All* Are Welcome (*terms and conditions may apply)

When a convention or conference chooses its Guests of Honor, the conrunners are making an inherently political choice.

They are giving that person a platform and a microphone. They are, in most cases, giving that person money, if not a direct honorarium, then in-kind, in the form of travel arrangements, hotel, and other expenses.

They are also sending a signal to potential attendees about whose voices they care about — who they value, who they want to promote and endorse — and thus, who will be welcome at their event. Who they’re reaching out to. Who they want to see and interact with.

My favorite conference, Sirens, always chose its guests very carefully. They cared about inclusion and about giving the mic to guests whose diversity and intersectionality — of race, of gender, of sexuality, of disability, of body type, of socioeconomic background, of nationality, of religion — represented the magnificent spectrum of the field of speculative fiction. They included academics as well as the “big draw” authors; they chose people whose words and work had made a positive impact on the community. They chose people whose views might challenge those of us in the audience to do better, be better, challenge ourselves more, to consider life experiences outside our own, to think about the things our own life experiences might have insulated us from. I was ever grateful for it.

A lot of cons aren’t as intentional about their choices, particularly the small, regional, fan-run cons. They often choose people they know, and thus people they know will say yes, with the result that the GOH pages end up looking pretty similar year-to-year, and con-to-con within a region. More effort should certainly be spent to do better, to look outside a con’s familiar bounds, to prioritize reaching out to the communities that are less likely to have platforms offered to them, and thus to welcome new members into the experience — but those cons are not, I think, making their choices out of malice, rather out of inertia.

And then there are the cons that make very deliberate, very intentional choices in the opposite direction.

Yes, this is about MarsCon.

MarsCon is one of my local Virginia cons, and they made a Whole Choice recently. I’m not going to use the name of the GOH who is the center and originator of the maelstrom, because this post really isn’t about him, but you can read up on it here.

The short version is that MarsCon, like last year’s FenCon, chose a GOH best known outside of his own circle for leading a campaign against the recognition of the contribution of marginalized voices in SFF and for being a bully employing classic DARVO techniques whenever anyone voices disapproval of said campaign.

I certainly would have no idea who he was if not for those two things, nor, I suspect, would most of the SFF folk of my acquaintance. He belongs to a sub-genre that has no interest for me and very little overlap with the readers and writers I hang with. Which… fine, in and of itself. He can have his personal politics all he wants. But he chose to make his personal politics everyone else’s problem, which is why a MarsCon regular guest very mildly voiced a concern, on FB, over whether or not he was the right choice for a con that claimed to want to be inclusive.

This GOH, and others like him, do not respond well to such statements. When they hear “Some people choose not to be around you because they find you unpleasant,” they perceive it as an attack, and they determine that a rabidly vitriolic response is not only warranted but necessary. (Again, DARVO).

The GOH wasted no time, it seems, in calling in his flying monkeys to harass the person who voiced concern, swiftly turning the FB threads into an unqualified shitshow. MarsCon responded by shutting down all comments and, rather than addressing the concerns that had just been proved entirely valid, doubling-down on their support for their aggressive GOH.

A whole choice.

MarsCon then made the choice to post a new “Interim Online Policy” claiming that “MarsCon is as it has always been an apolitical Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention. It is the firm stance of MarsCon that personal politics should be left outside of the convention. It will not allow itself to used as a place for anyone to try and forward their personal political views.”

There’s more to the statement and the word “political” is doing some heavy lifting throughout.

For one, speculative fiction is inherently political, as are the people who create and consume it, and it’s entirely disingenuous to pretend otherwise. The only people who want to pretend otherwise are those who have the privilege and luxury of pretending that politics don’t matter, because their own lives are sufficiently insulated from its effects, and whose feelings get hurt when you point that out.

For another, no one that I saw was attacking the GOH’s politics, but rather his well-established history and ongoing practice of being a bully about them.

For a third, MarsCon’s definition of “political” seems to be “anything that we disagree with or that criticizes our choices”.

There’s something particularly craven about conrunners that choose an infamous GOH best known for his politically-motivated aggression towards others and then try to claim that all they want is apolitical civility.

The conrunners set a fire and then wept about how unfair it was when others commented that they smelled smoke.

When they say “leave politics at the door,” what they mean is “your politics must be left at the door; ours will define the tone and tenor of the convention.” And that’s their right — but they shouldn’t try to weasel out of accountability for it.

This post is, truly, not about the GOH himself. As I said, I’d have no idea who he was if he didn’t make himself a nuisance within larger SFF spheres, and I’d be happy to go back to forgetting he exists. This post is about the choices that conrunners make and the effects those choices have on attendees.

Many of the commenters supporting this GOH did what I’ve seen them do at other cons with other, similar GOHs in the past. “Just ignore him.” “Don’t go to his panels, then.” “You can avoid him.” “Just go and enjoy yourself, you probably won’t even notice.”

