Approaching Cons as a Professional Writer

I just returned from a fabulous Sirens, where this year I was reader, presenter, writer, and staff, a new intersection of roles for me. As always, I’ve returned with a lot of thoughts, more a coalescence of ideas accumulated over years of cons rather than a response to a particular experience. (Which is to say, if you think I’m talking about you, unless you know I think of you as a scholar and a gentleperson, you’re probably wrong.)

I’ve had a chance to attend a variety of cons over the last few years before traditionally publishing, which has given me time to realize I have opinions not just on what kind of writer I want to be in the sense of storytelling, but also on what kind of public professional I want to be. I hear writers talk regularly about their public internet/social media presence, but less about the way they approach con-going. Professional writers go to different cons for different reasons, those broadly being:

  • Networking/Meetings
  • Learning craft
  • Selling books
  • Being with friends who get you

Attending a con will usually involve some combination of those goals, but some cons are better for particular priorities. Big cons–like book expos or comic cons–are the best way to get books in front of lots of fans. A tiny regional con or workshop is a better bet for craft. A genre establishment con–WFC, Nebulas, RT–is going to have a high density of pros, which is ideal for scheduling meetings with a lot of publishing professionals.

A con is also an investment: of money, and of time. In general, writers are paying their own way to these events, and they’re events that take time away from writing and editing. More than that, they’re exhausting, physically and emotionally. It’s hard to be “on” all the time. Add to that, a lot of professional writers are introverts. Being social, in public, with people we don’t know, is hard.

But writing is also a job. Cons are, ideally, rejuvenating in a personal fashion, but for a professional writer, they’re also work. I think it’s important to consider what writers get out of cons, and what they want to get out of them, and what that means in terms of approach.

It’s possible for writers to only talk to people at cons they already know–whether because they have many people to catch up with after years of attending a con or years of being away, or many meetings scheduled, or overwhelming shyness and enormous relief that they’re no longer fighting to break in, that they have their group, that they don’t have to put themselves in awkward social situations anymore.

It’s not only possible, it’s easy. It sometimes takes more effort to not end up only talking with people I already know, and I’m glad I’ve had the chance to learn to be aware of that so I don’t, because I think it’s a huge missed opportunity. If I only wanted to talk to friends, I could schedule a retreat, or set up a private group chat. Part of the value of cons is not just bringing together people I already know, but people I don’t already know.

When I go to cons, I want to make deep connections–in ideas, and in relationships. I always want to learn, grow, and make friends.

And not just with other writers and publishing professionals. Readers are smart. Some of the most insightful story craft and emotionally supportive discussions I’ve had were with people who will never type a word of fiction in their lives.

I do also want to make friends with people in my field, but the idea of “networking” without friendship fills me with unease–the kind of hollow foundation it implies in my head is harder for me to navigate than the prospect of demonstrating sincere interest in people and knowing them better. That I don’t have to fret about how to do well, because I am interested–if anything I’ll have more trouble keeping my interest in hearing absolutely everything contained.

So here it is: if I go to a con you’re also at, I want to meet you. No matter whether you’ve been in the industry for decades or never been to a con in your life, I want to hear what you’re excited about, and I want to have a conversation about it and not just small talk.

That’s a choice, and every choice has consequences. I know it means I won’t sleep enough in favor of talking with people, and although I’m an introvert I won’t spend much, let alone enough, time alone. I know it means I’ll need to compensate for the sleep deprivation with making sure to eat extremely healthily, which is often complicated at a con. I know it means I need to stock up on introversion before and after a con, that I’ll lose another day to get my body and mind back in working order. I know it means I need to schedule time at the con, not just to see my friends, but to make sure I have time to see people who aren’t already my friends. I know it means I’ll end up in conversations I want to flee, and I’ll miss visiting with some people I care about.

But I’ll also make new friends, and I’ll have conversations and thoughts I couldn’t have had otherwise. That’s the goal, and that’s the reward.

Cons are a balance, and for every person that balance falls differently. Selling books isn’t currently a top priority for me, for instance–but even once it is, I don’t think my choice on this will change much. One of the professional benefits of putting effort into a public presence is to help readers feel personally connected to writers, which encourages them to buy books and spread the word, and in my experience conversations are way more likely to establish connections than listening to someone sitting up on a panel pedestal. For another, everyone has different mental and physical health needs, but I’ve had time to learn how to balance mine in a con setting. Not everyone can make the same choice I do, nor should they necessarily want to.

But I know how much I’ve valued the people over the years who have taken the time to be patient, to listen, to take me seriously, to engage with me earnestly and thoughtfully, to see me when I’ve been alone. How much it’s mattered, and how much I’ve learned. And I know that’s the kind of professional writer I want to be.

So the next time we’re at the same con, I hope we get a chance to talk. I want to hear what you’re excited about.

experiments in defensive fortifications

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