Sunday, October 17, 2010

In the wake of the Alternative Press Expo

Holy shit.

This weekend Manuel and I took our first real go at a comic convention table, taking the weekend off to peddle our crap and meet a ton of incredible people at the Alternative Press Expo. (We bought a table at last year's APE but didn't have much to give out -- plus, I was at a wedding most of the weekend. This felt more like a real go at it.)

Manuel and I are both reeling from the experience, so while it's still fresh, let's do some decompression:

1. Creative people are awesome. I know that doesn't exactly read as a bold statement, but my God: my favorite thing about this weekend was the richness and diversity and the fucking ballistic enthusiasm of the people with whom we shared the con. I don't mean everybody was running around like Tom Cruise on a couch -- for a lot of people, something like a table at APE with their work sitting on it is a hard-won reward, and some folks were still recovering from the energy burn it took to get there. But almost without exception, the dozens of creators we met were there providing some inspiring proof that it has certainly not all been done before.

2. Everyone doing something awesome is dealing with serious roadblocks. I get this stupid idea sometimes that Manuel and I can get a pass for not working hard enough because we both have Real Lives to Deal With. I feel a little dumb admitting that, today, because pretty much everyone we met who had incredible stuff to sell or trade to us* is working a 9-to-5 just like everyone else in the world. Nobody's running around with a free pass; they all have to work on their art in their own time. And they're all doing it. I love meeting people who kill your excuses.

* Which reminds me...

3. Trading goods with the other exhibitors is insanely fun. I have to give big fat thanks to Josh Shalek, a fine gentleman who prints collections of his webcomic and brought them to the show, for introducing me to this phenomenon. I was walking around meeting people, shaking hands and learning from as many of these people as I could, when Josh noticed my exhibitor badge. "If you're exhibiting, I love to do trades!" he said. My brain told me he meant trade paperbacks and that he was asking if I was a publisher, so I said, "Uh, I'm just a writer in a writer-artist team, trying to scrape a little money together to get by just like y'all." Josh was kind and gave me a little laugh at my weird, inappropriate response (thanks, dude), but then I figured out what he meant and HOLY CRAP THAT WAS FUN. Manuel and I spent a good chunk of the last hour of the show swapping our prints for other people's prints and, in a couple cases, their books! I never knew people did that and I'm totally stoked. To be honest, we were giving them black-and-white cardstock prints and we were getting some pretty stellar stuff in return, so I have to thank everyone for their generosity. I'm proud of what we had -- the prints came out great and sized at 11" x 17" I thought they felt nice and substantial -- but seriously, some of what people gave us in exchange was unbelievable.

4. The show ended with everyone applauding everyone else. Were you there for that moment? How amazing was that?

5. Telling people about your ideas is a lot of fun, and it's also terrifying. Manuel and I each pitched our book to an easy two dozen people or more, and every time I was grateful for their interest and for the chance to tell them about our work. But there was this moment of paralysis that tried to take hold every time -- a jolt of fear that wanted me to shut up, play it down, evade expectations and swallow my words. Each time, I tried to just take a breath, think of a place to start and get moving. The principles of inertia took on a kind of social context; a little forced confidence to get the ball rolling tended to get an encouraging response from the folks we talked to, and their interest (or generosity) helped us grow some more organic confidence. By the end of the pitch, almost every time, I felt like I'd learned a little something and everyone I talked to seemed genuinely interested. That alone was worth the money we spent on the table.

That leads to a second thought. Having gone around the con and heard a ton of pitches, stood to the side and watched several more as a non-involved third party and given my own pitch to so many people in a short time, one element stood out as a crucial one:

6. Spontaneity can make or break a pitch. Just to be clear about my terms, when I say "pitch," I mean it broadly. To me, a pitch is what you're giving any time you're talking with someone in whom you want to encourage interest in your work. It doesn't matter if they're a potential audience, a publisher, a colleague or someone else; y'oughtta treat everyone the same. Why I think spontaneity is important to this is that it lets the other person know and feel you're actually having a conversation with them. I saw one or two people over the weekend who were clearly reciting a planned, rehearsed pitch. The polish may have been what made them feel comfortable putting themselves out there, but each time I watched it I could see their energy falling through, kind of a bucket-with-a-hole-in-it situation. It was also fairly annoying. Knowing that our pitch for the book we're working on is still pretty imperfect, I'd already made the decision to try something new each time, to shoot from the hip as much as possible so I could learn what people respond to and what tends to dull the shine. As a pleasant, unplanned side effect, I had to tailor the pitch each time to the person I in front of me, and that person felt -- I hope -- less like a cash machine and more like a person I was happy to be talking with. Don't get me wrong, it's important to have your ducks in a row and know your shit when someone asks you about your business, but boy, this con was a rewarding lesson on the value of being in the moment with people.

6 and 1/2: It's way more fun to listen to someone being real than someone being clever. Manuel and I have a tendency to force each other into honesty, and it's a big part of how we work together creatively; nobody gets away with anything and eventually nobody tries. Part of what made the con so valuable to us was, as Manuel put it, the opportunity for honest, enthusiastic abandon. We got a ton of it from y'all and we gave our own to everyone we could.

7. That said, I finally stumbled into our one-sentence pitch for the book. As much as I'm all about keeping things fresh and improvised, this is a sentence we will sometimes need and had yet to work out for ourselves. After a weekend full of practice telling people about the book, which I've sometimes been worried was too complex to explain to someone in that short, sharp shock, I did it by accident. A friend told me he'd had some trouble explaining the book to his other friends, and I said: "Tell them it's a black comedy about the afterlife breaking down." Whew, that only took four years to figure out. Thanks for helping us get there, everybody! Next stop: a title!

8. Seriously, everybody at APE is awesome. Covered that in the first item, but I'm closing out for the day and just wanted to throw that out one more time. It was an inspiring weekend and we're grateful for everyone we met. See y'all again soon!