Conventional Behaviour

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.

And me.

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.

In Baghdad.

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?

34 thoughts on “Conventional Behaviour

  1. B.G. Ritts

    #1’s how I meet Pari — I think one of us dropped something and the other helped pick up. #5/6’s how I learned about Louise — she was on an early Sunday morning panel at B’con that I attended because another author on the panel and I frequent the same newsgroup.

    A #10 could be to donate something to the charity auction — that’s how I learned about you, Zoë. The Madison B’con had a ‘go to the range’ with you package that Judy Watford won. Her win was the highlight of the auction.

  2. Zoe Sharp

    Hi there!

    I *knew* I’d forget something!

    Yes, the auction at B’con was a lot of fun. And the trip to the range was a blast, if you’ll excuse the pun. Judy was so good with a handgun that the guys brought out an MP5 submachine gun for her to play with.

    The most interesting thing, though, was other people’s reaction to the prospect of a blind woman going shooting. Said a lot about them, I felt …

  3. Louise Ure

    Zoë, having shared a panel with you at B’con (Chicago, right?), I can attest what a great guest speaker you are. Generous with your panel mates, interesting and smart. Your suggestions here are spot on.

    Can’t wait to hear about Baghdad. You’re going to do it, aren’t you?

  4. Rae

    I’d add one other point. There are always a number of first-timers at these things…if you see someone looking lost and confused, pay it forward a bit, introduce yourself, and maybe get them pointed in the right direction. It’s scary to attend a conference for the first time, and a friendly word or an offer to go together to a panel can make all the difference between a good conference experience and bad one.

  5. Zoe Sharp

    Hi David. Yes, you would have thought not being rude to fans was a given, but I’ve heard about authors who are so thoroughly unpleasant at signings that people have come back later and asked for a refund on their books.

    PLBW – sorry, I’m missing the meaning of this one – can anyone translate?

    And Louise, that’s so nice of you, thank you. I really enjoyed the panel we did together – must do it again soon.

    All the time I’m speaking on a panel, though, I’ve got this little voice in my head going “Enough! Shut up!” The best short answer I heard to a panel question was Laura Wilson at Harrogate. (Her new book, Stratton’s War is out on Feb 21, by the way.) She was asked where she got the inspiration for the more dysfunctional and bizarre of her characters. She just smiled and said, “My family.”

  6. Zoe Sharp

    Hi Rae. Sorry, your comment appeared between me reading the other comments and posting my reply. Didn’t mean to leave you out.

    I thought one of the nice things about ThrillerFest last year was the buttons that denoted a first-time author or attendee. I always try and talk to newbies if I can spot them – like I said, I remember how great it was to have Meg to show me the ropes at Sleuthfest.

  7. Ken Bruen

    ZoeHow sharp thou artsorry, it’s been one of those daysI love conventionsHow could I NotIt’s how I got to meet youand……….you even gave me your card!!!Meeting the readers is a total joy, someone paid over twenty bucks for your book and wants you to sign it…….how terrific is thatfor me, hanging with mystery writers is the best company and family I knowI hope Andy will be able to laugh at our next meeting, I still carry some guilt over that am………….Galway dinnerGreat postKen

  8. PJ Parrish

    Hey Zoe,

    Good entry…made me chuckle.

    I was chairing SleuthFest the year you came and I remember you were a late entry, so to speak. The programming chair Diane Vogt and I scoped you out, saw that infamous picture of you in your trench and gun and said, hey, we want her between Rozan and Parker!

    Seriously, you were great fun and more than held your own with the Grand Master. Even though the panel was about private eyes…

    Re: writers who like to go bowling during cons: These folks quickly get a rep of “not playing well with others.” When conferences are put together, especially in the picking of Guests of Honor, the willingness to mingle with attendees of all stripes is a prime consideration. Give me a midlist charmer over a bestselling prima donna any day.

    As for “crummy” panel slots: at SF, Barry Eisler moderated the Sunday morning panel and served mimosas and bagels. Considering how generous and witty Barry is at this gig, it was the best panel of the conference.

    And you are so right: Don’t close the bar the night before your Sunday morning panel at Boucheron. I will never make that freshman mistake again…

  9. Zoe Sharp

    Ken, meeting you was a joy also, and I, too, still have the card you gave me, pride of place.

    Next time we’re in Galway – and it will be soon – dinner’s on us. Providing Andy hasn’t just come out of surgery again, of course …

    PJ, meeting Robert B Parker was wonderful, but I never got the impression that he and SJ needed keeping apart in any way !?! And I was sitting between Parker and Jonathan King, which made me feel somewhat … short in stature, in many ways.

