The public notion of an SF convention, lovingly lampooned in Galaxy Quest, is of a bunch of people in media-tie-in themed costumes, behaving like extras on The Big Bang Theory (not that there’s anything wrong with that), obsessing over minutia of Star Trek or Star Wars. And there is some of that. But an SF con–especially a Worldcon–contains multitudes: many costumes are made to professional standards, and rather than being copies of Queen Amidala’s wardrobe in Star Wars Episode II, are often interpretations of literary characters or scenes. The panel discussions range from academic tracks to scientific topics to the business of writing to appreciations and examination of the work of writers past and present. At the same time that those of us from the book side of the Force are talking books, there are gamers gaming, anime fans watching and talking anime, costumers (the ones making those costumes) discussing technique and history; and fans discussing the history of fandom.
What’s the point of all this for a writer, specifically? There are many upsides to going to a convention–although going to a Worldcon as your first convention is pretty much jumping into the pool at the deep end. But conventions are a place to meet colleagues (after a couple of decades of writing and of going to conventions my interior fangirl still squees with amazement when someone whose work I admire sits down and strikes up a conversation with me) and renew friendships. Despite all the current noise about “brand building” and “getting your name known,” I still believe that the best thing you can do at a convention is make friends, be amusing and entertaining.
Worldcon, in particular, has dozens of things going on at any given time, including readings, sewing demonstrations, anime or film viewings, filk concerts, and panels on everything from Vampire Semiotics to urban planning in world-building to the business of finding an agent. And everything in between. If you plan to go to a convention and want to be on a panel, contact programming well in advance and–even if you are unknown in the field–tell them what you are best suited to speak about. Just because you haven’t written your SF novel doesn’t mean you don’t know a lot about things that people want to hear about–but remember that they may have other experts in the field, and be gracious if they can’t find a spot for you. If you are on a panel, mention your work as part of your credentials (“I’m the author of sixteen books featuring a vampire slayer who’s also a professor of Philology…”) but don’t go on a “Well, in my book” rampage. Even better, mention works by other authors that are germane to the subject; I always come home from a convention with a long list of new “must read” books. Remember that you are on a panel to enlighten and entertain, not to build your brand. Or rather (and this is important): You Build Your Brand By Being Enlightening and Entertaining. Apparently, after seeing me on one of my two panels at Worldcon, a woman stormed the dealer’s room looking for one of my books. That’s the kind of brand-building I want.
It’s easy for people not on the inside to make fun of the insiders: romance writers and readers are all swathed in pink chiffon and airy salaciousness; SF writers and readers are unsocialized geeks; technothriller writers and readers are gun-happy Libertarians; mystery writers and readers are… You get the idea. In fact, all of these genres contain multitudes, and any get together of genre-readers and writers will contain multitudes too. What links all of them is a love for some aspect of the genre and its craft. And you can’t go wrong getting more exposure to craft and the people who love it.