And Other Great Ways to Interact with Creators at Conventions
Special Features is a regular column in which MCG team members discuss projects they’re working on, interesting MCG activities, or things that inspire their work.
For me, meeting my favorite creators has always been one of the best parts of going to conventions. You get to interact, if only for a few moments, with someone whose work has had a big impact on your life. Maybe you get to tell them how much a particular book or game means to you. Maybe you ask them to sign something. Or maybe you just get to hear a story about their day. It’s a chance to see behind the curtain of the creation and connect directly with the person who made it.
It can also be a bit scary. How do you talk to your favorite game designer or artist when you’re feeling nervous and flustered? Is it appropriate to tell a writer how much you loved their last novel while you’re standing in line at the coffee shop? What about when you’re washing your hands next to them in the restroom? How many things can you bring for them to sign?
To answer these questions—and more—we talked to some of our favorite artists, game designers, and writers. It turns out that it’s pretty easy to have a fantastic interaction.
“All you have to do is remember that your favorite artists and writers are people just like you,” suggests John Petersen, a freelance sci-fi and fantasy illustrator. “Just try to be considerate and think about how you’d like to be treated.”
Along with that, they had some specific tips to help ensure an awesome experience for everyone:
1. Bring Something To Sign. But Not ALL the Somethings.
If you know a creator is going to be doing signings, bring something that is significant to you for their signature. Last year at Gen Con, someone really did come to our booth and ask Monte to sign their baby—although they actually wanted him to sign the baby’s shirt, not the child. It was still a very fun and funny moment, and gave everyone something to grin about for the rest of the convention.
You don’t have to go the baby route, of course (particularly if you don’t have ready access to a baby of your own). Books, artwork, character sheets, and other objects that the creator has worked on are always welcome. Some people bring a signing journal, a hand-made “yearbook,” or some other item for all of their favorite creators to sign. This way, they have a special item that reminds them of that year or that convention.
If possible, try not to bring your whole library, though. In addition to taking a lot of time to sign all of the items, it means that you have less time to actually talk to the creator and they won’t have the time to write something more personal, like they might in a single book.
If you don’t have something to sign, the best option is to purchase something, even if it’s something small and inexpensive. But most creators will happily sign anything during a signing session. I’ve signed people’s shirts, convention programs, and even jewelry and backpacks.
2. Respect Boundaries—Yours, Theirs, Everyone’s
There are at least three people in any conversation you’re having with a creator: you, them, and anyone who’s waiting in line behind you. (Also, possibly: the person running the convention who needs the creator for their next panel, the creator’s significant other or friends who were talking to them before you arrived, and more). It’s good to try and be aware of those people, and ensure that you are being considerate and respectful whenever possible.
“For me, the goal in interacting with a creator is always to return a piece of the happiness their work gave me,” says editor and author Susan J. Morris “Which is awesome, right? Most creators love to hear from their fans. But no one likes large hunks of anything—even happiness—shoved down their throat. At least not without consent. Which brings me to my number one tip: keep it simple and get continuous consent. That way, you ensure you don’t let your enthusiasm for someone’s work turn what should be an awesomely positive experience negative.”
There are various ways to create respectful boundaries:
Get permission before you touch someone, take their photo, or rest something on their space. “It’s important to ask permission before photographing a cosplayer, or somebody at their table, or their table setup,” says Petersen. “You’re not necessarily legally obliged to ask, it’s just a courteous thing to do. Very rarely will you be told no. Obviously this doesn’t apply if you’re documenting harassment or bad behavior.”
Wait for the appropriate moment. If a creator is eating, already talking to someone, or clearly in the middle of something, it’s best to wait or at least ask if now is a good time for the thing you’d like. If they say no, don’t take it personally (see #3 below). If a creator has a signing scheduled during the convention, don’t stop them in the hall and ask them to sign your stuff. Find out when and where their signing is and go to it. You’ll have a better experience (and you won’t be remembered as that person who kept them from going to the bathroom—or having a rare quick meal—between panels).
“Make an effort to find out about and take advantage of official opportunities to meet the guest,” suggests Marc Tassin, Director of the Gen Con Writer’s Symposium. “Get a ticket to the signing, show up early to get a good seat for the Q&A, or grab a spot in the person’s kaffeeklatsch. By interacting with the person at a time that they’ve specially set aside to meet with folks like you and in a setting where they feel comfortable and relaxed, you’ll have a much more rewarding interaction than if you catch them off guard in the hallway or on the exhibit hall floor.”
Provide exits. It’s hard for creators to step out of a conversation with a fan, even if they have somewhere they need to be or there are other fans waiting to talk to them. Help them out with that if you can by creating your own exit.
“Once you’re talking to your favorite celebrity, it can be tempting to try and extend the interaction as long as possible, yet forcing the celebrity to make an excuse to leave (or worse, straight up tell you to go away) can sour the interaction for both of you,” says James L. Sutter, co-creator of the Pathfinder RPG and author of Death’s Heretic and The Redemption Engine. “In general, keep it short, especially if there are folks waiting in line behind you. But if you find yourself in a situation where you think it might be okay to keep talking—they were just hanging out alone in the bar, or whatever—keep a careful eye peeled for signals that they might want to turn their attention elsewhere, or just say, ‘Hey, I’ll let you get back to whatever you were doing, but thanks!’ If they want to keep talking, they’ll let you know.”
