Worldcons for Writers

Copyright 1996, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel

For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel

This article originally appeared in Science Fiction & Fantasy Workshop Newsletter # 194, November 1997.

Beginning writers hear a great deal about how wonderful conventions, and particularly Worldcon (the World Science Fiction Convention, held annually on Labor Day weekend, in a different city each year) is for building a professional writing career. However very few of these people give much in the way of specific advice for how to make the most of a trip to a Worldcon. Without some careful advance planning, a trip to a Worldcon can end up being just another recreational convention instead of a career-building event.

Planning for a trip to a Worldcon needs to begin well in advance of the trip itself. Worldcon sites are chosen three years in advance, voted upon by the membership of that year's Worldcon (for instance, LoneStarCon2, held in San Antonio in 1997, voted on the site selection for the 2000 worldcon, which will be Chicon2000, held in Chicago). Because an attending membership for a Worldcon is expensive compared to regular conventions (upwards of $100 for the recent ones), you will want to buy a membership as soon as you can.

The cheapest way is to upgrade from the supporting membership that you get with your fee for voting on site selection for that Worldcon, but even if you don't vote (if you're just getting into the Worldcon scene), your best bet is to buy as early as possible, since prices generally go up each of the three years between site selection and the con itself. Thus it is possible to hold memberships to as many as three Worldcons at once (and is a wise move if you're thinking over the long term).

Getting your membership early will also help make sure that you get all the progress reports so that you have a general idea what kinds of events will be held at the Worldcon. A number of recent Worldcons have held writers' workshops which, unlike the workshops at local conventions, were open only to participants who had signed up well in advance. This was to allow the participants to receive copies of the stories under consideration well in advance and critique them thoroughally. Often the deadlines for submitting stories to be critiqued fall several months before the con is actually held. In addition to the writers' workshop, there may also be a short story contest or similar event, which will usually have similar advance deadlines. Knowing about them in advance will give you plenty of time to prepare the best possible stries for them.

During the summer before the Worldcon, it becomes time to do some serious planning. If Worldcon is being held in a city that is too far away to drive, you will want to make travel arrangements. If you will be travelling by air, obtaining your tickets early will enable you to get the best prices. However if you are planning to go by bus or train, it is less critical to obtain the tickets early, but it's still a good idea to do so in order to avoid last-minute panics.

You will also want to use this time to arrange for a room to stay in when you get there. Since hotel rooms are often quite expensive in the downtown hotels where a Worldcon is held, making arrangements with other writers or fans can really help hold down expenses to a manageable level. When you choose people to room with, remember that you are going to Worldcon primarily to do business, and will want to be able to get a fair amount of sleep each night so that you can be reasonably awake and alert for panels and other daytime events. Make sure that your potential roommates are aware of this and will respect your needs and not try to keep you up all night.

If you have some sales already, particularly in professional markets, this is also the time to start contacting editors and asking to make appointments to meet them. Most real writerly business at Worldcon takes place in private meetings between writers and editors, generally in restaurants away from the convention itself (where other, more well-known writers can't poach upon the editors).

If you don't feel qualified to ask an editor for an hour of his or her time yet, don't fret. It's still possible to make contacts with editors, although it's less likely that they will be in-depth or result in immediate sales. You will have to rely more on chance meetings at panels or parties, but it is still possible to make the editor aware of you as a human being. It will just require a little more advance planning.

About a month or two before the convention, the Worldcon programming committee will generally post their tentative panel schedule on the convention's Website. Even if you don't have your own Internet account, you can often get Web access at your local public library or community college. Getting access to the tentative panel schedule is worth the effort of making a trip.

If you've been doing your homework on markets, you should be able to recognize the names of the editors of the leading magazines in the field. You are going to be looking for panels featuring these people, particularly if they will be talking about the business aspects of writing and marketing fiction. Make a note of these panels, because you are definitely going to be wanting to attend them.

Kaffeeklatches are another kind of event that you will be wanting to look into. These are semi-private events in which a small number of people (generally no more than twenty) can get together and talk with one of the leading figures of sf in an informal setting. Although most of these are for writers, some editors will be featured on them. If they are, you will want to make a special effort to go to these session, since editors are likely to talk more specifically about their current needs and buying patterns in a small-group. Also you may actually be able to ask them specific questions about kinds of work that they are looking for or have too much of (although it is generally considered to be poor form to specifically ask about submitting your works in anything but a private meeting with an editor, to avoid putting the editor in the face-threatening position of having to appear to make a judgement on your work before others).

Since kaffeeklatches are designed for a limited number of people, it is necessary to sign up ahead of time for them. Very popular writers and editors (like Mike Resnick) tend to attract a large number of people, so it is thoroughally possible that the session may already be full by the time you get to the convention. Therefore it is generally a wise idea to call ahead and reserve your space in a kaffeeklatch with an editor that you particularly want to see. The telephone number to contact will generally be listed on the website right along with the list of kaffeeklatch times.

