Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

11.07: The Convention Survival Kit, with Gail Carriger

Gail Carriger joined us at WorldCon in Spokane, Washington, to talk about her Convention Survival Kit, which is full of things most of us wish we’d known to bring to conventions back when we first started attending them.

Pronunciation note: Brandon uses the soft “g” when saying Gail’s surname, but it’s actually Carriger with a hard “g.”

Liner note: Gail’s convention tips and packing list can be found here. The page is pretty comprehensive, and is worth bookmarking and committing to memory.

Homework: Someone has to make a pitch when they are very, very drunk.

Thing of the week: Court of Fives, by Kate Elliott, narrated by Georgia Dolenz, and Prudence, by Gail Carriger, narrated by Moira Quirk.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Items: Wear gloves, use Purell, or Wet Ones. Signing pens — a Sharpie, a highlighter. Post-it’s. Notepad. Business cards. Name tent. Covers. Elevator pitch. Sign-up sheet for your newsletter. Exclusives (badge ribbons are good!).

[Mary] Season 11, Episode Seven.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Conventions with Gail Carriger.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Brandon] And we have special guest, Gail Carriger. Hi, Gail.
[Gail] Hello. How is everybody?
[Brandon] We are at WorldCon…

[Brandon] Excellent. We are going to be recording this con… This panel about conventions. Well, this podcast. Which is quite appropriate. We’ve often, on the podcasts, recommended that new writers, particularly in science fiction and fantasy, try attending some of the conventions. Gail actually pitched this because she has a little kit here.
[Gail] I do. I do a lot of conventions. I love conventions because I grew up in fandom, so I just switched attending to being a pro. Which is almost twice as good.
[Dan] No offense to the rest of you.
[Gail] No, but it’s like I’ve…
[Howard] 1.8 times as good.
[Gail] 1.8. Yeah.
[Brandon] Well, as much fun as you’re having now, just imagine how much fun you would have as a pro. So there you go. You can just imagine…
[Gail] People buy you drinks. That’s the point eight.
[Howard] Blood-alcohol level.

[Brandon] No, but this is actually important stuff, because attending these conventions can be intimidating. There can be things that you’re not prepared for. Both as an aspiring writer, just as a fan, as a pro, that… They kind of hit you upside the head. I know the main one that I was surprised by is how easy it is to get sick.
[Gail] Yes.
[Dan] Oh, man.
[Brandon] They call it con crud. It gets you. Do you have anything in your kit to deal with that?
[Gail] I’m wearing them.
[Brandon] There you are. Which are, for those not benefiting from the live feed… We don’t actually have one of those.
[Gail] I always wear gloves at conventions. I have a 1950s, 1940s style that I wear already, so the gloves go with my look, but I really think they help me. Exponentially. I know Scalzi, for example, uses Purell, and there’s little Purells everywhere. They’ve got… The convention centers have figured this out now. Another recommendation I have are individual Wet Ones. They have a little antibacterial. I think they’re a little bit more effective than the rubs, because you can also use them as a napkin.
[Brandon] That actually, the glove thing, would match Dan’s late 80s Michael Jackson outfit he often wears.
[Gail] Yeah!
[Dan] Then I have to make sure to only ever use one hand.
[Gail] Imagine how sinister it would be if you guys all wore like black leather gloves.

[Brandon] No, this is a real issue. In fact, I know a lot of the movie stars that I’ve talked to that go to cons, they say they do fist bumps instead of handshakes specifically because of this. So if you walk up to one of them and go to shake their hand and they do a fist bump, that’s why. They don’t want to be Patient Zero. Shake one person’s hand and then spread to the next 50 fans some sort of disease.
[Howard] I’m all about the fist bumps as well, because about one handshake in 100 is that crushing grip that prevents me from drawing for a week.
[Dan] I…
[Gail] It’s an enemy artist, trying to shut you down.
[Dan] Sabotaging you. I went to… Where was it? It was Emerald City Comic Con and saw Pat Rothfuss and went to shake his hand and he did the fist bump. I’m like, “Oh, that’s brilliant. I’m going to do that at the next con.” Then the next con I went to was in Argentina.
[Dan] Where I signed for about 2000 people and got to cheek kiss ab… At least half of them. So culturally, sometimes you run into problems.
[Brandon] Cheek bumps! Forehead to cheek, right?
[Dan] Yeah. That’s basically all we’re doing.
[Gail] I’m all about the air kisses. I think… Air kisses…

[Brandon] What else is in your little… Your little package there?
[Gail] Well, I always bring my own signing pens. So I have a manga edition which has a glossy page, so I need to bring a Sharpie. I’m sure you guys have similar things. Howard, sometimes people want you to sign the cover and stuff like that. So… I mean, a highlighter pen for program items I might want to go to. I bring a seam ripper. That’s a mystery.
[Howard] I have a Sharpie Sherpa, which is a… Like a canister barrel shell for a Sharpie, and it ensures that I always know which Sharpie is mine. Because a regular old Sharpie often just walks away because it’s a Sharpie. But my Sherpa doesn’t.

