Friday, September 05, 2008

The Pros of Cons

Since Annette wrote so eloquently about the upcoming (in May) Pennwriters conference just a few days ago, I thought I’d chime in with my own conference story.

I had occasion to go to a con just a couple of weekends ago, right here in Nashville. (It helps a lot when they’re in driving distance. No plane ticket, no hotel to pay for. Cuts down on costs, and I have lots of those right now, with starting to do PR for FATAL FIXER-UPPER as well as keeping up with two mortgages.)

The conference is called Killer Nashville, and it was, I think, the third annual. I went last year too, although then I went as myself, and sat in the back of the room taking notes. The most significant thing that happened was that I met Rhonda Pollero, who writes a wonderfully funny series of girl-mysteries. (KNOCK OFF and KNOCK’EM DEAD, if anyone’s interested. Suitable for fans of Janet Evanovich or Donna Andrews or Nancy Martin. Light, humorous, fast-paced.)

Rhonda wasn’t there this year, because she had—I think—three or four or maybe five books to write in 2008. Some ungodly number, anyway. So, taking her place on the humor panel was—you guessed it—yours truly. Or more accurately, my public persona, Jennie Bentley. She who has the book contract and the exciting life, while I spend my days hunched over the keyboard pounding out her words.

Cons are different when you’re a published—or soon to be published—author. Suddenly, because you’re sitting at the front of the room instead of at the back, and there’s a book in front of you on the table, you’re significant in some way you weren’t last year. People who wouldn’t give you the time of day then, crowd in to hear what you have to say. The problem, of course, is that you probably don’t know a whole lot more than you did a year ago, and you don’t feel very significant at all.

Case in point:

My first panel was called “Depth Charge—using subplots to create depth.” I know—of course I know!—that it’s possible, even desirable, to create depth with subplots. A book without a subplot or two is too linear. Even romances and thrillers have subplots of sorts, and mysteries, being more intricate, often have several. When it came time to explain the subplot in my own first book, though, I was brought up short. Was the romance the subplot? Or the historical mystery? The relationship between the protagonist and her ex-boyfriend? Or maybe the whole home renovation angle was the subplot? Did I even have a subplot, because frankly, it felt more like I had a tangle of strands, snarled into a cat’s cradle...?

The second panel I did was on beginnings and endings. “Start with a Punch, End with a Bang.” It went a little better, probably because I was warmed up by then, but also because it was my local Sisters-in-Crime sponsored panel, and I knew all the other panelists already. (Note to self, and to anyone else who might find the information useful: Get to know other panelists beforehand next time.) Also, I had recently put together a blog post on what I personally think are great beginnings, so I did know a little about that part of it, if nothing else.

Two days later came the “Humor in Mysteries” panel, and once again, I felt very much out of my depth. I’m not naturally funny. I don’t tell jokes very well. I don’t like it when people look at me. I especially don’t like it when they look at me and laugh. And I was on this panel with some truly wickedly funny people. People who could explain to the audience exactly what was funny about their books. While I had to resort to getting a laugh from saying, “I have no idea what I’m doing here. I’m sure I didn’t sign up for this.”

All in all, though, I had a wonderful time. I met some nice people, and sat in on some great panels that other people led. More significant people. How to write historical mysteries, writing for children and young adults—I’ve got an idea for a YA mystery series I’m playing with—the art of editing, and the art of the page turner. And of course the sex-panel—every conference has one—is always good for a laugh, although 8:30 in the morning might have been a little early for a discussion about erotica and BDSM. Still, how can you not love a panel where you get to use expressions like ‘the purple python of love’?

So what about you? Are you a conference hound? Do you go to panels when you go, or do you just spend the time in the bar, hanging out and drinking... um, networking? Do you participate in panels? If so, do you have any tricks for helping the rest of us perform well? And which is your favorite panel? Do you enjoy the sex-panel, too?

(And if you’re in driving distance, the Southern Festival of Books is coming up here in Nashville the 10th-12th of October. 30,000 visitors, 250+ writers, three days of workshops and panels—all free! Click here for more info. I’ll be there. Will you?)

6 comments:

Tory said...

Unlike you, Jennie, I LIVE to hear people laugh (with me or at me, I don't really care.) I went to visit the wife of a friend of mine who was in intensive care at the time and got her laughing so hard she was literally lying on the table.

I felt I'd found my true calling.

No, I haven't done any panels. I did a solo presentation at Pennwriters' once which, I think, is easier. Panels SEEM like they're less work but, in fact, I think they're harder to pull off.

Annette said...

I'm with Tory. I like to make people laugh. And if it's intensional, I can convince myself that they're laughing at my joke and not my haircut.

I did one panel at the 2007 Pennwriters Conference on how to get an agent, since that's the extent of my "expertise" at this point. Joyce was on it. So was Kathy MH. Actually, they kept adding people to it, so we had almost more people on the panel than in the audience. (That's one of those jokes. You can laugh now.) It went off pretty well, but with so many people on it, I didn't have to say much.

I love conferences, just can't afford very many. My big splurge this year is going to Bouchercon next month.

Joyce said...

Annette, I was glad there were so many people on that panel because I didn't have to say much. Put me in front of a group and I stumble all over my words. Maybe I just need more practice.

Jennie, it sounds like Killer Nashville is a great conference. Don't they have some kind of novel writing contest too?

Jennie Bentley said...

Good for you, Tory. Your self-esteem must be healthier than mine!

Annette, at the 8 AM 'writing for children and young adults' panel on Sunday, there were four panelists plus the moderator, and three of us in the audience. It was a very nice time!

Joyce, I don't know about the novel writing contest, but there was the Silver Falchion award for best book by a participant, which went to Don Bruns (moderator for my 'humor in mysteries' panel, and a very funny guy). He pointed out that the inscription on the Silver Falchion was in gold...

Wilfred Bereswill said...

I'll be on my first panel at Bouchercon. Annette, I hope you stop by. I'm already working at figuring out exactly what will be asked.

"DREAM POLICE (Cheap Trick) Law enforcement in novels, fact vs. fiction. Caroline Todd(M), Wilfred Bereswill, Stephen Booth, Stuart MacBride, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Andy Straka"

I'm hoping to land at least one panel at Magna Cum Murder in Muncie, In. in Oct. The last conference I went to, I had just signed my contract. I was SO MUCH more relaxed than previous conferences.

Maybe if I could land a Panel Assignment at Pennwriters, ahem...

Jennie Bentley said...

Oooh, nicely done, Will!