On Saint Patrick’s Day I ventured into Chicago for the Murder and Mayhem conference at Roosevelt University. Arriving early, I had a few minutes to people watch as Michigan Avenue rumbled to life with shamrock laden parade goers, some of whom appeared to have hit the green beer already. The sun shone on the Bowman sculpture that marked the entrance to Grant Park and I wondered if anyone else gazing down on the statue from this mystery writers conference noticed the absence of the actual bow from the Native American warrior’s hands. Curious, I looked up the sculpture and discovered that there never was a bow in his hands. The artist designed it that way to engage the viewer’s imagination. What a perfect portend for this day!
The Murder and Mayhem event is the brainchild of two Midwest writers Dana Kaye and Lori Rader-Day, and was sponsored by Sisters in Crime’s Chicagoland chapter and Mystery Writers of America’s Midwest chapter, two of our genre’s best known scribe tribes— if you’re not yet a member get to it. The lineup was incredible, and not only for the keynote speakers Gillian Flynn and Jeffery Deaver.
After the funny and prolific Eric Beetner gave opening remarks and advised us the new tax code allows mystery writers one murder per year (body receipt required), the first panel included authors JD Allen, Danny Gardner, Steve Goble, Alexia Gordon, and Kristen Lepionka. They talked about getting ‘the call’ and how it changed them and I thought how intimidating and humbling it must be to sit up there, doling out advice to a sea of wide-eyed wannabes, as though you had the answers. No doubt many in the crowd were gathering up each tidbit on exactly how to write, how to get that call, how to never have writer’s block—FEED US—and then, like a fresh-smelling cotton sheet spread over a bed, Danny Gardner offers the soft, settling words I laid my head upon. “I love myself the most when I’m writing.”
Lesson #1 of the day: Love yourself.
The second panel, Crafting a Thrilling Series, was again stocked with authors who, through ALL fault of my own, I hadn’t yet read. Raymond Benson, Jess Lourey, Nick Petrie, Patricia Skalka and Carrie Smith compared notes on whether or not they’d set out to create series, or happened upon it through various circumstances. Jess Lourey scored major asterisks on my Buy Next shelf when she stated—with pride—that she sent 423 queries before her book got scooped up. Finally, a count I can relate to! I get dismayed when I read an author saying she got eight rejections or it took ten long months to get picked up. Puhleez. Get back to me when your query spreadsheet looks like a random number generator.
But it was Nick Petrie who got the award for most thought provoking words on the panel: Writers perform acts of radical empathy. We are constantly soaking up the world’s feelings so that we can share them. That’s big work, Nick. Thank you for helping me understand why I sometimes cry when I write.
Lesson #2: Remember to wring out your sponge once in a while.
The third panel, True Tales from a Life in Mystery, hit close to home for me. Alongside authors Jamie Freveletti, Mary Kubica, Isabella Maldonado, and Lori Rader-Day sat Michael Koryta. He and I share the same hometown, Bloomington Indiana, and his upcoming novel How It Happened (May, 2018) is based on an actual murder case that happened there. I still go back to Bloomington regularly and that murder, along with another one which is yet unsolved, have cast a pallor over the town I used to roam freely as a teenager. I never gave a thought to hanging out at the quarries or Peoples Park, but now I imagine these young women disappearing and wonder if I was just lucky, or if my hometown has turned dark. Koryta talked about moving the book’s setting to Maine to give him some distance from the reality that the body was found very near where he had lived. As he spoke about it I could see the memories arc across his face like a sunset, and I realized that there’s an inherit danger in being a writer, which is that we tend to dive deep into our stories without always keeping an eye on land.
Lesson #3: Know when to come up for air.
The lunch hour was next and I was lucky enough to have registered early for the sold out Sisters in Crime lunch talk with Gillian Flynn. Her writing is so good that I’ve written down at least a full page of her words, just to re-read them. For example, the opening line of Dark Places: “I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it.”
I mean, come on. She talked about her process, which sounds a lot like mine: scribbling thoughts on many post-it notes that may or may not make sense upon further review. One thing she said I think I’m going to try. She doesn’t adhere to a daily word count but rather she sets a scene goal. So instead of obsessively gaping at the number at the bottom of the screen, she’s focused on getting the characters through the action. Huh. Didn’t occur to me, and yet it’s so simple.
Lesson #4: Change the rules if they aren’t working.
The early afternoon session, The Winding Path to Publishing, included Eric Beetner, Terri Bischoff, Cheryl Reed, Jessica Strawser, and Andrew Shaffer, whose humorous and thoughtful insights included a reminder to practice self-love. I’m not positive but I’m about 67% sure he was talking about a very specific kind of self-love. Either that or I’d gotten a little giddy from all the fangirling and fantasizing that I was on a panel, waxing poetic about my rise to fame. The panel all agreed that being honest with yourself about the quality of your work—really making sure that you only submit the best work you can possibly produce—is one of the most critical steps along the path to greatness.
Lesson #5: Don’t stop ‘til you get it right.
The last panel of the event introduced me to a group of professionals in law enforcement, forensic science and news, and was very helpful in terms of dealing with facts in fiction. Thomas Halloran, Adam Henkels, Marcella Raymond, Luis Santoyo, and Cynthia Woods were all generous with the expertise in interviewing witnesses, sketching subjects, testing blood and other evidence, and the importance of accurately describing basic procedures. Lots of readers work in these professions and the consensus was that there’s nothing that will take them out of a story faster than writing that clearly shows the writer did not do his research. After this panel I latched onto one these kind folks who agreed to help me with some of my research, so that it doesn’t reek of Wikipedia.
Lesson #6: Get expert advice so the details ring true with readers.
The final hour of the event was the keynote conversation between Jeffery Deaver and Gillian Flynn and may I just say it was delightful! The two of them chatted like old friends, volleying topics like how they develop their story ideas, plotting versus pantsing, and whether they find characters or the other way around. As much as their writing styles and tips were interesting I just kept coming back to how they interacted. It was so professional and yet comfortable. I really enjoyed watching them enjoy each other’s company. Toward the end of their talk Deaver paraphrased a quote made by George R.R. Martin about writing. Deaver’s sparse yet beautiful rendering of Martin’s more heady thought was, “Books aren’t made like buildings, but grown like plants.” And that brings me to my last lesson from this extraordinary event.
Lesson #7: Enjoy all the moments, the writing and the not writing. In them, beautiful things will happen.