conventions

Panels for 4th Street Fantasy 2018!

I had the opportunity to assist Scott Lynch in putting together this year’s programming for 4th Street Fantasy, and I can’t wait to see these panels in action. The full list, for the curious, is here.

I’ll also be on two panels this year! They’re “Rebuilding Mystery: Rejecting Rules for Magic” and “Talking Across Ten Thousand Years.” (Click the panel descriptions to embiggen.)

Rebuilding the Mystery: Rejecting Rules for Magic

 

Talking Across Ten Thousand Years

 

And on top of that, I’ll be hosting a root beer tasting party with the inimitable Paul Weimer Friday night—we’ll tweet more details on that at the con with the hashtag #4thStreetFantasy.

Looking forward to seeing folks at the con!

 

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Sirens and Voice

The other night Sirens Conference co-founder Amy Tenbrink called me out on Twitter (my weakness is dance music playlists, the trashier the better, now you all know), and obviously I picked up that gauntlet because of course I did.

For every $50 donated to the Sirens scholarship fund that night, I gave one suggestion for a panel not solely consisting of writers as the panelists (aka interdisciplinary panels), because this is important to me.

One of my favorite parts about Sirens is that any attendee can propose programming, and they have no better shot at getting in than anyone else. The vetting board is independent of the conference staff, and all they care about is your proposal.

(Really. I promise. I did my first programming back in 2011 without a credential to my name, and the first time I wanted to do a panel the programming staff helped me figure it out. If you want to participate in Sirens programming but need some backup, EMAIL THEM.)

And that matters. It matters that there is no box anyone has to check to be allowed a platform to speak and share their thoughts.

Because one of my other favorite parts of Sirens is that it’s not a writers conference.

Once more, because it’s super important: SIRENS IS NOT A WRITERS CONFERENCE.

Yes, there are writers there, and that’s great. But what’s also great is that there are readers, academics, publicists, librarians, editors, booksellers, and, oh, did I mention readers? Because the one thing we ALL have in common is that we read fantasy, and we’re passionate about the remarkable work of women in the genre.

One of the ways Sirens demonstrates its commitment to lifting up everyone’s voices, to making sure Sirens is a place where anyone can participate in practice and not just in theory, is by offering several scholarships. Right now, they’re down to the wire to finish meeting this year’s goal.

I think somehow people have gotten the sense that only writers can be on panels, and nothing could be further from the truth. But to have non-writers on panels, attendees need to submit proposals for those panels–and they need to be able to attend.

If you can donate to the scholarship fund, I hope you’ll consider it.

And if you’re going to Sirens this year, I hope you’ll consider submitting programming, which opens soon. To help get you going, here are my panel suggestions from the other night, and all of them are free for the taking.

(Sorry friends I am The Worst at snappy titles.)

 

  1. The Role of Reviews

What are reviews for? What are readers looking for in a review–help choosing a book, or critique to consider it more thoughtfully? How can reviews help or hurt marginalized communities? How does the publishing side use reviews? Are there right/wrong approaches?

I think the Sirens community could have a field day unpacking the challenges/opportunities of reviews. A panel like this could easily include readers, reviewers, librarians/booksellers, publicists, editors, writers, etc.

 

  1. Female Friendships in Fantasy

Let’s talk not just about our favorite female friendships, but what makes them work, and why women having non-toxic and complex relationships on the page, being excellent separate from men, is important.

Why does it matter to see female friendships in fantasy–for readers in today’s world, and in the context of the fantasy genre? What kinds of friendships do you want to see, and have there been shifts? What are common pitfalls? WHERE ARE THE GIRL GANGS. Come on, Sirens! =D

 

  1. Women’s Clothing in Fantasy

First off, there had BETTER be cosplayers on this panel, and also historians, AND I KNOW SIRENS HAS A PLETHORA OF BOTH AMONG ITS ATTENDEES I SEE YOU.

How is clothing in fantasy used to restrain or free female characters? Are dresses and corsets really swordplay prevention (SPOILERS THEY ARE NOT–so what else does fantasy commonly miss?). How does it reinforce values of femininity or its rejection (can we talk about transformation sequences?!)?

