convention tips: don’t just survive, be AWESOME

RT is just under a month away, and I’ve seen a lot of blog posts about “how to survive a con.” Viewing a con as something to survive is looking at it the wrong way. It’s not a white-water rafting trip or a jungle safari or [insert other scary journey here]. It’s a con. A lot of people attend them for FUN, even. Crazy! So don’t just survive. Thrive!

I went to 5 cons last year, which is a lot. Whether you go to one or one dozen each year, I hope you can take something from what I have learned. So, without further ado:

Kate’s Tips for Making Your Con Experience Awesome

1. Tote bag.
Have a bag to put stuff in. Almost every con I have ever been to gives these out when you register, so don’t feel like you have to buy one, but definitely carry one. You can both carry the stuff you need and have a place to put stuff you accumulate throughout the day. This will save you trips back to your hotel room. I always make sure to have: my phone, money, my room key, a little notebook or something to write on, a couple of pens, Chapstick, a snack, emergency flats (see below), a cardigan if I’m not already wearing one (hotels get cold), aspirin or some kind of headache pill, my business cards, and a limited quantity of swag to hand out to people I run into.

2. Attire.
I love the recent JC Penney’s ads that are about finding that piece that fits well and makes you feel good. This is my personal approach to fashion. Now, look, I love clothes. I view conventions as an opportunity to pull some of my funkier pieces out of the closet. I bought a bunch of cute dresses to wear at RT this year. Having one attention-grabbing piece is a great ice breaker because people will walk up to you and tell you they love your dress/shoes/necklace and then you can chat about books/your writing/panels/whatever. But I always feel good about myself when I’ve got my best clothes on.

I get that not everyone is as obsessive about clothes as I am, so here’s my advice: wear clothes that make you feel good. If dresses and bright colors are not your thing, don’t dress that way. If you’ve got pieces in colors you like or that fit very well or that just make you happy, wear those. If you’re happy and comfortable in your attire, you’ll project confidence. That’s a good quality to have in a con. (But do put in a little effort. Particularly if you’re attending as an author, you don’t want to fade into the background.)

Also, I recommend dressing in layers so you can adjust to heat/air-conditioning/surprise snow accordingly.

3. Shoes.
Always carry emergency flats. I keep a pair of reliably comfortable shoes in my con bag at all times. I always hit a point in the day, even in my most comfortable heels, where I just can’t anymore, and having the flats handy is such a relief.

4. Snacks.
Pack something snacky. I like to have granola bars or trail mix handy, or something similarly portable. Sometimes you forget to eat or go a long time between meals or just don’t get enough to eat at a luncheon. If you feel yourself dragging, stop and have a snack.

5. Water.
Carry a water bottle. Nothing will dehydrate you faster than being in a hotel all day.

6. Planning.
Have a rough plan of what you will do before you leave for the con. Look at the agenda or schedule and decide which events you will attend. This will affect what you pack, first of all, especially if there are parties or events with costumes, but also it will give you an idea for what to expect. On the other hand, be open to that plan changing once you’re on the ground. Because it totally will.

7. Free stuff.
You will get a lot of it, especially books. “But I don’t plan to take any…” Doesn’t matter. You will. I swore up and down I would take home zero books from GRL last year and wound up with five. Leave space in your luggage in anticipation of this. You might also bring pre-addressed shipping labels so you can send stuff home. Check with the hotel in advance to see if they will ship things for you. Convention hotels usually do or can direct you to the nearest courier.

8. Socializing.
Cons are one place where it is cool to talk to strangers. We’re all there to meet other members of our tribe. There are definitely going to be people who don’t know anyone or who have never been to a con before and will welcome making friends with similar people. Breeze through the lobby or hotel bar, introduce yourself, talk to people. Talk about books if you need an ice-breaker topic—at a romance or reader con, that’s the thing we all have in common.

And let me just say, it is a great feeling to find people who are just as passionate about your interests as you are.

9. Have fun.
Cons can be stressful when you’re preparing to attend them, but once you’re there, relax and enjoy!

Tips Specific to Authors:

1. Swag.
The late comedian Mitch Hedberg had a bit in his stand-up about people handing out flyers. He viewed someone handing him a flyer as, “Here, you throw this away.” I always think of this when someone hands me swag unsolicited. If we’re talking about your book and I express interest, then sure, hand me a postcard. But if I don’t know you and you hand me something, it’s going in the trash. This is a peeve of mine, because I have so little space in my luggage and I’d really rather not ship stuff home, so I don’t need MORE stuff, you know? Offer swag and have it available for people to take, but don’t make them take it.

