DFW Con Review and a Wake Up Call

I had a wonderful time at DFWCon this year. I encourage every writer to attend this conference whether you are local to Dallas Fort Worth or not. Classes, networking and pitch sessions with agents all combined in possibly the most friendly and supportive atmosphere you can imagine. This year, industry giants Donald Maass and Jonathan Maberry lent their gravitas to the event and it made for a particularly thought provoking conference.

Many great classes on business, craft and other writing workshops peppered the schedule. Highlights included any of Tex Thompson’s craft sessions (standing room only), Jonathan Maberry’s industry-focused advice (too many people missed out on this amazing advice), Maass’ brainstorming workshops, and Edgerton’s sometimes meandering but always effective conversational style of teaching.

The most invaluable aspect for me was time spent interacting with fellow writers and potential readers of my upcoming novel, Crimson Son (for my blog followers, feel free to make this a drinking game – “everytime he mentions Crimson Son…”) I met people I only knew from social networking and was even approached by many that recognized my photograph from my twitter account or blog. (It’s good to know that this platform building is paying off, even if only a little bit.)

In more than a few classes we talked about subtext. And I’d like to point out a bit of an undercurrent at this year’s conference.

The events kicked off Friday with two pre-convention classes. I missed Edgerton’s class on using film to improve story telling techniques but I hear from reliable sources that it was excellent. I did however attend Donald Maas’ “Breakout Novel” and received both inspiration and validation from his presentation.

Maass’ presentation asked a series of open-ended questions to help tighten and strengthen your current Work In Progress. Many times, I was able to check-off the element he was asking us to locate. Other times, I found places where I could punch up the tension or add elements I was missing entirely. If you ever get the chance to take one of his classes, I highly recommend it. He doesn’t tell you how to write or what to write but follows a socratic method which helps you find your own answers often hidden in the words you have already crafted.

However, I’d like to go back to the class introduction. Maas started by pointing out that books “with legs” were books often labeled as literary. He made note of a current overlooked trend of cross-genre, beautifully written works being the ones that were solid performers on the bestseller lists. Whereas hard-coded genre fiction bestsellers often rode the list for a few weeks and faded, these “books with legs” took time to percolate, often starting quietly and then situated themselves into long runs.

This contradicts something discussed later though, so keep it mind while I build the rest of the framework for the subtext.

It’s interesting to note that independently, in another class, keynote speaker Jonathan Maberry confirmed aspects of this trend. Speaking specifically on cross-genre writing, he explained the benefits of being placed on the general fiction shelf as opposed to a specific genre. The general fiction shelf is the first place the bulk of browsing readers go and this allows for more exposure. Also, it doesn’t turn people off. They’re more likely  to pick up a book if it says “general fiction” and not, say, horror or some other genre they have preconceived notions about.

At the conclusion of the conference, Maass gave the closing remarks. Despite the wisdom I walked away with on his craft advice, I only found myself in partial agreement with his industry advice.

He emphasized again the importance of cross-genre works and even spoke of things moving beyond genre categorization – a stance I’ve been championing for a year or so. I firmly believe Amazon type algorithms will outweigh and in some ways replace the often silly categorization that characterizes genre today. Rarely will people drill down to fiction>romance>supernatural>erotica>vampire on some list before they will click on the “if you liked this” link. This naturally further validates cross-genre writing. You want to be on an “if you liked you might also like” for as many readers as possible.

Maass then went on to cite a study that reportedly told us how books were discovered by readers. The study listed displays and signs in brick and mortar stores as being a bigger contributing factor than social media, word of mouth, newspaper ads and a whole host of other methods. Okay, now recall what was said earlier.

Earlier, we had books “with legs” slowly percolating to the top before reaching their stride. Then we had the flash in the pan formulaic books hitting that list and dropping off quickly. Are we to believe the books “with legs” slowly percolated through signs in the windows of brick and mortar stores? How long do they keep those displays up? Aren’t these more suited for the flash-in-the-pan books? Won’t the long-road success of the critically acclaimed mostly come about through word of mouth?

