NESCBWI 2021 Part I: pre-conference planning

Working on last minute details!

Back in 2019, fresh from the excitement of the New England regional conference for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, I said YES to a very important commitment: to step in as co-director and help plan and run the spring conference for 2020 and 2021.

Little did we know back then that the world was about to be hit by the COVID pandemic, with all its devastating ramifications.

It takes time to plan an in-person conference with as many moving parts as ours — from workshops to critique sessions to sit-down meals for almost 700 attendees. By the time 2020 arrived, we had most of it done. Registration opened amid growing concerns about global health, but we shrugged off the whispers — we’d be fine, right? This wasn’t going to impact New England.

And then, in March, everything began to shut down. We all watched in horror as the death toll worldwide began to rise. This was big; so much bigger than our concerns over a weekend event. By April, it was clear that COVID was everywhere, and that the pandemic wasn’t going to end anytime soon. Even if state mandates hadn’t done the job for us, there was no way we would have put our members at risk. There was nothing we could do except cancel the conference. A few people mentioned moving online, but it was far too late by then to shift a huge event to a virtual platform. We honored the agent/editor critiques that had been booked by holding an online critique day but postponed the rest of the planned activities.

After a hasty phone meeting, my co-director Casey and I agreed to stay on an extra year. To run the 2020 conference in 2021. Because back then, we still thought COVID would be solved by the end of the year, maybe even by summer.

We all know what happened to the rest of 2020. Infection rates dipped, then rose. New strains emerged; studies and data brought terrible insight on the aftereffects of coronavirus. Death numbers worldwide kept climbing. The race for a vaccine was on, and masking up became a permanent and no longer temporary measure. By October, it was clear that there was no way we could plan an in-person event for 2021, due to the amount of time it takes and the uncertainties ahead. We made the call and emailed our membership and our faculty: 2021 was going virtual.

So, how to plan an online conference? How to turn our Virtual Voyage: Finding Joy in the Journey into a spark of light at a dark and difficult time?

First of all, we polled the faculty of our canceled 2020 event to find out who was interested in doing a virtual version of their workshop. We had already decided we would do a streamlined event — there was no way we could attempt the almost 70 workshops we usually do at the in-person conference. There would be no critique sessions; the New England SCBWI already holds 4 virtual agent/editor critique days throughout the year, so there was no reason to add to this. And we would have to cut a lot of the side events that have become tradition, like illustrator challenges and the pitch practice party. We knew what we DID want: to provide a weekend of craft and inspiration, something that would help boost creativity during a time when a lot of writers and illustrators are finding it hard to produce work.

We were delighted to hear back from 21 of our faculty, who came up with alternate versions of their workshops for us. We decided to add ask-a-mentor sessions in place of the agent/editor critiques, and we tossed in an Open Screen to substitute our traditional Open Mic night. We kept the two planned keynote sessions with Padma Venkatraman and Mike Curato, but changed the Friday night opening event to a Conversations with Two Legends, with Jane Yolen and Nikki Grimes, to be moderated by Heidi Stemple. And we came up with the idea of keeping a dedicated Zoom meeting open throughout to double as reception desk for issues and a social space, with themed breakout rooms for drop-in mingling.

By the time mid-April 2021 rolled around, we were set. We had our platforms prepared, thanks to Assistant Regional Advisor and tech goddess Christy Yaros. We had our programming in order, thanks to my co-director Casey Robinson. We had our Zoom hosting and moderating volunteers lined up and waiting (that one was my job!). And we had our Regional Advisor Kristine Asselin to do all the number crunching and behind-the-scenes bureaucratic wizardry. We were ready to make Finding Joy in the Journey a virtual reality.

<See also Part II: virtual goes live>

Boskone 58 Round-up

Agent secrets panel

My first Boskone — in fact, my first ever SF/F Con — was in 2015. I’ve been back every year, faithfully checking into the Waterfront Westin in Boston each February for another weekend of panels, readings, and excellent conversation with new and old friends.

