What are conventions? Should I attend? What do you do at conventions? What are panels? Can anyone be a panelist?
These are questions most writers face sooner or later. The fact of the matter is, conventions are a remarkable opportunity to market your creations to rooms literally full of people just begging to be converted into your fans. From DragonCon to WorldCon to smaller, local conventions, there are limitless opportunities for authors and artists to gain exposure, meet cool people, and even make money.
Conventions vs Conferences
First of all, what is a convention? And perhaps more importantly, what is the difference between a convention and a conference?
A conference is a gathering of professionals in a single field. There are conferences for everyone from medical professionals to construction workers. Conferences bring in guest speakers who are well-known in their field. They have workshops, talks, and exhibit halls. Smaller conventions often run along a set schedule and everyone attends the same things. They break for lunch at the same time each day, and may provide food. An example of a writer’s conference is Realm Makers or the One Year Adventure Novel conference. While fun things certainly happen at conferences the focus is on learning, education, and more serious pursuits.
A convention, by contrast, is all about fun. A convention is everything a conference is not. Conventions are almost exclusively fantasy and/or science fiction. They can be very specific (Star Trek Conventions, the Mysterium) or they can be incredibly broad. There are conventions that are more literary in nature (WorldCon,) and those that focus more on media and stars (Wizard World, Comic Cons.) The word “con” specifically refers to conventions. Do not ever call a conference a con. This is the easiest way to remember the difference between the formal “Conference” and the informal convention, or con.
We are going to be talking about conventions in this series. Conferences are, by and large, fairly self-explanatory. You pay your money, you go, you learn stuff and behave yourself. One day when you’re famous and experienced you might be asked to speak at one. Otherwise there aren’t a lot of variables. Conventions are the fun ones, the complicated ones, the labyrinths that must be explored. So let’s take a look at how complicated this con business really is.
Small vs Large conventions
Conventions come in multiple sizes. Depending on what kind of convention you attend you will have a different experience. Of course, like snowflakes, no two conventions are alike, although you will find similarities between genres or locations.
Larger conventions can be much more difficult to navigate. There will be more paneling than you and a team of clones can keep up with, so you will have to make a lot of decisions about what to attend. They also tend to have much bigger guests, from movie stars to best-selling authors. The convention area may cover several floors, or even multiples buildings. You will usually be provided with a map when you arrive, and spend a lot of time getting lost. Larger hotels sometimes have digital wall maps to help you find your way around convention centers.
Smaller conventions are more personal, and there may be less to do. Some conventions are just “party cons” without any specific programming, and few or no vendors. These conventions are for the sole purpose of catching up with other fans, eating food, playing games, and listening to entertainers. If you’re trying to connect as a professional you’re going to want to aim for something a little more medium sized.
Medium sized conventions are great. You can meet the con runners, talk to the guests, visit every vendor three or four times and come away feeling like you actually got to see everything. Most conventions run for three days: Friday afternoon through Sunday afternoon. This allows reasonable amount of travel time, and requires staying only two nights. The Guests of Honor are not usually as famous as the ones hosted by large cons, but this comes with the upside that they have more time to talk to fans, answer questions, and generally mingle.
Registration and Budgeting
Always, always, always pre-register. There are many reasons for this. The biggest one is that you get much cheaper prices online than you do at the door. Many conventions also limit the number of badges available and may sell out. Not to mention, who wants to be standing in line, writing their name in sharpie on a blank badge when you can have a pre-printed one waiting will-call?
If you are travelling to a convention you will have to make a decision regarding hotel rooms. Most conventions take place in a host hotel and may even provide discounts on pre-reserved blocks of rooms. However, convention hotels tend to be fairly pricey. There are both advantages and disadvantages to staying in the host hotel that you will have to take into account when picking a location.
When determining how much it will cost to attend a convention always make sure to include a budget for the vendors hall. Vendors can be anything from booksellers to costumers, to artists, to musicians, to sellers of trinkets and gadgets. If you can afford to go to a convention you can afford a bit of spending money as well, and it keeps you from simultaneously being disappointed or overspending. Remember that vendor halls can be very expensive, and plan accordingly. Usually $60 is a reasonable amount, but this will vary given your personal budget and tastes.
