Conventions and writing, or Schmoozing 101

by Mary Robinette Kowal

Let me talk about conventions and their relationship to my writing life. Everyone will have very different experiences, depending on their personality. Here’s how it works for me.

I primarily go to conventions for three reasons.

  1. To see other people in the field whose company I enjoy.
  2. Improve craft/business sense.
  3. To be “visible.”

1) To see other people in the field whose company I enjoy.

I relish the social aspect of SF. There are people that I just plain like and a convention is like old home week. It’s fun! I like you guys.

2) Improve craft/business sense.
A convention with a really good list of panels is going to appeal to me more than one in which I only hang out at the bar (though I love that, too). I want to know what’s happening in the field and to think about things that aren’t just products of my own brain banging against the inside of my skull. Even if I only learn one new thing, that’s a thing I didn’t know before.

3) To be “visible”
I’m a new writer, so I’m building my “brand.” I’m not going to get that many new readers at a convention, but the people at cons are the ones who vote on things and frankly, nominations can be leveraged ((Nominations and awards do not automatically mean a reader increase. You have to know how to work them, but the power of narrative on career is a different topic.)) into getting more readers which means…that cons are filled with a good target audience. Cons also tend to have editors at them and those are good people to know.

Now, I’ll be frank about how this works, because a lot of people don’t understand how to do effective schmoozing. Yes, yes, I’m aware that admitting this happens is distasteful. But, I’m going to talk about how to schmooze, anyway.

Schmoozing 101

These are all ideas to employ but none of them are hard and fast rules. Schmoozing is all about being charming and that will vary somewhat depending on the situation. So, here are the basic ideas behind successful schmoozing.

First idea: The other person is more interesting than you are.

Clearly, there are going to be cases where this isn’t true BUT act like it is. Why? Because the more time someone spends talking about himself and the more he feels intelligent and the more interesting he will think the conversation is. Hence, the more interesting he will think you are. So practice being a good listener.

Now, the way I do this is that as I’m talking with the person, I listen for the things that we have common interests in. They like cars? Great, I can reference the MG-TD that I covet. That gives me something to add to the conversation so that they don’t feel like they are being interrogated.

What if you can’t find any common ground?

Second idea: Have an exit strategy.
Let’s say you are a writer talking to an editor. It’s a good conversation, but you don’t know them all that well. The conversation pauses. Rather than looking for a way to prolong it, excuse yourself. To borrow from theater, “Always leave them wanting more.”

Exit strategies are also useful when you are trapped in a conversation. It’s okay to break the flow and say, “I’m so sorry, it’s been good talking to you, but I need to [x].” Yes, I’m suggesting that you lie. They trapped you. You are escaping. It’s fair.

But if the conversation is going well?

Third idea: Don’t be the first to bring up business.
Why? Because everyone at the con is talking about writing and business and you, you will be a welcome respite in the midst of a sea of people who have all been talking about the same things. You stand out this way. Now, if someone else brings it up, you are more than welcome to indulge, but don’t go there first. Later, make sure you follow up, but when you are in a non-business setting, leave the business alone.

Fourth idea: When the conversation turns to business, be prepared.
It is a con, so the conversation is very likely to swing round to writing. If you have something to pitch, practice your pitch at home. If you have a question, practice it at home. If you’ve gone to panels, think about what your opinion is before someone asks you.

Right now, I’m sucking at answering the question, “So what do you write?”

I rattle off a couple of magazines — which is what they want to hear — and I fail to say, “I have a novel coming out from Tor in 2010.” I think I told two people that at the last con. This is foolish. Someone gave me an opening to pimp myself and I didn’t oblige them.

Fifth idea: Be physically pleasant.

Is this shallow? Yes, yes it is. But we’ve all read the studies that repeatedly show that people who are attractive are treated better, so for heaven’s sake, take advantage of that. You look good in green? Wear green. Nicely turned calves? Show them off. And for heaven’s sake, bathe. Trust me, in a con, just a little bit of effort will make you stand out.

Want to know a secret? In real life, I almost never wear makeup, but I wear it at conventions. Too many people take photos and I look dead in photos without it. Especially on very little sleep, which is a natural state at cons.

Sixth idea: Follow up.

You meet someone who is either fascinating or who might be a good connection later. Drop them a line afterwards. It can be as simple as swinging by their website and saying “Hey, good to meet you!” Don’t stalk them, but that tiny bit of post con contact will help them remember who you are. Heck, it’ll help you remember who they are too.

By the way, this is why it’s good to hand out cards at conventions. I’ve been bad about this lately and keep forgetting to print enough to take with me.

So let’s review.
1. The other person is always more interesting than you are.
2. Have an exit strategy.
3. Don’t be the first to bring up business.
4. If business comes up, be prepared.
5. Be physically pleasant, ie, bathe.
6. Follow up.

There are other things too, but these are the basics.

Conventions and Writing, or Schmoozing 101 is reprinted with permission of the author.

Mary Robinette KowalMary Robinette Kowal was the 2008 recipient of the Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Cosmos and Asimov’s. Mary, a professional puppeteer and voice actor, lives in Portland, OR with her husband Rob and nine manual typewriters. Tor is publishing her debut novel, Shades of Milk and Honey, in the Spring of 2010.