Attending a Speculative Fiction Convention
by Paula Fleming
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Conventions can be periodic highlights in a writer's otherwise lonely, desperate life. To get the most out of conventions, it's important to:
- Understand what conventions can (and can't) do for you
- Understand how to get the most out of conventions
Why Attend Conventions?
There are many reasons to spend a long weekend and some money at a convention. For one thing, writing can be lonely. Make that, writing is lonely. Most conventions offer opportunities to meet other writers. If you're new at this, here are some suggestions:
- Seek out panels where writer Guests of Honor (GoHs, in con parlance) are participating, especially panels in which they'll be discussing their own work. You may be surprised: established authors deal with a lot of the same problems with process, story construction, and a generally headstrong muse as the rest of us. They also overcome these problems to produce a steady stream of good work, so hearing what they have to say is often worthwhile.
- You can also look for panel topics aimed at writers. These panels have subject headings such as "How to Edit Your Own Work" or "How to Make a Fantasy World Believable." Both the panelists and the other people in the audience will probably be writers.
- Attend readings. The people who are reading their work have written it and, thus, are writers! The people who attend readings also tend, by-and-large, to be other writers.
- Most con program booklets have a list of pre-registered attendees in the back. Skim through it and, if you recognize any writerly names, then find the panels those people are on.
- If you're part of any online writing communities, find out if any of your internet buddies will be at the con and arrange to meet each other there.
Not only is writing lonely, but even simple fandom can be pretty lonely. Depending on where you live and work, you may be feeling pretty freakish. Going to a con can help you feel much more normal! Drink in the ambience of hundreds of smart, informed, intellectually inquisitive folks all being totally themselves. Listen to intense discussions of the intersection of religion and magic in fantasy cultures, or whether fandom's "sense of wonder" can survive 21st-century cynicism, or the practical problems involved in interstellar travel. Then return refreshed to your mundane life.
Speculative fiction is the literature of ideas, and we need fresh ideas, or at least fresh perspectives on ideas, to keep cooking as writers. Conventions can be tremendously stimulating. You'll hear people recommending good reading, both books by new authors you may not have heard of yet and obscure novels long out of print but worth finding. You'll hear smart people discussing interesting topics. You'll hear bits and pieces of this and that, all of which will set your creative juices to percolating.
Making friends is fun. Making friends who are writers, editors, and/or publishers can also be good for your career, but don't let that be on your mind as you meet people. You'll just come across as a shallow, self-interested fraud. Conventions are a great way to hook up with people who share your interests and are fun to hang out with. Make friends, and the "networking" stuff will take care of itself.
If you haven't yet achieved much visibility in the speculative fiction community, then volunteering at a con, whether in the ConSuite, at the registration desk, or on a panel, can help raise your profile. In particular, participating on one or more panels will put your name in the program book and get you up in front of a bunch of people who will listen attentively to you. If you've had work published, you may be able to allude to it in the course of the discussion. If you're relatively new in your career, you may find that being a panelist even helps you take yourself more seriously as a writer!
Different Kinds of Conventions
There are different kinds of conventions. Each has its place in the SF community, and each can be fun.
- Literary/Business-of-Writing conventions. This type of convention focuses primarily on books: reading them, writing them, and editing/publishing them. One usually finds concentrations of professional writers and editors at these conventions as well as a preponderance of writing-oriented panels. If you know "Gordon van Gelder" or "Shawna McCarthy" only as a name to write on manila envelopes, you might find it helpful to chat with them in person. At the very least, you'll be assured that they're friendly, warm-blooded people, not intimidating stone presences! One convention of this type is the World Fantasy Convention. Another is WisCon, which has a focus on feminism (with the broadest possible definition) and is held each year in Madison, WI.
- Fan-Oriented/Media conventions. This type of convention typically divides its focus among written SF, TV, and movies along with some amount of "fannish culture" such as fantasy-themed games, face painting, bellydancing, and sing-alongs (called "filking"). Some people will attend in costume, and there's often a costume contest called a Masquerade. There will often be an actor GoH and a film room in which movies show continuously. This is the most common type of convention. One large such con is DragonCon, held each year in Atlanta, GA. A couple I'm personally familiar with, since they're held near me in Minneapolis, are MarsCon and CONvergence. No matter where you live, you can probably find one within a day's drive.
