I was very worried about losing money at Bloody Words 2014.
Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith had beaten into me that the surest path to success in writing is simply production. Sit in your garret and write, day and night, month after month, year after year. Your craft will improve, and once you have hundreds or thousands of items for sale, someone will take notice. You don’t need to go to cons and promote if you don’t want to.
But then I got this Facebook message from Steve Steinbock:
Melissa, I decided to come to Bloody Words this year. Here are seven (or so) reasons why you should come: (1) To push Terminally Ill, (2) to join me, Howard Shrier, and Ken Wishnia in a Yiddish cussing contest, (3) celebrate the publication of your short story in Ellery Queen (whenever it comes out), (4) administer first aid when I fall off the dais, (5) sign my copy of Terminally Ill, (6) buy a drink for the reviewer who plugged your book in Ellery Queen, and (7) be the final name on the attendees roster (beating out S.G. Wong).
How could I say no? I plunked down $190 for the conference fee. I’d already booked that weekend off for Yocomo, the Montreal yoga conference. But I’d go to Bloody Words instead. Maybe I’d sell a few copies of my book.
Then it started to haunt me. What if nobody bought my book? What if I spent $199 per night at the Hyatt Regency and just went into debt? I started calling my friends to angst about it. My friends Bob Jeschonek and Richard Quarry told me not to think about it like a return on investment, just go and network.
My friend Kandy said to have fun. “You get to go to Toronto. You’re getting away from your kids. You don’t have to cook or do dishes. What are you complaining about?”
“OH MY GOD,” said her husband, Vince. “You’re going to a con? GO AND PROSTITUTE YOURSELF, LIKE ANY AUTHOR.”
So I did.
I drove myself to downtown Toronto and hurried to Scene of the Crime Books, the book dealer who would sell my books during the con. Right afterward, I realized that I had lost my phone. With cash in the case.
Aaaaagh! After worrying about losing money, I’d just lost an smart phone plus cold, hard cash.
I’ll save you the suspense. Someone had already turned it in. THANK YOU.
I don’t know what I would have done with myself next, since everyone else was saying “Hiiiiiiii! It’s so good to see you!!!!!!” and I was more like this tree:
Fortunately, I already had plans. I headed out to dinner at Aroma Fine Indian with my Medical Post editor, Carol Hilton. I tried the fiery Goan prawns, in honour of my most recently completed book, The Goa Yoga School of Slayers, sequel to The Italian School for Assassins. We talked about everything from medical politics to technology to travel. Kind of like the Medical Post, actually. Thanks, Carol!
I hurried back to Bloody Words for Steve’s cool panel called The Sage, the Saint, and the Sleuth (religion, philosophy, and the “modern” sleuth). I didn’t want to rush up and mob him at the end, and it was possible he might not recognize me from my teeny Facebook photo, but he walked up to me, hugged me, and said, “It’s my newest best friend.”
We ended up having dinner and drinks with Tanis Mallow, a Noir writer, co-host of Noir @ the Bar in Toronto, and a warm and funny person; John McFetridge and his wife Laurie, who would whip out appropriate props like his latest book, Black Rock, and the newest issue of Quill & Quire with John on the cover. (Wow!) I’d already Tweeted Rob Brunet, because he’s a fellow Canadian who had a story accepted to Ellery Queen, as well as many other markets—he tries to have a new story published every month, and his novel, Stinking Rich, will debut in September. Ken Wishnia did show up to offer some Yiddish swear words, but it turned out that his writing has also been nominated for the Edgar, the Anthony, and the Macavity Awards. Uh huh.
Steve said these mystery conferences are like Brigadoon, a town springing out of nowhere. What I saw was a tribe of intelligent, crime-loving writers and super readers who enjoyed meeting like-minded people. One thing I find really sad about general North American society is that intelligence is undervalued. “You’re smart, aren’t you” isn’t always a compliment. Neither are the terms “intellectual” or “perpetual student.” Asian and Jewish cultures value scholars, but outside of universities, you’re a bit isolated. But here, you’ve got a bunch of people who like the same things you do! What a miracle!
Steve is a walking encyclopedia, certainly of the mystery genre, but of Jewish mysticism and, I’m sure, other topics. He was embarrassed that I called him a scholar, but it’s rare enough to meet people who genuinely love learning. Not for a degree, not because of publications or prestige or money, but just to discover. Perhaps more importantly, he’s kind and caring. Rob Brunet said that Steve had taken him under his wing a few years ago, and Steve’s obviously doing the same for me. Most people have their group of friends and figure they’re busy enough, but Steve will recruit newbies and make sure they’re not just standing in the corner, looking agonized.
I did buy Steve a drink (he said I didn’t have to, but I spoke to the waiter), and ended up paying for his salad too, which embarrassed him again, and Steve and Tanis and Rob walked me back to my apartment, since I stayed at a lovely airbnb instead of the Hyatt.
Henry David Thoreau wrote, ‘Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.’
I have two things two say about this. Nowadays, most people lead lives of unseen desperation. They’re not necessarily quiet. They may be loud. Buy my book! I have a new car! Check out my abs! I am so smart! My cat is cute!
The problem is, it seems like no one else cares. For example, you may write a book, but no one reads it. Or they read it and tell you it’s terrible.
Steve read Terminally Ill. And when I asked him if he understood how the plot twists incorporated the idea of magic and illusion (one of the book’s themes is magic, and Steve is a magician as well), not only had he understood it, he told me the magical term for it: misdirection. He said that in the past, mysteries used to rely on plot twists more than an escalating body count, and he respected that. He told me that my greatest strengths were my character, the fascinating setting, and the plot. When I said, okay, so what are my weaknesses, he looked at me and said, “No weaknesses. Just keep working on your strengths.”
You can tell that, between medicine and writing, I’m always waiting for the left hook.
I respect Steve even more because, I, personally, would find it hard to listen to desperate writers blather on and on about their work. It would be easier to turn away and say, “Don’t worry. Have a drink.” And I’ve heard that many critics grow bitter, forced to read and review books they don’t like. So imagine Steve going to a con on his free time and surrounding himself with writers instead!
To get back to the Thoreau quote, I’m generally cheery. My friend Yasmin once told me I was one of the happiest person she knows. But between medicine, writing, and life in general, I have tasted despair.
With Steve and the rest of my new friends, though, happiness wins.
And I loved how the people at Bloody Words were singing their song, loudly and clearly. The rest of the world may not understand or appreciate their writing or their weirdness, but they kept on singing.
I finally realized that Bloody Words was not about making or losing money. It was about friendship.
Also creativity and craziness. Like this.
Why am I wearing a sign with my book cover? What am I doing to Ken Wishnia? Did I sell any books? How can a con inspire creativity? Tune in to my next blog post, Bloody Words Part II, for the answers.