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.
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.
• 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?
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.
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