Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 10: The Dos and Don’ts of Attending Cons

Last week we discussed what kinds of events that you, the aspiring author, should be attending. This week we cover what you should and shouldn’t be doing there. And we start with some don’ts.

The word of the day? “Booth Barnacle.”

If last week’s ‘cast was a little long-winded, this one is downright rambling, coming in at a hefty nineteen minutes and thirty-eight seconds. Oh, the anecdotes! If you thought we were name-dropping last week (Phil Foglio, Kevin J. Anderson, and Lawrence Schoen) this week we throw around names like Larry Niven, Steve Jackson, John Ringo, and Tom Doherty. We sure hope you can learn from our meandering, celebrity-brushing reminiscences.

And speaking of celebrity-brushing, brush up against us this week in Montreal at the World Science Fiction Convention! The Writing Excuses Panel is on Friday from 2:00pm to 3:30pm in P-513C, and will feature all three of your Writing Excuses hosts with as-yet-unnannounced special guests from the world of publishing, editing, and of course authoring genre fiction.

And again, on the topic of celebrity-brushing and networking in general: one piece of linkage you introverts (and you untrained extroverts) absolutely MUST have – “Networking 201: How to Work a Room,” by Diana Rowland.

The long-awaited writing prompt (last week we just gave you the first half) is… a man arrives at a convention with something important in his pocket. It is an entire universe… and it has not been peace-bonded.

This week’s episode of Writing Excuses is brought to you by the bad accents of Dan and Howard as they pitch Dungeon Crawlers Radio.


44 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 10: The Dos and Don’ts of Attending Cons”

  1. Haven’t tried to download it but the web player worked fine, and that was listening all the way through (even the horrible accents >_<).

  2. Now that we have all our con advice, which ones do we have to choose from. I personally am very young and very new to this concept. You mentioned where to go to network with professionals, and where to go a fan, but what about where to go just to learn?

  3. “And there’s nothing wrong with dressing as a Stormtrooper.” LOL! Love it.

    Great podcast. Full of good advice. And I love that you acknowledge the difference between extroverted and introverted people when networking.

    There is one question I have about submitting a MS to an editor which I haven’t seen answered anywhere. How finished should an MS be before you should consider submitting it to an editor? Obviously one shouldn’t turn in a first draft, but would a second draft be okay, or should the MS be as completely polished as possible before a writer even considers letting an editor or agent see it?

  4. So wait, editors are looking for aspiring writers at these kinds of things? In what sense, exactly? They’re obviously not looking for people to hand them manuscripts, since that’s a big no-no, but…what else, then? It seems to me it’s hard to judge good, clear writing based on professional appearance alone; the business-person skill set does not necessarily correlate with the good writing skill set. What exactly are they looking for, and how can we be sure we’re not imposing too much on their time and expectations?

  5. onelowerlight: It does sound counter-intuitive, that a lot of it is based on professional appearance, but that’s how it is everywhere, not just in writing. You’re selling your manuscript, but since you can’t have them read it on the spot, the only hook you have is yourself. That means you have to make yourself presentable, whether you want to or not–and to be interesting enough (in a good way) for them to be curious about your writing.

  6. @onelowerlight: Answering your questions in the order they were asked…

    1) Yes!
    2) What else? Really great books. But they don’t expect to find them at the convention. They expect to find people who WRITE really great books at the convention.
    3) Not a question, but yes, you’re right. Appearance is not an indicator of writing skill. Being personable is, however, an indicator of how easy someone is to work with, and there is a lot of back-and-forth between editor and author. You want to be somebody they want to work with.
    4) What exactly? They don’t know, beyond great books. Meeting them is a great way to help them find those great books, whether they were written by you, or by somebody else you’re networking with.

    As we said in the ‘cast, don’t ask “what are you looking for?” Ask “may I send you a manuscript?”