- Relaxacons. A bunch of folks get together, eat munchies, and talk about SF. There may be some panels. There may be some films. There may be some gaming. There may be some music. The point is that no one has to work very hard, not even the people setting it up.
Worth a mention all on its own is WorldCon, short for "World Science Fiction Convention." Any year in which WorldCon is held outside North America, there is also a NASFiC, or "North American Science Fiction Convention." Members of WorldCon may vote for recipients of the Hugo Awards. WorldCon is attended by thousands and manages to be all possible cons to all possible people, or at least tries.
How to Behave
So you've decided to attend a con, and you've found one that fits your budget, appetite for travel, and programming tastes. What should you do, and not do, once you're there?
- Dress appropriately. Assuming you're a professional writer, or you're a writer who pursues their craft in a professional manner, you should present yourself as such. For men and women, this means "business casual" attire, such as slacks, a shirt with a collar, and some version of sensible shoes. This attire tends to work for attending both programming and parties, though depending on the con and your personality, you may want to bring along different clothes for the evenings --dressier clothes if it's a literary/business con or perhaps your favorite goth-girl or Mulder trench coat outfit for a fan/media con.
- Talk to people. If you're shy, and many of us writers are, this is hard. But it really is necessary. Here are a few openers. "I enjoyed your story in Strange Horizons earlier this year. I really liked what you did with the XYZ idea." Or after a panel: "Thanks for asking that question about XYZ. I'd been wondering about that." Or in the hotel lobby around dinner time: "Excuse me. This is my first con and I've never been to Des Moines before. Is there a good place to eat around here?" Or, even more daring, "Could I join you for dinner?" Ask questions at panels. Walk up to people you don't know at parties, introduce yourself, and comment on the con, or the weather, or the design on their nametag, or something. But, yes, talking to people is an important part of attending a con.
- Prepare. Read the work of the GoHs. If you're on a panel, think of a few things to say before you're up there in front of people. If you're moderating a panel, have a list of questions to explore. Pack comfortable clothes appropriate for an air-conditioned hotel. Decide how much money you can afford to spend in the dealers' room and stick to your budget, so you don't have regrets later!
- Bring your unpublished work to the con. Stories circulate about hapless newbie writers who stalk editors with their novel manuscript in a paper bag, ready to drop it at the editor's feet the moment their unwitting prey stops moving. Please don't do this. If you do find yourself in conversation with an editor, you can mention that you have a story that might fit thematically in their current anthology project or that you've finished a novel about thus-and-such (two to three sentence summary only!). You can even ask them if it would be okay if you sent the story or novel to them. If they say yes, then do send it to them as soon as you get home from the con, and mention the pleasure of meeting them at XYZ con in your cover letter. But don't try to hand your manuscripts to people at the con.
- Mishandle your liquor. If you are at all likely to grope people, throw up on people, bad-mouth other authors, or remove too much clothing while under the influence, then stick to non-alcoholic beverages. You'll be doing all of us, but especially yourself, a huge favor.
- Worry. No one will look down on you for being less published than other writers or for being less socially facile than some. Or, if anyone does look down on you, then they're jerks and their scorn is a badge of merit. Don't worry!
- Locus Magazine's directory of conventions
- Science Fiction Convention (Wikipedia)
Copyright © 2005 Paula Fleming
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Paula L. Fleming's science fiction and fantasy have appeared in a variety of publications, including gothic.net; Tales of the Unanticipated #20, #22, and #24; Meisha Merlin's Such a Pretty Face anthology; and Lone Wolf Publishing's Extremes 3: Terror on the High Seas anthology. By day, she's a human resources generalist at the Wedge Community Co-op. To help her, she has three big dogs, two cats, and one husband. Visit her home page at http://home.comcast.net/~paulafleming/index.html or her blog at http://paulaleafleming.blogspot.com/.
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