[Brandon] Yeah. This is more a pro thing, but I always bring a pack of Post-it’s.
[Gail] Yes. Post-it’s.
[Brandon] Post-it’s are very useful, particularly if you’ve got this signing line, where you’re like, “Write down your name.” You’ll be surprised when you’re signing someone’s books how easy it is to misspell a common name. To write what they’re saying, instead of what their name is, or to write the person you’re thinking about or to write Dan, because he’s talking to you.
[Dan] The last con I went to, I signed in a row three Haley’s, and all of them spelled it differently.
[Gail] Or, you can go to somewhere like France, and someone in line will say, “Je derouge.” Then she’ll write it down and it’s Helen.
[Brandon] Yes. My favorite story like this is… I teach a class. I’m pretty bad at remembering my students’ names, they’ll tell you. But one time, one came through my line and I recognized him. I remembered. I’m like, “Oh, I remember you,” and started signing their name and writing it, and they’re like, “Actually, I’m her twin sister.”
[Brandon] So, just having them write… Having a Post-it where you’re like, “Write down your name, even if you think I know what it is, so that I have it in front of me while I’m writing in your book.”
[Howard] The one that gets me is my name is John and this book’s for Eric.
[Gail] I’ve done that too.

[Gail] I also bring a notepad. It’s… It can function similarly. But it is also just like on panels, you want to scribble notes. I mean, you can do it on your phone, but sometimes it looks a little rude, it’s like you’re looking something up or something.
[Brandon] Yeah. I always feel bad when I’m doing that. I’m like, “Really, I’m participating. I’m looking…”
[Gail] I’m writing down a thought.
[Brandon] Now, the notebook, actually. Do you… Are you one of those writers that likes to have a notebook to jot down story ideas if they occur to you?
[Gail] I do. Yeah. It’s not as frequent at conventions. It’s like a different part of my brain is engaged when I’m at a con.
[Brandon] When I was… It was early, when Dan and I were attending a lot of these conventions as aspiring writers, as aspiring pros. A lot of them have really good writing tracks. I got more ideas during the writing tracks at these cons than I would have for the next six months. So it became vital. It’s… The one time that I really needed that notepad was when I go and see… Just random things. You’ll go to panels about this is how you take care of a horse, and you’re like, “Oh!” You didn’t know how little you knew about taking care of horses.
[Chuckle, laughter]
[Brandon] But also…
[Gail] Someone will invite you to a party. Write that down.
[Brandon] Definitely. So the notepad is very useful. I’ve found that I lose the notepad less than I lose digital versions. Which is silly, because the digital versions are like supposedly permanent, and can go in the cloud and stuff. But I just forget where I wrote them. But if I have a specific notebook, I can always go and find that.
[Dan] They’re very good for sharing contact information, as well.
[Brandon] Oh, yeah.