The 2020 Boskone took place just before the world locked down due to COVID-19. The 2021 edition wasn’t quite as lucky, but the New England Science Fiction Association, who organize the convention, rallied round and faced the challenge beautifully to produce a well-planned three-day virtual event.

With pared down and yet still extensive programming, there were plenty of interesting things taking place over the weekend, with the added bonus of recorded panels so attendees could catch up later. There was also a dedicated social Zoom open all day to give us a little of that feeling of chatting to people in hallways, in the con suite, and in the lobby lounge area. Was it the same as in-person? Of course not, but it was a good solution for a hard situation, and the virtual con had the advantage of broadening event access for those who might not otherwise be able to attend.

Some of my personal highlights from the weekend:

  • The Friday night reading by Paul Tremblay and Joe Hill was fabulous, and it was great getting to hear them chat about horror and writing.
  • The Agents: Revealing the secrets panel with Mur Lafferty, Michael Stearns, Joshua Bilmes, and Sara Megibow had good advice, such as: when vetting potential agents, remember there are bad agents, but there are also good agents who might be bad for you.
  • Supernatural Sleuthing with Dana Cameron, Leigh Perry, Nancy Holder, Bracken MacLeod, and David McDonald was a blast and had some of my favorite Boskone regulars on it. Advice included: a mystery needs to be solved. A mysterious novel just needs to create atmosphere. It’s all about audience expectations and author promise
  • The Guest of Honor interview, where Joe Abercrombie told Joe Hill that, “I like characters that are neither heroes not villains, but something in between”.
  • I loved the panel on The Representation of LGBTQ+ in Popular Culture, with Gillian Daniels, John Chu, Julia Rios, Jennifer Williams, and Sara Megibow — they could have done with double the time! One point made over and over was that ‘good representation’ shouldn’t mean just positive — characters should be allowed to be messy, nuanced, etc. In other words, realistic vs ‘good’.
  • GoH Joe Abercrombie joined Rebecca Roanhorse, Marie Brennan, Aleron Kong, and Bob Kuhn to talk about The Gritty Underbelly of Fantasy. A lot of the discussion centered on ‘grimdark’ being a reaction to the good/bad simplicity of classic fantasy.
  • A discussion on Post-Pandemic SFF Conventions, with Brenda Noiseux, Gerald L. Coleman, Steven Silver, Priscilla Olson, and Marcin Klack brought up a lot of interesting points, such as the current situation being the jumping-off point for future hybrid events which include virtual aspects so as to be accessible and inclusive for those who would not normally be able to attend due to financial, physical, and geographical constraints, among others.

Some thoughts:

  • Virtual con burn-out is just as much a thing as in-person event exhaustion. It’s tiring staring at a screen, and it’s tough to schedule watching time around things going on at home. Recordings helped with this, but screen fatigue definitely puts limitations on watching.
  • Despite this, I got a lot out of the panels I watched, and with the recorded events there was the bonus of being able to pause to take notes.
  • The chat feature during panels was for the most part lively and fun, and no unpleasant incidents occurred during the events I watched.
  • One nice aspect of having webinars routed through Grenadine was that it allowed us to see who was ‘in the room’ before the webinars started. It was nice being able to spot people I knew!
  • I wish I’d planned times to meet up with friends in the social rooms! I did drop in and look around, but it was the equivalent of randomly walking through the con suite to see if anyone I knew was there…
  • This was a huge undertaking and seemed overall to run very smoothly. Well done NESFA for another successful Boskone!

Left: Supernatural Sleuthing panel; Right: Joe Abercrombie and Joe Hill at GoH interview

Con Round-Up Part II: BOSKONE

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Life has been weird ever since COVID-19 went global. The past few weeks have been simultaneously dragonfly-quick and slow as a New England winter. One day drags by while the next is gone in a blink, and time, for me at least, has become a fickle capricious thing, heavy as stone yet as hard to hold onto as a handful of fine, dry sand.

