Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Conferences: How NOT to Lose Your Mind

Conference season is in full swing. Having attended a couple this season, not to mention several in previous years, I decided to write up a post on how to go to cons without going insane. Because let's face it: they're stressful. I've previously blogged about whether or not you should attend them, but let's assume you've made the decision to go, and talk about what lies ahead. I won't be getting into things like how many books you should bring, or how you should travel, or what kind of swag. This is all about managing stress.

Right off the bat, I'd like to invite authors, readers, publishers, etc., who've attended conferences to post their own advice/experiences in the comments. Nothing about this post is intended to scare anyone away from cons, but rather to be open and realistic about what they're like and how to cope with them. Everyone's experience and coping methods are different, so there's no way I can cover everything. If you have any advice for attendees, please feel free to comment.

Moving on...

The vast majority of this comes down to two things:

  1. Know Thy Limits. You, better than anyone else, know how much (and what kind of) stress you can cope with.
  2. Take Care of Thyself. It is 100% okay to do whatever you need to do in order to manage that stress.

Writing conferences tend to be heavily populated by introverts. If you're concerned about social anxiety cropping up at a con, you'll be in good company. Trust me, nobody at a conference like this is going to judge you for it, because chances are, well, we've all been there. (And if they do judge you, they're jerks.)

I've observed two things that help people cope with social anxiety at conferences:

  1. Don't overbook. Conventions are busy. There are usually multiple events going on at any given time. You don't have to go to anything, and you do not have to be at an event at all times. I think I attended two panels at RT this year. The rest of the time, when I wasn't off getting a tattoo, I hung out in the bar or checked out the vendors upstairs. I even disappeared up to my room to write for a little while. Of course you should go to the panels and such you want to attend, but if you find yourself sweating over the schedule or sprinting between events, take it easy. You don't have to attend everything, especially not if it's going to stress you out.
  2. Have a bunker buddy. Have someone there who "gets" you. Someone who knows your limits, and knows when you've reached them. Aleksandr Voinov and I tend to be joined at the hip at cons, and it's not just because we're partners in crime. He knows before I do when I've reached saturation, and vice versa, and at every single con we've attended together, there's been at least one moment where one of us has dragged the other away from an event or situation before someone cracked. 
Remember that the vast, vast majority of people at these cons either experience some level of social anxiety, or know people who do. Also, remember that at any time during a convention -- even during The Big Party That Everyone Is Attending -- it's okay to disappear to your room with a book and a bottle of wine. I assure you, at any given time, there will be other people doing the very same thing.

Speaking of The Big Party That Everyone Is Attending -- It's okay not to go. Seriously. I've been to eight conferences in the last three years, and have blown off at least one major event at every single one of them. Why? Because by the time the party starts at 7pm or later, I've already run myself ragged, overloaded myself, and just need a break. There's a very good chance that when The Big Party That Everyone Is Attending is in full swing, you'll find me in the bar or lobby playing Cards Against Humanity with a few other social refugees. Feel free to join us!

The thing is, not everyone likes big noisy parties. Not everyone likes dressing up or wearing costumes. Not everyone likes to dance. (No, really.) No one will think less of you if you prefer to slip away with a small group of friends (or by yourself) for a quiet dinner, a card game, or even just a long bath with the door locked and three Do Not Disturb signs hanging from the handle.

And speaking of going back to your room...

Choose Thy Roommate(s) Wisely.

Most people at cons share a room. Roommates can mean the difference between a $1,000 bill and a $500 or even $250 bill, so it only makes sense. That said, it's a good idea to really think about who you'll be rooming with for upwards of a week.  I've had disastrous roommate arrangements, and I've had roommates who were sanity savers. There's a reason Aleks and I room together whenever possible -- we keep each other sane!

While sharing a room with your BFF might sound like a good idea on the surface, there are some things to think about. Is the person going to be getting up at 8 am and running a hair dryer while you're sleeping off a hangover? Do you see the room as a place to escape the chaos and decompress, while your roommate would just as soon install a revolving door and bring in people you may or may not know at all hours of the night? (Don't laugh -- I've experienced that.)  Is one of you hyper while the other is incredibly mellow? This can work or it can be disastrous -- just be aware of how you feel around the other person and how that will work if one of you is stressed.

Establish rules upfront, and don't be afraid to enforce them. Make it clear whether or not other people can come back to the room. Make a decision about charging things to the room (room service, food at the restaurant, alcohol) so nobody has a heart attack when the final bill comes out.

If at all possible, have a backup plan -- someone you can stay with if things turn sour or if you and your roommate(s) just aren't compatible.

And finally, if you can afford it, don't be afraid to room alone. You are not obligated to take in roommates if you know you'll be saner and happier on your own. It's okay to say no, and you don't have to justify it. Some people even room off-site so they can completely escape the con (and save some money).

The bottom line is, conferences are hectic and stressful enough without roommate drama. Your room should be the place you can go to catch your breath and decompress -- if that room is a stressful environment, you're going to be in a bad spot. Be proactive about minimizing that drama, and you'll be fine.

Shifting gears entirely for a moment...

Let's talk about book signings.

Most conferences include a mass book signing. Rows of tables are set up, and every author within a hundred mile radius sits down to sell and sign books. Even at small conferences, these signings get pretty crazy. At the big ones like RT? Utter madness. I understand RT set a world record this year for largest book signing, in between having the fire marshal losing his mind because of the sheer quantity of people in the room, so that should tell you something.

