Two years ago, I had no idea that science fiction and fantasy conventions existed. I only had a vague sense of the beast known as “fandom” and I didn’t know what anyone was saying about any of the books I was or wasn’t reading. When I imagined a writer’s life, it pretty much consisted of me in front of my computer screen typing. And in fact, that is exactly what I did with my first novel. I sat in front of my screen and typed. I didn’t talk about it much, considering how all-consuming a project it was.
It wasn’t until after I completed my rough draft that I began to learn about the social side of writing. I learned that I was supposed to attend these events called “conventions”. And given that I had decided to throw all in on the writing dream this time around, I dutifully bought a plane ticket and headed out. I had no idea what to expect.
A year and a half after that first convention (Wiscon 2009, for those keeping track), I pretty much do know what to expect. And having just returned from World Fantasy and having the convention scene firmly in mind, I’m going to share what I’ve learned.
Go to panels. People will tell you they never go to panels because they’re too busy hanging out with friends in the bar. Don’t feel bad about this. Go to the panels that you find interesting. You’ll probably find less of the panels interesting later on, since you’ll have already attended many of them, so take advantage of them now. Someday you will know enough people that you too can spend the entire con at the bar. The fact that you don’t magically know that many people after one day (or a couple of cons) doesn’t reflect negatively on you.
Corollary: when you do start spending all of your time hanging out at the bar, enjoy it to the fullest. Sit at the bar with glee, before it too becomes old hat.
Find your people. At every convention and conference I’ve attended, I end up spending the most time with a few people who I think are the most awesome people ever. They might be people you knew ahead of time, although they often aren’t (they’re often the people the people you knew ahead of time introduce you to, though).
Corollary: Try not to smother your people. That’s why you’ll ideally need more than one. This is another good reason to attend panels and readings, giving them space, and then you can catch up with them later.
Don’t be afraid to talk to people. I know, I know, if you are an introvert, this is the most painful thing ever. But everyone else is also there to meet people, so most of them will be nice to you. This is yet another good reason to attend the panels and readings, because then you’ll have an automatic topic for conversation if this sort of thing is hard for you. Sometimes the best opportunities for talking come at in-between times: in the meeting room right after the panel ends, or when you’re waiting in line outside a reading that’s about to start, or when people are randomly hanging out in the halls.
Corollary: This doesn’t mean you’re allowed to be a stalking crazy-fan person. The established authors, editors, and agents are there to work and see their colleagues whom they only get to see a few times a year. You can talk to them, sure, but don’t be alarmed or surprised if they can’t talk for long.
Go to parties. No con experience is complete without shoving yourself into a hot, stinky party room, forever popular for the free booze and high skill level involved to actually hear a word anyone else is saying. However, unless you absolutely cannot avoid it, don’t go alone. This is a time to start out with your people (which is why you craftily gave them space earlier in the day while you were busy — you got it — attending panels). Hopefully your people will introduce you to more people, or you can be especially bold and introduce yourself to more people. This is, after all, the main purpose of parties (I know some people who would argue with me on this point, but I’m sticking to my guns).
Corollary: Keep your expectations low: you are, after all, in a crowded noisy place where many of the people you are trying to talk to are sleep-deprived and intoxicated. Or their feet hurt. (This would be me. If you’re ever talking to me at a con party, it’s almost a sure thing that my feet are killing me.)
Remember people. I wish I could tell you that you could count on others to remember you too, but the truth is, sometimes they won’t. The onus falls on you to maintain the connection. Most people being confronted with a smiling person saying “Oh, it’s so great to see you again!” will in fact pretend to remember you, thereby renewing the connection. If you can help them out further by tactfully reminding them of where you’ve met before or referencing a previous conversation, all the better. Business card exchanges can be helpful, but only if you’ve actually had a real conversation with the person. Otherwise, they’ll just throw your card away. Remembering names long enough to later add the person onto your social network of choice is also good (or remembering who introduced you, so you can look at their list of contacts to jog your memory).
Corollary: People remember better when they’ve received multiple impressions of the same thing (or in this case, person). Repeated short interactions over the course of a convention weekend can assist others in remembering you. Also, after you attend a few conventions, you will begin to look familiar to the other regulars and they will think you’ve met even if you haven’t. Then you can pretend to remember them instead of the other way around.
Every con is different. You’ll be in a different stage of your career, different people will be there, maybe this time you’ll know a ton more people because you just attended Clarion or joined an online workshop or whatever. Or maybe everyone will want to talk to you because you just won a Nebula. The trick is to be prepared to go with whatever opportunities might present themselves while remaining outwardly calm and gracious.
And there you have it, all the con-going wisdom I have gleaned in the last year and a half. Questions? Snark? Completely different con experiences? Comment and let me know.