Making Conventions Work

Pari Noskin Taichert

Yesterday morning when the hotel alarm clock screamed at 5 am, I felt hostile. I’d only gone to bed a few hours before, and had had a few more scotches than advisable, and, um, well . . . had read before I went to sleep. Had the trip to Mayhem in the Midlands (which, btw, is a great con) been worth it?

By the time I got to the airport, I knew the answer was "yes."

During the convoluted airplane journey home from Omaha via Phoenix to Albuquerque (get out your maps, this makes no sense whatsoever), in the middle of a particularly unsettling batch of turbulence, I began to think about why I go to mystery conventions . . . and why I like them so much.

Sure, I could write another article similar to the one about book signings — but most of my reasons would simply echo that earlier piece ("Il Faut Cultiver Votre Jardin"–Murderati, May 22). That’d be a cop out.

Instead, I want to share some of the things I do to make my convention experiences so consistently enjoyable — and worthwhile. I’m framing these ideas into suggestions — tips, if you will — that I hope will enhance your experience, too.

Physical

1. Get out of the host hotel.  Give yourself the pleasure of breathing nonrecycled air; you’ll feel healthier for it. Plus you might get to go dancing at a blues club — like I did in Omaha.

2. Find the gym. If you know where it is, you might even decide to use it. Hey, I did . . . once.

3. Get some sleep/take naps. Darn! I knew there was something I forgot to do at Mayhem this weekend.

4. Drink enough water. I’m talking about the stuff with no color or flavoring. Coffee doesn’t count. Neither does scotch — or wine. What was I saying? Oh, yeah, "drink water." You’ll feel better if you do.

5. Travel with food. Oh, I know this sounds as obvious as the water one but, believe me, traveling with a little decent food — and this doesn’t mean chocolate and Smarties (I use a good trail mix and turkey jerky [for protein]) — can keep you from being exhausted before you even arrive at the event.

Professional

1. Find the bar. I’m not saying you have to drink alcohol here — (remember the water? Well, you can get in a couple of gallons while hanging out). Many of my best exeperiences at conventions have happened in the bar when a group of people gather and I get to meet, and get to know, folks that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to speak with in another context.

Etiquette point: schmoozing — while in the audience during panels and presentations is gauche.

2. Prepare for panels. If you’re an author, think about the subject before you walk into the room, puh leeze. If you’re a reader, have a couple of questions in mind. Everyone will benefit.

3. Curb your desperation. Okay, authors, if you want people to read your books, don’t badger them (either on a panel by only talking about your work or in the bar when it’s socializing time).

Readers? You’ll get to meet the writers you want to meet — and spend pleasant time with them — if you remember they’re just people, too.

(Reality check: I’ve never actually had anyone fawn over me, so I don’t know if this is unpleasant or not . . . um, maybe one of you out there could give me a sort of test fawning experience and I could tell you, really, if it bothered me. I’ll be at Murder in the Grove in  . . . oh, waitaminute, I think I’m missing my own warning at the beginning of this section. Sorry.)

4. Don’t worry about attending all the panels. Authors, you can’t (unless you plan to ditch your own panel — and that’s usually ill-advised).

Readers, you’ll be miserable if you obsess too much about getting to all the panels. Some of the best experiences at conventions happen spontaneously and it’d be a shame to feel compelled to stick to the program simply because you think you have to.

5. Be thankful. Yeah, I know it sounds groovy, but it makes so much sense.

Be thankful for the volunteers who put on the convention — people like Sally Fellows, Evelyn Whitehill, Doris Ann Norris (all pictured below), Lori and Tim Hayes and many others who give their time so freely so that we can all enjoy ourselves.

Be thankful for booksellers for carrying your books — and for carrying books you like.

Be thankful for readers (we’d all better be readers) for sharing their enthusiasm, buying books, talking about books . . .

Be thankful for authors for attending conventions, sitting on panels, and NOT hiding in their rooms (or being mean or snobby or whatever . . .) and for offering their perspectives.

Related to this is: Be nice (to hotel staff and others. It’ll just make you feel so good.)

6.  Take the time to listen. This relates to the desperation warning in #3 of this section. No one has to be "on" all the time. Plus, you might learn something important.

6A. Remember that other people are listening to you. Gossip can be so damn fun, so, go ahead and do a little of it. Don’t get too carried away with spreading nasties about other people though. If you do, you’ll become known for being mighty nasty yourself (okay, "nasty" can be cool in some contexts — just not this one).

7. Take time to debrief after the convention. I think it helps to tell someone about the time spent at a particular convention soon after the fact. It gives the adventure substance and brings order to the chaos of this overwhelming experience. That, in turn, allows our brains to synthesize and own the moments we cherished and want to remember.