 

  1. Plot-bearing women over the age of 30 in fantasy novels: where are they?

And by that I mean, not just side characters, but women well into adulthood who actually shape the course of the story.

Where are the mothers? Where the successful career women? The badass old ladies who aren’t just generic stock crones (though I do love a cantankerous witch)? (None of these are mutually exclusive!) Why is it so important to have them on the page (and not just as villains!)?

And I’d LOVE to see some of our older readers at Sirens on this one. I want to hear their perspectives on these characters–what’s done well, what’s missing–as well as on how the fantasy genre has evolved on this point, if at all.

 

  1. Women’s Work in Fantasy

I want to see historians on this panel, but also knitters and bakers and seamstresses, programmers and chemists and engineers.

How does fantasy privilege traditionally masculine-coded disciplines (like physical combat) over feminine-coded ones (homemaking, textile work, gardening, etc.), and why does this matter? What stories are we missing? How can this work tie into magic, tech, economics, intrigue?

 

Let’s do this, Sirens. ❤

Preparing to Moderate Panels

Best moderation practices vary by the audience of the event, the panel topic, and the panelists themselves. There is no One True Way to moderate well, and I’m not a certified expert! That said, I think there are some broadly applicable preparatory principles for many moderating situations. I’ll explain my reasoning for each to help people judge in what ways they may apply to their particular moderation needs.

First, a note: it’s the job of a moderator to keep any one person—a panelist, an audience member, and their own self—from derailing or running away with the panel. If you agree to moderate, you need to be prepared to redirect, cut people off, or talk over them. You are responsible for the course of the panel, even if you find yourself with an obnoxious panelist or audience member. They happen. Expect the possibility. How moderators deal with those circumstances would be a topic all on its own, so all I’m going to say on this point here is to make sure you’re willing to deal with that possibility before you agree to moderate.

In this post, I’m focusing on the logistics of moderation prep, and my first few recommendations are straightforward:

  • Bring some form of time piece (even if there’s a room monitor to warn you when you’re almost out of time).
  • Bring some form of writing setup (like a notebook and pencil) with you to the panel.
  • Expect to listen more than you speak.

Here’s why.

Aside from helping guide the content of the panel conversation, moderators also guide the course of the conversation. A panel is not just a conversation among experts; it’s an improvised performance. To that end, there are several things moderators should be keeping track of.

  1. Time. The panel only has so much time. Moderators need to make sure it’s not eaten up by a derailing (or endless) point, be it from a panelist or an audience member. They need to have a sense of when it’s time to move on, when they need to start wrapping up to open to audience questions, that sort of thing. Some moderators have a good innate sense of this, but having actual numbers in front of you can help.
  2. Audience questions. Methods vary, but moderators need to track who to call on so people in the audience don’t have to hold their hands in the air forever. It can also be distracting for the panelists, and stressful for people who think others are being ignored. Jotting down a note about the general region the question came from and a notable but innocuous physical characteristic (like an article of clothing, so you can gesture in the direction and call out something like “the person in the pink shirt”—special thanks to Clarissa Ryan for pointing out that moderators should also make a point of avoiding gendered language) and nodding at the person in question so they know you’ve noted them is an easy way to manage this.
  3. Panelist engagement. You don’t want one panelist dominating the conversation. You want a balance to make sure everyone on the panel gets to contribute, and for this you need to actively pay attention to who is comfortable jumping in on their own, who runs away with questions and will need to be redirected, and who is more reticent and will need to be prodded with questions.

 

With that said, these are some guidelines for preparing to moderate a panel. Again, there’s a huge spectrum in useful methods, but these are some principles I’ve had good experience with and would like to pass them on in case they help others. As with all advice, if they don’t work for you, don’t adopt them! Now, without further ado:

  1. EMAIL YOUR PANELISTS.

First, make sure to email them either individually or use BCC (do not give out other people’s contact information without permission), and email them from a professional email account (if you don’t have an email account with the event’s organization, YourName@gmail is fine; dragonsRtehbEST23@yahoo does not fill me with confidence about your professionalism, even if I agree with the sentiment).

