ConGregate Premier: Stackpole & Zahn Writing Workshops

by Erin Ashley

 

Greetings from ConGregate 2017, where Michael A. Stackpole and Timothy Zahn were both on hand to run the convention’s writing workshops. Con-goers who wanted to attend could pay for all nine of the classes in advance for a discount or pay $10 per class when the convention started. Either way, we received our money’s worth. 

Mr. Stackpole’s classes included Finding The Story, World Building 101, 21 Day To A Novel, Characterization, Advanced Characterization, Plotting, and Writing Serial Fiction.

  • Finding The Story: Mr. Stackpole gives a number of basic plot recipes. While this might sound formulaic, it’s more about discovering the pieces that you MUST have in a certain type of story to give the readers the experience that they want. Then your particular characters, settings, and twists give your manuscript its unique flavor.
  • World Building 101: Mr. Stackpole explains how civilizations have historically developed and how to use that knowledge to build your own societies. Then, he takes it a step further, helping young authors find the conflicts inherent in the worlds that they build, how the different levels of society interact with different parts of the world, and how the power gradient flows between different people and levels in the world. 
  • 21 Days To A Novel: This is not how to write an entire novel in 21 days (that’s NaNoWriMo on steroids). It’s 21 days of exercises to help develop the characters, plot, setting, and conflict that you need to get your story rolling. So, it’s more 21 Days of Planning A Novel. Even if you already have your novel planned or are an avid discovery writer, these exercises are great diagnostic tools, if you should find yourself stumped or hitting writers’ block. 
  • Characterization and Advanced Characterization: If you decide to take the classes a la carte, I recommend taking both of these together. They flow and combine together easily, and you (the class member) get even greater ideas on how to characterize well and in a hurry. Mike gives the class a number of characterization systems and explains the pros and cons of each. He also explains the need for characters to have growth arcs and how to show them to the reader. Mike gives the class a list of specific traits that the most enduring characters have, and how to impart them to your own characters. In case you get writer’s block during character creation, he gives you a series of questions and exercises to help shake things loose. These exercises also help build conflicts into and around your characters to make them more effective in the story and more interesting to readers. 
  • Plotting: Mike takes a specific story idea and walks the class through building the story. He shows the tropes, pitfalls, and cliches (so easy to fall into) and how to use them to trick the reader into looking one way, while you build the story in another. He also shows how to seed the little bits of information through the story, so that when the twist comes it is “surprising and inevitable”. If you are having trouble twisting your plots together to achieve the effect on the reader that you want, you need this class.
  • Serial Fiction: Mike explains how the internet is changing the industry to incorporate more serial works. While we all enjoy a great book series, there are also serialized short story pieces—like newspapers produced more than 100 years ago. Now, that market is open on the internet again. Think Serialbox.com and similar sites. With that in mind, Mike teaches you how to break longer works into shorter ones, plot a series (even a book series) in advance, seed the little story nuggets that pull the reader through one episode into another, and more. Continuity is king here! Readers will notice if you accidentally switch a newborn’s gender in a romance series, etc. Few things kick a reader out of the story faster. 

Mr. Zahn’s classes included 101 Ideas In An hour and I Have An Idea-Now What?.

  • 101 Ideas In An Hour: Mr. Zahn helps you find and work through different ideas, created on the fly in the class. Any aspect of any story might be covered, including characters, plots, science fiction, technology, fantasy, magic systems,  alien cultures, and more. He helps you get into the “writer mindset” of questioning, researching material, and extrapolating the possible advances or consequences of the ideas. The class discovers how small changes in technology, magic, culture, etc. can impact society, religion, politics, economics, and so many other parts of a world and its people. 
  • I Have An Idea Now What?: In this workshop, Mr. Zahn provided a basic prompt (genre, time period, and very basic technology idea) and led the class through a series of questioning and creative exercises to evolve that first prompt into characters, viewpoint characters, plot, setting, conflicts in the world and between individual characters, the conflicts and economics of industry, and more. He also described particular characters you would need to tell the specific genre of story you wanted to tell. A fantastic exercise!

