Surviving Cons: A Guide For Socially Anxious Writers

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 8.442% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

On the way back from cons, some people play music.  I replay the most awkward conversations I had at the con.
Over and over again.  I think about what I could have said instead, and remember the startled look on their face as they realized what an oaf they were talking to and moved on, and slowly become convinced that the entire publishing industry has silently vowed never to publish any story from me because of that stupid thing I said to Paul Cornell.
This is what it’s like to be socially anxious.  At the con, literally every word I say has me convinced I’m making a fool of myself.  Am I?  No.  People have called me an extrovert, envying my ability to make friends, and my readings are well-attended… so clearly I’m not alienating everybody.
But how do you function at a convention when your brain is screaming at you to shut up?
Step #1: Ignore Your Brain and Go Loud.
Your brain is telling you to shut up – but for writers, cons are about getting attention.  You’re supposed to insert yourself into conversations, talk with strangers, go out of your way to be heard.  This is the only way to make friends.  If you wait silently for someone to ask, “What’s your opinion?” you will be waiting until well past the end of the con.
So you need to remember that a con is a performance.  You are not you.  You are playing a version of you, slightly amplified for public consumption. This version of you will do more than hover around the edges of conversations, smiling jovially – this you will volunteer opinions, for her whole goal during the con is to make friends with other people, and you can’t do that through silence. Even if you think what you have to say is stupid, throw it out there.  The nice thing about cons is that the weirder the opinion, the more conversation it generates.
Me?  I actually have a con outfit I wear to trick my brain into being more social.  When I put on my con hat and badge, I am Con Ferrett – it’s much like Con Air, though full of Con Hot Air – and this helps me socialize.
You may be afraid you will dominate conversations and make people hate you.  This will not happen, because you are socially anxious.  What you are actually doing is making your way past the people who are actually dominating the conversations. To be heard in a crowd you’ll have to be aggressive, so go aggro.  (And it often helps, if you get into an interesting conversation, to splinter off so you’re talking one-on-one, which is so less stressful than group gabs.)
Step #2: Recognize Nobody Cares That Much
It’s a con, and that dumb thing you said?  People forgot it.  They do that.  As a socially anxious person, you’re conditioned to believe that everyone spends as much time analyzing your words as you do… but they really aren’t.  They’re caught up in the conversation, and that joke you made that fell flat isn’t something they’re obsessing over – they’ve moved on.  So should you.
You’re going to say stupid things at cons, make statements that get ignored, sometimes get talked over.  Keep in there.  This happens to other people too, they just don’t let it stop them.
The only truly dumb thing you can do is to only talk about your book.  Don’t market to people.  Just interact.
Step #3: Prepare the Con Via Twitter
It’s hard for the socially anxious to talk to strangers.  But you can use social media to prime the pump, as it were.
See, if you can make a Twitter-friend, and have a couple of @-exchanges with some cool authors who are going to be at the con, then you have a built-in excuse to talk to them.  At best, they’ll remember your clever exchange; at worst, you’ll at least know what’s up with them.  A lot of the reason I do well at cons is that I’m active on Twitter, and Facebook, and various writer bulletin boards, and when I run into people they go, “Hey, we debated whether short stories were a viable way to break into novels!  Hi!”
This will not always go well.  Sometimes, you’ll meet someone who you’ve had grand discussions with online and they’ll just wave “hey” and move off.  It’s not a guaranteed thing.  But being active on social media means gives you a built-in network of people you sort-of know, who can then be catapulted into people you do know.
Also: don’t be afraid to check nametags.  Everyone does it.
Step #4: Recognize the Cycle of Cons
If it’s your first time at this convention, it’s going to be awkward.  You don’t know many people, so you’ll spend more time alone than you’d like. First times at cons are always like this.
But your goal is to pretend to be extroverted enough to make some friends.  Then, the next time you go to that con, you’ll have more people who you know, and those awkward silences will be shorter.  Generally, by the third time I attend a convention, I’ve met enough people that I can’t check into the hotel without running into someone who’s happy to see me.
But that first con’s a slog.  Doesn’t mean you’re a loser.  Just means you’re starting out fresh.
Step #5: Walk The Floors, Walk The Floors, Walk The Floors.
