Another Year of Onions and Roses at Norwescon

Last weekend was Norwescon 37, and the fourth I’ve attended since moving to Seattle. Norwescon has become my “home” con, in multiple senses of the word. It’s the largest sci-fi/fantasy con in Seattle focused on literature and writing– which makes it a good home for me as a writer. But it’s also large enough to host a thriving cosplay community, which makes it a good home for me as a photographer. It’s small enough to be friendly and low-pressure, yet big enough to get some energy out of the crowd. Every year I go, the con becomes more enjoyable as I meet more people, make new friends, and feel more a part of the community.

Every year after the con is over, Norwescon solicits feedback from congoers, asking people to submit feedback in the form of “roses” (good things) and “onions” (bad things). So with that in mind, here I go. Some of these are duplicates from previous years, but if they remain prominent in my mind, well, I’m including them again.

Rose: Panels. There were a lot of good panels this time– and some more advanced and creative stuff, alongside the usual Worldbuilding 101 and ZOMG E-Books.

First Page Idol was a panel with some nice audience interaction, where you could anonymously submit your first page and the panel would judge it, which resulted in some interesting feedback. There were also some good science panels– I particularly enjoyed David Levine’s recap of his visit to NASA.

A few of the panels seemed to wander around their subject a bit, never entirely delving into what they were meant to delve into. For my money, anytime a panel can get past the uber-basic introduction that is widely known to anyone with a passing fancy in the subject, into more detailed and interesting stuff, it’s a win for me. This tends to be why I favor panels with narrowly focused and clear-defined topics, especially if they’re dependent on some unique knowledge of the panelists.

All in all, Norwescon is better than most cons at making interesting panels. In fact, the panels are popular enough that they’re frequently standing room only… the Cascade rooms are often too small for the panels they’re trying to host. I don’t know what the solution is there.

I also saw a lot of demo panels, where the panelists were actually demonstrating something and the audience was usually involved. Those were fun. Weapons and armor demos, horror makeup demos– those were my favorites, without a doubt.

Onion: Registration. Norwescon had (as far as I can tell) basically the same process in place as last year. This meant long lines as people waited to input all their information into a computer (there were about eight computers in the reg area), printed a sheet to take to the cashier, then paid and got their badge. For pre-registered folks with a sheet already printed, they could sometimes skip ahead in the line, but if you weren’t registered, or had pre-registered but didn’t have a sheet, well, then, you were stuck.

There has got to be a better system. These days, Norwescon is the only con I go to that has more than a five-minute wait to register, and from my understanding, there were points on Thursday afternoon when the line was at least an hour long. Maybe I just never see peak times at the other cons? When I was at RadCon, I did see the line back up a bit a few times as I walked by on the first day, but never to an hour long.

One difference between Norwescon and most other cons is that Norwescon prints the names on the badges right at registration, whereas most cons pre-print their badges, or use regular old paper stickers for people’s names. Norwescon’s method results in a slightly nicer badge, but it’s never exactly well executed. This year, the badges were printed well (and you could choose to have ONLY your badge name printed– props for that), but the art design of the badge was such that you could only read the left half of the badge, before the black printing blended into the darkly-colored art on the right side.

Maybe this is a case where something is being Rube Goldberg’d that doesn’t need to be? I mean, in the end, I think most people would be happy with easy registration and a readable badge.

Rose: Room parties. As usual, the room parties were awesome. On Friday night, I particularly enjoyed a party that was hosted by Evil Girlfriend Media, celebrating the launch of an anthology titled Bless Your Mechanical Heart. (Side note: Several friends of mine have stories in this anthology. But favoritism aside, I’ve read a few stories so far and am highly impressed.)

Just like last year, my favorite room party was Master Plan, which is always a blast– the mixology contest on Friday was particularly fun (speaking as a non-contestant, anyway).

Onion: Dealer’s Room. The Dealer’s Room was okay this year, however, it did seem to lack in terms of booksellers. There was only one small bookseller, from what I saw (there were a few writers’ associations and authors with booths, both inside and outside, but only one dealer that appeared to sell more than a handful of books). If an attendee wanted to buy a book by the Guest of Honor, so they could get an autograph (as was the case with a friend of mine), it appears they were S.O.L.

It seems like it would be worthwhile to ensure that there’s a dealer who can sell books by the Guests of Honor and the various writing panelists, so that interested attendees can spend their money… but that didn’t appear to be the case.

Other than that, I had no complaints about the dealer’s room. But I can haz books for sale at my sci-fi con please?

