On World Fantasy Convention 2014

World Fantasy Con is over.  I'm home.  I'm alive.  I'm back to the life of a grad student and adjunct faculty, with a side of writing.  And these are my mystical thoughts on the whole experience:

I began my journey in the fashion of a handrail used by a string of infected boat passengers.  On Tuesday, I started feeling a cold coming on, and I frantically chowed down Vitamin C and everything else I could find to stifle the monster growing within me.  Alas, the cold was up to the task and settled in by Wednesday morning, leaving me so wiped by Thursday that I had to cancel class in order to get a lot of rest before the 2-hour drive to Jacksonville and the 2-hour flight to Arlington.  My flight was delayed by almost 3 hours, leaving me in an uncomfortable airport with death dribbling from my nostrils.  The flight itself was terrible for the simple reason that sinus pressure + plane cabin pressure = a terrible combination.  By the time I got to Arlington, I was completely wiped.  Thankfully, I started feeling better by Friday, though spent most of that day (the 1st day of my WFC experience) napping.

I also, thankfully, had the venerable Max Gladstone as a roommate -- something which I would repeat again if we were ever at a con together and wanted to save money.  He's a pretty awesome guy, so getting to have morning chats with him certainly got my days off to a good start.  Also:  the rooms at the Marriot were basically studio apartments, which were surprisingly cheap.  It certainly made rooming a much more comfortable experience.

Despite beginning the convention as a plagued, sniffling monster, I thoroughly enjoyed WFC.  I must admit that I missed all of the panels, which I blame on being sick and on taking the opportunity to check out D.C. (for the first time) with Arley Sorg and James Bradley (a good reason, after all).  I was told before I even signed up for WFC that this particular con was more social than con-y.  That's certainly what I took away from the experience.  There was so much chatting, hanging out, networking, and social silliness going on at WFC that I can completely understand the exhaustion many felt by Sunday afternoon (my exhaustion came in a different form, as I usually find myself very much becoming a little social butterfly at these things -- a new thing for me, as I've only recently become a "con-goer"; being sick takes a bit of that away).

On Friday, I joined Alyc Helms' posse of dramatic readers, in which I played Ms. Wu, a Chinese tea lady who is secretly a hungry demon.  Laughs were had, not just because of me (duh); the chapter from her upcoming novel, The Dragons of Heaven, was quite hilarious, and the various other cast members, including former Angry Robot editor Lee Harris, put on a good show.  It was easily one of the most exciting readings I'd been to, and it gave me some great ideas for ways to conduct readings in the future.

On Saturday, I read from my short story entitled "Sublight Smiles."  A handful of people were in attendance, which was lovely.  My Nook decided to crash two paragraphs from the end, which is a reminder that one should not rely on technology for such things.  Overall, I think the reading went well; it was my first real reading, and I suspect it won't be my last.

On Sunday, I somehow managed to snag a ticket to the banquet partially on the basis of looking rather sharp and spiffy in a sweater vest and tie.  I hadn't planned to attend the banquet for financial reasons ($65 = gah), but I'm thankful I did because I got to sit at a table with Scott Edelman and Jamie Todd Rubin.  Jamie and I had a great conversation about writing over our meals (I had a delicious salmon for the main course, and an even more delicious chocolate tart for dessert -- omg, the tart...OMG!).  The Awards ceremony was pleasantly short.  Mary Robinette Kowal told one of the most hilarious marionette stories I have ever heard.  It involved costume malfunctions and penis swords, but I won't tell you the story because there's no way to do it any justice.  Just ask Mary.  The winners were a pleasant surprise, too.  Sofia Samatar received the Best Novel award, which made me happy on so many levels.  A Stranger in Olondria is an exceptional book, so it's nice to see it getting recognition.  Neil Clarke, Kate Baker, and Sean Wallace pulled in a Lovecraft bust for Clarkesworld, Andy Duncan & Ellen Klages won for Best Novella, and so on and so forth.  A lovely evening was had by all.

Well, maybe not all.  Sofia took the opportunity to mention the controversy surrounding Lovecraft's bust.  Her acceptance speech could be summed up as "I am thankful for the recognition, but as a woman of color, I feel awkward accepting an award with this man's head on it."  She, of course, has a point, so I'm glad the con organizers saw fit to announce that they are thinking about what to do with the award bust.  My hope is that they'll shift it to something more inclusive; I don't see a point in using a person's head for an award in a genre includes so many people from so many places -- no matter their importance.

