Sunday, October 10, 2010

Tea with Sara-Jayne Townsend

This week Toad had tea with author Sara Townsend, who was happy to share a little about her experiences at writing cons.

Tell us more about some of the conventions you’ve attended.

There’s a difference between ‘conventions’ and ‘conferences’ and I’ve attended enough of both to be able to tell the difference. Conventions usually feature panels, where a group of people discuss a topic. Conferences have talks―one person discusses a topic, and it tends to be a bit more structured. People will often dress up in costumes for conventions―this doesn’t happen at conferences.

Conventions I attend regularly include FantasyCon and EasterCon. FantasyCon is the annual convention of the British Fantasy Society and is usually in September. “Fantasy” in this case tends to embrace the genres of dark fantasy, horror and SF, as well as more traditional fantasy. EasterCon, also known as Odyssey, is another annual con, specialising in SF (film, TV and books) and is generally held somewhere in the UK over the Easter Weekend (hence the name).

This year was my first year attending World Horror Con, which is hosted by the Horror Writers’ Association and is generally in North America, but this year was in Brighton. I also regularly attend the Winchester Writers’ Conference, held in June every year at Winchester University, and the St Hilda’s Crime & Mystery Conference, held in Oxford in the summer. The latter two involve staying in student dorms, which can be quite an adventure in itself―trotting down the corridor in your pyjamas to the toilet block is a whole different experience when you’re over 30, than when you’re an 18-year-old student.

Did you get to see any of your favourite authors? If so, who, and what was especially memorable about their presentations?

As a crime fan, I particularly like the St Hilda’s Conference, because it’s quite a small conference and you get pretty up-close and personal with a lot of crime writers. Val McDermid is a regular speaker at St Hilda’s, and her talks are always very entertaining. She has a lot of time for new writers too.

PD James did a particularly interesting talk at St Hilda’s recently, in which she talked about a writer selling film rights, and the difficulties of converting a book to a film. I got the opportunity to talk to her afterwards, about the film adaptation of her story Children of Men. She felt the film version was very different from her story, but she enjoyed the film, and she said she would rather have a good film that was different from her story, than a bad film that was faithful to the original.

Do you have any amusing anecdotes relating to conventions that you’d like to share?

Not so much amusing but I have a couple of inspiring stories I’d like to share with you.
My contract with Lyrical Press arrived just a couple of days before I left for the St Hilda’s Mystery Conference last year. I was therefore still deciding whether it was the right thing for me. My dreams of publication had always involved print copies of my book and signing sessions, and I knew that signing up with LPI would involve electronic publication with no guarantee of a print book, so I was still considering whether they were the right publisher for me.

That first evening at St Hilda’s I happened to find myself, quite by chance, sitting next to a literary agent at dinner. This particular agent I had met before, and in fact she has rejected two of my novels, including Suffer the Children. But in spite of that she had encouraging things to say about both, and is a lovely person, and I don’t bear her any grudges. Over dinner I told her about the contract I’d been offered and asked her what her professional view was on this. She encouraged me to go for it, relaying her view that e-publishing was going to become big business over the next few years and all publishers were going to have to find a way of working with it, as e-books were here to stay. Encouraged by her opinion, when I returned home from the conference I signed the contract.

I have another story about the first year I attended the Winchester Writer’s Conference. I had arranged to meet with two agents for my one-to-one pitch meetings, and for my third meeting, which had to be with someone other than an agent or editor, I chose Sally Spedding, who as a writer of crime and supernatural novels I thought might be able to offer me some helpful advice.
The two agent appointments were first, and I pitched my recently-finished crime novel to them. Although they both offered helpful comments on how I could improve, they both felt the novel wasn’t yet saleable, and I came away feeling somewhat deflated. But then I had my appointment with Sally, who had read the first chapter of my crime novel, Death Scene, and she said it was the best thing she’d read all weekend, I had talent and I had an idea worth sticking with. My meeting with Sally made my weekend. I have stayed in contact with her since then, and she has continued to be extremely supportive and encouraging. I came out of the agent appointments thinking I should just shelve the book and work on something new, but after meeting Sally I was encouraged to start sending it out again.

I tell these stories because sometimes just one person you meet at a con can change your future.

As an author, what do you think is the most important aspect of attending a convention?

The most important thing is to not be afraid of talking to people. The only way to meet people at conventions is to go up and introduce yourself. People are generally friendly and everyone wears name badges, so it’s easy to spot people that you think you might like to meet. The best place to meet people is in the bar. So don’t be shy. If you see an author whose books you really like, go and tell them so. Another good conversation opener is approaching someone you saw on a panel―perhaps they made a point that you thought was a particularly good one. When you’re an unpublished writer you are sometimes tempted to put successful writers up on pedestals, but in reality all writers are the same, and we all like talking to someone who’s got intelligent or encouraging things to say about our writing.

You should also not be afraid of going by yourself. Plenty of people go to cons alone, and everyone’s looking for someone to talk to. If your worst fear is that you’ll stand all by yourself all evening, find someone else who also looks a bit lost and go and talk to them. Another good place to meet people at cons is at meal times, especially if you’re staying in the con hotel. Some of the most interesting conversations at cons happen over breakfast.

If you’re a writer with a book coming out, make sure you don’t go anywhere convention-related without your business cards or promotional material about your book. Whenever you chat to anyone, you should give them a business card. I learned this the hard way at World Horror Con. We arrived on Friday night, dumped our stuff in the room, and headed out to the bar. I then found myself talking to all manner of interesting people and my business cards were back in the hotel room.

There are usually book launches at cons. Try and get to as many as you can, even if they are for writers you are not familiar with. You never know who else you will meet there, and it’s worth investing in a new author. They might get the opportunity to return the favour one day and buy your book.

Are there any conventions you think fit the bill as “The top conventions to attend before you die?”

It really depends on what you want to get out of them. A convention geared towards your particular genre as a writer, such as World Horror Con for horror writers and Easter Con for SF writers can be invaluable, and everyone writing in the genre should attend at least one.
I would recommend the Winchester Writers’ Conference for anyone starting out in their writing career, or who is beginning to pitch their novel, because it’s the best place to meet agents or editors there. I can’t really speak for any of the US writer-orientated Cons. I know there are a lot of them, but I’ve only attended UK ones.

Some conventions, however, are just geared towards fans, and only geeky fan girls (or boys) will get anything out of them. Personally speaking, as a die-hard Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan, I would very much like to attend at least one Buffy Con before I die.
* * * *
Sara-Jayne Townsend writes horror and crime fiction. Whichever genre she writes in, somebody always dies in a horrible way. By day, she works as a personal assistant at a medical college. By night, she kills people off in her stories.

She is a UK-based writer, living in Surrey with her guitarist husband and two cats, but spent most of the 1980s living in Canada after her family emigrated there.
Her first novel, Suffer the Children, was released by Lyrical Press, Inc as an e-book this year.

She is founder and chair person of the T Party Writers’ Group, the longest-running writing group in London specialising in genre fiction.

Her website can be found at:

You can also catch up with her ramblings on books, writing and commuting life on her blog, at


  1. What a fascinating interview. I shall do my very best to at least attend Harrogate this year.

    And oh! You used my toad. How lovely!

  2. Of course I used your toad. It is a most beautiful toad! Many, many thanks!