[Wrote most of this a couple weeks ago, didn't manage to finish and post it 'til now.]
Ben Rosenbaum has posted a cool con report, detailing his experiences at ConJosé, which was his first convention.
I had a couple of comments. Ben suggested several strategies for choosing panels to attend, including this one:
[F]ind presenters you find so fascinating you can just attend their panels, whatever they're supposedly about, and not mind if the actual topic turns out to be totally different.
That's the approach that I've generally found works best. (Only I usually say "entertaining" rather than "fascinating.") I figured out this strategy at an I-Con during college, when I realized that all of Harlan Ellison's appearances were a lot of fun, and nothing much else was. I-Con is supposedly the largest con on the East coast (regularly gets 6000 attendees), held on one of the SUNY campuses; but the year I went, it felt tiny (looked more like a few dozen attendees than several thousand), and didn't have much of interest to me, besides Ellison. I haven't enjoyed Ellison's more recent appearances that I've seen as much, but they were definitely the high point of that con.
Lessee. About networking, Ben wrote:
[T]ell the Machiavellian and scheming part of your brain that it helped get you to the con, and can be satisfied that it has done its job, and go to sleep now, leaving you to just have fun.
Yup. And a reminder: fun opens the door to later business! Being good company won't directly result in sales, but it will often result in opportunities, generally ones that you can't predict at the time. (I know I've said that sort of thing before, but I'll probably keep repeating it for a while; I think it's a meme worth spreading.)
Finally, Ben noted:
Having gone to a Clarion, I think, changed my experience of the con drastically.
Indeed. I seem to have neglected to talk about my congoing history here. Short version: I spent about 13 years going to cons by myself and sitting in corners, never meeting or interacting with anyone, sitting in the backs of rooms at panels. After Clarion, this pattern continued for a couple of years, until WorldCon '93 in San Francisco, when half my Clarion class attended (as did a couple of local friends). It was an eye-opening experience to attend a convention with people I knew; suddenly there was more to do than just go to panels.
So even for people who haven't attended high-profile workshops and don't have any publications (and aren't editors), I strongly recommend attending cons with friends, especially if they're friends who are normally geographically distant. There's nothing wrong with sitting in corners and not talking with anyone; but it's a lot more fun to interact with people.
Even if it means I rarely make it to panels these days.
Oh, one more thing about Ben's con report. It's missing one element that I've always thought was an essential part of any con report: complaints. It's traditional to talk about how much the ConCom screwed something up, or how annoying such-and-such Big-Name Pro was in person, or how bad and expensive the food was. I think it's downright un-fannish of Ben to say so many nice things about people and to be so enthusiastic. Hmph. Why, back in my day we had No Fun At All at conventions—and we liked it that way! Kids today. Go figure.