Also, don’t feel like you have to break the bank to be impressive with your swag. Work within your budget. If all you can do are postcards with your book covers, that’s a great start—the goal is to spread the word about you as an author and your brand, and you shouldn’t have to spend big money to do that.

One last thing: a lot of cons have a swag room where people can peruse and take stuff. Take a tour yourself and see what great things other people are doing. You might get some ideas for your own swag.

2. Business cards.
All authors should have them. If we meet, I will likely ask you for one. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just give me a way to find you online: your website, your email, and possibly also your social media accounts. Most cons have badge holders with little pockets in the back that are ideal business card holders; I always stuff a bunch of my own in there so I can pull them out on the fly, and I put the ones I get in there, too. Also, don’t make these too glossy; you want something someone can write on. I will sometimes write a note about where I met the person who gave me the card so I can follow up with them later.

3. Don’t limit yourself to your own events.
Go to other author panels/readings/whatever. Take advantage of the opportunities cons present to network and learn things. If there’s a publisher you’re interested in submitting to, attend their spotlight. If there’s a panel on something related to what you write, go attend it. Support your fellow authors.

4. Signings.
Signings are not my favorite thing, honestly. I’m a small fish in a big pond at cons like RT, and when you’re competing for reader attention with Nora Roberts and Sylvia Day, you’re probably going to lose. Still, be friendly to people who stop by. Chat with readers. Smile. Put out some candy to lure people to your table. Have something generic planned to write in books that people ask you to sign. Be prepared for long lulls when you don’t get much activity. Make friends with the writers sitting next to you. Don’t get offended if someone tells you they only read ebooks and so won’t be buying anything. (Readers have apologized to me a lot at signings. “I’m sorry, I only buy ebooks.” Hey, that’s totally cool with me! Help yourself to any of my swag. But the fact that so many readers apologize make me think some authors are dicks about that. Don’t be a dick.)

Actually, “Don’t be a dick,” is good con advice generally.

Do you have other tips for making a convention an awesome experience? Please share them in the comments!

my writing process

I was tagged by friend and RWA NYC chapter mate Lena Hart on this chain blog tour thing about The Writing Process. So here goes:

1) What am I working on?
I always have several projects going at the same time, but right at this moment I’m focusing on two, both of which I’ve probably mentioned, which are:

• A contemporary friends-to-lovers with a really convoluted plot; I need to come up with a better elevator pitch for it, but the gist is, “two friends are never in the same place emotionally and struggle to define their relationship with each other until they reach a crisis point and have to decide to make a go of a romantic relationship or lose each other forever.” I’m calling it When the Planets Align. Right now I’m doing my last round of revisions before it goes off to my agent.

• A contemporary series about an LGBT amateur baseball league in NYC. The first three books are outlined and planned, so I think I want to try to sell it as a trilogy with room for more should that work out. Book 1 is done and going out to betas soon, and I recently started Book 2.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
That’s tough to answer. People have said I bring a New York sensibility even to my books not set in New York. I tend toward brainy characters. I like to play with old genre conventions. I also try to portray life as I know it, insofar as I am a thirtysomething single person living in a major city, so I feel like I have a bead on that in a way some authors don’t, or at least, I bring my own experience to the table, even when I’m writing about, say, professional baseball players or reincarnated Celtic deities. And I write books I’d want to read; I hope my love for this genre and my characters comes through in the books.

3) Why do I write what I do?
I’m writing this after having recently spent a day at an LGBT book fair at which I got asked this question a lot. (Or, I got asked specifically how I, a woman, got into writing gay male romance.) The short version is that I started reading gay romance at a time when there wasn’t a lot of it, and I loved it so much that I thought there should be more, so I tried my hand at writing book, and that became In Hot Pursuit. I’d been writing chick lit and het romance up until that point (and briefly pretentious literary fiction, because I think every young person in NYC is working on that book) so I was not new to writing or romance, but I hadn’t finished anything that I thought was publishable. IHP was the first thing I wrote that I felt really confident in. (Or confident enough in it to submit it to publishers, at any rate.)

It so happens that all of the story ideas I’ve had since have involved gay men. Those are the voices in my head, I guess. I keep expecting this to change, but it hasn’t yet. So I keep writing.

