11 March 2016

My Trip to the Left Coast

by Dixon Hill

If you read my last post, you know I attended Left Coast Crime 2016, held two weeks ago here in Phoenix, and that I promised to tell you of my experiences there.

So, here goes:

First of all, you have to understand that I don't do well in large groups of unknown people, if I don't know what's expected of me.  I don't find it difficult to stand up and speak before a large audience, or to run a battalion sized operation, nor do I mind being a spear-carrier, because I understand where I fit in.  I understand what's expected of me, and I do it.

But, I had never been to a writer's conference before.  I had no idea what I was really supposed to be doing there, or how that little piece called "me" was supposed to fit into the overall scheme of maneuver among 700-odd strangers.

 To complicate things a bit, I live on the Tempe/Scottsdale border (see map on right), so downtown Phoenix is not "right next door."  My car has developed asthma in her later years.  She wheezes, coughs and threatens to pack-it-in if I get her above 50 mph. So, I stay off the freeways these days.

Thankfully, I could drive almost straight to the Hyatt, where the conference convened, simply by jumping onto Washington Ave. and heading west. I had already registered online.

But, what was I supposed to do when I got there?  "What do people do at writer's conferences?" I asked myself.

I mean, even when the army dropped me into a jungle loaded with not-very-friendly folks, I always got a Mission Statement first.  So, even though I might not know all the details of what I'd need to wind up doing, I still knew what I was trying to accomplish there.

But, what does one try to accomplish at a writer's conference?

I knew this was a place where writers met other writers, for instance.  But, why?  Did they meet each other for friendship and camaraderie?  To gain advice, share writing war-stories, or what?  I mean, writing's one of those things you sort of have to do by yourself, it seems to me, so I really didn't get this one.

There were also myriad panels to attend.  But, what was I supposed to get out of them?

I finally decided there was one mission I could initially focus on: Meeting any fellow SleuthSayers in attendance.  If I focused on this mission, I told myself, the other pieces of my mission might resolve into greater clarity over time and acclimation.

Okay, so I've got a mission statement -- at least for an initial mission; I'm hoping I can come up with some successful follow-on missions to round out my time at the conference -- so I'm ready for INFIL.  I jump in my car, drive over the buttes, and head down Washington toward the Hyatt.

There, I discovered that attendance meant a satchel full of great books!  Just for starters.

Shortly after I attended my first panel, I sat down to figure out what I was going to do next, and discovered I was sitting across from a woman who knew R.T. Lawton, with whom I used to alternate Fridays here on SleuthSayers.  She asked me what I expected to get out of the convention. "I'm not sure," I told her.  We spoke for a while, and I began to consider my mission in terms of what I wanted to accomplish there.

I decided I'd like to get ideas that would help me refine my writing, and what I was trying to say or do with it.  I didn't expect to land an agent, but I figured I'd keep my eyes and ears open for anything that might help me land one in the future.  A few minutes later, I ran into Melissa Yi.

It was great to finally get a chance to meet fellow SS'rs Melissa Yi and Melodie Campbell. Unfortunately, familial duties kept me away from the conference when I might easily have shaken hands with Brian Thornton, and for that I shall long be sorry.

I eventually found myself attending many of the same panels as another fellow, for some reason, and we started talking.  We somehow even wound up at the same table for the final dinner.  There, our host, Matthew Quirk, provided each table member with his latest novel Cold Barrel Zero, and a set of lock picking equipment.  He also brought a few locks along to practice on -- some of the most fun I've had in a long time.

I found many of the panels useful in ways I didn't really expect.  I even wound up meeting a couple of guys with backgrounds similar to mine, who had published books with story lines that sounded like they ran down the same highways mine did.  One of these guys mentioned his agent (I didn't tell him I was looking for an agent; nor did I ask; he just told me.), and suggested I might send a query there.  I thought that was awfully nice, and am doing so.

Wandering around in the "book room" I discovered a trove of old "Toff" mysteries.  I'd stripped all the Toff books out of the local bookstores in my area several years ago, and never expected to find more.  I couldn't help myself! -- I bought two.  It was also nice to get my hands on copies of works by panel members who had said something intriguing about their writing technique.  I hope to learn even more by reading them.

