Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Every Day Is An Interview Whether You Know It or Not: Convention Rules

We attend writers’ conferences for seminars, to market our writing, and to meet other writers, agents, publishers and editors. For ease of reference, I’ll refer to agents, publishers and editors collectively as “agents.” In October 2011, I attended the World Fantasy Convention in San Diego. It was a wonderful experience. At the convention (“con” for short), one of my friends overheard a group of women commenting, rather cattily, that “some people” were overdressed. The woman who made the comment stood behind my friend, and clearly referred to my friend’s business casual attire. The thing is the attendee was flat out wrong.

Every day of a convention is an interview. Successful writers know that writing is a business. This means acting like a professional. Every moment of every day is an opportunity for you to help or hurt your career. For the misguided writers out there who haven’t had this epiphany yet, here are my convention guidelines.

1. Appearances Matter.

You need to network. The agent you’ve been dying to pitch will be at the con. First impressions matter. It’s shallow, but it’s true. Even if you at a convention known for its costumed attendees, like Comic Con,, don’t opt for a costume unless you ar e attending solely as a fan. Sadly, professionals don’t dress like warrior princesses.

Agents look for new writers who are both talented and presentable. In the days where publishing houses spend less money on marketing, writers must sell their work. A writer doesn’t just submit his story, and sit back while publisher makes the novel a commercial success. Writers are often responsible for the bulk of their marketing. As a result, an agent needs to see that you can sell yourself, and your work. Poor grooming and sloppy clothes don’t instill confidence. Does that mean attend a con in a three piece suit? No, unless that is the expected apparel for that particular convention. It does mean dress at least business casual, not jeans and a slogan t-shirt. Presenting a professional appearance gets you a step closer to the invitation to pitch, and a contract.

2. Be Polite

You wouldn’t barge into a business meeting without permission. So, don’t interrupt ongoing conversations without permission. If you want to join a group, wait. Someone will invite you to participate, or inform you that the discussion is private. Conversely, when you notice someone hovering at the edge of your group, invite them in at the first reasonable opportunity to do so. You attend a con to network. You can’t do so if you only associate with your clique.

3. Be Nice.

This is relates to, but is slightly different than being polite. I’ve seen people very politely rip someone to shreds. Don’t do it. Ever. It costs nothing to be nice, but it pays in gold.

Brandon Sanderson credits his being asked to complete the Wheel of Time series, in part, to his favorable posts regarding the series and Robert Jordan. For a great post on the advantages of being nice see Colette Vernon’s blog post entitled “The Number One Rule of Cons”, and my post entitled “The Benefits of Holding Hands” below and at

4. Be Brave

Remember that you are at the convention to network. Meeting an agent at convention may make the difference between a polite “no, thank you,” and a contract. You must approach strangers at a convention. You must ask friends to introduce you to people you don’t know, but want to. At least one agent has said that she only signs people she’s met at a convention, and the agent doesn’t wear a nametag. She, like every other agent, wants to see you’ve done your research and that you’re passionate about your work. After all, if you’re not excited about and willing to sell your work, why should she be? Sitting in a corner watching the con go by will not result in publication.

Overcome your hero worship and fears. Talk to people. While you shouldn’t pitch an agent without an invitation, if you engage in a genuine conversation with one, at some point he should ask what you are working on. This is your opportunity to pitch. Don’t waste it.

5. Be Prepared

When the all important time comes to pitch your story, know what you are going to say. You wouldn’t make a presentation to your boss without preparing. Don’t pitch an agent without preparing. If you can’t explain your work, how can an agent sell it? The argument that your novel is too long or complicated to be encapsulated in an 8-12 word sentence is an excuse. You’ll find when you put the effort in, the statement isn’t accurate. To borrow from Stephen Horn, author of In Her Defense, the movie Titanic was about an unsinkable ship that sank. Eight words. The Firm is about a law firm that kills everyone who quits. Twelve words. Prepare your pitches in advance.

6. Go Where the Agents are.

The agents are in the convention bar. If you want to meet them, you need to be in the bar too. Brandon Sanderson, has said that even though he doesn’t drink alcohol, he went to the bar and drank Sprite while talking to agents. When he sold his first novel to Tor, he was in the position to call an agent he’d met and ask if the agent would represent him. Even with a book deal in hand, the agent might not have signed Brandon if the agent hadn’t met Brandon at a convention.

This rule bears a few words of warning and common sense – don’t drink to excess. Nurse a glass of your favorite alcoholic beverage, if you are so inclined, throughout the evening. Better yet, drink a soda. People remember the drunken idiot, and not in a good way.

7. Say “Thank You.”

Acknowledge when someone helps you. Colette Vernon didn’t have to introduce me to a publisher, but Colette did. Because of the introduction, I’ve sold six short stories. I’ve thanked Colette, and I’m more than willing to do what I can to help her in return. Even if it doesn’t seem like it, writing is a collaborative process. Many people have to come together before a story is published. When someone helps you in your journey to be a better writer, say “thank you.” If you don’t you might find that no one is around to help you next time.


A point I made earlier is worth repeating: Meeting an agent at a convention may make the difference between a polite “no, thank you” and a sale. Treat every convention like an extended job interview because that’s what it is. Act professionally. Doing so will ensure you make a positive first impression.

Writing is a tough industry to break into, and most people do so as a result of the connections they make. Don’t let carelessness or sloppiness stand in your way. Present yourself professionally, and then your work can close the deal.

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