Or how I spent my Easter weekend Thursday and Friday….
I was back at Norwescon after an absence of a year and a bit. I didn’t attend last year except for a single party and a few hours in the bar and the year before I’d commuted which meant I tended to arrive, do my panels, and go home. So I feel that I hadn’t really “done” the convention in two years. Part of the reason for my absence being that the convention had not quite measured up to my requirements the last time I’d been there and the timing right at the end of copyedits, proofs, and tax season, but well ahead of promotion for my next books was always exhausting and the hotel and staffing had often left something to be desired. So I admit I was coming to this year with some reservations.
I needn’t have.
At least for me, the con was fantastic! There was a slightly rough start: the hotel did not have the quiet room or tower location I’d reserved and I was placed near the party wing without the hypoallergenic bedding I’d requested (I’m allergic to feathers—not down, just feathers.) But, that was a matter of being slightly overwhelmed and although I was not moved to a quieter room, the wing I was in was actually adequately quiet most of the time (boo to the morons who couldn’t read the “Quiet Zone: please shut up” signs—I don’t care how drunk you are or what time it is). Housekeeping found a single foam pillow and replaced the feather duvet with plain blankets, thus making things acceptable. (Props to Housekeeping in Wing 5 for being gracious, friendly, and polite, trying their damnedest and coming through, even when the guests were all being crazy, demanding, and grumpy.)
So, after managing to get installed in the room—after a very fast and easy check-in—and whip through a shower and into fresh clothes, I carried on to the lobby for dinner before my first panel on Thursday evening. The bar was actually well-staffed with apparently happy employees who were responsive and polite—even funny—and I had a lovely dinner and conversation with a visiting industrial respiration safety equipment trainer on one side and an XCor engineer on the other. Nothing like diving right in.
My first panel was “Paranormal Romance or Urban Fantasy—Which is it?” at 8 pm Thursday following the opening ceremonies. I was blessed with the tired but ever-gracious Butchers (Jim and Shannon) and Jean Johnson while I moderated the panel. Packed house and everything went fabulously. I’d met Shannon Butcher five minutes before the panel started and I’ve never been more tickled—she’s gracious and smart even when jet-lagged and I think I fell instantly in moderator-love. In spite of having been on planes and shuttled around until they weren’t sure which building they were in or what time it was, the Butchers were not only charming, professional and nice, they were funny and sweet (I caught a glimpse of them holding hands as we neared pumpkin-hour.) Jean Johnson—who I’d also just met for the first time, was informative and sprightly and very chatty and I think the crowd had a great time. I certainly did.
I don’t consider myself a great moderator, but with guests like this and a crowd that was enthusiastic and interested, but also polite, it was easy. The roughest part of the panel was reining Jean back in a couple of times when we needed to move on—but an enthusiastic panelist’s hardly the worst thing that can happen. Once the panel was over, there was some chatting with the lingering attendees in the room before the crowd finally drifted away. The Butchers retired early—since it was nearly midnight to them and they’d been up since the crack of dawn in Missouri—and the rest of us drifted off to the small press party upstairs in the con suite or to other events elsewhere.
Friday I met up with some of the Rainforest Writers group for breakfast at nine, which forced me to get up on a con day before 8 am—a horrifying hour for me and my “I hate Daylight Savings Time and you can’t make me get up before noon anyhow!” brain. But I was actually humanoid and upright and dressed. I met up with Jamala Henderson in the lobby and we anchored a table which filled up nicely with writers, about half of whom I knew and the rest I quickly got to know, including the amazing Shelly Rae. Had a lovely feed and then trotted off to my 11 am panel.
Now, I’ve rarely had a big crowd for a panel I was supposed to be on and I figured that in spite of the panel being in Grand Ballroom 3, it was probably going to be a little empty due to being the first panel of the day on Friday. Also, I wasn’t sure how many people would drag their butts out of bed early enough to find a space in the notorious DoubleTree parking lot even for “Dark Fantasy and Horror” with Jim Butcher. Wrong (blissfully) again: the room was fairly full by the time we got started. Of course Jim was there and the other two panelists—Rhiannon Held and Julie McGalliard—were spot on and more than ready to give Jim a run for his money in the charming and clever speaker departments. Once again a fabulous panel who jointly contributed to a great conversation and a panel that I think was a lot more interesting and fun than the topic could have been in less-capable hands.
There’s always a temptation when you have a mega-star on board to let him or her dominate the discussion, but Julie and Rhiannon held their own and the discussion of how and where and why the darker side of urban fantasy intersects with horror went dashing along with very little prompting from me. Rhiannon coined the term “incidental asshole” for the annoying character you introduce just to kill him off and we all plan to steal that term—she was also gorgeously turned-out in a regency-style gown while doing it. Who looks that fantastic so early in the morning?
