September 01, 2006
I'd originally written the following artlce for Clarion West's alumni newsletter, The Seventh Week. After I put it together, the editor and I decided it was more a review of the kind of information disseminated during the six week program than it was a presentation of information new to CW grads, so we agreed to cut it from the newsletter. Nonetheless, this is information that writers who are new to the field might find useful, so I present herewith:
Clarion West and other writers workshops are dedicated to improving the craft of writing speculative fiction, but for the person who wants to sell his or her stories, there's also the matter of learning the business. Just as software engineers, plumbers, and law enforcement officials have trade shows where they can network and learn the business side of their trade, so too writers have conventions.
The mere mention of science fiction conventions conjures up images of men and women dressing up as Klingons and Jedi and -- these days -- students from Hogwarts going to masquerades, playing board games, and arguing over plot points from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But while these conventions (typically referred to as "cons") can have their fan side, they also often have their professional track, as well.
Cons provide a number of ways to ground the writer in the professional community. For newcomers to the field, panel discussions by established authors on subjects like "Things I Wish Some Pro Had Told Me When I Was Starting Out" or established agents on "Electronic Rights and the Future of Book Contracts" are a great way to not only learn something of interest, but also to get to know who the experts, up-and-comers, and old-reliables are in our field. And while not all panelists fit into those categories, the newcomer who pays attention will quickly get a sense of who is in-the-know and who leans to pretending.
While panels are a great way to sample some of the trends in the industry, most writers who attend cons emphasize a more important career building exercise: networking.
"I go to network with other writers," says Irene Radford, the Con Liaison for SFWA, "often from different locations I would not normally get to meet. I get to network with agents and editors."
Jay Lake, winner of the John W. Campbell Award in 2005, agrees. "You're not there to sell or do business, you're there to network -- with your peers, with better established writers, and with editors, agents and reviewers."
While much of this networking takes place at the hotel bars and the pro parties, there is also a unique opportunity offered by many cons known as the kaffeclatch. Many cons will set aside a room with several tables that each feature a prominent professional for fifty-minute (or hour or hour-and-a-half) conversations. Because seating is limited at each table, and because the idea is to allow actual interaction to take place, there are typically sign-up sheets for each scheduled kaffeclatch. One can learn a great deal by sitting down to conversation with a favorite author or editor and ten or so other interested individuals.
Buying a ticket to a con typically entails buying a membership to the host organization. Joining a con entitles the member not only to attend the event, but also to vote on awards, participate in organizational meetings, and sometimes even vote on future sites for the con. So, for example, becoming a member of the World Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention allows one to attend the con, vote on the Hugo and John W. Campbell Awards beforehand, vote on future locations of WorldCon, and participate in the various committees that make up the rules for how the con is run and how the awards are granted.
For established and budding professional writers, con membership typically centers upon attending the con and, often, voting on awards and attending the award ceremonies. As a general rule, professionals (and soon-to-be professionals) are less involved in the politics of the organization itself.
Most cons will feature special Guests of Honor. These will tend to be prominent writers, artists, editors, and other professionals, but will often also include prominent fan authors and fan artists. A con's "GoH" is likely to appear at several major panels or presentations, and their works are often celebrated to some extent in the con's programming.
Which Cons to Attend
There are so many national, international, regional, and local cons that choosing which ones to attend can be heady business. The quality of a con cannot be judged by simply by how many people are likely to attend. Who is attending, the theme of the con, and where it is being held can have a substantial impact on how much members are likely to benefit from attending. As Irene Radford notes, "Don't go into too much debt to attend cons. Be selective."
For the speculative fiction writer, there are two major cons of particular interest:
- World Fantasy Con -- typically held during the last week of October or the first week of November, membership is limited to 850 professionals, collectors, and others interested in fantasy, horror, and science fiction. The annual World Fantasy Awards are presented here each year, and the emphasis is on written work. As noted on their website (http://www.worldfantasy.org/): "Few members wear costumes, there is no gaming or masquerade, and if any films or videos are shown they are tied directly into the literature." The host city changes each year, but the con typically resides in North America.
- World Science Fiction Convention -- this convention has a distinctly dual personality, catering to the fan base and the professional community at the same time. The host city can be anywhere in the world, although there is a smaller North American version known as NASFiC held during years when WorldCon is hosted overseas. The Hugo Awards are presented during WorldCon, and attendance typically extends past 3,000 members whenever it is held in a major US city. (http://worldcon.org/)
Other national events of interest include:
- World Horror Convention (http://www.whc2006.org/)
- Horror Writers Association Annual Conference (http://www.horror.org/conference.htm)
- Nebula Awards Weekend (http://www.sfwa.org/awards/)
Many of the best cons for networking with other professionals are found at the regional and local levels. There are several such cons each year that, despite the fact that they have strong ties to a particular area of North America, they draw a large number of important professionals from throughout the US and Canada. However, some of these cons can flare out after a few years, to be replaced in importance by some other con that serves the same general region.
Many of the major speculative fiction periodicals (including Asimov's Science Fiction, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, and Locus Magazine) include a listing of upcoming cons of interest, both regional and national. The best way to determine if a con might be of interest would be to look at the caliber of Guests of Honor and talk to fellow writers who are considering attending. Also, where scheduled events are posted, look to see if the panels and events are more geared toward the working professional or the avid fan.
Con Do's & Don'ts
- If you have a friend or acquaintance at the con who already knows the ropes, ask for introductions and for tips on what to see and what to avoid. As you get to know your way around that particular con, return the favor to the newcomers who come on board after you. The writing community is quite welcoming. Be welcome.
- Observe the Connie Willis Rule*: re-introduce yourself to past instructors and mentors. On the one hand, this means it's okay to approach them. On the other hand, this also means you must not assume that they remember every little detail about the time they had you in class. Like your name. It's perfectly acceptable to say, "Hi. You may not remember me, my name is ________. You were one of my teachers at Clarion West." Your past instructors and mentors will remember you, but this can save everyone potential embarrassment if your name eludes them after so much time has passed.
- When you sit on panels and participate in organized readings and signings, you will work with the con's organizing committee: the con com. "Be polite to the con com," notes Irene Radford. "This is their private party and we are their guests. If you have a problem with a panel topic or a conflict, take it to the con com and explain yourself. They usually are understanding and accommodating. But work with them, not against them." As SFWA's Con Liaison, Radford sees constant reminders that bad behavior does not typically lead to invitations to future events.
- That said, volunteer to sit on panels and participate in organized readings and signings.
- Jay Lake is often recognized for his canny networking skills. His advice: "You need to go to a fair number of cons over a period of several years, and play lightly. Don't press hard. Just be around, be pleasant, hit the pro parties and the bar and listen a whole lot more than you talk. Hit the same Cons every year, so people recognize your face and see you as a participant. That's how you'll wind up sitting alone at a table in the coffee shop with Ms. Big Editor -- not by pressing and pitching, but by being friendly and familiar."
* So named because Connie Willis teaches this rule to all of her Clarion West students.Posted by on September 01, 2006 10:00 PM in the following Department(s): Articles , Clarion West Journal , Writing