In which the air turns blue, the heavens open, and our hero says goodbye to his friends.
Saturday was my last day of Bouchercon. The convention actually continued through Sunday afternoon, but I wanted to get back home for church, and give my wife some relief from single parenting. Since it was a Saturday, the roads were almost deserted, as was the parking lot. I made it to the Marriott before 8 am, in time to catch some of the Meet the New Authors (& Publisher) breakfast, hosted by Les and Leslie Blatt. I was surprised how well attended this was considering the early hour, especially for a Saturday. Perhaps the bars closed early Friday night.
There were a lot of new authors there, so the moderator called up a group of four or five at a time, and then gave each person one minute to tell us about their novel. That doesn’t seems like much time, but it’s a great opportunity if you have a memorable premise and a catchy pitch. I spoke to one author later, and she told me her book was about a murder, and someone with Alzheimer’s. I stopped her and said, “Is that the one where the lady with Alzheimer’s witnesses the crime, but no-one can be sure of the accuracy of her testimony–whether she’s remembering what she saw, or whether it’s a memory from long ago?” To which she replied, “Yes, that’s it.” The author then gave me a bookmark to help me remember her novel. Until that week, in fact, until that day, I underestimated how useful those bookmarks are for advertising.
Meet the New Authors
I was doing pretty well with my list of people to meet, so I decided to cross another off the list by popping back over to the Sheraton for Visceral Entertainment: Where Do You Draw the Line? featuring Karin Slaughter, along with J. D. Rhoades, Lee Goldberg, Lisa Unger, and Twist Phelan (the moderator). Not only did this panel contain two people with the most career-appropriate names (Slaughter and Twist), but it was also one most likely to stir controversy. After all, the issue of sex and violence in entertainment is a hot topic in our culture. And the authors represented at the table are among those most known for not always holding back. Karin said she has never been asked by her editor to dial back the violence, though she always tries to be realistic, to show the violence for what it is, and not glorify it. Indeed, she’s often accused of writing more than she actually writes. She gets letters saying, “Why did you have to put this, that, and the other in that novel?” when in fact she didn’t. All she did was suggest this, that, and the other; the reader’s imagination did the rest.
Lee said he feared some writers go over the top just for the sake of trying to outdo other writers. Karin Slaughter had this in her last novel, so I’m going to have this and this! Lisa defended depictions of violence in fiction as a way to get those things out of the system, put them on paper, and have justice served. Generally, in fiction the bad guys get their comeuppance. Not always in real life. Fiction-violence helps us deal with it. As a trial lawyer, J.D. has seen and heard a lot of very disturbing stuff. For him, it’s a form of purging to get all that stuff out of his head and onto the page.
Weak writers write “murder porn” according to Lee, and it becomes a crutch to try to make their work competitive. They can’t go toe-to-toe with talented writers, so they draw their audience with outlandishly graphic content, instead of trying to be innovative and clever.
Karin advocated talking about violent crime because those who commit such crimes in real life depend on our silence. “It’s great George Clooney is concerned about rape in Darfur,” she said. “But what about rape in L.A.?”
In the end, J.D. said, most true crime is about people being stupid and screwing up, making one bad decision after another. It’s not so much about evil people working out their evil schemes on the innocent.
Then came the question about swearing, and how much is appropriate. No-one on the panel had a problem with using cuss words, and, for a good five or ten minutes they regaled the audience with their favorite profanities. F*s, s*s, and m-f*s filled the room as the panelists talked about their favorite scenes from TV shows where such language was used creatively. However, they acknowledged that, as with sex and violence, such things should be used appropriately and for the right reason, not just to push an envelope or shock the reader.
Visceral Entertainment: Where Do You Draw the Line? L-R: Karin Slaughter, Lee Goldberg, Twist Phelan, Lisa Unger, and J.D. Rhoades.
At the beginning of the panel, Twist read author bios, starting with Karin. She got half-way through the description of her latest novel when it became clear to us, and Karin, that the bio was giving away all the major plot points of the novel. Karin stopped her and said to the audience, “Just pre-order the next one.”
