Convention Attention: How Was Your First Time?
One of the reasons I enjoy writing this column is that I hope someone who is reading it, who has never been to a convention before will decide to go to one, be it a fan run scifi and fantasy convention, a writers conference, a large scale trade show (like BEA), a ComicCon, or any other kind of genre and/or fandom convention.
Everyone has to start somewhere, and with that in mind I e-mailed a few friends and put a call out on twitter to get in touch with people who had attended their first convention within the last year.
Here’s the questions I asked:
And here’s the first batch of responses!
My first con was the British Science Fiction Association EasterCon, this year called Satellite4. I had already bought membership of NineWorlds and LonCon, so two large conventions in London with a similar kind of fandom; however, the chance to dip my toes into convention-going fandom in a con which was both prominent and also much smaller than either of those, as well as being much cheaper – Satellite4 was in Glasgow, my home this year, and so I didn’t pay for accommodation or travel, walking to the venue daily – seemed irresistible. This was reinforced by the prospect of meeting up with some of the friends I have met via social networks (Kari Sperring, Stephanie Saulter, and others), so I paid my membership fee and attended.
I didn’t know what to expect from an Eastercon; combine the volume of chatter about panel parity (not practiced by Satellite4) with the number of people with hugely positive memories of Eastercons past, throw in a dash of internet sneering at SMOFs and a programme with panels on diversity, African fiction of interest to specific readers, and women in science and science fiction, and I didn’t know if I’d turn up as an odd young person amongst a crowd of greybeards or be welcomed into the bosom of the convention. As it was, the best advice I was given all weekend was very simple; volunteer. I did two hours in the Ops room on the Friday evening, making sure it didn’t clash with the panels I wanted to attend, and suddenly the con was totally demystified; I couldn’t run a con with that knowledge, but I could certainly navigate one. Another thing is arrange to meet up with people. Don’t hope you’ll by-chance bump into them, but actually say “let’s meet up”; with Twitter and emails on smartphones, you can do this on the move, in the con. Do it.
The panels were, for me, a secondary feature of a con which I mostly attended to meet people and be a part of convention-going fandom (taking congoing for a test drive, as it were). However, looking back on it and looking at the programme, that might have been a mistake; I had an absolute blast at some of the panels, heard some fascinating and thought-provoking things, and of course, heard about a lot of media in various forms to consume. Pick panels carefully; some may sound intriguing from the title but be dull, and some fascinating ones may be scheduled opposite each other, forcing a hard choice.
If I had one big problem with the con, it was that it was if anything too solicitous to “neos”; that is, to first-time congoers. It went to a lot of effort to make the con seem friendly and safe, but ended up almost being patronising; standing alone for a few moments with one of the orange Neos badges on was enough to have con staff swooping on you to check if you were doing ok and finding everything good. Whilst the sentiment is absolutely to be commended, the execution was perhaps a little much.
As it is, I’d really like to go to an Eastercon again, depending where it is; the low financial bar of this year’s made it an easy decision, but in future years that won’t be the case. Oh, and one last piece of advice – if an author’s book is sweeping the awards, don’t agree to stand up and accept an award if it wins unless you’re confident you can do it right!
So the first convention I attended was DFWCon 2014, which took place at the beginning of May. I started getting serious about my writing last summer, listening to podcasts and reading more books and blogs than I’d like to admit. I joined a local writing group then found out they sponsored a writing conference. At first, I was on the fence. I didn’t have a finished manuscript and it was somewhat costly (though members did get a nice discount). Around the time NaNoWriMo rolled around, I decided that I needed a hard deadline, so I signed up for the con to give myself one. It ended up exceeding my expectations. I had so many opportunities to talk to agents and editors and to hang out with fellow authors who loved the craft of writing, not just its output. There were great classes and fun impromptu chances to practice my pitching as well. By the end of the weekend, I felt like I had a much stronger grasp of my ability and what I needed to be doing, that I rushed home and started into my edits in full blast. Coming away with requests for two partials and two fulls didn’t hurt either. Not only will I be attending next year, but I volunteered to help out with some of their production so it can go even smoother.
The first convention I attended was Edge Lit 2 in Derby. I must admit I was quite excited about going and a little nervous. I’d heard good things but you never know if you’re going to fit in or not with new groups. It turned out that these fears were unfounded as there were loads of lovely people. Everyone was friendly and it was nice to be in a crowd where it was people who hadn’t played D and D that were in the minority. I think the thing that surprised me most was how relaxed it was.
There were lots of panels to watch, workshops to attend, a dealers room, a quiz and the most edgy raffle I’ve ever seen.
It was great meeting twitter folk in the flesh and getting to chat with writers whose books I’d read and enjoyed like Anne Lyle, Adam Christopher and Jen Williams, who were just as awesome in person as they are online.
It was also a great place to find writers I’d not read before. Like Mike Carey, who did an incredible reading. Adrian Tchaikovsky and Lou Morgan (I’ve started books by both and not been disappointed) and Gav Thorpe, who is not only a great writer (Warhammer FTW!) but also great lunchtime company too.
My only complaint was the lack of air conditioning (it was a hot day!). I’d certainly recommend Edge Lit for people who want to get a taste for conventions as it’s big enough to be interesting but not so big that it’s scary.