Rose: Photography. I feel like the Saturday evening photo area gets a little bit better organized each year. The layout was slightly changed from last year… the standing area was only behind one row of chairs, instead of two, which meant that the people in the second row weren’t caught in an awkward half-standing crouch, like I was last year.

The photo area is set up like an L-shape, with photographers on both sides of the L looking toward the cosplayer(s) in the middle. I was standing on the short side of the L, while all the photographers giving direction were on the long side of the L… which is okay, although I do have a large number of profile shots because the cosplayer just never turned to face the short side. There are two marks for the cosplayers to stand on, one facing each direction, but they would frequently face the long side from both marks, because that’s where the photographers talking to them were. Tip to cosplayers: for a better chance of seeing good shots, face both directions.

Despite my whining, I did enjoy the photo area– it’s a feature not seen at many other cons– and I stood there for over four hours on Saturday night taking pictures.

Speaking of pictures, you can see the full set on Flickr or on my photography Facebook page.

Thanks again to all the folks who made Norwescon awesome, especially the volunteers who put in a lot of hard work before, during, and after. See you next year!

Feminist Musings from a Cosplay Photographer

This week has been a rough week for women in fandom. Just in the past few days, we’ve seen:

Controversy, controversy, everywhere.

First, some context: I am a straight white male. I grew up middle class. I have never had to go hungry, and never been financially destitute (despite the ongoing efforts of my mortgage company). I am pleased to be in the position I’m in, and I recognize that a lot of people have things a heck of a lot tougher than I do, for various social and economic reasons.

As I’ve gotten more involved in fandom, and met a lot of awesome people, I’ve had my perspectives challenged and expanded. I’ve watched and chimed in via Twitter as fandom struggled with questions of diversity vs. political correctness, whether it be the Readercon fiasco, back-and-forth criticism of sexuality in cosplay, or the dirty jokes that led to two people getting fired. (That last one is more “tech” than “fandom”, although the two circles heavily intersect.)

On a more positive and well thought-out note, I see interesting re-imaginings like Michael Lee Lunsford’s fully clothed superheroines, which got a lot of positive reaction a few days ago. But some of the praise verged on the suggestion that beauty = modesty (a dubious statement– the two concepts are only tangentially related) and that women who cosplay scantily-clad characters and superheroines are, to say the least, not helping the feminist cause. This is perhaps best personified in this reaction, in which the author laments the oversexualization of cosplay. Oh, if only cosplayers wouldn’t parade their butts around and show so much skin!

For my part, I consider myself a feminist. I’m also a cosplayer, a photographer, a writer, and a creative person. I’ve shot photoshoots with gorgeous models, I’ve done bodypainting (on both myself and others), and written erotic fiction. And here’s the thing: none of those are mutually exclusive in the slightest. Rather, being successful at any of them starts from the same place: Respect. Whether the person I’m photographing is dressed as Vampirella, Kratos, or Optimus Prime, they are a human being, with all the motivations, insecurities, temptations, shortcomings, feelings, and thoughts that entails. Therefore they are worthy of respect, period, full stop.

Respect isn’t something people earn, it’s something they deserve. It’s a direct benefit of existence. Even if she (or he) is in a sexy or provocative pose, wearing next to nothing, or partaking in some other action that you disagree with either on a rational or a moral basis, that doesn’t and never will countenance being disrespectful or harassing.

In a previous blog post, I said that happiness isn’t so much a result of what happens to you, as opposed to how you react to it. In a similar manner, respect– and class, and dignity, and a host of other adjectives– aren’t so much about what happen to you, as how you react to them. Are you a journalist interviewing a gorgeous woman dressed as Black Cat? How you comport yourself in that interview says everything about you, and nothing about her. To suggest otherwise is to suggest that you don’t have control over your own behavior.

To which I say, loud and clear, bullshit. This is a call to all the males– all the people– of fandom, of geekdom, of cosplay, hell, of the whole goddamn world. YOU have full control and responsibility for YOUR OWN actions. Whether you’re a football player in Steubenville, a journalist in New York, a professional author, or a cosplay photographer in one of countless cons across the world. Take some fucking responsibility. Believe it or not, you have 100% control over what you say and how you treat people. The awesome places you find yourself, the sexy people you might find yourself talking to and looking at, do not under any circumstance excuse or justify, even in the slightest, a bad reaction.

