The Skill List Project: SF Conventions

This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Recently, I’ve been discussing personal management skills rather than skills involved directly with story construction. This time around, we’ll look at the skills associated with attending SF conventions. Maybe you wouldn’t connect convention-going with the word “skill”, but if you approach conventions as a writer who wants to get the most out of the experience, skill is definitely involved.

Conventional Choices

Many of you already know a lot about science fiction/fantasy conventions, but let’s start with the basics for readers who’ve never attended one. Most cons are multi-ring circuses with parties, discussion panels, lectures and interviews, art shows, salesrooms, showings of films/TV/anime, gaming sessions, and many additional events. Some cons lean toward the literary side of SF, while others are more media-oriented (movies, comic books, video games, etc.). Some cons have tens of thousands of attendees, while others may fit snugly in a single room. Some cons are designed to gouge as much money as possible from your pockets; others are labors of love that seldom break even; most are somewhere in between.

Some cons have people dressed as Klingons or Lady Hawkguy. Other cons shudder at the thought. That’s okay—our genre is broad. If you enjoy science fiction and/or fantasy, there’s almost certainly a con that will suit your tastes, whether you lean toward Michael Bey or Ursula K. Le Guin.

Big conventions can attract an impressive roster of guests: professional writers, editors, media stars, and others. Smaller conventions often have one or two “big name” guests of honor, plus assorted mid-list professionals (like yours truly).

There’s usually a trade-off between a con’s size and its degree of interaction. At a big con, you can sit in a crowded auditorium and listen to giants of the field talk about their writing; at a smaller con, you can have coffee and chat directly with someone who may not be a “star” but who’s published a few books and may have interesting things to say.

Quite likely, there’s a con within driving distance of you. You should also check out some of the major-league conventions, like Worldcon, World Fantasy, World Horror, and Dragoncon. I could list many more A-list conventions (and no doubt, some people will argue with my selections) but if you go searching, you’re bound to find at least one con that looks interesting.

Why Go to Cons?

Why go to conventions? First of all, they can be fun; what’s not to like about getting together with people who enjoy the same kind of writing that you do?

Well, okay—the Web has plenty of convention horror stories, from sexual harassment and assault to gross organizational ineptitude. I don’t want to dismiss these problems: some folks have had terrible con-going experiences, and it’s wrong just to shrug and say, “Shit happens.” However, I have hope that things are improving; in the past few years, some prominent ugly incidents have brought attention to problems like harassment, thereby raising public consciousness. Too many convention organizers have dragged their feet in finding effective remedies for such messes, but I think the tide has turned. Increased public awareness and outcry have delivered the message that conventions can’t get away with ignoring bad behavior. Maybe I’m too much of an optimist, but I believe a clean-up has begun, and future conventions will be safer and more enjoyable for all concerned.

Therefore let’s set such negatives aside (pending further developments), and look at the positives. What good things can you get out of an SF convention, especially if you’re a writer? I see at least three important returns.

1. Renewing Your Creative Juices

Whenever I go to a con, I come back with pages of notes. (You carry a notebook, right? Or some device that’s so easy to take notes with, you never hesitate to write things down? Of course, you do. You’re a writer.) My notes always include the names of many new books I want to read and web sites I want to visit, based on recommendations from people at the con. My notes also include new ideas I came up with while listening to other people talk.

Because conventions are idea factories. Listen to writers talk about writing (or editors talk about editing, or artists talk about drawing/painting), and sleeping parts of your brain will awaken. You think of things you want to write about. You get new perspectives on any writing problems you might be facing.

You also get ambition. You find yourself wanting to reach higher, to dig deeper, to write great things. Or at least that’s what happens to me. Even in these days of convenient access to books and blogs and the thoughts of other writers, it’s easy for me to be insular. I work alone seven days a week. I sometimes develop tunnel vision, doing the same-old same-old and following habitual paths. Even if you have a writers group to broaden the tunnel of your vision, you have a limited exposure to other outlooks.