Since the panelists were on a stage, it was a little awkward getting to them afterward, so I waited until they adjourned to the book room/signing room. Karin didn’t have a line, so I took the opportunity to shake her hand, thank her for her comments (she was, by far, the wittiest of the panelists, at least IMO), and tell her I enjoyed CRIMINAL and hope to read more of her work. I didn’t have anything to sign, but as a writer I know how much feedback like that is appreciated.
While gazing along the row of authors waiting to sign books (some with longer lines than others), I noticed David Morrell. For those who don’t know, he wrote FIRST BLOOD, the book that inspired the first “Rambo” movie. Janet mentioned to me on Thursday that she had met him and told him she once wrote a paper comparing Rambo with Beowulf. His line was long, and I had nothing for him to sign, so I settled for taking his picture.
My next panel choice served two purposes. The first was to meet Sophie Littlefield. I really enjoyed her novel, THE MISSING PLACE, which I won in a Janet Reid writing contest. The second purpose was to get some YA mystery novel ideas for my 15-year-old daughter who has started writing stories, and needs to do more reading. This led me to Criminally Young at Heart, a panel that Sophie renamed The YA Panel, with Alan Gratz, Cara Brookins, Megan Miranda, Penny Pike Warner, and Sophie Littlefield (the moderator).
The first question spoke to the diverse nature of the panelists books: why don’t they stick to one genre within YA? Some of the authors said they like diving into an area of research, then leaving it for another. Others talked about writing what they are passionate about at that time, and how that passion will change from book to book. They all like having the flexibility to write the book that speaks to them at that moment. Next they talked about where their books fit within the Education-Entertainment-Inspiration spectrum. Most seem to put an emphasis on entertainment. As Alan said, kids don’t have the patience to give books a chance. A novel has to grab them from the get-go. On the other hand, kids like learning about things. They like picking up details on a subject from a novel and then sharing them with their friends. Penny’s novels include codes for the reader to crack, which sneakily helps them with their cognitive skills. Cara said she primarily writes for herself, but also feels a responsibility to her readers that her stories have a satisfactory conclusion. She thinks this is partly because she has a 10-year-old, and that’s the kind of world her child wants. This might change in a few years.
The panelists also addressed the issue of gender in middle grade and young adult, something that is often a bone of contention. Penny talked about how her stories have two male and two female protagonists, so she hopes that helps to draw both to her work. Alan’s main character is a boy, but he didn’t set out to write “boys’ books.” He would like to see boys reading books about girls as much as girls read books about boys. Megan also has both genders represented in her main characters, but, like Alan, doesn’t really consider her work as geared toward one over the other. She’s more concerned with making her books exciting to read from page one, to entice the reluctant reader. Cara’s day job is in I.T., so she feels a part of the geek world. Perhaps that’s why her main characters are boys. The panelists all want to see more acceptance of female protagonists by both boys and girls in YA, and perhaps the success of THE HUNGER GAMES is a sign things are changing for the better.
The YA Panel. L-R: Sophie Littlefield, Cara Brookins, Alan Gratz, Penny Pike Warner, and Megan Miranda.
I asked the panel for some book recommendations for my daughter. Megan suggested NEARLY GONE by Elle Cosimano, Alan thought she should try THE NATURALS by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, and Cara offered THE PEOPLE by Zenna Henderson, an older book, but one she thought my daughter would enjoy. For asking the second question of the Q&A, I was given a copy of Megan Miranda’s SOULPRINT, which I had her sign for my daughter.
I had lunch in the Marriott. This was the second time I had lunched on my own, but I hasten to add that on neither occasion did I actually end up eating alone. Both times I sharing a place at the bar with someone. On Thursday, I talked with a former school teacher who had written a novel about a teacher sent to Poland, who ends up arrested (I won’t give away the whole premise). She was in the query trenches and practicing her pitch, so I was glad to be a sounding board. Saturday, I ate with someone who had gone the self-publishing route, and had also set up a business to publish others. We had a good conversation about the relative virtues and drawbacks of traditional publishing and self-publishing.
