Orycon Report: Portland, Panels, and Puns

This weekend I drove about 3 hours south to Portland to attend Orycon, a small-ish science fiction con of around 2,000 people. It felt like a good-sized con, although I’ve come to realize that what makes a con feel “big” or “small” is not so much the number of attendees, but the ratio between the size of the crowd and the size of the space in which it’s held. ConCarolinas was small, but felt crowded and cramped. NASFIC was small, but felt empty. Orycon was small(ish), and felt just right. It was dense enough that you always felt like you were at a con, with people in costumed finery wandering by at almost all hours of the day and night, but was still spread out enough that you could usually find somewhere to sit if you needed it.

Orycon was also my first introduction to the fandom and convention scene in the Pacific Northwest. I did notice a few differences with East Coast cons– although some of this may just be my own experience. But I felt like the crowd at Orycon was, on average, several years older than the crowd at the East Coast conventions I’ve been to. It is because Orycon’s focus is more on literature and less on media? I’m not sure. But it’s quite clear that fandom spans all age groups, and that was an impression I got more strongly at Orycon than I have at any other convention. It’s kind of reassuring, actually, to know I won’t have to turn in my geek card in my later years.

I also felt like there was more of a celebration of “the other”, of “the weird”, than there was at the East Coast cons. I wrote about this aspect of conventions in my Dragon*Con write-up, and I felt it even more strongly at Orycon. The atmosphere at conventions is incredibly, marvelously, accepting. On panels, someone might casually mention that they were gay, or bisexual, or polyamorous, or pagan, or various adjectives that might get you a raised eyebrow if you were overheard on the street. But at Orycon, no one so much as batted an eye. It was all taken in stride, and even though I’m a straight white male, it felt good to be around such an accepting crowd. We all have our differences, after all, our ways which make us “weird”– and being nerds and geeks, we pretty much fall into the “weird” category by default.

But first and foremost, Orycon is a convention to celebrate sci-fi and fantasy, and as I mentioned earlier, its biggest focus is on the literature side of things. There were a lot of great writing panels, lots of readings (the zombie erotica reading was particularly interesting– I honestly wasn’t sure how that would work, but it did… some stories were even romantic), and lots of panels that were just generally fun. In fact, I’d say that Orycon had the best selection of panels of any con I’ve been to– Dragon*Con had a wider selection, of course, but Dragon*Con panels are usually gigantic. The Orycon panels were nicely sized, and usually small enough that it was easy to ask questions. I got to meet some of the panelists, and chat with a few who I already knew (notably Mary Robinette Kowal, who I have now talked to at conventions on both sides of the country), and even chip in a few puns at the “Pun-ishment” panel… which went exactly as the title implies. 4 panelists and a good chunk of the audience doing nothing but coming up with horrible puns for an entire hour. As I mentioned on Twitter, I left with a headache.

Now it’s back to Seattle, and back to the NaNoWriMo novel I’ve been putting off and falling behind on. See you next year, Orycon.

NASFIC Report: Great People, Sparse Con

It’s funny how less than a day after complaining about my insecurities in regards to socializing and meeting people, I found myself hobnobbing with all sorts of cool people at the launch party for Mary Robinette Kowal‘s new book “Shades of Milk and Honey.” I hadn’t read her work yet; however, she’s made several appearances on Writing Excuses, and I recently learned that she grew up in this area. We even graduated from the same high school– go Enloe! So despite being stuck at work all day (escape plans were foiled by meetings, darn it), I headed over to NASFIC that evening to check out what was going on.

Most of the people there were published authors, editors, or spouses of said authors and editors. I felt out of place; “underdressed”, at least in terms of professional credentials. Nevertheless, no one seemed to mind, and no big burly bouncers were checking SFWA membership cards, so it was cool. Many of the people I had seen at the Bull Spec launch party two days ago were there, and I was able to have decent conversations with several folks I hadn’t been able to chat with at that event, including Sam Montgomery-Blinn (Bull Spec‘s editor), and John Kessel. I also met Gwendolyn Clare again, had a long chat with James Maxey, and met several other authors as well. When I got a chance to talk to Mary, we reminisced about Enloe, came to the consensus that it was too long ago to remember more than a couple teachers’ names, and had a brief discussion on the mechanics of Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock. You know, important writing stuff.

