Jean Marie Ward

fiction, nonfiction and all points in between

Stealth Guest —
Or How To Succeed At Cons With A Cunning Plan

The email from RavenCon’s assistant director of programming was polite but not encouraging:

“Right now our guest list is full, but I will put you on our short list if a guest cancels…”

A lot of writers will take that as a hint. In other words: “Stay home, little girl, you’re not big enough/you’re the wrong genre to play in our sandbox.” But I’m evil and wise in the ways of genre conventions. And I had a cunning plan.

First, I ran the numbers on RavenCon, and they were good:

- Less than two-hour drive from the house — Check.

- Inexpensive membership fee — Check.

- New con with good reports from writer friends — Check.

- Reservation at the con hotel and great roomie — Check.

- Stellar pre-con programming — Check.

The last two were the clinchers. I was especially intrigued by the pre-con programming.

Tee Morris, a small press fantasy writer who grew up in the Richmond VA area, had arranged two days of writer-based programming at his old high school. He figured more of the students at his alma mater read science fiction and fantasy than would ever be caught dead at a geek fest — er, a con. So the thing to do was to bring the con to them.

Tee is also one of the friends who shared glowing reports of RavenCon. Which meant I could probably weasel my way into the pre-con programming and start warping young minds — er, engage in meaningful outreach with readers and writers who will still be buying books long after I fretted my hour upon the writing stage.

It didn’t hurt that my roomie, award-winning small press author Jana Oliver, had inadvertently signed on for a two-hour seminar on history in science fiction and fantasy. She felt she needed help pulling examples for the program, because she reads more nonfiction and mystery than fantasy. I believe I waited until she issued the invitation to help before volunteering, but it was a near thing. Like I said, I had a plan.

I think the con’s programming director had an inkling of what was up when Tee presented him with the participant list for the pre-con program at Monacan High School. Tee assured him I was cool. After all, I planned to buy a ticket for the con. Tee, bless him, thinks the best of everyone.

Returning to the con hotel, I had the good fortune to run into one of the con volunteers. She provided two important pieces of information: the location of the con operations suite and the fact the registration packets had yet to be stuffed.

Mwahahahaha! My plan was working, and I hadn’t even started yet.

Traveling with Jana to lend an air of legitimacy, I arrived in the con suite with a box of six hundred bookmarks and my most harmless expression. I used to be a master at “pretty and harmless” but now I have to make do with “friendly and harmless”. The programming director still wasn’t buying it, but I fooled everyone else, including the con director. More probably, my bookmarks fooled them. Lots of guests had brought freebies, but very few had brought enough for the estimated six hundred attendees. Having the cunning — er, foresight to bring more bookmarks than I could ever hope to hand out worked in my favor, big time.

Step one in my cunning plan was now complete. My bookmarks would be in the hands of every person who registered for the con. Steps two and three consisted of connecting with the volunteer coordinator and the con bookseller, respectively. Folding the restaurant flyers as they exited the printer, I promised the volunteer coordinator to help monitor some programs.

She smiled at the programming director. He grumbled over his schedule. Seems several guests had canceled at the last minute. I practiced looking perky and really, really harmless. Apparently I looked so harmless Jan Howard Finder (a.k.a. wombat, the fan guest of honor) decided I was safe for a chat. Ooooh, more legitimacy! More importantly, he’s a funny, charming guy.

I registered as soon as Tee, Jana and company returned from the Monacan program the next day. Then I headed back to con ops to volunteer. While I was signing on to monitor panels, the volunteer coordinator pointed out the sign-in sheet for open panels. I was in! My plan was a total success.

Not wishing to appear greedy, I only signed on for two: “Creating a FanZine” and “My Lover Is a Vampire…or Maybe a Werewolf”. I wound up with four panels and a signing. I could’ve had more panels. Science fiction and fantasy cons always have drop-outs. They always need guests, and if you demonstrate helpfulness and a lack of diva-ttitude, you’re in. By the time RavenCon was over, I was firmly ensconced in the guest line for the next year (thank you, Mr. Programming Director!) and I’d nailed down an invitation to another Virginia con where they promised to feed me. (Considering I’m a four-star foodie, this could prove to be more than their budget can handle. But I’ll be good. Mostly.)

If you’ve stuck with me this far you may be wondering what this has to do with you. “I write paranormal romance,” you say. Or maybe you write futuristics.

Plenty. Look at the second panel I signed up for — “My Lover is a Vampire…or Maybe a Werewolf”. Does that sound like a paranormal romance panel or what? My pick-up two panels were “Shaken, Not Stirred — Sex in Science Fiction and Fantasy Films and TV” and “Vice in Science Fiction and Fantasy”. Hello, futuristic and fantasy writers — not to mention writers of romantica. You could have a field day on any of those panels, and the audience would love it.

The organizers would love to see cross genre romance writers and readers there too. Con organizers may not always know it heading into the home stretch of con preparation, but once the show begins they need you.

They need paranormal romance writers on their panels. Urban fantasy/paranormal romance is one of publishing’s great cross-over success stories. Futuristic romance is turning into a gateway into traditional science fiction. Fantasy and science fiction readers want to hear what you have to say, even if they don’t know it yet. It’s a wonderful promotion opportunity — even in the absence of related outreach programming.

But, you say, “I write romantic suspense.” Different cons, same strategy: run the numbers, introduce yourself, volunteer, provide a service they don’t know they need.

Admittedly, membership costs for mystery cons can be steep, but often there’s a price break for volunteers. Membership fees for science fiction and fantasy cons tend to be far more budget friendly. The fees for the 2010 RavenCon will be $40 at the door for all three days. Even added to food (remember, I like to eat well) and the shared cost of a room, total con costs seldom approach the registration fees of RWA events. If the con is local, the only costs are food and incidentals. Some, like Capclave (DC’s homegrown SF/fantasy con), offer an additional break on parking.

Finally, all genre cons need to add romance readers to their audiences. It expands their membership base, as well as providing readers a great opportunity to meet favorite authors up close and personal — and an excellent opportunity to find more writers to love. I always come home from a convention with a shopping list, and I know I’m not the only one.

Even the “Con Crud” sinus infection that followed me home from my first RavenCon turned out to be a plus. After deciding I needed antibiotics after all, my health care professional asked me, “Booksigning? What’s your book? You have it with you?”

I couldn’t believe my ears. “You do know it’s a fantasy, right? Comic fantasy — Robert Jordan meets Sex in the City with a little help from Lucille Ball.”

“Yeah. I love that stuff. What’s the title again?”

Genre cons. Con crud. It’s all good.

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Note: Since the first publication of this essay, both Tee Morris and Jana Oliver have published many titles through major New York publishing houses.

Originally published in the blog of Samhain Publishing Weblog in April 2007, the essay was edited and updated for The WRW Update of January 2010.