Thursday, October 04, 2007

Things I Learned at Bouchercon

Bouchercon 2007 in AnchorageI was gone last week attending Bouchercon 2007 here in Anchorage where mystery writers, editors and fans converged to discuss what makes mystery writing so fun. I picked up a few things here and there if there are any budding writers out there . . .

1. Writers think everyone must read their book. From each editor to the art designer for the cover to the sales lady at Barnes & Noble there's no excuse for not having read their masterpiece of the English language. Never mind that said art designer has 50 other book covers to design that year, never mind that their book could be described as "Miss Marple meets Catcher in the Rye" if you have touched it, you should have read it. The writers accuse the editors of not reading their books when they market them, the editors accuse the writers of not bothering to send them enough information about the book and expecting them to have time to read something they will actually publish. Yea, there were some egos there.

2. Editors aren't much better. If you have slaved for the last twenty years to finally write your little work of prose don't even think of approaching them with your book without first getting an agent, getting an attorney, getting a strong drink, then talking to them at a party, buying them a pizza, kissing their feet, and learning that you shared the same college dorm with them. Those were the big guys anyway.

3. But not Poisoned Pen Press. There was one publishing house that was different. Poisoned Pen Press, a small company with about six on staff that outsources a lot of stuff like art design. I was impressed by their sense of fairness, their willingness to publish new authors, their early adoption of publishing technology and their overall professionalism. If you ever try to get a mystery novel published, try them first. Senior Editor Barbara Peters just oozed class.

4. It was funny when the writers and editors puzzled over the decline in reading. They wondered why sales are down, they speculated about the ebbs and flows of the market, they offered a whole panel discussion on modern uses for the internet but no one seemed to think that self-publishing and blogging are going anywhere. Heh.

5. Every panel discussion has weirdos in the audience who ask the whacked-out things when a panel opens things up for questions. For example, "If you're publishing a novel, does it help to have the movie tie-in come out before or after the book is published?"

It brought laughter from everyone. Then we realized he was serious.

6. Everyone looks down on whoever they think is "less serious" in their craft. There's a food chain among mystery writers just as there is in any other profession with those on top turning their noses up at those they perceive to be lower than they. Writers who think they produce "serious literature" look down on writers of genre fiction (as if there is anything BUT genre fiction--doesn't everything fit into a genre somewhere, even "serious fiction"?) Forget that reading people like Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx is like being buried in an avalanche: you're stuck, you can't figure out which way is up and you're about to be asphyxiated. But that's another post.

So serious writers look down on genre writers and within the mystery or crime genre serious crime writers look down on non-serious writers there. The stories that get the awards are the hardboiled, "realistic" crime fiction--almost entirely written by men--and cozies or the stories without the graphic violence, sex and ugliness get patted on the head and told to sit by the fire with a cup of tea. As Laura Lippman said, all mystery and crime fiction has a rather tenuous hold on reality anyway so claiming one variety is more real than another is hysterical.

7. And everyone rolls their eyes at The DaVinci Code and Harry Potter. Maybe it's me but I loved both stories. Couldn't put them down and wish there were more out there like them for when I'm in those bubble-gum reading moments. It's not as if they're marketed as non-fiction people. Give me a good story and I'm yours forever.

8. Always be nervous of a writer who talks about their main character as if they just had dinner with them. Kind of creeps me out. Oh I know they flush their characters out so they can write about them more realistically but come on people--a nineteen year-old blond who operates a backhoe by day and solves mysteries in her tiny Idahoan town by night while packing seventeen guns and looking to avenge the murder of her family by the Japanese mafia when she was six? You start thinking they're real and you're ready for the couch. Oh and every detective or protagonist needs a good, strong Irish (maybe Scottish in a pinch) name like Cork O'Connor, Kinsey Millhone, Annie Kincaid, Mitch McDeer, etc. Everyone. Can't find bad guys without an Irish name.

9. Bouchercon was a great place for people-watching. The majority of attendees were women between the ages of 50 and 60, short hair, lots of book bags and purses, a little on the heavy side, who spend an inordinate amount of time with their cats.

10. But there were exceptions. You had the occasional person going for the "tortured artist" look--like Jason Starr, a writer I'd never heard of who looked so tortured and full of demons that he decided I didn't exist at the registration table and was justified in cutting in front of me in line. Thanks. I'll be sure to pick up your book.

11. And the vixens, don't forget the vixens. You also had the occasional sexy writer which came in two varieties: the sixty-five year-old Annie Lennox and the seventy-five year-old who didn't realize she's past the expiration date on her jeans. All very serious about their books.

12. In fact Bouchercon would be a great setting for a murder mystery. All those characters, all those experts, it's just begging for a story. Who killed the annoying fan? Was it the ex-Navy seal-turned-writer or the cat lady? In the end it would probably turn out to the be the tuna salad because . . .

13. No one goes to conventions for the food. It was like an airlines meal, back when they were "good." Or when they at least existed. Yes, that chicken on "foccacia" that I had would have killed anyone.

