Reprint: Why go to conventions?

[July 2013 — The middle of the month snuck up on me without warning, so I haven’t had time to prepare an essay for July. I decided to go back several years to my July 2007 column, which is apropos because, tomorrow, I’ll be flying halfway across the continent to NECON, where we will pay tribute to one of the people I mentioned in this essay six years ago.]

As writers, besides income tax and agent commissions, attending conventions is our biggest annual expense. Everything else pales by comparison—memberships dues in professional organizations, postage, ink cartridges, paper—and with a growing trend toward electronic submissions, some of these are decreasing. Even so, the necessity of paying for the tangible tools of our trade is self-evident.

Soon I’ll be flying halfway across the continent to NECON. Other than mosquito bites, hangovers, more calories than I normally consume during any given week, and sacrificing valuable neurons, what will I have to show for this trip? Why spend a thousand dollars to attend a convention for a few days?

The first time I ever attended a genre convention was when I was an undergrad in the early 1980s, living in Halifax. I think it was Halcyon 7 or 8. Probably fewer than a hundred people attended. I believe Jack Chalker and Spider Robinson were Guests of Honor, but that may be a false memory. I can find no evidence on the internet that this event ever took place, and I’ve misplaced the tan-colored conference t-shirt that featured a butterfly-winged nymphette.

I remember walking to the conference hotel from my dorm, wandering the dealer room on Saturday and buying a few items in a fan-art auction on Sunday morning, including a pencil sketch of a unicorn I may still have somewhere. If I attended panels, they’ve been obliterated from my memory.

Nearly a decade later, shortly after I moved to Texas, I heard that Jimmy Doohan and Marina Sirtis would be at a Star Trek convention in Houston. Growing up in eastern Canada, I’d never had the opportunity to attend a professional fan convention of this magnitude.

I went alone, and ended up standing in the registration line between a man dressed like one of the Ferengi and a young woman with purple hair, prodigious cleavage and fishnet stockings. They were engaged in an intense debate—complete with references—about exactly what Spock did between The Motion Picture and The Wrath of Khan. I only thought I was a Star Trek fan. I soon discovered I was waaaaay out of my league.

The convention was fun, but I was disillusioned to find out that the people manning the vendor tables were only there because they knew how much cash avid fans were willing to shell out for cheaply made bric-a-brac and ephemera. The vendors didn’t care about Star Trek and I overheard a few unguarded exchanges concerning their opinions of attendees, too.

Another decade passed. I found myself easing into the horror-writing community. I landed a gig as a contributing editor with Cemetery Dance magazine, and my first column was scheduled to appear in an issue debuting at the World Horror Convention in Seattle, 2001.

I am not by nature a gregarious person, so I didn’t make lightly the decision to cast myself into the midst of hundreds of strangers for four days. However, having made the plunge, I wasn’t about to loiter among the potted plants or lurk at the back of the meeting halls. I was determined to participate. I wanted to get to know people, and give people a face to associate with my name.

I’d never met any of the other attendees. I knew a few through online interactions and others by reputation. Still, I made a concerted effort to approach people. Rich Chizmar had couriered me a defective copy of Dark Dreamers just before I left. From the contributor photo at the back, I recognized Stan Wiater and Beth Gwinn shortly after I checked into the hotel. Neither of them had seen the book yet, so I had my opening. After that, it got easier. Getting people to sign their photos in the book was a useful tactic for meeting writers I might otherwise have been too diffident to approach.

I encountered Tim Lebbon in the registration line, where I was proudly showing off the GAK cover art for an anthology containing two of my earliest short stories. I also met the anthology editor, a member of my first online critique group. I saw Barbara Roden, who, three years later, would publish one of my stories in All Hallows. I sat with Larry Santoro at the Stoker banquet. Mike Huyck and Gene O’Neil critiqued one of my short stories, and every time I saw Gene after that, he inquired about whether I’d sold it yet. I eventually did.

I attended as many panels as I could. I toured the dealer room during idle moments. I haunted the con suites. Not wanting to miss out on anything, I’d made sure my return flight wasn’t until well after the closing ceremony. That meant I could go to the “dead dog” party. I sat in the con suite helping get rid of the remaining booze and food, chatting with one of the Guests of Honor—Jay Clarke, aka Michael Slade—and thus began a friendship that continues to this day. Turns out it was his first horror convention, too, and he enjoyed the experience so much that he wrote a novel with a similar convention at its core. (I die in that book, by the way. Spectacularly.)

Initially I went to conventions to promote myself. I took postcards and book flats, propped up a copy of the latest work in front of me if I was assigned to a panel. I wrangled invitations to small press anthologies, though most of those books never materialized.

Now I take a more laid back approach. I attend fewer panels and sit in on more readings. Authors are more appreciative of faces in the audience than panelists—and nothing I’ve heard at a panel is as memorable as the time I saw Gary Braunbeck read “We Now Pause for Station Identification.”

I still spend a lot of time (and money) in the dealer room, but I now know that the most important things are to be learned at the bar. I remember an impromptu gathering in a lobby bar, featuring Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Michael Slade, Feo Amante and several others that was worth the cost of the trip alone.

I show up at the parties in the suites, but usually don’t stay long. I find them too hot, too claustrophobic, and too difficult to move around. After a certain amount of alcohol has been consumed, no one remembers what was discussed the next day anyway, myself included.

When I discovered NECON, I knew I’d found my convention. There I’ve gotten to know a lot of people in a short period of time. The “con suite” is an outdoor quad at the university campus—breezy, temperate, roomy. I can drift from one group to another without stepping on feet or pushing through a mass of sweaty bodies. I don’t have to strain to hear what the other people are saying. I may have to buy my own beer, but that’s a low price for that level of camaraderie.

With attendance limited at 200, I’m never overwhelmed. There’s a high return rate, so after five years the familiar faces now outnumber the unfamiliar. It’s networking at the most fundamental level—making and reconnecting with friends. I talk with people as much about life in general as about writing. How are the kids? How was your vacation? How’s the day job? I can play mini golf with Beth Massie, go grocery shopping with Doug Clegg, sit on a patio drinking with Peter Straub, gossip with Dave Hinchberger and watch Peter Crowther battle Rick Hautala at darts at midnight. There’s a good reason regular attendees call it “Camp NECON.”

Yes, there will be panels where we discuss the burning issues in the genre today (the panelists and the audience will likely both be hung-over and sleep-deprived, the same as at most other cons) but there will also be a talent contest or a game show where F. Paul Wilson struts his stuff in drag and Tom Monteleone tells shaggy dog stories. We laugh a lot during NECON. I like that.

Even if we don’t talk about writing all the time, and even if I don’t find out about fantastic new writing opportunities (though I have) and even if I don’t meet an editor who’s drooling to publish my work, I come away from the four days physically exhausted and creatively renewed. I’m reminded that there are other people toiling away the same as I am. I’m heartened by their successes and commiserate with their disappointments. I’m part of a community.

As writers, our daily lives are insular. Some are fortunate enough to live in places—Manhattan, for example—near others writers they can hook up with on a regular basis, but most of us don’t. Every now and then we need to get outside our heads and meet with people who understand what it’s like to be a writer.

That’s why I go to conferences. And it’s worth every penny.

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