Cons give you a chance to listen and talk with people outside your everyday circle: people who care just as much as you do about writing and SF, but who can provide different ways of seeing and thinking. Cons can fertilize your brain…if you let them.

That’s where skill comes in. Interacting with people is a skill. Learning to listen is also a skill, as is learning which parts of a con will be productive for you and which may not be. (I guarantee, at any con you’ll hear someone make pronouncements that are dreadful—maybe not out-and-out false, but totally wrong for you. It’s a skill to learn to ignore Mr. or Ms. Big Name Author who says, “You must do it this way.”)

2. Making and Maintaining Connections

Speaking of Mr. or Ms. Big Name Author, it’s good to make acquaintances. That goes double for meeting editors. Cons give you a chance to make contact with such people at a time when they’re open to be approached.

Professionals go to cons with the intention of building bridges. Be sensitive to the time and the place—striking up conversation at the urinal may not be the best way of introducing yourself to someone important—but for people in the industry, an SF convention is a business occasion. They expect to meet new people, and usually they’re happy to do so…especially up-and-coming writers with good social and professional skills. Many cons have meet-and-greet events; if a writer or editor attends such an event, that’s an open declaration of being amenable to making new acquaintances. Say hi; join a conversation.

Of course, you want to make a good impression. Don’t be a jerk or an obvious suck-up. You want to establish a cordial acquaintance. You also want to renew any acquaintances established at previous cons or meetings. Publishing is a business, and you want to be business-like: courteous and friendly, but professional.

Connections are also important with writers who are just starting out, as well as with fans and readers. Get to know people…and not just as a means to an end. Cons let you make real friends as well as business contacts. Some cons I go to for professional reasons, and others just to hang out with people I like. Both are good.

3. Putting Yourself Out There

I dislike the phrase “shameless self-promotion”. It implies that promoting yourself really ought to be a source of shame. But why? You aren’t trying to cheat or deceive people. Surely you’re writing stories you believe in, to the best of your abilities. What’s shameful about trying to get the word out?

(Hanging above my desk, I have a quotation from Havi Brooks: “You are not serving anyone by keeping yourself small.” If you’re writing good stories, having them read by lots of people will make the world a better place.)

To reach an audience, you have to make your work known…and making yourself known can be an important part of getting your stories read. At cons, you can raise your profile; you can do readings; you can appear on panels and attempt to say useful/interesting things. You don’t want to make a bad impression, but speaking clearly and articulately is a learnable skill. It takes practice and preparation, but it’s do-able and it’s important.

Yes, many writers are introverts…but learning to present yourself well in public just isn’t that hard. Here’s an example. I’ve taken kung fu for a long time, and one of the requirements at our school is that students training for their black sash have to lead warm-ups. The first time that students lead a warm-up, they’re often nervous, inaudible, and subject to mental blanks on even the most basic exercises. However, by the fifth time they lead a warm-up, it’s no big deal. This is stuff they know how to do—stuff they’ve been doing for years—and all they have to do is get organized and put things clearly into words.

The same is true for writers at conventions. One of the first panels I ever did, I was sitting beside Harlan Ellison. Talk about intimidating! But nothing bad happened. Harlan said a lot, I said a little, and the hour went by. That was years ago, and quite possibly, I’m the only person in the world who remembers that panel at all. For me, it was a learning experience: mostly learning to chill out and not to psych myself into a sweat.

Meanwhile, an audience of avid readers saw me on the same stage as Harlan Ellison. I doubt that any of them said, “Wow, that Gardner guy is brilliant,” but they saw my face, they heard my name, and maybe that sold a few books.

Dead Dog Party

Traditionally, the “Dead Dog Party” takes place at the very end of a convention…and this is the end of this post. Next time, we’ll continue talking about writing-management skills, although I have no idea what topic we’ll look at. Consider that a cliffhanger; come back in a month to see how I get out of this one.

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Author Information

James Alan Gardner

James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.

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