What turned out to be my final panel of this Bouchercon was in the Sheraton. I made my way over, past the Mystery Writers of America table…
… to Maintaining Pace in Mystery Narrative. The original moderator for this panel, Monette Michaels, had been taken sick and was unable to be there, so Janet was asked to fill in for her. The lineup for this panel was Annette Dashofy, Hilary Davidson, Laura Benedict, Rebecca Drake, and Janet Reid (the moderator). Janet launched the discussion with a softball: What is pacing? Laura described it as the way the story unravels. “I know it when I don’t see it,” she said, to the collective nod of the room. Hilary likened pacing to a roller-coaster that pulls you along into and through the story. Rebecca pointed to the rhythm and word choice of the author that helps dictate the speed of the narrative. Janet then asked if the authors dealt with pacing in their first draft, or during revisions. Rebecca said she is aware of pacing during the first draft, but definitely pays more attention to it during revisions. Hilary said her pacing tends to slide in the first draft, so it’s something she picks up with later edits. If she finds herself wanting to skip over a section, then she knows the pacing’s off. Laura received hard stares from her fellow panelists when she confessed to only writing a first draft. Yes, she’s one of those writers that edits as she goes.
Picking up on Hilary’s answer, how do the panelists know when the pacing is off? Some read aloud to hear the rhythm. If the characters are doing something boring, then the story begins to drag. This can be especially true when the novel deals with technical details. Usually critique partners will point out when there’s too much information.
Have the panelists ever had to add things for pacing? A few of the panelists said they can be guilty of ending the novel too quickly. Also, if there’s a particularly painful scene, the writer can be tempted to move past it too quickly–especially if she doesn’t enjoy seeing her characters suffer. But that pain is important, and readers need to go through it with the character. Writers need to remember to let good things happen to their characters too.
Toward the end, the panelists discussed how a writer hooks a reader. The main hook seems to be asking questions, either directly, or indirectly planting questions in the reader’s mind. There should be at least one direct or indirect question per chapter, and when the question is answered, there should be more waiting in the wings. But the questions need to be answered, otherwise you frustrate the reader. “If you answer all the questions,” Janet pondered, “how do you build a series?” Hilary tackled this, explaining that there is an arc to each book in the series, and each arc has questions that need answering. However, there are “quiet” questions within each book that are left for other books to answer. It’s not that every question needs to be answered, but certainly all the main questions pertaining to each book’s arc.
I managed to snap a picture of the panel, so you’ll get to see Janet at last…
Maintaining Pace in Mystery Narratives. L-R: Janet Reid, Annette Dashofy, Rebecca Drake, Hilary Davidson, Laura Benedict
HUH? What happened?? Are those… shark teeth…? Oh well…
Janet managed to avoid the kind of spoiler fiasco I witnessed earlier by asking each of the panelists to talk briefly about their latest book, and to tell us how we can get on an email list, or visit their social media platform. By this time I had already packed away my pad and pencil so I couldn’t write anything down. Of all the panelists, Hilary Davidson was the only one with bookmarks to hand, so I was able to get the information I needed for her. Again, those bookmarks may seem trivial, but they were very helpful to me. Future conference panelists, take note!
It was close to 2pm by the time we left, and if attending panels was thirsty work for Janet, you can only imagine how parched she was after moderating one! [I should note, at the risk of ruining her reputation, for all the time spent at the bar, and for all the drinks she consumed, Janet at least appeared to stay within the bounds of sobriety. Mostly.] Some days before, literary agent Jessica Faust had offered her blog readers the opportunity to book time with her at Bouchercon to pitch their novels. My current work in progress is nowhere near ready for pitching, but I did ask for time to chat, just to say hi. Jessica graciously slotted me into her schedule at 2:15 in the Marriott bar. As we sat down at our table in Jimmy V’s, I told Janet of my appointment. “That’s fine,” she said. “We’ll be here when you get back.” As I recall, the “we” included Patrick Lee (nytba), and Loretta Sue Ross.
Jessica Faust, Literary Agent and all-around nice person.
