How to Get the Most out of a SF Con as an (Introverted) Emerging Writer

Around this time last week, I suggested rather strongly that if you were a SF type – and particularly an SF writer – you might want to consider registering for the Australian National Science Fiction Convention being held in Brisbane over the Easter long weekend. Some of you, being astute types, may have glanced at the website and wondered to yourself why, exactly, is this event full of fans useful to me as a writer? It’s basically just people getting together to talk about the books, films, and TV shows they love? How am I going to get something out of that to advance my writing career?

Peeps, I’ve got your back.

First, it’s important to understand how closely tied the writing and fandom community is in SF. A lot of great SF writers came out of the fan culture of the fifties, sixties, and seventies to become prominent names in the field. They’re still the place where new and established writers gather together and talk. It’s where you meet readers, meet more established writers, and build networks that will stand you in good stead.

And yes, I understand. Going to a con is new and scary and not at all like staying at home to write your book in the relatively quiet of your own room. And it’s not just as simple as showing up and being welcomed into the fold (for some of us; others, well, it does happen like that). Wore, if you’re going for serious career development as a writer, it often requires a little bit more effort than simply sitting in on panels (although there are some mighty fine writing panels available).

So, let’s talk How to Get the Most out of a SF Con as an (Introverted) Emerging Writer.

ONE: GO IN WITH A PLAN

If you’re going to a con for the first time, go in with a plan and a goal to ensure you get what you’re looking for at the convention. I would like to learn more about agents in Australia, for example. Or I would like to meet three other emerging writers I can continue talking to after the conference. Both are good, achievable plans that can guide your interactions throughout the con, both in terms of engaging with the program and talking to your fellow writers.

Your plan will also give you an opening when talking to people, so don’t be afraid to share it. People talk, at cons. They ask questions. Often, when people find out its your first con, the natural question is how are you enjoying it?

Fine, you say, and for most non-planners the response ends there, putting the burden of continuing the conversation on the other person. But if you add: although I was hoping to meet some other emerging writers…

Well, give someone a solid opening like that, in an environment like a con where networking is basically what everyone is there to do, and you’ll find yourself collecting advice and introductions like no-ones business.

(Bonus hint: if your goal is get published, you’re thinking too broad. That’s putting all the pressure on the other person to think through your career path and business plan)

TWO: EAVESDROP LIKE A MOTHERFUCKER

I said very little at my first few conventions. I met people, and was introduced to folks by friends, but when the groups gathered in the bar (as they are wont to do), my favourite thing was lingering there and listening in on the conversations happening around me.

Mostly, I paid attention to what the writers further along the road from me were talking about.

There are things writers never mention in panels and workshops. Mostly, because it’s hard to talk about, say, the difficulties of being published to a group of people who would give their right arm to sell their first short-story. They’re not ready to hear it, and you look like an asshole talking about it in a general setting.

But in the bar? Over lunch? When you’re hanging with other writers and the audience narrows? Writers will start talking about the difficulties of getting published and the necessity of multiple income streams and which promotional things have worked best for them and oh hell, this is what tanked my last book (that I had no control over and was helpless to stop).

Writers will small-talk about the minutia of their jobs, at a con, the way most other folks will talk about their work. And you will learn shit-loads if you just clamp your lips, open your ears, and pay attention.

When you’re at a con, eavesdrop like a motherfucker. And try not to be creepy and obvious about it.

THREE: YOUR HOTZONES ARE BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER, & BAR

Your optimal points to meet people are during the three meals every day, and at the bar after evening events are finished. This represent the natural points where people tend to break off into smaller groups, and the phrases to look for are would you care to join me? and do you mind if I join you?

Your optimal targets in this situation are people on their own (naturally) and people in pairs. Not everyone will be open to adding you to their posse – some folks will just be looking for a break, or catching up to do some business – but for the most part, people at cons feel like they should be talking to new folks and networking, so they are remarkably open to expanding their circle in these situations.

Better yet, these smaller groups play to the strengths of those of the writing fraternity who are…well, introverted and better at meeting new people in small gatherings rather than a crowd.

FOUR: THE ONE-TWO INTRODUCTION

Writers, by and large, are an introverted lot. This makes them hard to meet sometimes, ‘cause every new person they’re introduced to in rapid succession basically stresses them out. Worse, established writers at cons will frequently have a bunch of peeps in attendance, so there is a wealth of less stressful people they already know that they are dying to catch up with. Holding their attention is hard.

If you’re hitting a con to network, this means that it’s not a meet once and you’re done kind of thing. Give someone a breather after you’ve first been introduced, so they can process the fact that they’ve met you, and then follow-up later in the con to have a longer conversation.

FIVE: ICEBREAKERS

I suck at small-talk. In fact, I loathe it. And because I loathe it, I frequently do very badly at thinking on my feet when talking to new folks.