Some conventions have a great hospitality program, others do not. One way to find out in advance if your con will provide food is to ask someone you know who’s been before. Another way is to check their website and see if they mention have a “con suite.” Con suites are designated places for convention fans to sit and relax with their laptops and other fans, and usually contain a magically never-ending supply of food. It is bad manners to use this as your sole dining plan, but it exists to feed people and is open to all. It is entirely possible to not buy food at a convention by bringing snacks at home and foraging from the con suite, but may not be recommended for all.
Otherwise your only food choices are going to be the hotel restaurant, or venturing into the great outside in search of sustenance. Check the hotel website before you go to see what restaurants in the area that they recommend, and how far they are to get to. You can also ask at the information desk for the hotel or the convention. Do remember that leaving to get food takes time, and the convention doesn’t pause while you’re gone. Remembering to eat is very important, but also very difficult. Many convention goers find themselves faint in the afternoons because they’ve been too busy to stop and get food. One way to prevent this is to bring small, proteinacious snacks such as beef jerky or chocolate bars.
Staying hydrated is also important. Most hotels should provide cold water. Look for these at the back of panel rooms and in the corners of hallways. If you can’t find water, ask someone. I have heard of hotels that don’t do this, and it’s generally frowned on. When you have hundreds of people running around your property, you don’t really want anyone fainting from dehydration during a panel. Bringing a few bottles of water to keep in your hotel just in case is always a good pre-caution.
You will be handed a program when you register. If you aren’t, ask after them. I’ve never been to a convention that didn’t have programs and printed schedules available. Many conventions put their schedules online prior to the event, so you can print them out and take a look in advance. Always bring a highlighter to a convention. You’re going to need it.
You should go through your program at the earliest opportunity. Just skim through casually and highlight anything you see that interests you. Don’t try to make decisions at this point. If you go into a convention with a rigid schedule you’ll be rushed and panicked the whole time. Put a star next to must-see items and leave everything else flexible. That way if someone says “Are you going to the sword-fighting panel? It’s the best!” you can drop everything and going instead of being all like: “No, I can’t, I have “Women in Scifi” on my schedule.” Flexibility makes for a more relaxed convention experience with the opportunity to make friends, listen to bands, eat food, and nap.
Some events are pretty universal to all conventions. Here are some of the things to keep an eye out for.
Opening Ceremonies: The opening ceremonies are usually Friday night, around 7–8 PM. They’re supposed to be late enough that anyone travelling can attend, even though the convention probably started between 2–4 PM. The opening ceremonies is a great place to find out who the master of ceremonies is, who the guests of honor are, and how good the featured band is. If you’re really not sure what’s going on at this particular convention, chances are you’ll find out at the Opening Ceremonies.
Costume Contest/Masquerade: If you see an event called “Masquerade” is probably the same thing as the costume contest. Costume contests at conventions are pretty informal, and anyone can register. Registration information can be obtained at the information desk of the convention, or in your program. Costume contests are a great place to see the best costumes of the con, and here a little bit about how they were made. They’re usually sorted into categories by skill level: novice, expert, etc. Participants get to do a runway walk across the main stage, under stage lights, often to music they’ve picked out in advance. Larger conventions also feature a hall costume contest that’s more informal for those not interested in the main event. Participants gather in a designated hallway at a given time to have their photo taken, and ribbons awarded.
Ball/Dance/Rave: Most conventions will, at some point in time, feature a dance. This is probably going to happen on Saturday night. It can be anything from formal dancing, to a regular LED rave. They might feature a DJ, or one of the more upbeat bands. Even if dancing isn’t really your things, checking in at the dance for at least a few minutes is pretty much mandatory.
