I think of myself as a quiet and reserved person and an introvert, so it was a little startling to be called a “social butterfly” as one acquaintance did in San Jose over the weekend. “You know absolutely everybody!” he said.
Well, it’s a fair cop. I’ve been in this business for sixteen years, and the set of pro sf writers in the field is basically a small town. There are several thousand of us, and of those a group of maybe 500 who are frequent or regular convention-attenders. After a while, you get to the point where you either know everybody, or are connected to everybody. I happen to think that this particular rotating group of connections and acquaintances are some of the best people in the world. If you parachute into the middle of an average, mid-sized midwestern city, you could spend all day wandering around looking for people as fascinating, smart, motivated, and dynamic as those who are just literally lying in your path at a well-attended SF lit convention. Why not enjoy it and make the most of it?
Why attend conventions at all? First of all, convention attendance is totally optional. You can be a successful writer without ever setting foot in one, and if you don’t like it, that’s well and good. You don’t have to attend. And it’s important to know this, because if you do go to a convention, it’s good to go with the attitude that it’s all optional and anything good that comes from it is just gravy.
That said, there are some very good reasons to go to conventions. Human interactions are crucial in any business, it doesn’t matter what kind. If you are someone who makes and sells shrubberies, you may be very successful as the only shrubber in your local market, but it’s still very nice to get together with other shrubbers to share experiences, seek support, and get new ideas. You might even find ways to work with other shrubbers to enhance your own business and make a little extra money together. Who knows? Anything can happen.
It can be paralyzing to go into a convention with the idea that you’re there to “do business.” Forget the elevator pitch. Don’t even think of it. Instead of worrying about making a good impression on people that will be useful in your career, form an expectation that you are just there to look around, and be curious about everyone who crosses your path. That person might be a famous writer or editor, but they might also be a radically cool fan. It doesn’t matter. Whatever serendipitous meetings occur, that is what is meant to be. Have fun, talk about your kids and pets and the weather and favorite movies, and let the business happen organically. And it will. Because trust is a basis of business interactions, and showing people pictures of your cat on your cell phone is how you build trust. Just do it.
Adjust your expectations. You are not going to go to a convention and walk out with a huge novel contract. Don’t even think about it. Put it out of your mind. You are just there to make friends. Do you like having friends in your day-to-day life? Friends are good. Humans need friends. You are just there to meet some people.
Also, if you are new to the scene and don’t know very many people, prepare yourself to spend some time alone. Bring books to read. Plan one or two solo sightseeing outings. If the hotel has a spa, make an appointment. Get comfortable with the idea of eating alone in a restaurant or bar. Bring a spouse or a partner if it makes you more comfortable, but don’t let that close you off to hanging out with new friends. If you and your companion form too tight a knot, no one else can get in.
Your goal should be to make one or two new friends at each convention. You can’t spend all of your time with that one new person, but over time things will snowball.
Sign up for things. If the convention offers any tours or workshops you can sign up for in advance, do it. You will meet people, and those people will be well-disposed to making new friends because of the situation. In a writing-oriented convention, whatever you’ve signed up for may have a pro running it, so you get to meet at least one professional in your field.
Volunteer for panels. If you have some professional credits, let the convention know you’re coming ahead of time and are willing to help out on programming. They are often very happy to have you, and may offer you free membership. Panels are also a good way to get used to public speaking, since the burden isn’t on one person to carry the entire show.
Connect with online friends. Look for opportunities to meet up with online friends. Check out parties, mixers, tweetups, and other organized get-togethers. Again, these are situations where people will be very open to meeting you and it will help you overcome your natural reserve.
Make plans in advance. If you do have someone you know will be at the con, make plans ahead of time. People have a way of getting busy, or getting tired, and you might miss them otherwise.
Bring a book. This is a trick I learned a number of years ago. I carry a book around at conventions. If I go to the hotel lobby looking for friends or new, interesting people to meet, and there’s no one I can immediately approach and begin chatting with, I’ll park myself at a table or the bar and read my book. The book itself is a conversation-starter, and at a science fiction convention, most people share your love of book-reading. You won’t get very many pages read before someone comes along and interrupts you.