On Saturday I actually attended the con, and in the morning I ran into James again, who invited me to lunch. This was how, a short time later, I found myself having lunch in a group of 7 people: 5 professional authors, an editor for Baen Books, and lil’ old me.

Later, at dinner, I found myself sitting with James, his girlfriend, Gray Rinehart (the Baen editor from lunch), Ed Schubert (editor for Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show) and Doug Cohen (editor for Realms of Fantasy). Again feeling professionally inadequate, but mostly just reveling in it now, and generally managing to ignore the butterflies in my stomach– which were mainly the result of general shyness anyway.

Oh, and panels… yeah, I guess there were panels. They were all right. There was a Masquerade, too, which I showed up late to and took some pictures of at the end (full set, such as it is, here). But if it weren’t for the meals and the party, I’d say the con was a letdown. It was WAAAY too spread out; it could have comfortably fit in just one of the three venues. I never thought I’d miss the crammed, chaotic vibe of ConCarolinas, but I did. It seemed like it was about one-third the size in ten times the space.

All in all, a great con, just completely not for the reasons I expected.

Ahh, Irony, how you make life interesting.

Reporting Live-Plus-Two-Days from the Bull Spec Launch Party

The more local events I go to, the more I realize how large and thriving a writers’ community there is in the Raleigh-Durham area, especially for the speculative fiction genres. For the past couple of years, my primary contact with other writers has been my own writing group, which, don’t get me wrong, is great, but is more geared toward general fiction than sci-fi and fantasy.

But I got a great look at the community on Wednesday, when I went to the launch party for the second issue of Bull Spec. Bull Spec is a local magazine that publishes sci-fi and fantasy short stories, interviews, critiques, and is also a great window into the local writing scene. It seemed like almost everyone who attended was a writer, busy discussing their latest novel or short story. I recognized a few of the people from the writing panel I attended a few weeks ago, including James Maxey and Mark Van Name. I also saw John Kessel, a prolific local writer who happened to be my professor for a Science Fiction class I took at NCSU oh, eight years ago.

But of course the main focus was on the magazine, and there were six panelists who spoke, including Professor Kessel and the editor of Bull Spec, Sam Montgomery-Blinn. (Sam had actually rejected one of my stories for inclusion in Bull Spec that very morning– but he did take the time to send me some detailed feedback, so I guess he’s cool.) The other four panelists were contributors to the issue, including Gwendolyn Clare, Paul Celmer, Natania Barron, and Joseph Giddings. Gwen and Paul had short stories in this issue; Natania and Joe had written reviews, although Natania’s reading was from one of her stories. It was a steampunk involving girls with guns, aliens,and the Wild West– what’s not to like? Actually, all the readers were excellent; I bought the magazine and went home so I could finish the stories which had been left tantalizingly unfinished.

On a personal note, the event taught me something else: my networking skills need work. I’m introverted by nature, so this kind of thing doesn’t come naturally to me to begin with, but it’s worse talking to published authors and editors. I want to come across as a serious aspiring professional rather than just another random fan, but I’m not really sure how to do that. So after I get past the pleasantries, my brain tries to lock up, apparently operating under the theory that it’s better to shut up than risk saying something dumb. If I do overcome that, I’m in danger of rambling, afraid to stop talking for fear my brain will take over again and freeze everything up. (I probably shouldn’t admit it, but my brain operates the same way when talking to women. Stupid brain.)

