Thursday, December 1, 2011

SFContario-Inspired Convention Musings

Conventions. If you have ever lived in a mid-sized city with a fair sized hotel you have probably seen signs for one sort of convention or another over the summer months. Psychic Expo. Philatelists United. Comic Books and Assorted Figurines. Niche markets, specific demographics, a bunch of people gathered together with similar interests that aim to concentrate on a single topic for the span of a few days. But is it worthwhile to go to a convention if you consider yourself a member of such a niche (or someone interested in becoming one)? Even a convention that might not boast the star power of something like the famed San Diego Comicon or a World Fantasy Convention? I have not been to a large convention for a while, but having recently gone to a smaller convention, I have been put into mind of convention going, and what these events can be all about. The smaller convention in question is SFContario 2, hosted in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Like most writing conventions, SFContario had plenty of books in its sales area (or dealer's room, in "con speak"). This is something of an aside, but because there are so many of them at writing conventions big and small, small press books need to be talked about. These books are generally fine, though sometimes their editing seems a bit slipshod, but what always bothers me about them is that their cover art is terrible. The somewhat generic, bad cgi effect used to create many of them just screams amateur to me. A lot of the covers also seem crowded, and it is generally the best covers that make the greatest use of empty space. In short, those books that don't show the books' characters standing in a dramatic pose appeal to me the most. After all, if I wanted a shot of main characters gazing out toward the viewer or some kind of middle distance, I would just find a cinema and walk around, admiring the posters. Just as I'm insistent on completing my Song of Ice and Fire collection without buying copies that are marked with "Watch the series on HBO" I prefer to keep the media of film and print separate. They use different methods to tell stories, and they have different strengths and weaknesses, which I may get into in a later entry.

Stepping outside the dealer's room of your standard writing convention, these meetings are basically made up of panels. On this point, I have to say that a smaller convention is likely to give better panels. Larger conventions can draw some very interesting and well-known guests, but something that often happens, especially in my experience, is that the star power of such prominent figures can often cast a glamour over a person who is new to conventions. This can lead to the need for a lot of gutsiness to ask a question during a panel, or to approach a panelist afterwards - both of which being very rewarding experiences. A smaller convention, on the other hand, has a feeling that is more similar to a small group workshop, where everyone is at least visibly familiar to everyone else, and the big stars are big stars within their niche, rather than at large. This difference is important, I think, because it makes the big names at a smaller convention approachable by the dedicated fan and curious newcomer alike. After all, the dedicated fan is already familiar with the niche star and their work, and to the newcomer the star is just another interesting panelist, with little to distinguish them from the average convention-goer except for an extra badge or ribbon on their chest

However, smaller conventions do mean smaller convention spaces. Again, this makes it easier to meet the same people over and over again, and thus build a sense of community, but it also means that things can be claustrophobic at times. Of course, larger conventions often have an opposite problem - plenty of space and also plenty of people which can at times make almost anyone feel a little agoraphobic. However, a common trait of any convention regardless of its size is the consuite, a room in which a convention will offer free food, beverages, and seating to all registered convention-goers. At a big convention where the sheer number of people can be overwhelming these consuites are great spaces in which to relax with a smaller crowd, and at smaller conventions these consuites are usually spacious enough to help restore a person's feeling of personal space.

Considering these aspects of conventions - the dealer's room, panels, and the consuite - I think that SFContario 2 was well worth the price of admission. The dealer's room was big enough for most of the author guests to set up shop in, the panels were particularly well done, and the consuite featured everything from chips to vegetables to cheese to Chinese takeout. Two extra notes about the panels, however. First, one panel in particular was incredibly interesting to me. This panel, called SFContario Idol, involved the anonymous submission of the first page of a novel or short story which would be read aloud judged by a panel of guest editors. The editors did mention that they were going to be more exacting than usual, but the fact that details like writing out sound effects or using individual words (such as "shards") were sometimes enough to discount a submission was really quite shocking to me. Granted, when one of the editors replied to another who expounded on the original disclaimer by saying that he would often receive 1000 submissions a month for approximately 10 spots in a magazine the stringency of the criteria made sense. Nonetheless, that panel alone made me glad that I attended.

The other point about panels that I want to raise is the matter of repetition. At the larger conventions that I went to often 30 of roughly 100 panels would be repeated from year to year. I can't confirm it just yet, having only ever gone to a smaller convention, I fear that this panel repetition would happen on a wider scale at these smaller dos. I can't confirm this, though, having only been to one small convention thus far, but I hope that I'm right only in the sense that university departments offer the same basic group of courses every year and professors give them a personal spin. Essentially, though if a similar proportion of panels are repeated at the very least a smaller convention has the greater benefit of fostering closer conversations between attendees and panelists. And for that, if you are interested in finding out more about your niche or interest rather than running out to pitch an idea/story to an agent (such things happen more often at bigger conventions), a smaller convention is probably a better place to start than a larger one.

And as per SFContario - I will definitely be heading back next year. A dealer's room that doesn't overshadow the rest of the convention, a hospitable consuite, and excellent, informative panels make this a great weekend of meeting other writers and editors and discussing the written word.

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