Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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December 1, 2014

Writing Conference Wisdom: A Whirlwind of Speed Dating

James R. PrestonJames Preston

 We write to entertain, to share our experience, or because we have a story that simply must be told. But it's not easy. Let's be honest. If you studied piano for the same number of hours you put into your writing you could at least pound out "Jingle Bells" at the company party. Writing fiction is different. It's a solo job. I suppose you could stand up at the party and say, "Listen up, here's the first chapter of my new paranormal romance," but I wouldn't recommend it.

My parents wanted me to be athletic, so I played right field in whatever comes before you're old enough for Little League. After a while my dad said, "Maybe the kid needs glasses." He was right, but the glasses didn't help my fielding. Then it was clarinet. I could make a duck noise. Then piano. After a while the teacher told my parents I needed to find something else.

Meanwhile, I wrote a poem that the local paper published, below the fold, but on the front page. It was about a Christmas tree the day after Christmas when it's out in the alley waiting for the trash man, and it's told from the POV of the tree. Hey, I was twelve, getting an early start on teen angst, so cut me some slack.

What is it that attracts us to the writing life?

Have you ever asked yourself why you do it? If you're like me -- and I know we are alike in some respects or you would not be reading Writers in the Storm -- you have on occasion wondered if all the effort and pain that goes into writing fiction is worth it. Usually this comes at 2:00 am when you're awake, looking at your story and wondering what happens next.

We went to New Orleans with a bunch of friends from college and I spent two afternoons in the hotel room, working. Yeah, my friends are all, "Whoa, we found a dessert that weighs in at 1,200 calories! Come help us eat this monster." I had a deadline. In Vegas, my friends are feeding the slots and I'm in the coffee shop, typing. Sometimes, "Why am I here" comes when you're out in public, on display as the captive writer.

That was me a couple of weeks ago at Bouchercon in Long Beach. Six hundred writers, maybe twice that many fans. I was asked to do three appearances -- two group events and one stand-up solo presentation. And it was great! For the first time, as soon as I walked in, eight or nine people I had never met came up to me and said they recognized me, either from a previous appearance or from a dust jacket photo. Wow! Walking with my feet off the ground made me taller.

Then it was time to go to work. And that led to "Why am I here?" First there was something called "Author Speed Dating." I'm not making this up. I scrambled around to find out what speed dating was.

(Side Note: I guess I lead a sheltered life. How many of you have heard of speed dating? Has anybody done it? If you have, are you willing to talk about it? I’m curious.)

Speed dating works like this: they fill a room with tables and serve a continental breakfast. Everybody but the writers gets to eat rolls, drink coffee, and chat. The writers pair up and move from table to table. Each writer gets two minutes, for their "why you should date me" pitch.  "Hi, I'm James Preston and I write the Surf City Mysteries. They're really neat you should buy several copies. I'm speaking at noon." Then they ring a bell and you move on to the next table, where people are drinking coffee and chatting. My partner was bestselling author named Allison Brennan, who was a really good sport about the whole thing.

At noon I was scheduled for an Author Spotlight, a one-man offering scheduled for twenty minutes. After hyping it to more than 200 people at breakfast I thought it would be a slam dunk to have a nice-sized group. I should have known when I got to the room a few minutes early. The guy ahead of me had one person in his audience, and it was me. So we chatted a while and he left.

And there I was, with my audience disguised as empty chairs. Okay, in fairness, the room was in another part of the complex and very hard to find. At five after I started talking to the chairs. Hey, I'd rehearsed this thing, and dammit, I was going to do it! The presentation was about social media in general,  “Facebook and Twitter and Blogs, Oh My!”

A minute later six people rushed in, sorry they had been unable to find the room. As it turned out I drew one of the larger audiences for the Spotlight. Fans at the conference recognized me. That was nice, and I was selling books. My last event of Bouchercon was Men of Mystery. There were fifty of us on stage. We each got a minute to talk about our work, and I got to share the stage with luminaries like Barry Eisler. It was a good show and we drew a huge audience.

I had a good time, learned a lot, and sold books. I have appeared at several conferences and thought I'd share some of what I have learned.

Conference Tips

Eat before you go. Before a presentation stick to something light. Carry energy bars in your bag.
Get there early and find whatever room(s) you will be presenting in. Also locate bathrooms.
Travel light! The conference will give you a bag (good) but it may be full of books (heavy).
Water is heavy! You can usually find drinking fountains outside of restrooms, and most good hotels will have ice water in the meeting rooms. On the other hand, it’s good to have water to sip if you are going to talk for an extended period. Carrying water is a judgment call. I usually do.  Room temperature water is better if you are speaking.
Carry a small pad of paper to capture names and emails. Pocket-sized has served me best. And of course, your own business cards.
Finally, remember you are working. You are not there to have a good time. Listening to your favorite authors is great, but meeting new readers and talking about your work is better.

So why do we do it? Well, as far as Bouchercon, I met fans and got to interact with them.

There are the standard reasons for writing: we want to share our experience; we want to provide entertainment, and so on. But, you know what? Under it all, when you peel back the layers -- we write our stories because we want to see how they come out.

What are your conference experiences? Do you know any tips I've missed? And finally...what do you know about Speed Dating?