What gets me through those situations is usually having a series of go-to questions. Stuff like how are you enjoying the con, or what are you most excited about seeing this weekend, and what is the best thing you’ve seen this weekend?

It will feel cheesy, but it opens up avenues of conversation and it’s always much easier to talk to people about the things that they’re passionate or excited about.

Things that are less effective as ice-breakers than you’d think: “I’ve read your work/I really liked your story…”

These put people in the awkward position of talking about themselves, rather than holding on a conversation. The more socially awkward authors among us will say thank-you, and be pleasant, but it’s unlikely to lead to a prolonged conversation.

And since I’m down in Melbourne as I post this, hanging with my friend Allan from Type 40 who networks the way most people breathes (and, incidentally, a friend I met at a con), I asked him for his advice to add to this. He suggested the following:

People like to be asked about themselves. If I see someone I’d like to talk to, I engage them in a discussion about something that they’re interested in or something about them. Their fandom, their job, the child that they’ve got with them, whatever they’re doing.

But, it only works if you’re genuinely interested.

SIX: NETWORK WITH THE READERS

You are not at a con to network with writers alone. Readers are there. Lots and lots of lovely readers. Meet them. Talk to them about what they’re interested in. What attracts them to a book or an author. The folks who come to a con are generally the super-passionate folk who talk about their favourite authors and new discoveries, foisting work onto friends.

They are, in the end, even more important than the writers you’ll meet.

SEVEN: HAVE A FOLLOW-UP PLAN

Have a think about what you’re going to do after the conference to follow up with people. Friending people on Twitter or Facebook can be a great start, but everyone’s social media feeds tend to blow up during con season, so you can get lost.

One of the best con follow-ups I’ve ever seen by a new writer was David Witteveen after last year’s GenreCon. He did a series of interviews with people he met on his blog, which gave him a) a reason to ask for people’s email addresses; b) something he could offer the people he met, rather than asking them for favours; and c) a thing that made him memorable, to the point where I went and read his ‘zine that he handed over in the final moments of the con.

His post-con communication was polite and professional, his emails clearly outlining the purpose of his interviews, the date it would go live, and his thanks for being involved. It’s a simple thing, but it made him memorable among all the people I met at GenreCon, and it got a whole bunch of more established authors paying attention to his blog for a time.

Similarly, my friend Allan networks so well at cons (and everywhere else) because he isn’t afraid of follow-up. While I will frequently quibble over sending an email for months after a con, he’ll have quickly starting talking to and/or hanging out with people he’s met.

EIGHT: SOME NOTES FOR THE INTROVERTED WRITER TYPES

I’ve talked about this in detail before, so if you’ve read that post, or if you’re not an introvert, you’ve pretty much hit the end of the useful advice in this post. Go forth and book your rego, peeps, and I’ll see you at the con.

If you are an introvert – and I include this because so many of us are, in this writing gig – let’s talk about how to handle the gathering of the SF peeps with aplomb, ‘cause the narrative in your head is currently playing its third iteration of why the crap would I want to spend a weekend around two hundred strangers; that sounds like my idea of hell.

Peeps, I am with you. I loathe parties. I loathe large crowds. I am skittish and weird about meeting new people, outside of some very strict parameters.  My first con was spent half-paralyzed with indecision as I tried to figure out the unfamiliar social dynamics, and it would have been worse if I wasn’t there with friends.

But what I didn’t know then, that I know now, is how to manage the natural reticence of a shy introvert in large-scale social situations.

A lot of it comes down to biology – you’re processing a lot of information at once, particularly when you combine new people and new locations, so it starts to stress you out. Here’s what you do:

  • Scope out the locations early. Familiarize yourself in the locations where you’re going to spend a lot of time, and get to know them a little before they’re flooded with people. It will mean that all your processing is the new people, not the new location.
  • Focus on the one-on-one and two-on-one. You don’t have to join large groups, just ‘cause they’re around. Your goal for the con is a series of interesting conversations with interesting people, not a big wave of parties.
  • Socially mediates spaces are ace. The dealers room is a great place to meet people, as is the con banquet, because you’re not sorting through the social mores associated with being there.
  • Aim for the other introverts and shy types.
  • It is fine to hang in your corner of the bar/room, or talk to the handful of peeps you know, while you acclimatize to the setting. If you’re not meeting new people at all, however, you’re probably wasting the opportunity.
  • Edited to add: It’s okay to take a session off and get some alone time if you need to recharge. You do not have to be on twenty-four-seven. In fact, if you know that things like cons are going to exhaust you, put some recharge time into your plans before you get to the con.
  • When in doubt, look for me. Let me know that you’ve read my blog, that you’d like to meet some interesting people, and give you your goal for the con. I’m more than happy to introduce you to folks I know.

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