Wednesday, June 30, 2010

I Hope You'll Dance


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?

30 comments:

Dave Freer said...

Try to read Bimbos of the Death Sun before you go, for clues on how not to behave. And do not try to sit on my lap (anyone) unless you are an affectionate Old English sheepdog. I don't like that much either, but I will put up with it. Otherwise I will spend years avoiding you. (Yes, now that mention it, it did happen to me at worldcon 2000 IIRC)

Francis Turner said...

Business cards?

matapam said...

Poor Dave!

Worldcon 2000 was the first time a whole bunch of Barflies all got together in the flesh. We were seriously enthusiastic and high on pure social euphoria.

Poor shy Monkey. I hugged him, he didn't quite flee in terror. Probably needed counseling by the time it was over.

Mind you, back then all I had were idea, floundering around with little idea about how to organize them into coherent tales.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Dave,

Another good one is Deep Secret, by Diana Wynne Jones, particularly if attending Lunacon.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Francis,

Yes. Have some business cards made so you can exchange them. DO NOT put "writer" or "Author" on the business card. If you don't convince them of it, the card won't either.

To be honest, I've never had anyone contact me from one of these card exchanges and I've never contacted anyone. HOWEVER, the ceremonial exchange of cardboard is part of introducing yourself and it will look unprofessional if you don't have it.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Matapam,
Knowing my er... shy, retiring and not at al in-your-face behavior I'm amazed Monkey didn't run from me first time we met. And I think I hugged him too. Out of the taxi and hugging the poor man in one movement. Even better, he didn't run from my kids who both adore him -- and who are... uh... small and delicate beings. Particularly the youngest who MIGHT now be six four (Haven't measured him in a week.)

And look, seriously, one thing I didn't mention is that you need a "homebase" at the con. You're going to be on MOST of the time. You need friends you can be yourself with. Well, you don't NEED it, but it helps. So go to cons by twos and threes if possible.

Synova said...

Monkey?

I'm not a lap sitter nor a hugger so I'm probably safe from those sorts of mistakes. I swear the writer GoH made eyes at me once, but I could have imagined it and no doubt saying who it was is one of those things Not To Do.

I probably ought not have complained on my blog by name of someone breaking the "no politics/no religion" rule because it's possible she google searches her name and she will be at the local con this year again. It would be awkward and it's not that I dislike her, I just dislike feeling abused.

*Sigh* I suppose that's the point of using a pseudonym. But it still might be a good idea for me to try for more careful behavior from now on.

Synova said...

When I hung out with romance writers *everyone* had business cards and exchanged them back and forth freely. I have a few of mine left. Most of them got used to write other people's information on the back of and the phone number on them hasn't been the right one for years.

So I need new ones.

And I'm reminded that I had been taping them in a little notebook (Rolodex? What?) with the tape across the top so they could be flipped up to read notes on the back explaining who this person is and why I've got their card. So... now that I've got that tidied up and updated...

I suppose I'm averaging about two cards collected in a year but it could easily be more. I've been distracted. Some of the cards I've got are from people who are potential research resources. I've got notes on the back that read "husband works with PJ's" and "mounted search and rescue." That sort of thing.

I've never called anyone though. Still, I'm looking at the cards I've got and there are several people I might be glad to be able to contact some day.

I've always been profoundly uncomfortable saying "writer" with nothing sold, although I've managed to convince myself that having rejection slips counts. So what should go on the card to jog the memory of the person it's given to if not "I write stuff?"

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Synova,

Uh... was GOH male (or some females), writer of sf/f and breathing? Chances are he/she WAS oggling you, then. Think nothing of it. It means nothing. Again I'd recommend reading Deep Secret.

Monkey, Chris, Rowena and I are of course exceptions. Well, if I'm relaxed and some guy is truly ogglable, I'll oggle, but I'll do it discretely. Happily married and monogamous, but still have eyes and think the idea of TWO genders was one of Himself's most fortunate inspirations.

Yeah. Some people take advantage of position to impose politics/religion rants. Not wise to diss them for it. If they're so far gone as to do that, heaven knows what else they'll do.

However, if I ever get big enough and do that, you have my standing permission to hit me over the head with heavy object, real or figurative.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Synova,

They'll remember you as you. You don't need to have "writer" there. If you are not editor or agent, and you have a business card, then you're writer.

And don't be ashamed of calling yourself a writer. (Just not on cards and submissions.) A writer writes. Publication is irrelevant. I know it doesn't feel that way, but... oh, heck. Publication won't make you feel like a real writer, either. Trust me on this. Come out to Mile Hi this year and buy me a drink. I'll tell you all about it.

Anonymous said...

Wise suggestions, all. I'm always so paranoid about seen as being a sucker-upper that I do sometimes avoid approaching a writer/editor that I'd like to meet because I don't feel like I have a reason to talk to them. Then they'll see through my evil plan to meet them for professional and selfish purposes. If we're thrown together at a table or something, I feel like I have a reason to introduce myself. Otherwise, I figure why would they care to meet me? I'm nobody to them.

Steve is so out there with himself at cons, but he's not there as a writer, just as a fan. He enjoys gabbing to anyone about anything, and he's got nothing to lose by doing so. Then he tries to drag me into the conversation which I'm highly uncomfortable about because it's not usually the type of conversation that I, as a writer-wannabe, would engage in with said writer/editor. I much prefer having low-key and friendly conversations with people. If it turns out that I like them, having them turn out to be a writer/editor is a bonus.

