Talking to Writers at Parties

I got an extremely salient piece of advice at WorldCon, for approaching writers of whom you are a fan: ‘I love your writing’ should be the last thing you say to them before ‘goodbye.’

Now, if all you’re looking to do is a drive-by squee, this is not a problem. But if you’re looking to try to have slightly more of a conversation, this is great advice. Writers are, believe it or not, regular people. You can have really interesting conversations with them about things other than their books; I had some great discussions with non-writers at WorldCon this year regarding topics we’d discussed on panels, for example. (Also, please keep in mind that as actual real people, normal rules of conversation apply when approaching writers. Don’t interrupt them when they’re talking to someone else, for example, because you wouldn’t do that normally.)

But there really is something about “I love this thing you wrote” that completely changes the dynamic of the conversation. You suddenly go from being two sort of cool people with overpriced hotel beverages talking about a thing, to the Artist and the Fan. And that’s a one-way conversational transformation.

I’ve experienced that emotional shift from both sides. As a fan who wants to have a (quiet) freak out that I’m talking to someone who wrote a thing I loved, once that’s out there on the table I’ve found I’m in for a long, awkward pause unless I have a dignified escape strategy ready. Because what do you follow up something like that with? “And I love this other thing you did too, and this other thing, and this…” Keep that up too long and you go from happy fan to sounding more than a little obsessive. And what can the object of your fannish love say, after they’ve covered the bases of, thanks for reading, I’m glad you enjoyed it? I can’t think of anything that would change my positive opinion faster than, Well of course, tell me more about how great I am.

And from the writer side, it feels pretty damn weird if the follow up to “I love your thing” isn’t a hearty handshake and a mutually respectful goodbye. It feels super awesome to hear that someone likes a thing that you wrote. It starts feeling progressively less awesome if the praise piles up. Maybe it’s just me, but if I get complimented too many times in a row, I just start feeling like a jerk. I’m really not cool, I want to say, I spilled tea all over my lap this morning. I stepped on a hairball. I can barely dress myself. You have no idea. You run out of things to say, because “wow, thanks” gets repetitive after a while. And then you’re just holding your beer and nodding as the steadily growing imposter syndrome threatens to eat you one vertebrae at a time.

Writers are people, and fans are people. (Often the same people, in different contexts.) It’s a lot easier to have a decent conversation when you’re just two cool people talking about something that you find mutually interesting.

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