When You Don’t Know

How do you know what questions to ask when you don’t know you don’t know that there’s even a question?

Any Questions?

Any Questions?

This past weekend, I was the Featured Speaker at the UNM Writer’s Conference.  I had a wonderful time, and especially enjoyed having the opportunity to answer questions.  But the experience also left me with the above question.

Let me back up and explain…

Although the UNM Writer’s Conference was a “general” event – embracing writers of non-fiction, as well as of fiction in many different genres – there were a fair number of people there who were specifically interested in writing SF.  These people were serious enough about their writing that they had paid the relatively steep admission price.  (To be fair to the conference, this did include a nice box lunch, as well as coffee and snacks, and the possibility to sign up for a pitch session with an agent or an editor.)   Despite this, many of those I spoke with didn’t appear to know much about the SF/F field, nor did they appear to have done their basic pre-conference homework.

I am still feeling a little bad about giving a young man a hard time when he didn’t recognize my name.  Why?  Well, I certainly don’t expect everyone to know who I am.  Far from it!  I’m not a household name, even in the SF/F field.  However, I was the Featured Speaker for the conference.  If I had been paying to attend such an event, I would have researched every listed writer (in this case, there were only about six).  Then, especially for those who were writing in my chosen genre, I would have read at least one of their books.

(As those of you who read my Friday Fragments know already, I sought out a novel by Margaret Coel, the conference’s Guest of Honor, just because I felt I would get more out of contact with her if I understood something about her work.)

If you’re reading this, Nathan, I apologize.  I hope that the questions I did answer for you showed that I took you seriously.  And I hope that your pitch session went brilliantly.

However, this young gentleman was not the only would-be SF/F writer who showed a lack of awareness of the SF/F field.  Of the seven or eight people I spoke with, only two knew about Bubonicon, our highly-regarded local SF convention.  Given how important the SF/F convention is – not only to the field in general, but for authors as a means of learning about the field, having an opportunity to interact with readers, and, maybe, even to network – this really surprised me.

Back in the Dark Ages, when I started writing, I wasn’t a convention goer.  However, I knew that such conventions existed.  I even knew that they involved activities other than “serious” writing discussions.  This was in the Days Before the Internet, so I couldn’t easily research everyone who was expected to attend.  However, I did look up the listed guests, so that if I met any of them, I could speak intelligently.  My research also helped me to choose what panels I wanted to attend.  And, no, I wasn’t the grey-haired old wolf you all know.  I was twenty-six.

That brings me back to my original question: How do you know what questions to ask when you don’t know you don’t know that there’s even a question?

Well, here’s one option available to aspiring writers these days.  If you “follow” or otherwise interact with a writer, editor, or publisher via Social Media, and he or she uses a term you’re not familiar with, look it up!

A writer might say “I’m Guest of Honor at Such and Suchcon this weekend.”  If, instead of letting this odd reference slide by, you looked up Such and Suchcon, you’d then find out that this was an SF/F convention.  If you read the listed activities, you might see terms you don’t know, like “cosplay,” or “steampunk,” or “fan programming.”  By the time you’d looked those up, you’d have come to realize how vast and varied the field you are interested in has become.

Your next step should be to see if there is a similar event in your area.  As an experiment, I just Googled “SF con + NM.”  This gave me not only Bubonicon, but several other related conventions and a Wikipedia listing of SF conventions in general.

Honestly, this is the sort of research you would be doing if you were searching for a job in a specific area, and that’s what writing (and selling ) SF/F is.  Looking for a job.

All right, I’m curious, how would you go about figuring out what questions to ask when you don’t know you don’t know that there’s even a question?

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9 Responses to “When You Don’t Know”

  1. Paul Genesse Says:

    Hi Jane, Audiences are so hit or miss. I think your recent experience is quite common. I had one last week that was a bit similar. I’ve spoken to so many different groups over the past 11 years, and sometimes they are filled with advanced beginners (or even experts) who ask good questions and seem to have a grasp of the speculative fiction genre. Other times, they can’t even figure what it is they write even in a general way. They look blankly when you mention famous pillars of the field. I mentioned Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and got blank looks from half the audience at a recent event. They weren’t all SF writers, but it still surprised me. There was even a a big Hollywood movie, and I was in Utah, where Card has a huge following.

    I think most new writers are trying to wrap their arms around whatever field they are going into and have some favorite authors, but are still vastly clueless about the field in general as it’s so gigantic now. It wasn’t until World Fantasy in 2001 when I started to get a handle on how vast the SF/Fantasy field was, and who was in it.