In addition to their knowledge of the craft and industry, I was impressed by both Mike and Timothy’s down to earth and helpful attitudes. They obviously remember what it was like for them at the beginning of their careers and want to help new authors find their way in as well. These are the kind of “celebrities” you can kick back and have a beer/soda with. 

My recommendation: Take the classes. Ask any questions you have. Visit with Mike and Tim for a few minutes before/after class or at their dealer’s tables. Even ask them to take five minutes to help you work through a specific problem you are having in your work. They are exceptional at it! 

 

ConGregate 4 / DeepSouthCon 55

ConGregate 4by Michael D. Pederson

 

ConGregate 4 / DeepSouthCon 55
July 14–16, 2017
High Point, NC
www.con-gregate.com

Only in it’s fourth year, it was great to see ConGregate stepping up to host a DeepSouthCon. And they did a great job with it!

This year’s Guests of Honor were Barbara Hambly (Writer GOH) and Alan Pollack (Artist GOH), as well as Michael A. Stackpole, Toni Weisskopf, and Timothy Zahn. I was quite pleased to get panel time with all of this year’s GOHs and can testify that they were all very friendly and approachable. With over 70 guests booked (for just a 450-person convention) they were able to offer a very full and varied slate of panels (seven tracks of programming). And I definitely like the way that ConGregate categorizes their panels; panels are either Audience Participation (AP) or Experts Talk (ET). About two-thirds of the twelve panels I was scheduled for were Audience Participation and they all had good turnouts and active participation. More conventions should think about stealing this idea. (Yes, we do all shamelessly steal ideas from each other.)

For a change, I actually got a chance to hear several of the bands that were performing. I was able to see White Plectrum, Gild the Mourn, and Valentine Wolfe. Gray Rinehart and Angela Pritchett also performed (sadly I missed both of their shows) which made for a nicely eclectic selection of music for the weekend—goth rock, traditional filk, and ukulele!

As DeepSouthCon 55, ConGregate was responsible for presenting the Rebel and Phoenix awards. The Rebel is an award for fans who have contributed the most to Southern fandom while the Phoenix is an award for professionals who have done the same. I was on hand to collect a much-deserved posthumous Rebel award for my friend Bob Ellis. Bob was a long-time con goer who spent the last fifteen years of his life becoming more and more involved with the running of Virginia and Carolina conventions. Nobody disliked Bob; I was more than honored to collect his award for him. Surprisingly, I also received a Rebel myself. Two Phoenix awards were given out as well; one posthumously to Aaron Alston and one to the very alive Simon Hawke. A Rubble award (for the individual who has done the most TO Southern fandom) was also awarded to the Chattanooga Choo-choo Hotel for closing down and leaving LibertyCon without a venue. At the DSC business meeting ConCarolinas won the bid for DeepSouthCon 57 in 2019.

All in all, a very fun intimate convention with plenty to do.

 

Con Review: ConGregate 2014

congregate2014 by Michael D. Pederson

 

ConGregate 2014
July 11–13, 2014
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
http://www.con-gregate.com

Apart from it’s size (about 420 people), you’d never know that ConGregate was a first-year convention. That’s probably because they had a staff of con veterans running the show; literally decades of experience on the staff, and it showed. Their core staff has worked with StellarCon, ConCarolinas, Trinoc*CoN, MACE, RavenCon, and DragonCon—quite the resume.

Let’s start with programming… Five full tracks of programming! Even more significant than the number of panels though, was the quality of the programming. ConGregate went out of their way to make their guest experience more interactive, with several audience participation panels like Fandom Feud; Building the Big, Bad, Radioactive Bug (followed immediately by Killing the Big, Bad, Radioactive Bug); and Debate Club. I moderated Debate Club and had an absolute blast with it. I got to split the audience and the panel into two sides and make them debate classic science fiction arguments (Millenium Falcon vs. Enterprise, better vampire hunter: Buffy or Blade, New Who vs. Classic Who, etc.). Lots of fun!

