Con Review: 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! 

 

Con Review: 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.