Saturday, September 17, 2016

Bouchercon Freshman: My thoughts so far

I heard Bouchercon before I saw it.

Late on Thursday afternoon, I was lucky enough to find a meter across the street from the Marriott Hotel right near the Mississippi River. I fed the meter, donned my blazer, and sauntered across the street. The closer I got to the front door, the louder the sounds became. Sure, I might be exaggerating a little bit, but when I opened those front doors to the Marriott, I think the entire convention population was centered in the bar. And everyone was talking.

And I smiled.

As this is my first Boucher time, this will be the one that all future convention have to measure up to. From what I've seen after a day and half, this is a spectacular convention. Registration went smoothly. In no time, I had my badge, program, and was directed the big room full of books. And when I say they are filled with books, I'm not kidding. There were four long tables with stacks of books arranged alphabetically. With the six tickets I got as part of registration, I got could pick six free books!

I got the lay of the land that first afternoon, but most of the panels were already done by the time I arrived. Didn't get a chance to go to a single panel until yesterday morning. Probably the highlight of my Friday panels focused on Ellery Queen. It goes without saying that the convention like this attracts writers like myself — who are just starting out — all the way up to writers like Lee Child, Harlan Coban, and David Morrell and everyone in between. Bill Crider—and boy was it great to see him—asked me what I thought so far. My only word was "big." Sure, I had to get over a little trepidation—there’s Otto Penzler. There’s Joe Lansdale—but it soon went away when I remembered they're all just normal folks here for the same thing: love mystery fiction.

As for the city itself, this is my first time to visit New Orleans itself. I have family who live on the North Shore, but in every visit, we never crossed the Causeway. New Orleans is one of those towns where its 18th and 19th century self is still apparent. Living in Houston, where most roads are wide with lots of space, even downtown, there are a few streets in NOLA where it seems like the buildings seem to be crowding right up against my car. Oh, and another thing: I'm from Houston, so I’m used to humidity. New Orleans humidity is another thing entirely.

It goes without saying that the bulk of the focus on Bouchercon is in the traditionally published field. To date, I am independent, but that doesn't mean independent writers like myself aren't present. We are, but you have to know where to look. When I met Dana King, I also met Dale T Phillips, another independent writer and publisher. He and I struck an hour-long conversation about what it's like to be an independent writer, the pros and the cons. In fact, Dale was the first person to buy a copy of one of my books and asked me to sign it. Have to say, that was pretty darn cool. I nearly asked Dana to snap a photo of me signing a book at Bouchercon. I reciprocated by downloading one of his novels for my Kindle. I also met Danna Wilberg and Angela Crider Neary.

I suspect that today it’ll be much of the same. Panels, meeting people — I’ve seen Jay, Russell, and Holly but haven’t had a chance to meet them — and more panels.

I have to give a special shout out and thank you to Thomas Pluck who tipped me off about Scene of the Crime books. I got two of my novels on their table. My third book, Wading Into War, is on display at Basement Books. Thanks to both of y'all for accommodating me.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Not a BoucherCon post...

If you read DSD, you're probably at BoucherCon.

If you're not, you probably don't want to hear more about it, here.

I was going to share a bunch of photos but I can't do it from my phone and I can't get them from my phone to the computer - so trust me when I say I met a cool cockatiel named Echo last night.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

de Bouchercon 2016!

Ready to get debauched?

There are many mystery and crime conventions: Left Coast Crime, Deadly Ink, NoirCon, Killer Nashville, Sleuthfest, Malice Domestic, Thrillerfest, Bloody Scotland, Crimefest, Thrillerfest, and Theakston Old Peculier's (aka Harrogate). Bouchercon, named after Anthony Boucher, is the big one.

First held in 1970 when Robert Bloch (of Psycho fame) was the guest of honor, the World Mystery Convention as it calls itself, hops from city to city, run by local fans who court crime, cozy, noir, and mystery writers and fans alike. I was lured to going to the St. Louis event in 2011 by mystery lover Sabrina Ogden (who the Feeding Kate anthology was written for) and I've gone every year since. I've been lucky enough to be able to find the time and cash to make it, driving or flying, making it that year's vacation when necessary, because I've made so many friends in the crime fiction community and that's the place I get to see them all.

So as a writer, why should you go?

