I spent last weekend at the second (hopefully annual) Creatures, Crime, and Creativity conference in suburban Baltimore. (Hunt Valley, to be precise.) In the interests of full disclosure, I only went because organizer Austin Camacho is a good friend, and I wanted to show the flag. I expected to go, then need to come up with a plausible excuse in future years. Well, finding the annual excuse will not be a problem. I’m already registered for next year
C3 (as it’s called) has a few quirks in its programming. Panels begin Friday at noon, run all day Saturday, and till about noon on Sunday. Tables are set up around the bookseller’s location for a mass author signing at 5:00 each day, where readers can also get their programs and anthologies autographed. (These are open to the public, whether registered for the conference, or not.) Meals are communal events, where writers and readers of different styles, genres, and tastes get into conversations I’ve rarely had at other, larger cons.
What I’d thought might be a weakness turned out to be a strength: this is not a genre-specific conference. Crime figures heavily, but so do vampires, romance, urban fiction, sci-fi, and a few I’m not sure what the hell they were about. What mattered was, the attendees were readers and writers who cared about what they wrote and read, and were more than willing to share their enthusiasm with others. I attended a session during every time slot—something I rarely do, even at Bouchercon—and took away something from them all, save one, which was my fault. (I misinterpreted the title.)
Four authors of various styles and genres were featured in interviews, speeches, and “master classes,” in which a guest author spoke as a panel of one on a specific topic. (Alphabetically, C.J. Ellisson, John Gilstrap, Brad Parks, and Rebecca York.) Below are some highlights, in more or less chronological order.
In “Using the Five Senses to Engage Your Readers,” panelist Dorothy Spruzen made a point for not explaining too much. When noting a section of her book where concert goers were always happy to hear something melodic, and would gripe about more contemporary pieces, she used Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich as examples. Her thinking was, everyone knows about Tchaikovsky, and they’ll figure out enough about Shostakovich through the context if they don’t know about him already. Trusting the readers’ intelligence. What a concept.
When discussing “How Gut-Wrenching Should [Crime Scenes} Be?” a discussion broke out about the recent trend for audiences to accept behavior (read: violence) by the protagonist that may exceed even that of the villain, and where this has come from, what Austin Camacho referred to as “Batman Syndrome.” TV’s 24 was mentioned more than once. It was also pointed out that intelligence and security professionals are appalled by this, as, put simply, it doesn’t work. Make someone hurt bad enough, he’ll tell you anything.
John Gilstrap opened Saturday morning with a presentation called, “Broken Bones, Ballistics, and Backdrafts: Technical Stuff the Writers Get Wrong.” With a Master’s in Safety Engineering, a successful career as a thriller writer, and an energetic and entertaining presentation manner, John was perfect for this session. His introductory slide refers to him as an “Explosive Safety ‘Expert’” (“Expert” in quotes), as a reminder to himself not to get cocky.
Brad Parks, author of the Carter Ross series of humorous thrillers, spoke on writing techniques, beginning with the first four paragraphs of Charlotte’s Web, which he described as a great take-off on the thriller genre, as the first four paragraphs provide a.) an underdog the reader can root for; 2.) dire circumstances; and iii.) a flawed character with agency to save the underdog. A few highlights:
· Every character needs to have a secret. You don’t have to tell what it is, but you should know.
· Lee Child’s theory of how many characters to use: Think of them as actors needed on a set, with their own needs: food, costumes, personal maintenance, expectations, agents, personalities, etc. How many of them do you want to deal with, and how often?
· Suspense = (What I want to Know – What I know already) x How badly do I want to know it?
· There must be conflict on every page. One person wants one thing, another wants something else, they can’t both get what they want, and they’re both right.
· Be the best you you can be. If 90% think you’re a schmuck, the remaining 10% can make you a bestseller forever.
Plus lots of other good stuff, delivered with a quantity and quality of humor that got me to buy a book, and I rarely buy books at conferences.
“You’ve Got Fan Mail: Honored Guests Discuss Mail From Fascinating Fans” was a discussion with the featured authors about mail they have received. Great fun—with a few cautionary notes—it had a selfish benefit for me, as the plot element I need to get the next Nick Forte novel moving in the direction I want it to go was handed to me on a platter.
At dinner, John Gilstrap spoke about serendipity and failure, tracing his success back through events in his life that led to something else that created a “Six Degrees” kind of path to successful novelist. Except…there was that whole part in the middle where his book underperformed the publisher’s expectations—for which the author had to take full responsibility because, as we all know, publishers do not overpay for books; authors and agents oversell them—and how he rebuilt his career. John is funny, engaging, and totally immersed in what he’s saying, and I have to confess he hit a few notes in discussing failure (“only you can declare yourself a failure”) that had me genuinely choked up. If you ever get a chance to hear him speak, do so.
Sunday morning’s opening session was with C.J. Ellisson, who writes Urban Fantasy and Contemporary Erotic Romance. Neither of these genres are in my wheelhouse, but she is also an acknowledged master of using Facebook to promote sales. (Somehow “Mistress of Facebook” doesn’t sound quite right.) She spend most of an hour showing how to create a unified and strong presence on Facebook without being overbearing about it, and I’m looking forward to consolidating my notes and getting to work on my presence there, and on building an honest-to-God web site.
The final session concerned how to keep a series going. A discussion evolved on point of view, during which Brad Parks made an observation so striking, I think most authors there were with me in the, “Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?” category. When writing close third person and having trouble with a potentially wandering POV, write the scene in first person, then go back and change what needs to be changed. There’s never any trouble in staying with first person.
C3 is still a small conference, and, for now, that intimacy is a major part of its charm, as there is little trouble catching up with whoever you’re looking for. There’s a lot of room for growth in attendance, and the directors appear to have everything under control to make that happen. So, if you’re a reader or author looking for a great long weekend immersed in your favorite activity, look into the Creatures, Crime, and Creativity conference for next year, scheduled for September 25 – 27. I’ll be there, but you should go, anyway.