Friends, geeks, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come not to bury the small convention, but to praise it!
Seriously, that’s going to be the theme of this whole report: How your small, local convention is not something to be shunned while you save up the money to go to whatever Mega-Super-Comic-Con is trending right now, but rather a place to connect with your local community and even meet interesting people, famous and otherwise, without standing in line for hours.
I’ll be honest with you—I’ve been out of the convention scene for, oh, a few years. The last convention I was at had appearances by Michael Dorn and Jonathan Frakes talking about working with Denise Crosby. If you don’t get the reference, Crosby’s character was written out before the end of the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Yeah, it’s been a year or two. However, I was very excited to get back into it because it’s still a lot of fun to rub elbows with fellow geeks and nerds.
I arrived at the Doubletree Spokane at about 2pm on Friday afternoon, thanks to work and living a couple of hours drive away from Spokane. Oh, and road construction on the highway, can’t forget to mention those guys and gals out working in the 100+ degree heat so I could zoom on to geekdom!
Upon arriving, I asked someone behind a table for the registration desk. Due to the unusual layout of the Doubletree, the convention is actually split into three sections: Two on opposite ends of the hotel’s first floor, and a small area on the third floor where there are a couple more conference rooms being used for panels, as well as the hospitality room (food and drink available at less-than-hotel prices). Fortunately, I quickly learned the default uniform for staff is a bright orange t-shirt with the SpoCon mascot on it, which makes them easy to spot in a crowd. Security personnel, by the way, wear red shirts, and anyone that’s watched the original Star Trek can make their own jokes. Both the Chair and the Vice-Chair later told me they kinda knew the jokes would be coming.
The mascot of SpoCon is the marmot, for some unknown reason. This year, the Artist Guest of Honor has been kind enough to give us his rendition of the marmot as a cyberpunk. Of course, I had to buy the t-shirt myself (in boring old white, not orange or red).
Anyway, back to my day. At the registration counter, I met Daniel Moberg, the current Chair of SpoCon and the gentleman responsible for getting me a press pass on short notice. We chatted for a little bit and I learned he’s actually not that geeky, and he jokes because of that, he’s really not sure how he ended up with the job.
At three, I attended my first panel: “Meaningful Religions For Your Game.”
No bonus points for guessing why this one appealed to me! One of the panelists is from a group called RPG Research, which is all about using tabletop gaming as a therapy tool. I found this fascinating and hooked up with the gentleman after the panel to discuss a future interview. He agreed, so that’s in the works…if you have questions for him, please comment or drop them in my email at [email protected].
The panel was actually very respectful to all real-world religions, so it was a good talk about using religions in a meaningful way in your game (or story) rather than just as a “healing depot”. The local cleric/priest/holy man is going to be a thought leader in his community, so it makes a lot of sense to use them as such!
Following the panel, which was well worth the drive up there all on its own (thanks to the panelists and SpoCon volunteer who picked them), it was time to wander the dealer’s area. There I found everything from an actual textbook for learning “Neo-Sindarin,” a version of the language the elves of Middle-Earth speak, to an amazing display of handmade pen and pencil sets.
At five, it was time for the official Opening Ceremonies. Here we got to meet all five of the Guests of Honor, with a short interview with each. First up was the Artist Guest of Honor, Jim Humble, who made a comment that sort of ran through all the other interviews. When asked about his talent, he downplayed the role of talent and emphasized the importance of practice, which most of the other Guests of Honor echoed. One (I honestly forget which one, please forgive me) even said your talent is probably the thing you enjoy enough to actually practice enough to get really good at.
At the Opening Ceremonies, they also talk about their reasons for putting on the convention, and it’s not just to make oodles of money. In fact, SpoCon, along with many if not most of the local conventions, is totally volunteer-run, and they don’t pocket a penny. After they pay the hotel, all the money they make at SpoCon goes to provide books for school libraries in the area. That, I think, is a great cause to support, and that’s why I proudly bought not just the marmot t-shirt from the SpoCon merchandise table, but also this shirt, which spoke to me because in MMORPGs, I usually tend to play a healer of some sort.
