Wednesday, June 5, 2013

You Better (Net)Work!

Next week, I’ll be attending the World Horror Convention/Bram Stoker Awards Weekend in New Orleans. I’m going for several reasons. This year I had the honor of serving on the Lifetime Achievement Award Committee. We selected two recipients this year: Clive Barker (who unfortunately can’t make it) and Robert R. McCammon (who will be there). As a committee member, I feel it’s my duty to be present at the Stoker ceremony. A second reason for me to attend the conference is that Bone Whispers, my third short story collection, is going to make its debut there. Another reason I’m going is to meet with editors and my agent, and to renew acquaintances, strengthen friendships, and make new contacts. And of course I hope to have a lot of fun too!
Large conferences like World Horror can be a great place for new and upcoming writers to learn from more established professionals, of course, and since horror fans also will be in attendance, the conference is also a marketing opportunity. But in my opinion, the most important professional (not personal) reason to attend a conference like this is networking. You can do the other stuff – gaining knowledge, marketing and promotion – on your own, without the time and expense of going to a big conference. But while you could argue that a certain amount of networking can be done via social networking sites (they have the word networking in their name, after all), I’d argue that there’s no substitute for meeting, talking, and getting to know – and be known by – people face to face.
I first started attending large writing conferences when I was in my late twenties/early thirties (I’m forty-nine now). I’d had a handful of short stories published by that point, and I’d come to the conclusion that I wasn’t doing everything I could to advance my writing career. I’d arrived at this conclusion after reading a number of articles about – you guessed it – networking. One of the first conferences I attended for the specific purpose of networking was Marcon in Columbus, Ohio. I wrote to the organizers, introduced myself, listed my meager credits, and expressed my interest in serving as a panelist (even though I’d never been on a panel before). My reasoning was that if I was a panelist, the other writers on the panel would automatically see me as one of them (to a greater or lesser degree) and not a member of the audience. In other words, I wouldn’t be just another fan. I figured that I’d get an opportunity to introduce myself before the panel began, which meant I could approach my fellow panelists any time after that without worrying that’d see me as a stranger (or worse, a stalker!). Also, the panel content itself and the discussion that followed would give me something to talk about with the other panelists later, saving me from having to try to come up with conversation topics on my own. I also found out which authors were attending and, if I wasn’t already familiar with their work, I made sure to read a sampling before the con.
I lived in Columbus at the time, and two of the authors in attendance also lived in the city: Dennis L. McKiernan and J. Calvin Pierce. I decided to do what I could to make their acquaintance. After all, if we lived in the same town, there was every chance I’d see them at other events in the city and maybe – if I was lucky – build some kind of relationship with them. (A guy can dream, can’t he?)
The conference organizers scheduled me for several panels (which to be honest, I didn’t really expect) and while I wasn’t scheduled to be on any panels with Dennis, I was scheduled to be on one with Jim (J. Calvin) Pierce. I don’t remember what the panel was about or how it went, but afterward, I spoke with Jim, told him how much I enjoyed his book (which was true), and Jim – who happened to be heading off to meet Dennis for a drink, invited me to join them. I felt like I’d hit the networking jackpot!
A couple weeks later, Jim invited me over to his house to talk writing, and that evening he was heading off to his writers’ group, which included not only Dennis, but Lois McMaster Bujold as well. He asked if I’d like to come along. As you might imagine, I said yes, please! I soon became an official member of that group, and I can’t tell you all the ways it helped me grow personally as well as professionally. And all because I took the first step of trying to get on panels instead of just sitting in the audience (something that admittedly is a lot easier to do at smaller cons than the major ones).
One bit of advice the networking articles I read offered was that writers should strive to create their own “look,” a certain appearance and style that sets them apart from the crowd, draws attention to them, and makes them memorable. A look can have other uses too. Maureen McHugh once told me a story about attending a Worldcon years ago at which Neil Gaiman was also in attendance. The two of them tried to leave the hotel to have lunch, but Neil – who was well on his way to superstar status even then – kept getting stopped in the lobby by fans who wanted to talk to him. He apologized to Maureen and asked her to wait a moment. He went to the men’s room, removed his sunglasses and leather jacket (which was his look at the time), and returned. Neil and Maureen then exited the lobby without further interference.
“What did you do?” Maureen asked.
Neil smiled. “I became Clark Kent,” he answered.
