Friday, May 02, 2014

How to Get on Convention Panels & Generally Impress Folks

I just reread someone's application letter for a convention. I reread it because he resent it, most likely because he didn't get a reply the first time. There's a reason he didn't get an immediate response.

Here's the deal, all y'all who want to be panelists on conventions, or want to include creds in a bio, etc. People aren't dumb. They can see right through the very thin veneer of vague to your lack of applicable experience. Trying to gloss over a thin or non-existent qualifications does a lot more harm than good. Trust me! Especially when it comes to hitting up a convention committee for inclusion on their panelist list. This goes double for cover letters for submitting writing to a publisher.

Here's a classic: twenty years of experience. That particular number irks me because it's used so often by people who are trying to sound impressive, when really they've been part-timing or hobbying for that twenty years. Which is cool to do, and extremely valuable time spent while learning your craft, but trying to make it sound like you've been doing something full time for twenty years seems to say one of several things. I'll mention two here:

A) You've been struggling to break through for twenty years and yet can't point to a single, specific, wow-worthy example of the fruits of your labors in your letter? Ouch.
B) You're seriously going to make me Google you instead of giving me something exact and definable so I can gauge your skills?

This person may be amazing. I can't say one way or another, and that's the problem. I feel like I'm being lied-at, even though the words may be true. I've had this happen to me before, quite recently*, actually. Most of us have. I would be far happier if, say, this person said that they've worked on this movie or that script or published in this magazine or through Cute Micro Press than try to sound all important about how they've been in the biz for twenty years.

My mood was not improved when I did Google this person and found some stuff that could have been easily included, and would have sounded a lot more appealing than the generic, hand-wavy references made in the letter. In fact, it wasn't a lot of accomplishment for twenty years. He did, however impress me with what he'd done. If I hadn't known it took him twenty years to do that, I might have said, kewl, this is nifty and worth exploring further. Instead, perhaps unfairly, I had the feeling that it wasn't a lot to show for the time expended.

So please, dear persons trying to impress folks with your creds:

Time spans aren't as important as specifics. Look at Stephen King's cred list sometime on his books. For the man who seldom needs an introduction, there's a mention of number of total books so far and a couple of current ones. For someone who hasn't been writing prolifically and famously for that long, a couple of specifics are fine, or even none. Yes, I said none. If you're working on a novel, say you're working on a novel, not that you've been writing for twenty years. If you have written a novel based on your experiences at a Space Camp, that's awesome. I want to know more about the Space Camp and maybe other folks want to hear about it too! If you're writing a cover letter and this is your very first short story, let the short story speak for you and just write hey, I wrote this thing and I hope you like it. Thanks for your time. I did that on cover letters for years, and it works just fine. If you want to be a panelist at a convention, think about the things that people might want to hear about, and if you have something to offer, mention that. Say, that you worked for three weeks with script writers for a movie produced by Twentieth Century Fox ... that might not sound like much compared to twenty years of something if you look at it one way, but from where I sit, I don't feel like someone is trying to deceive me, and that's something specific and true that I can consider.

Besides, as much as you might want to be at a specific convention or sell at a specific time to a magazine or whatever, it's better to look at the long term than the immediate pay-off. Maybe you don't have quite enough going for you this time, or this specific story doesn't fit in with what the editor wants right now. Selling it harder isn't going to make it happen. Living well and working hard is going to help you achieve your goals. And as you achieve them, you won't have to write vague letters anymore. Maybe they'll even hunt down your email address to invite you to conventions and anthologies and all kinds of kewl stuff.

*I was trying to work with a guy on a design and during the hour-long conversation he kept bringing up the fact that he'd been working in the biz for fifteen or twenty years or whatever. All I could think was, how is this relevant to getting the job we have to do done right now?

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