No matter what you call your writing, if there's a criminal element, it has a home here. Domestic suspense? Psychological horror and serial killer noir? Craft cozy?

It's all rock 'n roll to me. And yes, that includes cat cozies. One of my favorite series was Barbara Block's pet-store sleuth. I can enjoy those and the hardest stuff, like Ben Whitmer's Pike for instance.

We're all mad here. Come play with us. Play with us forever, Danny!

When I first went, the "noir" writers felt like they were left out, there was always "the noir panel" but not a lot else; that has changed, and this year I am moderating the "hardboiled vs. cozy" panel called Leather & Lace, on Friday at 11am. It's going to be played for fun, we have Dave Putnam, with a law enforcement background; Clea Simon, a cat cozy master who is now writing harder-edged novels as well; Linda Rodriguez, whose Skeet Bannion series features a half-Cherokee ex-Kansas City homicide detective; Chris Knopf, who writes series that are both hardboiled and lighter; and Linda Joffe Hull, author of the Mrs. Frugalicious mysteries and more. I'll be there as referee, to keep the gats in their holsters and the cat claws sheathed...

One author said to skip the panels and hang at the bar, but let's be honest. How many people are you going to meet at the bar in one night? You should do both of these things. Go to panels if you're not on one, to see what the market is like, and what other authors are doing. And if you're chosen for a panel, yes there may be a big or a small audience, but it's an audience. Take advantage of it to let them know what you're about. The moderator will tell them about your books; here's your chance to reach like-minded fans. Hopefully you're a fan of your genre, and not one of those smug types who think their books "transcend" it? (And if you are, shut your pie hole. Or your Harry Hole).

At the bar you'll make friends, but not everyone hangs out there. It's expensive, and daunting for some, to approach writers who are talking to other people. So you'll be missing some of your audience if you blow off moderating or attending panels. Bookish people like us aren't always the most socially adept. It might take being handed the mike for Q&A for them to talk to you, or the comfort of joining the crowd after the panel to shake hands, or that brief, private moment in the signing line. Then again, they might need the social lubricant of booze before they gush and blush! Don't drink? Get a club soda, no one will notice or care, and you'll save a few bucks. One of the best lessons I learned was from Lawrence Block, at Noir at the Bar Queens, hosted by Alex Segura and Scott Adlerberg. LB doesn't drink, but that didn't stop him from reading; while us newbies were spending bank on expensive cocktails, he was selling books off an iPhone with a Square account. It's a business; have fun, but don't drink away all the profits.

This, coming from the guy who's avatar has him holding a beer stein, who's current work in progress is a "craft beer neo-Nazi hipster cozy." The IRS won't let me write it off as research, you know. And don't worry, I may be writing a cozy, but I'm also a member of "The Boxer" panel moderated by Zoe Sharp, about writing violence. That's on Friday at 3:50pm, and I volunteered to be the punching bag for any demonstrations, so come watch me bleed.

This year the con is in New Orleans, which bodes direly for the "bar." Who's gonna hang out at the Marriott bar when the French Quarter beckons? You want a cheap local dive, go to Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop. Want to be a tourist? Grab a hurricane on Bourbon Street. Music, go to Frenchman Street. Craft beer goons like me will be at Barcadia and World of Beers, and St. Lawrence's on Decatur. Have a sazerac at the Hotel Monteleone carousel bar. No booze? The Cafe du Monde is a must, for coffee and begneits, Community Coffee is better than Starbuck's, and food? You can't go wrong. My faves?

Cafe Begneit for breakfast; also the Ruby Slipper. The buffet places tend to be tourist traps. Lunch, po'boys at Mother's or Johnny's. Dinner at St. Lawrence, Mulate's if you want the Cajun experience, or if you want fancy, Arnaud's or Galatoire's. Cochon is a bit of a ride, but worth it. And on the cheap? a Lucky dog from a hot dog stand, just like Ignatius Reilly sold in A Confederacy of Dunces, are filling and delicious. (Twelve inches of paradise indeed.) There's a lot more than I can detail here, but a cab ride to Treme for chicken at Willie Mae's Scotch House, or a trip out to Mosca's Italian eatery, an old mob joint, won't be soon forgotten. Charley's steakhouse is another classic, no-nonsense place, and it features in my story "Gumbo Weather" in the Bouchercon Blood on the Bayou anthology!