For me as a photographer, this means that no matter who I want to take a picture of, I always get their permission first. I walk up to them, tap them once on the shoulder if I need to get their attention, and ask, while maintaining eye contact: “May I take your picture?” If they’re in a conversation, I will apologize for interrupting– if indeed I interrupt at all. I try not to stop folks who are clearly busy, no matter how great their costume is or how sexy they look. I recognize that even though they are cosplayers, I am not actually entitled to anything. And I wouldn’t touch a cosplayer inappropriately, no matter how they dress, any more than I would inappropriately touch a stranger on the street.

This attitude has benefits. For one, it works in reverse. If I react under the default assumption that others are worthy of respect, then it means that I am worthy of respect. This is a huge self-confidence booster; in fact, I’d say this attitude, more than anything else, has boosted my self-confidence more than anything else I’ve done in the past couple years, including taking anti-depressants. It means that when others don’t treat me with respect, I feel okay about leaving the situation. People aren’t entitled to things from me any more than I’m entitled to things from them, and that has stopped a lot of second-guessing on my part when it comes to my social anxiety. Moreover, it means that I’m naturally less awkward in social interactions, whether they be with beautiful women or anybody else– I know how I’m going to behave, and the other person’s clothing, mannerisms, etc. is pretty much irrelevant to that.

One of the greatest things I’ve learned in the past year is that it’s possible to flirt with people while still staying true to every single thing I mentioned above. In fact, some people will be so surprised that you’re acting this way that they’ll take regular conversation as flirting, even skillful flirting, simply because you’re confident in yourself while still treating them like a human being. Seizing and holding on to full responsibility for my own actions is the greatest and most liberating thing I’ve ever done, and I highly suggest people try it, regardless of your gender, sexual orientation, skin color, costume, or political beliefs. And– this is key– regardless of the gender, sexual orientation, skin color, costume, or political beliefs of the people you interact with. That’s my advice to fandom. It’s simple, perhaps even seemingly obvious, yet amazingly overlooked by too many people.

To paraphrase Aretha Franklin: R-e-s-p-e-c-t. That is what it means to me.

Norwescon: Best Con, or Best Con Ever?

From a personal perspective, this year’s Norwescon was probably the most complete and rewarding convention I’ve ever been to. Over the course of four days, I switched between the roles of writer, cosplayer, and photographer. I hung out with old friends, met new ones, mingled with professional authors, and hung out far too late at room parties. If there is a “platonic ideal” of conventions, this year’s Norwescon came as close as I’ve ever seen.

The few days leading up to Norwescon were a little stressful, as my hotel room got cancelled without notice (my roommate’s fault, not the hotel’s) and I had to scramble a bit. Luckily I found a room with my old roommate from last year, and after some last-minute rushing to get cosplay stuff together, I arrived on Thursday only a little later than planned. And Thursday night kicked off quite well, with Fairwood Press hosting a small press publishing party in the Presidential Suite.

Friday was my day for going nuts with cosplay, so I painted myself solid black and went as a drow, i.e. dark elf. (As seen below with fellow Wordslinger Andrew Rosenberg.) I had wanted to wear this costume at Dragon*Con last year, but the TSA tried to steal my airbrush.

Speaking of which, airbrushes are kind of a pain to lug to cons. If you forget a part (which I did), you’re screwed, unless you can jury-rig it (which I did). The airbrush makeup is comfortable, doesn’t rub off much, and goes on fast, but next time I may try sponge makeup.

I haven’t done much cosplaying until now, but this was the most complete costume I’ve ever done, as well as my favorite. I even picked up a hat and a cane in the dealers’ room to go along with it.

I’m not sure exactly what appeals to me about cosplay. Partly I think it’s the just fun to spend a little while as someone, or something, else. It’s also a bit of a personal challenge– I usually like to blend in with the crowd, but when you’re cosplaying, you’re inherently calling attention to yourself. Admittedly, cosplaying at a convention is not exactly out of the norm, but this costume would blend in more at, say, Dragon*Con, than Norwescon, where most costumes tend to lean toward goth or steampunk.

So it was fun, and I plan to do it again. At the risk of losing several Man Points, I’ll admit that I like putting outfits, makeup effects, and characters together. Maybe I’ll even use one as the inspiration for a story– which I estimate would earn about 200 Nerd Points, redeemable for luggage or a Doctor Who prize pack.

Saturday was Serious Writer Day for me, although I did keep the hat and the cane, because they were awesome. I had my lunch with my writing group, the Cloud City Wordslingers, and that afternoon I had a short story critiqued at the Fairwood Writers Workshop. This was a round-robin session where several pro authors, including one of my personal writing heroes, Jay Lake, gave me feedback on a short story. It was a really useful and fun exercise– this is the second writing workshop I’ve done at a con, and I plan to keep doing them.

