Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Second-Best Hat in the Room, and Other Memories from the Tony Hillerman Writing Conference

Mystery novelist J.E.S. Hays recently returned from the annual Tony Hillerman Writing Conference and filed this report and photos for The Quivering Pen.  Hays lives in South Carolina in a little house filled with books and photographs.  When not off in her own little world, she can usually be found outside with a camera in one hand, or online supervising the Creative Writing categories of WikiAnswers. Her Devon Day and the Sweetwater Kid stories are available in an anthology, Down the Owlhoot Trail, and she is working on a novel featuring the two likable rascals.  Click here to visit her website; you can also lasso her on Facebook, or on Twitter at @jes_hays

This year, I decided to save up my funds and attend a conference I've always wanted to be a part of: the Tony Hillerman Writing Conference.  Tony has always been one of my favorite mystery authors, and I like the fact that his daughter started the conference before he died, so he had a chance to participate.  I'd always talked myself out of attending for various reasons: cost, travel distance, time off from work, and of course, the fact that I wasn't actively writing Westerns until recently.

Publishing panel tete-a-tete
This year, though, my Western anthology Down the Owlhoot Trail was published, and I felt like a "real" Western writer at last.  This would only be the second writing conference I ever attended, so I was a little nervous seeing all those famous names on the roster.  Many of my favorite authors would be in attendance: Craig Johnson, Margaret Coel, David Morrell, and Steve Havill, to name just a few.  Would I get a chance to speak to them after their lectures?  Would I actually get up the nerve to speak?  Would they even be available in the off-hours of the conference, or would they remain in their rooms, appearing only long enough to to drop pearls of wisdom into our ears?

And what sort of atmosphere would the conference have?  Would it be the Lordly Authors graciously offering advice to the Lowly Apprentices, or would my favorite writers turn out to be ordinary folks who loved sharing their experience with fellow writers?  Would the other attendees be friendly, or stand-offish?  I packed up my courage, along with my books and author swag, and headed for Santa Fe.

Anne Hillerman
I needn't have worried.  The registration desk was manned by none other than Anne Hillerman herself.  After her warm welcome, I settled easily into the routine for the weekend: lecture or panel discussion, short break for some of the hotel's excellent coffee, then on to the next lecture or discussion.  By the end of the day, we were all tired, but oh-so-satisfied--and oh-so-challenged creatively.  Margaret Coel started things out with a really useful workshop on characters, giving out assignments and getting the audience to actually create new "story people," which we then shared and critiqued.  She said that the day she stops learning new things about her characters is the day they become boring.  Jamie McGrath Morris' workshop on story beginnings and endings was equally informative, with the class discussing the opening and closing lines of a wide variety of novels.  We had fun trying to guess the novel by the first sentence.

Craig Johnson
Craig Johnson schooled us on dialogue, urging us to become students of human nature.  He shared some great stories about the Longmire TV show, too.  We learned about managing our manuscripts from Steve Havill, who recommends keeping an old-fashioned loose-leaf notebook to hold everything related to your novel.  Kirk Ellis taught us all about telling a great story, and shared some of his experiences with the world of television as well.  And we talked about working our social media (and eating our veggies!) with Ashley Biggers.

I had just as much fun listening to the banter between panelists as I did learning their topics.  Everything from a sense of place to the changing world of publishing was on the plate, with plenty of asides and inside jokes.

And I took a deep breath and submitted the first page of my manuscript in progress to the Friday night critique session.  I wasn't sure if I was relieved or disappointed when it wasn't drawn from the huge stack on the table.  That was an interesting session, and I did learn a lot listening to the agents and editors explaining why they would or wouldn't ask for a second page to read.  It reinforced all those advice articles that told me things like "show, don't tell" and "avoid the flashback."  I'm still scanning my manuscript for passive voice and "weather reports," as David Morrell calls the boring descriptive passages that interrupt your action.

The conference also offered a breakfast for everyone who'd published a book in 2013, and a chance for us to hawk our wares and give out some of our swag.  It was heartening to see how many new books were on the market, especially in this world of e-publishing.  Even Anne Hillerman has a new book out.  It was fun passing out swag, too.  I even gave some of my pens to my favorite authors.

As it turned out, there were no Lofty Authors at the conference.  Everyone I talked to was friendly and open, even during the book signings (which so often can become just another long line with "next" being most of what you hear).  Anne Hillerman stopped to ask if I was enjoying myself.  A bunch of us "New Book" authors got together and traded books with each other.  It felt more like a school reunion than a conference.

As things wound down, nobody wanted to leave.  A bunch of us gathered in the hotel bar after the closing dinner, reluctant to say our good-byes.  I felt a large hand drop onto my shoulder, and my Stetson was plucked from my head.  "I reckon you've got the second-best hat in the room," said Craig Johnson, tipping his own to me.

I may never have that hat cleaned.

1 comment:

  1. Great article. It was a pleasure meeting you at the New Author breakfast; love your energy. Was snuggled up with hot cocoa enjoying Owlhoot Trail as the first snows fell here in Colorado. Perfect winter treats. Thanks.