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Gearing Up for Getting Out: The Conference Experience

This post will appear two days after I and my wife return from this year’s Bouchercon, “The World Mystery Convention.” I’m writing it as I prepare to make the trip. September 6th through 9th fellow writers in the crime-mystery-thriller genre from around the world will have converged on St. Petersburg, Florida, to trumpet their most recent works, bask in the limelight, hustle for new deals and contacts, and generally squeeze the flesh and shamelessly self-promote.

If only I weren’t dreading it so.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m very much looking forward to connecting with friends I typically only see once or twice a year, precisely at these sorts of gatherings. In many ways the genre has provided me with my tribe, and it’s populated with smart, witty, unpretentious and hard-working writers of every stripe.

In particular, I’m very much looking forward to sharing a panel with Jess Lourey, who appeared here with Shannon Baker at Writer Unboxed on August 26th (“Write What You Fear: Why, How, and a Lifesaving Bonus Tip” [1]). I just wish we didn’t have to do it at 8:00 AM on a Saturday morning.

Not only will 90% of the attendees be sleeping in or demonstrably hungover from all the parties the night before—Friday night is infamous for such festivities—it will be 5:00 AM for me, since I’ll still be on west-coast time, meaning I’ll have to rise and shine at 4:00 AM BT (Body Time) to ensure I actually stumble in on time. As for being articulate—who knows?

I’m also looking forward to taking part in a Thursday morning panel on historical research, given how relevant that is to my own recent novel, The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. The downside: a great many conference attendees will not yet have arrived, so this panel too is likely to offer only limited exposure.

Given such vicissitudes (I hear you ask), especially considering the expense of travel and accommodations, why bother making the effort at all?

Ah, Grasshopper, allow me to explain.

In many ways the crime-mystery-thriller genre has provided me with my tribe, and it’s populated with smart, witty, unpretentious and hard-working writers of every stripe.

Last Monday, on Labor Day, Greer Macallister posted here at Writer Unboxed a relevant piece titled, “25 Truths About the Work of Writing.” https://writerunboxed.com/2018/09/03/25-truths-about-the-work-of-writing/ [2] In the Comments, I remarked that one of the truths about the work of writing I had come to understand was this: There will be times when you will need to play the salesman. It will not kill you. But you will most likely hate it.

A great many writers are dyed-in-the-wool introverts. One reason we chose writing to express ourselves is due to our comfort level with solitude.

However, even with the ability to reach so many readers through social media, blogs, and other online outlets, it remains necessary to get out among the public at times and convince people that you and your books are worthy of their time and attention. Eighty percent of success is showing up, as the saying goes. So, yeah, you have to show up.

That doesn’t mean attending conferences will work wonders. As one editor from a New York publishing house once explained, even if everyone at the conference bought your book, it wouldn’t even begin to approach the kind of numbers needed to make you a real success.

Rather, you attend conferences to remind people you haven’t died, been abducted by aliens, or run off with an Alaskan Mennonite.

I can speak with some authority on this. During the time I was focusing more on The Art of Character and my teaching career than promoting my crime fiction, I chose not to attend several conferences such as Bouchercon and Left Coast Crime, thinking a little sabbatical wouldn’t kill me.

I might as well have joined the circus. On the moon.

It’s bad enough I’ve failed to honor the genre’s dictum of a book a year, or that my books have garnered far more critical praise than readers.

By declining to faithfully attend these conferences, I quite literally began to disappear. By absenting myself, I slid back to the more forgettable regions of the general discussion as to what’s new and interesting, a professional faux pas from which I’m still recovering. (Assuming, of course, I am indeed recovering, not just slowing down the pace of my disappearance.)

You attend conferences to remind people you haven’t died, been abducted by aliens, or run off with an Alaskan Mennonite.

And as I’m a bit of an iconoclast in the genre anyway—one interviewer, speaking of my latest novel, recently remarked, “This is quite a departure even for you”—I really can’t afford the luxury of taking time off.

And yet more and more frequently at these affairs I often find myself wanting nothing more than to return to my room to read—i.e., hide. (I actually did this once for three straight days at a romance writers convention. I knew no one, and it was held in Las Vegas, a city I loathe.)

Some of this desire for privacy is based on little more than pride. I will no doubt suffer for this next remark, but I find it increasingly difficult to endure the lionization of mediocrity. And yet, no one could be faulted for seeing that statement as just the predictably cranky, self-serving retort of someone who’s noticed that no one pays much attention when he enters the room. Worse, when he leaves it.

I will, however, do my best to maximize the experience, reconnecting with writers, editors, and agents who have helped me along the way, making new connections that may prove valuable in the future, and doing my best to catch up meaningfully with the many friends I’ve made over the years—though these shindigs often resemble getting trapped in a revolving door, with many conversations frustratingly brief.

By the time you read this, however, I will have returned to my desk, the cockpit of my writer’s journey. I will have resumed work on the next novel and the next book on the craft of fiction (working title: The Compass of Character). And I will be happy. Or at least as happy as I get.

Share your reflections on the conference experience: Has it been worth your while? Better yet, has it provided that rush of recognition every writer craves? Contrarily, has it felt like a grind, or a perpetual exercise in anonymity? If you’ve yet to attend a conference, which one is intriguing you? What do you hope to accomplish by attending?

About David Corbett [3]

David Corbett [4] (he/him) is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character [5], and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.