This places the burden upon the harmed rather than the one doing the harm.

I cannot enjoy a convention if, every time I enter a room, I’m wondering who in there is a potential threat to me. Who doesn’t want me there because I’m female, queer, pagan. Who doesn’t want my friends there because they’re people of color, or trans or nonbinary, or disabled, or anything else they see as not really part of the SFF community, as they would define it.

It’s not just the GOH. For one thing, he is not unique. There are others who operate with the same methods and have faced similar criticisms. So it’s not just him, and it’s not just them. It’s the flying monkeys they bring with them. It’s the tone of the convention. It’s the toxic atmosphere thus created. It’s how the presence of someone with an exclusionary attitude affects other congoers.

I’m lucky. I have other options for congoing. I have money enough to travel. Sometimes I even get invited to do so at someone else’s expense.

But for lots of SFF fans, their small, local, fan-run con might be their only opportunity to attend a convention, to gather with other geeks, to hear from the authors they admire. My heart breaks for those in Virginia who will either lose that opportunity because of MarsCon’s choices, or who will attend, perhaps not knowing what toxicity they’re stepping into or deciding the risk is worth braving it, and who will then be fending off an onslaught of aggressions, both micro and overt, all weekend.

Tragically, MarsCon will probably survive this just fine. What they lose in those of us who don’t want to enter a toxic environment, they’ll likely gain in the GOH’s flying monkeys. Certainly enough of them are crowing about it, about how brave MarsCon is to stand up to the woke mob. About how great this will be, and all cons should take a similar stand, for the sake of civility, because these snowflakes complaining are so intolerant.

I really rather want to shove an explanation of the paradox of tolerance under all their noses.

Honestly, though, it isn’t a surprise. It’s a culmination of what should have been apparent about this particular con a while ago.

I’ve attended a few times, but not in the past couple of years — not so much because of their covid policies themselves as because of the explanation I was given when I (privately) asked what protection measures they were planning for the 2022 convention. Not much, I was told, because if they required those things, people might boycott.

Ah. So you care more about making sure anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers feel comfortable to attend than doing the same for those of us who favor reasonable protection methods? Gotcha. Message heard.

This is also the convention at which this incident occurred.

The full story is there on Twitter, but the short version is: I was moderating a panel. An audience member made a shockingly racist comment. I cut him off, told him that was completely inappropriate, and moved on. He left the room. I was annoyed with myself for not doing more, for not getting his name so that I could give it to the con staff with a suggestion that he was, perhaps, not the sort of attendee they wanted to welcome.

I see now how very wrong I was. That guy was, clearly, exactly the sort of attendee that MarsCon values and seeks to protect.

And, y’know… If you want to host a convention that exclusively caters to the tastes of fans whose idea of what specfic should be calcified somewhere in the Eisenhower administration, who find the beautiful diversity of SFF storytelling threatening, who don’t want cooties getting on what they consider their genre, who don’t like the discomfort they feel when exposed to life experiences that have differed from their own… Then, this is America and, so long as you’re not plotting a crime, you’ve got the freedom of assembly and you can choose with whom you associate. You can choose to run a con for those people.

But just say that. Don’t put out false DEI statements. Don’t catfish the rest of us into giving you a chance. Don’t pretend all are welcome when you are deliberately creating a hostile environment.

And don’t pretend what you’re doing is apolitical.


Giving Good Panel

With in-person conventions back (if often in modified form), I’ve had the opportunity in recent months to think about what makes a panel fun and interesting both to be on as a panelist and as an audience member.

If you’re attending cons as a writer, you’re selling yourself and your work. It can be a great opportunity to reach new readers and develop relationships that can be fruitful in the long term. The exact procedures and best practices can vary by con, as some are more formal than others, but on the whole, here’s my advice for giving good panel — which, for me, means being both engaging and considerate:

Practice (and tailor) your introduction

Introducing yourself at the start of the panel isn’t the time to go into your full CV or publication history. It’s not even the time to recite your full 100 word bio that’s printed in the program.

A good formula? “Hi, I’m [name], I’m the author of [most recent publication or series] and [something else relevant to your writing career]. I’m also [whatever your day job is, or if you don’t have one, mention a hobby].” Then, if there’s anything particularly relevant to the panel I’m on, I’ll mention that. I tend not to go into my background as a Shakespeare scholar, for instance, because that’s usually not directly relevant — but at RavenCon back in April, it was! I was on a panel called “Elements of the Fantastic in Shakespeare,” so it was good to establish my credibility to speak on that particular topic.

Keep the intro to your book or series brief — an apposition, just a short phrase. “I’m the author of the Aven Cycle, historical fantasy set in an alternate ancient Rome” or even just “I’m the author of epic fantasy series the Aven Cycle.”

