The following was pseudonymously posted last month on the AbsoluteWrite board, a hangout for aspiring writers.
Semi-random bits of advice for writers attending their first SF conventionAddenda: Sartorias (who is Sherwood Smith) offers her own advice for congoing writers. So do Kate Nepveu and Michelle Sagara.
This began when HollyB posted:“I’m interesting in attending Noreascon Four in Boston over Labor Day, and I was wondering if anyone had any advice for a newbie writer planning to attend. I know it’s primarily a fan convention, but they have an academic program as well (although I can’t seem to find a schedule or list of talks on the website). Is it possible to meet editors, agents, or other writers there?”1. General Theory:
Fiction is fiction, publishing is an industry, but the science fiction community is an old and complex social continuum. You don’t have to become a virtual citizen of that virtual commonwealth in order to sell fiction; but if you attend one of their conventions, you’re on their turf. The attendees at that convention aren’t there to worship science fiction and the people who create it. They’re there to see each other, and to talk about SF and fantasy and related subjects. If the only reason you can imagine going to a convention is to promote your career, stay home. The benefits won’t repay your cost and effort, and your attitude will irritate the natives.
Some other communities use the worldcon for their own gatherings, in effect piggybacking on the convention. This can be hard to distinguish from interest groups within the SF community. As a rule of thumb, events that have official existence are listed in the convention program. (Note: the program notes are never perfectly accurate.)
Fan, academic, professional, and conrunner are not mutually exclusive terms. Some of the most respected members of the community have neither professional sales nor academic credentials. To quote Kate Nepveu, “Cons are for having fun, catching up with old friends and meeting new ones. Period. (SF fandom is remarkably egalitarian, though not perfectly so.)”
Be nice to the people running the convention. They’re not getting paid.
The cost of having you at the convention is not covered by the price of your membership. The shortfall is covered via free labor. The World Science Fiction Convention is the largest volunteer-run annual convention in North America. Cons are the SF community getting together to interact with itself, and the worldcon is the annual gathering of all the tribes. There’ll be a great many events and activities taking place there, but the core event will be people talking to each other. This will go on till all hours.
If something bad happens to you, go talk to the conrunners. They can’t fix everything, but they can often be very helpful. However, if the bad event is the sort of thing for which you’d normally call 911, be sensible and call 911.
You don’t have to go to the Business Meeting, though you’re allowed to do so if you want. You can’t go to the SFWA meeting unless you’re a member. Trust me, it’s not much of a loss.
Every worldcon has at least one major department go into meltdown mode six weeks before the convention. Don’t panic if someone tells you lurid stories about whichever department it is this year. Worldcons have survived some amazingly chaotic episodes.
Tip your chambermaid. Clean up after yourself. Be nice to the service staff. The SF community’s good behavior is one of the things that makes their conventions possible.
2. Personal Maintenance
Early on in the convention’s program, there’ll be an orientation panel for congoing newbies. Go there. Listen. Consider taking notes.
The worldcon can be overwhelming to people who’ve been attending it for decades. It will unquestionably overwhelm you. When things get to be too much, go back to your room and nap for an hour. It’s a sovereign cure. The other sovereign cure is to try some smaller conventions. Boskone’s good.
Another sign of trouble is that you suddenly realize that all your friends hate you, you’re having an awful time, you’ve made a fool of yourself in every conversation you’ve been in so far, and you should never have come to the convention. This is definitely a sign that you should go back to your room and take a nap. When you wake up, things will be better.
If it’s early evening and you suddenly can’t find anyone you know, it’s probably because your friends have gone off on a dinner expedition. Eat in the hotel coffeeshop, keep an eye out for their return, and get yourself invited along on the next one.
Drink lots of water. Take your regular medications on your regular schedule. Carry your vital medical information (if you have any) on your person at all times. Remember to eat at least two meals and get five hours of sleep within any twenty-four-hour period. Spend at least half an hour each day outside the hotel, doing something that has nothing to do with the convention.
