Writer’s conventions have powerful utility for the aspiring author. I suspect they are pretty damn helpful for seasoned writers, as well.
I recently spent a long weekend at Conflux, the annual speculative fiction writer’s conference held in Canberra. I’ve been to this convention previously, though tended to hover at the margins. In those previous years, as I hadn’t published any fiction, I felt like I didn’t belong there and so didn’t participate fully (which is stupid, but more on that later). Well, I signed up for everything this time around, and left convinced that a writer’s training arsenal needs to include the Con.
The reasons a convention is so useful to the aspiring writer are obvious, especially after you’ve attended one, but I think at least three worth outlining:
1) Nuggets of writerly gold, given freely
One of the first things I ever heard a panellist say at a convention a couple of years back was: “They say everyone has a book in them, anyone can be a writer. Bullshit! It’s like saying everyone can be a brain surgeon.”
The speaker was Cat Sparks, an award-winning Australian short story writer and novelist. Cat is always acerbic and hilarious, and I find her honesty refreshing in a society that says everyone can be anything they want, where we’re all caught up in the narcissism of the Glory of Me. I don’t know whether or not I’ll make it as a writer, but going to Cons and talking to writers has reinforced how pragmatic everyone needs to be about their chances in this industry, and how hard you need to work once you’re there.
During the recent Conflux I had the fortune to listen to best-selling and/or award winning authors of the likes of Isobel Carmody, Russell Kirkpatrick, Karen Herkes, Margo Lanagan, Kaaron Warren, Alan Baxter and numerous others. They talked openly and at length on how to get published and what you do once you get there. Everything from contracts to publicity to pitches to query letters, to working with editors, to the craft and art of writing, you name it. Cons are intensive learning experiences, where you can access decades of writing experience in a few short days.
I do so hate the term networking. It conjures up a base, mercenary quid-pro-quo philosophy of human interaction. Having spent a lot of time around diplomats as an aid worker, I saw the worst of this breed. The empty smiles and polite nodding of circling sycophants, their approach to life transactional, their ethics a desiccated husk, long discarded.
But having said all that, you of course do need contacts. At a convention like this, when you’re having a laugh and drink at the bar, or engaging in panel discussions or participating in workshops (but mainly when you’re at the bar) you do get to meet some great people, who coincidentally can support your writing.
You can support theirs too, which is kind of the point. While it is great to learn from the masters, I find it equally useful to spend time with writers at about where I am in my career – starting out, a few sales under their belts, desperate to learn. People you can swap stories with to critique, or who can provide encouragement, or tell you when you need to take the first ten pages of your manuscript, set it on fire, and start over. They’re experiencing the rocks and shoals of the industry as it is now for new writers, and their peer support is invaluable.
3) A Like-Minded Community
I’ve been waiting a while to bust out my Deep Space 9 uniform (tailor made in Ha Noi). My group of friends in the development field are a tolerant lot, but I’m pretty sure my turning up as lieutenant-commander Worf at a dinner party would not be universally welcomed. But at a speculative fiction writer’s convention, not only is it appreciated, they give you a medal for doing so. My plastic cosplay gold medal – received during the Time Traveller’s Ball – is going straight to the pool room.
More generally, a Con is a place where you are able to discuss books regular people have never heard about and where you can engage in lengthy, passionate conversations about zombie apocalypses or Doctor Who or the preferred type of Star Trek communicator. It means being abundantly weird and no-one really blinking an eyelid.
Gore Vidal said: “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.” Now, it is entirely possible that this is also true for the spec fiction community and that it is just as rife with jealousies and envy as any other. In fact, I’ve zero doubt it is. I just haven’t seen that yet. What I’ve seen so far is a group of people cheering each other on and supporting each other’s endeavours.
Publishing need not be a zero-sum game. Writing communities devoted to bringing out the best stories possible by their members add to the health of the writing market. Take the example of the bestselling author – often, their profits will be used by the publishing company to fund the publication of riskier, less ‘marketable’ sales. Or consider simply that good stories, well told, encourage more readers. We know, for example, that Harry Potter inducted a generation of young people into a love of books. Great stories have the potential to redistribute wealth and opportunity back into the writing community.
I must admit some jealousy when I pore over the list of conventions on the last page of my Asimov’s magazine. The United States has several every month, in a size that dwarfs Conflux. The opportunities to mix and learn and connect are ample. And yet, the size of the Australian speculative fiction writing community lends itself to an intimacy and comradery much harder to find in a larger market.
As an aside, I was particularly pleased to see the diversity of participants on the panels at Conflux. For example, Isobel Carmody, Karen Herkes, and Russell Kirkpatrick (and I’m sure there were others) are all from working class backgrounds. In English-speaking countries outside Australia, it is increasingly rare to find a panel with more than one writer from a working class or poor background. Indeed, you’d be lucky to find even one at a writing convention in the socially stratified UK or United States.
As the convention came to an end I found myself on the final evening of the final day, chatting at the bar with fellow Writers of the Future winner, Shauna O’Meara. We were the last to leave, and exhausted as I was, I didn’t want to go. But when I did, I knew I’d be back next year.