Last weekend I spent three and one half delightful days at the Mystery Writers Conference at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California. This was the 20th conference for the store owners Bill and Elaine Petrocelli. It has a reputation for excellence in both guests and attendees, many have gone on to brilliant writing careers and take this opportunity to give back to other writers learning their chops. I recommend it to any mystery/thriller/suspense/detective scribbler out there.
The faculty this year included incredible Martin Cruz Smith, award winning Elizabeth George, D.P. Lyle, Kirk Russell, the delightful Isabel Allende, Cara Black (of Paris fame), Ivy Pochoda, Cornelia Read, Jacqueline Winspear, and of course the ringmaster of this circus, Sheldon Siegel. The list also included technical help from retired FBI agents, firearms experts, and literary agents. Intense, funny, fascinating, inspiring and even instructive, the days went by faster than a 9mm through Jell-O.
What did I learn? Here are seven tips for conferences:
1. Remember to bring a notebook. It needs to have a stiff back or clip it on a clipboard. Many of these conferences don’t have tables so your lap is your only option. Carry extra pens (I like gel types), pencils need sharpening so use pens. Post the date and who the players are at the session on the top of the page, good for later reference. A lot of attendees work directly on computers taking notes, for me this is too confusing and distracting (and complicated with cords and chargers and everything). Transcribe later.
2. Meet as many of the faculty as you can. Don’t get all pushy and try to impress them with your work. In fact don’t even show them anything. Ask questions, try to steal a little of their brain if you can. Watch how they act, someday you might be in their shoes, it’s always good to have a mentor.
3. Meet as many of the attendees as possible. Every one of them has a reason to be there. Some are working on their first book, others maybe their sixth or seventh. Be sincerely interested in what they are doing and they may even listen to what you’re writing about. Pass them a card, get theirs. They might be sitting next to you on stage at some future event.
4. Send thank you notes. Honestly didn’t your mother bring you up right? Send the organizers a note, send the MC a note, and if you have interviews with agents or other faculty send them a brief note as well (I also slip in a business card). A little civility is always appreciated. And I mean a note, handwritten with a stamp – not a Facebook posting or an email (if you can’t get their address I guess an email is marginally okay).
5. Arrive early, stay late; you never know who you might meet. As hard as it is, try to go to all events and discussions. It is a grind especially late on the third day and early Sunday morning. But there might be one nugget of help in your career and it was at the session you missed. You paid for the ride, now take it.
6. Ask questions. Every member of the faculty has been where you are now. They asked questions and learned. Squeeze them for the information, put a hot bright light on them, grill them, make them sweat – it’s good practice.
7. Summarize and store your notes. A few days after the conference pull out the notebook and transcribe your notes. Reorganize the odd string of thoughts you posted. Reflect and add more notes now that you have had time to think about the sessions (and save the old ones). This will help to imprint your brain with what you learned and remember to also go back in a few weeks and look at them again. Add these notes to your writer’s notebook for later reference.
8. Bonus - Buy books written by the authors at the session. There will always be new writers at these sessions, buy their work, read them, try and understand what they talked about and how they applied it to their work. In one session a very successful writer confessed that he liked a book so much he deconstructed it to understand how the author built the story – now that’s dedication to your art!
More Later . . . . . . . .