But even though this may sound as if I'm being pretty snotty and sarcastic, it wasn't a bad conference. I was particularly interested in what I saw from Poisoned Pen Press--can I say again that Barbara Peters was terrific?

***

Time to start thinking about your entry for this month's Write-Away Contest: the theme is "what scares me."

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36 comments:

Caffienated Cowgirl said...

Okay, that's just a riot! I've always wanted to go to one of those...and now I really do - simply to people watch! I'm such a bookworm, but I've never stopped to think what my favorite authors look like. Guess they can't all be like Kathy Reichs, with an interesting job AND a tv series about her work :o)

Sandy Carlson said...

The Vixens line cracked me up. I have been to such conferences. So often the best part of them for this misfit is to go for a walk! Thanks for an entertaining, insightful description of this event!

My TT is at

http://slcthoughts.blogspot.com

Chris said...

LOL! I love it!

Oh and *whispers* I didn't think The Da Vinci Code was the worst thing in the world either. But don't tell anyone. ;)

Bloggers said...

Great post.

My 13 is up on
Working at Home Mom

Nap Warden said...

I would be out of my league at a writers conference. Sounds like there were some characters there. FWIW, I liked DaVinci Code and Harry Potter as well!

Megan (FriedOkra) said...

Ha! I just love you. I really enjoyed this post so much - I feel enlightened but not surprised by assessments like: "The stories that get the awards are the hardboiled, "realistic" crime fiction--almost entirely written by men--and cozies or the stories without the graphic violence, sex and ugliness get patted on the head and told to sit by the fire with a cup of tea." Exactly what I would have expected, but the way you said it was absolutely PERFECT. Who ARE some of your favorite authors in this genre? Any good "cozies" for Fall/Winter fireside reading?

Maddy said...

Ooo I'm very jealous. Did you go because you read them, because it's near, because it's fun or because you have your own manuscript?
Best wishes

Mama Luxe said...

You know, I've heard of Poisoned Pen Press before...can't recall why or where.

Although I wish it were different (as I hope to write longer works some day and get them published), I do get why the publishing houses don't give unrepresented authors more of a fair shake.

It is just a question of resources--and they get so very many unsolicited manuscripts. Giving the "slush pile" less of a look over is just a sorting mechanism. Someone with an agent took the time and effort to get one and also got someone else to believe she was worth the time and effort. Not to say that it is the only or the best way to sort--just that they have limited resources and it is a way to get through those piles.

As far as blogs and self-publishing...I'm not going to go into what I've been tossing around in my head about blogging since I'm still trying to decide exactly what I think about it (in terms of whether or not it is "writing" and if it is a good way to go about "be a writer" -- whatever that means). However, with self-publishing, I think that has been around a long time and I don't think it will ever be the best way to publish--just my opinion.

A funny and interesting post--thanks for sharing it with us!

Janet said...

Thank you for the "didn't realize her jeans were past the expiration date" line. I'm still laughing.

There is a mystery writer whose name I can't recall but her character is call Jane Jeffries and along about book 15 or so she had Jane write a mystery novel and go to a writer's conference. It sounded a lot like what you described.

Janet said...

And oh yes, I love, love, love Harry Potter. And I enjoyed the Da Vinci code.

Scribbit said...

Maddy--I just went because it was in town and I was nursing my wounds after being unable to attend Blogher this summer :)

I enjoy mysteries though and went to the Left Coast convention back in 2001 when it was here in town as well, though I was newer to writing back then so I think that one proved to be more informative for me. A lot of the stuff I heard here was stuff I already knew.

Mama Luxe, you're absolutely right about why agents serve a purpose, nowadays EVERYONE has a manuscript and editors are swamped. I attended a panel discussion with a group of editors and was just surprised at the contrast between the older, more experienced editor (Barbara Peters) working for a small publishing house and the younger women working for the bigger guys in NYC. Interesting.

qofd said...

OMG, this post had me laughing so hard. Probably harder than I should have been, but still. Writers are a different breed are they not? And then you start on a novel and realize that you are becoming a different breed too, and try to steer your brand of crazy away from people like the person described in #8.

Does this comment make sense? Need more coffee.

Marie said...

My impression of the Da Vinci code is that it was a great book, which was terribly written. I think it could have been better, epic even. Nothing wrong with Harry though. If Rowling is indeed writing a mystery novel as has been rumored, those writers were probably reacting out of fear and envy.

Jenna said...

Great imagery in this post. I could see the whole thing, though I've never attended a conference like this. Would be SO much fun! And in Anchorage, to boot!

Nicholas said...

Obviously I shall have to change the name of the detective hero of the story I’m about to write. From what you say, Wolfgang Lopez just won’t cut it. And I am very nervous about writers who get too involved with their characters, or talk about them as though they have real lives. They are just invented people in a story, and they will do what you tell them to, not the other way around. I meta writer a few years ago who went on and on about how his characters tell him how the story should go, and I was reminded of a film I once saw about a ventriloquist who was under the spell of his dummy.