As per usual, I also had the privilege of interviewing the Guests of Honor: Larry Correia and Mark Poole. I was a little nervous about interviewing Larry due to his internet reputation, but he turned out to be one of the friendliest, most down-to-earth writers I’ve had the honor to work with. Mark was equally entertaining; he had some fantastic stories about the early days of Magic: The Gathering and what it was like working for Wizards of the Coast before they hit it big. The other two Guests of Honor were Toni Weisskopf and Jennifer McCollom, two amazing women that I’m lucky to know. Toni and I did one panel together, Con-Going 101, that was very well attended and highly informative. We actually had a good turnout of people for whom ConGregate was their very first convention experience. I bet they had a great time.

I should probably mention the game room. As is frequently the case I didn’t have enough time to sit down and play anything but I did poke my head in every time that I walked past. It looked to me to be pretty busy most of the time. And they certainly had enough tables and weren’t crowding the gamers together. Again, this was one of the areas where they had decades of experience working for them.

Also, something that’s hard to come by at a first-year convention: Good room parties. I had some tasty scotch the first night but hear that I missed out on a couple of good parties Saturday night as I was busy hosting my own RavenCon party.

This was the first North Carolina convention that I’ve attended since moving back to Virginia in 2010 and I had a great time seeing old friends and making a few new ones. I’m already looking forward to returning next year.

 

Con Review: Gen Con Indy 2014

GenCon2014by Rob Balder

 

Gen Con Indy 2014
August 14–17, 2014
Indianapolis, Indiana
http://www.gencon.com

The best gaming convention in North America had another booming year.

Gen Con manages to offer the spectacular mega-con experience of a DragonCon or San Diego Comic Con (top-name guests, amazing cosplay everywhere you look, endless exhibitor space with everything a geek could want to buy or ogle, and the feeling of taking over the downtown area of a major metropolis) without losing their soul.

If it weren’t for Internationale Spieltage (Spiel) every October in Essen, Germany, Gen Con Indy would be the biggest tabletop games convention in the world, and this year’s crowd was the largest ever (56,614 attendees, topping last year’s attendance of 49,530). Among attendees and exhibitors alike, the whole vibe was upbeat and fun. Beautiful weather all weekend and excellent management by Gen Con’s experienced staff helped make it something special in 2014.

If you’re heading to Gen Con next year, book early and plan to go with friends. You’ll be spending hours with them in tournaments, or trying out the new games you’ve grabbed from independent developers on the exhibit floor. In the middle of 57,000 people, Gen Con will always be about sitting down in a group of 4 or 5 and having fun with your imagination and your friends.

 

Con Review: Intervention 5

Intervention5by Rob Balder

 

Intervention 5
August 22–24, 2014
Rockville, Maryland
http://interventioncon.com

In the 2000s, the traditional science fiction convention scene in the D.C. area was all but dead. Big, raucous, party conventions like EveCon and CastleCon were gone, Capclave continued like the small, dense core left after Disclave went supernova, and even those occasional Star Trek conventions of the 1990s and 1-day autograph expos had gone away. Only Katsucon was really thriving, riding the ever-rising popularity of anime.

But in the 2010s, a set of bright new convention “stars” have been born in the Washington area. 2014 saw the explosive birth of AwesomeCon, a big red-giant of a downtown expo in the vein of a NYCC or a C2E2. The music and gaming relaxacon MAGFest also grew so fast it split into two events (a binary star, to continue the analogy).

But in its fifth year, Intervention remains the happy yellow Sol-class star of the D.C. con scene. With its broad range of guests (musicians, webcomics creators, bloggers, authors, podcasters, game designers, publishers, filmmakers and more), and its refreshing and practical program/workshop track (with workshops on making a business plan, tutorials for using some of the latest creative software, and core topics in various creative fields), there was something there for every area of fannish interest.

This year, they added a full arcade room of classic video games, and the lively party scene continued in the Rockville Hilton’s lounges, lofts, and suites. Intervention does an excellent job of bringing in guests who really want to be around fans and share what they do. D.C. fans couldn’t ask for a nicer, friendlier place to geek out and learn something cool.

