One of my favorite aspects of writing mysteries is that I can be in complete control of the process, from beginning to end. Such independence was not possible when I was a songwriter back in the 1980s and ’90s. Although I could pen the lyrics and compose a melody line and chords to go along with them, the song was never “complete” until I got the band together and we worked out a full-fleshed arrangement. And unlike with fiction writing, a song doesn’t really exist until performed or recorded, which also (at least for me) requires the assistance of others.
But as with many things in life, there’s a downside to the independence inherent in fiction-writing: It can be a lonely calling. And discouraging, too, when those rejection letters start pouring in.
Tournament of Roses poster in the hotel hallway
The main reason I signed up for the conference was to attend the classes. And, for the most part, they were terrific: lectures on how to bring your characters to life, crime scene investigation, and page-turning techniques; panel discussions on outlining vs. seat-of-the-pantsing, marketing, and the role of agents and editors.
authors discussing their revision techniques
agent Ann Collette advises us on
the DOs and DON’Ts of mystery writing
In addition, we were treated to keynote speeches by two of the brightest mystery stars of our generation: Sue Grafton and Elizabeth George.
Sue Grafton spoke at lunch on Saturday, and made us all feel better about our rejections when we learned that, not only was she not an overnight success with her alphabet series, but that A Is For Alibi was her eighth novel.
She explained how she thinks of herself as having a variety of personas: “she who speaks,” “she who writes,” “the rebel” and “the warrior.” In addition, she thinks of herself as having what she calls the contradictory voices of “the ego” and “the shadow”—a bit like the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. Grafton then paused, and told us that after saying all this to another audience some time back, she had received a letter from one of the attendees saying: “Thank you for having the courage to talk about your mental illness.”
I’ll pass along a good tip she gave us: If you ever experience writer’s block, it’s likely because you took a wrong turn at some point. Go back in your story until you find where you took that wrong turn and fix it.
Elizabeth George spoke on Sunday. I’m not a huge fan of her novels, which are too drawn out and slow-moving for my taste, but I was impressed by her personally. She is so warm and heartfelt, and clearly cares deeply about the writer’s craft and the nurturing of new writers. I got the feeling that if I met her in the street she would give me a big hug.
George spoke at length about what “the gift of being a writer” means. Above all, it means having the love of language, she said. And of being ready and aware at all times, and seeing possibilities, such as a snatch of conversation, or the detail in a place that can tell a story. “My written language, however, is much better than my spoken language,” she confessed. “I can’t even pronounce some of the words I use in my novels.”
clockwise from top: author/journalist Hank Phillippi Ryan,
Sisters in Crime/L.A. President Patricia Smiley;
Elizabeth George; Sue Grafton
(I stood next to the “official” photographer to get this shot)
I took copious notes, met influential agents and editors, and emerged from the conference invigorated and eager to attack my manuscript anew and make myriad revisions.
But the best part of it all, without doubt, was meeting other writers—published authors happy to discuss their beginnings and give encouragement and advice; and folks like me, still shopping their manuscripts and dreaming of that elusive phone call from the agent who wants your book.
I made a host of new writer friends, found a new m.s.-swap group, and came out of the conference feeling truly connected—not lonely anymore.