I spent this past weekend in Huntsville, Alabama as a guest of Con*Stellation, an annual regional science fiction/fantasy convention hosted by the North Alabama Science Fiction Association (NASFA).
Over the years, I've spoken at sf/f conventions, romance conferences, multi-genre conferences, bookstores and libraries, colleges and universities, writers groups and writing workshops, writers retreats, high schools, readers groups, museums, and civic associations. I've done panel discussions, chat-with sessions, formal speeches, informal Q&As, I've lectured and taught workshops, I've done readings, and performed some MC duties. I've done public appearances all over the U.S., in Canada, and also in France and Israel.
Many writers are (go figure) shy, bookish, private people, and learning to do public appearances is an adjustment for them. Others are more gregarious and enjoy meeting readers, as well as seeing their colleagues at conventions and other public venues. I'm very gregarious and my original professional aspiration was in acting, so both aspects of public appearances appeal to me: getting out to meet people and working with an audience. I always learn something from my colleagues and from readers at conventions; I always learn something from doing readings, giving formal workshops, and participating in panel discussions; and I always enjoy meeting readers, who are the people who spend their time and money on books--without readers, I wouldn't have a profession, after all.
There is an unofficial jungle-drum system among writers about which events are worth our time and what the pros-and-cons of various venues are. In general, "worth our time" means that the venue is book-friendly; there are some conventions, for example, where all the attendees seem to be interested in everything but books (ex. movies, TV shows, video games, comic books, costuming, movie stars, TV stars, etc.), and a novelist winds up completely squandering 2-3 days of writing time and/or her private life by appearing there. There are also conventions that are so disorganized or so clueless that writers who've appeared there warn their friends, and word gets out (ex. your workshops or panels are all scheduled to occur before your flight arrives or after your flight leaves; no one ever booked your hotel room; your name appears nowhere in the program book; etc.) And there are v-e-r-y occasional groups that stiff you (ex. the group doesn't fulfill the fiscal agreements they made with you).
However, writers talk to each other just as much about the terrific venues we've attended, the places where we had a wonderful time, the groups that were a hoot to speak to, and the committees that went above-and-beyond the call-of-duty to make us feel welcome and comfortable. And Con*Stellation is certainly one such venue. Before I went there, people who'd been guests there before me, including Gay Haldeman (to whom novelist Joe Haldeman has to privilege of being married), told me what a great group it is and what a good time I would have there. And they were right.
The committee was regularly in touch with me for months before my arrival, making various travel, fiscal, and programming arrangements, and checking on my preferences for scheduling, free time, and food. The whole time I was there, almost everyone connected to the convention took time to introduce themselves to me, make sure I had everything I needed, and ensure that I was having a good time. Upon hearing that I wanted to learn more about a particular game, the committee found a volunteer from the gaming room to teach me a little about it, which information (for a new book project) I found very useful. The committee also made sure I had plans for every meal, so that I wouldn't ever wind up eating alone if I didn't want to (which can indeed happen to shy writers in a strange city where they don't know anyone else at the con). They flew the guests in the day before the con started, to ensure we'd all be there in plenty of time, and then took us site-seeing so we wouldn't be bored on our own in a strange place. As it happens, Huntsville, Alabama has one of the three Space Centers in the U.S., so there was plenty for us to see before the convention got underway! Huntsville itself is a small, friendly, relaxed city with a large historic district that was left undamaged by the Civil War.
The committee also fed us so much and so often that my clothes were rather snug by the time I left Alabama.
The con was divided evenly among various types of fans and activities, so there were always attendees enjoying every aspect of it: the art show, the dealers room, the anime films, the gaming room, and the writer discussions and readings. This year, the slate was somewhat "family" oriented: My parents, Mike and Carol Resnick, were also guests (and during our first car ride together, NASFA's treasurer threatened to separate us all; Resnicks can be a tad argumentative), as were writing spouses Diane Duane and Peter Morwood. The artist guest of honor, Bill Holbrook is married also married to a writer, a mystery novelist, though she was unable to attend. As is often the case, the biggest crowd was for Saturday night's masquerade, where my dad MC'd, and Morwood, Duane, and I read the committee's (very good) trivia questions to the audience while the judges deliberated. (Chocolate was thrown at audience members who answered the questions correctly.)
I had never been to Alabama before, and apart from my parents, I had never before met anyone who was at this convention. I like going to new places (as well as revisiting places I've enjoyed), and I like meeting cool new people (as well as reconnecting with old friends). The hospitality and conviviality I enjoyed among strangers last weekend ensured that next time I see all these people, I will think of them as old friends, and that I will pass on the word to my fellow writers that Con*Stellation is one of the speaking invitations you really want to accept.