Saturday, August 15, 2015

Mile Marker Nine

The oddly empty corridor outside the exhibition hall at GenCon 2015

Long time readers of this blog will know that I keep a note of various indicators that would let me know when I’ve “made it,” or when I can consider myself a “real author.” Those relatively new here, those who foolishly think I am An Author, might find this silly, but trust me, this is a thing. 
Every aspiring writer looks for signs that they’ve made it. Everyone likes to believe in the fairytale that there is a definitive point. As Neil Gaiman once put it: that night when he and Stephen King and J.K. Rowling show up at your door in hooded cloaks and hand you the scroll that reads: You are now an author, and give you the key to the secret author’s club. As much as I’d love for this to be true, it isn’t. There’s no finish-line, no diploma, no standard to look for. You’d think there was but the problem stems from a moving viewpoint. When you’re eight, your sixteen-year-old brother, who can drive, is a grown-up. But when you get your license you don’t feel grown up. You look at your older sister and realize she’s a grown-up by virtue of being able to drink and vote. She however doesn’t feel grown up. She’s still living at home, still going to college, hasn’t traveled, hasn’t married, doesn’t have children, and…you see my point? The reality is often that the “real” is that which is one level ahead of you. The same is true for being an author. Just writing a book doesn’t cut it. Publishing that book doesn’t either. Even selling it to a major publisher doesn’t; there are a lot of authors published through big houses whose first book fails to sell and their career pretty much stops. One failed book does not make a body feel like an author.
Granted I’ve finally reached the point where I do find the “real author” label no longer feels too big for me to wear. Mostly this is because I pay my bills with my books. Still this is as personal as growing pubic hair. I know I passed a milestone, but no one else does. Given that so much of identity is perceived through the mirror of other’s eyes, it is this reflection that individuals seek—that they require—before they can affirm what they suspect, what they believe, what they hope is true. 
My dream goal is seeing someone reading my book in the wild. Given very few of the big names have even had this pleasure, I’m not holding out hope. The closest I got was a friend of mine seeing someone and taking a picture to prove it. I still search for indicators of outside acceptance beyond that of sales to give me a sense of how readers perceive my work. For the final assessment of all things comes down to them. 
As the odds of meeting a reader in the wild are slim, I don’t see many (any) blips on that radar. The sheer saturation levels at conventions improve the odds, but traditionally these have been exercises in humility. In the early part of my career, I went to several and the experiences were not positive. Even after publishing through Orbit I would sit for signings—just me and my placard, clicking my lonely pen. No one asked for my signature. This experience is about as much fun as reading the one-star reviews of my books, only more public. 
Then in 2012, at Balticon, I had a reader pick me out the crowd and ask to shake my hand. His was quivering. Assuming he didn’t suffer cerebral palsy, this marked the first time I had encountered a fan—a fan who clearly thought far too much of me. 
In 2013 at ConnetiCon where I was a guest of honor (alongside Brandon Sanderson), I had a “handler” to keep the crowds away. They were concerned I might be trampled, or that the throngs of fanatics would tear at my clothes or fight over my discarded plastic cup. Clearly they had no idea. Still, they set me up with a solo event for me to speak about my books. A surprisingly large crowd of ten people came. Eight knew who I was. Six had read me. This was astounding—a massive achievement that left me grinning. (I’m not being sarcastic—I’m very serious. This was great.) 
Half a dozen readers remained the record for the most in one place at the same time. 
GenCon 2015 changed that. 
The odyssey began with a drive through windmill farms to Indianapolis. Despite having been born and raised in Detroit, I’d never set foot, or wheel, in Indiana. Aside from the windmills—giant white waving monoliths that extended like the front line of a giant army all the way to the horizon—the only other thing of note I spotted on the freeway were cars with rear windows painted with the slogan: “GenCon or Bust.”  This, I made an educated guess, would be bigger than Balticon.