If you run out of food money, bear in mind that there are often subsistence-level snacks for people working on the convention. If that doesn’t work for you, get a big jar of peanut butter. Failing that, check out the refreshments in the consuite.
Be especially careful to keep up your fluid intake and get enough sleep in preparation for traveling home. You’ve just been under a lot of stress, and you’ve been exposed to new bugs imported from all over the world.
If at all possible, budget a recovery day back home.
Don’t go to your first few conventions in the company of a couple of friends who are also new to the scene, or you’ll never assimilate. You’ll come home thinking you’ve been to the convention, but you’ll have missed the interactivity of it.
If at any point things get too confusing or impossible, or if you’re just short of conversation, say “I’m sorry, this is my first convention,” then ask about whatever it is you need to know.
When you need to ask a question, it’s better to pick someone who’s standing around with two or three other people. This will expose you to the fannish enthusiasm for exposition (1 question + 4 fans = 5+ explanations), but it’ll increase the likelihood of your getting reasonably accurate information.
Never decide you’ve been snubbed unless you’re sure the person in question could see and hear you, and was sure you were trying to talk to them.
Nobody knows why this is so, but SF fans have difficulty ending conversations. If you find you need to extricate yourself, a cheerful “I’m sorry, I have to go now” is usually enough.
Don’t say “sci-fi”. It’s “SF”. The community does say “sci-fi” sometimes, but pronounces it “skiffy”. Explaining the social nuances involved is beyond the scope of the present work.
If you want to meet people, volunteer to work. If you want to meet authors and editors, sign up (early!) for their kaffeeklatsches, and attend their readings. Do not attempt to pitch your work to editors while you’re at the convention.
Every community has its jerks. SF has fewer than most, but they definitely exist. Also, every community of sufficient size has scavengers, small-scale predators, and semi-outcasts lurking around the edge of the herd. Exercise normal prudence.
Don’t volunteer to share a hotel room with someone you don’t know well until you get more of a sense of things.
Be discreet with your comments at the Art Show. Artists tend to lurk in the vicinity of their paintings.
There will be private room parties in the evening. Many of these are open to anyone who wants to attend, as long as they behave themselves politely and don’t swipe all the refreshments. If they’re not open, whoever’s doing door duty will tell you so. If they’re not polite about it, they’re the jerk, not you.
The beer and soda are in the bathtub.
People who won’t let you into their circle probably aren’t being snotty elitists. Odds are, they’re a bunch of friends who’ve known each other for ten or fifteen years. They have nothing against you. You just weren’t there, back when, and you wouldn’t get the jokes. Later on, the same people will be hanging out in other, more mixed social situations. Chances are they’ll be amiable and conversable.
The above does not necessarily apply to the field’s celebrities. Some of them get very shy at conventions because they get so much unwanted attention. Other big names in the field will be perfectly approachable.
If someone starts giving you a hard time about being a media fan/wannabe writer/member of any other identifiable group, pay them no mind. They’re realtime trolls. If anyone else were willing to talk to them, they’d have something to do besides harassing you. Ignore them and they’ll go away.
Be kind and polite. Never assume it’s safe to be rude or condescending to someone just because they appear to be a very odd bird indeed. Interpersonal connections in the SF community are complex, multilayered, and wholly unpredictable; and the community itself is notably tolerant of disabilities and personal eccentricities. That very odd bird may turn out to be your favorite author, or the agent you have your eye on, or the editor to whom your novel is currently on submission. They might be one of the field’s mandarin theorists: highly respected, but almost impossible to spot from outside the community. But what you really have to watch out for is the odd bird who was your hoped-for agent’s or editor’s best friend when they were teenage neofans together, or their former spouse and business partner, or their fellow member for several decades now of a small and obscure but oddly influential APA, or their opponent in the worst fan feud in twenty years.
On the other hand, that very odd bird may be bothering you because no one else will talk to him. Disengage, and go do something else that’s more fun.