I just got back from my first convention for writers. It was Context 26 in Worthington, OH, just north of Columbus. The Con is supposed to be focused on science fiction writing, but there was just as much fantasy content, which was fine. It's a relatively small Con, but they have a reputation for getting some fairly renowned authors and artists to attend. This year it was Jack McDevitt, Mike Resnick, Elizabeth Bear and Scott Lynch. All novelists that I'd at least heard of, if not read. I'm actually a huge fan of Scott Lynch, and he was funny and warm.
It's a tricky thing being an unpublished novelist attending one of these things. As a writer you want to meet other writers as a peer, but you really feel like a pretender. A fan pretending to be a writer, just so you can get close to them and talk about what you loved about their writing, instead of just being a normal person. Of course writers love to talk about writing, especially what they're working on. The whole enterprise now is so focused on marketing yourself that it has really taken over the lives of some writers. This can make for some awkward conversations. How do you get past all of that, and have an actual conversation with your "peer?" Can we ever bridge the gap from fan to peer once we've met them as a fan? Alcohol helps a lot apparently.
I chose this Con for several reasons: it's relatively close (4 hours driving), some friends of mine were supposed to go, and several of the module presenters were teachers and mentors from Seton Hill University, where I am working on my Master's degree. This really made the experience so much better. I met up with another student and a few alums from my MFA program, and got to know one of the instructors much better. I had breakfast with the SHU teacher and he reminded me that Cons are for socializing. I'd had classes with him before and knew him a little bit by reputation and had spoken briefly to him at some social events we had back in Greensburg, but I'd never gotten past the awkward part before. He made me feel very welcome, and we got past the awkward parts, and actually got to know each other on a more personal level.
I am not bashful. I'm not a wall flower type. My wife says I could make conversation with a potted plant (not true), but I will only spend so much time standing awkwardly by myself at an event before I just cash in and go do something more productive with my time, like writing (or watching television because I really didn't feel like writing. Don't judge!) Fortunately, there wasn't a lot of that at this Con.
I think most writers, published or not, are fans of other writers. But it does make a difference when you approach an established writer as a peer. There is a comfort level there. But when you are standing in a line to get them to autograph their book, you give up something. You give up a different level of intimacy with them. It's funny to me, because in my other life you would define me as successful. I make a good income; have a wonderful family, and a large home. I am fairly far up the infrastructure where I work, at least locally, and so you can equate that with "established writer" in my peer group there. But that counts for nothing in the writer world. I am down at "newbie" level. I need some bona fides, some published books -- hopefully, some quality published books. I suppose the choice is not to get in line for an autograph. But I even get my books signed by my writing partners that are not well known, because I want to. To honor them in part, not just so I can say "I knew them when." Let me be clear though, the writers I met were all gracious and friendly. But there is still a distance that remained between us that can only be bridged by spending time with them, not in a line or right after an event, when all they really want is to go eat, or drink, or rest. I think all fans would love to be able to do this with the people they like, to see if they could be friends with them. It does take some of the mystic away, when you get to know someone better, so maybe they wouldn't like what they found. But the artist in question simply doesn't have time to be friends with everyone. There is a chance though that you can become friends as a peer, where you might be running in the same circles. I know even some bloggers or critics are friends with artists, when they keep running into them at these types of events.
This was the first of many Cons, I hope, and at some point in the future I may be asked to participate on the other side of the table. So I am trying to look at this from the perspective of someone that is successful as a novelist, and see how to prepare myself for what's to come -- a "field recon," in the words of that very same teacher that I ate breakfast with. I look to see what they write when they sign, and how they engage with the fan. It appears to take a lot of energy to do it right. I think the trick is to not get suckered in to doing too many things and wearing yourself out. But meeting other writers and fans is really a wonderful thing. Being able to share our love for something is legit.
I've already warned my wife that more of these are in the cards, and I'm honestly excited about the future.