A Part, Yet Apart

So, I’ve been thinking about the science fiction convention experience and wondering if I’m alone in my relationship with cons or whether it’s something more general to writers attempting to make their way up the pro ladder. Because, as a professional genre writer I find that I feel both a part of the convention community and apart from it.

It has not always been this way for me. I am a 3rd generation fan, my mother and grandmother were part of the effort to save the original Star Trek series and somewhere around here I have typewritten note from the series producers thanking them for their efforts along with a black and white publicity photo. OTOH, they were not convention going fans. It wasn’t until I was 15 that I first went to a convention, the old MiniCon, when it was huge.

I had a blast. And for about a decade I went to MiniCon every year. Then, for various reasons I stopped going. It was about the same time that I got really serious about my writing and decided to make a career of it, but the two events were largely unrelated. Then for maybe 6-8 years I didn’t attend a con. I finally started going to conventions again in my early 30s with WisCon which I first went to for the combined allure of a writer heavy convention and a feminist/academic convention. Since my wife is an academic who does research on women in science from within the physics department she now chairs, it made for a great twofer.

Because WisCon is much more professional and academically oriented than MiniCon was, it took me a number of years to notice how my relationship with conventions had changed. It wasn’t until I started going to MarsCon and CONvergence in the Twin Cities that it really hit home.

I used to go to cons as a fan/actor and make costume/clothes changes every couple of hours. I never went to panels. I always went to parties. I wanted to make a certain kind of splash and I often did. I certainly gave the concom people reason to roll their eyes at me on occasion, like when I was playing in the pool in 30 pounds of chainmail or sliding down the steel slope between the escalators. I felt completely immersed in the experience and as though I was surrounded by my people.

When I returned to the convention scene I did so in professional clothes (I even wore a suit coat from time to time, though I draw the line at ties). I attended and was on tons of panels, mostly about writing. I rarely went to parties. I went out of my way to not stress out the concom folks. I was shooting for a very different kind of splash.

Now, some of that is simply that I did an enormous amount of growing up between the two phases of my convention-going, but a lot of it had to do with my changed relationship to the genre. I no longer saw the creators of the various f&sf media as people apart from me, people whose job it was to entertain me. I had come to think of them as my peers, and in ever growing numbers, my friends. Andre Norton was no longer ANDRE NORTON! She was someone I shared an agent with. Instead of seeing NEIL GAIMAN, I see someone I’ve had tea with. The concom was no longer a mysterious entity whose radar it was best to keep off of. Rather, the people running the convention are long time friends and  acquaintances.

At the same time I’ve grown closer to the people making things run at conventions and the creators of the field, I’ve grown more distant from the general run of fans. That’s partially because you interact differently with someone who is a fan of yours than you do with someone with whom your primary point of commonality is a shared fandom of someone else, and partially because knowing more creators and more about the process makes me much more reluctant to indulge in some of the more nasty sorts of criticism I once might have made. It’s not so much that I don’t have strong opinions about whether I like something or not as that I’m much more reluctant to think of my tastes as being the same as good taste or to claim that there is one true standard of quality. Again, a lot of that is simply growing up, but not all of it.

So, while I find that I go to many more conventions than I used to and that I still love the experience I have in some ways stepped out of my old role as a part of the clan and into a new one that holds me at least a little bit apart from the clan. It’s role that I am proud to have assumed, but it is not always a comfortable one.

What about you? How do you relate to conventions? If you’re a pro or aspiring pro has that relationship changed over time?

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  1. 1. King Rat

    I “went” to NorWesCon once. By went, I mean that I showed up to the hotel and then drove home after seeing the bedlam. I did not want to dress up. I didn’t drink. I did not care about gaming, or alternative marriage arrangements, or singing, or a billion other things that folks there were into.

    I’ve always been a reader. I can sort of get into SF in other media, but my interest there is limited. A lot of cons and con goers are all about the shared fandom, and it’s a broad universe they share: gaming, and costuming and whatnot.