I'll also be at the Anthony Awards, as Protectors 2: Heroes is nominated twice- once for best anthology, and again for Holly West's story "Don't Fear the Ripper," which is nominated for best short story. Scene of the Crime books will have the paperback, and the e-book has the price reduced for a limited time, in honor of the Anthony nom.

Ping me on Twitter at @thomaspluck if you want to join me on any excursions. My guess is the bar will be hottest around 5pm and then late-night when people wander back from enjoying the city. Got an early morning panel? My condolences!

Laissez les bon temps roulez...

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

His Soul Is Still Dancing

I'll keep this short since I'm packing for New Orleans, where the youth, middle-aged and elderly of the crime fiction world will assemble for Bouchercon.  It'll be my first time in NOLA in almost 30 years, and the last time I was there it was by accident, sort of.  I was returning from a seven month trip to Central America, but on the night of my return, in January, a big storm hit New York City.  My flight was supposed to be from Belize City through New Orleans to JFK Airport, but because all flights into New York were cancelled, I had to lay over in New Orleans.  Not the worst thing in the world, I know.  I got a cab from the airport to a hotel somewhere near Bourbon Street, as I recall, and spent the money I had left at the end of my trip on one night of drinking, eating, and whatever kind of wandering around I did in the French Quarter.  It's a hazy memory at this point, but I remember I had a lot of fun that night and that in the morning I had a delicious breakfast, in a French Quarter restaurant, of pecan waffles.

Unfortunately, my plane, as the rescheduling called for, did take off that afternoon, and I returned to New York.

Well, it'll be a longer stay this time, which means, I suppose, I can pace myself a bit when it comes to indulgence.

In any event, I better get back to packing.  But I can't resist leaving this, a clip of a favorite scene of mine from a NOLA film I can watch over and over. I'm talking Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. What's not to love? A film directed by Werner Herzog, starring Nicholas Cage. 

We're in the realm of delirium in a scene that captures a certain irrepressible spirit about a place...

Monday, September 12, 2016

Garbage In, Garbage Out

Anyone recall the push to consider what you're filling your mind with? Garbage in, garbage out. That's the mantra I recall from my youth. If you fill your head with trash your thoughts/actions/life will be trashy.

It's a simple concept that has shortcomings. I read a lot of crime fiction and watch a lot of crime fiction. I don't go out and commit murders or break the law. However, when I'm around someone who swears a lot I do find myself cussing more... which supports the idea of the GIGO effect.

Where I find the GIGO effect to be really applicable is in how writers manage their time. Garbage in, garbage out.

This week is going to be a tough week. Many will head to Bouchercon, and they will undoubtedly have a great time catching up with old friends and making new ones. However, new authors in particular should bear in mind that Bouchercon can be a drug, and in the post-Bouchercon days that follow the convention it's necessary to get back on track with priorities.

Most of what we writers do is in solitary confinement. We have limited social interaction, typically through social media or the odd occasional event with other authors, and spend many months locked in our offices in our imaginary worlds.

Now, more than ever, authors are being pushed to promote their books, which forces us away from the creative process and into the social sphere. It can be very affirming to have people ask you to sign books at events or want to interview you about your creative process.

It can also be very distracting.

The trap a lot of new writers are falling into - and some of us have been working to dig our way out of - is the spotlight promotion focus. With the push from publishers to have a marketing plan and promote your work it's easy to justify doing event after event or interview after interview, or thinking ads and posts and a constant presence online is the best way to raise your profile.

In the short term, you may feel you've succeeded if you invest a lot of time in this. And you may feel validated as a writer and artist because of any attention you receive. However, if this begins to consume too much of your time it will ultimately undermine your work as a writer and hinder your long-term accomplishments and future projects.

The New York Times just ran a piece on how Megan Abbott spends her Sundays. There are several key bits worth noting:

I wake up at 6 or 6:30 and get out of bed immediately. The coffee starts right away. Then I get to the computer as quickly as possible. I like to start writing when I’m still half-asleep, in a state between dreaming and waking. Sunday is a big writing day for me, a cocoon day, so I don’t check emails or go into Manhattan. Before I write, I like to read obits in The Times because they’re well written and I like the little details. It gets the energy going in the morning. I really like the obits of old Hollywood actors and actresses.

