Pros at Cons

23 December 2018

From Alma Alexander:

At a SF/Fantasy convention several years ago I was on a a panel that explored what a professional (writer, artist, editor, agent…) actually DOES at a convention, how they might approach it differently from the reader, gamer or fan attendee.

For a couple of years when I first started out, I was a prolific con-goer, up to nine a year before sanity prevailed and I cut it down to a few. Having just returned from Orycon, the only convention I’ve allowed myself for a couple of years, I was musing about cons in general, why I go, what I get out of them…what is the attraction for a professional writer?

. . . .

Con goers get issued with a program which details the panels which will be available over the course of the convention weekend. There is a limited number of useful topics for such occasions, and some of the hoarier topics have been relentlessly trotted out at every con since God Created Convention.

This is where we come in, the pros you see seated behind the tables in the hotel conference rooms, facing the serried ranks of either depressingly empty or intimidatingly full chairs set out in rows before us.

You get to this point – you’re a professional. You’ve published books or stories, you’ve been PAID for that, or you’re a professional artist, or editor in the field, or simply an expert on some topic and were collared to take part in a panel discussing same. The panel of “Pros At Cons” looked at what was expected of the folk on THIS side of the table, the pontificators – whether we were really here as revered professionals or whether we were the hired entertainment, the performing seals, planted in our seats by the program planners to keep the masses happy..

There are many reasons one becomes a writer – and at least one of them involves a fundamental personality trait: writers are notorious for being loners. It’s a solitary profession where you retire to your office and face off with your computer, and it’s you in your own world surrounded by characters and creatures of your own making.

Some of us can shrug that off and at least put on a show of being gregarious at conventions, mingling and schmoozing and generally mixing with the crowds – and, to all intents and purposes, actually enjoy ourselves. For others, it isn’t so easy. Some folk are genuinely quiet and shy and not natural public speakers.

If you happen to run across me in a crowded party full of people I barely know, I’m likely to be the one cowering in a corner and hoping that someone might start a conversation because I sure as hell am not going to walk up to a stranger and stick out a hand and introduce myself.

However – put me on a panel where I am supposed to speak about writing, and I blossom into an articulate and eloquent speaker with active opinions which I am not at all shy about expounding on or defending. It touches my passion, and that changes everything. I am no longer just a writer, I am WRITER, hear me roar.

This is something that defines me. And I can conquer the tongue-tied shy little girl who often dominates my social interactions with strangers. When I am wrapped in that writer cloak, the things I have to say become meaningful given the writerly context in which they are uttered.

. . . .

People like me go to conventions because we have written books, and conventions are where our readers are. I have had several people come up to me in the hallways just to tell me, “I liked your books”. That, in itself, is a pearl beyond price.

We also go, and present ourselves at serried ranks of panels, because what we are really hoping to do is introduce ourselves, as writers, to a whole new slew of readers, people who may not have necessarily read us or even heard of us before but who might be motivated, given a good performance at a panel, to wander down to the Dealer’s Room and ask the booksellers if they happen to have any books with our name on them.

But also…After a while, after you’ve been to a few of these, you acquire a circle of friends who turn up at many of the same cons that you do – and it’s like a gathering of the family of the heart. And that’s part of it, too – at the end of a long day full of panels and readings and signings oh my, the pros retire to the coffee shop or the bar and congregate in giggling groups, trading war stories, tossing good news on the table to a reception of gleeful squees (any delight shared is doubled!) or laying some piece of bad news out like a tiny corpse and then having a wake for it with a glass of wine (or something stronger) in hand (any sorrow shared is, at least in theory, lightened…)

It’s companionship, camaraderie – this is my tribe, and I belong to it, and it accepts me, and it laughs at my jokes even if it’s heard them before and it has hugs and commiserations to provide in the wake of disasters, as well as perspective provided by sharing disasters of its own. It’s… coming home.

Link to the rest at Alma Alexander

PG is of two minds about conventions.

At good conventions, he’s learned a lot over the years and been exposed to people he might not have heard anywhere else. At ordinary conventions, he’s been bored stiff, left the convention hotel to check out whatever city in which the convention is located or to find somewhere that doesn’t have any convention attendees to go online.

For PG (as for many others), the key is good speakers. These are speakers who know something and know how to communicate what they know in an engaging way. Some speakers know a great deal about a particular subject, but, for one reason or another, are terrible at talking about their knowledge/opinions.