About James

SHS cover James R. Preston is the author of the award-winning Surf City Mysteries. His books have been selected for inclusion in the California Detective Fiction Collection at the Bancroft Library, one of the libraries at UC Berkeley. James' novella, Crashpad, will be published next year by Stark Raving Group. See bookxy.com for more information.

The newest Surf City Mystery, Sailor Home From Sea, will be launched on Saturday, December 13, 2014 at 2:00 pm at Book Carnival—348 S. Tustin Ave, Orange CA 92866.
714 538-3210
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17 comments on “Writing Conference Wisdom: A Whirlwind of Speed Dating”

  1. Hi. I recently came back from the Sanibel Writers Conference in (you guessed it), Sanibel, FL. It was sponsored by Gulf Coast University and students received college credit for attending. So I was not surprised to see it pretty focused toward the younger crowd. It was a "working" conference, no pitch sessions or agents to converse with. That was fine. My goal was to take at least one thing away from each class I attended. (I did.)
    Boy, I really can't say this without sounding like a grumpy old woman, but here it is. Every single class, practice session or author reading (save 2 out of 16) had so much profanity in it that it really turned me off. Whether it was a professor, a student or an author, every one used a tremendous amount of profanity in their work. My thoughts were that it is a shame that the "teachers" not only found this acceptable, but encouraged it in author's writing. I don't mind an occasion 4 letter zinger to add punctuation to a character's dialogue, but the English language is full of much better ways to express yourself than to take the easy way out and just say F*** it. Is this a fashion trend in writing that I am not aware of?

    1. Thankfully, jtailele, I haven't encountered this at the conferences I've attended, because it would turn me off. I'm with you, but I don't read that much "literary" fiction, I read genre.

  2. Oh James, I've been to a reader event that had almost as many authors as readers, so I'm familiar with the 'empty chairs disguised as an audience', thing. And I learned a lot about myself from it! Glad to hear that you did well!

    My best advice - sleep. Sleep before because you won't sleep much during. Also, when in an awkward speaking situation, dig into your passion, and show it to the audience. They will respond to you!

    And Joanne - I'm with you. Don't get me wrong, I'm a potty mouth from way back, but why don't they get that to have impact, it has to be used sparingly?

  3. Right with you about finding the room, James. Not only because I couldn't find my German class on the first day of high school, but to check the number of chairs--in case you have handouts--and the electronics, in case you need a computer hook-up and projector. And I've heard of speed dating. Thank goodness I've only heard and not experienced from what my friends report!

  4. I'm doing this on my tablet, so I don't seem to be able to do individual replies.

    Jataile -- audience, audience, audience. The authors that allowed their language to bother you didn't do their homework. No matter your feelings on the language (if they can't take a joke, f 'em) it's a "bump" and detracts from the message. My own view? In my first novel, I asked my wife, "Can I say, "Butt?" (BTW, the answer was yes.) thanks for the comment!

  5. Laura, thanks for "sleep!" Wow, did I miss that one! By Sunday I could hardly take my shoes off. And thanks for the commiseration on empty seats. With 600 authors, the competition was fierce. Hey, there's a blog topic in there. The changing ratio of authors to readers at events. I will volunteer you to talk about it.

  6. James, I have speed dated...BOY have I speed dated, and it's a fascinating process. First of all, you really find out quickly who you have chemistry with and who you don't. Two minutes is a REALLY long time when there is no chemistry!

    Also, the action all happens in the restroom. At the events that I went to, you got to find out as much about the dating candidates talking to other people as you did the candidates themselves. I formed friendships with the other women at the event in the restroom and met more of them than I ever did of the nice men.

    It was a learning experience for sure. 🙂

  7. Jenny, that's great! The restroom, huh? Personally, I can't imagine walking u p to a table of ladies and saying so etching like, "Hey,baby, what's your sign?" Or the reverse thing that I've seen on TV, the backwards compliment, "Those are great earrings. My grandmother had some just like them." Followed by, "Put down the knife!"

    All kidding aside, it was one of the highlights of the conference for me. It's vitally important to have a good partner, and Allison Brennan was wonderful. Also, you need to have a tiny speech ready to go -- and you need to be ready to drop it at a moment's notice if somebody gives you an opening. (Side note: by the time we got to Table 50, we could swap. I said, "Hi, I'm Allison Brennan . . . ")

    Also, guys don't talk in the restroom.

    1. Our writer's group here on Marco Island have played with the idea of speed dating for a group activity. It has grown so fast that many of the writers don't know each other. So we thought we would "speed date" and give each person five minutes to tell the other person about themselves, i.e. what they write, books they've written, there reason they are in the writers group in the first place. I'll let you know how it worked out.

  8. I hate auto complete! I meant "saying something like." Sheesh! (Sheesh, with a bow to jtailele.)

  9. I think you'll find it not only valuable, but fun! One suggestion, as a veteran: five minutes may be too long. We moved from table to table in pairs (a good thing, too) and we each had two minutes. That seemed fine and it kept the pace brisk. And yes, the moderators rang a bell at two minutes for writer #1, and again at four minutes. Yes, I'd like to hear how it works out.

  10. You're welcome, Orly. It's always a treat to write for WITS. Author Speed Dating was quite an experience. I recommend it if you ever have the opportunity; not only do you get to talk to a lot of people, you are also forced to respond quickly to questions, and I found that I actually learned about my own work while doing it.

    And I never once said, "Hey, baby, what's your sign?"

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