  7. This was very enlightening as to how editors and authors interact. But what happens if, you are attending and met an editor, and they are interested in what you write…but wait you do not have a finished manuscript to send them? Do these connections need to be made only when you are ready right then, or can they last a bit and it still be appropriate for you to send them the manuscript directly? When does it become professionally awkward?

  8. I’m a ‘forced extrovert’ myself, Howard. You do an excellent job in masking those sneaky introverted tendencies that try to pull one away from the spotlight.

  9. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you’re basically telling me that if/when I go to a convention and I get to talk to an editor…

    1) Start by getting them to talk about themselves (which is a universal conversation skill–everyone likes talking about himself/herself).

    2) Instead of asking “What are you looking for?”, ask questions like “What are you working on right now? What drew you to this particular book? It sounds wonderful, I’d love to read it when it hits the shelves, and by the way, may I submit books to you in the future?”

    3) Look clean, look normal, and don’t act like a terrier in heat.

    It sounds like good advice not just for conventions, but for all kinds of professional situations. It makes me feel like I could do well at a convention.

    Great podcast.

  10. @AlanHorne That’s a very, very astute observation, Alan. For some reason most folks seeking to break into this business are introverts with limited command of the necessary social skills required to network in this way. Things that would be obvious to an MBA looking for a VP position hide in the blind-spot of folks with a Masters in English Lit who are looking to sell a manuscript.

  11. Excellent advice, as always. Researching the editors that will be attending World Fantasy Convention makes a lot of sense. Any advice on how to go about doing that in advance?

  12. @Howard: Oh, trust me, I’m not that good at shmoozing, either, and I am, for the most part, shy. However, the good thing about this episode is how it broke down the act of attending a convention into easy, understandable steps. Following this formula, I believe even I can do well. I even have a hard time acting calm when I’m in the same place as Brandon (because he’s the first book author I ever met up close and personal), and, though this sounds terribly fanboyish of me, he is kind of like my hero. My parents told me I could grow up to become whatever I wanted to be…as long as it was some kind of engineer. So I can relate to Brandon’s experiences when he talks about how his mother wanted him to be a doctor, etc., etc. It’s easy to become giddy, but the steps outlined in this podcast are a big help to people like me.

  13. Okay, I just have this to say, the Dungeon Crawlers Radio add was worth the price of admission just by itself. I listened to the cast three times yesterday, and I laughed each time. Not only that, the deep belly laughs came from different parts each time. And when you have a belly like mine, those are some big laughs.
    I think I scared my boss one of those times. Not a good thing when you are both handling expired, sweaty, nitro based product. However, I may have finally manged to get him interested in the cast. Either that or he was fishing for clues as to my sanity.

  14. @AlanHorne

    I completely know how you feel about seeing your favorite author up close!

    I was extremely fortunate to meet Robert Jordan during a book tour, once. It took every last bit of strength I had to shake his hand and say, “Mr. Jordan, I love your books and would love to do what you do for a living. Do you have any advice to pass along?”

    It was a wonderful 2 minutes total and it makes me sad to know I won’t be able to do that again.

  15. So I had the fun experience of listening to this podcast Monday morning, basically on how not to act like a crazed fangirl when you meet authors/editors/agents you admire… and then got the opportunity to meet Dan Wells in NYC that evening.

    @Howard Talyler – I had YOUR voice yammering (as it were) in my head the whole time. I swear when I asked Dan, “So what are you working on now?” he must have been thinking, She’s totally asking that because Howard said to… Never mind that I actually wanted to know! :)

  16. @Lei,

    Last week’s podcast names a few. You can pick up tidbits at many conventions, but if you want to focus on the learning, you need to find a workshop. There are the mega-workshops like Clarion and Odessey that are 6 weeks. But there are many more that can be a week or even just one day. The only thing that I would recommend is that you look at the instructors closely. If they’re not currently working as writers, editors, or agents, I’d keep looking. You’ll also want to consider their view of commercial fiction. If you’re trying to write commercial fiction and take a workshop from someone who hates or disdains it, you’re wasting your money.