When I was trying to decide on my look, I considered a number of options. Finally I decided I would be the funny/weird tie guy. I bought ties that had pen designs on them (because I was a writer), and skull designs (because I write horror), etc. I wore them with button shirts, slacks, and black work shoes. It was a dismal flop. Writers, as a rule, are notoriously casual in their dress, and editors, agents, and publishers tend to dress more professionally. So since I wore ties, no one recognized me as a writer. Everyone thought I worked in publishing. The next time I went to a conference, I wore turtlenecks, jeans, and sneakers, and everyone knew that I was a writer on sight.
Should you have a “look”? I don’t bother anymore. I just wear whatever I feel like, but I’m farther along in my career than a lot of writers. If you want to go for a look, I suggest doing what feels natural and right for you. Scott A. Johnson wears a kilt at cons. Alethea Kontis wear a princess tiara. I saw Teri Jacobs wearing a very cool Cthulhu necklace at a con once. Michael West has an extensive collection of black T-shirts with horror movie posters and characters on them. At the last Worldcon, John Edward Lawson wore an extremely cool 18th century style outfit, complete with chest ruffles. (Even cooler, it was the outfit he got married in!) Maurice Broaddus is a stylish dresser, and Jeremy Lassen is known for his awesome suits. I once saw Maurice and Jeremy do a who’s-better-dressed showdown in a hotel lobby at a con, and it was amazing!
One caveat I would offer is that at SF/F/H cons, some pros view dressing up too much as wearing hall costumes, which is something (in their view) that only fans do. So take that into consideration if you’re going to go for a distinctive look.
One of the great advantages of going to a conference, especially a larger one, is that you might get a chance to pitch your novel to an agent or editor one on one. If you’re lucky, there will be formal, scheduled pitch sessions you can sign up for. However, there will also be opportunities to informally pitch your project. You’ll need to be assertive (but not overly aggressive) and talk to editors or agents after panels, at parties, in the bar or lobby. If you can find editors and agents, that is. They’re so used to being stalked by hopeful writers that they’re often careful not to remain in the open too long, lest they attract an endless crowd of project-pitchers. Here’s where being a panelist can help you again. If you were on a panel with an agent or editor, that gives you a connection to them that you can later use as a conversation starter. I never start out pitching a project when talking to editors. I might ask how the conference is going for them, and I often ask questions about the current state of the publishing industry or what I, as a creative writing teacher, should be telling my students about publishing. These aren’t mere conversational gambits. I’m genuinely interested in these topics, which I can have a real conversation before any business talk begins. When an agent or editor is ready to entertain a pitch, they’ll use this phrase: “So, what are you working on?” That’s your cue to pitch away.
The worst informal pitch I’ve ever seen occurred a few years back at a party after an award ceremony at a conference, which was held at a bar a couple blocks from the hotel in NYC. I’d published a horror novel Like Death (recently republished by Apex Books in both print and e-book versions) with Leisure Books, and I sat down with my editor, Don D’Auria, to discuss, among other things, my follow-up (which would turn out to be Pandora Drive). We’d only been chatting for a short time before a young writer came over and asked if she could join us. I was acquainted with this writer, although not very well, but even so, horning in on what’s clearly a private business discussion is considered extremely bad manners at a conference. Don and I were both a bit surprised at the writer’s boldness, but we said sure, pull up a chair. We started talking about general topics, and the writer took every opportunity to interject the title of her unpublished novel into the conversation as awkwardly as possible, always using the same phrase. “Well, in my novel TITLE . . .” (I won’t mention the title because I don’t want to embarrass the writer publicly, but you can bet your ass I remember it. I heard it probably a few dozen times, and even if my brain one day succumbs to Alzheimer’s, I suspect the very last memory to go will be the title of her novel.)
She went on like this for a while, until finally Don excused himself and got up to go speak with someone else. The writer looked crestfallen, but she remained to chat with me a while longer. Eventually she left and Don returned to the table and sat back down.
“Sorry about that,” he said. “I just couldn’t take it anymore.”
Needless to say, Don did not publish the writer’s novel, and as far as I know, it was never published. She was aggressive rather than assertive. And instead of having a genuine conversation, she employed a pat sales technique that she’d probably read about in some dumbass business marketing book. The result: she made herself look like an annoying wannabee in the eyes of one of the most important editors in the horror genre. Not the impression she wanted to make, I’ll wager.
Enough with the anecdotes. Here are a few tips on networking at conferences.
Have a business card.

