Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
November 2011

How To Do a Con

If you are going to a convention for the first time, I recommend staying at the convention hotel and paying the extra for the privilege. You can stay at nearby hotels and save money, and I've certainly done that when I felt more comfortable with what goes on, but logistics are easier if you're right there and don't have far to go in the morning to get started or to crash when you're done late at night. You will check in at the hotel, drop your bags and then go to the convention check in, where you will get a badge and programming materials. I'm sure this is obvious to everyone, but just in case you're the nervous type like me, I'm going over basics here.

Again, if it is your first time, I recommend looking through the list of programming at this point (because if you do it earlier, you'll be disappointed to see everything has changed and certain people couldn't come at the last minute). Choose some panels or interviews to go to. I get frustrated sometimes because everything I want to see is scheduled for the same time slot, and then there are other slots when there is nothing I am interested in. I circle things I want to see most if there are conflicts, and I keep the panel programming on hand at all times.

I do have friends who go to cons and never actually attend any programming, which is certainly understandable. There is at least as much going on in the hallways or in bars and nearby restaurants as there is in the panels, but if you don't feel comfortable and you don't already have friends there, going to the panels is interesting and can give you a starting point. If you don't like panels and are annoyed at the way they are directed at newbies or beginners (which they generally are), don't go to them.

I'm going to say right here that you need to know yourself and what your needs are to have an enjoyable experience at a con. If you can only stand to be around other people for a few hours before needing a break (like me), take your break. Don't push yourself so hard that you collapse either physically or mentally. Make sure that you eat properly and get some sleep. I'm a stickler for healthy behavior, and I know others think of cons as a time to really let loose and ignore their normal rules of life. That's fine if you are the kind of person who can do that and have fun. It just makes me feel miserable, which is why I don't do it. I tend to feel like everyone hates me if I'm pushing myself to circulate for more than a few hours. I find this feeling goes away if I just take a few minutes in my own hotel room for some quiet. I can't do everything, and I accept this about myself.

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That said, I tend to choose the programming based on who is on the panel or reading or interview rather than the topic that is introduced. A great topic by uninteresting people is less likely to be fun than a boring topic by great panelists, simply because the panelists will jump ship and talk about whatever they are interested in. If I have a friend, I go to her panel because I want to be supportive and because I tend to be interested in what my friends are interested in. I also go to panels where someone I admire is talking and I haven't met them before. I have had experiences where someone whose writing I love turns out not to be either interesting or nice. Which tends to make me not want to meet them, but doesn't usually affect my enjoyment of their writing (though it can do that, too.)

Moderators are in general highly underrated at cons. They are assigned rather haphazardly, and you will sometimes see the least well-known person on a panel made into the moderator. While I have certainly seen some really great unknowns do good moderating, they are often overwhelmed by the bigger names and can get lost. The best panels, in my opinion, are the ones where the panelists are balanced in terms of ego or know each other beforehand and are friends. It may end up feeling like you have been invited to observe a great dinner party or an analysis of the evidence a la Sherlock Holmes. If there are two battling panelists, it can be annoying, but it is rarely boring. Sometimes a big name author will take over the panel, but this may be what the audience wants. What I hate is when the panelists think that the panel is for pimping their book. Bringing your book to show people is fine, but they shouldn't feel obliged to answer every question with a reference to a particular book

If you are in the audience for a panel, DO NOT:

1. Make the comments you would make if you had been invited on the panel. You may be every bit as qualified as the people on the panel. I have been to dozens of panels where some people in the audience were more or at least as much qualified as the panelists. Nonetheless, you are the audience. They are the panelists. The rest of the people who came to listen to the panel came to listen to them, not to you. Also, this is just plain polite. Let others have their turn.

2. Get into a debate with the panelists. I know that there are occasions on which this can be interesting. Nonetheless, I consider it bad form. If you have a question and the panelists answer it, they have answered it. If you don't like their answer, you may complain about it privately, on your blog, or to your friends. You may even invite the panelist to talk to you about it in the hall afterward or over coffee.

3. Ask more than one question. I have been to a handful of panels where there were so few people in the audience that it would have been fair to ask another question. But otherwise, it is so impolite to think that you should be called on for another question when there are others with hands up. Share the wealth.

4. Start raising your hand before the moderator has specifically asked for questions. When the panelists are in the midst of their discussion, it is rude to start asking questions. You have come to listen to them. Don't interrupt.

