complete manuscript before you pitch your work which also leads to ground rule number three…

3. Send exactly what the agent requests (no more, no less).

If an agent at a conference tells you to send a formal query letter abide by that request, if they ask for the first 5o pages send just the first 50 pages (don’t send them your entire manuscript). Do what they ask you to do. I’m sure it frustrates the heck out of agents to have writers send them material they did not ask to see.

4. Be professional at all times.

A professional pitch at a conference is totally acceptable, shoving you manuscript under a bathroom stall is not. Make sure you appear confident (and sane) which means no stalking the agent…They are (remember) just human beings. Most agents I’ve met are approachable and kind. They will tell you if they are interested and will let you down gently if they are not – so just be yourself and act like a professional (you want to be treated like one, after all).

5. Have your pitch ready. Memorize it. Practice it. Perfect it.

You need to be able to tell an agent with confidence exactly what your manuscript is about in under 3 minutes (no agent is going to listen for half an hour as you outline every chapter in the book!). I’m more than happy to listen to someone’s pitch and give feedback and I’m sure lots of other writers are too – the more feedback and practice you get, the more confident you’ll be when you finally get the chance to speak to the agent of your dreams. As I rough guide I think you should have a high level 1-2 minute concept (the elevator pitch) and then have a more detailed synopsis you can tell, should the agent ask you for more details. I also find a one-page written synopsis is handy – because you can hand this to an agent if they express an interest – just be sure to have your name and email address on this just in case the agent wants to contact you about it (hey, you can dream can’t you!).

Many conferences have specific sessions in which writers get to pitch their work to agents and editors. At the first writers’ conference I ever attended I participated in a ‘speed dating for agents’ session and, although horrific and stressful, it gave me experience pitching my manuscript and interacting with agents about my work. Even when there aren’t such sessions available, however, conferences provide a great opportunity for writers looking for an agent. As these ground rules show all you need to be is prepared.

So what about you all – do you have any other ‘ground rules’ or advice on approaching agents at conferences?

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It’s Gonna Be A Thriller!

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Tomorrow I head off to the Grand Hyatt in NYC for ThrillerFest, a gathering of fans, friends, and some of the best writers on the planet. Fellow Kill Zone blogmates Kathryn Lilley and John Gilstrap will be there along with soon-to-be-permanent Sunday Kill Zone blogger, James Scott Bell. There will be discussion panels, workshops, demonstrations (Amazon Kindle, ATF), parties, interviews, the Clive Cussler Roast, the debut authors’ breakfast, and the Thriller Awards Banquet among the events. A good time will be had by all.

If you’ve been to a writer’s conference such as Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, Sleuthfest, ThrillerFest, and others, you know that it can be great fun and offers a ton of opportunities for authors at all stages of their careers. And if you haven’t attended one yet, move it to the top of your to-do list. You won’t regret it.

Here are some important reasons to attend conferences like ThrillerFest.

Inspiration. You’re sure to be inspired by the time you leave. Being surrounded by hundreds of writers creates electricity and excitement. And the inspiration is contagious. You’ll get support and encouragement from agents, editors, and other writers. And you’ll feel emboldened to go home and write with renewed enthusiasm.

Knowledge. Most conferences like ThrillerFest are built around panel discussions. You’ll find workshops and author panels covering topics from writing young adult novels to creating believable heroes and villains. No matter where you are in your writing career, you’ll always come away learning something valuable.

Networking. Publishing is about people. Meeting fellow writing professionals is invaluable in getting your name out into the marketplace.

Friendship. The potential for forming long-lasting friendships with your fellow authors is perhaps the best benefit you’ll receive from a conference. And those friendships come in handy when you need advice, a blurb, someone to brainstorm with, or just a word of encouragement later.

Fans. If you’re a published author, chances are you’re going to meet a fan or two at a conference. And trust me on this, there’s nothing more rewarding than to have a total stranger tell you that they enjoyed your book and ask you to sign a copy. The part of this experience that affects me the most is to hear a fan speak of my characters as if they were real. You can’t buy that feeling of fulfillment at any price.

Pitching. At ThrillerFest and other conferences, you get the opportunity to meet agents and editors. If your goal is to acquire a new agent or find a publisher, there’s no better place.

There are many great reasons to attend conferences like ThrillerFest, not the least of which is you’ll have a blast. For those that have attended, what memorable experiences can you share with us? Was it worth your while to travel to a distance city for a conference? Any other reasons to attend or tips to remember?

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