MarsCon 2020 – Con Report

Had another lovely MarsCon this past weekend. I got to do a little bit of everything I wanted, including talking writing with some excellent people (on panels and more casually out and about) and finding a few more anime shows to watch with the kids. We also got to see some of our friends who we don’t get together with nearly often enough.

Programming

I was on seven panels this year, five of which I moderated and two that were moderated by Kathryn Sullivan. We are frequently on panels together as she also swims in the young adult (YA) speculative fiction pool. My favorite thing about her is that she doesn’t beat around the bush on the tough issues, and she stays so positive while doing so.

I was able to coax Ozgur K. Sahin onto three of my panels. I’m always happy to have him at the table, because even if something goes horribly awry, no one will get bored with him there. Where I have home-field advantage on character building, Ozgur is by far better at plot, and he had a lot to add on both these topics. He creates historical fiction (and his book table display is an inspiration for the rapidly approaching point when I will need to manage a table at events). As he came to the indie writing path by a different route, it was great having him on my Saturday morning indie writing panel.

I was fortunate to run into T. Aaron Cisco, a Minneapolis author of Afrofuturism and hard science fiction on Friday night. I met him on a diversity panel at last year’s MarsCon, and we both read at Word Brew in October. In addition to being a genuinely nice person and an early Doctor Who fan (Whovians unite!), T. Aaron Cisco a really funny and engaging speaker. With a bit of help from social media, I was able to draft him onto my indie writer panel as well. This resulted in three completely different perspectives, which was what I was hoping for. It was probably my favorite panel of the weekend.

Authors Kathryn Sullivan, T. Aaron Cisco, and S.N.Arly in the hallway between panels.
Kathryn Sullivan, T. Aaron Cisco, and S.N.Arly standing in the hotel hallway between panels.

My last panel of the con, wasn’t really a panel since it was just me at the table. I’ll be honest, I was not expecting much of an audience at 1 pm on Sunday to hear about Midwestern mythological monsters. However, the room was packed! And the audience became excellent participants as we discussed the reasons why so many writers go back to European monsters and what cool critters we could be using here. I’m super excited to explore ways to add these creatures into my own work.

Girl Scout Cookies and Kids at the Con

MarsCon has a long history of supporting Girl Scout cookie sales. We’ve had one-hour cookie booths the last few years. This year, the con was a little short on participating Girl Scouts, so we had three two-hour cookie booths. While it was kind of a lot, it ended up not being too much for 然然 (Ran Ran). We shared our cookie memes, got to see lots of people on their way to different events, and sold a bunch of cookies (victory thy name is Peanut Butter Patties). We sold 101 packages at the booth and 36 to people who contacted us ahead of the convention with pre-orders.

Meme. Screen capture from the Princess Bride. Text reads: Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. Would you like to buy some cookies?

This year we gave the spawn a bit more free rein, and they handled it very well. They had a great time, stayed up waaaay too late, and managed to not get into any trouble, so it was a win for everyone. It felt like the tween/teen population was smaller than usual, and I’m hoping that’s just a blip that will resolve next year. Nerdy kids need nerdy social activities, and it helps if the nerdy kids are actually there.

Anime

Since my son 百仁 (Bai Ren) didn’t really have any con friends to hang out with this year (and herding the little sister is only fun for so long), we spent some time together primarily checking out anime in either the YA/Anime programming room or the Anime Fusion party room.

S.N.Arly dressed as Elizabeth Lioness from the Seven Deadly Sins (Nanatsu No Taizai).
S.N.Arly as Elizabeth Lioness.

Now on our list to check out, having sat through a few episodes, are:

  • Full Metal Panic
  • Blue Exorcist
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion
  • Last Exile
  • Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water

All in all, a great convention. We’re already registered for next year.

Getting Ready for the Con

I’m wrapping up my preparations for this weekend’s convention, MarsCon. It’s one of my all time favorite cons partly because it includes a bit of everything: costumes, media, anime, gaming, props, demonstrations, art show, dealer’s room, stuff for the kids, parties, movies, science room, and panel discussions on science, fantasy, writing, fandoms, and so many other things. This particular convention also features an entertainment track featuring parody and nerd core musicians.

