by Zoë Sharp
I enjoy going to conventions. Sounds pretty obvious, but I know not everybody does.
I went to my first one in the US almost by accident. We had some car photoshoots lined up in Daytona Beach, Florida around Spring Break, and discovered that Sleuthfest was the weekend after. It seemed rude not to go. I sought advice from Brit author Stephen Booth, who’d been to a lot of these things. He was encouraging, and got in touch with ex-pat author Meg Chittenden – once a Geordie (from the Northeast of England) but now living in Seattle.
I arrived at Sleuthfest not quite knowing what to expect, only to be pounced on by Meg who said Stephen had asked her to look after me. What a welcome. I can’t think of a nicer person to have holding your hand at such a time. And later, as a sign of this mutual affection, Meg and I would attempt to stab and strangle each other at other conventions all around the country. (Long story.)
Apart from Meg, and Rhys Bowen, I was the only Brit author at Sleuthfest that year. (And both those delightful ladies are now US residents, so I’m not entirely sure they qualify.) It was pretty clear that I was a bit of a novelty item as far as the organisers were concerned. I can’t think of any other reason why they put me on probably the best panel of the event, alongside guest of honour, Robert B Parker, and SJ Rozan, Jonathan King, and the PJ Parrishes – top quality award-winning, best-selling authors every last one of them.
I didn’t even have a US publisher at that point, and I realised part way through the introductions that nobody with any sense was going to be remotely interested in anything I had to say. So I did the only thing I could short of setting fire to the curtains. I kept it brief and made people laugh. And afterwards, I met the person who was to become my US editor.
So, since then I’ve been to quite a few such events, and the subject of which conventions the other ’Rati were going to this year cropped up just before Christmas. A few people commented about the ThrillerFest event in NYC – that they were keen to go because of its location, on the grounds that they could always slip out and explore the city while not actually taking part in a panel or a signing.
Now, part of me can understand this completely. I love New York. But if you’re going to bother registering for a convention and staying in the expensive Midtown hotel in the middle of the high season, what’s the point in not being there half the time? And it’s not just NYC that exerts this pull. I remember asking one very well-known author at Bouchercon in Chicago what he’d been doing all day, only to discover he’d spent most of it off in a bowling alley, away from the convention hotel. At Left Coast Crime in Bristol, one author I spoke to had spent the afternoon on his own at the cinema.
Am I missing something here?
It’s not like the best of the big players don’t hang out in the bar and chat. Lee Child is always approachable at these events, so is Jeffrey Deaver, Harlan Coben and, of course, our own Ken Bruen. And surely, if you’re just starting out, then spending some time around the lobby, the book room, the bar, is a golden opportunity to mix and mingle not just with other authors, editors and reviewers, but readers and potential readers as well. The people who go to conventions are, almost by definition, the most enthusiastic. If they like your books they will buy lots of them and recommend them vociferously to all who cross their path. Why would you not want to meet and talk to them?
I remember meeting a best-selling Brit author at one of my first conventions who looked down his nose at me and asked if I was "just a reader?" At the time, of course, I smarted just a little bit that he didn’t recognise my name, but afterwards I thought, how can you phrase it like that? All those ‘just’ readers are the ones who’ve given you your success. And disappearing for half the convention when people may well have paid to attend solely because they saw your name on the program is cheating yourself as well as them.
So, opening my mouth to change feet for the last time, here’s my two-penny-worth of advice for convention-goers this year:
1. DO spend as much time as you can in the public areas – you never know who you might bump into. If you want to play the Greta Garbo card, stay at home. Or if you really want to see the city, add a day or two onto the end. At least that way you don’t have to bother checking out on Sunday morning.
2. DO have a cover-all greeting just in case you’re introduced to someone whose name you don’t recognise and you don’t want to cause offence. My personal favourite is to ask, "So, what are you working on at the moment?" This is equally appropriate whether the answer is, "Oh, Spielberg’s asked me to put together the screenplay of my latest gazillion best-seller." Or, "Oh, no, no, I’m just a reader …"
3. DON’T, if someone asks the above question, give them a blow-by-blow account of your entire plot. The elevator pitch should be enough. If you’ve come up with something genuinely interesting, they’ll ask you to expand. If not, then simply telling them more about it will probably not help.
4. DON’T get totally rat-arsed in the bar every night. Yes, I know you’re there to enjoy yourself, but there are limits. This is a small industry. If you say or do something unforgivable, then being drunk is a very poor excuse.
5. DO make an effort to turn out for the early morning panels. Often the authors on them feel they’ve been handed the graveyard shift and it’s nice to give them a boost. And we don’t mind if you bring coffee and donuts!
6. DON’T, if you’ve been given one of the above panels, go out and do point #4, and then publicly complain that you’re not at your best. Those of us who’ve made the effort to come and hear you speak will feel insulted that you didn’t think we were worth staying sober for. And we’ll take our donuts away …
7. DO keep it short and sweet when you’re on a panel. Hogging the microphone, however witty you are, will not win you friends in the long run. Neither will starting every sentence with, "Well, my character does this …"
8. DON’T ask for a panel assignment if you don’t enjoy public speaking. If you’re better one-to-one, then just follow point #1 instead. You’ll probably make a better impression that way.
9. DON’T, if you’re asked to moderate a panel, have any contact at all with your fellow panellists before the event. Don’t learn how to pronounce their names if there’s any doubt about it. Don’t forewarn them of any questions you intend to ask. Don’t meet up more than five minutes before the panel start time to discuss tactics, that would make it far too easy for them. Don’t run the biogs you intend to read out to the audience past the panellists beforehand – after all, all the info on their websites will be bang up to date, won’t it? Don’t forget it’s essential to ask at least one highly embarrassing question, one totally irrelevant question – such as a piece of mental arithmetic – read out the most inappropriate out-of-context segment of a sex scene, pretend to take a phone call, or bring members of the audience out for a bit of a chat on an unrelated subject.
Oh, hang on, have I got that wrong … ? Not sure, because I’ve either been on, or been watching, panels were everything in point #9 has happened.
And those of you who disagree strongly with any of the above comments will no doubt be delighted to hear that a fellow Brit author has asked if I might like to take on one very unusual public speaking event this year.
Finally, my latest Word of the Week is plethora. A wonderful word that means an excessive fullness of blood. Can’t you tell I’ve just been writing about the victim of a long-range sniper?