[Gail] Well, that brings this one to mind, which is business cards.
[Dan] Well, there we go.
[Howard] That looks like a mini football suitcase.
[Gail] Isn’t that adorable?
[Howard] Like the President’s football…
[Dan] Like it should be handcuffed to your wrist.
[Gail] Yes, see it opens…
[Dan] Whoo!
[Gail] Little velvet interior.
[Dan] That is pretty awesome.
[Howard] One of the things that’s in my kit is my… I’ve got a neck wallet that I use for badges. That has my business cards in one pouch and your business card gets slid into another one, so I’m not putting them in my pocket, I’m not offending the nice Japanese person for whom a business card is a treasured artifact. Then at the end of the convention, I flip it open and I can go through all of the cards at once.
[Brandon] Having a system to deal with cards and bookmarks and things like this, particularly as the new writer coming to the convention, can be very useful. The first few I went to, I got home and I’m digging these things out of pockets, trying to remember which one was the editor from this publishing house and what was this one? Which one was the random person who wanted me to give them money? That one I don’t want to keep, but it had to go into the same pocket for the reasons that Howard was mentioning. Having some sort of system that you’re going to deal with these… Right now, I actually, if I get one that’s important to me, I take a picture of it and email it to my assistant.
[Gail] I do the same thing.
[Brandon] And say this is what this is and why you should pay attention to it.
[Gail] I go back to my room or sit down at lunch and then at dinner and make a note on all the cards that I’ve collected. Just like… Which is why, when you are printing a business card, you should have a non-glossy side with some blank space on it. So everybody can take notes on who you are.
[Dan] Writing notes on business cards…
[Gail] It’s really rude in Japan.
[Dan] Is a vital function of a business card.
[Howard] It’s a nightly ritual for me. I pull them out. If there’s a big stack… I will write everything I remember on the back of that card, because I’m not going to remember it tomorrow and there’s going to be a fresh stack of cards.
[Dan] Prior to having a good business card system, I would get home from a convention and invariably there would be at least one and usually a handful that I didn’t find it until they’d been through the wash. Then they were like illegible piles of wood pulp.
[Howard] Contact pulp.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week. We actually have two this week…
[Brandon] Because, one, we’re not sure if it’s on Audible or not or when it will be, and one we know is. So, Gail, you’re going to tell us about these.
[Gail] All right. So the first book is a brand-new book by Kate Elliott. It’s called Court of Fives. It’s Young Adult. It’s absolutely spectacular. If you are a fan of ancient Egypt or gladiatorial games or the Olympics… The old, original Olympics or… Tamora Pierce. I really got a kind of Tamora Pierce vibe off of this book. It’s really… It’s a marvelous book. It’s basically about a girl who’s lower-class and kind of disguises herself in order to participate in these games, and lots of family drama and adventure results.
[Brandon] Excellent. And your own book?
[Gail] My own book. The other book, which is on Audible, is my latest book, which is called Prudence. I write very comedic steam punk, basically. There’s quite a bit of romance in my stuff as well. Which you can tell, because the first covers of the series are pink. Make sure people know. This is a crack team, or possibly slightly cracked team, of adventurers on a dirigible roaming around the crumbling British Empire trying to fix things and really just causing more problems.
[Brandon] Gail is an excellent writer. I’ve read her work and highly recommend it. You, if you want to pick up a copy of Prudence by Gail Carriger, you can go to, start a 30-day free trial, download a free audiobook and enjoy some of Gail’s work. I actually listen to yours, off of Audible. That’s how I listened to Soulless.
[Gail] This series, if you grew up in the Nickelodeon years, is read by Moira Quirky, who some of you may know, but she’s a fantastic reader. Very British.

[Brandon] Excellent. So, let’s go on to what else you have.
[Gail] What else I brought.
[Brandon] What did you bring? Show and tell time.
[Gail] Show and tell. Yes. So I always bring my own… This is for the pros. I always bring my own name tent, because they don’t always (a) know you’re going to show up for a Writing Excuses panel or (b) they don’t always have the printers working or something at conventions. So I think it’s a good idea to bring the name tent so people know how to spell your name.
[Howard] For those of you not benefiting from the video feed which we don’t have. Of the four people at the table, Gail is the only one…
[Howard] With a table tent.
[Brandon] Oh, well. Howard’s not even officially on this panel, because he didn’t tell WorldCon he was going to be here. Because he didn’t want them to make him work.
[Howard] I have other work to do.
[Gail] I’m actually not here until tomorrow, either.
[Dan] Oh, man. They’re going to shut us down if they find you two. You can hide in the smuggling compartment.
[Brandon] You mentioned name cards. Do you have like other promotional material that you carry around?

[Gail] I do. I also bring a cover of my latest book. I usually bring… I have the covers for all of them. This is the cover that my publishing house sent me for approval, so it’s… On the mass-market paperback. They’ll just send you the cover, and it really travels easy, you don’t have to bring the whole book to weigh down your suitcase. It’s not… It’s a matter of convention politics whether you’re kind of allowed to display your cover or not. It’s not always done. But like, for example, at French conventions, they insist upon it, so I just carry one with me to be on the safe side. I at least will have it at my signing lines, so people know who I am. If you don’t know what I look like, you’ll at least identify my books.