Tonight I’ll be moderating a panel on plot. I’m one of those moderators who prefers to prepare in advance with a list of questions and resources should they be needed. My goal isn’t to follow a set path, as really good panels can often grow organically. But I figure if folks came in to hear or participate in the panel on plot, going off on a tangent on the history of Girl Scout cookies is really not giving the audience what they came for.

I expect to have some new article ideas, and a boost to my motivation on the Indie Writer series after this weekend.

MarsCon 2020 (Feb 28 – Mar 1)

MarsCon (FB page) is coming up next weekend, and I’ve got a full schedule! Here are the places you can definitely find me:

Friday
08:00 pm – Writing Craft: Plot – Re(a)d Mars (III – Eagle’s Nest)

Saturday
10:00 am – A Peek Into the Indie Writer World – Krushenko’s (Room 1117)
12:00-2:00 pm – Girl Scout Cookie Booth
4:00 pm – Psi Powers: Science Fiction or Fantasy or What? Krushenko’s (Room 1117)
5:00-6:00 pm Girl Scout Cookie Booth
7:00 pm – Through the Magic Door: The Appeal of Portal Fantasy – Re(a)d Mars (III – Eagle’s Nest)
8:00 pm – Dealing With Rejection – Re(a)d Mars (III – Eagle’s Nest)

Sunday
11:00 am – 12:00 pm – Girl Scout Cookie Booth
12:00 pm – Writing Craft: Character Development – Krushenko’s (Room 1117)
1:00 pm Midwest Mythologic Creatures – Re(a)d Mars (III – Eagle’s Nest)

Diversicon 2019

I’ll be attending Diversicon, a cozy speculative fiction convention July 26-28. This year’s theme is “The Next Step.”

This year’s guest of honor is Nisi Shawl, a Tiptree-award-winning author who excels at teaching speculative fiction writers about how we can reflect real world diversity in our work.

The special guest this year is Ben Huset, a photographer and life-long advocate of science and space travel.

My Programming

I will be moderating seven panels over the course of the convention (and I’m prepping for those right now). Given the size of the panels and the convention, most of these will likely be more along the lines of structured conversations.

Friday, July 26

4:00-4:55 p.m. – Editors and Authors
S.N. Arly, mod.: Nisi Shawl

5:00-5:55 p.m. Good Blog/Bad Blog–Modern Technology and
Artists.
S.N. Arly, mod.; Conrad Zero

8:30-9:25 p.m. A Peek Into the Indie Writer World
S.N. Arly, mod.; Conrad Zero

Saturday, July 27

Noon-12:55 p.m. Not My Beautiful Minnesota!
S.N. Arly, mod.; Brian K. Perry, Conrad Zero

1:00-1:55 p.m. Resources for Spec Fic Writers
S.N. Arly, mod.; Conrad Zero

3:00-3:55 p.m. Critique Groups–Functional and Dysfunctional
S. N. Arly, mod.; Brian K. Perry, Conrad Zero. 

Sunday, July 28

Noon-12:55 p.m. Preparing for Readings
S.N. Arly, mod.; Conrad Zero

4th Street Fantasy 2019 – Day 1 (Friday)

4th Street Fantasy is held in St. Louis Park, just to the west of Minneapolis.
Check out my Overview post for my first impression and the basics of this convention.

Panel #1 – Fantasy About Everyday People

This was an excellent conversation on the use of the everyday people of fantasy stories. Panelists discussed the Western obsession with monarchs, true bloodlines, and the chosen one.

Panelists noted that having an ordinary person as a protagonist can change things up a bit in an interesting way. Instead of falling into the trap of constantly needing to raise the stakes until they become absurdly high and you just have to end the whole mess, your character could have very meaningful but more localized goals. Saving a community, a friendship, a family member who is in trouble, can all be satisfying. In fact, YA tends to go with these options more often than the goal of saving the entire world.

The mindset that magic and fantasy has to include or rely on a monarchy was noted to be toxic and limiting. Audiences need variety, and regular people (who most of us are) need to see how they can fit into the dynamic of making the world better.

Character development is critical in this type of story, and a rich world can help keep the audience engaged until the plot is sufficient to keep them hooked.

Good questions that writers should be considering at the outset or planning phase:

  • Why not choose the common person for their point of view character this time?
  • What happens to character development and the story arc when the protagonist is a regular person?
  • Can a common person go out and have an adventure or save the world and still be common when they come back, or will they morph into the hero?
  • Can this be written in a way that’s satisfying to read?
  • Is it easier to maintain a character’s ordinaryness in a short story?

