Reading is a solitary pastime, yet social gatherings lie at the heart of many reading and writing communities. From small get-togethers, such as book clubs and writer’s groups, to large conventions with thousands of attendees, there is something for everyone. These gatherings serve as meeting places for like-minded enthusiasts to discuss everything from the newest book releases to the trials and tribulations of the publishing world.
Susan Boulton, author of the Gaslight fantasy Oracle, went to her first SFF convention back in 2006. “I went (to Eastercon UK) because a fellow writer had persuaded me to go, saying it would give me a feel for the genre and the publishing business as a whole. I went, enjoyed it in some ways, but in others I found it very overwhelming and intimidating. I decided not to go to another. I then received an email from someone I had met there, saying they had enjoyed meeting me and looked forward to seeing me again at another convention. So I thought I would book to go just for the day to the British FantasyCon.
“I was surprised at how many people, who I had met at Eastercon, remembered me, and introduced me to others. I came to realise that, yes, the business side of conventions is interesting, helping you understand publishing and make contacts, but far more important is the friendships that you make. You share the pleasure of seeing the various guests of Honour, panels and events, but you also enjoy the days and nights spent talking not only about the genre, but everything and anything.”
Sometimes genre gatherings can serve as work inspiration. Librarian Tina Panik, who organizes a yearly local convention besides fandom meet-ups, regularly attends the New York Comic Con fishing for ideas she can use in her job. Tina, the reference and adult services manager for her library, believes that, “The best way to bring the stories, characters, and images from the comic and graphic novel world to life is to attend a con. Between the people, the cosplay, and the guest speakers, your imagination will ignite with ideas. The crowds are friendly, the experts are willing to share, and the merchandise is fantastic.”
There are certainly plenty of reasons to attend genre get-togethers. But what happens on the other side, the backstage, so to speak? What’s it like organizing an event, bringing together readers and authors, fans and trade professionals? I’ve invited three guests to tell us a little about what goes into running SFF meet-ups and conventions.
Writer and editor Alex Davis is the author of The Last War (Tickety Boo Press, 2015), the first novel in his science fiction Noukari Trilogy, besides several short stories. Alex also runs a local press, Boo Books, and organizes a twice-yearly convention in Derby. Edge-Lit – and it’s brand new winter offshoot Sledge-Lit – includes ‘panels, readings, workshops, book launches and plenty more besides’ in a one day event that aims to be friendly and welcoming. Alex is also chairing the 2016 edition of the UK national FantasyCon, organized by the British Fantasy Society.
Joanne Hall, Acquisitions Editor for Kristell Ink, is the author of numerous short stories and novels, including The Art of Forgetting duology (Kristell Ink, 2013-2014) and Spark and Carousel (Kristell Ink, 2015). Joanne has chaired Bristol’s only science fiction and fantasy convention – BristolCon – for the past six years, and also runs the Bristol Fantasy and SF Society Facebook page. The one-day BristolCon has panels, workshops, kaffeklatsches, an art show and a dealer’s section, and aims to be a ‘fun, friendly and informative addition to the UK’s convention calendar’.
Steven Poore is the author of The Heir to the North (Kristell Ink, 2015), the first in his Malessar’s Curse duology (the sequel, The High King’s Vengeance, is due in late 2016), besides the ongoing science fiction series The Empire Dance and several short stories. Steven organizes the Sheffield Fantasy and Science Fiction Social Club (SFSF Social), a semi-regular gathering in an informal setting that brings genre enthusiasts together for author readings and Q&A’s, giveaways, and plenty of good conversation.
Juliana: What were some of the first SFF events you attended, that sparked off your interest for this sort of gathering?
Alex: Most of my initial engagement in writing events was with book festivals and writing groups, so that was all kinds of different genres. But I was always hugely interested and a big fan of genre fiction, so that was always an area I wanted to explore – and I think it’s fair to say genre fiction doesn’t always get a fair crack of the whip where it comes to literature festivals. So when all my volunteering work led me to a paid role as Literature Development Officer, I was really keen to get something going with a real literary feel but looking at genre fiction, which is where Alt.Fiction came from back in 2005. My first convention-going experience was EasterCon in Glasgow, which helped to crystallise a lot of what I really wanted from my event – a focus on writing, pure and simple, without any of the added elements that come at a multimedia convention.
Steven: Before Alex Bardy started up the York Pubmeets, there wasn’t anything happening up here apart from EdgeLit and the usual annual conventions. Angry Robot had brought five of their authors to Sheffield once, for an afternoon, but that really was it. Alex told me about his idea and convinced me to come up to York, with a couple of friends, to attend the first Pubmeet, where David Tallerman and Janine Ashbless were reading. Actually, I didn’t need all that much convincing.
Joanne: The first big SFF event I remember attending was FantasyCon in Nottingham. I’m not sure what year it was but Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker were there. I don’t think I got as much out of it as I could – I hadn’t been to a convention before and I didn’t really know anyone and I was very shy. After that I went to a few commercial events, and for a few years I attended MicroCon, which is the long running convention organised by Exeter University’s SF society, which helped me get over some of my shyness and made me want to attend bigger conventions again!