Speaking of opinions, PG thinks most (maybe all) good speakers have strong opinions about topics they’re discussing. If a speaker doesn’t care enough about a subject to have an opinion about some aspect of the subject, they’re likely to be terminally boring. In such cases, if the topic is important to you, buy the speaker’s book or look up some articles he/she has written online. You can read faster than the speaker can talk and not be bored.

If you’re a speaker, don’t be afraid to disagree with another speaker on the panel. Disagreements are more interesting than the verbal equivalent of everyone nodding their heads at whatever everyone else is saying. If you don’t personally disagree with the other speaker, you can frame disagreement as something like, “Many other people think just the opposite is true. They say you should eat all the different colors of Lifesavers instead of throwing away the ones that aren’t red.”

If you’re an introvert, conventions can be torture. PG suggests that you think about some topics you want to discuss with others ahead of time and do a bit of research. Plan some questions you would like to ask of one or two speakers on each panel ahead of time. Learn a little about the biographies of the speakers and (if the convention provides a list of attendees) some of the other attendees.

Maybe there are some people who live in the same city you do and you can make chit-chat about favorite places or mutual acquaintances. If there’s a lunch or dinner, when you first sit down at the table, introduce yourself to each of the people who are within conversational distance and ask them about themselves, why they chose to come to this convention, what they’ve learned, who their favorite speakers are, etc.


21 Comments to “Pros at Cons”

  1. Or you can have a potentially totally different experience at cons without even trying…back in the late 90s and early 2000s, I was quite active on DorothyL, until I saw some behaviour which we would likely call trolling now, and it p***ed me off enough to go nuclear and remove myself, but I digress.

    As I participated, I noticed something. I would sign my name as PolyWogg, a childhood nickname from my sisters, with an extra G because someone had already taken Polywog when I first became active on the internet. Some biologists prefer polliwog, some prefer polywog, some prefer poliwog, some prefer tadpole.

    Anyway, I was using PolyWogg, and over time I saw some people react to me as if I was specifically male in some cases or specifically female in others — I hadn’t specified outright, although I had occasionally signed Paul instead of PolyWogg, but their assumptions were quite starkly divided. So I started removing personal pronouns from my posts…if I referred to my girlfriend, it became partner instead. If there was a he/she, it became they. I was fascinated to see how people assumed one way or the other.

    So much so that for upcoming conventions, there were women who were messaging me, asking me if I wanted to share a hotel room for the next big one. Trying to save money, and following the same approach PG mentioned at the end — people to go with, both to share costs, but also to know someone before you get there. But they all asked “Polly” if she wanted to share a room. A couple of guys asked if Paul wanted to grab a beer.

    I politely declined, said I wasn’t going (I wasn’t) but other than that, did not reveal my gender. A few months later, we were having a spirited discussion on males writing female characters or females writing male characters, and people were digging in that “they always could tell”. People who had not been able to tell in MY prose which I was. So I outed myself as an example that you shouldn’t assume.

    I got no end of emails saying “WHAT????? I had no idea!!!!”, including a couple of women who said, “OMG! I suggested we share a room together! What you must have thought of me!”.

    Could have been a different kind of convention experience…or not, as the case may be. If you were sales reps, that might just be par for the course in some industries! One woman was VERY disappointed I outed myself…she was looking forward to having me join one of their dinners in New York a couple of months later, and she was disappointed to not have the visual shock of expecting young petite 35 year old librarian Polly and to get 250 lb, 6 foot tall, 29 year old Paul instead.

    Paul (not Polly)
    aka PolyWogg

    • Interesting story, Paul.

    • Neat story 🙂 I get that experience as a Jamie. I once volunteered for an event at college and when I arrived, the director of the event greeted me cheerfully. Apparently everyone had a bet on whether I was a he or a she, and I guess he was on the winning team 🙂

      • I would assume Jamie these days was female, just because most guys I know would write Jim or James I suppose.

        • The last man-Jamie I knew was a coworker from a few years ago. His wife was named Amy. *shakes head* 🙂

    • Fantastic story!

      Since I’m J.M. online, I’ve also noticed that some people clearly assume I’m male, while others go with female.

      Those choosing female may just have seen where I refer to myself as a mother or other posts that make it obvious. I’m not trying to obscure my gender.

      But it feels quite interesting when I see a commenter assuming I’m male.

      • Under the heading of things that would make no sense, I would assume JM was a male probably if I had to guess, but with the last name, I would assume female. Why adding a last name makes ANY difference, I have no idea. Weird.

      • I’m an obvious female… unless all you’ve got is my voice — then you’re in trouble. I sing tenor, and speak lower.

