BayCon 2012 – A Terribly Long Review
BayCon in Santa Clara is my local big lit con, and I’ve been going to it, on and off, for many years. This year, my partner gave me the gift of being able to spend all the time I want to at the con without having to worry about the dog or anything else. What a precious gift! I was happy to take him up on it since the Guest of Honor was one of my favorite epic fantasy authors, Brandon Sanderson.
While I’m still too… shy? to actually go up and talk with him, I hoped to be able to attend a panel or two that he’d be on and get a chance to hear him talk about his process. I under-estimated a bit.
In the week before the con, the con staff posted the schedule and descriptions of all the panels. For whatever reason, they did not include the names of the participants. No problem, I’d just circle the ones that interested me and figure out how to make sure to hit a Brandon panel after I got the program book. Once I got to the con, picked up my program book, and started scanning the panel participants, I realized that just about every interesting writing-focused panel had Brandon as a participant. Great, now I’m stalking the Guest of Honor. 😉
I’m going to write a bit more in-depth about the panels I attended, but in general, I had a pretty fantastic con, the best con experience I’ve had in many years. I don’t know what enabled me to enjoy this one so much, though I suspect that my flying it solo with no responsibilities played a large part. I was there for me, and was not worrying about what anyone else might think about the panels I wanted to go to, or if they were getting bored in the panel I was fascinated by. I think this is key, and I need to remember it. Sometimes, “me time” is good and healthy.
Friday started off with a panel about “Irreproducible Results” in science and featured one of my favorite San Diego fans and all around creativity dynamo, Allison Lonsdale. It also featured the publisher of the “Journal of Irreproducible Results“. The panelists were quite witty and entertaining, and talked about some important themes, like using fancy statistics tricks to bend the results of science in profitable ways, and preying on people who just don’t understand what science is all about.
After that I hit the “Ghostwriting–Literally!” panel, which featured several authors (including Brandon) who have picked up finishing off works started by other famous authors. There were many interesting observations about voice and paying homage without coming across as a parody.
For my last panel slot of the day, I had several choices. I stated off at one called “Character Slam Books,” curious about what that meant. When they started handing out pens and little journals, I realized it was more of a workshop than I felt like dealing with. So I wound up ditching that and heading to the “Old Star Trek vs. J.J. Abram’s Refresh” panel. I’m a sucker for anything Star Trek, but on reflection, I might have passed on that one. There wasn’t really anything new discussed (other than apparently Khan will be featured in the upcoming installment), and the audience was full of socially-challenged Trek nerds. Now, I am a socially-challenged Trek nerd, but I still understand that Star Trek was fiction. I’m not so sure about some of the people who were my fellow audience members.
Saturday was a great day. I started off at a panel on “Self-Promotion & Publicity for Writers” which was simultaneously fascinating and a cause for concern. The major publishers are really not figuring out this new world they suddenly find themselves in, and are doing less and less for the author, spending less and less on publicity, editing, and just about everything. Authors now can no longer focus just on writing, they need to learn how to self-promote. The panel gave a lot of good ideas, and wound up connecting in interesting ways with an ePublishing panel I would attend later in the day.
Next was a panel on “Styles of Writing” which, led by Brandon, focused on technical aspects of writing around viewpoints: first or third person (don’t do second!), limited or omniscient, past tense or present (or maybe even future), stuff like that. I knew most of the material, but it was enjoyable listening to the pros talk about how they decide which style to use for a given work.
After that was the “Guest of Honor” interview, starring you-kn0w-who, and it turns out that Brandon tells great stories when talking as well as in print. He gave a very entertaining rendition of how he was selected to finish up the Wheel of Time series by the original author’s widow, and he talked about how he broke into publishing to begin with. He was anything but the “sell the first novel he wrote” kind of author. In fact, he had written something like twelve novels before selling any of them. To me, that’s determination and patience. I need to emulate that better.
The next panel was supposed to be about ePublishing, but turned out to be a discussion of a new thing in the writerly world, author co-ops and their influence in the market. This panel featured several members of Book View Cafe, a writing and publishing co-op originally founded by a large number of women writers who all knew bits and pieces of how to get published, but no one person knew everything. They found that by forming a co-op, they could collectively cover all aspects of publishing and promotion for their members. They’ve since grown, adding men, and have turned into an ePublishing house as well, and are now venturing into the world of print publishing. In a day where anyone can put up a novel on Kindle, iBookStore, or nook, and a time when the big publishing houses are doing less and less (as noted before), they are charting a new gatekeeper role.