I’m personally a huge fan of ordinary people reacting in an extraordinary way in response to a significant event or circumstance. And unlike some of the panelists, I fully believe that the everyday person who goes out and has an adventure can still be an everyday person. Samwise Gamgee went out and saved the world. When he returned to Hobbiton, he stayed on as Frodo’s gardener and caretaker. Being heroic didn’t take away his intrinsic nature.

Dinner at Roti’s Mediterranean

We had dinner at a place nearby that could accommodate a wide range of diets and food intolerances. It was a lot like Naf Naf. If you’ve never heard of either, it’s basically a Chipotle style restaurant with limited items, but assembled in front of you. In this case as a rice bowl or stuffed pita. The falafel was good.

Panel #2 – The Use or Presence of Gods in Fantasy

On this panel it was noted that many gods in fantasy settings aren’t treated with reverence. It was suggested that this may be because so many writers are atheist.

Panelists discussed situations where they felt the gods were more than aesthetic window dressing. Gods can be vast, powerful, and strange (sometimes alien and incomprehensible), who only select characters can interact with. Useful gods are those who explain aspects of the world the characters can’t understand, the ones who provide social order. Interesting gods may be reserved and disquieting.

When fictional gods are more connected to and involved in the world, the author has to work to explain why they don’t get involved and fix problems. It was noted that gods often help fulfill the second stage/act of Campbell’s monomyth.

Questions for writers to consider when including religion in their fantasy:

  • Is there value or usefulness in allegory or dressing up real religions in fiction?
  • How do you avoid this becoming appropriation?
  • Why do we include gods in fantasy worlds? What purpose do goods serve in fantasy?

4th Street Fantasy 2019 – An Overview

4th Street Fantasy is held in St. Louis Park, just to the west of Minneapolis. The hotel has plenty of parking, and the space designated for the con is about the perfect size and arrangement for the roughly 200-person event. The programming room has enough seats and doesn’t feel crowded when nearly everyone is there. The con suite was stocked with a nice mix of treats and healthy food. There’s nice space to take a moment out for yourself, visit with others, or hold a meetup. There are a number of restaurants within close walking distance.

This was very different from any other convention I’ve attended in that it only has one track of programming. It’s common for convention programming to have time slots that don’t have anything of interest to me, and I worried I’d feel cheated out of opportunity if I wasn’t interested in the one panel running at a given time. This ended up not being so much of an issue, and I ended up attending every panel. The programming tends to be much more academic and intellectual than you’ll find at other conventions, even when covering the same topics. With this setup, it was more like the entire convention was sharing a unified dialogue, focused and directed by the programming.

During panels, volunteers ran microphones to audience members with questions, comments, and asterisks. An asterisk is the opportunity to interrupt an entire panel to make a factual correction or request clarification. There are also volunteers who document all the panelist- and audience-referenced books, television shows, and films on a giant flip-chart. There’s a second flip-chart for comments or tangents deemed “that’s a different panel.” The last panel of the convention is taken from this list, either based on frequency of appearance or how well it fits with the overall conversation of the convention.

4th Street schedules generous meal breaks, great for meetups and to let the brain chill after an hour or two of intensity. The con features a friendly and welcoming atmosphere, a communal feel, and a healthy dose of spontaneity. This convention takes inclusion and accommodating to a level I’ve not seen before.

This was my first 4th Street, and I’m definitely planning on returning in 2020.

4th Street Fantasy Convention

I’ll be attending my first 4th Street Fantasy Convention this coming weekend. It’s always sounded like a potentially interesting time, but it’s out of my limited driving range. Fortunately, fellow author Dana Baird has offered to let me ride with her.

This is an intimate conversational convention focusing on creating fantasy art and fiction, and I hope to come home ready for my next big plan.

MarsCon 2019 – Friday Report

MarsCon is one of my favorite conventions because it has a bit of everything, making it a full geek experience, without the overwhelming crowds like ConVergence, DragonCon, and ComicCon. The programming is diverse, and I can actually get to the things I want to attend (unless there’s two things I want to see at the same time, or I’m scheduled on a panel across from something else). The costumes are top notch, and the people are very nice.