Something else relevant to your career could be mentioning another book or series, particularly if you have a sizeable backlist. It could be mentioning that you’re a cosplayer, that you write for a fanzine, that you’re also a vendor, whatever. For me, it’s generally mentioning Worldbuilding for Masochists.

Practice this so that you know what you’re going to say before the panel even starts. You don’t want to sound like you don’t know what you’ve written!

Two women in masks sitting at a long table
Me with Marie Brennan at ArmadilloCon 2022

Try to give actionable advice

If you’re on a writing panel, your audience is interested in the craft of writing. Many of them may be writers themselves, whether they intend to seek publication or not. So don’t just talk about what you’ve done; tell them how you do it. Break it down into chunks that could apply to anyone doing this kind of work, not things that are so idiosyncratic to you and your own work that they’d be hard for anyone else to mirror.

For instance, I was on a panel about creating magical systems. We had a question about what to consider when developing them. So I broke it down into three simple things: the source, the cost to the mage, and how it fits into the society around it.

All of those three things are places I can go a lot deeper, of course. Thinking about the source can mean deciding if your magic is divinely inspired, rises from nature, whether there’s a finite or infinite amount of it, whether it’s innate or can be learned. The cost might be literal or more figurative. The societal considerations might cause you to ask how common magic is, how it relates to religion, if a career can be built off of it, etc. And we did go deeper into some of those ideas. But when the moderator or an audience member asks “How?”, I try to keep the initial answer simple and brief.

That’s important because it keeps things nice and clear for the reader, but also because you need to…

Be mindful of time

Every panel seems to have at least one guest who talks for three times as long as anyone else. Maybe they’re arrogant. Maybe they’re oblivious. In either case, it’s not kind either to the audience or the other panelists.

So, be aware of how long you’re speaking! I know some panelists who prop a clock up in front of them, giving them an easy way to track how long they’ve been talking at a quick glance.

Don’t feel like you have to get everything in. You may have a lot to say! You might be able to fill the whole hour on your own! But that’s not the point of a panel. Be careful, too, not to belabor a point. You don’t need to reiterate the same idea four times in slightly different words; make the point, then stop talking.

If you’re nervous about going on too long, practice ahead of time. If you know who your moderator is going to be, email them and ask if they have questions prepped — or, just take a guess at what some questions on your topic are likely to be. (The panel description might help you out there.) Then, set a timer and practice answering. This can be helpful just to get you comfortable knowing what talking for thirty seconds, one minute, or two minutes feels like! (It’s not nearly as long as you think). And, really, that’s the range you should be aiming for.

In a fifty-minute panel, most moderators have six to ten questions prepped, though I’ve been on panels where either the conversation was good enough or someone bloviated enough that we only got through three or four. Rarely do you actually get to ten. So, let’s say six — Well, at least 5 minutes at the beginning and a few at the end are gonna be introductions and wrapping-up. If you want to get through six questions, that’s seven minutes per question, and at least one of those is probably going to be the moderator asking and explaining it. So, six minutes to divide between panelists. If there’s only two or three of you, you can go on a bit more. If there are five of you, less so!

A short, pithy answer is also going to be more memorable to the audience than a long meander.

Don’t give a full synopsis of your book

One way to make sure you’re not going on too long? When you’re talking about your own work, keep it brief.

You want to give the audience the flavor of your book, enough that it might pique their curiosity and make them follow-up by taking your card, following you on social media, or — glory of glories! — actually purchasing your book.

A detailed synopsis isn’t going to do that. They haven’t come to have a book report read to them. So don’t give them plot point by plot point. Don’t even give them the jacket copy. Give them major concepts and themes.

So, for example, when I’m talking about the Aven Cycle, I don’t get into the specific moves and countermoves that the characters are making; I talk about how the books explore power and agency in a complex world and about how I love the intersection of magic and socio-politics. Let the audience hear the big picture things that make you excited about your own work!

I also recommend not mentioning your characters’ names. For the most part, the audience is not going to retain that information. Just say “my protagonist,” “my antagonist,” “this great side character,” “the love interest,” etc.

Three authors sitting at a long table
Me with Lindsay Ribar and Mark Oshiro at Leviosa 2016

Spread the love

Don’t just talk about your own books. Yes, you’re on this panel because of your expertise, but it comes off as tedious and self-centered if you can’t seem to relate the topic to anything but your own work. Recommend other books that exemplify what it is you’re talking about. Pass along craft advice that you’ve received from other authors. Tell the audience where they can go to expand their horizons.

And, of course, I advise being mindful about who you’re recommending. I’ve sat next to a lot of older white dudes who don’t seem to have read anything new since 1990, so that’s all they can rec. It’s highly predictable, and it’s not really helpful for anyone in the audience hoping to be published. They need to be investigating the genre as it exists now. I intentionally recommend authors from marginalized communities as often as possible, and I try to keep those recs very current. I’ll only dig back in time if I need to talk about something that was formative for me or for the genre; otherwise, I go for things that were published within the last few years.