Nevertheless, despite my personal neuroses, I did meet several people, and definitely hope to continue attending local events like this. As it turns out, I’ll get a chance this weekend, except the size of the event is multiplied by several orders of magnitude: the North American Science Fiction Convention (NASFIC) is in downtown Raleigh this weekend, spanning two hotels and the Raleigh Convention Center for four days. There’ll be lots of authors and editors there, conducting various writing panels and workshops, as well as the usual con-related goings-on: costumes, gaming, movies, the works. Should be fun.

The real question is, do I play hooky from work on Friday afternoon and check it out early?

Maybe I shouldn’t have said that. Here’s hoping my co-workers don’t read this.

*shifty eyes*

Musings from a Barnes & Noble Writing Panel

As the title of this post suggests, last week I attended a writers’ panel at a local Barnes & Noble with five sci-fi and fantasy authors from the Raleigh area. I’d never been to a panel like this outside of a sci-fi con, so I decided to check it out– and besides, I like listening to authors. They’re always quirky, interesting people (in my experience).

The authors in question were David Drake, Kelly Gay, James Maxey, Mark Van Name, and Lisa Shearin. Of them, I was only familiar with David Drake, but I came away impressed with everyone. There were about 30 or 40 people in the audience, and when question time came, I asked one of the first questions, which was: “When you’re in the middle of writing a book, what’s your daily routine like? Do you write in a particular place and time of day? And do you restrict yourself to one project at a time?”

Okay, so it was really more like three questions, but they didn’t seem to mind. And I had a reason for asking what I did. Since I’m in the middle of trying to write a novel, I was curious to hear from a few professional authors how they structure their routine, particularly authors who have a day job (only David Drake and Kelly Gay write full-time). And each person’s answer was different, although there were a couple threads in common: (1)write every day, even if just for half an hour. And (2), only work on one project at a time. I was somewhat surprised to hear the second one, but it does makes sense, and it’s similar to a response I heard at a ConCarolinas writing panel, namely: you can only get paid for the things you finish.

Recently I’ve been pretty good about writing every day, but not so much about writing on the same project every day: I tend to jump around, with about five or six projects going at any one time, and as a result have a difficult time finishing stuff (case in point: my novel). Part of me always wants to jump to the latest and greatest idea. But if I want to do this for real, I need to follow through and complete my projects. It’s the only way I can even potentially get paid for them.

In the process of answering another question, Mark Van Name said something else that resonated with me: professional writing is hard and doesn’t pay well (except for a very select few). If you have to write, then write. But if you can possibly not write, if you can do anything else, then you should really do that instead.

Oddly, I found this encouraging. Over the past couple months, I’ve come to the realization that writing is what I want to do, full-time, professionally. And even if I spend the rest of my life trying and failing at it, I still wouldn’t regret having tried.

I’ve never published a story or an article and gotten paid for it, nor I have a finished a draft of a full-length novel. But I’ve spent most of the last several years generally unsure of what I want to do with life, unsatisfied, mentally adrift, never quite sure of where I want to go or what I want to do. And it’s only when I think about writing, whether it’s travelogues, or novels, or short stories, that I feel like I have a direction, that I feel a strong, burning passion to do something.

When I think about how hard it is to write, and on top of that how hard it is to make a living as a writer, it doesn’t discourage me: it makes me want to do it even more. That, above everything else, makes me sure that this is the path I want to pursue. For years I’ve put off writing, afraid of writing things that turned out to be crap, or simply afraid of trying and failing. It’s time for me to stop being afraid of failure and just write.

This has strayed quite a bit from a report on a writing panel, hasn’t it? Nevertheless, it was these thoughts that occupied me as the questions continued. I did still pay attention… from other questions, I learned that vampires are on the way out and zombies are the hot monster of the moment (but where are the teenage zombie romances?). I also learned (or, rather, confirmed) that short stories aren’t worth it, economically speaking, and that while everyone has a different story of how they broke into the business, writing, like all businesses, comes down largely to who you meet and who you know. That doesn’t worry me too much; like any business, there are ways to network and meet people in the field (cons and events like these, for one). Besides, my first priority right now isn’t getting published, it’s writing more.

Time to get back to work!