At one convention, maybe a year or so ago, this was an actual title of a panel I was on – Pros at Cons. The idea was to explore what a professional (writer, or artist) actually DOES at a convention, how they might approach it differently from the reader, gamer or fan attendee.
[For those who haven’t been at a con for awhile, scroll to the end for a short primer…]
The con goers get issued with a program which details the panels which will be available over the course of the convention weekend. There is a limited number of useful topics for such occasions, and some of the hoarier topics have been relentlessly trotted out at every con since God Created Convention.
This is where we come in, the pros you see seated behind the tables in the hotel conference rooms, facing the serried ranks of either depressingly empty or intimidatingly full chairs set out in rows before us.
You get to this point – you’re a professional. You’ve published books or stories, you’ve been PAID for that, or you’re a professional artist, or editor in the field, or simply an expert on some topic and were collared to take part in a panel discussing same. The panel of “Pros At Cons” looked at what was expected of the folk on THIS side of the table, the pontificators – whether we were really here as revered professionals or whether we were the hired entertainment, the performing seals, planted in our seats by the program planners to keep the masses happy and out of mischief over the course of a weekend.
There are many reasons one becomes a writer – and at least one of them involves a fundamental personality trait: writers are notorious for being loners. It’s a solitary profession where you retire to your office and face off with your computer, and it’s you in your own world surrounded by characters and creatures of your own making.
Some of us can shrug that off and at least put on a show of being gregarious at conventions, mingling and schmoozing and generally mixing with the crowds – and, to all intents and purposes, actually enjoy ourselves. For others, it isn’t so easy. Some folk are genuinely quiet and shy and not natural public speakers.
If you happen to run across me in a crowded party full of people I barely know, I’m likely to be the one cowering in a corner and hoping that someone might start a conversation because I sure as hell am not going to walk up to a stranger and stick out a hand and introduce myself. However – put me on a panel where I am supposed to speak about writing, and I blossom into an articulate and eloquent speaker with active opinions which I am not at all shy about expounding on or defending. It touches my passion, and that changes everything. I am no longer just a writer, I am WRITER, hear me roar. This is something that defines me. And I can conquer the tongue-tied shy little girl who often dominates my social interactions with strangers. When I am wrapped in that writer cloak, the things I have to say become meaningful given the writerly context in which they are uttered.
People like me go to conventions because we have written books, and conventions are where our readers are. At the one I was just at last weekend , I have had several people come up to me in the hallways just to tell me, “I liked your books”. That, in itself, is a pearl beyond price.
Ask any writer and they will tell you – we have no way of knowing what happens to our books once they’re out there, once they’re on shelves and in readers’ hands, and we have no further control over any of it. Hearing feedback – particularly when it’s the positive kind – is the only way we have of being able to gauge how our words affects those who read them. We go to conventions to meet people like this, people who have read our work.
We also go, and present ourselves at serried ranks of panels, because what we are really hoping to do is introduce ourselves, as writers, to a whole new slew of readers, people who may not have necessarily read us or even heard of us before but who might be motivated, given a good performance at a panel, to wander down to the Dealer’s Room and ask the booksellers if they happen to have any books with our name on them. It’s partly a giving back to the Fans Who Were and Fans Who Are, and wandering the hallways, ducking striding Klingons and people with plastic horns on their heads and would-be fairies oblivious to the way their wings are whacking at people’s faces in their wake, hoping to find enough interested people in the crowds to cultivate a few Fans Who Will Yet Be.
You’ve heard the phrase – “word of mouth”. This is where such stuff is created, coined, distributed. This is where a real word coming from some random mouth in the crowd may fall into a receptive ear and thus get spread. We pros go to cons to seed the air with Words, and hope they get into enough mouths to sustain us in our own creative endeavours to last us another year, until the next time, until the next con.
