September 01, 2006
The Writer's Con Game

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:

The Writer's Con Game -- Getting the Most Out of Attending Conventions

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.

Con Membership

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 ( "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. (

Other national events of interest include:

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 at 10:00 PM in the following Department(s): Articles , Clarion West Journal , Writing | Comments (0)
 September 04, 2006
Pardon the Dust (again)...

Comment Spamtards have been an increasing problem here at Casa Rousselle, and I've finally reached a point where the performance hit to my server is too great for me to continue to allow unfettered access to the comment engine. Thus, alas, I have resorted to turning on the "authentication" mechanism supplied by Movable Type and TypePad. If you want to post a comment to this site (and I hope you do!), you'll now have to register with TypePad (free!) and/or login with your TypePad ID and then you can post your comments.

Please pardon the dust while I mess around with the formatting of the new comment templates; the defaults are very clunky, and it'll take me a few hours (which I'll be spreading out over several days) to get them back to looking like normal.

In the meantime, I have several new posts in store for you. Please stay tuned... and, hey! Comment as the spirit moves you!


PS: what is a 'comment spamtard'? That's my term for anyone who slows down my server by constantly pinging the comment engine on my blog to try to get ads for other sites or other services posted to my site in their comment entries. Argh!

Posted by at 01:24 AM in the following Department(s): About This Site
Alternative Energy Source

Hey, Al Gore! How's this for cheap, clean, environmentally friendly energy that won't contribute to global warming? Try this:

Wrap two spools of copper wire around the casket that holds the remains of Edward R. Murrow, and put a big magnet inside his coat pocket. Starting at 5:30pm Eastern Time on Tuesday, September 5th -- that's when Katie Couric begins broadcasting the national news on CBS -- the spinning inside that grave should provide enough electricity to keep a city the size of Toledo, OH in lights indefinitely.


Posted by at 10:46 PM in the following Department(s): Humor | Comments (0)
 September 08, 2006
Whatever Happened to Confidentiality?

Confidentiality is not just a problem at the highest reaches of the government. It seems to me that once any modicum of fame is involved, the entire concept of confidentiality goes right out the window.

During the course of my professional career(s), I have held a few different positions at a few different companies. In most cases, when I left one position at one company to take another position at a different company, I entered into a "confidentiality agreement" with my former employer(s). The essentials of these agreements boil down to a simple arrangement: I won't tell anybody the nature of my departure from company X (nor divulge any company trade secrets) and, in exchange, the company will also not tell anybody the nature of my departure from the company (nor divulge any other personnel-related information about me).

This is Standard Operating Procedure for most organizations, especially larger ones, and it stands to reason: it protects the company as well as the individual from a number of possible problems down the line. It protects the individual because it establishes what is essentially company policy: the company will never say anything bad about you to potential future employers who choose to check your references. A potential future employer can confirm that you once worked for company X, but not what your salary was, or why you left, or whether anybody at company X had problems working with you. There's nothing left to interpretation. They can't say *anything* about you (other than to confirm that you once worked there), so there's nothing they can say that could possibly be misconstrued (or, for that matter, correctly construed) as a reason for the potential new employer to not take you on.

It also protects the company. You agree not to say anything derogatory about your former employer, or to otherwise give potential job applicants, stock analysts, or other industry professionals any reason to be concerned with how things are going at company X. More importantly, if there was any kind of a severance or other financial arrangement that was part of the deal, current employees should not hear from you what the terms of those arrangements were. For obvious reasons, your former employer wouldn't want everyone to know how much you were getting paid, if anything, as part of your separation arrangement.

As a former manager, I can assure you that there are often financial components involved in separation arrangements. And no, I won't give you specifics.

The heart of the matter is this: when employer and employee part ways, both agree not to bad-mouth the other. This is a contract. A binding, legal commitment. And yet, we read examples of confidentialities being betrayed seemingly every day.

I'll skip the obvious examples of how this happens in the higher levels of the government. The Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan, Carter, et al, administrations seemed to be plagued with bigger leaks than the Titanic. One such leak killed the Nixon presidency, and another has caused some harm to the current administration.

However, the problem plagues the civilian ranks, as well. The best (most public) example I can think of in recent memory is the departure of corporate executive turned television star, Carolyn Kepcher. She's got good looks, brains, a book deal, a well-defined public persona, and she and her former employer parted ways. So what happens? A "person close to the situation" told the New York Post that she was fired because she wasn't taking her job with the Trump organization seriously.

Further, according to the Associate Press article linked above, this sentiment was "echoed for The Associated Press by a person close to the situation. The person insisted on anonymity because it was a personnel matter."

That's right! It's a personnel matter! That means they are not allowed to talk about it. There's confidentiality involved. These individuals are betraying a very real, very important confidence. The Trump organization could lose a lot of money if Ms. Kepcher were to choose to sue over this (assuming, of course, that the betrayal came from within their ranks rather than from hers.) Since confidentiality and integrity actually matter to me, I'd like to see the Trump organization either find the source of the leak and fire that person; or, if the leak can't be found, fire everyone in the department who *could* have been a source of the leak.

(I've often felt the same way about leaks from within Presidential administrations. How ironic -- and pathetic -- if one of those leaks should have actually be approved of by the President himself. I'm not just talking about the current administration, by the way, with regard to the Plame Game. The leak of the Stealth bomber project under Carter's administration comes to mind, among many, many others....)

I realize that this particular example may not elicit a great deal of sympathy. There is a general preconception that the rich and powerful play by different rules (read: dirty), and therefore when they break their promises to each other (even if it's a lowly minion who is casting the stones without the approval of his or her boss), the only people being harmed are, well, rich and powerful and therefore they can handle it.

Bullshit. Integrity matters, whether you're the boss or the employee, the elected or the appointed or the electorate, the wealthy or the aspiring.

In the voting district where I used to live, a candidate for State Representative had previously left the employ of a large, local company (where I, too, had formerly been employed) in order to run for office. Word got out that her performance at said employer was not quite up to par. This, from a source "close to the situation."

As a former News Director at a commercial radio station, I recognize that sources must occasionally be protected. But these cases, like so many that we read about on a regular basis, involve sources very clearly breaking the law and/or violating confidentiality in order to share information that is not only not theirs to share, but is also not in the public's interest to have that confidentiality breached. By news organizations coddling such sources, and corporations (or government organizations) not acting to cauterize such leaks, our society as a whole infers the message that confidentiality agreements will neither protect you nor are they binding upon you.

This is a shame because confidentiality, like any social convention, is part of the glue that helps hold our society together. We erode it at our own peril.

Posted by at 11:00 PM in the following Department(s): Essays , Tidbits II | Comments (0)

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