Conventions, Conventions!

I’ve had the pleasure of being an attendee and a panelist at several conventions over the years. Here are some things I’ve learned along the way. Hopefully, you’ll find them helpful whether it’s your first convention or your fiftieth.

1.Have a Plan

As soon as the program is announced, figure out which events/panels you want to attend and, if the attendee list is public, who you want to meet. You’re going there for a reason. You’ve spent good money to attend. Having a plan will help you get the most out of your experience. You may change your plan, but it’s nice to have a base from which to work.

2. Know Your Comfort Zone (but push yourself)

Most of the people who attend these things – authors and readers alike – are there with a purpose in mind. They either want to meet their favorite writer or reach new readers or sell their latest novel. As an introvert, I know how tempting it is to stay in your hotel room and just read the books you got when you checked into the conference.

But you won’t grow that way. You’ll have a better experience if you at least try to meet people. You don’t have to go to the bar to do this. The lobby is a great place to meet fellow conventioneers. Approaching people after their panel is another. Give it a shot. You’ll be surprised by the number of people you’ll find receptive and open to speaking with you.

3. Listen Much and Speak Little

My grandmother always said, ‘No one ever learned anything by running their mouth.’ This is a good tip for anyone who’s new at a particular conference. You meet all kinds of people at these things. The malcontent. The rumor monger. The rabid fan. And the run-of-the-mill conventioneer who’s there just because they want to be there. Take it all in and listen to what they tell you. Remember that they’re telling you as much about themselves as they are about the conference and the community. If you find yourself talking to a favorite author, let them talk. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Most writers love feedback and answering questions, whether they’re a best-selling author or a self-published first-time author. If you listen to what they say, you’ll have a more constructive conversation.

4. Stay Away from Negative People

This is a good tip for life in general, but at writer’s conventions in particular. Any event is going to have its problems. Its shortcomings. Things that could be improved. Cliques that people form. That’s part of life. But don’t waste your time talking to the perpetual complainer or back-biter who critiques everything. You have a limited time at conferences. You shouldn’t waste it listening to someone whining that they can’t pay the bills because they decided to make an after-school job a career. You also won’t learn much from people who complain about publishing in general. There are a lot of things wrong with the publishing industry, but they won’t be solved at a convention. Listen, learn, then move on.

5. Don’t Get Drunk

A lot of conventions, especially crime writer conventions, seem to orbit around drinking. Many of them have bought into that false, romantic notion that you must guzzle booze to get at the heart of the crime novel. They glorify Hemingway and Chandler and Hammett as examples. Yes, their drinking lives were interesting and shaped their fiction, but their craft suffered from their addictions. Hemingway was a sexist, homophobic bully who blew his brains out when he couldn’t write anymore. Chandler and Hammett’s addictions cost them their writing careers. Their later works suffered as a result.

Writer’s conferences are, at their heart, conventions and people tend to forget themselves at conventions. It’s a time away from home and they often drink like teenagers, though their livers have AARP cards. You’re not there to drink. This isn’t spring break for you. You’re there for a reason, remember? To learn and grow and network. While the bar offers a way to do this, be mindful that you have a purpose. And you don’t want to waste a valuable day hungover that could be spent improving yourself and your craft.

Yes, you’re there to have fun. Have a drink if you’re able, but never lose sight of your goal. They might not remember your conversation the next day, but people will remember you if you’re sloppy. Not a good rep to have.

6. Don’t Believe the Poseurs

Fiction writers are, at their core, storytellers. The truly successful authors don’t wax on about how much money they have or all the awards they’ve won. They have websites for that. Don’t let their supposed success dampen your aims as a writer. Don’t let anyone belittle your work or dissuade you from writing that book or story you want to tell. If they give you tips or advice, great. But tune out if they begin to tell you how great they are. The greats don’t have to advertise, even if they’re not household names.

7. The Cliques

There have been cliques since the moment the first cave dwellers stepped outside and saw another group on the other side of the valley. It was that way in school, at the workplace and at conferences, too. Don’t try to break into them. You’ll only be disheartened and feel rejected. If you’re a writer, you’ll deal with enough rejection in your career.

Cliques are often useless and not worth your time anyway. They’re echo chambers for their own egos. For example, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard some of these people (mostly men) gas on about how vigorously they’re willing to protect women’s rights only to turn a blind eye when a noted author treats a woman (usually hotel staff) badly. Instead of doing something, they turn a blind eye and discuss their favorite pilsner rather than confront an author who may be able to provide a blurb somewhere down the road. Fighting injustice is easy when you decide to ignore it when it’s convenient for you.

Just remember a group of authors sitting together isn’t necessarily a clique. Sometimes, they’re just sitting around, enjoying a conversation. Often, they’ve just met each other.

For example, I’m a cigar smoker and enjoy one when I’m at a convention if there’s a comfortable place to do so. I can’t tell you how many people have come over to remark on our cigars (both positive and negative comments) and struck up a conversation. I’ve met some good, close friends that way. Be aware of cliques, but don’t be afraid of them.

8. Play it Cool

Do your best to be as outgoing as you feel comfortable. Yes, be willing to push yourself but not beyond your boundaries or to the point where you feel unsafe. At the same time, don’t be too eager. There’s nothing a writer or a publisher or an agent hates more than a hard pitch at a conference. Yes, a lot of people are there to do business. To meet new clients and, possibly, find a new author. But to try to hard sell a publisher on your idea is the wrong way to go. You’ll not only turn them off, but they’ll probably try to avoid you for the rest of the conference.

That’s why doing research ahead of time is so important. If a publisher or agent is attending the conference, reach out to them ahead of time to request a meeting. If they say yes, then you’ve got your chance. If they don’t respond, try to find them, and introduce yourself. Mention that you’re working on something and would like to talk to them about it. Have your elevator pitch down but be ready to take ‘no’ for an answer. If they’re interested, they’ll tell you. If not, gracefully accept it and be on your way. Persistence pays off when trying to finish a book. You’re not going to get an agent or publisher to ‘yes’ by being a pest.

Extra Tips from Readers!

Peter Rozovsky

“My tip on coping with a big convention is to go to a smaller one first. I attended Philadelphia’s Noircon a few months before my first Bouchercon, and that gave me a ready-made group of folks to hang out with.”

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There are other great tips on the internet about how you can get the most of your convention experience. Read them all and, hopefully, you’ll craft the best strategy that helps you get the most out of your time. You’re worth it!

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