Ask questions. Never have an awkward conversation again in your life. When pauses emerge, throw out a question. Where are you from? Have you seen the new Star Trek movie? Do you like cats? Don’t fill every silence. Let your new friend ask you some questions, too.
Fans are cool, too. As writers, we naturally gravitate to other writers. These people instantly get us. But don’t overlook the fans. Science fiction fans are very often extremely smart, successful, interesting people. And fans also have their own brand of power in the business. It’s fans who make decisions about programming and inviting guests of honor, etc., etc. If you make a good impression on the fans, you will definitely have a better time at conventions. BE NICE TO THE FANS.
Cut your losses. Everyone knows that conventions also attract…well…weirdos. People you don’t want to know or spend time with. In fact, this is one thing that tends to scare writers away from conventions, because if there are one or two of these types in a room, it can give you a bad impression of fandom in general. Practice some conversational dismounts to get you out of conversations you don’t want to be in. They can vary from, “Excuse me I need to visit the ladies’ room,” to “You are making me uncomfortable please leave me alone.” (And please carefully tune your dismount to the audience. No need to be cruel.) I’m sorry about this. I apologize on behalf of the whole genre. The important thing to remember is you don’t have to let someone monopolize your time if you don’t enjoy their company. You are at the convention to have fun!
You are not there to get laid. I mean, if you do get laid while you’re there, it’s great. But don’t treat the convention like a singles bar. This is a bit of a tough transition sometimes for writers who started as fans, because there is an element of con culture that is all about hooking up. And that’s great. But the writers by and large are NOT there to hook up. So what I’m saying is assess your social environment very carefully and only hit on people who are clearly available.
Allow extra days for travel, if you can. Arriving a day early and leaving a day late will make things much less stressful. Much. I particularly recommend the leaving a day late strategy. That last night at the con can be the very best, especially for shy folks, as you’ve had a day or two to gradually relax and start feeling comfortable with new people.
Schedule some downtime. I often treat myself to room service one night, which not only gives me some time to recharge, but takes the pressure off for one meal. No need to find dinner companions, choose a cuisine and restaurant, make an expedition, make scintillating conversation, etc.
Comfortable shoes. Need I say more?
Buy a banquet ticket. At some conventions, like Nebula weekend, you’ll have a chance for a sit-down meal with strangers. Go for it, even if it’s expensive. I met my friend Jay Lake that way. Every time I’ve done this it’s worked out great. Again, this is a situation where you’re automatically placed in a group, so no need to approach anyone or find a good opening line. You can just ask a question and you’re good to go.
Don’t get too wrapped up in status. If there’s one thing I’ve seen in sixteen years, it’s the coming and going of hot new writers. Trust me. Slow and steady wins the race. So there are hot new writers getting a lot of attention, collecting awards. They are just as anxious and insecure as you are, and often they sort of stop writing and disappear a few years later. Some of this year’s batch of superstars had me thinking of meteors from years past, wondering where they are, what they’re doing, are they still writing? Don’t sweat it. Honors, awards, accolades–all very capricious. Do you have some cat pictures on your phone? Whip them out. Cat pics are eternal.
Don’t be an asshole. You know how they say some people can do it and get away with it? They are not getting away with it. Trust me. Those people have lost friends and opportunities. It only looks like it doesn’t stick. Don’t be that person. It’s not worth it.
Don’t cart the internet around with you. If you’ve encountered someone on the internet and you’re meeting them for the first time in person, it is largely best to simply start over. If you’ve had extensive conversations online, then of course acknowledge it. But most people don’t have a perfect memory for every discussion or flame war, and, more importantly, if you set aside any charged interactions you may have had online, you may find the person is actually really cool.
Be authentic, be genuine, be sincere, be yourself. Have some faith that you are an interesting person and others want to know you. Wear what you want that makes you feel awesome. Be a good listener. Be forgiving of yourself and others. You’re not always going to say the right thing. You might make a faux pas, or someone around you might. Laugh it off. Let it go. Be gentle. Be kind. Make jokes. Buy drinks for people. Find ways to help.