I’m not the con type. Honestly, I’m not the leaves-the-house type. But my 2020 New Years’ Resolution was to get out more and meet people (I KNOW) so this year I went looking for a local writers’ or science fiction convention I could maybe go to.
Well, I got very lucky, because THEE convention of the year happened to be local to me. And then very unlucky, because we had a global pandemic and it was almost canceled and then pushed back to a very inconvenient time. I was tempted to cancel, but I’d already paid real money I earned myself (there is not much of that) and watching a convention online is not something that appeals to me at all, so I actually went.
It was hard for me. I have been barely above a recluse for the past decade. I had to take the metro by myself, which was a first. Whenever I go into a city, I feel like people are going to notice right away how wide-eyed and confused I look and put me on the next train back to the sticks. And then there was this HUGE hotel, filled with ZILLIONS of people. And to make it harder, we were all in masks, which amps my social anxiety up to eleven because I don’t know whether or not people are smiling at me. (“Look at their eyes!” Well I didn’t know this pre-pandemic but that’s not really a thing I do.)
The first day I talked to a few people in line for registration (the line stretched clear across the hotel and I was in it for over an hour) and then didn’t really know what to do with myself. I got very lost all over the hotel. I found the Dealers’ Room, which exists in a separate pocket of spacetime and therefore never appears in the same place twice. I introduced myself to two small publishers, one of whom I’d submitted to already and one who invited me to do so. I bought more books than I probably should have.
After that I got more of the hang of it. I went to panels. (Is it me or are panels generally less interesting and informative than talks by a single person? I feel like nobody’s planned anything, we’re just watching professionals have a conversation.) I took a brief class on speaking Belter Creole. I was kind of limited by my hours–I came in around 10:30 each day and left around 7, because it takes up to two hours to get home by metro. Most of the social stuff is in the evenings, so I missed the dances and parties and so on.
But I did finally get brave enough to just plop myself next to some people who were talking, and had some great conversations. Partway through, I would always find out that one of the person had been in the panel I’d just watched (I’m not super great with faces, especially not from the back of a room!) or several others were published authors and I’d feel like . . . oops . . . I am unworthy to be here. But for the most part nobody acted like I was unworthy to be there. A writer is a writer, and they didn’t mind talking like we were all in the same biz even though they make money off it and I have made a total, in my entire career, of $135, Canadian. (That exchange rate will getcha.)
I met some cool people that I hope I stay friends with after the convention, at least online. (Though some were local!) And it just feels really good to talk about solar sails or Venus cloud cities with people who are actually slightly interested in what I have to say. That’s not a thing that happens to me all that often. The whole crowd was a lot less neurotypical than average, which sometimes meant that one person talked without a breath for twenty minutes, but also meant that people were pretty tolerant when I accidentally talked without a breath for twenty minutes, so it was all good.
So. What do I think? Was it worth it?
Well, I’ll tell you one thing, I don’t think it helped me professionally. I’d heard that some conventions have pitch sessions or opportunities to meet agents, and this did not. I met people in the industry and that’s always a good thing, but I don’t think you necessarily make any more of an impression by talking in person than you do by email. There were panels on writer-related topics, but very basic things you can find out online just as well. One agent in a panel I watched was asked, “When can we actually meet you or talk to you about our work?” He answered, “Well, normally I’d say in the hotel bar, but that’s closed due to COVID, so I guess you can’t.” So, note to the wise: WorldCon isn’t a writer’s convention, even if many of the people there are writers. The industry professionals mostly want to talk to other professionals.
Which leads me to another thing, the celebrity culture angle. It felt very weird to me, the way some of the fans were just angling for a chance to meet the same five authors. I would have loved to meet them too, but I didn’t want to be annoying. Twitter is better for that, because you can interact with medium-famous SFF authors just by having something interesting to say when they asked for it. I very much liked talking to mid-catalog and indie writers, just in a casual and normal way, picking up whatever wisdom they happened to mention. But I did not butt in on the famous people, when I saw them. They seemed to be talking to other famous people and I guess I felt like an interloper.
Other demographics seemed to be: people in their 70s who have been going to cons since the Heinlein days; young men in fedoras; cosplayers; the rainbow hair brigade (see why I had to touch up my hair right before? I needed to signal my people!); international fans from all over. At first I felt nervous around so many people different from me, wondering if the convention was going to be less friendly to a person like me than I had hoped. But in reality, even the most ancient fans did not seem to be particularly conservative. I guess the vaccine requirement helped with that. I didn’t see any hanging-out noses all weekend.
The con was, let’s face it, badly organized. A lot of that might not have been the organizers’ fault. Hosting a rescheduled event in the middle of a pandemic is bound to be difficult. I know the incredibly stair-heavy, inaccessible hotel was nobody’s first choice. (The Omni Shoreham is LOVELY but imagine 47 split-level houses glommed together with more stairs and you have a sense of it. No number of elevators could make that non-terrible.) And it was nobody’s fault that a lot of the big names that were supposed to be there had to bow out at the last minute, in-person panels were switched to virtual, times for things changed, and so on. But it gave an impression of chaos and honestly made things a lot harder than they had to be. Being out at all was hard for me, and to make it out there, trudge to a room to see something I was excited about, and find either a) a completely packed tiny room where everyone’s breathing each other’s air, or b) a projector displaying a zoom panel, it just left me feeling confused and exhausted a lot. I spent more time than I would have liked to just wandering around, either lost or trying to decide what I could do. Was it safe to cram into the room with the panel I was actually interested in? Was there any point in going to the panel in the huge ballroom with an author I really liked, now that the author I liked wasn’t even there?
But the one thing I will absolutely blame the organizers for was having the Hugos sponsored by Raytheon, a defense contractor. I didn’t know any of this, because a) I had never heard of them, and b) they pushed back the Hugos from 8 to 9 “and maybe later” and I couldn’t stay that late. I was going to stream from home, but they hadn’t gotten very far in when it was time for me to go to bed. I do not understand this “being conscious after 11” phenomenon. But I find it extremely ironic that best novel was “military superweapon owned by corporation rebels and demonstrates to everyone that both militaries and corporations are bad,” and the photos for the event were taken on a backdrop of Raytheon logos.
I would never blame the authors for this–they don’t even decide to win awards, it just happens. And I can’t blame the overall membership either, because I bought my membership almost a year ago and I certainly was never polled or informed. But I would very much like to know who did make that decision. Like, read a scifi sometime, they will tell you in great detail why military contractors are not the thing.
Overall, it was a fun time. Probably more fun for the insiders who go to lots of these things and know people and go to room parties and so on. And surely would be more fun outside of a pandemic. But, if you’re getting FOMO because you didn’t get to go, I want to assure you that it’s in no way essential to success as a writer. It’s just a thing you can do, if you like meeting people like yourself.
And I’d be lying if I didn’t say, it’d be awfully nice to be a published author and be the one on the panels, invited to the parties, and so on. Maybe it would be exhausting to feel like I had to self-promote like that. But going as an aspiring writer definitely does twig that sense of being on the outside, looking in.
I feel like next time I go, if I ever do go again, it should be after my book deal 😉