Remember that boundaries work both ways. No matter how much you might look up to someone, make sure that they respect your boundaries as much you respect theirs. It can be hard to know how to react if a pro crosses a line, but you have a lot of options available to you, including discussing it with the person who did so and explain why it wasn’t appropriate, following the convention’s harassment or other safe con policies for reporting incidents, or taking some other way that feels safe and right for you.
3. Recognize That Creators are Real People (with Real Issues)
Most creators are awesome people, but they’re also real people. It’s easy to forget that and put them on pedestals—which they will definitely fall off of. Creators have things going on that are invisible to you; it’s possible that their kid is throwing up back in the hotel room, or that they just lost their wallet and are in a panic. They may have low blood sugar or be in serious need of caffeine (those Starbucks lines are long!). They may have a disability or long-term illness that you’re unaware of, which limits their energy levels, mobility, or other interactivity options.
Don’t take things personally, because 99 percent of the time, they aren’t personal at all, including when a creator:
Doesn’t want to shake hands or hug. In addition to potential personal space issues, many creators are expected to shake thousands of hands during a convention, almost guaranteeing they will get sick and be out of commission for a few days or a week after the event. For those with weakened immune systems, that level of exposure can be especially dangerous. When a friend of mine was attending a convention during her cancer treatment, she wore a large pin that said, “NO TOUCHING PLEASE” because of the fragile state of her immune system. It helped set boundaries, but it also meant an opportunity to talk with others about her cancer treatment and to get support in a way she might not have otherwise.
Doesn’t stop what they’re doing to interact with you instantly. They’re likely aware of you, they’re juggling a lot of things, and they will be excited to talk to you as soon as they their current interaction or task is off their plate.
Doesn’t say yes. Creators have the right to boundaries too. Sometimes, that boundary is as simple as “I’ve been panels for six hours and I haven’t eaten or gone to the bathroom or even had a moment to breathe, so no, I can’t sign two dozen books in the middle of the hallway.” Other times, it’s more complicated. While most creators work hard to make fans happy, they should have to right to say no to anything that is uncomfortable for them.
Doesn’t seem to remember you, even if you’ve met before or talked on the Internet. Creators interact with so many people in a single day at a convention that it’s almost impossible for them to remember everyone. Additionally, some creators have mental or physical challenges or disabilities that make it more difficult for them to see, hear, or otherwise recognize the people they interact with.
“As a disabled Guest of Honor, I’ve often been asked how best to approach me,” says Elsa S. Henry, a disabled game designer and fiction author who wrote Dead Scare and has worked on many other RPG books. “I think this probably goes for all creators, but it’s definitely one to keep in mind—don’t assume someone will know who you are. Even if you were at a panel with them and sat in the front row. Being polite and identifying yourself makes for a much better interaction. In my case, because I have low vision, I sometimes don’t even recognize people I’ve met once or twice based on what kind of light we were in, or how far away from the front they were when they asked a favorite question at a panel. Unless a guest of honor is your best friend from 1st through 8th grade, give us a hand and tell us who you are!”
4. Have a Plan of Conversation
If you’re shy, nervous, or even just really excited, it can be tough to know what to say.
Planning a few things to talk about ahead of time can really help put both you and the creator at ease.
Unless you know the other person well, it’s good to stick to talking about work or things that aren’t overly personal, suggests Sutter. “Especially with the advent of social media, it’s easy to feel like you really know a celebrity you’ve never met, but be careful not to get too personal or make assumptions,” he says. “Don’t assume they share your politics or beliefs, don’t show off how many obscure details you already know about their life (especially things like where they live or information about their family if that’s not general knowledge), and beware all but the most benign humor. A celebrity might spend half their time on social media engaging in teasing with other celebrities, but those are people they already know—you probably don’t have that shared context, and thus the same snarky joke could go terribly wrong when you make it.”
Talking about shared interests is a fantastic way to make a real connection to your favorite creators. “Relax. Strike up a conversation,” suggests Bradley P. Beaulieu, author of Twelve Kings in Sharakhai and The Winds of Khalakovo. “And the fastest way to do that, of course, is by finding common ground. Oh, hey, you already have a lot in common! Talk about books. Talk about movies. Ask the author what they’ve been reading and whether they liked it, and perhaps why.”
He adds, “I’ll share another little secret that authors know and most fans won’t. Authors rarely get to geek out about their own work. When it comes up at all, it’s often a ‘hey, I like your stuff,’ or ‘hey, your last book didn’t suck.’ The only times we really get to dig in about our work is perhaps with beta readers or our editors. So maybe think of your favorite scene, or something that affected you emotionally, or a villain you really, really hate, and mention it to the author. Say why you liked it. At the very least, it’s a bit of positive reinforcement for the author (which is no small thing for them, believe me), but it’s also likely to strike up a fun conversation about the work itself. You might even get a bit of ‘insider information’ out of it!”
5. Don’t be afraid
Personally, I’m very shy, so if the only way for me to interact with people at conventions were for me to walk up to someone and initiate a conversation, I’d probably never talk to anyone. That’s true whether I’m at the convention in the context of a fan or of a creator.
Thank goodness for the people who approach me, introduce themselves, and share their passions with me. Some fantastic conversations have arisen over a shared love of octopus socks, scary movies, and rescue dogs. I’ve heard stories that have made me laugh or cry (or both). And I’ve been able to, just for a moment, share in someone else’s joy over something that I helped create. Those are the moments that I take home to cherish, the indelible signatures in my mental yearbook. And they all happened just because someone took the time to come up and say something like, “Hello. I like your work. Could you sign my baby?”