Juliana: How did you move from simply attending to helping organize SFF gatherings?
Alex: My role at Derby City Council gave me the freedom to run a host of different events, and I was a bit nervous to pitch Alt.Fiction as an event to my boss at the time. But luckily enough they went for it and I even managed to get some Arts Council funding, which was a huge help. Immediately I had a feel there was a hugely welcoming community there, and people were amazingly willing to help and support me in getting something new off the ground. Having run the one event I found myself getting a lot more active, becoming much more aware of the many conventions going on and attending things like FantasyCon and NewCon.
Joanne: It was a combination of beer and being broke…
I was in the pub with my friend Colin, and we were chatting about what a shame it was a city like Bristol, which has a thriving SFF scene, didn’t have its own convention, and what a financial burden it was to have to travel to London or Nottingham or Brighton for the big three-day cons. We decided what we wanted was a local, affordable convention, and as the conversation became more… lubricated… it sounded like a better and better idea to organise one ourselves. So we did. The first BristolCon ran for an afternoon and had around sixty attendees, but everyone had such a great time that we immediately decided that we were going to do another one.
Steven: I blame Alex. It’s all his fault. 🙂 After the first Pubmeet I talked to him at Fantasycon and said “If only there was something like this in Sheffield.” He vanished, then came back and said, “Adrian Tchaikovsky will do a reading for you.” And suddenly I was an event organiser.
Juliana: Could you tell us a little about the events you’re currently involved in?
Joanne: I’m currently the chair of BristolCon – we have a committee of about 10-12 people who organise it and my job is to keep them on track and to occasionally keep the peace between them! BristolCon is a one-day convention that takes place in Bristol every October; this years’ event takes place on October 29th and our Guests of Honour are Ken Macleod and Sarah Pinborough, while our Artist GOH is Fangorn. You can find all kinds of information about it at www.bristolcon.org. It’s great fun, it’s a really friendly event, and very relaxed.
Steven: Mainly it’s the Sheffield Fantasy & Science Fiction Social, which we abbreviate to SFSF (“We” being myself and fellow fans Kathryn, Darren and Sara). We’ve hosted authors from as far afield as Chesterfield and San Francisco! We’ve found that the structure of readings & Q&A sessions, followed by giveaways, is one that really does work and doesn’t need much fiddling with. SRFC [Super Relaxed Fantasy Club] have really set the bar for us in that respect. We have started to change it up a little as we’ve become more confident – last time we hosted an Ask The Agent session with Amanda Rutter, and our next Social will feature Adele Wearing talking about the award-winning Fox Spirit Books.
Alex: I’ve got two main events on the go at the moment – in July I’m running the fifth Edge-Lit event, which takes place at QUAD in Derby on the 16th July. We had a really big year last year with about 250 people attending, so we’re looking forward to expanding on that while keeping the friendly and welcoming vibe which has made the event so popular over the years.
This year I’m also chairing the British Fantasy Convention, FantasyCon, which will be taking place in Scarborough from the 23rd-25th September – the hotel is right by the beach, so we’ve dubbed it FantasyCon By The Sea! We’re expecting around 500 people for that, potentially more, so it’s definitely a big undertaking but hugely exciting. We’ve already announced a couple of great Guests of Honour, and have plenty more goodies up our sleeves yet!
Juliana: What are the biggest challenges in putting together an event of this sort?
Joanne: I think the first big challenge is finding a suitable venue – one that’s accessible and affordable, with good transport links and the right sort of layout to run panels and workshops and provide social space. Then you need a good team of people – no one can run a convention without help, but organising a team of unpaid volunteers brings its own challenges. Everyone who is involved in BristolCon is there because they want to support the con, but they don’t always agree on the best way to go about it!
Alex: For me any event is made up of a certain number of processes – there’s a lot of logistics and a lot of ins and outs, and things can live and die on what look like small details. The one thing that’s always difficult is programming, connecting with the right authors and speakers and getting the right kind of balance in terms of panels, workshops and other activities. You need to have things that are insightful but also enjoyable. Guests of Honour are also a unique challenge, as high-profile and bestselling authors tend to get booked up early.
Steven: Getting the word out to people. This is the frustrating part, and the nerve-wracking part, for me. There must be so many people in South Yorkshire who read SFF, but they don’t know the Socials are there. That means you get folks on the city council who think there isn’t a demand, so they don’t want to know when you’ve got something to offer them and so on… I always worry that nobody’s going to turn up. For someone who has an on-off relationship with crowds, that’s a weird feeling.
Juliana: And what do you find are the biggest rewards? What is it that keeps you going?
Steven: Meeting new people who are just as enthusiastic as I am about the genre – that’s the big one. And when you hear feedback about the events, that makes it all worthwhile.
