Into every beginner writer’s life, at some point, a little convention must fall.
I confess I’m a very bad person to talk about this because I never attended a convention until after I sold my first book. However, for the record, if I had to do it over again, I would have started attending conventions about… oh, fifteen years sooner, right after I finished the first novel. Do I think it would have made a big difference? Oh, heck yeah. I think I might well have broken in back in the eighties instead of 2000.
Though conventions are waning some in importance – there are now authors’ forums and agents’ forums and editors’ forums and online meeting places and other ways to make contact with the professionals – there is still very little that can beat meeting someone face to face. If you made a good impression on an editor or agent, they’re more likely to be straight forward with you and tell you why they’re rejecting the novel, for instance, or even give you an opportunity to rewrite. So, instead of “Dear Author, thank you, but–” the letter will read “Dear Agnes, I find the concept of your novel intriguing, but you lost me when you got to the part with the alien sex. I know, you’re a very nice woman and I think you’re holding back too much. Perhaps you can rewrite it and send back.”
Now this sort of thing is not going to happen – usually – after a single meeting – unless you shared some special bonding time, like, getting stuck in the rain with not a cab in sight and having to walk six miles back to the hotel, or something like that. It will take two, three, sometimes five conventions of meeting casually before the professional will remember your name and/or consider you a friend or at least a friendly acquaintance.
It’s also not going to help if you barge in to where an agent is talking to her client, or an editor is surrounded by friends and start pitching your novel. Remember in many ways publishing is stuck in the nineteenth century. There is an etiquette and a way to do things.
So, without further ado, a rudimentary convention primer:
1 – which con should I attend? Well, most of us always attend our local cons (defined as our hometown and within about three hours drive) anyway. Yes, you should do that even before you’re published. It will get you known to the local fandom which is an invaluable help when you’re pushing your first book.
Unless your local con is IN NYC or at least within reach by bus or train of NYC, you won’t have many professional editors attend. If you’re lucky, there will be one or two under editors. If you’re really lucky, they will have the ability to purchase your stuff. More likely there will be a round dozen small press and micro press editors. Yes, I know what I said about sometimes this being the best way to break in, but unless you have time to INVESTIGATE the house’s reputation, don’t. Just don’t. – the exception to this is Toni Weisskopf who does a lot of cons in the South. If you can and Toni is the editor you wish to meet, then your local con might do fine.
As for trying to buddy it up with the authors’ GOH… well… there are limits to what an author can do for you. This doesn’t mean it’s nothing at all. Published authors can mentor you and teach you tricks of the trade. They can introduce you to their agent/editor. They can tell you how things stand in the industry. But unless your best buddy is Rowling or Meyers, a writer cannot give you immediate entry into the profession.
Also, two caveats. As one of the authors who does mentor, we get a LOT of touches. And a lot of the people who try to buddy it up to a published writer are, let’s face it, flakes. Another number of them you get the distinct impression only like you because you’re published. It doesn’t even have anything to do with liking your books. If you friend someone to use them, you’re morally questionable. Sooner or later the writer will figure this out. After a while, heck, we get a sense for who is using us. So… For published writers, I’d do what I do – though I started after being published – go to cons attended by authors whose work you genuinely like. Approach them at signing. Talk to them as people, not as demi-gods (most of us aren’t.) Treat them as you’d treat anyone else you like and would like to be friends with. If something develops, great. If not, let it go. No one likes an obsessive stalker.
Frankly, if you’re a beginner, serious about breaking in, I’d recommend one of the larger cons like Worldcon or World Fantasy (I’d live off the mega cons, like Dragoncon and Comicon until you are fairly well published. You just get lost.) Alternately a writers’ conference if there’s one in your area and you like the guests.
2 – Plan ahead
Did you think you were going to the con for the panels, foolish child? No. Oh, surely, if there’s a panel with an author you adore; if you want to know your prospective editor/agent think about electronic publishing or something like that. But if you lay down your notes and go in and spend the whole time listening to panels, you’ve wasted your money.
So, you know who your quarry is. Plan. The plan can be as simple as “want to meet x” or as convoluted as “want to try to find out the secret party where you’re allowed to pitch.” (Answer, there isn’t one. And if there were, you wouldn’t be invited. Heck, most of them I wouldn’t be invited) For your first con, content yourself with “want to meet/exchange a few words with….” and then a list.
However, be prepared. You’ll wander into the lobby and someone you met while checking in (and whose name you don’t know, but you shared a pretty funny joke about sparkly vamps) will say “Hey, we’re going to dinner. Wanna come?” and next thing you know you’ll be sitting at a table with three executive editors and four A list agents. Can happened. Has happened to me. Remain flexible and open at the con, and remember you’re there to see and be seen. Like a debutant of old, nothing is going to happen if you sit by the wall and refuse all offers to dance. And if the editors you made contact with are not the ones you planned, it might still be the making of your career.
The exception to the panel thing is RWA nationals. The panels are often tremendously informative and even I learned tons of stuff, after ten years in the business.
3- There’s a time and a place
So there are you are at the dining table, with all these agents and editors. CAN you avoid blurting out, “you know, I have this novel about intelligent butterflies”? Sure you can. Unless you want to have everyone give you the cold shoulder and never talk to you again.