Getting back to the volunteers for a moment—this is not a one-month-and-you’re-done thing. As soon as one convention ends, you start planning for the next one, so it’s a year-round gig. Also, not having the backing of a big corporation means doing fundraisers during the year. SpoCon volunteers held a large used book sale one day, and found they had books left over so, well, here’s what they did (by the way, love the little yellow bug!)
If you’re new to attending cons, I definitely encourage you to attend whatever sort of opening they have, because you can get valuable information about changes to panels and such. Turns out one of the guests I was looking forward to hearing from was under the weather, which changed the lineup of panels I’d planned on attending. My advice is “Seek it out, you must!” (apologies to Yoda).
Following the Opening Ceremonies, it’s time to get back in the car to drive home. On the way home I encountered this:
I was actually following a fire truck from a neighboring county part of the way, so you could say he led me right to the fire. They called in help from nearby fire departments to fight it. Stories I heard Monday at work said some of the flames were 40 feet high, but that’s second or third hand, so take it with as many grains of salt as you see fit.
As I went to sleep Friday, I got a text that said the highway had been closed due to the fire, so I wasn’t sure if I’d make it there Saturday or not.
Well, the newspaper said the firefighters got the fire under control around 10:30 pm (thank you, firefighters!), so there was a good bet the road was open. After a quick shave and shower, I put on an official Geeks Under Grace t-shirt, ran through the McDonald’s drive-thru for breakfast on the go, and I was on the road again!
This was more or less “panel day” for me, and not surprisingly all my panel choices were on writing because I’m going to do my best to complete NaNoWriMo this year with something that’s worthy of being published someday.
If you want to get into writing, or just want to know how those who write well do it, I cannot encourage you enough to find your nearest general sci-fi/fantasy convention. There are almost always panels with published authors where you can listen to them explain how they do it and ask your own questions about the skill, craft, and art that is writing.
First panel of Saturday, “Creating a Fantasy World”
Here it was demonstrated really early — like in the first five minutes — that each author has his/her own way of creating a world for their characters to live, adventure, and (hopefully not) die in.
Once you’ve built your world, the important thing is to make sure everything fits together seamlessly. It’s good to step back and ask yourself, “does it make sense to have this in this world?” A cohesive world is one of the many not-so-secret secrets to an amazing story.
Part of fantasy worldbuilding is almost always some form of magic (because honestly, if there is no magic, is it really fantasy?), so you need to consider how to make sure it’s believable and not too powerful. To paraphrase one person (I honestly can’t remember which panel it was on), if your mage just has to cast a spell to get out of the problem, your book ends after three pages. So a lot of the thought put into your world should be how to limit magic, and include a cost for the use of magic…be it a monetary cost or something else. One of my favorite worlds has a magical system that slowly kills the user, which is probably the ultimate limiting force!
I did have a bit of a break before my next panel, so I decided to head out into town. Spokane has a very good comic and gaming shop called Merlyn’s which was only about a block and a half from the hotel, so I decided to take a walk rather than pay another parking fee upon my return to the hotel.
Just like patronizing smaller local conventions is important, so is patronizing small local bookstores and comic book shops. As independent shops, they obviously depend on customers to stay in business, so when I can I prefer to purchase things from them rather than Amazon (not that I don’t love Amazon).
The next panel was “Persecution of the Magi,” and honestly this was a disappointment to me. The concept was intriguing to me, but unfortunately, one of the four panelists kinda took over the whole thing and steered it far afield of the stated direction. I did have the opportunity to bring this up to the Chair and Vice-Chair later, so enough said about that.
However, this does allow me to bring up another good thing about the smaller, local cons. The staff is not only more accessible, but they listen to the guests about ways to make the con better. Seeing the staff interact with the guests this weekend, I can tell you they didn’t listen to me just because I was wearing a press pass and they knew I’d be writing this; they listened because I was their guest and I had an idea for improving things. There was also a prominent suggestion box, and I saw several people using it as I walked by.
Anyway, on to the next panel: “Characters That Fit Your World.” This one actually dovetailed nicely with the first panel of my day, about creating your world, because several of the authors both on the panel and in the audience mentioned they start with the character and then build the world around them, which makes it extremely easy to have one fit the other. It does, however, serve to stress that when you’re writing, if your character doesn’t match the world, you’re going to have difficulties. Of course, every protagonist is going to be a little bit of a misfit in his/her society, or else they’d be home tending their crops instead of out trying not to get killed by dragons.