I go out once in the morning and once in the afternoon. If I have a writing problem, the minute I step away there’s a solution. 

There's a lot of discipline in this focused writing day. And you know what there isn't? Any marketing. There's no block of time set aside for assessing Facebook ads or working on a promotional plan. The focus is on the actual work of writing... Which is the first and most important thing writers do.

We don't all have the luxury of writing full-time. Many of us have jobs and kids still at home and juggle the demands of life and have to work at carving out time for writing. No matter how much time you devote to your writing career - whether it's 5 hours a week or 3 hours a day - the majority of that time should be spent on writing.

And that 10% for promotion? The majority of that time comes within the window a few weeks prior to and after the release of your book. You might use some of that time to mail out review copies a few months in advance, but beware of focusing on ads too far in advance or talking up the book too much before it's available. You want to begin to create a buzz to coincide with the release because people are forgetful beings, and if we're interested in something we tend to want to buy it then. I think I pre-ordered a book once, and it was by an author known to me.

There are a lot of authors who are being misled into basking in the potential 15 minutes of fame they experience with a release or with big author events. It's very easy post-Bouchercon to want to recapture that high and book yourself for the next convention possible or spend a lot of time on social media reminiscing. There's nothing wrong with making friends, connecting online or sharing memories, but there is a problem if it begins to interfere with your writing time. That, above all else, is what you should covet. It's what you should prioritize, and it's what you should protect. Without investing in your craft you will fail to produce more material, or to progress as a writer to your full artistic potential.

If what you spend your time on is marketing or socializing or course after course, eventually what you'll produce will be ads, friendships and course-related lingo. What you won't produce is another great manuscript because your time investment isn't focused on your craft. Balance can be hard for writers; I know. The worst thing ever for me was a Bouchercon near my new place of residence shortly after a major move across two time zones. I had that initial pick-me-up from seeing friends and feeling that sense of belonging. Then, post-Bouchercon, the reality of living in a new place far from friends hit me along with the post-convention blues. That was compounded by life and several years of working in the most soul-sucking toxic environment I've ever been in. That basically impeded my writing for over four years, but what it taught me in the end is that I'd rather be alone than surrounded by certain types of people. People who don't value intelligence, integrity or ambition will weigh you down mentally and creatively.

What has helped with restoring my writing discipline is knowing that I'm okay with just a few friends, I'm okay if I go weeks to months at a time without seeing anyone socially (which I often do), and I'm great when I've been able to develop my characters and stories in a way that I'm satisfied with.

At the end of the day, I hope that my writing shows progress and passion and that people enjoy my stories. As long as that happens I'll sell books and keep writing. Hopefully, new authors will realize that if the craft isn't there, they have nothing to promote in the end. As Steve Mosby said once, if you write 1000 words a day, in three months you should have a first draft. The most important thing to do after signing a book contract and before edits start? Write the next book. If you haven't finished another manuscript to the point where it can be submitted before the release of your signed book you have to ask if you've been managing your time wisely... And chances are (with the exception of real life complications) you haven't.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Best Homework Assignment Ever

After untold years of horrible reading assignments – from tearing apart The Great Gatsby until there was nothing left except the light at the end of that damn dock, to analyzing medieval texts regarding the roles of women, to pouring over city council budgets while a newspaper reporter – I have finally finally been tasked with something enjoyable.
I am getting to read some of the best mysteries from one of the best periods in the genre. The Golden Age. It’s the subject of a panel I’ll be on at Bouchercon this coming week and it’s given me the best homework assignment I’ve probably ever had.

The Golden Age is generally considered to be the 1920s and 1930s. And if you’re not necessarily familiar with the time, you’ve probably heard of a few of the authors. Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, Anthony Berkeley. The list can go on and on. I’ve gotten to revisit some of my absolute favorites, and I’ve discovered fantastic writers I hadn’t heard of.
But what makes a writer a true Golden Age author, and what makes the whole period so special? If you’re in New Orleans next weekend, The Golden Age of Mystery panel would love for you to stop by and join in the discussion.
And if you feel that the Golden Age extends past those time borders or that there’s an author who should be placed in its pantheon, let’s meet at the Bouchercon bar for a drink afterward and a chance to extend my wonderful homework assignment.