    “should the MS be as completely polished as possible before a writer even considers letting an editor or agent see it? Would you show up to your dream job interview without any pants on? Or in a suit with tennis shoes? Think about this. Editors and agents sometimes see queries for hundreds of manuscripts per MONTH. Why should they go with a manuscript that’s messy when there are probably a dozen others out there just as good that show polish? As a first time author you are pitching yourself as much as you are pitching your book. And polish is one way they judge you, the writer. Of course, you can fiddle until eternity. But there’s a difference between sending in something YOU know has problems and sending in something that you really don’t know how to make any better and all you’re doing is fiddling with words.


    I wrote a blog on my site in response to last week’s podcast that gives some tips on how to find who will be where and when. Once you know the folks you want to talk to, it becomes much easier to ID where to find them.


    don’t ask “what are you looking for?” Perhaps this isn’t the best question. But another similar question might be useful–“what are the main genres you represent?”
    Yes, agents and editors are looking for great reads, but even they have bounds. Some agents might handle things as different as romance and thrillers, but many do not. Same with editors. Furthermore, if an agent has most of his or her experience selling SFF, they might not be the right ones to get to sell your lit-fic or YA because they don’t have working relationships with the editors buying those types of books.

    But you don’t have to wait to get an idea about this. Do your homework beforehand. Know that you want to talk to editor Y and agent X because they are likely candidates for your product. When selling your glass of ice cold water, you want to find the people who are hot and thirsty for that. Not those looking for something else.

    BTW, if any of you quail at the thought of conversation or working a room, I’d like to recommend the audio THE FINE ART OF SMALLTALK by Deborah Fine (sp). She was a geek who learned how to chat. She has some excellent tips. As does Rowland (the article linked to).

  17. @Josh Perkey I’d imagine most cons would post a list of who will be attending – those who are actually on the programming anyway. If there’s someone specific you’re looking to talk to, following that person’s blog/website/whatever if they have it may not be a bad way to go either.

    Unless of course any of the experts want to weigh in…

  18. @Josh,

    For example, in my blog I mentioned that many of the cons list their guests (or members). Here’s on for this year’s world fantasy: http://www.worldfantasy2009.org/?page_id=103 . Here’s the one for World SF: http://www.anticipationsf.ca/English/MembershipList . You have someone in mind, do a search.

    You can also look at the programming and often do a quick find to see if anybody you’re looking for is going to be on a panel.

    Or let’s say you know you want to look at Agent C. Go to their website. They often list, as this agent does, where they’re going to be: http://www.maassagency.com/appearances.html

    Shoot, you want to pitch to good old Don? He tells you exactly where to meet him.

    But wait–you also want to meet Bilmes (Brandon’s agent)? Well, here you go: http://www.awfulagent.com/travel.html

  19. @Leisha,

    Do these connections need to be made only when you are ready right then

    You can connect anytime. I like the “what project are you working on now,” “which of your panels would you suggest for a new author” as well as asking for other tips on a specific subject for breaking the ice on that first conversation. In all likelihood, however, the editor will forget you very soon after the event, even if you have an excellent hour-long conversation, unless you build on the contact. They just meet too many people. Here are some things you can do.

    1. Follow up with a polite note the following week saying it was nice to meet them and thanks for the tips (see Rowland–it’s easiest to find both articles here: http://www.sfwa.org/category/networking-and-self-promotion/ ).

    2. You can then nurture that by contacting them again maybe a week or three after that, asking which events they’re likely to attend that next year because you’ll have your manuscript done by then and would like to look them up then to see if they’re still acquiring from new authors at that time. I’d do email. Phone calls from people you barely know demand immediate attention and can be a huge annoyance to some editors and agents.

    3. Then a few weeks before the event, you contact them again, remind them who you are (just use a reply all to the previous one) and ask to verify they’re still planning on attending. You can even ask them at that time if there’s a best time to try to look them up. You might be able to set a time or event.

