I’ve been to quite a few conventions now, so I feel I have quite a bit I can say on the subject of conventions in general. There’s even been a couple of conventions where I’ve been a volunteer, giving me an interesting perspective on how that particular sausage is made.
Tonight I’m going to talk about some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way. I’m going to split this into two sections.
- Attending: Lessons I’ve learned regarding attending a convention
- Living: Lessons I’ve learned from conventions that I apply in my writing life
1. Pace Yourself
At the beginning of a convention, you get a schedule. Sometimes it’s a little book, but most of the time these days it’s in an app on your phone. It’s usually online via the convention’s web site.
If you try to do everything without giving yourself time to eat, breathe, and process, you’ll miss things that you don’t want to miss, and you won’t retain half the things you attend.
Pace yourself both during the day with the panels, and in the evening with the parties. Be kind to yourself and to others, and don’t push beyond your limits.
2. Decide in Advance What You’re Going to Do
At the macro level, make some goals for this event you’re attending. Are you looking to learn something? Are you trying to meet an Agent? Are you hoping to meet some writer or artist that you admire? Decide on some goals in advance so you can get the most out of the convention.
With your goal in mind, look at the schedule. I like to try and plan out my day the night before, but sometimes I’ll get up and figure out my plans over breakfast.
Don’t be afraid to change your plans. You have to use your best judgement, but sometimes opportunities present themselves that are too rich to pass up. Keep your goals in mind, but also keep your eyes open for these unexpected treasures.
3. Don’t Be Desperate
Whether you’re there to network, improve your craft, or rub elbows with your idols, desperation has a kind of social stink to it that acts as a natural repellent. I’ve seen a lot of hungry writers get this predatory gleam in their eye. It is not endearing. Try to avoid it.
How do you avoid this? First, take a deep breath. Then put aside your story and live in the moment. Focus on other things. And when you find yourself talking to someone that might be interested in what you have to offer, try to listen more than you speak. Ask questions. Be a partner in the conversation rather than a bad actor hogging up the spotlight.
4. Stay at the Hotel
I learned this lesson the hard way. When Westercon came to Sacramento, I had to attend. From what I saw, it was a good convention! However, I only attended half of it. Since I went home every night, I had enough distance between myself and the con that I could easily talk myself out of the drive on one of the days when the schedule didn’t look stellar.
Since that Westercon, I try to stay at the hotel where the convention is taking place, or as close as I can get. It forces me to come out of my shell and stay engaged. Also, it frees me up to have a drink or two at the bar are the after parties because I don’t have as far to travel.
5. Attend Barcon and the After Parties
Usually there’s a bar at the hotel, and usually that’s where Barcon takes place. It’s the informal con within the con, and it’s a great way to talk to people in a relaxed environment.
Unexpected things can happen at Barcon. Jim Butcher found his agent at Barcon. She’d turned him down before, but after meeting him in person in a relaxed environment, changed her mind and took him on.
Don’t go into Barcon or con parties with this story in mind. It can happen, but it’s not going to happen if you go in desperate and hungry. Just go and relax and have a good time. Be a good listener. Make friends.
That’s what conventions are really for, after all. We say “networking” but really that’s just a fancy word for making friends. The same skills apply.
1. Be Professional
This is one of those lessons they teach you at conventions, which applies both at the convention and outside in the regular world. Agents, editors, and publishers are looking for people that they can work with. They want people that can follow directions and listen to instructions. They also want people that can present themselves in a fashion that is suitable for doing business.
You don’t have to be a stick-in-the-mud. You don’t have to pack your personality in a closet and hide it from the reset of the world. Being professional doesn’t mean turning into an automaton.
Professionals respond to emails in a timely fashion. They’re polite. They’re engaging. They’re honest without being cruel, and they’re confident without being too cocky (most of the time). They dress appropriately for the event they’re attending, though this can mean a lot of things and isn’t nearly as restrictive as a regular day job. You can get away with weird color hair and most tattoos (probably want to avoid the face).
Receiving rejection as a professional means grieving in private and not responding emotionally. Often it means you don’t respond at all, though you can probably get away with a simple thank you. Don’t go to your blog or social media and start blasting the person that rejected you. That is unprofessional behavior, and it will be a quick and easy sign to people that you’re not someone that they can work with.
2. Don’t Quit Your Day Job
In addition to being a shitty thing to say to an artist, it’s one of those truisms that you just have to accept. I’ve completed two novels and a fist full of short stories, and even if I get all of it published, I’m not going to be able to quit my job. That’s not practical.
It’s fine to dream it. It’s fine to aim for it. Just don’t be too disappointed when it doesn’t happen. It’s better odds than playing the lottery, but it’s still a long shot.
I think this is the third night in a row where I’m going to mention perseverance. That’s what this is all about. Keep the day job, as it will act as a pillar supporting the rest of your life, enabling you to live while you write. If you’re too stressed over figuring out how to pay your bills, you’re too stressed to write.
3. Rejection is Normal
Agents and editors are looking for stories they can sell. But they’re receiving a wealth of stories from hopeful writers, and any excuse to let a story go will do. Sometimes the story can be great, but they still can’t use it because it’s too close to something else that’s just been published, or they don’t see a market to sell the story to.
Rejection sucks. It stings. It works to confirm all those feelings of impostor syndrome. Every time I get a rejection, I have to fight all my doubts and fears all over again. It’s the hardest part of the job.
But it’s normal. Everyone is rejected. Stephen King’s wife had to fish out Carrie from the garbage after he’d given up on it from rejection. Keep that in mind when the rejection makes you feel like giving up.
I think I could go on and on about the business of writing, pros and cons of self publishing, world building, themes, editing… I’ve attended a lot of panels over the years, and I’ve taken a lot of notes. I think that’s too much for a Thursday night post, though.
Beginners at conventions will get a lot of out panels. People trying to make the transition from undiscovered to published (like me) are going to get more from meeting people and making friends. The pros at conventions get the benefits of networking as well as opportunities to promote their books.
Whatever you’re there for, have fun. And after you leave and you get back into the real world? Have some more fun. Writing is work, but it’s also creation and escapism and expression. When I’m feeling down about my writing, it helps sometimes to remind myself that this is something I enjoy. Something that brings me peace and quiets my anxiousness.