But, I think the thing I walked away with -- more than anything else -- was the feeling that I'd been among people who did what I did on a daily basis.  Many evidently faced the same problems I do.  And all were very supportive.

That's not something you get very often in this writing game -- the support of your peers.  As I wrote earlier: writing tends to be something you do by yourself.  Getting a chance to immerse myself, for a long weekend, in a 700-strong sea of like-minded and supportive people ... that's what I decided the real objective was.

Guess it just kinda' snuck up on me.

And I had a great time!

See you in two weeks,


  1. Thanks a heap for making me jealous.

    I go to writers conferences for two reasons. One, to flog my merchandise. Two, to motivate myself. Meeting up with fellow authors and the occasional reader who has heard of me gets me psyched up. Hearing panels where writers talk about their techniques and strategies leaves me with a notebook of ideas to try.

    Actually, here's a piece I wrote about that years ago: https://criminalbrief.com/?p=14352

    Glad you had fun.

  2. What a great experience you had! I've never been to a writer's conference or workshop, and a lot of it is for just the reason you mention: that writing is so solitary a pursuit I could not imagine what would happen in such a setting. Thank you for sharing! :-)

  3. The Toff! I hadn’t thought about the Toff in decades! What a find.

    Dixon, you summed up my feelings about large gatherings, like being shy and not shy at the same time. And like you, I didn’t know what I was doing at my first conference… or the second. Sounds like you got an immediate handle on things.

    I’m glad you had a great time, Dixon. Mission accomplished.

  4. Dix, even though writing is generally a one-person job, attending a good writers conference allows you to meet and network with others in the same lonely occupation. All it takes to strike up a conversation is to ask someone what they write. Or go to some panels, pick a panelist who interests you and introduce yourself afterwards by asking a question or telling them what you liked about their writing or presentation and they will generally remember you later. Have a couple of drinks in the conference bar and other attendees will start talking to you. There will be other writers there glad to have someone to talk with. If you find a writer who had a short story in the same magazine you did, introduce yourself, you two have something in common to talk about. Meet every writer/agent/editor you feel comfortable talking with.

    Now for your second conference, you will run into people you met at the first. They will be glad to talk to you again. Some of them may even introduce you to other writers they know. Now you're networking. Build on it. You never know what will come out of it. You may learn new techniques, which publication is taking what, how another writer did it, brand new markets, what not to do, etc. One writer friend of mine introduced me to an editor who then over Baltika #3 beers in the Russian Vodka Room asked me to write a non-fiction book for her. I had previously introduced him to the editor of AHMM who subsequently took a short story from him. It goes both ways. With your background and short story creds, you will find some editors taking an interest in you.

    Get on a conference panel related to short stories, or your background (people are interested in all the stuff SF does) and writing, or first novels when you sell yours. Attendees will come up to you afterwards and converse.

    Now, as to that lady who remembered me. She could have been a fellow writer I had met somewhere or she could have been one of the several attendees to one of my Surveillance Workshops at various writers conferences. I'm always amazed when someone comes up to me at a conference and tells me what a great time they had in the Workshop at another conference. So brainstorm and get innovative about what you could do at a conference to start getting some name recognition. People will be glad to run into you again at the next conference. By any chance, do you remember her name or where she was from?

  5. Dix, my grandson was working on my computer and signed into Google, so I just realized the post came up under his name instead of mine. ~ R.T.

  6. Dix -
    I've been to LCC twice, and had a gas both times. (R.T. was at my second one, in Colorado Springs.) I second his advice. Get on a panel, or suggest one. Introduce yourself to writers whose stuff you've read and liked. Hang around the book-signing room. Hang around the booksellers. Hang around the bar. Don't be embarrassed to sell yourself. Everybody there is probably doing the same thing. LCC is better than the bigger mystery conferences in that it's more intimate, and you can pretty much get to meet any and all.

  7. Here's another reason to go to mystery conferences. I was in a supermarket today and the checkout clerk noticed my reusable grocery bag. It was from the San Francisco Bouchercon. "Mystery Writers of America," he read out loud. "Are you a mystery writer?" So I gave him one of the business cards i have with info about my latest novel.

    It pays to advertise.


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