The table conversation will likely be a) gossip about people you don’t know. Say nothing about that. b) gossip about bestsellers. NEVER say anything bad about people who are way ahead of you. c) and more likely – or at least part of it – harmless anecdotes about where they live, their pets or their kids. This you can join into. Yeah, I know you’re a species of troglodyte. Pretend you are your most outgoing character. Be charming. Be sweet. DO NOT be overbearing.
It is possible that during the conversation, an editor or agent will ask, “So, you said when you were writing, you mistook your cat for a hat. Do you write science fiction.” This is the time to blush and say “Science fiction, fantasy, a bit of horror. Romance with purple aliens….” whatever you do write. THEN if the editor asks what you are working on at the time, you may give her/him an elevator pitch. More on that later.
The point is that people you have fun with will remember you and think of you pleasantly. You don’t need to be on all the time and you should never be pushy.
Sitting there in utter, stony silence and/or hiding under the table are also highly discouraged.
4 – Grab the opportunity by the short hairs.
The time will come – trust me – when an editor or an agent will ask you “So, what are you working on?” It might be the first time you meet them. or it might be at your third/fourth dinner with them.
It will help of course, at this point, if you have looked at trades and websites on line and know what these people publish. Say your opus is a magnificent YA or a mystery, pitching it at Toni for Baen is probably going to leave both of you cold. (Unless it’s a borderline thing.) We’ll assume you’re smart enough to do this.
When the professional asks what you’re working on, be ready with an elevator pitch – so called because these conversations sometimes happen as you bump into an editor in the elevator. And the pitch has to be short enough to grab the editor between the two floors.
Usually these are done in short-hand. Two movies. Or a standby of the field and a movie. So you might say – for my current between hands work – It’s Friday meets the Lives of Others, but with a really positive spin. (Cut me some slack, this is off the top of my head.)
“But my book ISN’T anything like…” Yeah, well, my book isn’t anything like those above either. Fortunately I’m a published author and I can say “It’s a lot like DST but a little darker, about 300 years in the future and the love angle involves a spy and a female secret agent.” But if I had to do an elevator pitch, I could also say “It’s Brave New World meets Revolt in 2100, with a romance thrown in.”
Just find the most likely thing and use it. Preferably use two movies that are intriguing or which don’t seem to make sense together. “The Graduate. In Space. On Skates.” Keep it short. Try not to use movies that tanked. For instance, “My book is just like Movie no one heard of but better” won’t get you any benes.”
If you’re lucky – my luck with it is about fifty fifty – the person you’re pitching to will say, “Oooh. I just saw this movie about skaters in space. Tell me more.”
This is when you have a little prepared thing. Keep it to a paragraph or two. “Spaceman Shorty has just finished his training at the academy, but no one wants to hire him. He’s hanging around his father’s house, falls back into his skating hobby from childhood, gets involved with an older null grav skater. This is when he finds out she’s really a spy bent on killing the king of Skate city. And to make things worse, he falls in love with her daughter.”
If you’re really lucky, the agent/editor will say, “Wow, tell me more.” Or even better, will slip you her business card and say, “Send me an outline and the first three chapters.”
(I hope you’re not foolish enough to pitch something you don’t have at least that much for. Which brings us to three caveats:)
a) Watch for signs of eye-glaze/disinterest. It happens to all of us. If the editor turns away and starts talking to someone else, DO NOT GO ON. If the eyes glaze DO NOT GO ON.
b) Tell the truth. If the editor/agent says “send me the book” DO NOT say “okay” if all you have is the first three chapters. You’re not going to finish writing it in a week! Instead, say “Well, it’s not finished, but I have the first three chapters and an outline.”
c) When you get home, follow through. You might take a month or so – hey, I know I do a final typo hunt – but then SEND it in.
5 – That’s it. With a few random caveats thrown in.
a) Don’t drink if you can’t hold your liquor. Heck, even if you can. You might just think you can. And drinking will loosen your tongue. don’t.
b) If you’re there as a pro or a wanna be pro, wear appropriate clothes. Yeah, that really cool steam punk jacket and skirt is fine (at least if it’s decorous) and you can’t go wrong with business casual. Not torn clothes, dirty jeans, etc. though. Authors usually dress one level above fans at any given con.
c) leave your politics and religion at the door. No, not even if you wish to violently endorse what the publisher is saying. Well, not unless you and the publisher are already on friendly terms. At any rate, do not go on about it to the public at large. Why would you want to alienate half of your potential fans?
d) If asking questions/giving answers to panelists don’t start with “in my novel” if your novel is unpublished. No, trust me, seriously. Ninety nine percent of these novels are wretched and, for reasons unknown to me, set in medieval Japan.
e) Just as with the liquor, watch yourself with the sex, okay? It’s okay to be flirty, but it’s not okay to be flirty in professional situations. And watch yourself with staying up past your sell by date. The good parties are late at night, but some of us become slap-happy late at night.
f) Do not hang out in parties where nothing is happening, unless the party itself is fun. Otherwise move on, it’s a chance to meet your targets.
g) if you’re going to one of the big cons, wear comfortable shoes. Most convention halls, etc. are enormous. You’ll walk a lot.
Any questions? Comments? Suggestions?