Main Stage Events: Anything labelled as a main stage event is probably going to be a big deal. These might be anything from featured bands, to interviews with a big guest star. You should also try to make a point of listening to each band at least once. Conventions are a great way to discover obscure, unusual and really good music from artists you won’t find anywhere else. These artists usually have tables in the artist’s alley were you can talk to the musicians and buy CDs and T-shirts.
Sleep is Optional
Convention programming doesn’t usually start before 10 AM for a good reason. Main stage events can go on as late as midnight, and room parties basically continue until the participants fall asleep in each others arms. By Sunday everyone is staggering around stealing coffee from each other and wondering how they’re going to explain this to their co-workers on Monday. But everyone’s had such a great time that they don’t really care.
Room parties are 21+. They are often thrown by various organizations participating in the convention, although anyone can volunteer to host a party. They’re usually themed to some extent. (Pirates, Evil League of Evil, etc.) Some conventions have voting on the best room parties, prompting competitions. Parties are usually all hosted on the same floor, designated as the party block when you register. You can usually find the party floor by following the noise of reveling. Anyone not hosting a party, or who isn’t interested in staying up at them all night, will always stay on a different floor from the party floor. “It’s a nice place to visit, but I don’t want to sleep there.”
Things to Remember
Bring a bag. Besides your convention program you’ll be handed business cards by pretty much everyone you meet. You’ll pick them up from vendor halls. You need a place to keep your water and snacks, as well as any small purchases you make. Especially if you’re not staying in the convention hotel a bag will be a life-saver. Some conventions result in more paper accumulation than others, but I’ve yet to go to any that doesn’t result in a stack of brochures and postcards to sort through when I get home.
Bring a notebook. Especially if you’re a writer you’re going to want to take notes. You’re going to be given names and dates and book titles and you need something to write them in. This is another thing that will end up in that handy bag I told you to take. Remember to bring extra pens and pencils! Make sure you cap your pens or retract them before putting them in the bag so they don’t bleed all over.
Bring a costume. Every convention has opportunities to dress up. Some are more involved than others. Consider doing some research to find out how out of place you’ll be if you don’t dress up, and what kind of costumes are involved. Dressing up certainly isn’t required, but if you have a costume you’ll have a lot of fun wearing it around the hallways, even if it’s just for a few hours. Pirates fit in just about anywhere, as does Star Wars and just about any kind of fantasy outfit. Superheroes and Star Trek costumes are more rare and might not always fit in. May conventions have a theme and encourage dressing along those lines. Look up the conventions Facebook page and check past photos to get an idea for how people dress.
Have Fun. Conventions are extremely relaxed, welcoming environments. Nobody is going to judge you for dressing up or behaving strange, because they’re all doing the same thing. It’s a great place to really let yourself loose without worrying about how you’re going to look to other people. Nothing is considered strange, or outlandish. Just be polite and respectful and everyone else will do the same.
Be Safe. Conventions all have a weapons policy on their website somewhere. The general rule is that all weapons resembling the real thing must be peace tied. You may not draw your blade. You may not fire your nerf gun. No actual fire-arms are permitted. Check these policies in advance so you know what to expect.
Likewise, nearly all conventions have a harassment policy in place. If your convention doesn’t have one, send them an email asking them about it. If they think a harassment policy isn’t necessary then don’t go to that convention. After a campaign by John Scalzi a few years ago nearly ever convention became aware of harassment issues that can happen at conventions and implemented a policy to prevent it. If someone is bothering you, immediately find a volunteer and report them. If you witness harassment, find a volunteer and report it. If at any time you don’t feel safe, leave immediately. If you find the convention staff unhelpful, then go to the hotel staff. Cons are usually fun, welcoming environments but just like any public situation you are always apt to find the random jerk or creep who somehow managed to sneak in.
And that’s it!
This has been “The Ultimate New Writer’s Convention Guide!” I hope you have a fantastic time at the convention, learn a lot of things, make new friends, forget all about having a shell, and spend far more time laughing hysterically than you do actually sleeping. I hope you bring home a new book to read, find a new favorite band, and impulsively find a shiny. And when you’ve recovered all that come on back for part two: The Next Step: Getting Involved at Conventions.