I want to preface this by saying book signings are a  lot of fun. And they're great for authors -- you get to meet your readers, you get to sell some books, and there's also that "OMG I'm a for real author" feeling that comes with sitting at a table at a book signing (or maybe that's just me, but whatever). Please don't take any of this as "book signings are scary and should be avoided at all costs."

That said, I'm not going to beat around the bush: Book signings are stressful.

They're crowded. They tend to get hot. They are LOUD. Having a line of people in front of your table is as stressful as having no one stopping at your table. You will probably forget something (I forgot PENS at a book signing). You have to be "on" the entire time -- not necessarily interacting with people, but ready to interact with them. By the time it's over, you will probably be exhausted.

Way to go, Lori. Let's make book signings look like an utter nightmare.

I promise, they're not. But it's better to know this stuff upfront than to find out the hard way, and with this info in mind, you can better prepare yourself.

So how do you prepare for a book signing?

1. I highly recommend attending one as a reader first. My first convention ever was RT in 2012, and while I attended as a published author, I declined to get a table at the signing. Instead, I went in as a reader and just checked it out. Got a feel for the crowd, the noise, etc. You will not have wasted a con if you elect not to sign -- you can always sign at the next one when you're better prepared. Or you can choose not to if you find that environment overwhelming.

2. Have a support system. Riptide Publishing came up with the brilliant idea of survival kits for their authors. At RT, they brought everyone cool little lunchboxes with munchies and water, and that can make a huge difference. It also helps to have a friend who isn't signing come by and check on you from time to time. They can bring water if you need it, or talk you down if you're starting to get overwhelmed.

3. Don't make plans after the signing. Unless those plans include "chill in my room" or "low key lunch away from the con with like 3 people who don't stress me out," just...don't. Expect to be exhausted. Expect to be at social saturation. Give yourself some time to decompress. If you're the type who can bounce back and go to a giant, noisy event right after a signing, then by all means, do so. But most authors who I've talked to find that they need some downtime after something like that. I know one author who will disappear up to her room and sleep until dinner. Another won't speak until she's halfway through a bag of throat lozenges. Myself? I usually spend 15-20 minutes catching my breath in my room, then go eat with a small group of friends. It's up to you to know your limits and know what you need to do, but the bottom line is to accept those limits and do what you need to shift gears after a signing.

4. Remember that, like anything at a con, book signings are not mandatory. If the mere thought of walking into a book signing makes your heart race, don't. I won't tell you to "just relax", because I know a lot of people reading this are socially anxious, and "just relax" is about as helpful as telling someone with a migraine to "just ignore it." Hopefully my tips above can help some people have a less stressful time at a book signing, but it's up to you to know your limits, and if the phrase "book signing" makes you think "NOPE"...don't.

One last thing about cons... do not underestimate the bar. I don't drink, but I spend a significant portion of every con hanging out in the bar. Why? Because that's where people go to relax and let their hair down. That's where you can go chill with your readers or your favorite authors in a low-key environment. Plus it's where the most hilarious stories are usually told, so...win.

In closing... 

So now I've made conferences sound incredibly terrifying, but I promise, it really is just a matter of knowing what to expect and knowing how to minimize or cope with it. Cons are great fun and an awesome place to network, but they are stressful. So...

With the authority granted to me by absolutely no one except myself, I hereby grant every author, reader, publisher, blogger, reviewer, etc., permission to do whatever they deem necessary, within the laws set forth by whatever city is hosting the conference, to manage their own stress level without having to justify it or apologize for it.

Never, ever feel obligated to stress yourself out for someone else. It is absolutely 100% okay to say "I've had enough" or "I don't want to go." If anyone gives you crap for bowing out of an event, don't hang out with them, because they're buttheads.

And if you're at a con, and you can't find a group to socialize with or you're afraid to approach a group, come find me at the bar. I'll be the one with glasses laughing my head off while playing Cards Against Humanity, and there's always room for more players.


  1. Thank you Lori for these great tips. I remember you saying you'd do a post like this when we last met.
    One tip I have is: go outside for at least 15 minutes a day (preferably around 30 minutes). A lot of cons have all their activities inside, snug in one building. It's easy to get suckered into staying inside. Try to go outside for some fresh air however (even if it’s raining). I’ve found that a short trip outside around lunch time (and one again before dinner) clears the head and prevents headaches later on. It’s also a way to take and create some space. If there’s some green or a small park nearby, go enjoy it. In some cases you might have to bring your own lunch to make this work timing wise, but if lunch isn’t included in the price this may even be for the best.
    On the note of the bar: if you’ve reached or crossed you limit it might be wise to avoid it. It’s a place to charge up as much as it is a place to unwind. Caffeine and alcohol fuelled people might not be the best company for you at that particular time.
    The key here, and with everything else, is to find what works for you. Everyone is different. As Lori says don’t let anyone tell you what you should do, except yourself. You know yourself best after all. And we love you for being you.
    It’s easy to get lost in the maelstrom of excitement at these sorts of events. Crossing your own lines without realising it, or with the infamous ‘oh just a little bit/for a little while’. Sometimes you do need to stumble to learn your limits. And when you learn you can do better next time. And we’d love to see you again next time.

  2. This is such good advice, Lori. Thank you.