25 Things Writers Should Know About Conferences And Conventions
Con season is almost over, so that tells me it’s a most excellent time to write a post about con season! Right? Right? Fellas? Where you goin’, fellas? WHATEVER FINE JUST LEAVE.
I figured that writers go to conventions and conferences year-round, so it’s a good idea to talk to you penmonkeys about what to do there, what to expect, where to find me drunk at 3AM (hint: parking garage inside a duffel bag). If you’re looking for more general “con etiquette” stuff, I might recommend this wise post by the most excellent Colleen Lindsay: Convention Etiquette For Fans, Pros, And Exhibitors.”
1. Hint: The Writers Are At The Bar
Let’s just get this one out of the way right now: if you’re wondering where the writers are, they’re at the bar. No, seriously. I’m not saying they’re there getting lit up like a Christmas tree — despite the myth, not all writers are rampant liquor pigs — but the hotel (and/or nearest) bar is a place of social aggregation for the word-herd. We’re all at the watering hole, watering our, uhh, holes.
2. Know What You Want Out Of It
Go to a conference or convention with a goal and a plan to achieve that goal. (That goal should not be: “Stowaway in Neil Gaiman’s luggage so you can return with him to his magical story-land,” or “Discover whatever tugboat George R.R. Martin is captaining and steal it for a joyride.”) Honing your craft? Discovering publishing options? Just there to geek out with your freak out? Have the end result in mind and arrange your conference (talks, panels, booth visits) accordingly.
3. Purpose #1: Go To Up Your Game
One of the “primary purposes” of a conference or convention is to hone your authorial blade. Our weapons all grow dull and rusty with over-use and sometimes you go to these things hoping to whet them against the many stones present. The goal is to get better. To learn new things. Our brains need new information, and conventions and conferences (heretofore referred to as “cons”) will give you that.
4. Purpose #2: Go To Meet People
Another primary purpose is just to meet people. Writer seems a solitary job and, of course, it is. We shimmy into our musty, fetid author pods, shut the door, then hook our skulls and fingers up to the electrodes that connect us to the Galactic Story Blob where we operate in total isolation (well, that’s how I do it, anyway, you probably have a “desk” with a “computer”). Still, writers need community. They need other writers. They need agents and editors and marketing dudes and, above all else, they need readers. So, cons are great places to meet people. It’s about forging connections both business and personal.
5. Human Meets Human, Not Writer-Bot Plugs Into Publishing Receptacle
Worth repeating: when I say “connections,” I don’t mean in a purely business sense. Trust me, your con experience is going to be at its weakest when you approach it as All Business. I’ve seen those writers and they’re always “on.” They’re also very irritating, like buzzing fluorescents with a horsefly constantly tapping against the bulb. Go to make friends. Or at least acquaintances. Hear their stories, tell a few of your own. Connect on a human level, not in a “LET US FORGE COMMERCE ARRANGEMENT” way.
6. You Should Totally Say Hello To Your Favorite Writers
I speak as a writer who is deliriously excited when a reader (or for me the rara avis, a “fan”) comes up and says hello. Not only does it stroke my constantly inflating-and-deflating ego (it’s like the lungs of a tired old horse, I swear), but it also confirms that, hey, this thing I’m doing is actually reaching people. I know some writers — er, really, “authors” — don’t want anyone to come say ‘boo’ to them, but you know what? Fuck them. That’s fine for like, the grocery store, but they’re at a con. If you’re a pro at one of these things, appreciate your readers, don’t elbow them in the neck and shove past. Readers are how we get to exist.
7. But Seriously, Don’t Be A Fuckin’ Weirdo About It
Okay, yes, go say hello to your favorite writermonkeys. But, hey, also? Don’t be a crazy-pants asshole about it. Don’t dominate their time. Don’t get pushy. Don’t be rude. Don’t be mean. Don’t cling like a dingleberry. Don’t challenge them about typos or plot points. Let them eat in peace. Let them pee in peace. Let them sleep in peace. (Everything else is probably fair game.) You want them to respect you so you have to respect them in turn. That’s the human contract. That’s how we all win the game is by being respectful to one another instead of just splashing douche into each other’s eyes again and again.
8. On The Subject Of Book Signings
Deserves special attention: some authors don’t want to sign books outside of designated signing periods, and that’s understandable. An author who will generate a line around the block doesn’t want that line generated when he’s trying to cross the lobby to get a bottle of water or when he’s outside the hotel trying to hide a couple hobo bodies. Others, however (like, erm, me), will sign books whenever you thrust them upon us. Hell, I’ll sign body parts, pets, children, other people’s books, souls. I’ll sign anything except, say, checks. Point is, know your limits, respect the authors. Double-true: don’t ask them to sign like, a suitcase full of books. Triple-true: we appreciate it when you have us sign books to someone specific rather than a generic autograph which then vaguely suggests you’re gonna turn around and sell that shit online.
