If you’re writing in the science fiction/fantasy genre, then conferences, conventions, and symposiums (hereafter referred to simply as “cons,” because I don’t want to write all that out) are a must.* I’ve been going for about eight years, and I love it. At first, they were my way of exploring the genre—expanding what I knew, and how I wrote. While they still serve that function, they also help me in other ways, now , namely networking, getting my name out there, and meeting new people.
Basically, cons are important. Let me get right down to it and tell you why you should be attending them:
- To meet people! Other authors, agents, editors, reviewers, and—most importantly—fans (current or potential). Much of this counts as networking, which I’ll talk more about next week, but a great deal of it is just making friends (which is really what good networking comes down to anyway, I think). I’ve met many people at cons, a fair number of whom have become good friends. These people might be able to help my writing career someday, and they might not, but the truth is that’s not what’s important. (Contrary to what I though when I first attended cons—I thought I should only find and associate with people who could further my career, and I couldn’t have been more wrong. I wasted a lot of time at cons, psyched myself out of meeting a lot of cool people, and I generated more than a few awkward moments because of this mentality.) So go forth and meet folks—turns out they’re actually pretty cool.
- To learn things! Most cons offer a plethora of panels and presentations on just about anything you can imagine, from the craft of writing to Battlestar Galactica to how to find/speak to agents and editors (and how not to, incidentally, which might be even more important) and more.
- To see how professionals act at cons! If you’re an aspiring author, you’re also an aspiring participant on panels, readings, and signings. Get used to that, it’s an important part of the business—and a fun part, too! By watching professionals speak on panels, read their work, and interact with fans (and with other pros, for that matter), you can get an idea of how to act now. Ain’t nothing wrong with acting like a professional now, by the way—it’ll just make you more prepared for things down the road when you get invited to participate in cons.**
- To get out of your own head! Writing is a solitary thing, and I actually think that’s a big reason why many of us choose to pursue it. But no one is an island, and just because I’m an introvert doesn’t mean that I can survive on my own—I can’t. I need people, I need interaction, and at cons I can interact with my people. It’s a good thing.
If you’re an aspiring writer, you probably already know how important they are. So let’s get practical. Here are some tips on how to attend cons:
- Be nice—to everyone. Whether you’re interacting with a pro (another author, an agent, an editor, etc.), a fan, or someone in between, kindness is the best strategy. If we can find a way to do this simply because it’s something we want to do, that’s ideal. But, if you need real motivation, just consider the fact that literally anyone you meet at cons could one day be a pro, and could one day have a say in your career. If you were kind to them when they were a wide-eyed fan, they’ll remember it. If you weren’t, well, they’ll remember that too, if you get my meaning.
- Go with someone, or in a group, if possible. I didn’t do this, and I regret it. I wish I’d had the gumption to be a bit more outgoing at those early conventions, to ask folks I knew and friends I had if they’d be willing to share the cost of a hotel room or go talk to agents together or something. I didn’t, and I think things might’ve been a bit easier—or at least a bit more fun—if I had. If you don’t have friends that go to cons (I didn’t really, at least not at first), don’t panic. As I’ve said before, you can make friends there. Be nice, reach out to others. It’s scary, but it’s rewarding.
- Soak up the panels and presentations. There’s a lot of information to be had, and I still try to absorb as much of it as I can. However, don’t focus too much on the panels. I did that in the beginning because I felt awkward walking alone outside of them. Panels were safe to me, so I filled my schedule from dawn to dusk. I learned a lot, but I think my time would’ve been better spent—and happier—if I’d focused more on connecting with other people.
- Along those lines, TALK TO PEOPLE. Whether it’s in hallways between panels, in the dealer’s room, and especially at the bar in the evenings. If a group invites you out to a meal with them, go ahead and skip that “Networking” panel (or whatever) that you were going to attend and go to lunch with them! Doing is better than thinking about doing 100% of the time. (That said, don’t invite yourself to go along with a group to lunch—if you get an invite, be gracious and happy about it. If you don’t, no worries—you will.)
- Be as professional as possible. You don’t have to a suit or anything, or even business casual for that matter—I usually wear Buffy t-shirts and a jacket of some kind (because they usually keep temps low at these cons)—but you should look nice. (Of course, that might have different connotations depending on your personal style, and that’s okay—cons are a wonderful place to be exactly who you are. Although I will say, if you’re trying to network, it might be a good idea to hold off on the cosplay, as fun as that can be.) Shower daily and wear deodorant (you don’t think I’d have to say this, but trust me, I do). Brush your teeth. Carry mints around. First impressions are a big deal; be conscious of yours.
- Take advantage of free/cheap opportunities. There are a lot of them at cons, mostly in the forms of kaffeeklatsches, workshops, pitch sessions, and of course panels. Free things are the best—if you can get into a conversation with an author and ten other people (a kaffeeklatsch), go for it! But you find an opportunity to have your work critiqued by a couple pros and it costs twenty bucks or so, I suggest you take it. I did that a few years ago, and it was more than worth it—one of the pros who critiqued my work even gave me a shout out (sort of) in one of the panels she was on! It was awesome, and a great opportunity to meet other writers.***
- Don’t be a pitching robot. It isn’t cool to go around to everyone you meet and immediately pitch your book or whatever. Chill out! Almost everyone will eventually ask why you’re there, anyway. Let it come up naturally. (There is some exception to this when talking to agents and editors—there isn’t always time to get to know someone—but that’s a subject for another post.)
- After you’ve attended a few cons, think about attending one or two outside your genre. I’ve attended AWP and the Symposium on Books for Young Readers. While neither experience was particularly my cup of tea, it was helpful to see how things worked outside of my own genre.
- Have fun! That’s what cons are for—they’re for people who love all things SF/F to come together, talk about what they love, and get to know one another. Soak it up, enjoy it, and be a part of the experience.
* I kind of think they’re important in pretty much any genre, too—but, of course, being a fantasy writer, I’ll talk about what I know :-).
** A caveat, here: not all professionals are worth emulating. Most of them certainly are, but some aren’t. Please be aware of who is treating others with kindness and courtesy—not only respecting people’s time and space, but their ideas and opinions as well—and who isn’t. Try to be like the former group of people.
*** Another caveat: don’t get ripped off. Like I said, if this kind of thing costs you twenty bucks or so, go for it! You might as well try it, and if it’s a good experience, wonderful, if not, you at least know it isn’t worth it. But if things start getting pricey, don’t feel bad about not jumping at those opportunities. They aren’t necessary, trust me.