But also…After a while, after you’ve been to a few of these, you acquire a circle of friends who turn up at many of the same cons that you do – and it’s like a gathering of the family of the heart. And that’s part of it, too – at the end of a long day full of panels and readings and signings oh my, the pros retire to the coffee shop or the bar and congregate in giggling groups, trading war stories from the trenches, sharing hopes of a glittering future, tossing good news on the table to a reception of gleeful squees (any delight shared is doubled!) or laying some piece of bad news out like a tiny corpse and then having a wake for it with a glass of wine (or something stronger) in hand (any sorrow shared is, at least in theory, lightened…) It’s companionship, camaraderie – this is my tribe, and I belong to it, and it accepts me, and it laughs at my jokes even if it’s heard them before and it has hugs and commiserations to provide in the wake of disasters, as well as perspective provided by sharing disasters of its own. It’s… coming home.
So – pros at cons – we come there to meet our faithful readers who have sustained us so far, we come there to meet new readers who might continue to sustain us in the future, we come there to share a few precious hours of company with those who are like us and who share and understand our trials and tribulations.
We’re happy to entertain. We hope to (at least in a few instances) inspire. We may, to those who are in the right place to listen and to hear, have something to teach. We caution and warn, we tell of the joys of our lives, and we share the realities of – well – of being pros in a field that can be precarious in the extreme. We know that for those in the audience who aspire to professional status we are walking dreams – we are the ones who made it, whose names appear on the spines of books shelved neatly in the Dealer’s Room display shelves. And yet, to ourselves, we are cautioned by what we see around us, by seeing those books with our names of them surrounded by other books by other names, and we know that there are many – oh so many – others just waiting for the chance to become those names. We are reminded that it wasn’t enough just to have been lucky. We have to continue being lucky.
You sit at a panel table and, at the end of the session, you call out, here, I have bookmarks up front. You hand your own dreams out into the void with every bookmark picked up by a stranger who might be a potential reader.
Here I am. I am your friendly Convention Professional. Remember my name.
Just what is a con, anyway?
There are all kinds of cons – the general science fiction and fantasy ones of the ilk which I tend to frequent but also cons for mysteries, for horror, for romance. A convention can be many different things. There are cons whose core is gaming, or costuming, or media; there are cons whose basic premise is Things Literary, books and related stuff; there are lots of cons which try to juggle everything to the best of their ability and try to be all things to all people.
Your average convention has a few basic commonalities.
There is almost always a Dealer’s Room (whose vendors are very much geared to the type of con providing the facilities – I’ve been to cons whose Dealer’s Rooms were stuffed with booksellers, and I’ve been to ones where the only bookseller was a shy used-book stall in a corner).
There is often a Gamers’ Room where some people will enter late on the Thursday night and come out when they are swept out by the hotel staff at dawn on the following Monday.
There may be an Art Show which can range from OMG AWESOME to a startled “Good GRIEF, did my five-year-old draw this stuff?”.
There is a Green Room for the pros who end up on panels, and their guests – and this is the place to scram back to when you’ve got an hour between panels, could use a snack, and oh dear GOD you want a cup of coffee RIGHT NOW.
There is usually a Con Suite or Hospitality Suite for everybody else, and the ones I’ve seen ranged from magnificent with provision of full (free) meals which were not just hot dogs and pizza to the ones where you’re lucky if someone hasn’t already cleaned out the single bowl of pretzels on the coffee table.
There are parties – open to all or by invitation only if you’re lucky to get one – and some of these may be the main draw for some of the younger attendees. For those who just want loud music and a dance floor, here are usually dances in the big ballrooms at night.
There are Masquerades, and some cons are better known for costumes than others. There are some where you could go a whole weekend without seeing anything wilder than the occasional corset; there are others where you can’t move in the corridors for all the Darth Vaders, Harry Potters, people in various incarnations of Star Trek uniforms, the occasional wizard striding along with a great staff and a purple pointed hat, and creatures ranging from would-be dragons or cats to characters from anime or Toonland.
In between there are usually people looking harried and distracted because they are listening to voices only they can hear. They are. They’re the volunteers who are helping out in the crowds – with security, with crowd channelling, with registration, with tech. If you go to a con and you come across one of these and they’re looking frustrated and harried and generally trying to be four different people who really should be putting out fires in six different places at the same time… stop and just say thank you. Seriously. They don’t hear it often enough, and without these folk, who dedicate their OWN weekends to duty so that the rest can have a good time, the con experience would be a very different one indeed.