5. Attack one of the panelists about something either said on the panel or that you read in one of their books. You may disagree with them politely, but going on the rampage, no matter how much proof you have assembled, just makes you look like a nasty party guest.

6. Stalk panelists after the panel is over. It is fine if you happen to see a panelist, to make a comment about the panel besides merely saying that you liked it. But don't follow the panelist into the bathroom (Yes, this has been done) harranging him/her. Don't assume that you are the panelists' new best friend. If the panelist does not appear interested in continuing the conversation, let it drop as any polite person would.

Instead what you should DO:

1. Listen carefully to what the panelists say. I think it is nice to take the "best possible interpretation" of their words rather than the worst possible. Listening is a skill that has to be developed. If you are bored as an audience member, it may be because the panelists are boring. It may also be because you are not doing enough work listening carefully.

2. Ask real questions. This is so important. I know that it takes a lot more effort to think of interesting questions than to comment on a question. I know this because I have been a moderator lots of times and I spend hours and hours beforehand thinking about questions to ask that would be interesting and entertaining. On the other hand, when I attend a panel, I do little preparation because I figure that's the moderator's job, not mine. So take your time to formulate questions. You may even write some down and then pick the best one.

3. Stop asking questions when the time is up. Along with this goes moving out of the seats so that the next panel can start on time. If you are involved in a scintillating conversation, please move it outside and keep it down so that the conversation inside the next hour is not interrupted.

4. Say thank you to the panelists if you see them. No matter how bad you thought the panel was, always thank them for their time and effort. Ask them how it was from their perspective, if you want to know if they hated it as much as you did. Be subtle.

5. As much as possible, enter and exit the panel on time. If you must sneak in, do so quietly. Do not move chairs to make a place for yourself. Hold the door so it doesn't slam. If you leave, make sure you don't make a fuss out of it, motioning to others to come with you.

6. Turn OFF your cell phone before you sit down. Think of a panel as a business meeting. We don't want to hear your favorite song and you should not be leaving in the middle when your phone goes off.

7. Feel free to Tweet tidbits of the panel to friends who could not come. You may text as well, so long as it is quiet and not disturbing.

I will say up front that I rarely find readings interesting, unless done by someone who has acting experience or an unusually good reader. I can read the book myself, and would probably prefer to when it comes out and I have all of it. The problem for me with readings is that I want something more than a simple reading experience if I have the actual author there in front of me. That is to say, I'd like the author to add little tidbits into the reading, explaining why they did what they did, what mistakes they made in the writing process and where they veered off course, or maybe what was going on personally that led them to a particular scene.

Interviews are good or bad depending on the chemistry of the interviewer and interviewee. I like interviews when they know each other well and veer wildly off topic, telling tall tales and stories back in the day. I've found that interviews are rarely well attended, and can also be a chance to get the inside scoop on people in the business. It's a great time to find out about agents and editors, for example, without having to strike up the nerve to actually start a conversation. I will say that I have also been to interviews where the audience is huge and it's hard to hear anything because the speakers are so far away. Sadly, no matter how good the interview is, if I can't hear it, it's not worth much to me.

If you miss the art show and the dealer's room, I think you are doing yourself a disservice. I try to have a little money available at a convention so that I can bid on a couple of art pieces on auction. I also have found some of my favorite jewelry stores at convention halls, but perhaps this says more about my taste in jewelry than the dealer's room. There are bookstores inside the dealer's room, as well, somewhat eclectic in taste, but they try to aim their books at you, the conventioneer. They will often have signed books from the authors at the convention who happen to stop in just for this purpose. You can ask for something if you're looking for a particular title. There are also rare books, old favorites, and good new books by authors you've never heard of.

The convention bar is where a lot of business gets done. Editors are meeting with authors, agents are meeting with potential clients and current clients. It can feel like you are on the outside of all these conversations and you don't know how to "get in the know." My most successful convention experiences have been ones where I know a few people and find them at the bar and ask them to introduce me to a few more. Sometimes if I know someone and see them talking to someone else I want to get to know, I will stick my nose in and ask for an intro or just hang out and join the conversation when appropriate. I've certainly pitched books at conventions, but I'm not sure I recommend this strategy. Getting to know an editor and waiting to be asked what you're working on is usually better than trying to shove your manuscript in the face of someone who isn't ready for it. You want to be an interesting person first.