That being so, I suddenly realized it’s been a month and a half since over a thousand sci fi, fantasy, and horror fans gathered for Boskone 57, and I’m long overdue a con round-up!

Boskone 57 was once again held at the Westin Waterfront in Boston on President’s Day weekend. For once I had no program items I was scheduled for on Friday, so I was able to drive in and settle down, catching up with friends and getting in the mood for my Saturday panels.

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With con buddies and Boskone regulars Shecky and Clarence Young (the photo is Clarence’s)

On Friday I only watched a couple of program items. One was the interview with Holly Black, Boskone’s YA Guest of Honor. This brought a fun insight into Holly’s work and creative process, as well as a chance for a sneak peek at some of her upcoming projects.

I also caught the Fashion in Fantasy Worlds panel, with Janice Gelb, Melissa Caruso, Zig Zag Claybourne, Nightwing Whitehead, and Sarah Morrison. My main takeaway from the panel was that fashion in novels is about the flavor, not the details; it’s about how the character feels in the clothes they wear, and not necessarily the clothes themselves.

Saturday morning dawned bright and sunny, and I was more than ready to go by the time programming started at 10am. I always like to sign up for a kaffeeklatsch if possible, and this year I was lucky enough to have the chance to sit down with the wonderful Charlaine Harris, who confessed that “I write because I get bored!”

Next up was Blood-Curdling Science Fiction, with Errick Nunnally moderating, and Julie C. Day, Nicholas Kauffmann, Darrell Schweitzer, and myself as panelists. We were supposed to be discussing the line between horror and sci fi, and since I write (and read) mostly fantasy, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. But the conversation ended up being great, and I had a really good time. Our takeaway? That horror is a matter of feeling, and mashes well with any genre. Oh, and that science is creepy!

photo by Dana Cameron
Blood-Curdling Sci Fi panel (photo credit Dana Cameron)

I had a quick lunch and then went to Holly Black’s reading at 1pm — another thing I always like to do at Boskone is fit in a reading or two, if possible, as I really enjoy hearing stories in the author’s voice.

Afterwards, it was time for a panel on Editing from Agent, to Editor, to Publisher, with Joshua Bilmes, Beth Meacham, John Kessel, and James D. Macdonald, moderated by Melanie Meadors. Some of my notes on this panel include:

  • Polish your work as much as you can before sending it to beta readers (John and James) BUT don’t over-edit, as earlier drafts can have a raw intensity that can get lost in the polishing process (Beth).
  • “When a manuscript is accepted by the publisher, that’s when we like to say the real work begins” (Beth).
  • Remember that your editor is not supposed to be your uncredited co-author! Be prepared to do the work (James).
  • Revision letters: recognize that your feelings are going to be hurt (Beth). Give yourself time to absorb editorial critiques before reacting to them.

Later in the afternoon, I headed down to the New England Horror Writers Meet Up, hosted by Jack Haringa. I was delighted to find that I wasn’t the only ‘accidental horror’ writer around, and that lots of us tend to tread the line between horror and other genres, occasionally tipping one way or the other. For more information on this group, look up http://nehw.blogspot.com.

I had two more items on my schedule for the day, and I was in both of them! The first was a panel I was moderating, Books That Get Kids Reading, with Michael Stearns (who writes as Carter Roy), Julia Rios, and Trisha Wooldridge. Not a lot of people showed up to watch, unfortunately (the 6pm dinner slot is a tough one!), but we still had a great time exchanging book and graphic novel recommendations for kids and teens. Our panel was unanimous in several things, including our love for diverse books and our admiration for Carlos Hernandez’ Sal and Gabi Break the Universe (as well as for his publisher, Rick Riordan Presents).

