Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The First Time Comes Only Once

Sandra Parshall

Attending Malice Domestic last spring as a first novelist was just about the most nerve-wracking experience of my life up to that point. I had been warned that if I did or said anything foolish, the other writers present would never forgive or forget. I was too terrified to approach anyone and hardly dared to open my mouth. I wanted to find a big potted palm and hide behind it all weekend.

Why, then, do I feel nostalgic about that conference? Why do I wish I could do it all over again?

Because it was incredibly exciting, and because now I know that I didn't have to be so scared. I've learned that most mystery writers are generous souls who will forgive a beginner almost anything short of arrogance and deliberate insults. They were beginners once too, and they understand that newbies are frantic and need a helping hand.

Despite the fear factor, I did pretty well at my first conference — I didn’t embarrass myself or anyone else, I met a lot of online friends in person for the first time, I moderated a panel that all present seemed to enjoy (the panelists get the credit for that; I was just the verbal traffic cop), and by the end of it I felt like A Real Writer at last.

Malice Domestic 2007 starts Friday, May 4 and runs through Sunday. I don’t have to travel, thank heaven, because it’s held in Northern Virginia, where I live. This time around, I’ll be a veteran, with my second book, Disturbing the Dead, already out. And I’ll be watching with a mixture of pride and envy as several friends make their Malice debuts as published, or about to be published, mystery novelists and short story writers: Terry Hoover, Deb Baker, June Shaw, Beth Groundwater, Elizabeth Zelvin, Kaye George (aka Judy Egner). During the wild and crazy literary equivalent of speed-dating called Malice-Go-Round, I get to sit at a table and listen as the first-timers race about the room, giving their pitches over and over and talking themselves hoarse. I know I’ll be itching to get up and run around with them, but at the same time I’m grateful that I don’t ever have to do that again.

I’m not completely finished with firsts, though. The Heat of the Moon is a nominee for Best First Novel, and I’ll attend the Agatha Awards banquet on Saturday for the first time. A year ago, I could not have imagined this happening. To tell the truth, I’m still more than a little amazed by the nomination, so I doubt I’ll be crushed if I don’t win. Hey, it’s enough that I get to be on the New Kids on the Block panel, which is fantastic for two reasons: Margaret Maron will moderate, and I’ll be called a kid again for the first time in numerous decades.

The journey from pure terror last spring to relative ease this year hasn’t always been smooth. I’ve stumbled here and there, but I’ve learned a lot (such as: only your dearest friends will want ballpoint pens with your title and name on them), and gained more confidence as a speaker than I ever thought possible. Being an old hand has its rewards.

I still envy the first-timers, though. The experience feels like jumping off a tall building with no safety net below, but that first major conference as a published writer is also one of the most exhilarating events of a mystery writer’s life. My friends are going to shine, and I’ll be grinning like a proud sister in crime all weekend.

One sad note to this year’s Malice will be the absence of the talented and charming Elaine Viets, who was scheduled to act as toastmaster. As most in the mystery community know, Elaine suffered a stroke several weeks ago and has been forced to cancel all appearances for the foreseeable future. She’s doing remarkably well, though, and there’s reason to hope for a full recovery. Murder With Reservations, her new entry in the Dead-End Job series, is out now and available at any mystery or general bookstore, and a number of writers on tour this spring will be talking about her book as well as their own. Elaine will be missed at Malice this weekend, but we all believe she’ll be back among us soon.

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