In general, the rules of normal social interaction do apply at cons. I'm not sure why I have to say this, but I feel obliged to since I've seen so many shipwrecks. Just because you are at a con does not mean that you have the right to touch, ogle, or proposition other people at the con. Be polite, be nice, be interesting. Don't be a jerk. If you become a mean drunk, I'd recommend not drinking to excess while at the con. A lot of drinking goes on, and if that makes you uncomfortable, you can certainly choose to leave and go back to your hotel room early. I'm not a drinker myself, and I tend to circulate for a while and leave when I'm tired. I also rise early and exercise. This is probably not the sort of con behavior that is normal. Most people seem to rise rather late, since they go to bed long after midnight. I think my own health at some point is more important than meeting every person there I might want to meet.

There are a lot of parties at cons. Most are not exclusive, and there will be signs up announcing where they are and what they are offering, from free drinks to cheese and snacks to games. Again, I would recommend going to parties with someone you know already. This way, you can help introduce the other person to people you know and they can do the same for you. Don't feel obliged to stay. There are a lot of parties, and you might be able to get to all of them if you only stay for a few minutes. By the same token, don't feel obliged to go to every party. If you find yourself enjoying one of them and connecting with people there, stay and enjoy yourself.

If you see a particular celebrity at a con to whom you would like to introduce yourself, you may wonder how not to end up feeling like an idiot. I wonder this myself. Sometimes, I wait for a chance like a signing to bring a book over (which I might either bring from home or buy at the dealer's room) and ask for an autograph. There's not much time for a conversation, which can be both good and bad. It limits your interaction to a rather particular type. "I love your books," I might say, and elaborate with an example of a small anecdote. The response is usually something along the lines of "thank you," and then perhaps a few more words. It is what it is. You're not going to become best friends with someone you admire this way, but at least you will have a memory.

If you want a longer conversation with said celebrity, you are going to have to figure out a way to meet them under more open circumstances, at a bar or party or maybe just having lunch with someone else. Obviously, you can't just hunt around for a particular person and then interrupt their conversation with someone else. But if you are clever, you might see them talking to someone you know and hurry over and wait for an intro. Then you'll have a chance for a longer conversation. I'm not sure what advice to give here. Again, you want to be interesting, but you can try too hard. Try to be yourself, but don't talk only about yourself. Don't fawn. Don't be scary or stalkerish. These are people, too. You may be surprised to discover that they are not as interesting as you thought, or that they are tired or annoyed or having a bad day. It happens, those feet of clay. Or they may be as wonderful as you had expected and you become fast friends. Don't count on it, though.

One of the problems for me at cons is that there are so many people I want to meet there, and just not enough time to do it in. I will sometimes find my attention wandering from an interesting conversation with the person in front of me, thinking about who else I am missing. I think this is a mistake. You are where you are, and there are infinite other places you could be, infinite other people you could be with. But thinking about that only makes the experience you are in less enjoyable. Bird in a hand is worth more than two in the bush and all that. It is especially important to make sure that you don't treat the person you are talking to now as if you are ready to dump them at any moment if someone more important comes along. You wait for the conversation to end naturally and move on.

Please also don't mob the most famous person at the con if you see him/her in the hallway. It makes it very unpleasant for that person to go to cons and less likely to come to another one. If you have a book you want signed, do that at the signings. If they are on a panel and you want to catch them for a moment, be a normal human being and wait and see if they have a moment. They may or they may not. It's not because they are ruse and don't want to talk to you. It's that they may have other needs to attend to at the moment.

I would also say that if you think that the most famous person at the con is the one it is most important to meet, you are wrong. This person is not going to be able to do for you what you think they can do anyway. They can't make a difference in your being published. Really. It's not the end all and be all. There are going to be a lot of smaller people who would probably be more useful for you to know than that one, and who are going to be easier to get to anyway. Sure, if you have a chance, you want to meet someone you've admired forever, but don't think that's the definition of the con experience. The small conversations between people who are just starting out are far more valuable in the long run.

When I watch writers I have admired for a long time together what strikes me most is the realization that they knew each other back when they were beginners. They've been in the business a long time and the reason they are such good friends is because they knew each other before they were famous. There are lots of people at a con who are the before they were famous stage, just like you. I'm not saying try to figure out who is going to be famous, because that's a stupid game to play. But find people who are like-minded and whom you connect with for whatever reasons are real. They are going to be your friends at cons for the rest of your life.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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