Friday, February 21, 2014


Over the course of my checkered writing career I have attended a number of conventions and conferences, with varying degrees of success. The nicest things that happened at these gatherings were encounters with writers and editors who later became my friends, or who were my friends already. The most disagreeable things were snubs by people who weren't my friends (and never will be, if I can remember their names and faces), and also occasions when I screwed up so badly that I was like to die of embarrassment.

But all that is personal. I'm not going to talk about it. I came here today to talk about the uses of convention- and conference-going to advance one's career.

My agent used to give me advice about that. I arrived late at my first Bouchercon convention in Philadelphia, years and years ago, failed to tell anybody I was a published writer, and wandered around from panel to panel listening to people talk, profoundly impressed to find myself in such exalted company. My agent told me later that this was wrong. I was supposed to make an impression on people, myself, she said.

The writer who made the deepest impression on me that weekend was Walter Moseley, who was still relatively unknown, at least by me. Some woman in the audience asked him a completely silly, fundamentally racist question at the end of his panel and I saw him straighten his face and give her a civil answer. I loved the way he straightened his face. It only took a microsecond. This is what you do. You keep yourself under complete control, never letting on what a pain in the ass it is to suffer fools.

As years went by I learned to put myself forward more at these confabs, making a fool of my own self from time to time, appearing on panels, even moderating them when the organizers discovered I was willing. I wasn't bad at that, actually. One time I moderated a panel with Grace Edwards and I-forget-who on it, terrific panelists all. We met for breakfast beforehand to hash over the topic. At breakfast we were wildly entertaining. By the time we got to the panel the fizz was gone. The lesson I took from that was not to overprepare, merely to make sure that every panelist got a chance to shine.

So that became my style of moderating, read everybody's work, put some questions together to showcase each panelist, meet shortly beforehand to get comfortable with each other, and let 'er rip. Usually this worked fine.

It's hard for me to remember that not everyone is as easy as I am, or as hammy, in front of an audience. Once there was a panelist, an excellent writer, a successful writer still today, maybe even a nice guy under ordinary circumstances, who was so put off by what he thought was my casual attitude that he panicked. He convinced himself that if I were left in charge of this panel I would somehow torpedo his career. As if one bad panel could even do that. He must have had terrible stage fright. So he decided to run the panel himself.

First he switched the name signs to put himself at my left elbow. Then he stuck a list of his own questions in front of me, on top of my own set of questions. Then, as I endeavored to find my own rhythm for moving the panel along, he kept interrupting, poking at his questions with a trembling finger. It was kind of an ordeal.

But at least there were people watching us. Later there was the Bouchercon in some midwestern city where I met Donna Murray, lovely woman, excellent writer. They signed us up to read for half an hour in a room right across the hall from a panel with Parnell Hall, Joan Hess and some other entertaining folks. Not a single soul came to hear us read. The two of us sat on the dais chatting in front of an empty room as gales of merry laughter rolled across the hall from the fun panel.

As a result I said, "Ha!" when the organizers of a Bouchercon in Toronto offered me fifteen minutes to do whatever I liked. "Ha! I would have to tap dance and set my hair on fire to get any attention." Then I thought, "Why in hell not? I'll promise to do that, and maybe I'll get some attention."

I won't go into the logistical problems this presented, or the long weeks of practicing my tap dance. Suffice it to say that I came to the little room ten minutes early. There I found fifteen women watching the handsome Barry Eisler read from a work in progress, in which his protagonist took off all his clothes and ran through the countryside outside of Los Angeles, for recreational purposes, I think it was. The piece was extremely well written, very descriptive. I was impressed. So were the women. In fact after he yielded the stage to me they remained sitting where they were, stupefied by visions of Barry Eisler running around the chaparral buck naked, while I tap danced and set my hair on fire. One hair. I plucked it out and set it on fire. I have no idea whether any of them bought my books.

© 2014 Kate Gallison


  1. I once ran into a writer wandering at a Bouchercon. None of the panels interested me so we were in a lobby area outside the meeting rooms. He said, "I don't know what I'm supposed to do here." So I said, "Well, tell me about your book and why you think I would like it." He did. We went to the bookroom and I bought one of his books. When I read the book I found the premise more interesting than the execution. But, honestly, if writers knew how easily persuaded I am to buy books they would fight to talk to me at these things.


  2. I recall once being so charmed by a writer's panel persona I bought THREE of her books.

  3. I do love panels. It's just that one does find out that some people's talking is better than their writing.

  4. I will pipe up with a cmment that was not re a writer's convention but was an embarrassing moment for moi... I'd been asked to give a talk at the Yale Graduate School of Management and was so puffed up with delight I was flying high... Suddenly in the middle of my talk, where I was writing some words of wisdom on the board behind me, one of the students crept up and whipered to me... " Your skirt is unzipped in the back!"
    Talk about mortification!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! tjs

  5. Kate, your comment brings up another funny moment - not a con, but kinda in the realm.. of always something... I handed one of my business cards - a mystery writer one I was quite proud of having designed... to a very well heeled lady in a group at the Y.. She examined it and said, graciously, " Oh, you sell books!" A comical double entendre... later I learned she owned a big NY printing company!! Live and learn... tjs