As the time for Worldcon approaches, you will want to continue updating your plans. If you have fairly good Web access, keep watching the tentative program on the Website for programming changes. At the same time, keep writing and polishing your writing. Although it is considered very bad form to bring a manuscript with you to give to an editor (one may bring a working copy of a manuscript in progress to work on privately during lull times or on the way to the con), it is generally a good idea to have several manuscripts ready and waiting at home. This way, if an editor is interested, you can put the manuscript in the mail immediately on returning home. If you let several months go by, it is possible that the editor will have forgotten you, or his/her needs will have changed in the meantime.

When packing for Worldcon, it is not necessary to be fancy, but you will want to have at least one clean, tasteful outfit for each day of the convention. If you feel more businesslike in a suit, you can wear one, but most writers prefer a more casual look. Something suitable for casual day at the office will probably be quite acceptable. However it might be wise to include one fancier outfit just in case you were invited to a restaurant or party at which more formal attire is in order. Also be sure to include suitable toiletries, since you want to present a clean, pleasant appearance to any editors or other professionals you may meet. You will also probably want to take some of your business cards (you can get professional-looking business cards with your name and address made at almost any office-supplies superstore for a very reasonable price), since this is a handy and professional way to give editors your name and address.

When you get to Worldcon, you will receive a large souvenier program book and a smaller pocket program. The latter will contain the schedule of programming, with times and places. You will want to verify the times and locations of the panels and other writing-related programming you plan to attend. Many people find it best to use a hiliter or similar marker to label the programming items that they plan to attend.

If possible, try to be to panels and other programming events a few minutes early. Although coming in late is generally permitted, it should be avoided because the attention you draw to yourself is generally not the sort you want. For the professional and marketing panels, have a notebook to jot down notes. If one of the editors says something particularly insightful, you won't want to trust your memory to recall it several weeks later.

At the close of a panel you will often have an opportunity to briefly introduce yourself to editors. You generally won't have time to talk at length, but a minute is usually more than sufficient to tell them your name, shake hands, and give them your business card. If they've published a story that really made an impression on you, you might compliment them on having chosen it; however, insincere flattery will generally do more harm than good. You want the editors to remember you in the best possible light, so that the next time they see your name on a manuscript, they will be pleased to see it.

Meeting the editors at these sorts of structured events also has the benefit of allowing you to see what they look like. This way you will know who to approach if you see them in parties in the evening.

Worldcons are justly famous for their parties -- there will often be ten or twenty on a single night, and that many on each of the five nights. However, not all parties will be helpful for your career. Many of them are held by fans, and are purely social occasions. You can attend them if you like, but your time is limited, so your first priority should be getting to the parties that are likely to help your career. Generally these will be the parties held by the various publishing concerns. Some of these are private affairs, but at least some are open to the public (although they are generally not advertised on the party board). If you pay attention during the day, you can often learn where these "semi-public" events are held. And sometimes you can even obtain invitations to the more private ones if you know the right people. The most important thing is not to look like you're fishing for an invitation, or to attempt to outright crash a private party.

A word might be in order about the SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) suite. This is a suite open only to members of SFWA and their guests, and it generally has parties of interest to writers each evening of a Worldcon. If you are still struggling to make that qualifying sale, getting access to the SFWA suite may seem like the royal road to professional contacts. However, Mike Resnick has said ("Ask Bwana" Speculations# 11, October, 1996) that getting into the SFWA suite really doesn't mean access to editors, so it's probably safe to conclude that a beginning writer's efforts at a Worldcon would be better spent elsewhere.

If you really want to see what it's like in the SFWA suite but have yet to get your qualifying sales, there are a couple of ways to get in. First, you can volunteer to work in the SFWA suite. This is best done well in advance, by finding out the name of the person in charge (if you have a writer friend who is already a member, asking can often result in the necessary information) then writing to that person offering your services. If you simply show up at the con (and especially if you have friends with you when you ask), it is likely that the SFWA suite co-ordinator will conclude that your primary motivation is finding a way to "legally gatecrash" the suite and politely tell you that no help is needed.

If volunteering doesn't work, the second way is to have a friend who is a member to give you their guest privelege. The general rule is that each SFWA member can guest in either their immediate family or one non-family guest. But getting your friend to give you that privelege can be tricky. In order to avoid causing your friend to lose face by having to say no to a direct request, it might be better to use an indirect technique like noting the SFWA member sticker on their badge and saying something about not being able to get in yet. If they wish, they can then pick up the hint and offer to guest you in, but if they have already promised their guest privelege to someone else, they can commiserate on the trials and tribulations of beginners without any loss of face.

When Worldcon is over and you get back home, it is time to make the most of your successes, however small. If an editor showed any interest in a story, get it in the mail right away. If the story's not ready to mail, make it your first priority to get ready. And most of all, keep writing and sending stories to the editors -- you want to keep your name before them, so that they don't forget that they met you.

Good luck!

Copyright 1997, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel

For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel

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