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Conventional Behaviour

Getting Back Out There Again

May is here, and with it rapidly approaches my first crime writing festival since the pandemic.

CrimeFest in Bristol was first organised in 2008 and has become a fixture on the crime writing calendar. This year I am lucky enough to be the Toastrix for the gala dinner and awards ceremony on Saturday evening, as well as moderating the Thriller panel on Friday afternoon, and the Indie Alternative panel on Sunday morning.

I confess to being a little nervous this time around, and not just because I’m the first female toastmaster they’ve ever had – no pressure, then. It will be my first attendance at a large-scale gathering since lockdown began in 2020. I rather think I’m out of the habit of being in crowds.

I’ve just come back from a trip to London, where I got through half my bodyweight in hand sanitiser, and wore a respirator mask on the Underground – to the obvious bemusement of most of the other passengers. But, just because the daily infection and death rates are no longer at the top of the headlines, it doesn’t actually mean Covid-19 has entirely gone away.

That aside, I am cautiously looking forward to getting out there again. I do actually enjoy going to conventions and festivals, and I know not everybody does.

My first ever convention experience
I went to my first one, in the US, almost by accident. This was way back when I was still working as a photojournalist. I had some car photoshoots lined up in Daytona Beach, Florida around Spring Break, and discovered an event called 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) who moved to Seattle, WA.

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 for some years after this first meeting – as a sign of 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 were US residents, so I’m not entirely sure they qualified.) 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 many such festivals and conventions, and the subject of which ones my fellow authors were going to attend is a regular topic of discussion via Skype or Zoom calls.

The lure of the great outdoors
I remember the first time the annual ThrillerFest event was held in NYC. Some writers I knew at the time announced 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, a part of me could 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 a Bouchercon 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. Similarly, at a Left Coast Crime, 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 Jeffery Deaver, Harlan Coben, and Val McDermid. 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.

Dos and Don’ts
Some years ago, I put together a list of Dos and Don’ts for convention-going for authors. As we haven’t been going to much of anything for a while, I thought I’d dust it off and go through it again. Here it is:

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 host 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 they don’t mind if you bring coffee and pastries!

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 pastries 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, mycharacter 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 where everything in point #9 has happened.

Any convention bloopers you’ve witnessed that you’d care to relate? Or any advice for those of us getting back out there?

My latest Word of the Week is hüzün. A Turkish word that expresses the gloomy feeling that things are in decline and will probably get only worse. Often used to describe a political situation. Nevertheless, perhaps we can take some comfort from the fact that if this occurs often enough for someone to have come up with a word for it, then we are not alone in our time of trouble.

Upcoming Events
CrimeFest, Mercure Bristol Grand Hotel, Broad Street, Bristol BS1 2EL
May 12 – 15 2022

Friday, May 13, 16:00 – 16:50
ITW: Thrilling For A Living
Alison Bruce
Dugald Bruce-Lockhart
Alex Shaw
Michael Stanley (Stanley Trollip)
Participating Moderator: Zoë Sharp

Saturday, May 14, 19:30
CrimeFest Awards Dinner
Toastrix: Zoë Sharp

Sunday, May 15, 09:30 – 10:20
The Indie Alternative
Dawn Brookes
Stephen Collier
Caroline Goldsworthy
Elizabeth Hill
James Mortain
Participating Moderator: Zoë Sharp

Sunday, May 15, 10:40 – 11:30
Toastrix: Zoë Sharp
Interviewer: Peter Guttridge

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