Damozel said...

This is the best post on writers and writing I've read in years...the sheer realism (and the idea for a novel---why don't you write it?---) just rocked. Love the description of the demon-infested writer whose book you (and now I) WON'T be buying.

Denise Patrick said...

Sounds like you had a good time. And, I can say that I saw the same thing at RWA! Isn't it funny how much these conference are so much alike?

Happy TT!

Chief Family Officer said...

LOL at the whole post and especially b/c our book club picked a Cormac McCarthy book and I was letting my husband read it first. But he gave up after a couple of pages, reading me a sentence that went something like this: "I lifted the binoculars and glassed over the dessert." There was probably more to it, but we immediately returned the book to Borders!

Babystepper said...

Not very encouraging news for those of us who would like to someday, maybe, possibly, conceivably write mysteries.

Theresa Bakker said...

That's the best coverage of a writer's conference I've ever read. Funny and smart and real. Well done. I love your comment about the publishing world in blog-nial. When will they realize the revolution is already over. Can't wait to read your best seller, "The Butcher of Bouchercon." Go with Poisoned Pen Press. Not because I know anything about them. Just love the name.

phyllis said...

i love #12 and think you're just the one to write that book...knock their socks off:-) thanks for the great post.

My Ice Cream Diary said...

How fun. I love people watching and that sounds like a great group to watch. Thanks for sharing it with us.

Deb - Mom of 3 Girls said...

Oh that sounds like a great place for people-watching and you describe it so well I feel like I was there... :) You really made me laugh!

Oh and I love DaVinci Code and Harry Potter too... :)

Nora Bee said...

Hello! At least I know I have until I'm at least 50 to write my great novel :-). That takes the pressure off!

pussreboots said...

I'm giggling at #1. Happy TT.

Loralee Choate said...

I loved, loved, loved this post. You nailed it right on.

I always wanted to write a book until so many authors I encountered turned me off the experience (I had enough drama working in opera, thanks). I find that blogging is the perfect venue for me, anyway.

I would have loved that conference. Mysteries are my favorite genre, I think.

Joan said...

I think I could enter this post in your "what scares me" contest -- this conference scares me! Glad you had a good time, though.

subarctic mama said...

Thanks for this. It's such an accurate picture of the business side of writing. Perhaps that's why I've fled to the world of poetry, where there's no cash at stake. Oddly, everyone seems to act the same way.

Mary@notbefore7 said...

Too bad about the food.

I like harry Potter myself...

Gloria said...

I sort of suspected number 9 would be the case, though I've never been to an event like this before. Haha!

Kathy in WA said...

What a fascinating conference! Are you working on a novel?? Do tell. Would you go again??

Duckabush Blog

the Brave said...

Sounds extrememly entertaining. Lots of egos by the sounds.

JAM said...

4. It was funny when the writers and editors puzzled over the decline in reading.

Yeah, stage coach drivers were the same way 100 years ago about that flash-in-the-pan horseless carriage.

As I read this I was thinking that it must have been a great place to people watch, but then you covered that too.

Karen Olson said...

It's interesting to hear impressions from someone who's on the outside, so to speak. I write mysteries, and I've been to two Bouchercons, along with various other mystery conferences. Are we mystery writers really that insufferable?

As per agents/editors: anyone writing today needs an agent, unless he wants to self-publish, which someone here did say might not be a good idea and I completely agree for many reasons.

As for blogging not being a good thing, I don't know who ISN'T blogging these days so I'd be interested to know who said that.

All con food sucks.

The literary vs. genre question: always debated. I love Harry Potter and enjoyed DaVinci Code while I was reading it.

Poisoned Pen Press: I know a lot of authors published by them. They treat authors okay, no better or worse than any other publisher.

What intrigues me about your post is the general feeling that mystery authors are worse than others. I think it's just that "literary" authors don't have conferences so you don't see them all in one place at once to get an impression of them as a whole.

I know a lot of mystery authors who are humble and a lot of fun and great writers. (Jason Starr is really a nice guy, I don't know why he cut ahead of you.) We spend a lot of our time alone, in front of the computer, and if we write series, these characters really do start to seem real to us. That's why we have to go to conferences and talk to other people like us, because then we'd think we really were cracking up.

The next time I go to a conference, though, I'm going to make sure to check my appearance so a fan won't call the What Not to Wear people on me :)

Scribbit said...

No, not insufferable at all, but I did think it was pretty funny to sit in on one panel run by writers who thought editors were falling down on the job by not reading their books thoroughly enough and then to sit in on another panel of editors who complained that writers weren't sending them enough info about their books for the editors to do their work properly.

And I saw your web site, you look wonderful! No fashion police on you! :)

I'll have to give Jason Starr another chance, maybe he was just having a bad hair day :)

Binoculars said...

Thanks for the information.I read the book.