    Getting any panel is a bonus, so I don’t know about calling the early slots “crummy”. I’m always still running on UK time, so a 9am panel feels like a lazy start to me.

    And yes, confession time, I admit to still being in the bar at Harrogate until 4:30am with Stuart MacBride and Russel ‘Badger’ McLean, but I was mainly drinking coffee, so remained stone-cold sober throughout.

    Ah, that reminds me. Eye-drops – there’s another must-bring for conventions…

  10. JDRhoades

    Excellent points, Zoe. I confess, I often commit the sin of using cons to meet up and hang with people I already know, and I did go walkabout quite a bit at Thrillerfest. What can I say, it was my first trip to New York.In my defense, I do try to hit panels my friends are on, especially early ones. I know the sinking feeling that comes with the 9AM Sunday slot.

  11. Zoe Sharp

    Thanks Dusty. I remember going to your panel at ThrillerFest and, as I think I mentioned to you at the time, you just have *the* best voice for that kind of thing.

    Tell me, do you gargle regularly with bourbon and razor-blades? 😉

  12. pari noskin taichert

    Zoe,Your post is perfect for today. Thank you. I’m on my way to Murder in the Magic City tomorrow.

    And all of your points are perfect.

    One thing I’ve been trying to be more mindful of lately is the newness factor. When I see anyone sitting alone at breakfast or in the break room (unless he or she is deep in reading), I mosey on over and ask if I can join.

    Most of the time, the person is really grateful. Though I’m not shy, I know many people are and giving them an opportunity to connect is absolutely priceless. I love it.

    I also stopped strategizing, a long time ago, about whom I wanted to meet at these things. When I did that, I missed out on many gems.

    And, yes, B.G., that’s how we met and I thank my lucky stars for it. And, Zoe, I think that we met in L.A. at a writers’ conf. for Sisters in Crime. And, Louise, wasn’t it at a BCon or LCC and and and . . .

  13. toni

    Definitely appreciated people being so nice to a first timer. I think I spent 2/3rds of my first conference (ThrillerFest, Phoenix) gaping at the writers there that I admired. It took me a long time to get the nerve up to speak to anyone. Karen Dionne rescued me and introduced me to people, and I stood by Rob (who was taking photos) so I could learn who everyone was. And best of all, I stalked Dusty.

  14. Zoe Sharp

    Thanks for the comments, Pari. Can’t recall exactly where it was we first met, but don’t think I’ve done any conventions in LA. It’ll come to me, probably in the middle of the night!

    I can honestly say I’ve met some of the best people at these events, and it’s amazing how the scariest looking people are often the most friendly.

    Charles Benoit always looks so serious – it’s the shaved head that does it. We finally got a chance to talk properly at LCC in Bristol and I discovered he hadn’t been avoiding me (as I’d assumed) but he’d thought *I* looked too scary to approach.

    And if you get the chance to talk to Charles, grab it with both hands. He’s got some of the funniest stories I’ve ever heard. Particularly ask him about the job he had that required him to duct-tape his shirt to his underpants …

    Phoenix was a great convention to my mind, Toni, because although the bar area was restricted (always a drawback when there are writers gathered) it was so hot hardly anybody was tempted to leave the hotel complex.

    My only regret is that I don’t think we bumped into each other there. Note to self: Must try harder, must try harder …

  15. toni

    Thanks, Zoë, same here.

    Now I have got to hear that story about the duct tape.

    (Okay, and I have to admit, it was Rob’s singing voice that made me go stand over by him.) (You know, so I could shoot him if he started singing.)

  16. Zoe Sharp

    Toni, I’d hate to spoil it for you – you really need to hear that story from the source.

    Rob sings ?!?

    Stalk you, Dusty? We’ve been going through your trash for weeks …

  17. Zoe Sharp

    Alex, my husband tells me I can’t carry a tune in a bucket, so for me the answer is definitely a ‘Don’t Do It!’

    Having said that, before Andy and I met, I used to play classical and folk guitar and sing and write songs for a group who got together in our local pub. Fortunately, singing in such a location requires gusto more than ability … 😉

  18. JT Ellison

    Zoë,Sorry I’m late! I’ve had a lot going today.

    I remember hearing about the chick who was out shooting guns in Phoenix, and thinking, damn, I wish I was with HER!

