What I learned at Murder and Mayhem Chicago

Mystery Writers of America – Midwest Chapter is the coolest club I ever joined.

The organization, along with Sisters in Crime Chicagoland, put together a wonderful event on St. Patrick’s Day. Murder and Mayhem Chicago was my first writers conference, and was an opportunity for established and aspiring writers and other book people to have a good time and learn from one another. I was there to participate in a panel of debut authors.

I thought I’d sum up my experience here, so aspiring writers could take a look and see what they might get out of such a conference. Here are my thoughts, in no particular order:

1. I need to do more things like this.

2. I am not the most social of humans. I love being with good friends, but I am normally rather awkward and uncomfortable meeting new people, especially if I am meeting a lot of them all at once.

I am sure I had some conversational faux pas, but by and large I felt pretty good at this conference. The organizers, writer Lori Rader-Day and publicist Dana Kaye, kept things relaxed. Heather Ash, MWA chapter president and moderator of our panel, also kept things calm (and did a pretty good job of herding me when I was talking instead of smiling for a camera, or talking instead of rushing to the sales area after the panel).

The biggest factor in making me comfortable at this event, though, was the fact that everyone there was united by a love for Stories About People Who Do Horrible Things To Other People. We all have our twisted senses of humor, our morbid fascinations with morbid fascinations and the shared experience of having read many of the same books. It was a literate crowd, and no matter how obscure your jokes were, someone in the crowd picked up on them. I wasn’t the weird guy at the party wondering where to stash a dead body in the Roosevelt University Auditorium Building. We were all thinking weird shit like that.

3. I drank gallons of coffee after a mostly sleepless night, but the rumors that I left none for the others are absolutely false. Nor did I switch to embalming fluid after the coffee ran out.

4. Every established writer I talked to was genuinely helpful, even if their own work differed dramatically from mine (which, frankly, was always the case. I was, of course, the only person there who writes stories about a crime-solving pirate.) No matter. Whether they wrote cozies or thrillers or police procedurals or whatever, every author there knew what it takes to get a book written and published, and they were generous with advice and pointers. It truly was a learning experience.

Jeffrey Deaver and Gillian Flynn. Photo by John Thomas Bychowski.

5. Even writers of best-sellers can survive a somewhat disorganized writing process using Post-It Notes and the like. Keynote speakers were Jeffrey Deaver and Gillian Flynn. Both make use of Post-It Notes, but Deaver is a strong outliner and uses them methodically (and more wearily these days when working in humid weather …), while Flynn’s writing process is a bit more, shall we say, free-wheeling. Both have found great success, of course, proving that no one way is the “right” way. My own process involves a loose outline and a bunch of cryptic notes and characters who often compel me to deviate from my loose outline. Meeting successful writers who employ a wide range of writing strategies lets me know I am not the only one who does not write an in-depth outline. We all have our paths and methodologies and I now feel a bit better about mine.

6. I have a much longer to-read list now than I did before I went. I had a lot of discussions with other writers, and the peeks inside their minds and their own descriptions of their work piqued my interest in a way that a mere book cover might not have. There are a lot of interesting people out there writing interesting stuff, and this conference definitely ramped up my desire to read more contemporary novels, and more works outside of my usual comfort zone. Don’t get me wrong; I am still going to read the good old stuff like Rex Stout and John D, MacDonald and Rafael Sabatini and all that. But I have been reading much more new fiction than I did in the past, and I am enjoying it immensely, and this conference inspired me to continue that effort. I have much to learn.

Debut author panel: From left — me, Danny Gardner, Alexia Gordon, moderator Heather E. Ash, Kristen Lepionka and J.D. Allen. Photo by John Thomas Bychowski.

The photo above is the debut authors panel. From left: Me, Danny Gardner, Alexia Gordon, moderator Heather E. Ash, Kristen Lepionka and J.D. Allen. Photo by John Thomas Bychowski.

7. The conference gave me my first experience of having a total stranger walk up to me and tell me she loved my book. Yes, I have had some great reviews on Amazon and GoodReads. But there is nothing quite like having someone you don’t know introduce themselves by saying “I loved your book!” You can’t have a bad day after that, it feels pretty good when an industry pro tells you she loved your book, too.

8. I can sign an autograph while standing in a coffee line.

9. Jeffrey Deaver is a rock star among thriller writers. He is also a genuinely nice guy, quite willing to talk with the weird newbie who writes pirate murder mysteries.

10. One really cool aspect of this event was a panel of people who work in investigative fields. The panel included a veteran cop, a crime reporter, a toxicologist, a ballistics expert and a police sketch artist. My novel in progress, which I am sneaking in between Spider John book, features a sheriff’s detective, so hearing about the real-life ups and downs from crime investigation professionals was really inspiring. A great many chapters I write in the future will be inspired or informed by what I learned from these people.

Hey, look! My book is write there on the dealer table!

11. I also learned a lot from the other panelists throughout the day. It’s a crazy business, with a lot of luck involved, but the common denominator among successful writers seems to be hard work and attention to detail.

12. In Chicago on St. Pat’s Day, you might see a young woman pee on the sidewalk in broad daylight. Really.

13. Networking with other pros is probably the biggest benefit of conferences like this, but inspiration is high on the list, too. Listening to other writers describe how they turned real-life experiences or their own heartbreaks or just plain crazy ideas into books other people want to read makes it easy to cast aside doubts about your own ideas. Just go for it, and write what you love. If you love it, there is a chance others will, too.

I probably will follow this up with another post, but I wanted to get some of this down while it was still fresh in my mind. I hope any aspiring or newly published authors out there wondering whether attending a conference like this is worth the travel time and expense will read this and realize yes, it is definitely worth it. I hope I get to see you at conference one day, and I hope I am one of the people who tells you “I loved your book!”

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