Conversely, if we did something stupid — like gossiping too much, for example — this might be the perfect moment to see if we can repair some of the damage.

La Politesse (Politeness)

1. Talk with people you don’t know. Hey, we’ve all been there — strangers in a strange land. It feels horrid. Once you’ve got a group of friends, why not expand it by one or two?

2. Be inclusive. See #1 in this section. When a group gets too clique-y, it has the effect of hurting others, of making them feel less important. Do we really want to do that to each other (authors? readers?)?

Of course, several of the previously-mentioned points could go in this section as well — it’s always wise to be thankful, to listen rather than badger, to give other people a chance to speak — but I’ll assume that being polite comes naturally to most of you.

That’s it for the tips.

Below are a few photos taken at Mayhem. Pardon the quality — I’m just learning how to use the digital camera . . . and am even more challenged when it comes to inserting pix in this blog. But, someday, I’ll be as competent as Ms. Hirahara and Mr. Wood. I promise.

At Mayhem, I had two panels. The first one — Hooks & Gimmicks was sparsely attended in the beginning, but that didn’t stop us from having fun — or me from demonstrating one of Sasha’s odd flaws.

P1010009  Yeah, I know it’s dark, but you can see from l. to r. — Doris Ann Norris (moderator and librarian extradordinaire), Lee Killough, me with whipped cream, and Maureen Robb. Not in this picture is the wonderful Radine Trees Nehring. (I think her hubby, John, took this picture. Thanks, John.)

P1010012

From l. to r. — Donna Andrews, Sally Fellows (reviewer and Mayhem volunteer) and Susan McBride.

P1010014 You can just feel the merriment in the air, can’t you? This is taken in the bar. See what I mean?

L. to r. Maria Y. Lima and Evelyn Whitehill (Evelyn is an active volunteer at Mayhem and one great lady).

P1010017 I was terrified of blowing the interview with Toastmaster Denise Hamilton. My worries faded the minute she opened her mouth and started telling all of her fascinating stories.

20 thoughts on “Making Conventions Work

  1. Lorraine T.

    Great post. I’ve never been to a convention, (sorta shy & leery of crowds) but I am fascinated by them, bug members of discussion groups about what happens, etc. Just now I’m hampered by care-taking responsibilites, but someday…And when that day comes, I’ll be prepared because of posts like this one.Thanks!

    Reply
  2. Elaine

    Brava, Pari! Great advice and tips about convention going. So many people feel overwhelmed by the crowds-especially if they attend alone. Best thing to remember is they’re there because they love mystery and so does everyone else-so meeting others is really much easier then they might think. As you pointed out – ‘just say hello’. Before you know it, you’ll feel right at home. And don’t be shy about going right up to a writer and saying hello either – hell, we’d feel unwanted if you didn’t!

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  3. Pari

    Lorraine,Even if you’re shy, you oughta try one close to home . . . just to know what they’re about. A smaller one would be best because they tend to be more welcoming — and you don’t feel lost like you can at something like Bouchercon.

    Neil, it was great to meet you. Is that how they spell “chili” in the Gulf Coast? We spell it “chile” in NM.

    J.T., you’ll do great at Thrillerfest. You’ll be so excited and high because of your book deal — and meeting writers you’ve always wanted to meet — you’ll have a blast. Plus, you’ll get to hang with Elaine. You, lucky dog.

    Elaine, we missed you! If you want to know how to behave at a convention, you could just observe Elaine for a while and you’d learn everything you need to know.

    Reply
  4. Pari

    Damn, Neil,I just went to your website and saw that promise you made for Mayhem. If only I’d known. Maybe I’ll take you up on it at Con Misterio.

    Reply
  5. Beatrice Brooks

    Great post, Pari. I’ve been “conferencing” since 1993 — in fact, I moderated the Malice humour panel this year and will be moderating the “paranormal mystery” panel this weekend at Murder In The Grove. The part of your blog I really zeroed in on, however, was your remark about cliques. It’s so easy to gravitate toward people you know, but how much more fun to get to know new people. All too often I’ve seen a clique of authors close ranks like a football huddle. All too often I’ve heard small-press authors express diappointment (okay, let’s tell it like it is: hurt feelings) at their exclusion. At my first conference, Harlan Coben (THE Harlan Coben)told me I looked lost (Lord have mercy, I FELT lost). Without knowing who my publisher was (Walker) or anything about my book (Throw Darts at a Cheesecake), Harlan introduced himself and suggested I join his group of friends for dins. I’ve never forgotten that. I became an instant Coben fan (it helps that his Bolitar mysteries are so damn good ) and I’ve tried to follow his example.Deni

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  6. Patty Smiley

    And one more thing…come prepared to offer first-aid advice. While I was out on one of those recommended walks, I twisted my ankle. When Dr. Pari saw me limping back to base camp she prescribed ice (for the ankle) and Scotch (for me). It worked like a charm.