Listen to your fellow panelists

It’s super easy, when you’re on a panel, to fall into the trap of just waiting for your turn to speak, practicing your own answer to the question in your head. This is particularly true if you’re nervous. But do both your fellow panelists and yourself the solid of actually listening to them!

For one thing, they’re here for a reason. They’re going to say smart things, and you never know who might be your next great read, critique partner, podcast guest, or just good friend! And you won’t find out if you’re not taking in their words.

For another — and this is, admittedly, a paneling preference of mine — conversations are more interesting when there’s some interplay between the panelists. Now, not all moderators really allow for this. Some are very strict about one person answers, then the next, then the next. But the best panels I’ve been on have had some flexibility, and once everyone’s at least had a chance to talk, allow for some chitchat between panelists. I was on one at ConCarolinas where the conversation was so great that forty-five minutes passed and it felt like twenty.

It’s also wonderful to be able to refer to what someone else has said — and not repeat it! It’s always okay to say, “Yeah, I think [Other Author] summed that up perfectly” and then allow the panel to move on.

The panelists’ table is not authors’ alley

At many cons, authors and other creators will bring samples of their work to put on the table in front of them while they panel. It’s a mini-marketing opportunity, and it’s great if the audience can associate your face and words with your work right off the bat. Whether this is commonly acceptable or considered crass depends a lot on the con, though. I find that the more academic or professional the assembly, the less likely people are to do this. It’s a lot more common at fan cons, where it’s generally accepted that everybody’s trying to sell something.

What you don’t want to do is usurp the entire table with a display of all your books and other knick-knacks. This isn’t the vendor room, and chances are good that anytime someone bumps the table, something’s going to fall over.

I typically have one book and a stack of my postcards with me. I’ve invested in a couple of solid stands so that I’m not trying awkwardly to prop a book open. (I use these). And I usually wait to see what other folk are putting out before I do one, both, or neither.

Let them know where to find you

Most moderators will give all the panelists a chance to close out with a mini-pitch for themselves and their work. If you’re going to be on other panels during the con, it’s great to mention that; if you have a table in authors’ alley or the vendor room, point the audience there; if you’ll be hanging in the bar and are open to random folk coming to talk with you; if you’ll be at karaoke or a dance and want people to hang out with; if you’re leading a tabletop game — all of those things are great to mention! If the audience is digging you, you want to be able to build on that connection.

And, let them know where to find you post-con. I used to try to rattle off my website and socials, but now I just tell folk to come up and grab a card, since that has the QR code for my LinkTree on it. Then they don’t have to try to scribble anything down or memorize a handle.


Corvid-19: A RavenCon Anthology

Last week, I received unfortunate but not unexpected news: RavenCon, my hometown SFF con, is having to cancel in 2021. Their dates are in April, and with a vaccine not likely to be available to the general population until summer, there’s really no way to hold the event safely; furthermore, Virginia is currently tightening strictures on large gatherings (as well they should), and there’s no telling when they might open back up. It’s the right choice; it’s the necessary choice; it’s an expected choice. It’s still sad, and I will miss seeing everyone in April.

RavenCon is one of the first conventions having to face the unfortunate reality of missing two years due to the pandemic, as their April date means they were one of the first to have to cancel in 2020. I want to make sure that we can come back strong in 2022.

That’s why I donated a story to the Corvid-19 anthology! Yes, you read that right; Corvid-19. Every story in this 210-page anthology features, in some way, the corvidae family of birds: ravens, magpies, crows, coughs, the whole lot.

Art of a raven; #BackTheRaven #BuyTheBook

This benefit anthology has just launched on Kickstarter! In addition to digital or print copies of the anthology, you can also claim benefits ranging from RavenCon buttons and stickers to Tuckerizations (getting your name in a published book as a character), writing critiques, or a bundle of the books which were nominated for the Webster Award.

My contribution to Corvid-19 is an Aven Cycle exclusive short story. The main character is no one you’ll see in the novels — though you may recognize her from the Mages of Aven microfiction series, if you’re a Patreon backer. Her story takes place before From Unseen Fire begins, and it also includes a rendition of the founding of Aven. Have you ever wondered why Aven is Aven, and not Rome? Well, here’s your chance to learn the answer!

I’ve also had a sneak peek at the other entries in the anthology, and they’re delightful. Drawing on ancient myths and modern science, exploring a variety of speculative styles, there’s truly a story in here to delight any fancy.

So I encourage everyone to back this Kickstarter! Not only will you be getting some smashing fiction, you’ll be helping a local con survive this pandemic so that we can gather together in 2022!