    I went to WisCon this year and enjoyed it quite a lot. Not so much because of the academic focus or because there were lots of writers. But because it largely focuses on the writing.

    I have a personal problem with the mess that most cons are, but if the folks who go there enjoy it,more power to them. I won’t go though and I don’t understand how people find it enjoyable. I wish there were more that are focused on reading and literature.

  2. 2. Kelly McCullough

    King Rat, thanks for the comment. If you’re primarily focused on the literary side of fandom, you might consider ReaderCon. I haven’t been myself, but I’ve heard nothing but good about it and its core literary focus is right there in the name.

  3. 3. Mindy Klasky

    I attended one Star Trek convention when I was 15 years old and a very lonely teen in a new-to-me city. I was totally oblivious to most fannish activity, surprised when a 20-something guy hit on me, and disappointed in the way that Shatner clearly thought that he was better than everyone else.

    I didn’t attend any other convention until Chicon in 2000, when my first novel came out. So, I don’t have any fannish frame of reference, which I regret sometimes, when I’m feeling lost and on the edge of cons these days.

    In ways, the con experience feels a bit like overnight camp experience. I never was a camper, but I worked as the drama counselor at a camp for three summers. I liked what I did – a lot – but I never totally grokked the notion of camp, having not done it as a kid.

  4. 4. Abra Staffin Wiebe

    I started going to conventions last year as a practical next step towards becoming a pro SF/F writer (not there yet!), along with joining a face-to-face writing group (MinnSpec) and starting a newsletter with SF/F markets and links. It leaves me in an odd “neither fish nor fowl” sort of place.

  5. 5. leah

    My first con was Minicon, back in the old days (1977 or 78 was my first con.) I helped out, and would be in charge of the con suite during the *early* 6 AM shift all weekend. I never really was part of the costumed element, however.

    From about 1997 onward I started attending cons as a professional, that is, wearing nicer clothing, attending more panels and less parties.

    There are a number of cons that I go to as a professional now (more some years than others) and you’re right, there’s more of a disconnect with fandom, though I generally have a good time. This year I attended a con as a fan instead of as a professional, and had an absolute blast. I think I’m going to try to go to at least one con per year as a fan, and the rest as a professional, just to be more balanced.

  6. 6. Maria Lima

    Yup. What you said. I’ve been attending cons since I was 18 or so (I’m 50) and the whole experience changed as soon as I was a published pro writer. I dress differently. I relate to the various groups differently. Like you, I find myself sharing an agent/editor with names I used to fangrrl. It’s a heady thing sometimes. :)

    Probably the hugest difference: It’s *work* as much as play. As a naturally social introvert, I find I need more time to recuperate post-con. No more dead dog parties for me.

    Not that any of this is a bad thing, just a different experience and with every con, I’m learning more and more how different.

  7. 7. Kelly McCullough

    Mindy, the camper thing is a very interesting analogy. Thanks.

    Abra, yes, I think it’s even harder being at cons at the trying to publish but not yet established phase. I know it was quite awkward for me even with past congoing experience to give me some clue as what I should be doing.

    Leah, I think you have something there. A couple of times at WisCon my life stress has been such that I didn’t let myself be on any programming, just treated it as a vacation and it’s been lovely. Not quite the same thing, but close enough that I can see how that might be really really nice.

    Maria, that’s a good point about it being work. It’s seriously fun work, work that I love, but definitely work. I’m always aware at a convention that I’m part of the show as well as part of the audience.

  8. 8. Liane Merciel

    Interesting post, good food for thought. I’m leaving for my first-ever convention (GenCon in Indianapolis) in a couple of hours as an author who is “prepublished” in the old sense (first novel, _The River Kings’ Road_, coming out from Pocket in March 2010, WOO!!). So I’m also in that “neither fish nor fowl” in-between state, being not quite a pure fan and not yet a pro.

    Since it’s my first convention I’m planning to just go see what everything’s about and what the experience is like and not stress too much about trying to figure out where I fit in, but it does make me feel a little weird when I think about that.