    4. Then at the conference you show up when they said it would be best, remind them who you are, ask them if it’s still a good time for them, then begin the chat. If it’s a busy area, you can ask if it might be better to “step over there” where you will be out of the crowd.

    You can start off with the “what are you working on now.” That may prompt a few other things you’re interested in. Ultimately, you’ll want to move into “so are you still open to considering new writers.” Some may not be. Ask them who they know that IS considering new authors for [insert your genre]. Then thank them. But most will say, of course they’re considering. They’re continually searching for new blood. Otherwise their income stream dries us. They might ask what you’ve got, and you give them the two-sentence pitch (again, Rowland had an example from her book).

    If they don’t ask, you can make the pitch: “I’ve got a finished [insert your genre:epic fantasy, paranormal, thriller, western, police procedural, YA, etc.]. It’s about [insert the short pitch]. Can I send you a full or partial manuscript to consider?” Or your action line could be “Would it be okay if I sent you a full or partial manuscript to consider?”

    Don’t be fearful or pleading. This is business. If your book is good, you’re going to be making them some money. Remember, you’re offering something of value. And remember to have a finished manuscript. It’s important that they know you actually have finished. They will not want to waste time considering a story that’s not done or an author who hasn’t demonstrated they can finish. Yes, there are stories of people getting an invitation to submit when they weren’t done, but most of them led the agent or editor on and then went home and wrote like madmen. Just finish. This is business, right. You want to be ready to offer your product.

    If they say partial, ask them what they want in their partial–the first three chapters or 50 pages? Everyone is a bit different. Some only want one chapter. Some want just the first 3 pages. Ask them also if they’d like a short synopsis of the rest. Of course, if you’ve done your research, you’ll know and can just verify. For example, “I read on your website that you usually like to get the first three pages and a synopsis. Would you like me to send that or a slightly larger chunk of the manuscript?”

    Get their contact information right then.

    5. Then you send it off in a big flat envelope [don’t be folding and stuffing in a regular envelope] with, as the guys said, “Requested Material” on the front.

    6. You can also at the same time send an email thanking them again for their time and notifying them the partial etc. is in the mail.

    7. Wait. :)

  20. @John Brown
    Yea great stuff, but that step 7. is a killer.
    Always remember, however long you think it should take, double that. Then after that time has passed, wait an equally long period of time. After that time has passed, if your rejection letter still has not arrived, wait one more day, then send an update request postcard and reset the wait time cycle. By then, it should be time for you to hit them up at the next years Con.
    Don’t worry, I’m sure they’ll remember you. After all, you emailed and requested another time you could chat with them, didn’t you?

  21. Great podcast, but did I hear that right? Did Brandon get hooked up with his editor without an agent? Wow.

    Wanted to suggest something for Writing Excuses as well, that I think could be a profitable extension: I think you should compile and summarize some of the best tidbits from your podcasts to create a reference book with. It should be well organized and incorporate your humor and some of Howard’s wimsical illustrations (naturally). I think it would be handy to have on hand while writing, and I bet others would feel the same way too.

    Clifton Hill

  22. A very simple, non-edited version could be had by reading Mike Barker’s outstanding transcripts.

  23. @WEKM, :)

    Actually, it shouldn’t be that long because you’re not waiting around for editors, right? Editors can take forever, but you really need to focus on agents. They have more access than you do. Their submissions come with more clout and get looked at more quickly. And they know better than you do (usually) which editors are most likely to buy your story.

    As for wait times, my experience is they shouldn’t be that bad. As proof I list how long I waited for responses to my original queries on SERVANT OF A DARK GOD from agents. I sent out queries to 50 agents. Not all at once. I had them categorized by priority. But over a three month period or so I sent out the queries. I explain how I chose my agents on my site. The point is: I knew that having an agent was going to dramatically increase my ability to sell.

    Again, don’t wait for editors. Get an agent. Let them schmooze and sell while you’re cranking out product.