We used to go to a couple a year but haven't been in 4 or 5 years due to money. Just now, things might be opening up for us with a little discretionary money, so we're hoping to start back again. Steve really loves them for totally different reasons. He flits back and forth meeting people. I do love the panels and meeting people on my own schedule, not to his degree. I am getting better about not being so paranoid.

I will say that cons are a wonderful way to meet these people that you'd never meet otherwise. I met you and Dan in person at LibertyCon a couple of years ago. I met Julie Czerneda at ArmadilloCon a couple of years ago. I've met other writers/editors/fans as well that I'd certainly like to see at cons again. They are so much more fun if you know some of the people.

And I have read Bimbos of the Death Sun, years ago. Fun!

Linda

Synova said...

The thing about the oggling is that I never notice. Not ever. So it was really rather shocking. Not that I have anything against looking, it's just the being seen to be *looking* part.

Hm, Mile Hi is the end of October. That might actually be possible. I just got a job (yay!) and wouldn't want to ask for a weekend off and tag myself as a high maintenance employee right off the bat. (Though I'll have to for Bubonicon in August since I volunteered for the staff.)

Actually, I am sort of hoping that having something to do, some official function, will make it easier to talk to people at the con this year. "How's it going? Is there anything Go-fers can do for you?"

It can only be an improvement over wanting so badly to talk to Real Authors about writing and desperately wanting to avoid being That Person.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Great post, Sarha.

I'm off to world con in Melbourne, Australia in September.

Been going to cons since I was 18.

Met (or heard them speak at a con) Joe Haldeman, Chris Priest, Vonda McIntyre and Anne McCaffrey before I was 22.

Sorry about that, but it was really exciting.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Sigh. I do know how to spell your name, Sarah.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Home base.

Absolutely. If you are like me and have taught yourself to be sociable. 3- 4 days of having to do it full time are really exhausting.

You need to have a room at the con or in the nearby hotel where you can retreat to and recover.

Funny story. I belong to a writing group ROR. We've known each other for years and often go to cons and three of us share a room. At one con we retreated up to our room around lunch time to chat and catch up. But the strain of being sociable was too much.

One by one, we all fell asleep and woke up 2 hours later. Now that is real friendship when you can fall asleep in front of someone in the middle of a conversation (and they don't mind. LOL).

Dave Freer said...

Matapam, Hugs from strangers are a little outre (but not gaaaaaah) in my cultural background. Hugs from friends (even cyber ones) are however very welcome. And I'd like to think you were a friend of mine:-)

Just no lap-sitting!

Kate said...

Dave,

I promise I will never sit on your lap! I'd squish you flat :)

Dave Freer said...

Synova, morality varies at cons - you'll find all sorts - I had a pair of - shall we say interesting gender changers - with a baby who decided I (or maybe B) was nice to be near. They were different, but actually rather sweet and innocuous, and other than garb a lot more pleasant than some other fen. Mind you, it was the first time in my life I found myself uncontrollably staring at a pair. The part of South Africa that I come from is very old school British, and my family are very conservative Protestant/Calvinist. It's incredibly rude to stare at a woman's frontage and not her face. But a man's frontage was... did I see that right? Is it real?

Dave Freer said...

Oh Synova - and I dare say there are plenty of author/editors/ who would love to have their lap sat on or get given the eye... I'm just not one of them.

Dave Freer said...

Heh - that was true then of the last lap-sitter. But I'd be a little hurt if I didn't get a hug from you, Kate.

Amy McLane said...

Great advice, Sarah. I've been to a few cons but usually find a corner to hide in rather than seeking others out. I suppose if I were actually prepared to talk to editors and agents I wouldn't be so afraid of coming off poorly.

Somewhat OT, I really like what you and the rest of the mad geniuses do. I gave you guys a blog award- it's at http://wp.me/ssAeI-2091 if you want to pick it up.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Linda,

Read Deep Secret, Diana Wynne Jones. And I loved meeting you.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Rowena,

Sure you know how to spell my name. :) Prove it.

I didn't meet anyone before 22. NO ONE goes to Portugal to cons. Heck, not even me. Though I would, if they invited me. :)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Dave,

I'd squish you flat too!

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Actually only person to invite me to sit on his lap was Dave Drake and I begged off for reasons of squishing. I forebore to quote Robert Graves at him. :)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Dear Amy,

Yes, being prepared helps. I'm the hide under tables type UNLESS I'm prepared. Oh, stop looking incredulous, the rest of you. It's true. Amanda spent most of RWA chasing me out of corners.

Thanks for the award! Very cool. I'm literally packing up to go on a trip RIGHT now, but someone else will grab it and put it on, I'm sure.

Brendan said...

Good advice just in time for AussieCon(WorldCon). I shall have to try this "being sociable" thing you talk about. I am sure it will more successful than the "hiding in the corner" technique I was planning on:))

Chris McMahon said...

Great post, Sarah. Some very helpful hints.

Kate said...

Dave,

Hugs are always available. Lap-sitting, no. Barbs wouldn't like having to peel your flattened self off the chair :-D

Kate said...

Brendan, Amy, Etc,

When you need a little "me" space, corner hiding is useful, too. Just find a comfy seat near where the people flow around, and sit quietly. Trust me, you'll be invisible - and if you keep your ears open, boy will you hear some interesting stuff.

Amy, thanks for the award. We'll have to find somewhere to park it so everyone knows we have one :-)