Introduce yourself and invite them to contact you with any questions about the panel. They may have some important ones you wouldn’t have thought of, and the panel will have been improved because they knew their input was welcome.

You may also want to email them all again shortly before the event (if it’s a panel at a con, email them a few days before the start of the con, because they won’t have time for careful emails once they’re in transit or there) for any final questions they’ve forgotten to ask previously. Most panelists won’t have any, but it’s good to remind them about the panel and give them a last chance to ask in case.

 

  1. KNOW WHO YOUR PANELISTS ARE AND WHY THEY’RE ON THE PANEL.

This will not always be as obvious as you’d prefer! You don’t necessarily need to have read entire books by them—though this does help—but you need to be familiar enough with their work and/or background to direct questions appropriately during the panel.

 

  1. INTRODUCING THE PANEL AND PANELISTS.

Set the tone for what kind of panel this is going to be right from the get-go, because setting expectations clearly at the outset will save you trouble down the moderating road. If you’re not sure how well you can do this on the fly, write out a couple sentences of introduction in advance and bring them with you.

You also want to plan out how you’re going to introduce the panelists. Many moderators let panelists introduce themselves, which can work fine! But I actually recommend preparing a short (~two sentences) blurb about each. This has several advantages:

  • You can make sure the audience has necessary context to understand where panelists’ opinions are coming from or whom they might want to ask questions of.
  • You can make sure no panelist launches into an exhaustive spiel about their books.
  • You can make sure those prone to massive understatement are given their due.
  • You can set an equal playing field for the panelists by making sure no introduction is substantially longer or shorter than any other. (If someone has written everything under the sun over a twenty year career, summarize; if they have fewer credentials, talk about the merit of their work in more depth.)

If you plan to introduce the panelists yourself, make sure you include the most recent publication audience members can buy from them if such a thing exists. Panelists are generally there for career reasons, so if you’re not going to give them the chance to make the pitch themselves (and in most cases they are delighted for someone else to make the pitch on their behalf!), don’t negate the opportunity to promote their work.

 

  1. PLAN SAMPLE QUESTIONS.

This is arguably the most important point. This makes sure you, as the moderator, are actually prepared for the panel by making you think about the topic, the course you envision for the panel, and what kind of experience you want to help the audience get out of it before it’s upon you. It’ll help you figure out what, if any, questions you need to raise with the panelists or event organizers in advance.

I aim to have ten* solid questions—if I can’t come up with that many, I don’t have the right perspective to moderate. Don’t expect to ask all of them (and definitely don’t interrupt the course of the panel to make sure you can!), because a good panel will diverge organically as the conversation evolves. But you want to have questions ready in case the conversation loses steam or you need to steer the conversation away from fraught waters.

I also make sure I bring a paper copy of my questions with me to the panel and mark off ones we’ve addressed or jot down notes as we go, so I make sure I don’t repeat on accident. Having written notes in front of you can also give you jumping-off points to reframe questions that come up in the course of the panel, and they help keep you from having to scramble in front of an audience.

 

  1. EMAIL A REPRESENTATIVE SELECTION OF SAMPLE QUESTIONS TO THE PANELISTS IF YOU CAN.

Sometimes you can’t, which isn’t the end of the world. But if you can, it helps give panelists an idea of what they’re getting into—and assurance that their moderator knows what they’re doing—and also a chance to reflect on the direction you plan on taking the panel. It helps people who prefer more processing time to be more comfortable actively participating on the panel, and it also allows them the opportunity to raise concerns if needed.

As a note, in my experience, more often than not panelists don’t respond to the list of questions. This generally means everything is fine and you don’t need to worry about it.