The nature of cons is that they’re composed of many brief conversations.  You talk to a group of four people, then two of them have to go to a panel and the third goes to dinner.  Then you’re alone again. If you are unused to cons, you may feel like this is specific to you, and give up and go back to the hotel room.
Do not do this.  This isolation is normal.  Though you will feel like the biggest loser in the whole damn world when, for the fifth time that day, you’re alone again.
Yet this is how cons operate.  When you find yourself alone, walk a circuit through the con, trying to run into somebody you know.  The thing about talking to someone you know is that it’s an agglomerative process; standing in the hallway, some third person will show up, and hey!  You’re talking to them!  And if that conversation goes well, you now know someone else at the con to talk to the next time you’re walking around. (See also: the cycle of cons.)
Every con usually has one bar where everyone meets, one lobby where people have to walk through to get to their panels, and a con suite where people stock up on food.  If you walk between those three areas, your chances of running into someone is good. (And remember, by “running into someone” we mean “finding someone you know and striking up a conversation.”  Start conversations, don’t wait for them.)
(Also: get people’s phone numbers, when possible.  It’s nice to be able to text con-friends to say, “Hey, what are you up to?”)
If you run into no one, hang out in the con suite and take a trick from my lovely wife: find the loneliest person in the room, the one who’s sitting looking as forlorn as you are, and strike up a conversation.  They’ll usually be thrilled to make a friend, and you’ll find yourself less lonely.
And when I say “walk the floors, I mean it.”  Panels are wonderfully fun to watch, but they’re static; you watch people interact.  You will make very few acquaintances attending panels, though they do provide great conversational grist if an author makes an ass out of themselves.
Step#6: Find An Outgoing Friend.
There are extroverts at cons who love to introduce people to each other.  If you can become friendly with one of those people, they will introduce you around, serving as your social lubricant, making your life far easier.  I myself recommend the services of one Nayad Monroe, but she may be booked.
Do not abuse your outgoing friend.  You don’t want to latch onto them like a leech.  If they wander away, don’t follow, just talk to the people left behind in their wake.
A note to those of you lucky enough to be friended to best-selling authors: if you have one of those, don’t expect them to be your in.  Once an author gets sufficiently large, he will mean well, but he will be so overloaded with obligations that even though you’re good pals, you’ll be mostly ignored at the con.  Cons are work for them, and it’s nothing personal that they can’t hang with you as much as they’d like.
Step #7: Plan Your Meals In Advance.
Dining is a social event at cons, and “Who is dining with who” becomes a matter of great import.  While you can luck out at conventions, sometimes glomming onto great groups (“I had dinner with George Martin!”), usually you’ll wind up casting about for people to eat with and feel pathetic. It’s stressful and sad, asking people repeatedly, “So, you got dinner plans?” and having them all say no.
So plan who you’re eating with before you get there.
Again, this is where social media helps, especially if you’ve Twitter-friended people you’ve met at past cons and can put out the call in advance.  But the effort of trying to find people to dine with often exhausts a slender store of energy.  And speaking of that….
Step #8: Recharge.  Relax.  Withdraw. 
As a socially anxious person, you’re probably saying, “This seems like a great deal of energy.”  It is.  I’m often wrecked for two or three days after a convention.
So guard your energy levels.  If you’re getting tired, go back to your room and read a book.  Sleep in in the mornings.  Carry snacks to keep your blood sugar levels up.  Yes, a con is a performance to some extent, but there’s a very real and very tender you behind this slightly more-outgoing person, and you need to protect that lovely you.  Some people are going to be talking 24/7, staying up until 4 a.m. every morning yammering on to vast audiences – that’s not you.
This is a lot of effort you’re going to, and a brave thing you’re doing.  Respect the work.  Respect yourself.
Step #9: Read The Comments. 
I’m throwing this open to other socially anxious writers to ask: what do you do to get past your neuroses at cons?  What helps you out?  I’m open to all suggestions.

1 Comment

  1. Shelly Rae Clift
    Oct 5, 2012

    Yup. I also recommend “BarCon” . barCon is held at evey convention around the world. Groups of people gath, chat, mingle, move on. It’s great for those of us with, other, disabilities.
    That said. I’m one of those people who love to introduce people. Come say hi. I’m happy to have people join me. Tell me you want to meet someone and I’ll try to make it happen.
    Addendum: wear your badge in a visible manner please” I have #tbi and rely on badges. Want to help me remember you? Give me a business card and write 3 things on the back that will ‘click’ your name and face.
    Thanks!

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