Why Do You Go to So Many of Those Convention Thingies?

It’s a less than three days until the Memorial Day weekend, so me and Scott, we’re all set to head off to WisCon, the greatest convention in the known universe. We’ve turned down a bunch of invites here in Manhattan and our explanation for saying no has, as usual, raised eyebrows. Most of our NYC friends aren’t part of the sf or publishing world and some are puzzled by our disappearing periodically to attend conventions. Disappearing to Sydney for months and years at a time they understand (sort of—do New Yorkers ever really understand people who live anywhere but NYC whenever they possibly can?), but sf conventions? In the Midwest? Huh?

The short answer as to why we go to sf conventions in general and Wiscon in particular is:

a) to socialise

b) to sell books and thus have money to pay rent, eat food and go to sf conventions

The long answer:

The sf community is huge and widespread, conventions are the best way to catch up with our sf friends. Yup, it’s true, cons are an excuse to hang out and party. There are parties every night so—unless you’re stupid enough to host one of them—you don’t have to pay for a drink or (it being Wisconsin) for cheese all weekend long. Free booze! Free cheese! Is this heaven? I now have many close, close friends I only see for four or five days a year (tops) and who seem to live on a booze and cheese-only diet (extreme Atkins) which is really weird if you think about it too much (the only seeing each other a few days a year, not the cheese and booze).

WisCon is like smart camp for grownups. You end up in the most amazing conversations about airships and cricket and Elvis and everything else that is good and wise, just standing in the queue for the toilet. WisCon is how I always imagined university would be (but wasn’t). Smart people arguing about smart things and not ever trying to hide how smart they are. There’s no anti-intellectualism at WisCon.

The smart camp activities, other than cheese and booze consumption and conversations while waiting to pee, are all part of the programming. I have to confess that WisCon is one of the few cons where I actually attend programming. For the uninitiated programming at an sf convention typically consists of discussion panels where a number of people sit behind a table on a podium and pontificate for an hour (or in the case of WisCon approx. 75 minutes) on a set topic with interruptions for questions from the audience.

Sitting in the audience for a bad panel is worse than being forced to watch the cast of Neighbours performing an opera by Phillip Glass. But shithouse panels tend to be few and far between at WisCon. Dunno why. Could it be the high quality of people who attend? (Truly you need exceptionally high intelligence and resourcefulness just to be able to successfully complete and submit the signup form.) Or perhaps it’s the incredible amount of work and effort that goes into putting the programming together? Or could it be the overconsumption of booze and cheese making everything seem more amazing than it is?

Being on a panel is way more fun than being in the audience for one. I adore those glorious minutes sitting up on a podium when it’s my job to rant. Yay! I enjoy it so much that I have taken to volunteering to moderate because it’s unhealthy how much I like talking up a storm on panels. I’m afraid I’ll go mad with the power and become a politician or something. Moderating is the only way I can control myself and let the others get a word in edgewise.

Of course, panels aren’t just fun, they’re also business. For writers who have the gift of the gab they’re a superb way of convincing people who haven’t read you that they really really should and preferably with a brand new copy of your book that they’ve just purchased in the dealers’ room. I’ve seen writers perform so well that suddenly all their books are sold out, not just at the con, but at every nearby book shop. Before a panel there were plenty of copies. Afterwards: not one. (Sadly, there are also writers who have the opposite effect, but of that the less said the better. Never do a panel when you’re in a filthy mood.)

Then there’s the readings: where writers read from their work in yet another effort to get the punters to buy books. Most reading streams at conventions are programmed last and consist of writers being put on wherever there’s a gap in their programme. This leads to someone reading a 60-page Elvish wedding scene from their large fantasy epic, even though that means they steal a whole chunk of time from the other two readers in their session who must then cut in half their dark and dirty sexual encounter between a cyborg warrior and a human munitions worker, and their slipstream reworking of The Idiot in first person and present tense set amongst a marauding zombie tribe. You’ll be surprised at how much that scenario doesn’t work for the audience.

It’s how it used to be done at WisCon until in a fit of insanity Scott and me took over. That’s right, we both love WisCon so much we’ve gotten involved helping run it (which I recommend to no one—just kidding). We will make the readings work, we told ourselves. We will make them perfect! We will make all of the writers happy! All of the time! Only to discover that it’s bloody hard work and not the best way to win friends and influence people. Apparently no one can make all the writers happy for even .0000000000000004 of a nanosecond. But, hey, we’re stubborn, one day it will work and then we’ll hand it over to someone else.

It’s definitely better than it used to be. The simple step of encouraging writers to read with writer friends and having a common theme has improved things out of sight. So has our friendly advice. Here’s Scott’s version that we sent to the readers this year:

Gentle WisCon Readers,

This is a more general email, one with a strident and hortatory tone. Gird yourself, and be assured that this missive is based on a wealth of past experiences, and contains no exaggerations. Reading and carefully digesting it will help the reading sessions go smoothly and fairly. You owe it to your reading mates and audience to do so.

1. Reading sessions are 75 minutes long. There are (generally) four readers per session.

2. Does this mean every reader gets 75/4 = 18.75 minutes? GOOD GODDESS, NO! Assume that the session will start five minutes late, and that five minutes will be consumed between each pair of readers by applause, chair shuffling, hemming and hawing. Because that ‘s the way it always happens.

3. Does this mean every reader gets to read for roughly 14 minutes? NO AGAIN! You have just under 14 minutes for EVERYTHING: introducing yourself, waving your book around, making jokes, plot synopses, finding your place, more hemming and hawing . . .

4. So BEFORE you get to Wiscon, carefully rehearse any preamble you intend to make about yourself, your career, what ‘s been going on in your story up to the point you ‘re reading from. (We’ve seen people do this for TEN WHOLE MINUTES before they actually start reading! This is not professional. It does not sell books. It wastes time. Rehearse and minimize.)

5. Even with all these preparations, do not assume that you can have the couch for more than 13 minutes (that ‘s right, another minute was lost as more people came in). That means ROUGHLY 1800 words, or 6-7 pages. But no formula is a substitute for timing yourself reading out loud, very slowly, all introductions included. Thirteen minutes, we say again.

6. Some of you will note that there is a fifteen-minute break between sessions. Can you use this “free” time to read more, extra, better? NO! THAT WOULD BE WRONG! This is time people need to wander around, invariably chatting to each other before getting to their next session. It is time needed for the next reading audience to trickle in and feel that they are in the right place. Reading during this time is in fact STEALING time from other sessions, into which your no-doubt rapt audience will blunder late and noisy. It may feel like a victimless crime, but it is a dreadful thing to do.

We apologize for the tone and capitalized words herein. If we have been rude, it is only to protect those of you who may be altogether too polite. And we ‘re sure you’ll all have huge audiences and great readings.

Scott & Justine

The other glorious features of WisCon are Ellen Klages and her Tiptree Auction Spectacular: Best Auction Mistress Ever. And—believe it or not—the guest of honour speeches, which are almost always amazing. They make you laugh, they make you cry, they make you start running bake sales and plotting world domination. They’re dangerous.

So that, my dear non-sf friends, is why we’re going to WisCon and why we go to sf conventions.

New York City, 25 May 2004