4) How does your writing process work?
This is roughly how it goes:

Step 1: Get an idea. Often these come out of left field, but sometimes they will be a reaction to something, either something I read or something I experienced. (Sometimes a negative reaction—Out in the Field was written almost entirely because I read a few baseball romances that had neither much baseball talk nor any people of color, and that was something I wanted to rectify—and sometimes just because—I wrote Show and Tell during a period of my life in which I was watching a lot of Pawn Stars. But The Stars that Tremble? I don’t know. I was taking a walk one afternoon and started thinking about opera and what if an opera singer couldn’t sing anymore and then I had a story.)

Step 2: Free write. I need to spend a little time with the characters before I can completely work out what their story is, so I’ll write a few scenes, some of which will be repurposed but most of which just get tossed because they’re too info-dump-y or else aren’t important to the story.

Step 3: Draw and outline. I keep paper notebooks for each of my projects because I like to draw, especially maps and flowcharts, and I haven’t found a useful way to do that on a computer or tablet yet. I am firmly on the Plotter side of the Plotter v. Pantser divide, but I keep my outlines loose enough to change my mind about the details later. They usually aren’t formal outlines, more bulleted lists of plot points and various other kinds of information.

For research-heavy projects, I keep files of references on my computer and I put lots of sticky notes in books so I can pull them out and find what I need quickly. I take photos of the real places my books are set. (I’ve got a huge folder of reference photos for Across the East River Bridge. I visited every place mentioned in the book.) And I’m insane about research, so that’s a big part of this step in the process.

For the baseball series mentioned above, I made a whole series bible, and it is extensive.

Step 4: Churn out a first draft. Here’s a thing I learned about myself as a participant in NaNoWriMo: if I edit as a write, I will never make any progress, because I could edit my work forever and never be happy with it. A far more effective process for me is to bang out a first draft, messy though it may be, and then revise later. This process goes pretty fast; it typically takes me anywhere from 1 to 3 months to write a first draft (depending on length and how busy I am otherwise).

I write in Scrivener, which I love because it makes it easy to keep everything organized.

Step 5: Revise, revise, revise. I write fast but revise slowly. I usually do a pass through the draft just to clean up typos and obvious mistakes, then I’ll go back and add missing scenes or do heavier revisions as necessary. Sometimes I change my mind about plot points and end up having to do a lot of rewriting at this stage.

This stage can sometimes be fairly easy—it was for The Silence of the Stars (coming soon!)—or it can be wrenching. Blind Items went through four major rewrites before it became the book it is today.

Step 6: Beta draft. I export from Scrivener and then read the whole thing again in Word which serves two functions: a) it gives me a chance to verify that the Word file has no formatting shenanigans, and b) it’s easier for me to spot typos, homonym errors, and other mistakes if I change the font and spacing because it’s like looking at the text anew. Once I feel like this version is clean, it goes off to my writers group or beta readers, who then send me back comments.

Step 7: Alpha draft. I read all comments, decide what I’m going to incorporate, revise accordingly. I have in some cases printed out a hard copy of the whole thing and put everyone’s comments into one place so there’s effectively a master edited draft, then I’ll use that as a reference as I revise. Sometimes I’ll just make a bulleted list of things I want to change based on feedback. It sort of depends on how extensive the comments are.

I also find it useful to read the whole polished draft quickly, because I catch inconsistencies better that way. It’s hard when you’re writing to even catch obvious things. There’s a tertiary character in The Boy Next Door who went by two different names until I caught that. Poor Mike McPhee from The Stars that Tremble had a dead mother in one of the early drafts, and it took me an embarrassingly long time to fix that everywhere. When working on edits for The Silence of the Stars I caught a weird instance of Sandy’s favorite book genre being biographies on one page but popular science on another.

Step 8: Send to agent/publisher.

So that’s the way I typically work. It seems to work for me, but your mileage may vary. This is basically a description of how I do things and is not meant to be instructive. Ask twenty writers about their process and you’ll get twenty different answers.

If you’re a writer and you’re interested in participating in this chain blog tour, let me know or go ahead and tag yourself. All I ask is that you link back to me.

Poll: Best in Swag

I’m going low-key on swag for RT this year, but I am doing a party for which I’m contributing items for door-prize bags, so I’m wondering, of the things I have on-hand, which of these would you most prefer to receive in a prize bag: one of my custom pin-back buttons (with the “smart • savvy • sexy” phrase on them), a postcard featuring the gorgeous cover of The Silence of the Stars, or an awesome Kate McMurray bookmark?

(NGL, this is also an excuse to try out this poll plugin for WordPress. Works pretty well, right?)