 

Con Review: Garden State Comic Fest 2014

ComicFestby KT Pinto

 

Garden State Comic Fest
August 23, 2014
Morristown, New Jersey
http://www.gardenstatecomicfest.com

Here’s a quick bullet review of the show (with the knowledge that this is only the second GSCF ever, and in the same year):

  • The layout of the festival was pretty bad. I know a lot of the logistics is based on the availability of the hotel, but the wandering maze to get from one part of the festival to the other was a little tedious.
  • It was very wise of GSCF to put the Mandalorians in the first room attendees see when they arrive. Their presence not only let people know they were in the right place, but also set the fun, creative tone for the Festival.
  • No map/schedule. This is a mistake I notice that many new conventions/shows make. A schedule and map—even for a small event—is vital so attendees can plan their day and participate in favored events.
  • Great security! They were obviously present, but unobtrusive. There were big, burly guys, for obvious reasons, as well as wiry young men, which for a festival whose big concern would be snatch-and-runs are logical people to have on the security team. There were also two young women at the door to the vendors’ room, who made sure that everyone had an attendee badge before they were allowed in.
  • Great vendors’ room layout. The layout was convenient for people to find one particular vendor or to browse all the tables. Again though, a map of the room would have been a big help.
  • The programming was sparse, but for such a newly established show, not that bad.
  • The autograph table was in an odd location. Again, logistics tend to develop over time.
  • Pre-show promotions were very impressive!
  • They gave out goodie bags with your badge! I haven’t seen a goodie bag in AGES!
  • They validated your parking! It would be nice if some established shows I could mention followed their lead.

Overall, I think this event has done a lot in a very short time, and I look forward to seeing what they do in the future!

 

Con Review: Arisia 2014

arisiaby KT Pinto

 

Arisia 2014
January 17–20, 2014
Boston, Massachusetts
http://2014.arisia.org

I’m going to start with the obvious: Arisia’s hotel is mad expensive. Parking alone was $90 a night! Granted, the hotel is in Boston, but it’s not within walking distance of anything, with a garage that couldn’t hold all the guests’ cars. The opulence of the lobby is amazing, but the set-up of the hotel makes things difficult to get to because of the distance and various levels.

Beyond the cost, Arisia was pretty good. From before the con even started, Arisia was efficient, well managed, and participant friendly. Pre-programming as usual was a dream; Arisia used Zambia, which is a perfect program to organize your schedule and choose panels from their huge selection. This year’s Guests of Honor were Tanya Huff (Author) and Lubov (Artist).

Registration was amazing. There were almost a dozen people behind the registration table, plus a separate group that handled the badges, and their efficiency made a long line move like a breeze. Security had a presence at the convention, but wasn’t a hindrance to the attendees. The convention even arranged for food trucks to be there (although they weren’t prepared for the high demand) to compensate for the fact that the hotel wasn’t near anything.

But, there was something missing. It took me a little while to figure out that it was the same thing that had been occurring at smaller cons: harassment-phobia. It seemed that everything was low-key and people were walking on eggshells, even to the point of worrying about using the wrong pronoun when speaking to someone. It is a concern to me that Arisia—which always seemed to maintain a perfect balance of naughty and nice—turned suspiciously low key.

Will I go back? I’m not really sure. This time around, Arisia didn’t leave me wanting more and, with the high expense and distance, I may have to put this one on the back burner for a while…

 

Con Review: MystiCon 2014

mysticonby KT Pinto

 

MystiCon 2014
February 21–23, 2014
Roanoke, Virginia
http://mysticon-va.com

When I heard who the GoH was this year (first Marina Sirtis, then John DeLancie, both from Star Trek: The Next Generation), I was a little worried about MystiCon. Could a medium-sized convention take on the responsibilities that go along with a crowd-drawing star?

I had no reason for concern. MystiCon had amazing security, crowd control (even with the con being at capacity), and time management. They also made sure not to forget all their other guests, which is something that happens when a con is not used to a mainstream media guest. Their Author GoH, Todd McCaffrey, was a good draw as well, and was extremely outgoing and personable.

Pre-programming was a simple process and there was a huge variety of choices. The layout of the hotel is simple and the rooms are easy to find. One concern of mine was that the readings seemed like they were being held on a separate floor from the rest of the programming, but MystiCon had it on the floor with the con suite, and had planned other programming around it, so it wasn’t in no-man’s land, and it was possible to pull in passers-by.

