Since this was my first real con*, I'm not entirely sure about the mistakes I made. I mean, it's very easy for me to say, for instance, "I should've spent more time in the dealer's room"--but if I had spent more time there, maybe I would be saying, "I should've spent more time going to panels."
That said, here's what I'm taking away from this con in terms of mistakes--and hopes for a better time at cons in the future.
First, I got pulled over in Menard County for going a little fast, which is some lesson to me, especially since the sheriff asked to search my car. That cost me a little time. Still, it was a pretty interesting experience, though I think, next time, I won't tell the sheriff that I did smoke pot back in college--even if he asks very nicely. Don't speed.
Second, I planned to bring snacks, including (thanks to my girlfriend's advice) some celery and carrots (along with granola bars, pretzels, energy bars, almonds and dried cranberries, and chocolate-covered cranberries). I can't imagine surviving the con without those snacks.
That said, no matter how interesting a panel or discussion may be, I learned that you need to make time for yourself at a con, which includes sleeping, eating a real meal (with real vegetables, please), and going to the bathroom. Seriously, one day I skipped breakfast and lunch and by the time I went to dinner, I felt like I was going to faint and vomit at the same time. Take care of yourself.
Third--and here's a lesson from grad school and improv--you have to be where you are. If you're at one panel, wondering what's going on at another panel, you're not going to get anything out of the panel that you're in. There's a lot of shopping around (which I recommend), but once you're somewhere, just be there. (This is less a mistake and more a memo to myself that I always need to hear again.) Be where you are, grasshopper.
Fourth, panels can be an incredible grab-bag of personalities (and skill levels); and the organizers who write the programs aren't the ones who actually hold the panel. So I was at one panel of "-punk" genres, where the description included "martial punk" and no one in the room knew if that was a real thing. Similarly, no one at the "Where Have the Ghost Stories Gone?" panel thought that that was a good question to ask: ghost stories are still with us. And worst of all, at the panel of C. J. Cherryh's worldbuilding, the panel itself didn't mesh, so it just felt like people talking past each other. (Mostly because of this one woman who wanted everyone to know that she was Cherryh's very good friend. Which is nice for her, but not really helpful in understanding Cherryh's worldbuilding.) Take panels with a grain of salt.
Five, as much as you need sleep and you find it a little exhausting to go to parties with strangers, you should make an effort to go meet people, which is one of the great joys of cons. (And to be clear, wherever I say "you" here, I mean "I.") I met some really nice people at one or other party; but there was at least one night where I took the easy route of skipping a party where I probably could've met some more interesting people. Go talk to people.
Six, my accommodations were very cheap, because I was staying with a friend of a friend. But since I wasn't downtown at the big hotels, I wasn't in the very thick of it. You know, it just changes the emotional calculation for the evening when you have to factor in "driving back"--even if it's only a 10 minute or less drive. Consider spending extra money to get closer to the parties.
Seven, eat breakfast tacos.
Eight, I got a bunch of free books and ran out of room to carry them, so a bigger bag might've helped. But then it's best to travel lightly. So, on my first day, I had my ipad and external keyboard, as if I was going to get some serious writing done. I really only needed the ipad. Travel lightly at the con. (There was one notable, positive exception: knowing that I would be driving for three-plus hours in my minimally air-conditioned car (read: "sweat lodge"), I wisely packed a small bag with a change of clothes. So my first stop on hitting San Antonio was a place where I could change. But the general principle holds while at the con. Carry less and be prepared to shake more hands.)
Tune in tomorrow for my highlights of the con.
*I did go to a Science Fiction Research Association conference that was attached to a Heinlein convention. But it was a much smaller convention and I didn't really do much Heinlein-related activities, other than give the side-eye to out-of-shape older white men who complained that Verhoeven missed the point of Heinlein's Starship Troopers.