As it turns out, two of the pros really liked my story and the third tore it apart. But that’s how these things go– taste and advice are often subjective, even among writers who know what they’re doing.

The other cool part about the Writers Workshop was the Saturday afternoon social, in which we got to mingle and chat with the other workshop participants. It was great for meeting folks, making friends, and comparing notes.

Also, on Saturday, they announced the nominees for this year’s Hugo and Campbell Awards– congratulations to everyone on the list! Later that night, at the DAW Books Party, I was able to congratulate several of the nominees in person, including Stina Leicht (Campbell Award) and Mary Robinette Kowal (Best Novella; Best Related Work).

As the DAW Party wound down, a few of us made our way back over to the far wing of the hotel, where several room parties were in full swing, many complete with open bars and dance floors. I still had half a bottle of Scotch left over from the Rainforest Writers Village, and with the help of a few friends, we drank the rest of it, and danced, chatted, and generally had an awesome time until the wee hours of the morning.

For thirty years, I have avoided having a hangover. Partly by not going to a lot of parties, but partly also by being smart and drinking lots of water on the few-and-far-between occasions when I have gotten plastered. Not so this time. I woke up on Sunday morning feeling pretty horrific. Nevertheless, I dragged myself out of bed and stumbled my way to a string of Sunday morning panels and readings, the highlight of which (and the last thing on my agenda) was a reading by local author Amy Thomson. (Amy Thomson is the author of “The Color of Distance,” which is possibly my favorite science fiction novel ever– and that’s saying a lot.) She read from a story called Buddha Nature, which will be appearing in Analog in a few months. Keep an eye out for it.

So all in all, a completely awesome con. I’ll close it off with a quick list of positives and negatives (or to use Norwescon terminology, roses and onions):

Rose: Photography. This year I knew about the Masquerade Photo Area, and took advantage of it. I spent about three hours on Saturday evening taking pictures of cosplayers. Fun times. To anyone I offended while muttering obscenities at my camera for recharging the flash too slowly, I apologize. Full set of Norwescon pics here.

Onion: Name Badges. The names on the con badges were too small to read from further than about two feet away, which meant you pretty much had to lean forward and squint to read anybody’s. Kind of defeats the purpose (namely, so you don’t have to admit that you’ve forgotten someone’s name thirty seconds after they introduce themselves).

Rose: Dealer’s Room. Norwescon has my favorite dealer’s room of any con, including Dragon*Con. Maybe it’s because I can buy cosplaying stuff for males beyond just steampunk garb. Or maybe it’s the general diversity of the dealers, or how friendly and willing to chat they are. But I like the dealer’s room.

Onion: Panels. This is a personal one for me: I didn’t attend many panels. Partly because Norwescon was more of a social con for me this year (which was awesome), but I was also a little reluctant to hit up the writing panels. I’ve mentioned this before, but once you go to enough cons, the panels start getting repetitive. You reach a point where you know it all (in theory, if not practice).

Maybe soon I’ll make a few more sales and can sit on the other side of the table. Or maybe I should branch out on the panels– Norwescon has some fantastic science panels, touching on everything from space to biology to nanotech, which I think could serve as fertile grounds for story ideas. I just didn’t get a chance. Ah, well. There’s always next year.

Rose: Meeting So Many Awesome People. Again, kind of a personal one. But until now, I haven’t had much luck meeting new people at cons– partly due to my own shyness, partly because geeks tend to be clique-ish by nature. This year was different: Emily, Steve, Josh, y’all are awesome. As are the folks I met (or re-met) at the Writers’ Workshop: Mae, Tinnara, Jeff, Rebecca, and I know I’m leaving some folks out– my apologies. Thanks, everyone, for an amazing con.

Onion: SakuraCon. It’s an old gripe, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say it. It’s a ten-minute walk from my apartment, and I’d love to check it out one year. But as long as it and Norwescon are the same weekend, Norwescon will win every time.

Rose: Room Parties with Open Bars. Enough said. And thanks, party-hosting-folks, for helping make Norwescon what it is.

Rose: Room Parties with Burlesque Dances. Oh, did that break my alternating rose/onion pattern? Whoops.

Onion: Room Parties with Jabba the Hutt. He kicked us out. Come on, the door was open. How were we supposed to know it was private?

At least we didn’t get fed to the rancor.

