Once The Thief’s Gamble had been published, various pals started telling me I should start going to Conventions and making contacts within fandom generally. I’ll admit I was more than a little sceptical but I’ve been going to a crime and mystery weekend for several years and that has started me reading quite a few new authors, after meeting them and hearing them talk about their work. So I had to agree there would doubtless be advantages to getting my face and books more widely known, word of mouth being so important for the first-time novelist. I started putting out feelers; my main requirements were a guaranteed minimum of rampaging drunks in Mr Spock ears and no cardboard Daleks. As with all irrational prejudices, I cannot pinpoint any reason for having such a biased outlook at that stage so please don’t ask me to defend it, because I can’t!
Most folk I contacted suggested Wincon V, so I looked up their Web site, got in touch and was invited to take part in three panels. Now, it’s said that one should try anything once, except incest and folk dancing. These words did hover around the back of my mind on the Friday evening. Most folk but me seemed to be talking to each other in exclusive groups and there was a high incidence of beards and CAMRA t-shirts. I was welcomed very warmly by the organiser John (and bought a drink), but being a very busy man, he was soon called away. So I went for a wander, picked up some long-sought-after books from the dealers and luckily met a pal, Ali, whom I haven’t seen since University days. After the introductory programme items we went out for a Chinese and caught up on the last 15 years. I was staying at my Mum’s house some 8 miles or so away (another reason for opting for Wincon) and so I went back to have a beer and unwind. It would be fair to say I was still unsure of my footing and wondering if I would stay on after doing my panels or just go home.
All of which just goes to prove how totally misleading initial impressions can be. Saturday morning started stupendously well with Diana Wynne Jones, (whose books I have read and admired for years) telling me how much she’d enjoyed my book! I did my first item, How To Be Original And Still Get Published with Ben Jeapes and Jo Walton. Hearing their different approaches and experiences was proof, if any were needed that there is no, single correct or foolproof way to get into print. Ben had his first novel His Majesty’s Starship published after establishing himself with short stories and with the support and practical help of a writer’s group, including introduction to a good agent. Jo Walton works from a solid track record in SF and LRP writing, both journalism and fiction and has had a novel accepted for publication by Tor in the US. I’d been briefed to talk for 20 minutes or so, Ben and Jo did the same and then we took questions. Everyone listened with interest, laughed in the right places, not in the wrong ones and the subsequent debate was very wide ranging.
My next panel was On The Fifth Day Of Our Journey: An examination of the conventions of Quest Fantasies. This was led off by Diana Wynne Jones and largely focused on her book The Tough Guide to Fantasy Land. This book should be required reading for anyone setting out to write in the genre, by the way. After Diana explained how she had come to write the book, I highlighted some of the clichés that had increasingly driven me away from reading fantasy and how I had dealt with them. On the other hand, I did point out how some clichés are unavoidable, on account of being universally true. I was about half way through what I had prepared when Tanya Brown, the third panellist raised some questions and the audience started chipping in. The session developed into a general discussion which was in no sense a problem – I ended up making the rest of my points as and when relevant to the conversation.
The third session discussed the value of history; “The past is a another country. They do things differently there.” Is The Future Closer Than The Past?. The panel was myself, Mike Stone, a fan with an interest in history and Caroline Bott whose partner Gwylim Hunter has taken with the small press route with his first novel Interregnum, an historical fantasy. The debate was well informed and thought provoking and everyone resisted the temptation to nit-pick. By this stage, I’d largely abandoned my notes, other than as aides-memoire!
It was soon apparent I’d substantially over-prepared for my panels, in the sense of having a prepared talk, but I reasoned that was better than sitting there, opening my mouth and finding nothing coming out. A handful of sheets of A4 may not be everyone’s idea of a safety net, but it works for me.
There was plenty to interest me in the programme when I wasn’t talking; items on writing fantasy for children, on comic adaptations to the screen and a panel discussing Superman and the inherent problems of the Superhero genre – where I realised many of the same difficulties apply to immensely powerful wizards. A session on writing alternate history rekindled my own interest in that sub-genre, as did talking to John Whitbourne. There were far more people about on the Saturday to and those who’d been so busy catching up with pals on Friday, had got that out of their systems and were looking for new people to talk to. Another couple of long-standing friends, Mary and Simon, had arrived and they introduced me to all and sundry so I spent hours in fascinating conversation with a whole variety of friendly folk. Unfortunately, since I was driving, I wasn’t able to take full advantage of the student union bar, £1 a pint beer. I suspect I may become notorious in SF circles as the fizzy water addict.
From the authoring point of view it was immensely helpful to compare notes with other writers. I was disappointed to find none of the dealers carrying my book, due to a communications failure somewhere or other down the line. However, working on the ‘hope for the best, plan for the worst’ principle, I had taken along a bunch of the first chapter samples for The Thief’s Gamble, so signed those at the signing sessions. I also had a cover proof for The Swordsman’s Oath for people to look at and plenty of folk read the jacket copy, admired the artwork and expressed interest. Feedback on my own work was invaluable and has influenced what I’ve written since, a benefit I hadn’t fully anticipated but conversations with no reference to my books were just as useful in showing me new ideas from unexpected angles. So it was a useful weekend professionally, particularly given my twin occupations of writing and motherhood are both prone to be rather isolating. More importantly, it was immense fun on a personal level.
After this, I didn’t hesitate to say yes when invited to the BSFA’s London meeting in November, especially as I had the reassurance of knowing several friends would be there. This time I didn’t take sheaves of notes and while this was an interview, I went along expecting plenty of interaction. I got it, as well as enthusiasm for my books and learning how people see my writing in the wider context of heroic fantasy, something I cannot judge for myself but which I know is important if I am to continue to develop as a writer. The evening also confirmed there is a healthy appetite for intelligent and literate fantasy, whatever the sceptics or even the book-trade might say. I had a great time.
I didn’t get much feedback or do much ‘networking’ at the BFS Christmas open evening in December. What I had was a most agreeable evening and after all, that’s the whole point of a social event. Cold-bloodedly only going where I could make useful contacts, with the sole aim of shifting more copies of my books would be very limiting and ultimately self-defeating, I am sure. There is such a thing as trying too hard. Perhaps I expected to talk to more people new to me but thinking about that on the way home, I saw a Catch-22 at work here. I was with people I knew and they introduced me to people they knew; that’s how these things work, after all. I’m hardly about to go up to complete strangers, introduce myself and expect them to be impressed; I have plenty of friends who will make sure I never get that full of myself. So why should I expect other people to come up and try and inveigle a way into my conversation, especially when there are plenty of authors on record complaining about being pestered? I suppose my only answer here is to try and be alert for anyone looking as if they’re politely waiting for a chance to talk to me – and risk finding out all they actually wanted was the bar-staff’s attention.
So I’ve discovered fandom’s a nice place to be, once you get the measure of the locals and especially when you’ve got a native guide. Latterly, I’ve spoken to local groups from Southampton to Aberdeen and many places in between, in all cases highly enjoyable evenings. I’m always open to such invitations. I’ve done several more conventions, here and abroad and will be doing plenty more in future.