The Road to Con

For those who don’t know (all six of you) conventions are the inventions of fans of things. Cons are places where likeminded individuals gather to share their love of whatever that thing might be. There are conventions for comics, genre movies and films, speculative fiction. Some are as specific as fans of the Twilight book series,  and as broad as all things “awesome.” 
GenCon is a gaming convention. It is in fact the largest table-top convention in North America. Established in 1968 by Gary Gygax the creator of Dungeons and Dragons, it could be considered “the” gaming convention. The name is a bit odd though. Is it short for Generic Con? Generation Con? Genetics Con?  Actually the name is short for Geneva Convention. Yeah, I know, odd right? Why not GamerCon? Apparently it started at Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. Go figure. 
Billed as the best four days in gaming, it is indeed game-centric, and huge. The exhibition halls are massive airplane hanger types of spaces filled wall to wall with gaming paraphernalia. I was there because GenCon also sports a quality writer’s symposium. This is something they can manage handily as a large number of American authors live in the monetarily-friendly midwest that allow them the dream of going full time. Either that or there’s just something in the corn.

World Building Panel featuring: Howard Andrew Jones, (to my left) and Scott Lynch (to his)

The usual faces were there. Wesley Chu, Brad Beaulieu, Brian McCellen, Sam Sykes, Scott Lynch, Elizabeth Bear, and Django Wexler. I was on a few generic panels where I tried to appear knowledgeable and charismatic. At the end of one about Branding Yourself, two people approached me. I assumed they had questions as people often do, asking things such as, “What was that website you mentioned?” Only these two were smiling too much. 
The first guy stumbled over his words. “I’m a—I’m a huge fan.” He struggled to pull a book out of his backpack. Theft of Swords. I fought the urge to kiss him. 
There was a woman at his side. I assumed she was the doting wife or girl friend patiently letting him do his nerd thing with the nerd author, which she would later parley into a romantic dinner where he would need to wear a tie. He gushed, and I worked hard at acting cool as I signed the book to Evan. When there was a lull I smiled at the woman thinking Evan would take that moment to introduce her. He didn’t. 
An awkward silence.
Evan? Dude? 
“I’m a big fan too,” the woman blurted out. 
They aren’t together? 
I couldn’t imagine that two readers of mine could be in the same place independent of each other. 
They didn’t come to this panel to learn about branding—they came to see me?
I talked to them for ten minutes like I was on a speed date with a supermodel who seemed in to me. 
“Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us,” Evan said. 
This one sentence stayed with me all weekend. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, as if I had better things to do. Maybe they thought I was this close to finding a cure for cancer. More likely they suspected I had another panel to be at, or more important folks to chat-up. I wanted to explain that if all the heads of state, the world’s greatest minds, and most famous people were gathering in that hall, I wouldn’t notice anyone else but them. These two were the equivalent of a pair of unicorns and I had found them.
My wife came over laughing. “I was in the other room,” she told me with this expression of giddy disbelief, “And this woman looked at me and pointed at my shirt.” She was wearing a Riyria T-shirt. “And she said, ‘Oh! I love him. I’m so going to be stalking him this weekend.’ I was certain she had you mixed up with someone else. So I said to her, ‘Michael J. Sullivan?’ and she nodded.” My wife looked as shocked as I was. This doesn’t happen. Ever. 
I had lunch with Django Wexler, and after he left two more readers found and joined us. We chatted with them for more than an hour having a great time discussing all things Riyria and Hollow World (Which they loved despite the protagonist being fifty-eight year old man, and they being young women and not exactly the expected target audience.) 
Another reader wanted to take us to dinner after that. 
Then Robin and I were sitting in the lobby of the hotel next to the convention when a husband and wife approached and asked if they were intruding. We assumed they were asking if the other nearby seats were taken, but no—they were readers. They had recognized me and were excited to tell me how much they enjoyed my books. This was getting weird. Great, but weird. I asked them to sit down. They appeared shocked, but eagerly joined us so they could burden me with how much they loved my work. 
I’d like to say I was mobbed at GenCon. I’d like to report that people fished my discarded coffee cup out of the trash bin and gingerly sealed it in a ziplock bag, but that didn’t happen. What did happen was that I was approached by a new record high of nine unrelated fans. Nine.
Other things happened at the convention. 
I really don’t remember them.
But I remember: Evan, Quinn, Zoe, Alexi, Holly, Kate, Kris, Eric, and Beth. 
Thanks for making me feel like a real author.