Even if you’re just embarking on your writing career, you need to be able to give people your contact information. Don’t put anything on the card you don’t want to share with the world at large, such as your street address, home phone number, etc. If you have a website – and you should – make sure the URL is on your card.

Don’t network drunk.

It’s easy to drink too much at a con, and writers aren’t alone in this. I once had a drunk editor come up and start apologizing for taking so long to get back to me about a story she asked me to write for an anthology she was putting together. Problem was, she’d never contacted me about sending a story. I don’t know for certain who she thought I was. My guess is she mistook me for British author Tim Lebbon, but you’d think that even drunk, the fact that I don’t have an English accent would’ve tipped her off that she’d made a mistake. She definitely lost professionalism points in my eyes, and it didn’t help that it was only mid-morning, either. (In case you’re wondering, she no longer works as an editor.) A drink or two might help loosen you up and bolster your confidence – especially if like most writers you’re an introvert. But don’t overdo.
Don’t be too stalky.
The con’s program schedule can help you determine where and when that editor or agent you’re dying to talk to will be, and if you’re lucky, you may be able to chat with them after a panel or two. But beware becoming a stalker. If you start showing up everywhere your “target’ is, you’ll end up creeping them out, which might just get you a visit from hotel security.
Don’t be (obnoxiously) pushy.
You want to be assertive enough that you can approach an editor or agent and start a conversation. You don’t want to shove a 1000 page manuscript into their hands. And realize they’re living people. Don’t expect them to sit with you for six hours of in-depth conversation about your magnum opus. They need to eat. And pee. And sleep.
Don’t stick with a clique.
If you have friends or acquaintances at a conference, it can be tempting to hang out with them all the time. Presumably you all like each other, so it’s fun to hang out together, but it’s also safe. You need to break out on your own now and again to make contacts, and who knows? Maybe even make a few new friends.
Network at different times and places.
Some people are morning people, some night people. Some hang out at the bar, some in the dealer’s room. Some go to parties, some avoid them like the Red Death. Whichever category you fall into, make sure you vary the times and places you’ll be during the conference. It will maximize your networking opportunities.
Be yourself. Unless you’re a jerk. In that case, try to be someone better.
The most important piece of advice I can give about networking is to try to relax and be yourself. The more genuine you are, the more editors and agents will be able to view you as a normal person instead of an overly desperate writer who’s only interested in using them. They’ll be able to relax around you and feel free to chat. Remember, agents and editors go to conferences, at least in part, to network too, so they expect writers to talk about their work. But no one likes a hard-sell approach.
Hopefully the tips I’ve passed along will serve you well the next time you attend a conference. And if despite my best efforts you end up making a fool of yourself, go ahead and blame it on me. After all, there’s no such thing as bad publicity, right?
My third collection of horror stories Bone Whispers, with an introduction by Michael A. Arnzen, is out from Post Mortem Press in trade paperback, with electronic editions to follow soon.
You can buy Bone Whispers here:
My novel Supernatural: Carved in Flesh, in which Sam and Dean Winchester discover the horrifying truth behind the Frankenstein legend, is still available in both print and electronic editions.

You can buy Supernatural: Carved in Flesh here: