Friends and Fun at Potlatch 21

Last weekend I attended Potlatch, a literary sci-fi/fantasy convention in Seattle. It was a small convention, with only a couple hundred attendees; in fact, it was easily the smallest con I’ve ever been to. I mean, there was only one panel going at a time! Crazy!

That said, it was a fun weekend. As I make more friends and get to know people in the Seattle genre writing scene, faces are becoming more familiar, and local cons are becoming less intimidating from a social anxiety perspective. Fellow writing group members Folly Blaine and Mark Edwards were there, and I met a lot of folks at the Writing Workshop, which was probably the highlight of the weekend.

This was my first time attending a writing workshop at a con, and I’m glad I did. There was a little rockiness in the planning stages– apparently Potlatch didn’t expect more than a few people to sign up, because only one author, David Levine, was lined up to lead it. But eleven people signed up, which means they had to get a second session going. Luckily, author and Nebula-nominee Vylar Kaftan stepped up to help, and the workshop was able to proceed (although three sessions probably would have been even better than two).

I was in Vylar’s session, along with Mark, Brian LeBlanc, Caszie Schroeder, and Kelly Horn. Over the course of two hours, we did a Clarion-style critique session, in which we took turns giving feedback on each person’s story. It’s always interesting to do a critique session with new people, both to read different styles of stories and to hear how other people approach giving critiques. (Note to self: do a separate blog post about critiques sometime.) Vylar also had some great feedback on each story, and the overall discussion was really fun– the only downside was that we had to rush to get through it all in two hours.

As far as sci-fi conventions go, Potlatch is a bit unusual in that anyone can sign up to be on panels– you don’t necessarily need to have a bunch of short stories under your belt or be the most experienced in order to join a panel on a given subject. And this was not a detriment– in fact, I’d say that having less experienced authors added an interesting voice to some of the panels that you don’t usually hear. Maybe I’ll sign up for a panel myself next year, if I can force back my anxiety long enough to contemplate it in anything more than the abstract.

Potlatch is closely tied to Clarion West, and on Saturday night there was an auction to raise money for scholarships. (For those who don’t know, Clarion West is a six week writers’ workshop held at University of Washington each year for science fiction and fantasy writers– but it’s expensive, at about $3,000 per person.) It was the first time I’ve ever bid in an auction, and it was pretty fun. I walked away with some old science fiction magazines, and signed books by Jack Skillingstead and Octavia Butler. Good times. I later heard that they raised at least enough for one full scholarship, which is awesome.

The crowd at Potlatch did skew a bit older than at most cons, which isn’t a bad thing, although it did mean that some of the panel discussions tended to focus on older rather than newer stories. In the panel on “Collapse Fiction”, about post-apocalyptic worlds in science fiction and fantasy, most of the examples cited were fairly dated– again, not a bad thing per se. Robert Heinlein and Philip K. Dick are awesome authors who should absolutely be read by anyone who loves the genre. But for new and aspiring authors, wanting to learn about current trends, it’s more useful to look at authors in the past few years– Scott Westerfeld or Suzanne Collins, for example– to get a sense of where the genre is and where it’s going. It took a question from a younger audience member to move the discussion toward present day.

The generation gap was also evident in the Friday night trivia contest, which focused on the history of Potlatch and Clarion West, and mostly asked questions which would only ever be known by people who had been immersed in the local community for decades. Which is all well and good if you’ve been attending Potlatch for twenty years, but for those of us who haven’t (aka my entire team), it was a beatdown. We consoled ourselves by seeing how silly we could make our answers, but by the end, our team name (“The Redshirts”) felt unfortunately apropos.

But all in all, it was a fun weekend. Lots of good conversations, some great panels, and once again I walked away with more books than will actually fit in my apartment (thanks largely to the table where they were selling paperbacks for a dollar each). Despite my kvetching about social anxiety, conventions are fun, and if I go for a few months without one, I really start to miss the energy and creativity I feel from simply being in the vicinity of dozens of other writers. In that sense, Potlatch was a rousing success.

Hopefully next year I won’t have to pull an all-nighter for work on Saturday night. That made for an interesting mental state on Sunday, but the sleep deprivation was totally worth it.


One sad note: we got word during the con that a local author and longtime member of the community, Mark Bourne, passed away on Saturday. Unfortunately, I never got to meet Mark, but I just wanted to pass along my condolences to his family and friends, many of whom were at Potlatch this weekend.

Norwescon in a Nutshell

Last weekend was Norwescon, Seattle’s largest and longest-running science fiction convention. Now that I live in Seattle, it’s my “home con,” geographically, so I pretty much had to go. I had even planned to go home each night rather than stay at the hotel, but a second look at the logistics convinced me to find a room, which I did easily thanks to the Norwescon room share forum. Major props to Norwescon for having said forum– I wish all cons had one; finding a roomie at most cons usually means a wild goose chase across the Internet.

Major anti-props, however, for having to pick between Norwescon and Sakura-Con. Seattle’s largest sci-fi convention and its largest anime convention on the exact same weekend? Does nobody actually communicate about these things? I know holiday weekends are rare, but really. This one isn’t exactly Norwescon’s fault (Sakura-Con is newer), and for me, there was no hesitation about which to go to. Sakura-Con is only half a mile from my apartment, and I would have loved to visit for a day and check it out, but I wasn’t about to miss out on a day of panels, friends, hobnobbing with local authors and room parties in order to pay my respects to the anime geeks. As long as I have to pick, Norwescon will win every time.

Because I was introduced to conventions through Dragon*Con, I inevitably end up comparing it to every other con I attend. This is somewhat unfair, since Dragon*Con spans four gigantic hotels and plays host to 50,000 people. But nevertheless the chaos of the crowds, creative costumes wherever you look, and the large and diverse selection of panels are inseparably linked up with cons in my mind, and I can’t help but feel somewhat disappointed if a con fails to deliver. Norwescon, I am pleased to say, did not disappoint in any of these areas: there were a wide assortment of great panels, excellent panelists, and an endless stream of cheerful chaos making its way through the halls.

Norwescon is a dense con: 3,600 people in one hotel. Admittedly, the SeaTac Doubletree is as large and sprawly a hotel as they come– 900 rooms in seven wings that branch out and snake their way around the huge property. But the beating heart of the con, in the ballrooms and the conference rooms, was fairly small. There was no place to stop and take pictures without blocking traffic, and just finding somewhere to sit down and take a breather was not always easy, especially at mealtimes when the hotel bar was packed. But all in all, I enjoyed the chaos of it.

Cons have two sides for me: the “social” side, and the “writing” side. The social side is, essentially, entirely about having fun: hanging out with friends, admiring costumes, seeing the occasional celebrity, and just generally wallowing in the crazy, awesome atmosphere of a con. But the “writing” side is my biggest justification for going: to see professional authors and editors talk, ask them questions, and hopefully even network a bit. It’s still fun, and ideally it still involves hanging out with friends, but there’s also a more serious motivation behind it.

From a social perspective, Norwescon was awesome. This was my first con where I knew more than just a couple of people– for starters, a good portion of my writing group was there. And indeed, right after I got there on Thursday afternoon, I met up with a few people at a writing panel and eventually we headed out to dinner across the street. Thursday night involved some good conversation and a long game of Agricola with new friends that kept me awake until about 4 am. Friday and Saturday evenings were mostly spent surfing room parties, and relying on Andrew Rosenberg’s connections to get the bartender at the Speakeasy to break out the good Scotch. I hung out with “old” friends (not that I really have any old friends in Seattle, having lived here for less than six months), but made plenty of new friends as well.

If my impossible-to-reach gold standard of social cons is Dragon*Con, then my impossible-to-reach gold standard of writing cons will always be last year’s NASFIC. That was where I met and made friends with Mary Robinette Kowal, Matt Rotundo, James Maxey, and even ate with Edmund Schubert (of Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show) and several other professional editors and authors. It’s unfair of me (not to mention hard on myself) to feel disappointed if a con doesn’t reach that level of awesomeness, but nevertheless I do.

In that respect, Norwescon was pretty much a big fat letdown. This isn’t the con’s fault at all– it’s mine, if it’s anyone’s. While Mary Robinette Kowal was there (and I even got a chance to chat with her briefly a couple of times), by and large I felt like a socially awkward galoot through most of the con. For example, on Saturday night Pyr Books hosted a big party, where I briefly got to meet Jay Lake, Lou Anders, and a few other big-name authors and editors. But by and large, all I managed was a brief hello, and all the while a major part of my own brain was yelling at me, “You’re just some random fan and wannabe author who hasn’t even finished his first novel. Why would the professionals possibly want to talk to you?”

Yes, I’m just venting my own insecurities now. But by and large, what had come naturally to me at NASFIC did not come naturally at all while I was at Norwescon. I would hang out on the periphery of a group of people, debating whether to interrupt and introduce myself, or interject some comment into a conversation I wasn’t a part of, or just wait until someone drew me into the conversation themselves– which never did happen. At one point, I started chatting with an editor, asking him about his current projects, but got cut off when another panelist stepped smoothly between the two of us, his back to me, and started his own conversation with said editor. (That was when Mr. Cellophane started running through my head.)

It was such a different experience from NASFIC, or even last year’s Dragon*Con, where I really felt like my people skills and my networking abilities were progressing nicely. At Norwescon, my resolve as far as being anything but a socially inept introvert absolutely, totally failed. Oh, well. Chalk it up to a learning experience, I guess. Maybe the reason I did so much better at NASFIC is that I was far more clueless about what I was doing. It’s easier to not be intimidated when you’re clueless.

But outside of those situations, it was a different story. I made friends, partied into wee hours, and learned that it’s actually pretty hard to down a Jell-O shot when the cup is tightly wedged in a woman’s corset-enhanced bosom. As long as I focus on the good times, and not my own raging insecurities, Norwescon was a most excellent con.

A few other random notes:

-The writing panels at Norwescon were some of the best I’ve been to, and all the panelists deserve major props.

-On the flip side, I’ve reached a point where I’ve heard enough writing advice that, intellectually, I know most of it already. At this point, I really just need to do one major thing: WRITE MORE.

-From now on, I’m attending more author readings at cons. Cat Rambo’s and Jay Lake’s in particular were excellent.

-I took another step into cosplay beyond the simple horns and face-painting I did at Dragon*Con, and bought the first couple parts of what will hopefully be a pretty decent outfit by the time I’m done. My plan is to create an original character; maybe I’ll even write a story about him at some point (role-playing! gasp!). Unfortunately, my next con isn’t until WorldCon, which means I won’t be able to debut the whole thing for a few months.

-The photography at Norwescon was all right but not great, because as mentioned earlier, there was really no good place to stop people and take pictures. That said, I did get a few, and was lucky in that I snuck out of the Masquerade midway through and accidentally found the designated photography area. Why does the photography area get set up and used during the Masquerade, rather than before or after? I guess it’s because they’re afraid of crowds, but it still kind of sucks.

-The full set of photos, such as they are, is posted on Flickr here.

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*