9. On The Subject Of Being Creepy
Deserves extra-special attention: don’t get stalkery, don’t corner anybody of any sex, don’t inappropriately touch people, don’t get suggestive or act rapey or be in any way threatening toward others in a violent or violating manner. “But she was dressed in duct-tape bra-and-panties,” is not a good reason to get grabby. They’re not hookers. Trying to look sexy is not an invitation for you to get sexy with them anymore than me wearing a shirt with a bullseye is good enough reason to fire an arrow through my chest. Be conscious of acting creepy, scary, grabby, etc. Bonus reading: on creepy creepers who creepily creep.
10. Don’t Get Stupid Drunk
At a con, people drink. And drinking means getting a little silly. Silly is good. Silly is fine. Nobody expects you to have a couple gin-and-tonics and drive a car, operate a firearm, or negotiate peace between two warring galactic races. But don’t be a rum-sodden barf-bag, either. If you can’t feel your teeth and you puke in my lap, you’ve got a problem. You don’t want writers, agents or editors remembering you as “That dude who got blitzkrieged on Jager-bombs and took a shit on a plastic fern in the hotel lobby.”
11. You’re Not Actually The Expert
Pet peeve time! Unless you’re actually on the panel, assume you’re not the expert in the room. It is not your time to shine, you crazy diamond. Ask questions, but let other people ask questions, too. And also: don’t be “that guy” who just raises his hand and then stands up and makes a statement like everyone’s here to see you. “Well, I think the state of space opera is blibbedy-blobbedy-bloo and I disagree with…” HOLY CRAP SHUT UP. This is not an Internet forum, Selfish Guy. You don’t have to enlighten us with your “genius.”
12. Arrive Early For Things
Pet peeve again! Coming into any event late is a dick move. I’ve done it, and I regret having done it. You make noise. You distract. For some reason whenever someone comes in late they always maximize the disruption, too, like, they’re carrying a stack of rattling dinner plates and have cymbals between their thighs and then stagger in and trip over a projector cord and accidentally start an electrical fire. Eeesh. Seriously, get their early. That helps you get a seat, too, so, yay.
13. Ask The Right Questions
I talked this past week about how you should ask the questions about story before you ask the questions about publishing, and what that means in a practical sense is that you should goasking questions regarding your place in the process. That’s not to say you can’t get ahead and ask a curious question or three about advances and contracts and how to enrage a literary agent, but what I’m saying is, use the conference to help you get a handle on the next stage, not three stages down the way. One step at a time.
14. Purpose #3: Pimp Your Shiznit In Appropriate And Approved Pimp Channels
Another purpose: to sell thine wares, story-slinging troubadour. You got books or other items of cultural output you want to pimp, awesome. Go forth and do so. But a suggestion: try to stick to approved commercial channels. Don’t just like, set up a tarp in the middle of the lobby to sell your self-published bag of shi — I mean, magnum opus to passersby. Yes, we all gotta make a buck and buy dinner but as always, be respectful of others and don’t act like an only child who always gets to do what he wants, others-be-damned.
15. Nobody Wants To Hear About Your Book (Unless They Do)
At game cons, the joke is always, “Nobody wants to hear about your character.” (Seriously, we don’t.) At writing cons, the joke is, “Nobody wants to hear about your book.” (No, seriously, we don’t.) Now, I may eventually want to hear about your book but only after we’ve connected on a human level. Assume that I don’t automatically see you as just a bag of skin meant only to transport the intellectual meat that is your novel. I assume that like me you’re a person with parents and a job and favorite ice cream flavors and a penchant for deviant-but-consensual sex acts. I don’t care about your book until I care, at least a little bit, about you. If someone wants to know what you’ve written or are writing, they will ask.
16. Clean Your Body, You Musky Stank Beast
A convention (larger geek/fan contingent) tends to have this problem more than conferences (larger pro-level academic contingent), but I’ve experienced it at both: wash yourself. Uh, daily, please — hell, more than that if you have to. Cons are often warm. You’re jostling with people, running around, and you end up in close quarters (like, say, elevators). You will leak sweat. You will start to smell like a glob of Edam cheese left in a jockstrap under a heat lamp. Scrub the algae and barnacles from forth your hull, you stinky little garbage scow. Oh, and brush your teeth. The hell did you eat for lunch? Old fish and cigarettes?
17. Escape Conference Gravity
Leave the con at some point. At least once. If you’re somewhere new — small town, big city, jungle cult compound — get outside and go see something. The real world always counts more than the “artificial gravity” that is any conference or convention. Even if you go do base-level tourist shit and eat at a restaurant everyone tells you you have to eat it, it’s at least something.