I ended my panels for the day at one called “Aspiring Writers Toolkit” which turned out to be mostly about critiquing groups, writing workshops, and other ways to get feedback on your work. I found it fascinating, and more so because a friend who had a conflicting panel asked me to take notes. I’ve been a member of an awesome critiquing group (the Penny Dreadfuls in San Diego), and it helped improve my writing a great deal. But I know my experience is kind of rare. I would love to find a similar group here in the Bay Area when the time is right, but finding such a group can be very difficult. I got a lot of links to blogs and other sites.
After meeting up with my guy and finding dinner, we both attended Allison Lonsdale’s concert and had a great time. It’s a pity (for the audience) that she only had an hour! She played a number of old favorites, and a good number of songs that were new to us. Every time she plays at BayCon the audience seems to grow a little, which is great news.
Sunday was my downer day. It seemed that many of the panels I attended lacked the focus of the days earlier. It started off with a visit with Michael to the Dealers Room. We made a few purchases (a CD that I’ve been unable to find elsewhere, a DVD, a couple of books including David Gerrold‘s Worlds of Wonder which had been mentioned in a previous panel, and I’m finding entirely fascinating so far). I also ran into some friends I hadn’t seen in a while and got to talking with some other con attendees who were saying it was one of the worst BayCons they had ever attended. When I expressed surprise, since I’d been having a great con, I found out that they don’t go to panels, they were looking for good social activities, which apparently were lacking this year. An interesting perspective.
Then, off to the panels.
First off was a panel titled “Self Publishing Food Chain” which explored the place that self publishing has in the brave new world. It used to be that self-publishing was called, derisively, “vanity press”. Publishing with a vanity press was a mark that your work wasn’t good enough for a “real” publisher and you were willing to pay someone to publish your books. Not so much these days. The advent of affordable “print on demand” services, the growth of more independent publishing houses, and lately the ability to publish your work electronically, through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple’s iBookStore, and many other places all add up to an explosion of new venues. Some people are making mad money self-publishing (just look at Amanda Hocking for one), thus completely demolishing many of the old beliefs. And while you have to do a LOT more of the promotion work, you also get to keep a much higher percentage of the cover price. The problem is, with this explosion of self-publishing, how do you find what’s worth reading. While this panel didn’t solve the problems, it did give many perspectives on how some people are taking advantage of it.
Next up was “The Future of WesterCon.” WesterCon, for those not in the know, is a travelling convention, which is awarded by the vote of members of a prior WesterCon, to the people who can make the best case for hosting the convention in their city. The limit is that it must be in what is broadly defined as “the Western region of the United States.” In times past, the convention has been well attended and a “big deal”. But in the last couple of decades, with the remarkable growth of local conventions like BayCon, WesterCon has lost a lot of its allure, along with a large percentage of its annual attendance. This panel explored, along with its very small audience, the reasons for this decline, and what can be done about it. There is hope. Last year, a very lack-luster bid led to a “hoax” bid being accepted, and even winning. But the guys behind the hoax have decided to fully commit to bringing back the awesome. That would be great, and I’m looking to be involved. But at the panel, I was somewhat disheartened. I asked several times what makes WesterCon special, what is it’s draw that would cause people to want to invest in airline tickets and hotel rooms, and the answer I kept hearing was “it’s a chance to hang out with fans from other cities.” I’m sorry, this is not a draw for me. I want something truly unique, something that only WesterCon offers. And now, there is nothing that fits that bill. This was the big downer for the day as I realized that what draws me to conventions is not shared by the people running WesterCon.
This was followed by a bit more GoH stalking, a panel on “World Building Basics.” I found this panel to be rather disorganized. The moderator was not a very strong moderator, there were tech issues, and instead of keeping the panel focused, the moderator just let everyone wander around. I had hoped to get some insights into things like “what parts of world building are crucial, what parts are simply nice to have?”, and “how do you know when you’ve done enough world building for your genre?” Just like with Role-Playing Games, one can spend so much time world-building that no actual game is run, or no real writing gets done. I had hoped to hear a bit more about this process, but instead it devolved into discussions of language building and real-world examples of cultures that were technologically inferior to other cultures and how they inevitably were destroyed (as a refutation of the “noble savage” trope).
I then attended a panel on “The Heroine’s Quest“, a topic I found interesting after a church member gave a similar talk a few weeks ago. It’s a good thing that I had attended that talk since the panel never really reviewed what this story structure, the feminine version of the “Hero’s Journey”, is all about. They instead started off by naming examples of works that featured the Heroine’s Journey structure without explicitly drawing the parallel. “Yep, that one hits all the buttons!” There was some discussion about how the “Maid, Mother, Crone” figures sometimes ties into the Journey. And, of course, there was a lot of talk about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and how it does and doesn’t match the bullet points of the Journey. As I was listening, I found myself wondering if gender-based hero myths are something to simply acknowledge, or something to try to abolish. Should there be one heroic journey and the gender of the participant irrelevant, or is this an area where gender distinctions are still a good thing? And how should it be addressed in an age where gender is seen as a lot more fluid than it ever has in the past? But, given the remarks made by the panelists, I felt safer not asking my questions.
