The Business of Writing: Attending Conventions After a Long Absence

I’ve heard people call WorldCon a business con. I went to my first one right after Clarion twelve years ago and had a dull time. The panels were dull. The people all seemed very alien.  I was bored to tears. Even the parties were awkward, because the only folks I knew were my Clarion buddies. The most memorable bit of the con was listening to David Brin say, after I grilled him a bit (softly, compared to today) about Glory Season, “I COULD SO WRITE YOU!” as if I was some easily-replicated feminist stereotype.

I decided never to go back.

Me, I liked Wiscon. It was much smaller, and it felt like I had more common ground with folks there. It wasn’t just fandom, but a very particular subset of fandom really interested in discussing issues of race, class, and gender. It seemed a little less interested in celebrating fandom and more interested in examining how SF/F was broken, and how and where and why it should be fixed. I liked that. I liked the challenge of that. It spoke to what I was trying to do with my own writing. It was during Clarion that I actively decided to stop writing all-white futures (I was 20 at the time, and still parroting a lot of stereotypical fantasy stuff).

My life imploded about five years ago when I got diagnosed with my immune disorder, lost my job, went through a series of bad breakups, and ended up homeless and hauling all my stuff from Chicago to Dayton with the aid of some very good friends who allowed me to squat in a spare bedroom of theirs for a year while I struggled to pay for the drugs I needed to keep me alive.

It was the first sale of GOD’S WAR –as well as a temp job that turned into a permanent job with health insurance – that saved me financially. I was able to pay off the credit cards I’d been living on and move into my own apartment. But it meant no more conventions for me. Not only because of the money, but because of how incredibly exhausting some of these events can be. I spend a lot of time figuring out what to say to people, and trying to figure out who to say hello to and who not to (I mean, if I “know” someone on Twitter, but haven’t met them, should I say hi first? Should I let them say hi first? Should I interrupt someone to say hi or wait? And what about that awkward silence after you’ve said hi? Should I make up a reason to exit the conversation? Or just go? Or would that be rude? Or should I invite people to lunch? Do any of these people even like me?).

Despite all the craziness that brought me here, though, Dayton has been very good to me. I have a great spouse and a job that pays well (and has reasonable health insurance!), and with the pace of my life and money at my disposal, there wasn’t any more reason to avoid cons. I had the money and mostly had the spoons.

The trouble was picking things back up after setting them down for so long. For lack of a better word, I’ve been hiding here in Dayton putting my life back together for some time. Stepping out into the writing world was hard, not just because I’d been gone awhile, but also because with the way the Internet works, and how you’re mostly just an online personae to people, I wasn’t sure exactly how my online personae was received. Was I annoying? Were people scared of me? Did anyone even know who I was?

I went to Epic ConFusion in January, which turned out to be a nice dipping-the-toes in type of con because it was only a few hours away, it was small, and there was a very high ratio of writers to fans, so it felt a lot more like a professional con like World Fantasy but with a smaller Wiscon vibe. I could do that. It was fun. I got to do my first signing. And I even got to see some folks. Including people whose books I loved and people whose books I hated (sometimes, alas, publicly. Oh, youth!).

I stumbled out of ConFusion thinking maybe this whole con thing wasn’t too bad, and it didn’t matter that I was a different person from the one who went to Wiscon all those years ago. But what I also realized is that what I do and say online does not, in fact, happen in a vacuum. People did actually remember who I was, and a lot more of them than did back in the Wiscon days when I was just the person who wrote the Brutal Women blog and had a couple stories in Strange Horizons (I was also very pleased not to be introduced solely as anyone’s wife or girlfriend, which remains the most memorably awkward moment from my last Wiscon).

All that said, I’m not sure I was prepared for WorldCon. The reason I decided to go was because it turned out I was invited to the Wellspring Writer’s Workshop a couple hours north in Wisconsin that took place the week before, and it seemed silly to drive up all that way and then skip WorldCon.

I made a lot of mistakes, the chief one being not planning any meals or coffee dates or bar dates with anyone, which means I missed a lot of people. The other was not preparing better with opening salvo conversations for writers I did want to see and could have touched base with when I saw them across the convention hall if I actually had something I’d prepared to say beyond, “Oh, it’s YOU! It’s good to see you!” Because of this, I had a very Twitter-like con, where I felt like I was constantly babbling to people in 140 word chunks and then running off to find a beer or a book or a clue.