The one problem I did notice with the convention was something I’m starting to see at other conventions as well: poor moderation on panels. Some moderators I experienced were amazing—like on the Delphic Oracle and the ghost panels—but some moderators were so ineffective, other panelists took over the reins. I’m not sure if it was because of inexperience or just personality issues (like for example, I know I am not moderator material), but no matter what the reason, a bad moderator makes the experience not as much fun for the panel or the audience.

All in all, MystiCon was great! Some concern was mentioned about how they will survive without a mega-media guest, but I have gone to this convention in the past, and I don’t think they will have any problems in 2015.

 

Con Review: Lunacon 2014

 Lunacon2014by KT Pinto

 

Lunacon 2014
March 14–16, 2014
Rye Brook, New York
http://2014.lunacon.org

I usually don’t like going to Lunacon because of the layout of the hotel. Jokingly called the Escher hotel because of the confusing and inconvenient design, the convention has not seemed to create a rhythm to its programming that is conducive to a fun experience for the attendees.

This year was no exception, and even worse. The hotel was doing construction on two floors in the convention wing, so most people’s rooms were far away from the activities. To start off the weekend of issues, the convention had problems with registration, so they just let people into convention areas, which made me seriously question their security set up.

The programming staff tried their best to have new, exciting events throughout the weekend, but the vibe of the con was tired annoyance as they tried to get around the maze of a hotel (and the two inconvenient fire alarms didn’t help), and many programming events were under attended. It wasn’t all bad though, there were some upsides: the parties were well attended, the programming head was readily available and tried her best to make sure things ran well, and the dealer’s room had a great selection of vendors.

One really big bummer: no chocolate fountain at the meet and greet this year.

 

Con Review: RavenCon 9

RavenCon2014by KT Pinto

 

RavenCon 9
April 25–27, 2014
Richmond, Virginia
http://www.ravencon.com

Just in case the staff at RavenCon hadn’t proven in the past that they go above and beyond to make a memorable and fun con for their attendees and participants, fate threw a couple of hurdles in their way to prove themselves this year.

RavenCon did not disappoint.

The weekend started with a three-fold situation: the fire alarm went off at the same time as it was rumored that lightning struck the hotel. As the hotel staff worked with the con staff to get attendees out of the hotel and (unfortunately) into a torrential downpour, they were given word that there was a tornado warning for right where the hotel was located. People could not stay outside.

In this type of insane situation, most people would panic and add to the problems. The RavenCon staff was calm, organized, informative and all accessible. The fire alarm was false, and the con staff helped get the attendees out of the weather (and the glass-ceilinged lobby) and all into interior rooms, where security (obviously present and organized) kept people from leaving until they were given the “all clear”.

If nothing else, this situation alone would show the professional nature of the staff. But they weren’t done. On top of this occurrence, one of a more personal nature happened during the weekend that needed delicate handling on the part of the staff. They fixed the situation for all involved with what seemed like no embarrassment to or gossip from any attendees.

This year’s guests of honor were Elizabeth Bear (author) and Ed Beard (artist).

A few downsides:

The con suite. I think it was a hotel decision and not the con’s, but the con suite used to be in the middle of the programming floor, where it was easy to grab a snack on the way to the next panel. But this year it was on the top floor of the hotel; rather inconvenient with the slow elevators. The food was good though…

The signing table was in the middle of the lobby. Possibly a logistics problem with no solution except this, but authors sometimes get better sales from passers-by. No one passed accidentally by the table in the lobby in its out of the way location.

Programming. Planning and scheduling of programming seemed a little unorganized. There were three or four adult/late-night (themed, not time-scheduled) panels but they were all single-presenter panels so I had no opportunity to sign up for adult programming.

Moderators. RavenCon, like other conventions, was also the victim of bad moderators all weekend. Not being able to move conversation along when there was a lull, not giving others on the panel a chance to talk… even one where they let a member of the audience basically take over the panel first from her seat, and then by joining the panel, much to the insult of the other panelists. I’m not sure what could be done about this issue, but it seems to be a growing problem on the convention circuit.

These were minor problems in the grand scheme of the weekend. As usual, RavenCon was a great convention and a fun weekend, tornado warning and all!