Look, Amazon is a BEAST. Why? Point and click delivery. “You might like this” one clicks as opposed to wandering aimlessly along aisles of hopefully-shelved-correctly books. Digital isn’t simply the future, it is increasingly the only way to shop. That is why they dominate the market at the moment. That and the growing tide that is eBooks.

eBooks kill regular books hands down on everything but experience and that experience is increasingly turning into nostalgia.

Here’s what it will take –  a single generation of kids growing up without books. And don’t look now but that generation is upon us. Public schools in my area no longer give out textbooks. Kids are expected to go online to view lessons or are encouraged to bring devices. These kids will become accustomed to screens. If they are readers, that is how they will pursue their hobby.

Then there are the logistics. Distribution – money – space. You don’t need a warehouse. You don’t need to fell a forest. You don’t commit the heresy of destroying un-purchased copies. You don’t pay for shipping and the carbon footprint for shuffling a few kilobytes along the digital highway has to be infinitesimally smaller than loading up cargo planes, semis, and delivery trucks and sending them coast to coast.

Anyone clinging to the idea that brick and mortar stores aren’t living on borrowed time is wandering around with blinders on. Don’t be that person. I’m not saying brick and mortar are going away tomorrow, but you, your agent, your publisher better be planning for a completely digital future right around the corner.

7 thoughts on “DFW Con Review and a Wake Up Call

  1. Alex Langley

    Yeah, I think Maass, for all his wisdom, is still an old fogey in some ways, particularly when it comes to the mind-blowing power of the internet for the distribution of ideas and creative arts. Dude’s spent his whole life building one kind of career and I think he just can’t bear to think that there are other options out there. Hell, one author I really like, Kelly Thompson, has published one novel and is about to publish another, all thanks to two wildly successful kickstarters that raised $26K and $57K respectively. Where does THAT fit into his brick-and-mortar ideology?

    • Russell Linton

      I agree and don’t get me wrong, if Maass stood up and gave me a shout out and demanded a full I would definitely send it to him *ahem*. The guy knows his stuff, especially how to spot and tease out the great elements of a story as taken from his class on Friday. But I swear, I could hear a train whistle behind him during the closing remarks and that was a bit disappointing. I’m sure if you handed him a book today, it would be in good hands, but what about the next one or the one after that? As much as I love book stores, they make increasingly less and less sense with current technology.

    • Russell Linton

      Cons are great. They can be hit or miss on quality, but I always walk away from them with something new up my sleeve. Another thing to explore would be smaller writer workshops or retreats. They often cost more and have more extensive requirements for signing up or being selected. Oh, and you are my favorite person right now, heh. Thanks for your interest in my writing!

  2. Daniel M. Bensen (@bensen_m)

    Very interesting information about cross-genre books. I’m glad my ideas about Amazon’s you-might-like-this algorithm are not just the wishful thinking of a cross-genre writer 🙂
    But I disagree about wood-pulp books. I see them surviving as three things:
    1) Collector’s items
    2) Gifts (like a bottle of wine)
    3) Children’s toys. Show my 1.5 year-old daughter (and my 5-10 year-old students) a screen, and they will start pressing buttons. Show them a book and they will read it and turn pages. Even e-books with beautiful color pictures on a HD screen will not grab their attention like a wood-pulp book.

    • Russell Linton

      You bring up an interesting point and I agree with you, books won’t completely disappear. Though it is interesting to note that Maberry also pointed out that the children’s section is often the largest section in the brick and mortars. Of course, they are most often hybrid toystore / bookstores sections. Those areas may definitely survive but could continue drifting away from a pure “bookstore”. I’d be curious about the very young kids and their lack of interest / attachment to screens. That would make for a fascinating study – think I’ll go dig around the net and see what’s out there!

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