The first two Bouchercon days had been dry and sunny, so Raleigh decided it was time to give her visitors a taste of Carolina showers. Thankfully, it didn’t rain the whole time, but as we made our way between hotels, many of us felt the wet to some extent. It was only a little drizzly as I entered the Marriott, and I soon found Jessica. It seems my facial recognition isn’t too bad since I managed to pick out both Loretta and Jessica solely on the basis of publicity pictures. Jessica and I didn’t chat for long, but within that time we talked about BookEnds (Jessica’s agency), what Jessica’s currently looking for (I told her I was a little surprised she was there–I didn’t peg her as a mystery/thriller agent), and she gave me opportunity to tell her about my WiP, which I didn’t expect. I thought I “pitched” it rather well, considering I wasn’t prepared to pitch anything. If I can remember what I said, I can use that to start crafting my query letter (it’s not a bad idea to write a query letter even before your novel’s finished–it helps keep you on track). Jessica said I could query her when the novel’s ready, and gave me her card. All in all, a good meeting, I think.
When I returned to Jimmy V’s, Janet, Patrick, and Loretta were still there. Janet asked how it went. “She’s definitely on my query list,” I said after my brief review. “You have a list?” Janet retorted. “You’re on it, too, ” I assured her with a nervous smile. Better men have lost limbs with the look she gave me. 🙂
Over the course of the next few hours, I said my goodbyes to Patrick and Loretta who had to leave. As I recall, Terri Lynn Coop joined us for a while, and told us stories of her misadventures the night before with her friends. I seem to remember her talking about a chocolate party, a “room of requirements,” and a couple of embarrassed hotel employees. Unfortunately, Terri had to go, so I said goodbye to her, and we then welcomed authors Ray Daniel and Rosemary Harris to the table (I swear, this is beginning to sound like The Tonight Show, or Graham Norton!). I felt privileged to sit and listen while Ray, Rosemary, and Janet talked not only about their families, and other non-writing things, but also talked “shop”. As someone on the pre-published side of the industry, this was a rare opportunity to get a taste of life on the other side from people who have been a part of that world for a while. Ray and Rosemary came up with some great opening lines for books based on their own life experiences (I won’t share in case they plan to use them; suffice to say, one had to do with a strip club, the other had to do with teaching how to make mixed drinks). I was also pleasantly surprised when newly-engaged Juliet Grames dropped by for a few minutes (we met her fiancé on Thursday). Juliet works for Soho Press and is Gary Corby’s editor. “He’s mine!” she said, with justifiable glee. Ray also surprised me by alluding to the time I started an informal flash fiction contest one day in the comments on Janet’s blog. You never know who’s reading, folks! 🙂
Time flew. Janet wanted to go to the Anthony Awards (one of her clients was up for an Anthony), and she also needed to pack. I needed to get on the road. “So,” she said, once Ray and Rosemary had left. “Any questions?” At which point my mind went blank. To be fair, I was at the end of three days where I felt as if I had been thrown into the deep end of the publishing world. If I had gone to Bouchercon simply as a reader, hanging out with book-lovers and meeting writers, I might have simply been star-struck. As it was, I had been spending a goodly amount of time in the company of one of New York’s finest literary agents, being introduced as a friend to other agents, publicists, editors, and authors. I had been sitting in conversations about contracts and publishers, often as the only non-agented writer at the table. In short, the whole three days had left me gloriously overwhelmed. Which is why the best question I could come up with was:
“Can I query you when I’ve finished my novel?”
To which Janet (bless her cotton socks) replied, “Of course.” Since I’m now writing a genre she represents, and she has made it abundantly clear she will accept queries from all-comers, it seems a strange, even redundant, question to ask. But that’s not really what I was asking. Behind that question was all my woodland creature insecurities as an unpublished writer. “Do I have what it takes? Am I really good enough? Have I been making a fool of myself over the last three days, kidding myself I can enter the same league as Patrick, Jeff, Loretta, Alafair, Ray, and Rosemary?” Whether or not Janet saw all that in my question, I don’t know. But I’ll take her “Of course” as a vote of confidence.
And with that, we shook hands, and went our separate ways.
And that was my first Bouchercon. Hopefully, not my last.
My Bouchercon 2015 swag.
Were you at Bouchercon 2015? Feel free to share your thoughts. If you’ve blogged your experience, share the link!