18. Pros Should Act Like Pros
This list has been directed toward attendees, but here’s a message for pros: you are professional, so act professional. That doesn’t mean you need to be always in “paid author” mode, but it does mean you should maintain a standard of etiquette and, as with everyone else there, not act like a wheelbarrow full of fatty ego and emotional manure. Respect attendees. Be kind. Be nice to volunteers, too, who are — uhh, duh — volunteering their time in part for you. Be awesome even in the face of “not-awesome.”
19. Some Writers Are Paid, Many Are Not
Many of the writers speaking at cons are not paid. Some are. Most aren’t. Know that going in: they are often themselves volunteering their time. It’s not like they’re going back to the hotel room to roll around in cash.
20. Some Writers Are Also Total D-Bags, Just So You Know
It’s a shame, but sometimes that “beloved writer” of yours is a total cock-bird. We don’t get into this gig having to pass a politeness test, so some authors end up being gruff, grumpy, sour, otherwise shitty people. Sometimes it’s temporary: maybe they’re having a bad day. Sometimes it’s a permanent affliction. Let it go. You can choose to vote with your dollar, but don’t be a dickhole in return. Let the storm pass.
21. Elevator Pitches And Pitch Meetings: Meh?
Take this one with a grain of salt — or, if you prefer, an entire salt mine — but I’m not sure that pitch meetings or having your elevator pitch ready to fly is the most important thing in the world. It’s probably worked for some, but…? Eh? I’m going to go out on a limb and say, skip the pitch meetings. Instead, meet agents and editors elsewhere. And meet the authors of those agents and editors. Regarding your elevator pitch: listen, it’s a very good intellectual exercise to distill your story down into a single 10- or 15-second sentence. Again, I don’t know that it’s ever been the deal-maker, but when people ask, it’s kind of you to not bludgeon them half to death with the hammerblow of a ten-minute plot synopsis.
22. Do Not Thrust Your Manuscript Upon, Well, Anybody
I see people handing out manuscripts — like, hand-printed, hand-bound manuscripts, fraying like a mouse is using them as nesting material — all the time at conferences and conventions. Worse, they’re handing them out to people who can do nothing with them. “Here, random author, you are an author and I am an author so let us commune over my novel, THE GORGONZOLA PERPLEXITY.” Don’t do this. Not ever. Stop. Keep that manuscript in your pants. First, this is the digital age. If I want your novel, hey, look, a PDF file. Don’t try to make someone carry your printout in their luggage. Second, what do you want them to do with it? Most authors don’t want to read unsolicited material (hint hint stop emailing me this stuff) because of a hoary host of unholy reasons. You know what I’ll do if you hand me your manuscript at a conference? I’m going to roll it up and thwack you across the bridge of your nose.
23. Do Not Hand Out Ugly-Ass Amateur Hour Business Cards
Your business card sucks. Printed at home. The ink is bleeding as if you dropped it in a puddle outside. It’s got a Cheeto fingerprint on the back. It smells of — *sniff sniff* — flopsweat and wine coolers. Here’s the thing. Business cards are already a dubious value proposition for writers. Freelancers may find good use for them but “author-types,” not so much. This is, after all, the days of a thing called the Enternit, or the Wide Whirled Web or whatever, and so it’s pretty easy for people to find you online. A business card needs to be a nudge in that direction. Name; incredibly minimal note as to your role; contact information offline; contact information online (which includes how you want me to find you on social media). If that business card does not appear on par with the kind of card, say, an actual businessperson would use, just throw it away, because that’s what I’ll do. Oh, one more tip: only give out a business card if someone asks. That means they’ll use it. Otherwise, just thrusting it upon them means it’ll end up lining someone’s hamster cage.
24. You’re Probably Paying Money, So Take Advantage
Cons aren’t cheap. So milk them for all they’re worth.
25. Talking About Writing Is Not The Same As Writing
The fourth and final purpose of going to these things is to get your ass reenergized. The con should be the intellectual equivalent of jacking yourself up (up, not off, weirdo) with a Red-Bull-and-fire-ants enema. It should get you back in your chair pounding the keys and working the story like a goddamn wad of pizza dough. What that means is, go to the con and then return to use what you learned. Revitalize! Harness new information! Going to cons can, like so many things in our penmonkey lives, feel productive when really, it’s not. It’s only productive if you take the raw ore you just chipped off the psychic walls and refine that shit into precious stones and glittery gems and sweet, sweet crack-rock. Always remember that talking about writing is not the same as writing. You built the staircase. Now you best walk up it. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Want another hot tasty dose of dubious writing advice aimed at your facemeats?