I did have a little bit of time to meet with Dan, the Chair, and Mason, the Vice-Chair who will be moving into the Chair position next year. I explained what GUG was, and got some more of the backstory of SpoCon. This is a con that’s just coming back from a large split in the volunteer group, which was so serious that for a couple of years there was no SpoCon while they reorganized and found new people. SpoCon 2017 was the “Back from the Dead” year, so they’re still kind of building back up to where they used to be. I’d say they’re off to a really good start, and I look forward to more and even better things from them.
With that, my Saturday was done, as I had to get home and do mundane things like laundry. I’m sure my coworkers would appreciate me wearing clean clothes to work on Monday, after all.
As Fridays are usually when conventions just get going, Sundays are often the days when things wind down. Some of the dealers had already packed up for the next con, and there was a lot less merchandise on the tables still there. This can be a good time to haggle with sellers, but it’s a gamble; you never know if what you wanted is still going to be there at the end of the con. However, with that said, in this age of smartphones there’s no reason to be cheated. There’s an item I’ve been eyeing all weekend, and I was about ready to whip out the old debit card when I decided to do some more research. Turns out I could get the item the seller wanted $25 for on eBay for under $5. I don’t mind a reasonable markup for an independent businessman, but that’s a little much, I think, even considering the shipping costs for the one from eBay. So beware, there are those dealers out there who are depending on you not doing your due diligence and paying their inflated prices because “it’s at the con, it’s cool, and I want it!”
The first and only planned panel for me today (subject to change if I see something else that catches my interest) is “Using Personality Tests to Create Characters.” Personally, this is something I kind of struggle with, so I’m glad I went. Using the website 16personalities.com (not a sponsor of the con, just a handy website), we had more of a wide-open discussion than a real “panel discussion” as everyone, panelists and audience alike, discussed the characters that would fit each of the personality types, as well as how each type might react to events like a bunch of bugbears chasing your heroes. There were originally three panelists for this one, but one of them was ill and couldn’t make it…one of the things I learned about in the Opening Ceremonies.
One thing that struck me in this panel is how much more accessible things are at a small convention. In a large mega-convention with hundreds of people attending a panel, it’s hard to get your question to the panelists. But at a smaller convention where the average audience size for a panel is maybe a dozen people, it’s much easier to actually be a participant rather than just a spectator, and I like that.
Next up, a quick lunch from the hospitality room, which was also a chance to chat with volunteers and other guests who were also grabbing a quick bite. Half the fun of a small convention is getting to know other fans. Some of the guests on my earlier panels were presenters on later panels, and vice versa, and that’s honestly part of the charm. Aside from that, if you are doing the same sort of panels — and most of mine were on writing — you’ll see familiar faces in the audience, and if you step forward and introduce yourself you might make a new friend. Sure, you could do that at a Mega-Super-Cosmic-Con, but honestly, in a crowd of dozens of people for each panel, what are the odds of recognizing someone from an earlier panel?
I also learned I’d missed a panel that would have been interesting, called “Onions and Roses”. It’s the convention guests’ time to talk to the leadership of the convention about the things that went well (Roses) and those that could be improved (Onions). I find it very refreshing that the convention organizers are willing to take a whole hour out of the convention for this.
Anyway, it’s time to wrap things up, both the convention and this report. The closing ceremonies were less well attended than the opening, but the Guests of Honor were all there. I took a moment to touch base with author William C. Dietz (who prefers to be called Bill), and thank him for his service in the Navy. I also told him I’m a book reviewer and he promised to put me on the list for pre-release copies of his books for review, which I am really looking forward to!
Each of the Guests of Honor was asked to say a few words, and all of them thanked the SpoCon volunteers and praised their hard work, and said it was a successful convention. Dr. James Glass, a retired physicist and author, called it an almost perfect con. Bill Dietz, however, had the best line. “So well run, so much fun.” I can’t disagree with that.
SpoCon 2018’s theme was “Shoot for the Stars,” and I’d say they did it well. 2019’s theme is “All Hail the Goblin King,” paying tribute to David Bowie and the movie Labyrinth. I can’t wait!
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