 

  1. START WITH AN INTRODUCTORY QUESTION.

When I moderate, I like to go beyond 101 level discussions. Not all panels are like this! But even for panels aiming for a deeper consideration of a topic, I like to start with an introductory question. This should be something that sets up questions to follow but isn’t so complicated off the bat that panelists and audience members alike are thrown for a loop. Ease everyone into the topic and level of discourse.

 

  1. DON’T OPEN TO AUDIENCE QUESTIONS TOO SOON.

Of course you don’t want to leave no time for audience questions either, but this is a more common failing I’ve witnessed in panels. A panel is not the same as a Q&A session, and if the audience has been promised a panel, that is what they should receive. The chosen panelists need to have time to actually dive into the topic they’re ostensibly there to discuss. Give them time to answer questions from the moderator and talk about them amongst themselves before taking audience questions. The exact timing will vary with the panel, but I never open for questions before the midway point and leave no fewer than ten minutes at the end for audience questions.

 

  1. FINAL THOUGHTS.

When it nears time for the panel to conclude, I like to invite closing thoughts from the panelists—this helps the panel feel like it’s come to a conclusion, rather than that you just abruptly cut things off (which in general you have, because ideally there are lots of questions coming from the audience, but you don’t want them to feel cut off). In particular, I often ask for any thoughts on the panel topic the panelists don’t think the panel has covered. It works as a good wrap-up without just restating everything that’s gone before and gives the audience food for thought on other directions the panel conversation could have gone.

 

That’s what I can think of for now! But perhaps this goes some way toward clarifying why I always say that effective panel moderation takes both skill and work. If you have questions about any of my points, please feel free to ask in the comments!

 

*Special thanks to the panel submission process at Sirens, because many of these practices are drawn from inferences made from their guidelines.

orange cat tucked in shoebox on couch

black cat sitting in shoebox on the ground in a sunbeam

The Most Popular Shoebox

Approaching Cons as a Professional Writer

I just returned from a fabulous Sirens, where this year I was reader, presenter, writer, and staff, a new intersection of roles for me. As always, I’ve returned with a lot of thoughts, more a coalescence of ideas accumulated over years of cons rather than a response to a particular experience. (Which is to say, if you think I’m talking about you, unless you know I think of you as a scholar and a gentleperson, you’re probably wrong.)

I’ve had a chance to attend a variety of cons over the last few years before traditionally publishing, which has given me time to realize I have opinions not just on what kind of writer I want to be in the sense of storytelling, but also on what kind of public professional I want to be. I hear writers talk regularly about their public internet/social media presence, but less about the way they approach con-going. Professional writers go to different cons for different reasons, those broadly being:

  • Networking/Meetings
  • Learning craft
  • Selling books
  • Being with friends who get you

Attending a con will usually involve some combination of those goals, but some cons are better for particular priorities. Big cons–like book expos or comic cons–are the best way to get books in front of lots of fans. A tiny regional con or workshop is a better bet for craft. A genre establishment con–WFC, Nebulas, RT–is going to have a high density of pros, which is ideal for scheduling meetings with a lot of publishing professionals.

A con is also an investment: of money, and of time. In general, writers are paying their own way to these events, and they’re events that take time away from writing and editing. More than that, they’re exhausting, physically and emotionally. It’s hard to be “on” all the time. Add to that, a lot of professional writers are introverts. Being social, in public, with people we don’t know, is hard.

But writing is also a job. Cons are, ideally, rejuvenating in a personal fashion, but for a professional writer, they’re also work. I think it’s important to consider what writers get out of cons, and what they want to get out of them, and what that means in terms of approach.

It’s possible for writers to only talk to people at cons they already know–whether because they have many people to catch up with after years of attending a con or years of being away, or many meetings scheduled, or overwhelming shyness and enormous relief that they’re no longer fighting to break in, that they have their group, that they don’t have to put themselves in awkward social situations anymore.

It’s not only possible, it’s easy. It sometimes takes more effort to not end up only talking with people I already know, and I’m glad I’ve had the chance to learn to be aware of that so I don’t, because I think it’s a huge missed opportunity. If I only wanted to talk to friends, I could schedule a retreat, or set up a private group chat. Part of the value of cons is not just bringing together people I already know, but people I don’t already know.