That basically concludes what I was up to at the convention in a sort of official capacity.  The real highlight of the convention, though, was meeting old friends and making new ones.  I met up with fellow podcasters Mike Underwood and Stina Leicht, enjoyed catching up with Arley Sorg, Michael Martinez, Natalie Luhrs, Amy Sundberg, Fran Wilde, Myke Cole, and Carrie Patel.  I met all sorts of people, too:  Chadwick Ginther, Crystal Huff, Scott H. Andrews, Nina Niskanen, Melanie R. Meadors, Marco Palmieri, Django Wexler, Jeff Patterson, Courtney Schafer, Shaima Nasiri, Joe Monti, Meghan O'Keefe, Joey Hewitt, Sunny Moraine, Sofia Samatar, Wes Chu, Casey Blair, Doug Hulick, Garth Nix, Stefon Mears, Connie Codington, David Levine, Chuck Gannon, and about a bazillion others.  I even met Dominick D'Aunno, an astronaut doctor (or doctor who works on astronauts), which was super cool.  If I've forgotten a name here, it's not personal.  I just met so many bloody people!

WFC was an enormously welcoming environment, too.  I met so many people and never felt as though I didn't belong.  That's pretty important.  There's so much hostility on Twitter and the blogosphere; one would think that's what sf/f is like all the time just by paying attention to those spaces.  But it isn't.  It's warm and lovely, generally speaking, and the idea that a guy like me, who has frequent bouts of impostor syndrome, can waltz into that place and be welcomed without question is truly a wonderful thing.  Plus, some folks actually recognized me as the Skiffy and Fanty guy!  So cool!

One thing I came away with after the con was a desire to actually write a novel.  Every con I've been to this year has had someone ask me "so are you a writer."  And every time, I say "sorta."  It's stupid, but I always have this weird feeling of inadequacy as a writer because I just don't write enough.  All these folks are working on novels (or releasing new ones), and here I am piddling away a little bit each year, but nothing of real consequence.  Am I really a writer?  Yes.  I am.  And I should be a better one.  Having talked with a number of writers at WFC about their processes and their struggles, I realized that I really need to find a way to carve out time for writing a novel.  In fact, I need to find a better way to manage all of my time, because I am terrible at it.  This post alone took me hours to write, even though it's not a tremendously complex piece.  I have a tendency to space out, to wander, or to get stuck on other things, or to procrastinate altogether.  And that sucks up so much of my time that it's no wonder I never get finished with my grading or academic work.  So what I need to do is carve out a proper schedule for all of my things.  Writing, grading, academia, blogging, reading, movies/TV, and playing with the cat. (OK, the last one isn't my choice; he decides when we play.)  Maybe that will help me get things done.  Maybe.

As for my trip to D.C.:  it was awesome.  I'd never been before, so getting the opportunity to check out the Washington Monument, the Vietnam War Memorial, the National Gallery, the reflecting pool, the WW2 Memorial, the White House, and Abe Lincoln's oversized statue hands was a one-of-a-kind experience.  The National Gallery was easily my favorite because it had an enormous number of Claude Monet's paintings, including two of his Rouen Cathedrals and one of his Houses of Parliament.  I may have squeed uncontrollably at one point.  The gallery had a lot of other incredible works, too, so if you ever get a chance to go, you really should.  But I am such a huge Monet fan that seeing some of those paintings in the flesh was amazing.
I also had some solid food while I was there.  There was a great Ethopian restaurant near the hotel (a style of food I've never had) and a superb Italian restaurant.  D.C. proper had some excellent food trucks.  I did my best to enjoy me some food :)

Lastly, a little sappy stuff:  Having never been to the nation's capital, it was pretty inspiring to be among the monuments.  I can see why so many people view it with patriotic goggles, because it has this uncanny effect of making one think about the promise of the United States -- all those things they made us believe and learn as kids, but which we start to discard as we get older (well, I did, at least).  Being reminded of people like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. and so many flawed, but beautiful humans from the past who took a stand for a better world also reminded me of this nation's potential.  Call me naive and stupid, but I really loved that feeling.

All in all, I mark the trip as a success.

Now back to work!

5 Don’ts of Panels (and Podcast Roundtables)

I'm officially back from Worldcon/LonCon3, which marks my third convention this year (preceded by ICFA and CONvergence).  Having had a few experiences as a panelist, I've learned a few things about what works and what doesn't.  The below list is not exhaustive by any means, but it reflects my fairly new experiences as an panelist and audience member.

Here goes:

  1. Do NOT assume something personal about a panelist
    In particular, do NOT assume you share experiences with a panelist because you share some physical or personal feature.  Two religious people may have had entirely different journeys.  Two gay men or lesbian women (or bisexuals) may have had entirely different lives.  Two people of the same race or gender?  The same.  The problem with making these assumptions isn't that they are inherently "bad" in any kind of moral sense; rather, the problem is that some of these assumptions can actually make panelists extremely uncomfortable.  In some cases, a panelist might be so uncomfortable talking about personal experiences of race or gender or whatever that asking them point blank will reveal that discomfort to the audience.  I would hope it's obvious why this is not a good thing.  Many of the topics we now discuss in the sf/f community are not unlike handling prickly pears, and so it's incumbent upon each of us to recognize that everyone has a different level of comfort with those topics.