  1. "Other things happened at the convention. I really don’t remember them. But I remember: Evan, Quinn, Zoe, Alexi, Holly, Kate, Kris, Eric, and Beth. "

    Awwwww, this made me tear up a bit. *sniffle* Like the other fans, I definitely assumed you had better places to be and more interesting people to talk to, so to repeat what Evan said, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us! I just read a blog post the other day about the reluctance we often feel to reach out to the people who inspire us (they get that all the time, I might be bothering them, they might laugh at me for being so enthusiastic, etc. etc.), so reading about how much you enjoy fan encounters made me really happy.

    P.S. You signed my sister's copy of Scott Lynch's book and she loved it, so thanks again for that, too! :)

    1. Huh, Michael signed Scott Lynch's book? o_O

    2. Yup! I got Scott to sign it, and then Michael signed it "She likes me better, Scott!"

    3. Kate,
      I like how you still classified yourself as being the one whose copy of Scott's book I signed, as if I might not remember you. Granted your user picture looks like you need a shave, but one does not meet a jedi master and forget.


    4. "Granted your user picture looks like you need a shave"...

      LOL again!
      One can never have enough cat jokes...

  2. Good for you. And nice personal essay.

  3. If you ever come to Bulgaria, I can guarantee you there will be more than 9 of us, who will approach you. ;) I know you have many fans in Bulgaria :)

    If you do come, I can personally promise to make the trip from my city to wherever it is that you have come to, for the sole purpose of meeting you. Actually, Bucharest in Romania would work too. ;)

    1. I haven't even made it to the west coast of this continent, or Chicago for that matter. Not that I wouldn't love to visit, but I don't have a passport and I hear they require those sorts of things. I hope the translation was good.

    2. Don't worry - 19-th century German novelist Karl May wrote the "Winnetou" trilogy and a bunch of other hugely popular adventure novels set in the American Old West, without ever having left Germany, let alone - crossed the Atlantic! It means you could probably write a novel set in Bulgaria one day, even if you never visit us. ;)

  4. Hi Michael, that was a great post and I really identified with what your wrote. It made me think of that e card when you are an adult but look around for and adultier adult ( but just replace it with the word author. I am so happy that you got to meet some of your fans as there are many if you can't tell by your last kickstarter project. If I was ever lucky enough to meet you I would probably be tongue tied also as I consider you one of my favorite authors right up there with Stephen King and George R. Martin. I am really looking forward to your new book as I am a kickstarter backer, I can hardly wait as I have been having Ryria withdrawal. Congratulations you have arrived! (Tabby K)

  5. That is so awesome!! I'll bet next year or the year after if you go to cons, you'll get swamped. I just beg of you that WHEN you do get the point that you are swamped, please don't get all jaded about it. I think one big reason fans who do recognize you and might want to talk with you do not do so is because other authors sometimes react badly, particularly to fans who go "all fan girl" or "all fan boy". I've read blog posts by other authors that, at times, make fun of these types of fans. I'm sure you would never roll your eyes or sigh -- but remember it in a few years when your 100th fan approaches you in a weekend. :)

  6. I can't wait until I have the change to experience hipster backlash over your work.


  7. I love writer's symposiums the way I loved bookstores- I go to talks by writers I don't know to get new things to read!

    As a reader and con-goer, as much as you think you're not special, to us you are. The way you write characters inspires us and lift us the same way as movie/sports stars, so we are very nervous when we meet you. Yet we know you're human (unlike stars) that's why we can approach you.


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