Finally, I attended a panel that asked the question, “What Makes Hard Science Fiction ‘Hard'”. Another very disorganized and unfocused panel, and the gist of it wound up being that for a hard science fiction fan, if it was a work they liked, it was “hard science” but if it was a work they did not like, it wasn’t. I know there are supposedly other definitions for the term “hard science fiction,” but the fans on the panel each gave examples of works they considered to be hard science that obviously broke those definitions. (Honor Harrington, while I find to be very entertaining military sci-fi, is anything but “hard” with its FTL and it’s telepathy.) I wound up feeling confused and disappointed by the panel.
I hit three panels on Monday. First up was “Top 10 Rookie Author Gaffes” and it was another Brandon panel. I wound up sitting next to a friend who is another aspiring writer, and I think we both enjoyed it. I took a bunch of notes, which is kind of rare for a panel. The speakers talked about gaffes with writing (you actually have to start writing if you want to publish, who’d have thunk?), researching, and eventually publishing and promoting. All of them had great stories to tell (“Oh, man, whatever you do, don’t do what I did!”) and while entertaining, they were also very instructive.
Following that was supposed to be a panel on “Unblocking Your Own Potential” which was supposed to include Brandon and several other panelists. When by 10 minutes past start time no other panelists but Brandon had shown up, it turned into the “Ask Brandon Anything” panel. I really enjoyed this, as he was willing to impart wisdom and stories that I found enlightening. He answered several questions about his work in the Wheel of Time, but kept those answers short. The ones he spent more time answering were things like “How do you find time to write when you have children under foot?” and “How did you discover that writing was a passion for you?” and “How do you get yourself back to writing after a family tragedy sent you into a spiral of depression?” He really gave some thoughtful answers, and everything was treated seriously. He is a great speaker, and when he spoke of the class he teaches every year at a local university, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of jealousy towards his students.
Finally, as is tradition for me, I attended “A Shot Rang Out…” with my partner. This panel is an exercise in collaborative story-telling with a twist. During the earlier three days of the convention, there was a box at the info desk for people in the know to deposit suggested phrases or sentences. The story must start with the phrase, “A shot rang out…” and then each participant (there were five this year, including Dani and Eytan Kollin, BayCon’s toastmasters this year) must continue the story told by the previous segments and end with the phrase or sentence they pulled at random from the box. As you might imagine, this forces the story to take very unusual twists and turns as the panelists must attempt to take a crazy, semi-coherent story so far and turn it so they can end their segment with a phrase like “For he is the Cumquat Häagen-Dazs!” This can be a very hit-or-miss event, and last year’s wasn’t so good. This year, though, I thought they did a great job, including elements such as Mr. and Mrs. Cthulhu (they’re Time Lords, don’tcha know?), Malcom not-Reynolds, portal guns, and guardian idiots.
After that we attempted to pre-reg for next year, but found the registration desk closed down. Le sigh. I managed to pre-reg on the web site after we got home, so here’s hoping for a 2013 that was as good as 2012!
Some realizations and insights:
- I’m too focused on writing something that will I want to be published. I need to relax a lot, get a LOT of writing done, and worry about publishing when I can consistently write good stuff at a good pace.
- I need to find all the impediments I have to a daily practice and get rid of them. The only way I’m going to get published is if I write daily, and I’m not doing that.
- As I do get to the point where I am confident in my writing and am getting ready to start trying to publish, I will need to really consider what self-promotion I will be comfortable doing, and what I will need help with. That’s daunting, but planning now makes little sense. By the time I’ll need it, the entire ecosystem will have changed at least once, if not multiple times.
- The upheaval of the publishing industry was a significant theme throughout the convention, and I found it interesting how the various puzzle pieces are fitting together.
- I don’t go to cons for the same reasons that most of the other people there go to cons. I go for the panels and the chance to get wisdom from established and successful authors, and maybe to talk with other aspiring authors. Most other people go to conventions for the social aspects. SMOFs see panels and guests as a necessary framework and a tool to bring new people to the convention, but not the primary focus. I think I’m doing the right thing for me, but I realize I’m the minority audience and SMOFs are not planning conventions with people like me in mind.
- There are a LOT of professionals blogging about writing out there. I found a bunch of new blogs to follow. If I’m not careful, I’ll spend all of my time reading other people’s blogs and not getting any of my writing done!