    I don’t want it to be work! Not yet. Waaah.

  9. 9. Kelly McCullough

    Liane, it’s fun work, kind of like the writing itself. Good luck with the book launch!

  10. 10. ELIAS MCCLELLAN

    Excuse my ignorance but is the con-experience constructive in pursuit of publication? I’m an aspiring writer and I live in Houston, a wasteland for any such endeavor. I’m contemplating making the trip for a con but at 40, I feel old enough already without appearing as the rusty-freak. Additionally, I’m not the best/brightest in networking though I am extroverted and can ‘pimp’ with the best o’ them. Any suggestions would be truly appreciated.

  11. 11. Kelly McCullough

    Elias, it depends.

    Cons are probably the number one place that the f&sf community gets together to meet and greet. If you’re moderately articulate and have opinions on writing and a few fannish passions (Star Trek, LOTR, Buffy, Heinlein, whatever) you can have a lot of fun and make new friends, some of whom may well be helpful to your career at some point.

    At the same time, if you go to them only as a way of meeting editors and agents for schmoozing you’re probably wasting your time. There’s really very little that’s more offputting for a pro than the feeling that the person you’re talking to sees you primarily as a stepping stone.

    I talked a little bit about going to cons as part of a writing career a while back at wyrdsmiths but this assumes some writing credits already.

    And Chris York did a great post on congoing a while back.

    But the more I think about the more I’m thinking that I really ought to do a longer post on the subject. Check back here later and if I do piece elsewhere I’ll post a link in this thread, otherwise, perhaps I’ll one for SFnovelists.

  12. 12. ELIAS MCCLELLAN

    Thank you so much! As I said, I’m far from shy but I was raised with some sense of propriaty. Having met one of my heros at repeated signings and having the benefit of other pros through the only workshop I’ve found in Houston, I would be loath to disrespect anyone by shilling thru association. Unfortunately my passions lend toward the nigh-impossible; StarWars and Babylon5. SW seems to be by invitation (established pros) only, while B5 sadly seems defunct.

    Is this the case (invitation/pros only) with most franchised/licensed universes?

  13. 13. Kelly McCullough

    Elias, you’re welcome. Invitations to or proposals from established authors mostly. But I wasn’t thinking so much of writing in the franchises as having something besides writing to talk about with people. If you’re too writing focused you run the risk of coming across as being at the con solely for your own commercial interests and that can be offputting.

    For that matter, I found that I got a lot more business done at cons where I didn’t have much of a business agenda then I did at the cons where I was looking for opportunities.

  14. 14. Elias McClellan

    Ahh, I get what you’re saying and it only took me 6 or 7 times around the park to get there. I run the risk of appearing mercinary or even better, a bore; lovely.

    All my deliberation is foolish anyway as I will probably be completely overwhelmed by my first con-experience. I would hope to be too impressed, entertained, and/or a burden to my wife to successfully embarrass myself attempting to network.

    I’m thinking I should probably take a page (all puns intended) from Elmore Leonard and just focus on writing and leave the publishing to itself.

  15. 15. Kelly McCullough

    Well, there’s the appearances issue, but there’s also the issue of simply having fun. I pretty much guarantee that if you go to a con as a writer and have a lot of fun and good conversation you’re much more likely to attract readers and develop useful relationships with publishing pros. That’s just the nature of the beast.

    That said, the Elmore Leonard route has a lot to recommend it. I don’t do any promo or networking that I don’t think would be fun even if I didn’t have books to promote.

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Author Information

Kelly McCullough

Kelly McCullough is a fantasy and science fiction author. He lives in Wisconsin with his physics professor wife and a small herd of cats. His novels include the WebMage and Fallen Blade series—Penguin/ACE. His short fiction has appeared in numerous venues including Writers of the Future and Weird Tales. He also dabbles in science fiction as science education with The Chronicles of the Wandering Star—part of an NSF-funded science curriculum—and the science comic Hanny & the Mystery of the Voorwerp, which he co-authored and co-edited—funding provided by NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope. Visit site.

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