Alex: Basically it’s being there on the day, seeing it happen and seeing people enjoying themselves and hopefully being inspired by the event! The whole thing has no life other than on paper for the better part of a year, and to see all of that come together over the matter of a few days is just phenomenal. It’s exciting also to see an event grow and expand – seeing the comments on social media post-event gives you a nice warm glow!
Joanne: The cake (anyone who has been to BristolCon knows about the cake…)
Seriously, the biggest reward is seeing everyone have a good time, seeing people really fired up with enthusiasm for this thing you’ve organised. For me one of the most brilliant things has been watching people who came to BristolCon as novice or unpublished writers go on to write books, sign deals, have great success and come back as panellists. I like to think that the things they gained from attending BristolCon helped them on that path. A big part of our remit is to encourage emerging local talent, with both BristolCon and our Fringe events, and when we achieve that it’s a great feeling.
Juliana: The baby steps question! For anyone interested in starting up some sort of SFF meet-up or event in their area, what tips can you share?
Joanne: I wouldn’t suggest they throw themselves straight into con-running – BristolCon grew from an existing SFF group in the city. But if anyone out there wants to start an SFF group, pub meets or reading nights, I’d say go for it. It doesn’t take as much organisation as you might think. You just need a room or space in a friendly local pub or community centre (and I’d like to give a shout out to The Shakespeare Tavern on Prince Street which is the SFF pub-hub where we have all our pub nights, Fringe Readings and BristolCon committee meetings), and some like-minded people. If you’re doing readings you will also need some kind of portable PA system if your pub doesn’t have one.
We do all our shout-outs and interaction via social media, either on Facebook (The Bristol Fantasy and SF Society) or Twitter (@hierath77).
Steven: Don’t be afraid to ask. Authors want an audience. Even if they have to decline first time around, if you’re polite and professional (hopefully I’m getting there!) they’ll remember you’re there. And be realistic about what you can achieve – don’t try to run a whole con on your first date! And remember that everybody wants an event to succeed and be fun.
Alex: For me there are two things you need to do before starting – find a venue and have a budget that works. If you don’t have those two, then you don’t have any event. Look around for the right place, somewhere you want to work with, somewhere that gets what you’re about. Then make sure you have a few quid to get things rolling – you can often sell tickets, depending what kind of event it is – but you’ll probably need some cash for authors, venue costs, marketing… also don’t be shy to have a word with some other event organisers, most are very happy to help and offer advice!
Juliana: If you were given an unlimited event-going budget, what would be on your wish list of cons and gatherings?
Alex: Being as I live in the UK, I’d love to get over to the US and go to some of the big conventions over there! Something like a World Fantasy Convention or World Horror Convention would be fantastic.
Joanne: I’d like to go to some of the big American conventions – I’ve heard very good things about WisCon and Convergence, so they would both be on my wish list. And I’d like to go to WorldCon in Helsinki in 2017 – that looks like it’s going to be amazing!
Steven: I keep looking at Nine Worlds and thinking if only my budget would stretch… and WorldCon in Helsinki. And the BristolCon Fringe. All of them, to be honest!
Juliana: If you could invite any three authors, living or dead, to attend your next SFF event, who would you pick?
Alex: Blimey, there’s a question! For living authors I’d absolutely love to have Michael Moorcock, who was such a formative part of my teenage years and a huge influence on me. Unfortunately my other two favourite authors of all time are no longer with us – Ray Bradbury and JG Ballard. That would have been some line-up!
Steven: Tad Williams. Mary Shelley. Iain M Banks. There would be many more, but heck, one event at a time! 🙂
Joanne: I’d like to pick three authors we would have liked to have had at any BristolCon if the circumstances had been different. So, Diana Wynne Jones, Iain M Banks and the late great Colin Harvey, because it was all his drunken idea in the first place….
Juliana: Thank you very much to Alex, Joanne, and Steven for sharing a little of what goes into organizing genre events. Here’s to many more years of successful gatherings! And cake.
Steven Poore blogs at http://stevenpoore.wordpress.com, and you can also find him on Facebook: facebook.com/thestevenpoore. On Twitter, he tweets both as @stevenjpoore and as @SFSFSocial, the Sheffield Fantasy and Science Fiction Social’s account.
For more information on her work, as well as blog posts and reviews, check out Joanne Hall’s website at https://hierath.wordpress.com. You can find Joanne on Twitter @hierath77, and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Hierath77/?ref=br_rs.
Alex Davis shares interviews, writing advice, and information on his work at http://alexblogsabout.com, as well as on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/alex.davis.161446. Alex tweets as @AlexDavis1981.
Find further information on the events mentioned at:
http://sfsfsocial.wordpress.com (First social of the year: February 20th, 2016)
http://www.derbyquad.co.uk/special-event/edge-lit-5 (July 16th, 2016)
http://fantasyconbythesea.com/ (September 23rd-25th, 2016)
www.bristolcon.org (October 29th, 2016)
Spotlight is a monthly blog feature. Check out December’s Spotlight on Mythology in Fantasy with Snorri Kristjansson and Kerry Buchanan. Next up in February: Spotlight on Making Time to Write.