        If I had a nickle for everyone who called me “Sir” on the phone or reinterpreted my spoken name as Kevin, John, Terence, etc., I’d’ve retired a long time ago.

        What really I like are the guys (and it’s always guys) who argue with me over the phone, like I must be lying when I tell them I’m not a “Sir.”

  2. I’ve generally had good experiences at Cons, but I have not been to any of the really large ones. BuboniCon, AmaCon, and LibertyCon are the three I try to get to (emphasis on try.) DragonCon or one of the ComicsCons? Ah, no thanks. I also call it a day before the alcohol starts flowing.

  3. I went to a con once! Bouchercon was in Philadelphia in 1998 (I think) and my writing partner and I went! We were such newbies. I still have the bag: decorated by the lower half of a body hanging as the clapper in the Liberty Bell. Sturdy bag.

    She’s still doing cons – but that was my only one. 🙁

    Not enough energy shows in many ways. But I still hope…

  4. As long as you’re the RIGHT kind of creator, at the RIGHT con, then absolutely, you’ll find your tribe.

    Good luck otherwise. :,

    • And therein lies the rub, no?
      Figuring which one would be safe?
      I fail to see a net benefit for an introvert.

      • Richard Hershberger

        It depends on what you mean by “introvert.” I am an introvert, in the sense that I find being in groups, particularly large groups of people I don’t know well, to be exhausting. This isn’t a bad thing. Running a marathon is exhausting, but people do it for fun. So it isn’t that I avoid groups, it is that I need to recuperate. While I am an introvert I am not, however, the least bit shy. I can chat amiably, even with complete strangers, and I have no fear of public speaking, so long as I get my recuperation time.

        Then there is the matter of your tribe. This, to me, is the real point of attending conventions. When you are with your tribe you can geek out at one another in ways that make ordinary people back away from you. I am largely out of fandom nowadays. My geekfest now is an annual conference at Cooperstown on 19th century baseball. It is the high point of my year. I also rent my own room for that all-important recuperation.

  5. I’ve been to two. The first one I was ~14, and it was a Star Trek convention with Brent Spiner as the guest. My parents dropped me off at the convention center and I had a ball. I found out my brother’s Spock doll might have been valuable — had he not allowed a stray dog to make off with him when we were little. And I bought the Star Trek encyclopedia, which provided hours of fun. I’ve since heard cons aren’t necessarily safe for kids, so I’m grateful to not have first hand knowledge of this.

    My next con I went as a reporter, and had a ball photographing cosplayers. I specifically chased down one guy I had spotted in the parking lot. His dapper-gent costume was so intriguing I had to know: Why was he carrying a giant white cross wrapped in black tape?

    The fun came both from learning of new-to-me characters — I was nearly “mugged” by Travis Touchdown — and retroactively seeing how good the cosplayers were when I rounded up pics of their characters and posted them side by side. The players nailed their signature poses.

    But there seems to be way more drama and headache for creators going to cons as creators. Which is too bad, from a fan perspective.

  6. Of all the conventions etc, the one that looks amazing is the ultra expensive and exclusive training one for mystery writers that takes place, I think, somewhere near Vegas? They put them through a whole series of training about police tactics, forensics, what it is like to fire a gun or clear a building. I know a few authors who have done it, even well-established pros, and all of them have said “amazing!”. One can dream…


    • Okay, now that one makes sense.
      And not just for mystery writers.

    • It sounds like you’re talking about the Writer’s Police Academy organized by Lee Lofland. It’s not in Las Vegas; in fact, it’s been at various locations around the country each year. I haven’t been yet, but I hope to go at some time in the future.

      • *Revises things-to-do-on-vacation list*

      • I checked out the site. That looks both very cool and very useful. I’ll look seriously into going to that when they announce the 2019 dates.

      • I stand corrected, that is indeed the one I was thinking of. I must have seen one that was on a western tangent at one point and thought they were all located there. I saw Lee Goldberg’s summary after doing it last year and he had a blast.

        I’m working on a non-writing goal right now, will likely take me until 2020. Maybe that can be my reward. 🙂 $425 seems pretty cheap for what you get for the workshops…


  7. I used to go to cons. I have a bunch of delightful friends who love cons, and so I went; also, when I was first published, I was actually invited to a few as a writer, which was very cool.

    But I never had much fun at cons. The final straw came when I caught a stomach bug at a very nice con, full of very nice people, and realized that the day I spent alone in my hotel room trying not to throw up had been the most enjoyable day of my entire con-going history.

    My friends still plan their schedules around cons, and some are kind enough to promote my books there for me. It’s just not my skill set.

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