    Reply
  7. Pari

    Deni,That’s a great story about Harlan. Wow. We’ll have to be mindful when we’re at MintheGrove.

    And, what Patty isn’t telling everyone is that I flipped into mommy mode and got rather obnoxious until she put ice on the injury. Between being a mom and doing Tae Kwon Do (and getting too many injuries myself), I wasn’t about to let her go through an entire convention limping and in pain.

    Reply
  8. Elaine

    Thank you, Pari – for the kind words. But, uh…if anyone wants to follow me around – I’ll be easy to find. Just head for the bar.

    Reply
  9. JDRhoades

    Excellent advice, Pari, and I wish I’d taken it in regards to sleep. But it’s hard when the conversations are so fascinating.

    To me, that’s the best part…being around so many bright, witty people who like to talk as much as I do.

    This was my first Mayhem. I really enjoyed it, and it was nice meeting you, however briefly.

    Reply
  10. Naomi

    Pari–

    It sounds like you gave Ms. Hamilton a proper grilling! And coming to the first aid of Smiley–you are indeed Super MW. Sasha would be proud.

    So, a few days of rest, and then Idaho, right? Did you know that Boise is one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S.? I don’t think Southern Californians are too popular there right now, because they’ve been buying up property in droves.

    Give us the skinny on Murder in the Grove. Should be interesting.

    p.s. The photos look maaaarvelous, BTW. I especially love the first one, where your mouth forms a perfect sideways capital D. You were having a great time!

    Reply
  11. Pari

    JD,It was great to meet you, too. I know what you mean about sleep. Sheesh. Also, with that huge thunder/lightning storm on Friday night, I hardly could sleep. Of course, that was because I was so excited to see rain; it’s a rarity in NM right now.

    Naomi, I didn’t put the obscene picture of me with the whipped cream.

    Re: Boise, I’m really looking forward to it. I think I’ll write a little about the con next week and a lot about my 3 minutes of television fame on “Good Morning Live!” on the ABC affiliate there. I have to be perky at 5:50 am — with whipped cream can in tow.

    I really do have no shame.

    Reply
  12. Troy Cook

    Pari doesn’t just talk the talk, she admirably follows her own guidelines. At Malice Domestic, she went out of her way to invite me into the clique. It was much appreciated.

    Reply
  13. Iden Ford

    Smaller conferences are more intimate. I know, this is a bland observation, but I am always fascinated in the people who attend these things. Last year I took my camera and shot up a storm at Magna Cum Murder, as I will do again this year. I was so fascinated with these two women who did needlepoint the whole weekend and at every panel that I was at and that they attended. I took a lot of shots of them and there is one on my blog from last October (look up October) http://idenford.blogspot.comAnyway, I love your posts, but tell your photographer to put the red eye removal indicator on their flash. Everyone looks rather vampiric otherwise, unless this was a horror con as well. All my best Pari. Iden

    Reply
  14. Pari

    Troy,I expect that soon you’ll be so beloved that it’ll be me wanting in your clique . . . actually, I just think that those of us who are a tad further on this crazy road have a responsibility to help those just starting out. Now, it helps when the person is a delight — as you are.

    And, Iden, thank you for the photo tip; I’ll do it next time — or at least I’ll try. I’m just excited that I managed to figure out how to get the photos on the darn blog.

    Reply
  15. John Orman

    Pari:

    Great summary of “The Rules” for mystery conventions! Maybe someday I will have a chance to put them into operation–at least as an attendee. We need more such conventions in little old New Mexico. Looks like one of closest is “Con Misterio” in Texas–their website is complete with “our” New Mexico Kokopelli!

    John Orman

    Reply
  16. Susan McB

    Pariiiii! It was so fun to see you at Mayhem, although I think, next time, you need to do a workshop on “Belly Dancing for Stressed-Out Authors.” I’ll be the first to sign up, although I doubt I can ever make my tummy roll a quarter. Sending a big hug and looking forward to seeing you again.

    Reply
  17. M_eHart

    Pari:

    Thanks for a great recap that both made me feel as though I’d attended Mayhem in some way, and also made me determined to actually make it some year soon! (esp. if Susan McBride follows through on the belly dancing!)

    Reply

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