When I go to cons, I want to make deep connections–in ideas, and in relationships. I always want to learn, grow, and make friends.

And not just with other writers and publishing professionals. Readers are smart. Some of the most insightful story craft and emotionally supportive discussions I’ve had were with people who will never type a word of fiction in their lives.

I do also want to make friends with people in my field, but the idea of “networking” without friendship fills me with unease–the kind of hollow foundation it implies in my head is harder for me to navigate than the prospect of demonstrating sincere interest in people and knowing them better. That I don’t have to fret about how to do well, because I am interested–if anything I’ll have more trouble keeping my interest in hearing absolutely everything contained.

So here it is: if I go to a con you’re also at, I want to meet you. No matter whether you’ve been in the industry for decades or never been to a con in your life, I want to hear what you’re excited about, and I want to have a conversation about it and not just small talk.

That’s a choice, and every choice has consequences. I know it means I won’t sleep enough in favor of talking with people, and although I’m an introvert I won’t spend much, let alone enough, time alone. I know it means I’ll need to compensate for the sleep deprivation with making sure to eat extremely healthily, which is often complicated at a con. I know it means I need to stock up on introversion before and after a con, that I’ll lose another day to get my body and mind back in working order. I know it means I need to schedule time at the con, not just to see my friends, but to make sure I have time to see people who aren’t already my friends. I know it means I’ll end up in conversations I want to flee, and I’ll miss visiting with some people I care about.

But I’ll also make new friends, and I’ll have conversations and thoughts I couldn’t have had otherwise. That’s the goal, and that’s the reward.

Cons are a balance, and for every person that balance falls differently. Selling books isn’t currently a top priority for me, for instance–but even once it is, I don’t think my choice on this will change much. One of the professional benefits of putting effort into a public presence is to help readers feel personally connected to writers, which encourages them to buy books and spread the word, and in my experience conversations are way more likely to establish connections than listening to someone sitting up on a panel pedestal. For another, everyone has different mental and physical health needs, but I’ve had time to learn how to balance mine in a con setting. Not everyone can make the same choice I do, nor should they necessarily want to.

But I know how much I’ve valued the people over the years who have taken the time to be patient, to listen, to take me seriously, to engage with me earnestly and thoughtfully, to see me when I’ve been alone. How much it’s mattered, and how much I’ve learned. And I know that’s the kind of professional writer I want to be.

So the next time we’re at the same con, I hope we get a chance to talk. I want to hear what you’re excited about.

experiments in defensive fortifications

Scandinavia Itinerary

I’m heading off to Scandinavia shockingly soon HOW IS IT TIME ALREADY. O_O

*ahem*

I’ll be at Histories of the Future in Uppsala, Sweden on August 4th and 5th for a conference on the legacy of empire and the SFF genre, which I am extremely excited about.

From there I’ll be doing actual, you know, vacation-ing, on account of traveling all the way to Scandinavia anyway, spending the next few days in Stockholm, Sweden and Bergen, Norway.

(VIKING ARTIFACTS. FJORDS. CANNOT FULLY EXPRESS EXCITEMENT. *__*)

And then I’m on to Helsinki for WorldCon! This will be my first WorldCon, and it looks like it’s going to set the bar pretty high. I’m more a creature of small cons (where small cons are, like, 100 people, for context), so we’ll see how this goes! I have loaded a shocking number of books onto my ereader to stock up on introversion in advance. =)

I’ll be arriving in Helsinki in the afternoon on August 10th. If you’re going to be at WorldCon too, ping me and let’s hang out!

Our Archetypal Hero

I want to try to recapture the essence of a conversation over dinner at 4th Street Fantasy before any more details seep away. (I call on dinner companions Jen, Steve, Nicole, Aliza, Lydy, and Skyler to supplement if I miss something important or get this horribly wrong.) If you’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Skyler White, one of the things you should know about her is that she asks the most interesting questions.