    In the data below a zero means no response ever. 8 of 50 agents NEVER responded to me. The average for those who resonded was 3.6 weeks. But if you take away the 5 longest, it drops to an average of 2 weeks for the remaining 37 folks. That’s pretty dang good.

    But here’s the thing. You don’t even want to be sitting on your thumbs even that long. Send them out and then forget them and start to work on the next book. On my first novel I sent queries to about 31 agents. 4 asked for more (a partial or longer segment). None offered to represent. But I just plowed on. Book 2 I sent out to 50 agents. 9 asked to see more. When I chose my agent I had two or three others in the running.


  24. Actually, I was wrong. One of those 0 days was from an agent who replied immediately to an email and asked to see a partial right then. And of all those that asked to see more they were all down in the lower numbers except for one that was the 11.3 number.

    I luv agents. I luv my agent in particular.

  25. BTW, I’d never do this.

    After that time has passed, if your rejection letter still has not arrived, wait one more day, then send an update request postcard and reset the wait time cycle.

    I know, I know. Some do get lost. I actually checked on a mss. at IGMS and it ended up in a sale. But I figure with agents life’s too short. Why chase people who don’t want what you have to sell? Or who are so freaking slow you’ll be a grandma before they get back to you? Move on, brother. Move on. :)

  26. John makes a good point. Of course, before you move on you might want to check what their response policy is. If they say they respond to every submission and you haven’t gotten a response after the appropriate period, you can always resend. (Which doesn’t preclude you moving on to others at the same time, necessarily…)

    Of course, John’s agented and published, so you should probably listen to him before me. :D

  27. This is unrelated to the topic, but John I was just read through your site and it says you got deals for 120k-140k, which seems kind of short for epic fantasy. How many pages is that? I am stilling thinking about getting your book, but I might wait for the paperbacks just because personally I am tired of waiting around for a series to finish when there are so many completed series already. Good luck to you, and maybe if I ever get my book sold you’ll end up being one of my advance professional readers, lol.

  28. Wow, I’m surprised anyone kept detailed statistics about their rejection letters. But moving on doesn’t necessarily mean you have to start a brand new book. If you can see things in your current book that could be changed in such a way that it transforms the work and makes it more tempting to readers, why not do a rewrite? I’m rewriting a book right now, and I have got to say that, while it’s been a long process, the improvements ROCK!!! It’s just so much fun to see a good book get changed into a great book. And you may have to do that before editors/agents can see how good the book always was.

  29. @AlanHorne,

    It wasn’t so much to keep track of rejections but to know who I had sent stuff out to and if they’d replied and whether I’d sent out the next bit to them. But I also needed to know specifically who had asked for more and how much when I’d sent it because some agents want exclusive looks. For example, agent Y asked for an exclusive with the whole mss. Because I was keeping track in a spreadsheet I could quickly see if I had a whole mss. out or just some partials. And if the whole had been out, how long was it? Usually the agents would say give me X amount of time to read this. If it was close to X, I could prod them–“I have another agent wanting this, but I promised you an exclusive. Do you have an idea when you might be finished so I can coordinate with the other agent?” I also used this information with the requesting agents, saying, “I’d love to send you the full mss. but there are two other agents reading it right now. Would you be okay with a non-exclusive look or should I wait?” Knowing other agents are interested and reading only increases the perceived value of the product. And records helped me keep track.

    This is business. Records come in very handy. :)

  30. What kind of interaction would you suggest for people like me, who are aspiring authors, but not at the point where we are publishable, or even passable? I’m in high school and have the opportunity to attend a con, so most of this podcast doesn’t really seem to be too applicable. What things annoy you that I should avoid? How should I talk to people like yourselves that I look up to, and show that I am serious and not a bumbling fan girl but yet miles away from being awesome? I am an aspiring writer and don’t want to look a fool. Anyway, I know it is rather a long shot that this will get answered, as this ep is years old, but I thought I’d give it a shot. Thank you for your time!

  31. This has been one of the most practically helpful episodes yet. Thanks for sharing your experience!

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