    On a related note:  don't assume vaguely topical jokes about a panelist based on some defining feature of their physical person (race, gender, dress, etc.) will be received as jokes.  I think many jokes are harmless, but you really should know what an individual is comfortable with before making jokes about their appearance.

    None of this is universal.  I just think the best practice in cases of potentially controversial topics is to ask your panelists whether there is anything they really don't want to discuss.  And then you drop those undesirable topics entirely.
  2. Moderators Should Moderate
    Your ONLY job is to keep the panelists discussing the topic.  This isn't an easy thing to do, as I've learned from moderating a handful of panels.  It takes some degree of skill to keep a conversation evolving organically.  The biggest no-no of moderating, however, is in assuming you are a panelist, too.  You're not.  That doesn't mean you shouldn't respond to questions if you can bring something to the table that your panelists have not; it only means that you should be more interested in keeping the conversation going than in making sure your voice is heard.  The worst moderators are the ones who seem to think this is as much their show as everyone else's.

    And the worst of the worst moderators are those that have to be moderated by the panelists.  I've seen this happen.  It is not pretty.
  3. Ask Questions; Don't Babble
    Taking into account that exceptions might exist, audience participation in panels should be in the form of actual questions.  Most of us have heard this piece of advice before -- and for good reason.  The audience only gets a small portion of time in which to participate, so when someone takes up 5 minutes offering their own point, it comes off as a tad selfish.  I've had this happen at an academic conference:  one individual went on and on with a critique of a fellow panelist's paper, refusing to allow anyone else to ask a question; in the end, the Q&A time became "random dude's babblefest time."

    I'm not saying that offering up a comment is necessarily a bad thing, but if you're in a room full of raised hands, a question is much more useful than a running commentary.  Ask a question.  If you can, turn that comment into a question; you can always talk to the panelists afterwards!
  4. Wait to Prep Your Panel Until the Last Minute
    If possible, prep your panel well ahead of time, as travel arrangements may mean your panelists aren't available a week before the convention.  I learned this first hand; it's not a wicked sin or anything, but it does mean your panelists can be put on the spot more often than they are comfortable with.  Sometimes, you can produce a more interesting organic paneling experience by getting the basics out of the way.  I find the in-depth discussions of a topic come not from going over the surface but digging into the meaty beats underneath.  For example, it's probably less interesting to discuss *what* urban fantasy is than it is to discuss how urban fantasy has evolved over time (or how urban fantasy authors engage with the political and social realities of the real world).

    Prepping panelists beforehand also gives you the opportunity to ask if there's anything they *don't* want to discuss (which leads me back to #1).
  5. Avoid Making Negative Blanket Statements About X
    Generally speaking, blanket statements are inaccurate and crass.  If you identify a negative trait with an entire nationality, it's likely you're completely wrong; in some cases, it's quite likely someone in the room identifies themselves as that nationality.  This applies to other groupings, too.  The problem with blanket statements is that they have a tendency to come off as offensive.  If someone says "all Americans are X," and that thing doesn't apply to me, I tend to feel like I'm being shit on for being born in the USA.  I can't imagine how it feels for someone coming from a traditionally marginalized culture or country to be told something similar, especially by someone who is not part of that culture or country.

    There are, of course, exceptions to this rule.  Context matters.  There are contexts in which a group identity is used to make a point about that group; that point usually implies exceptions to the rule.  That said, I think it is often more useful to qualify every statement about a group.  Often, "some" is a necessary word for the panel toolbox.
And that's my list.  What would you add here?


Note:  I've indicated that these items also apply to podcast roundtables. That said, podcasts have one advantage over convention panels in that they can be edited before release.  I have had experiences in podcasting where I've asked a question a guest didn't feel comfortable answering, and so I've deleted that from the podcast because it didn't belong there.  With panels, you need to be more careful, since visible discomfort can be interpreted in a variety of ways by other panelists and by the audience.  Additionally, panelists are probably less willing to say "I am uncomfortable discuss X" or "let's avoid that topic" when put on the spot.

Note 2:  Most of these will not to be demonstrated through example.  Why?  Most likely for the exact same reason that led me to list the item in the first place.  These examples are based primarily on personal experience, with some exceptions.  I've remained vague in places to avoid drawing attention to anyone in particular, in no small part because I do not have permission from the individuals involved -- and I'm not sure I want to discuss specifics, even though I think the issues should probably be discussed by someone.