The audience was wonderful: they asked a lot of smart questions and they were interested in the topic, not just waiting for a chance to ask Jim Dresden Files questions. They joined in the conversation and carried it on, which is everything a moderator could hope for: great panelists and a delighted, participating audience. Another great time was had. The tech crew in the room was also fantastic and thoughtful and a small problem with a speaker that was whining intermittently (machinery, not human) was taken care of as soon as it was brought to their attention and—I believe—no more problems were had from Whiny Speaker Cone for the rest of the con.
Onward! (and a very quick drink of water plus some hallway chat before I trotted off to my next panel.)
Next up was one of the few panels I wasn’t moderating: the writing panel Voice and Vernacular at 1 pm. Whoohoo! Eileen Gunn moderated—which was fantastic since she’s one of those writers and editors who not only knows the territory but can explain it, which is harder than it may sound. Anyhow, a smart, informative discussion of both character and authorial voice techniques got rolling pretty quickly under Ms. Gunn’s direction with Keffy R. M. Kehrli, Michael Alexander, and me having about equal say and—I hope—passing on a lot of helpful stuff about how to give characters effective personal voices, developing your authorial voice, and working with vernacular and dialectic speech without being racist, cliched, or pandering. I hope someone took notes, because I’m afraid I forgot to although I know Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward’s “Writing the Other” came up as well as a couple of other references.
The hardest moments came when I found myself slightly at odds with some of the other panelists. I’m a dialect writer which is currently considered a no-no, since it can come off as racist and condescending. The real key to writing good dialect, we agreed, was creating a unique approach for each character, using word-choice and rhythm rather than spelling out phonetics. I use both in the Greywalker series, since it’s written in first person and what a first person narrator thinks they hear is as valid as what was actually said. But I also feel that it’s a prop you should use only to introduce a speaker’s style, not a crutch you should keep on walking with. Intro, then transition out and drop it: that’s my technique. Not everyone agrees but it works for me.
But it was yet another great panel and it could have gone on for hours since Voice is a huge subject that covers A LOT of writer ground. Alas, we had to let it go at 50 minutes. Keffy was particularly acute on some points since he’s also done some reviewing and editing so the panel as a whole represented the gamut from pure writer to jack-of-all-trades and everything in between.
Sadly I had to leave immediately after the panel to make my next one: “Kickassitude” at 2 pm with the indefatigable Jim Butcher, Maggie Bonham, and Jack Skillingstead. Once again, I was moderating, and the topic question was “what is kickassitude and is it required for an urban fantasy protagonist?” My, my… it was a lively panel, though poor Jack seemed overwhelmed a few times by us loudmouths. In the end, the answer is: Kickassitude is that quality of defiance that makes the protagonist keep on getting up and facing down the big-bad even when the odds are against them—it takes a certain lack of common sense or possibly noble stupidity. And yes, in urban fantasy you must have it. If you don’t, you’re either going to be a greasy spot on the floor or you get to be the villain because… well, you’re not only tough, you’re arrogant about it. But we had a lovely 50 minutes reaching this conclusion and once again the audience was wonderful—they asked thoughtful and interesting questions that were mostly on the topic and expanded the discussion.
Have I mentioned that Jim Butcher gives great author? And the room, which was half the size of the ballroom we’d been in in the morning was SRO? Yes, he does and yes, it was. I only wish I’d done a better job of directing questions to Jack, since he’s a delightful and articulate guy most of the time, but it turned out he’s still working on his urban fantasy and was thinking more than he got to talk. I feel bad about that. Forgive me, Jack.
I had only one more panel for Friday: Supernatural Seattle at 5 pm with J. A. (John) Pitts, K. C. Ball and once again the delightful Julie McGalliard, moderated by Cat Rambo (whom I’d been looking forward to meeting). I took advantage of the break to grab a soft drink in the bar with the crew of miscreants I hang out with and then ran back upstairs for the panel.
What fun! Most of us were on the dark side of the line, but K. C. and Julie, as well as moderator Cat, had a lot of good counterbalancing things to say about the whimsical side of the supernatural. I can’t remember the panel in detail because it rocked along so fast and so well it seemed to be over before it was barely begun. I think we had a whomping good time and the audience seemed to be right with us all the way. Kudos to Cat Rambo for making the panel such a joy and to the rest of the panel for having such a good time. I really enjoyed being able to listen to the panelists without having to think about what to say next—which is the coolest part of not being the moderator on a topic you enjoy.
And thus my obligations were over for the day and it was downstairs for food and drinks and then some goofy partying in the con suite before bed and a new blanket without any feathers hanging about.
And now this post has gone on long enough. I’ll tell you about Saturday and Sunday in the next post. If anyone has photos or video of the Thursday or Friday panels, let me know: I’d be thrilled to link to it.