[Brandon] Now, let’s say some of our audience is an aspiring pro, doesn’t yet have anything published. What would you recommend they bring? Can’t bring cover flaps, they probably don’t have them. Would you recommend they bring sample chapters and things or not?
[Gail] I don’t know. Occasionally, at least back in the days of… I’ve been a pro for almost a decade now, but you might run into an editor who would say, “Oh. I like your pitch. Give me a sample chapter.” But I think that’s very unusual, and I would recommend against handing it over to your fellow professionals.
[Brandon] Yeah. I would recommend against that, too. Although I will say that more and more conventions, they are doing meetings with agents, meetings with editors, some of these are what we call blue pencil or red pencil, where they take a page of yours and do a revision on it. You’ll probably know ahead of time if they’re going to do that. But the other thing to do sometimes are pitch sessions. Or, I did one at a convention two years back I guess, that was kind of like American Idol, where they read a page and you like all critiqued it and things like this in front of the audience. So there are opportunities for getting some of that done, and there are lots of work shopping. So look ahead of time. You’ll know if you need to bring something. You may need to bring multiple copies for an entire workshop group.

[Gail] I know we’re talking to writers out there, but the single best thing I think you can do to prepare for a convention is get your elevator pitch up and running. Make it short, and make it… Like really, that elevator ride is all you got. Don’t pigeonhole somebody and talk their ear off about your concept. Just get your pitch going. I’m sure you guys have [garbled]
[Brandon] Oh, yeah. Dan and I had to do that a lot during the early days. Usually, it wasn’t on the elevator. Usually, they would stop right outside the elevator. Let us pitch while they’re waiting for it to come. So it’s when they… That light turns on and they want to leave, that you better be done.
[Howard] It took me seven years to come up with the one sentence pitch that made merchandise move. “Epic science fiction, four panels at a time.” Then I would hand somebody a flyer or a card. That was enough to build interest.
[Gail] My editor, the senior editor at Orbit, likes nothing better than finding the greenest writer in a bar, when everyone is very drunk of an evening, and forcing them to pitch at that exact moment.
[Gail] She fancies herself very mean and vicious, and she wants to see the terror in your eyes. So practice it also, if you intend to drink, practice it drunk.
[Howard] Tonight on Whose Manuscript Is It, Anyway?

[Brandon] Gail, is there anything else in your convention kit? Or have we run through it all?
[Gail] Oh, I have one more, which again is for the pros who listen. But I listen to Writing Excuses, so I think there are pros out there. Or burgeoning pros. Which is, I always bring a sign-up sheet for my newsletter. Which is a trick from the self-publishing world. I also listen to a lot of self-publishing podcasts. I think they have crafty, crafty ideas. It’s just that when somebody’s at a coffee klatch or in a signing line, and they’ve come to see you, then this is a good way to get people to sign up for your newsletter rather than sending them several clicks away to a website.
[Brandon] Yes. Studies consistently show that a newsletter is the thing with the most buy-in. Meaning, if people sign up for that, you get the most… They regard it the best. It’s the best thing you can do marketing-wise…
[Gail] I agree.
[Brandon] Is to have a mailing list.
[Gail] And not abuse it.
[Howard] Yeah. If I can reiterate that in another way. When you’ve gone to all this trouble to make that contact, to make that connection, handing that connection to Facebook or to twitter, letting that be the service by which people connect to you, is essentially surrendering all of your hard work to an external party.
[Gail] So true.
[Howard] If you put it on an email list, get them to sign up on your website or something, then your hard work is far more likely to pay off.
[Brandon] Is anyone here because they got our email list? Mine? We occasionally send one out that is regionalized, so if people live in a certain area…
[Gail] Crafty.
[Brandon] We can send directly to them. Did we send those out this time, Peter? Oh. No. We forgot.

[Gail] I have one last one.
[Brandon] Yeah. Go for it.
[Gail] Which you started this out with. I always bring exclusives to a convention. Or I try to. So bring something that if you like, just come up to me and say, “Hi,” I’ll give you this one thing. There’s a limited number. Like I brought these playing cards that I had… Somebody made for me at a steam punk event. So I brought them here this time. That kind of thing.
[Brandon] That’s very cool. Oh, Howard’s pointing out badges that you can…
[Howard] Yeah, we made little badge ribbons that say, “I’m out of excuses.”
[Brandon] All right. Well, this has been wonderful. Thank you so much, Gail. Thank you, audience.
[Yay! Applause.]

[Brandon] I’m going to leave you with a writing prompt, as is customary. Your writing prompt is a character gets approached when they’re drunk to pitch for something very, very, very important. That’s your writing prompt. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.