For better or worse, I also exhausted myself early, with a morning drive into Chicago on Friday followed by a quick lunch with J. and then prep for the Night Bazaar party. The rest of the night I was “on” in party hosting mode, where I pulled out all the big personality and energy I had for basically the whole con and spent it in one night. All that hand shaking paired with my less than stellar immune system likely also led to the rhotovirus that plagued me from Saturday onward, despite my best efforts to hand wash like a nutty person.

Because of my exhaustion and lack of preparation, I actually found the panels a lot more fun than the stress of figuring out who I should go up and say hello to and who might possibly hate me for panning their book or something. So instead I took some joy in being thoughtful and engaged in some WorldCon-level conversations about sex and religion and strong female characters. I say WorldCon-level because I did have to check myself a few times for being Wiscon-serious. Sometimes I do wonder if I take writing too seriously. But being in marketing and advertising, and seeing the studies about exactly how susceptible we all are to marketing messages, I just can’t help it. I know that stories shape how we view the world, and can change our perceptions and expectations. Maybe not just a one-off book (though that does happen) but multiple messages do have a big impact. So sometimes I fall into that whole “Serious writer being serious” thing.

The part I enjoyed most at WorldCon actually wasn’t catching up with the writers (in fact, I did a lot more “meeting new people” than catching up with folks I hadn’t seen in a long time). It was so hard to talk to people for more than a few minutes and I missed speaking to so many people that my most memorable interactions actually turned out to be with fans of the GOD’S WAR books. A lot of folks turned out to the Night Bazaar party and the panels and a few more at the signing, and it was really cool to talk to them in a venue outside of Twitter (I don’t comment on reviews, so parties and direct Twitter @’s and email are the primary places where I connect with fans).

So while reading everyone else’s wrap-up of WorldCon, I kind of felt weird. I mean, crap, I didn’t plan well enough to meet people. I didn’t stay up long enough at the big parties. I didn’t get to live-tweet enough panels.

And while some folks might think, hey, isn’t connecting with fans the real reason to go to WorldCon? Well, yes. But look at what writers talk about after the con. Look at the long list of name-dropping. Most writers are at cons to meet other writers. Not just because other writers are awesome (they are) but also for a very good business reason. In social media marketing, we talk a lot about how people do business with their friends. And in the tiny world of SF/F this feels even more true (if that’s possible). When you go to WorldCon, you go there to make friends. Not only because those people are awesome, but because after people meet you, and if you’re not a jerk, or you become friends, they tend to think of you when opportunities arise, whether that’s a podcast, YouTube show, anthology, or book deal.

Other writers have talked at length about this, so it’s no secret, but it does add an extra level of pressure to big gatherings like this one that I could really do without. It’s like I MUST DO ALL THE THINGS AND MEET ALL THE PEOPLE even while I’m collapsing in a pool of my own vomit (almost literally, this time around). WorldCon was not really a vacation for me. It was a professional event. A writers’ conference. As cool as the people are in this profession, it was most certainly business, and… well, with a dayjob that is also business, spending one’s vacation on business can be exhausting.

One of the things you don’t really think about or prepare for in the writing business is the actual business of things. I figured all I needed to do was write great books. And yes, that remains the key, vital piece, but let’s be real here. There are all sorts of so-so writers who make it in this business. Once you reach a certain level of competence, the personal relationships you forge really do make a difference.  And that can be stressful, because you can only do so much when it comes to relationships. People like you or they don’t.  You like them or you don’t (I do indeed have several people on my “DO NOT EVER TALK TO THIS ASSHOLE” list). That’s how it goes.

It might be awhile before I do a con full of so many folks again. It sounded great in practice, because with so many people, I was bound to run into people to chat with. But with so many people, I ended up with more regrets about who I hadn’t met or talked to enough than cheery feelings afterward (of course, that may just be the rhotovirus talking).

Mostly, at the end of WorldCon, all I wanted to do was go home and write. In fact, I wanted to write something better. I wanted to be awesome, too. I wanted to be brilliant. I wanted to tell better stories.

Because at the end of the day, that was all I had any real control over – the stories. Not my immune-challenged body. Or whether or not people like me. Or whether or not people read my books. All I can do is write stories. That’s what I’m good at.

So though I encourage folks who are great at socializing to attend cons and host parties and have a great time, I understand why a lot of people don’t. And I know that by not being the best at that, it means I need to be an even more brilliant writer.

And, perhaps, not shake so many hands my first night at a party.

There’s that.

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