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Why Sleuthfest Continues To Be the Best Writer’s Conference

Why Sleuthfest Continues To Be the Best Writer’s Conference
By Rebecca Swope

Robert Crais and Janet Evanovich at the 2006 Sleuthfest

Robert Crais and Janet Evanovich at the 2006 Sleuthfest

Sleuthfest, presented by the Florida Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, has become the penultimate working writers conference, providing workshops, panels,  along with pitches to agents and editors from some of the top publishing houses in the country. This year, it takes place in Deerfield Beach, Florida, from February 26 through March 1st, 2015, at the Hilton Doubletree Inn.

So, you ask, what is Sleuthfest and why should I think about attending?  Twenty-one years ago, a group of Mystery Writers of America-Florida Chapter members sat down in a meeting and decided to have a mystery writer’s conference. They decided they would present panels discussing the trends of the day, writing basics, and workshops on forensics, which was just then beginning to come into its own as a crime-fighting tool.

Past Guests of Honor have included Robert Crais, Robert Parker, Ace Atkins, Laura Lippman, Hank Phillipi Ryan and Harlan Coben. Workshop topics have included hands-on writing exercises, forensic procedures, and lessons in how to plot your novel. This year, some of the forensic topics include Hostage Negotiation and Embalming Procedures.

During the past twenty-one years, there have been numerous new writers who got their first publishing contracts as a result of an agent or editor appointment at Sleuthfest. Deborah Sharp, author of the Mace Bauer Mysteries is one such author. She tells us, “At Sleuthfest 2006, I pitched my much-polished manuscript for Mama Does Time to Barbara Moore, then the acquisitions editor for Midnight Ink. I remember hiding my hands on my lap so she couldn’t see them shaking. Despite my nerves, she liked the premise:  Wacky Southern ‘Mama’ finds a body in her trunk, and the police think she’s the killer. [Barbara] asked me to send the first 30 pages. I did, certain I’d have a contract in a few weeks. Six months passed before she read it. When she finally did, she asked if it was a series. Uhhh, absolutely? Right answer. A two-book contract became the first installments in the Mace Bauer Mystery Series. What I’d learned at prior Sleuthfests gave me the skills to switch from journalism to mystery-writing, and then the chance to pitch what I ended up writing. Full-circle!”

Laura Lippman, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Ace Atkins and Oline Cogdill in 2009

Laura Lippman, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Ace Atkins and Oline Cogdill in 2009

Besides the chance of pitching your book to an agent or editor, what makes Sleuthfest stand out among the myriad of mystery conferences? According to Don Bruns, author of twelve best-selling novels, including the award-winning REEL STUFF, “Sleuthfest is one of the most intimate conferences I attend.  I’ve gotten closer to agents, editors, publishers and authors because of the size of the event, and the amount of information, fresh ideas and panel discussions is unmatched.  I’ve been on shooting ranges, seen backwater crime scenes from a boat, signed with Robert Parker, stayed up drinking with Mickey Spillane’s agent until four in the morning and done many things I can’t even talk about. Many things I can’t even remember. It’s a great conference and gets better every year.”

Why do other writers attend Sleuthfest? Joanna Campbell Slan, best-selling author of the Jane Eyre mystery series, states that “Of all the conferences I’ve attended, Sleuthfest is the most warm and welcoming. Maybe it’s the fine Florida weather or the state chapter…who knows? Who cares? It’s just different, because experienced novelists and beginners always seem to mingle easily at SF.”

One of the main draws for Sleuthfest every year is the fact it is a true working writer’s conference, not a fan conference. Along with the editor/agent appointments and panels, there are workshops that address the beginning writer’s needs as well as those of the published author.  One particular set of workshops every year is called Third Degree Thursday, in which published authors teach hands-on writing classes. Some of the writers who have taught these workshops include P J Parrish, Elaine Viets, John Gilstrap, Dana Cameron, and many others.

According to Oline H. Cogdill, whose mystery fiction reviews appear in nearly 300 newspapers and websites worldwide and who was awarded the 2013 Raven from the Mystery Writers of America, “Sleuthfest is the only conference that stresses the craft of writing. It is like a master class in characterization, plotting, dialogue and also forensics. No other conference does that. I always tell would-be writers that if they want to learn or published authors who need a jumpstart that Sleuthfest will help. Often I have heard attendees say they can’t wait to get home to start writing. That’s a wonderful compliment for Sleuthfest.”

Another difference between Sleuthfest and other mystery conferences is the hands-on style of the volunteers, and the long-time involvement most of them have with running the conference. Unlike Bouchercon, which has new “runners” and volunteers every year, Sleuthfest is run by a crew of MWA-Florida members who have this process down to a fine art. For example, Lesley A. Diehl and Glenn E. Nilson have “…worked on-site registration at Sleuthfest for the past five or so years, so we have gotten to know the people behind the scenes who put together this conference as well as met almost all the people who attend.  We’ve been impressed with the consideration the planners have given to the needs of writers, not only those already published but also those seeking publication.  The conference has stayed abreast of the changing scene in publishing especially with respect to ebooks and self-publication offering workshops on these topics.  I never come away from the conference without some new ideas for how to promote and market my books.  The speakers are inspiring.  It’s a place where you really feel like a writer, the place where I first felt I was among people who felt the same passion I did about my work.  And a side benefit?  Where else in the US is it warm in February but in Florida?”

This year, Sleuthfest 2015 promises to be the best conference yet. Guests of Honor include Keynote James Patterson, Florida Guest of Honor James W. Hall, Forensic Guest of Honor Ric Gillespie, and Sunday Special Speaker humorist Dave Barry. Workshops on Thursday and throughout the weekend will focus on various aspects of writing mysteries and thrillers. Some of the best lessons I have learned, however, have been in the informal environs of the bar and parties after the hard work of the conference is done.

All in all, Sleuthfest is the best working writer’s conference for beginners and old hands alike. So come on, go online to www.sleuthfest.com, register, and join us in Florida in February. You can’t lose!

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