    I loved meeting you in Phoenix, really enjoyed our time in New York, and can’t wait to do it all again. I’ve now been to three cons — about to do Magic City with Pari this weekend for my 4th — which will be the first time I’ve got a book to sign. I know that’s going to be overwhelming. But I’m so looking forward to the chance to meet some readers.

    Not that I don’t love you guys… I can stalk Dusty with the best of you.

  19. Zoe Sharp

    Have a great time in the Magic City – erm, isn’t that Disneyland?

    And yeah, shooting at the Scottsdale Gun Club was great. We got to play with an M16, pump-action shotgun and numerous handguns, including a .50 cal Desert Eagle. Cool!

    Andy organised it as part of my belated birthday present, and my friends bought me three belts of ammo to put through the Squad Assault Weapon. What more could a girl ask for?

  20. Tom, T.O.

    Excellent post, Zoe, and a much needed one. I loved Thrillerfest, Phoenix, and was most disillusioned by the one in NYC, for the reason of one of your points–failure to show for signings. In addition, the rudeness of so many people after the Saturday banquet who got up, moved to the back of the room and talked there so loudly our table (midway back) couldn’t hear Bob Levinson’s show. There are a few other reasons connected to the Fest why I won’t go this year, and will think twice before I go to one again (and I had stated that I was “adopting” Thrillerfest as an annual travel destination). I am most displeased that it is being held there a SECOND YEAR IN A ROW.

    I accept that autors would want to take advantage of being in NYC, but if they weren’t going to sign as planned, they should have made that known–fans would still have been disappointed, but wouldn’t have wasted time waiting around. Happily, only a few were wayward rascals, the rest of you were great. But those few lost my support.

    This year, the New Mysteries Festival in Owensboro, Kentucky, two weeks of fun and plays, and authors (Kaminsky, Levinson, J. W. Hall, et alii) for the cost of the three-day Thrillerfest!

    Best nearby place to eat in NYC, by the way: Grand Central Terminal Food Court–award winning food, great choices, and VERY inexpensive. Close to the action

  21. Zoe Sharp

    Hi Tom. You are one of the highlights of conventions, always 😉

    I know what you mean about ThrillerFest. I haven’t booked for it yet and I’m wavering, for many reasons.

    It being in NYC, though, is probably not one of them. Love the place!

    We, too, ate in Grand Central. The sushi place was great. And I can recommend breakfast at Les Halles. It was a short walk down Fifth, but fabulous food, remarkably reasonably priced. And Anthony Bourdain is or was head chef there, so there’s even a crime author connection.

  22. Ali

    Great post, and always enjoy spending time with you and Andy – but one tip that is as very, very important – get a plenty of sleep before arrival…..

  23. Cornelia Read

    What a wonderful array of tips, and I completely agree with your points in #9–coffee-spewingly funny, too.

    I don’t think I’ve ever left a convention yet to do off-site activities, no matter where they’re held (unless the con hotel bar is closed and I follow a group out and about to keep the conversation going).

    Seems to be more men who go offsite in your examples (bowling alley, etc.)? I think the main reason I stay put at these things is that I am SO HAPPY to be talking to Actual Grownups who care about books and crime and things that matter to me, that I can’t bear the idea of forgoing a second of it.

    Soon enough I’ll have to go home and be plagued by the laundry pile and the parking ticket and what to make for dinner, stuck in a bell-jar of non-mystery boredom/reality with a husband who thinks crime fic is tiresome dreck–an annoying “hobby” I tend to natter on about.

    Plus, the whole “just a reader” thing–any butthead author who EVER utters those words in that order deserves a good stomping, IMO. And I’d be happy to get the party started.

    I feel truly awful whenever a reader uses “just a” about her or himself. I want to grab them by the shoulders and launch into a deeply impassioned speech about how rare and wonderful ALL readers are.

  24. Zoe Sharp

    Hi Cornelia. The panel I did with you and Ken Bruen at B’con in Madison was one I’ll always remember. I don’t recall who suggested that we call it ‘One Ken and Four Barbies’. But I *do* remember that a certain person asked what on earth Ken was going to talk about with a group of female writers. “Lipstick?”

    I said to Ken at the time that I knew Max Factor made British Army camouflage cream, and was that what was meant?

    Oh, God, I hadn’t even considered there might be some sexist connotations to my examples. They were just the ones that sprang to mind. I will say that the most scarily drunk author I encountered at a convention was female, though. Does that help?

    And I know exactly what you mean about the “just” thing. You hold ’em down and I’ll hit ’em.

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