    Spending a few minutes to read some bios on the featured speakers of a conference you are paying to attend seems like a pretty easy thing to do. I admit to not doing that sometimes. I wait until afterward to see which writers I should research, but those are big cons, usually, not small conferences where you have pre-homework and should go in prepared.

    The big question during presentations or panels is: when, or should I open it up to questions. Dead air sucks. You want to give them a chance, but sometimes they have no idea what to ask. There is usually at least one person, but often they turn out to be “annoying” and make a statement that is off topic and don’t ask a question.

    I do think in general a lot of new writers don’t spend enough time doing their due diligence in a field. Is it a product of the cluttered media age, or has it always been this way?

    It’s frustrating, especially when you open it up to questions and don’t get much to work with.

    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      My trick when opening to questions is to have a short list of questions I’m either commonly asked OR have already been asked that event, but in a one-on-one setting.

      I don’t talk with school groups very often, but when I do, I ask the teacher to collect questions from the class in advance, so that stage fright doesn’t keep a kid from asking when the time comes.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    “Is there any question I really need to be asking that I’m not?” or “Is there anything we need to cover that we haven’t?”

  3. Louis Robinson Says:

    I think that what you ran into is yet another example of the failure to realise that writing _is_ work. A lot of work, which is why I’m a reader: it’s so much easier to sit back and whine that your bookshelves aren’t being kept full 😉

    I’m also not all that good at noticing that there are questions. Generally, I run into them by evaluating the contradictions between what I know and what everybody else seems to think they know – leading to an outraged investigation, which normally leads to slinking off into a corner, as I’m more often than not outrageously wrong. But I’ll come back out fighting!

  4. Jas. Marshall 6 Says:

    (tl;dr: at least read the bio, the F&SF field has shifted, the first question is how to become a professional)

    If I don’t have time to read anything by a convention author, I at least read their bio in the convention book before I go to hear them speak. Then I can use my phone to look up anything unclear (“What *is* Clarion, anyway?”). Then, I have a starting point to work with, based on the subject of the talk. (When the author’s bio says they attended Clarion but the author doesn’t mention it during the talk, having them give their opinion of it usually leads to interesting information and the occasional funny or bad story.)

    I *used* to be well aware of the F&SF field, and if I hadn’t read something by all the top-selling and top-award-winning authors, I at least knew who they were and what they wrote. Then I went back to college and **poof** the field shifted. Now, I don’t recognize most of the award winners, let alone the nominees, although I think I’ve got a handle on the subgenres, and aside from those highly visible in the media like George RR Martin or JK Rowling, I couldn’t tell you for sure who the top 5 most popular/best selling F&SF authors are today.

    When all else fails, one question an aspiring author can always ask an author speaking at a convention: “Based on your experience, what do you think an aspiring author can do to improve their chances of becoming a professional author?” And when that author says, “Read as much as you can in the field,” as so many of them do, the follow up question which I’ve never heard asked should be, “What should I be paying attention to when I read those stories?”

  5. abdaley Says:

    OMG she mentioned Bubonicon!…. okay, fangirl outburst out of the way, I must apologize for not doing any pre-convention homework myself. I only avoided sounding dumb by not interacting much with persons I wasn’t already at least a little bit familiar with. That would be the reason I introduced myself to you at Bubonicon and wasn’t as talkative with other authors I hadn’t read. After I’d been introduced to a speaker I didn’t know, and liked them, I looked up more about that person. I think that’s how I started to follow David Lee Summers.

  6. CBI Says:

    Hmm. My background is a bit different. I have no plans nor hankering to be a writer, but I love to read–although pretty well stopped during my active duty and early grad school days due to lack of time.
    But, I’d heard of Bubonicon, and was living in Albuquerque, so thought I’d go. I was starting to have a bit more free time, and figured that would be a good way to ease back into SF.

    I only recognized a few names. Talked to people. Felt a bit out of place, but, after a few years, found plenty to read (much more than I had time for).

    Oh, that’s where I met Jane. That first year I went to many panels. Most of the moderators were OK at best, but she stood out as the best. I’ve since learned how hard she works to prepare for a panel and, at Bubonicon, I think it’s rubbed off on a few other of the regulars, as panel discussion quality has gone up.

    On the other hand, I now go to readings more often. That has helped me to find new authors to follow–as well as a few to avoid like the (bubonic) plague.

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