I attended my first-ever convention in November 2013, a little local con called SFCOntario. It was the first time since I started writing that I had been able to leave my (young) kids with another caregiver. I had toyed with the idea of going to AdAstra the previous April, but I chickened out at the last minute. I didn’t know anyone in the scene, and I was going to be there all alone. I had no idea what to expect, and pictured myself sitting alone in the back of a conference room. It seemed like a lot of money to pay to sit around being awkward.
By the time November rolled around, I knew a few more people through Twitter. Not well enough to, you know, hang out with them, but well enough that I thought, if we accidentally found ourselves in conversation, I might not have a panic attack. It helped that this con was smaller, cheaper, closer to my house – and offered a writing workshop on the first night.
That last part was KEY. My anxiety is avoided when I have a purpose somewhere. What freaked me out most about conventions up until that moment was the idea that it was primarily a social event where everyone would know each other, and I’d be expected to operate in some socially competent way. “Just hanging out” is something I am magnificently bad at. But doing things? I love doing things! As soon as I had an actual activity to do, I had a reason to attend. So I did.
Once I’d made that decision, things got harder. That writing workshop ended up being the only thing about the con that was scheduled in advance. The panels, parties, signings – nothing else was listed on the website. I had my kids’ schedule to work around, so this was crazy inconvenient. I’ve noticed this seems to be par for the course with cons, though. The websites are often hard to use and don’t have a lot of info on them. You need to know a guy who knows a guy who can tell you what’s going on. I found the same thing with the LonCon website. How do you vote for the Hugos? Your guess is as good as mine.
Anyway, I didn’t know anybody. I surreptitiously made my own itinerary based on what people on Twitter were saying a week before hand. A friendly stranger responded to my Tweet, explaining how and when and where to register. So at least I sort of knew when to show up eventually, thanks to my Twitter connections.
The con was run in a similar way – through word of mouth. To this day I have no idea where everybody went between panels. To eat? Was there some social place? No idea. I did, after all, end up sitting alone in a lot of corners with a book. Part of this was probably my own social ineptitude coming out, but I wasn’t the only one it effected. The case in point was probably the panel on Multiculturalism in SFF.
The room was full of first-time Con-goers who were, notably, POC. I have never seen a more diverse room in SFF. The panel, on the other hand, was almost entirely white.
I don’t think this was something anyone chose to do consciously, and certainly the panelists noticed immediately. The moderator kept the discussion very open so that the audience spoke as much as the panel. But that it happened was almost certainly because newcomers who were not “in the know” or part of the “scene” had no idea how to – or even that they could – get on a panel. There was no info on the website. No outreach. No acknowledgement that they might have attendees beyond the same regulars who have been attending for decades. The audience for SFF is changing, but the cliques running things are not.
On an individual level, people were great, warm and open to discussion and sharing information. On an organizational level, I found the Con to be a brick wall. I’d love to see the whole thing cracked wide open. Better communication, better visibility, more inclusiveness. I think this might mean treating it like a professional conference rather than “fans” coming together to hang out. By being so casual, the con felt like it was meant to be invite-only. I’d go again now that I know how to navigate it, but this is mostly because we don’t have a lot of local choices. I’ll take what I can get – but I want to work on how the organization interfaces with the public.
My first con was WorldCon 2013, also known as LoneStarCon 3, in San Antonio. My first novel, The Daedalus Incident, had been out a grand total of three weeks, and it seemed like WorldCon would be the ideal place to go to promote it. Plus, it seemed as though every other SF/F writer I had heard of was going to be there, and there were a lot of superb writers I wanted to meet.
So here’s the thing. My notion of conventions was very…corporate. As a journalist, I attended the Consumer Electronics Show and Comdex regularly for a while. The only real geek cons I had heard of prior to becoming a SF/F novelist were ComicCon and DragonCon. With that experience in mind, I expected the publishers would be out in force to market their wares.
So when I got to WorldCon, it took me a bit before it really registered that these were cons not just for fans, but by fans. There was very little corporate/publisher presence – just a bunch of writers and fans, getting together and geeking out over SF/F. Obviously, my expectations were tossed out the window the minute I walked in. And it took a while for me to readjust them, and to appreciate the con for what it was – a gathering of great folks who love SF/F. It really is a labor of love for all involved, not an opportunity for publishers to push their wares. When you think about it, that’s pretty darn special. Plus, everyone was exceptionally welcoming of the new guy, both fans and my fellow writers.
What would I change? You know, immediately afterward, I still thought that the big (and small) publishers weren’t really taking advantage of WorldCon to get their messages out. Again, thinking like a marketer, I suppose, and missing the point of a convention run by fans. Today, I feel that asking me what I would change about something like WorldCon is like asking a houseguest to critique his host’s cooking. WorldCon is run by fans, and they run it the way they want. Fans can, and should, create the experience they want. As an author, it’s a privilege to get an opportunity to speak to folks there.
Yes, I would like to see fandom in general become more diverse, which is why I support Con or Bust each year. But really, if I don’t have the time or energy to invest in helping organize and run conventions myself, I’m not sure lobbing commentary from the sidelines does anyone any good.
Will I go back? Absolutely, though not in London, sadly. I will likely go to Spokane in 2015, and will most certainly visit other fan-run conventions as time and money allow. This summer, I’m actually trying out DragonCon, which ought to make for an interesting comparison.
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