Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Look

So this morning, as part of my routine, I clicked on a sewing newsgroup, ran the search for new posts since my last visit, and read the two or three in threads that sounded like they might have something useful to me in them. I generally only go there once a day unless I have a sewing question and no one else to consult, because I'm not into the whole clothes thing enough to hang with these people, who can get down and dirty about style and stuff. I've never been like that: don't wear makeup, hate shoe shopping (you'd hate it too, if you had my feet), choose my clothes based on factors like pockets. I only sew at all because I can't get clothes that meet my basic utility criteria unless I do. But today on one of the threads I read someone asked for advice on what to wear to a writer's conference, so I replied, and realized I have in fact accumulated some opinions on this topic.

First of all, when you're at a conference you're going to be running from panel to panel, standing in long lines at booksignings, browsing the dealer's room, and accumulating free stuff - handouts, schedules, maps, business cards, catalogs, galleys, books. So whatever else you do, come prepared with something on your feet that won't render you lame the next day, and something in which to carry your loot that won't a)be easily lost b) take up as much space as you do c) violate the rules of the venue and most of all d) injure you. I'm serious. I know someone who tore a ligament at midwinter ALA carrying around the catalogs she collected. I have an enormous backpack, designed to carry a laptop, that can be squashed into any number of shapes and fit into a surprisingly small space even when laden with books and food. (I don't go anywhere without emergency food.)

Second, one of the prime reasons to go to conferences is to hook up with people in your profession. Of course you plan to schmooze editors and agents and get critiques from big names, but be honest - didn't you choose this conference over that one in order to finally meet in person your favorite blogger or members of your online group who also plan to attend? Then you get there and the spot where you agreed to meet is harder to find than you thought, or bigger than you thought, or contains more people than you expected. So how do you find each other?

I once had to take an online friend of mine to the emergency room when she ran a high fever during ALA. In her conference report afterward, conveying the disjointed sense of unreality under which she labored, she said: "Peni wears a western hat. That's how you know it's her." And it's true. I started wearing a hat thirty years ago when I became dependent on the bus. I want one in summer to keep the sun out of my eyes and I want one in winter to keep my head warm. I like hats. Most people don't wear them because they restrict vision when driving. So without my ever intending to, The Hat became a kind of trademark. When I'm meeting someone who's never seen me, I usually tell them: "I'll be the one in The Hat." When I'm in a crowded venue with a party that gets separated, I tend to be the focal point that brings everybody back together, because when they can't see faces they can see The Hat. I went to Winter SCBWI in 2008 and didn't wear The Hat on the con floor because I was staying in the same hotel and didn't go outside; with the result that people were looking for me on the second day based on the color I wore on the first day, and missing me because I'd changed clothes. If I want people to find me, I have to wear The Hat. The Hat itself changes year to year and occasion to occasion, but if I don't wear some variation on it, nobody knows it's me.

You don't have to have something as permanent as The Hat, but it doesn't hurt to choose your clothes with recognizability as a key criterion. For a particular conference, you could be The Lady in Red. The Guy in the Cardigan. The One with the Big Braid Wrapped Around Her Head. Anything your friends can home in on. Jeans aren't distinctive enough; jeans and superhero t-shirts may be, depending on the conference.

And last: Periodically throughout your career, stop and ask yourself whether now is a good time to do a little branding.

It's easy to go overboard on this sort of thing and become a caricature, especially if you do it prematurely. Even at a science fiction convention, there's something pathetic about dressing up as your own series character. If you haven't even sold the series yet - don't do it. Please. Don't. And it takes a very special mystery writer to carry off wearing a deerstalker and carrying a magnifying glass. But if you're subtle and modest and have a sense of humor, and if the brand you're trying to associate with is (as it should be) a true enthusiasm of yours or a natural part of your life, go for it. Chris Barton, who wrote The Day-Glo Brothers, has a fluorescent green tie. I have an outfit with cave art embroidered all over it and get t-shirts with megafauna on them as often as I can. If you write westerns and you live west of the Mississippi, you can probably knock their socks off in New York with your "cowboy look" wearing clothes already in your closet. But don't wear the riding heels, wear the boots you'd wear to walk around the exhibit halls at the rodeo, even if they're a little down-at-heel.

But don't obsess about any of this, either. Odds are good you've already evolved an effective look without thinking about it. Trust your look the same way you trust your style and voice, as natural parts of you that only need to be polished a little bit to shine.

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