I started this year’s MarsCon by dashing up ten flights of stairs to get to my 4 pm panel Artistic Inspiration. I take my moderator duties seriously, but the hotel was down an elevator and the snow made our drive extra slow. I didn’t die, but I did need my inhaler, and it turned out we had to wait for someone to open the room anyway.

Artistic Inspiration

Our Artistic Inspiration panelists were A. Merc Rustad (writer guest of honor), Ruth Berman (speculative fiction and poetry writer, and Rhysling Award winner), Kathryn Sullivan (YA writer), and myself as moderator. I’ve been on many panels with Ruth and Kathryn. Ruth has a nearly uncanny knowledge of quotes, golden age speculative fiction, and L. Frank Baum. Kathryn brings an energy that can help perk up those dozy panels in hot crowded rooms. I’d not had the pleasure of being on a panel with Merc, and they were an excellent participant, providing a little different perspective and experience than the other panelists, which ensured we had lots to discuss and share.

We talked a bit about how inspiration can be the spark that triggers a story, or it can be a the energy that helps us continue through the longer pieces or rough patches of finishing a story.

Recommendations for sparking your inspiration or refueling your creative energy:

Woman dressed as a Hogwarts student with Gryffindor accents.
S.N.Arly of Gryffindor

Remainder of Friday

MarsCon was held at the Hilton Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport/Mall of America, where it’s been the last few years. It’s a good size and has some nice features – it’s generally accessible (when all three elevators function) the stairs aren’t locked, and they don’t use hyper-scented cleaners, soaps, or deoderizers that trigger my asthma, unlike some hotels. It also has a few downsides in that the parking situation is not ideal and while the restaurant does a great job with breakfast, it’s over-priced and under-whelming for lunch or dinner.

I moderated an 8 pm Writing Diversity Right, but it’s getting it’s own blog post because I have resources to share. The parties were good, with the IKV Rakehell and Nokomis groups always do a nice job. It was nice to see Babylon 5 recognized this year, but I missed the Harry Potter and Royal Manticoran Navy, both of which have been fantastic in the past.

Resources for Speculative Fiction Writers

At this year’s Marscon (March 2-4,2018), I moderated a panel discussion on resources for speculative fiction writers.  I’ll share a bit of our discussion here to tide you over as I prepare several posts (which will all be tagged and available under the resources link in the main menu) with links to tools and essays that may be of use to writers (especially those who write fantasy, science fiction, and horror).

The questions below are some I asked my panelists.  The answers are a summary of the collective discussion.  Huge thanks to Kathryn SullivanNaomi Kritzer, and Ozgur K. Sahin, who are always excellent to talk shop with. 

Q:  How often do you come up with story ideas that are too good to pass up, but you lack some of the know-how needed to do it justice?  

A: In speculative fiction this is pretty common. Sometimes it’s just a small detail here or there that we need (a street name in France, or the cost of rum in 1640).  In other cases, we need a better understanding of a specialized branch of science (cellular structure of northern Wisconsin moss that can most readily converts to biochemical weapon use).  

Several of us have fully sidelined stories or story ideas because we didn’t have and couldn’t get the information we needed.  We may come back to these in time, but often these are fully abandoned as unsalvageable.

Q:  What research techniques have been recommended to you, that you have NOT found useful?

A: Contacting university professors who are experts in your topic generally does not go well. Unless you actually know the professor, or have someone make an introduction, these cold calls for interviews and requests information are often ignored and e-mails go unanswered. These folks are often busy, especially if the subject matter is highly specialized.

What may work better is to reach out to your group of friends to see if any of them know an expert they can introduce you to.  When sending out this kind of request on social media, be sure to preface it with an explanation that you’re doing book research. And be prepared for some of your helpful friends to try to help you fix a perceived problem rather than connecting you to a knowledgeable person.

Q: How do you avoid leaping down the rabbit hole of possibilities when doing story research?

A: While it’s not always a good idea to run down every path you find, it’s a good thing to allow yourself to do once in a while. Everything we read, view, or hear has the potential to feed a story or idea later on, even if it’s not what you need right now.  Give yourself the time to just play with all the possibilities when you can.

If you’re under a rapidly approaching deadline or are short on time, timers can be handy (either on your desktop or your phone) to remind you to stay on task and get back to your project.



Check out my other research and resources for writers posts here.