Here’s the basic premise: different ages invent and popularize different archetypal heroes in relation to fears and values within the context of their times. Take, for instance, Sherlock Holmes: emerging into the public consciousness at a time when our understanding of science fundamentally changes along with the philosophy of rational thinking after the Age of Reason, Sherlock gives us a hero who can use science and deductive reasoning fluently. Moreover, in a time becoming increasingly centered in cities and crime rising accordingly, Sherlock applies skills and mindset unique to his time and place to solve societal problems particular to that time and place.

So the question, then, is what is our archetypal hero?

I submit two archetypes for consideration.

The first is the conman-as-hero. They’re all over the place these days, in our books (for instance, The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch) and our TV shows (“Leverage,” “Burn Notice”…). I could list contemporary examples forever. What conmen are doing specifically is manipulating identity. In a fast-paced, rapidly changing, increasingly surveilled world, conmen-heroes can change their public identity as needed while still maintaining a firm sense of self, private and separate from their public personae. And they use this ability to fight the powerful on behalf of those abused by power with no viable (legally, financially, etc.) recourse. (I trust I don’t need to elaborate on why that problem resonates in our culture?)

The second archetype I propose is the tech-savvy (cool/hipster) nerd. These are the characters (like Hardison on, again, “Leverage,” or Tony Stark, or let’s not even get me started on SFF book examples) who are hyper-competent at using technology that the general populace is surrounded by but doesn’t really understand, anything from robotics to coding. These tech-savvy heroes navigate technology adeptly and successfully for largely the same reasons as the conmen-heroes: subverting power. In the wake of increasing awareness of how technology is abused and used to infringe on our rights by our own government and massive corporations, the notion of being able to use the tools available to us to protect our date and our selves also really resonates.

What do you think?

Dinner at 4th Street

4th Street Fantasy

4th Street Fantasy is a small con in Minneapolis, a little over 100 people attending this year. Unlike most SFF cons I’m familiar with, it is much less business-focused but very interested in craft. Most con panels I can take or leave, it’s mostly things I’ve heard before, but at 4th Street the panels are fascinating, riveting. Even better, the whole weekend is like an extended conversation, and everyone is delighted to launch into further explorations of the topics over meals. One of the ways it accomplishes that is with one-track programming, so everyone has a shared vocabulary of how to talk about the subjects outside, and also by keeping it small.

If you go to cons only to make connections with editors and agents, this con isn’t for you. If you want to improve your craft and think about the hows and whys of story writing, then it absolutely is.

Last year, I was mostly silent in the corner, listening and absorbing. Not so this year. Partially because I’ve relearned how to interact with people in group settings, but more because I understood what kind of con this was.

By which I mean, it’s the kind of con where I can get into the nerdiest of arguments. Argument is the easiest way for me to learn about my own thoughts and others’ ideas, and I found people at 4th Street happy to oblige me. I’ll expound on something we came up with over dinner in a few days, when my brain has recovered from con.

So anyone who knows me well is going, “No wonder Casey had a good time if she got to argue with people and nerd out!” Seriously, best. Everything from story structure, to investment in relation to suspension of disbelief, to voice as charisma in characterization, to the relative merits and definitions of genre distinctions, no subject was too sacred.

4th Street is not just about improving fantasy, though; it’s also about building community. Minneapolis hosts an active fandom, but this con (by which I mean Elizabeth Bear and Steve Brust’s powers of word-of-mouth) draws fabulous people from all over. Favorite authors and Twitter friends descended, and multiple Viable Paradise classes invaded this year. For me, that meant a mini-reunion with VP classmates, who are equally ready to fence about storytelling into the wee hours of the night or to collectively retreat to make words together. Even better than the discussions is reveling in the feeling of Tribe.

Arun Jiwa, Nicole Lisa, me, Aliza Greenblatt

VP 16 Mini-Reunion: Arun Jiwa, Nicole Lisa, me, Aliza Greenblatt

I ran out of braining capacity Sunday afternoon, but I had a good run until then. Best people, best conversations. Wonderful con.

Now to sleep the sleep of the just.