by Sheila Connolly
It takes a lot of work to make something look effortless.
The New England Crime Bake conference was held this past weekend. I was Co-Chair of the event for the first and most likely last time, and I learned a lot from the experience.
Over twenty committee members—most with day jobs, many with active writing careers—came together to deal with the nuts and bolts of the conference. Some have been doing this since the conference's first year (2001); for others, this was their first time. Some elements have not changed significantly—like recruiting New England authors. Others represented significant change—like the implementation of a new automated registration system. Everything worked. Lesson #1: Pick good people and let them do what they do best.
Since this is an ongoing conference, we on the committee don't often step back and ask, why are we doing this? Who are we doing it for? And who is best qualified to make it all happen? The more specific questions about how big we want the event to be, and where we want to hold it, are more often debated, but we're happy with the size (250 attendees plus panelists) and location (outside of Boston, in a hotel that we effectively take over for the weekend).
Why do we do it? To celebrate New England authors (there are many!), and to give New England writers and fans a chance to meet the authors and hear what they have to offer. We do collect and study statistics, which shows that 40% of attendees have come before—which means that the other 60% are newcomers, while at the same time, a surprising 17 people have attended all ten Crime Bakes. Most attendees belong to one or another writers' organization. Lesson #2: Figure out what people want and give it to them.
How do you manage to serve the needs of such a diverse group? By offering classes and panels on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from the craft of writing and forensic details, through creativity and how to use real-world events and craft a story from them.
We have always had an outstanding guest of honor; this year, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the event, we had two—Barry Eisler and Nancy Pickard. It was an interesting choice, because they write in divergent styles, and they did not know each other. We threw them together for the keynote speech at the Saturday luncheon and let them have their heads, and the results were great. It was a pleasure to watch the pros shape a dialogue in a way that was fair and balanced, and yet which brought out much in information about how they write. Lesson #3: Quality shows.
So much for the mechanics. More important, there are still moments of magic that can surprise you. A few examples:
--at breakfast, on the Saturday of the conference, I was standing at the podium, waiting to read a list of mundane announcements—like which room assignments have been switched and please don't eat a vegetarian box lunch unless you signed up for one—when I took a moment to just listen. The energy and excitement in the room was thick enough to cut with a knife. It was wonderful.
--As I said before, the dialogue between the guests of honor was delightful. They were courteous and fair to each other, yet each conveyed his or her passion about what and how they were writing and publishing. It could have gone on far past the allotted hour.
--At one of the final panels offered, on Sunday afternoon when many people are usually running on fumes, Nancy Pickard moderated a panel called "I've Got a Secret". Now, people who moderate have many different styles, from those moderators who hog the microphone to talk about themselves or banter with their good buddies on the panel, to those who toss out vague questions and then say "Anybody want to take that one?"
Nancy Pickard did none of these. Certainly the panelists had known the stated subject of their panel before they arrived, but the way in which Nancy defined the question she put to them inspired an "aha!" moment from all of them—you could see it. She made each of those multi-published writers (not to mention the rest of us in the audience) look at their own work in a different light.
That's what makes putting together these events so rewarding, no matter how much work it is or how the many little details will threaten to push you over the edge in the final week. It's worth it when you experience that crystalline moment when you know you've heard something important—something that will color your appreciation of other writers' work, and may even help you with your own.
I am grateful for the efforts of all the committee members, who made the event flow seamlessly, and I'm proud to have been a part of Crime Bake 2011.