Rose: Single Malt Scotch. That is some pretty awesome stuff.

Onion: Single Malt Scotch. But holy shit, it will f**k you up in the morning.

Basking in the Crowd at Emerald City Comicon

Saturday was an excellent day. After spending the morning at Writers Group, and getting feedback on Chapter 1 of a new novel, I headed over to the Washington State Convention Center to spend the afternoon at Emerald City Comicon.

This was the second year in a row I spent a day at ECCC, and I have to say, this year was way more fun than last year. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because I wasn’t fighting a cold this year. Or perhaps it’s that this year was way more chaotic and crowded.

That’s right, you heard me. I like chaos at cons. I like crowds. The energy is fantastic, and I have never once had a problem with stereotypical smelly B.O. Let’s face it, folks, we’re well beyond the days of the basement-dwelling nerd. Geeks have self-respect these days.

In all seriousness, though, this year did feel much different. Just for comparison, here’s a shot of the main exhibition hall on Saturday afternoon at last year’s con. Busy, but not really crowded:

Here’s a shot of the exhibition hall on Saturday afternoon this year:

I rest my case. Not only were there more people, there seemed to be a lot more energy in the crowd. (Although again, that may be because I was healthy this year.) I got the same vibe from ECCC this year that I get from Dragon*Con: mad delightful chaos, with plenty of energy, enthusiasm, and of course, lots of kickass costumes everywhere you look.

ECCC also had a fantastic guest list this year: George Takei, Wil Wheaton, Summer Glau, Adam Baldwin, and Edward James Olmos, to name a few. The lines to get into the guest panels were incredibly long (I saw on Twitter that people waited for an hour and still didn’t get into the George Takei panel), but luckily for me, I wasn’t that interested in the special guest panels. Instead, I walked around, took pictures, toured the exhibition hall, and attended a Star Trek vs. Star Wars Dance-Off put on by members of the fantastic Portico Dance Company (see right).

In other words, I soaked up the atmosphere and just had fun. I’d love to see a George Takei or a Wil Wheaton panel sometime, but I’m not going wait in line for hours to do it, especially when I’m only there for one afternoon.

There are two types of conventions I go to: media cons, and literary cons. Media cons, like ECCC, I attend for the crowds and the costumes and the energy. Literary cons I attend to meet authors, sit on panels, and learn stuff that I didn’t know before. Admittedly, most cons have a little bit of both (and Dragon*Con is as close to a fusion of the two as I’ve found), but ECCC was a pure media con. Fun, crowds, costumes, merchandise, spiffy art.

Next week is Norwescon, and that’ll be more the literary side of things: hang out with writers (including, hopefully, many of the awesome folks I met at the Rainforest Writers Village), attend panels, do the writer’s workshop. I’m really looking forward to it, but mostly for different reasons.

What literary cons and media cons have in common, though, is getting to hang out with passionate, creative people. At literary cons, it’s the writers I get that vibe from. At media cons, it’s the cosplayers. There were some amazing costumes, most of which took a lot of work and dedication to put together. Cosplaying well takes skill (and sometimes guts), and like writing, it’s essentially a creative art– a completely different one, perhaps, but still, it’s a manifestation of that same fusion of creativity, passion and energy that I sense in writers, and indeed, in all pursuers of the geeky creative arts.

Speaking of creative arts, there was some damn fine art of the drawn and painted variety there too, of course. I went to the ECCC Art Auction in the evening, and bought a cool piece by Lar DeSouza. (All the proceeds went to the Seattle Children’s Hospital, so I blew my budget for a good cause.) My favorite find of the day, though, was a print from DPI Studios. Jaysin is a nice guy and a fantastic artist, and I bought a limited edition print of the picture that is currently featured on DPI Studios’ homepage. I snagged the last one, too, which makes it all the sweeter.

There was creativity of another kind as well, in the form of a preview for BrickCon, a Lego exhibition that will be at the Seattle Center in October. There was a lego Batcave, a lego Stargate, a bunch of lego Star Wars vehicles (including a very nice Lego Super Star Destroyer), and perhaps my favorite, a Lego Space Needle.

Next year I think I’m gonna have to carve out time in my schedule to go for all three days of ECCC. Maybe get a VIP pass, too. I mean, it’s only a ten-minute walk from my apartment. Since I have free lodging, I don’t have to feel guilty about shelling out the extra cash, right? As well as the extra cash for cool art? Right? (The correct answer is: no, I should not.)

Full slideshow of pics from the con is here.