To finish up the evening in style, I once again took part in the Broad Universe Rapid Fire Reading, where members of BU each had a six-minute slot to showcase their work. I love this reading format, which is like a literary taster menu of voice, style, and genre. For my turn, I chose an excerpt from my short story The Sugar Cane Sea, which comes out later this year in the Not All Monsters anthology by Strangehouse Books.

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With Dana Cameron after the Law & Justice panel (thanks to Dana for the photo)

On Sunday I caught one last panel, Law & Justice in Speculative Fiction, with Leigh Perry, Kenneth Schneyer, Bracken MacLeod, and Diana Rowland. The panelists discussed how concepts of law and justice work — or not! — in fictional worlds, and what were some of the common traps that writers fall into, as well as pointing out a dearth of restorative justice in fictional worlds.

After this, it was time to pack up and return to real life. Boskone was, as always, full of wonderful conversations and inspiring panels and presentations — I was sad to take off my con badge, but it’s always exciting to get home and apply that creative boost to my own writing. And of course, to start the countdown to Boskone 58!

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View from my room

Check out my Con Round-Up Part I: SCBWI NYC

NYC SCBWI and Boskone 57 Schedule

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Con bags at the ready…

It’s February tomorrow, and February brings ALL THE CONS. Or, well, two at least.

I’ll be in NYC next weekend for the SCBWI Winter Conference, which runs from February 7-9. I’m not part of any official programming, but will be wearing my ‘NESCBWI Regional Conference Co-Director’ hat (not literally. I own no fancy conference hats, alas), so come and find me if you want to talk about all things books, writing, and kid lit, or just to hang out and have a cup of tea in the hotel lobby. Hit me up on Twitter! @jspinkmills

From February 14-16 I’ll be in Boston for my yearly pilgrimage to Boskone. I’ll be on three program items, which leaves me plenty of time to catch up with people and make new friends. Planning to go to Boskone for the first time? Already a regular but we haven’t met yet? Come and find me — let’s chat!

Besides hanging around the lobby bar or attending other people’s panels, here’s where you can find me at Boskone:

Blood-Curdling Science Fiction

15 Feb 2020, Saturday 11:00 – 11:50, Marina 2

Where does the thin (red) line between science fiction and horror lie? Why does science fiction horror fascinate us so much? What is it about horror in SF that is so absolutely terrifying? What examples do we have of science fiction that will make your blood run cold? And is it getting harder to make SF fiction that is truly scary?

Errick Nunnally (Moderator), Juliana Spink Mills, Julie C. Day, Nicholas Kaufmann, Darrell Schweitzer

Books That Get Kids Reading!

15 Feb 2020, Saturday 18:00 – 18:50, Harbor II

Hundreds of new children’s books are published every year. Yet recommended reading lists still include the same old children’s classics, with only a few new titles. Our panelists share some of their favorite new children’s books and authors from recent years that should be added to the lists.

Juliana Spink Mills (Moderator), Michael Stearns (Upstart Crow Literary), Julia Rios, Adi Rule, Trisha J. Wooldridge

Broad Universe Group Reading

15 Feb 2020, Saturday 20:00 – 21:20, Griffin

Join members of Broad Universe — a nonprofit association dedicated to supporting, encouraging, and promoting female authors of science fiction, fantasy, and horror — as they read tidbits of works and works in progress. Readers will include LJ Cohen, Marianna Martin, Roberta Rogow, Juliana Spink Mills, and Trisha J. Wooldridge. Moderated by Elaine Isaak.

Ireland Roundup: Part II (Titancon)

Click here for Part I — Worldcon.

With Worldcon a wrap, at least for me, I was ready to take time off to wander around Dublin and get some sightseeing done. I had a theme for the day, and that theme was ‘words’. Pol and I started out together at the Dublin Writer’s Museum, and then went our separate ways. My path took me past Christ Church and St. Patrick’s cathedrals, with a pause to enjoy the architecture and St. Patrick’s Park, and then onto the gorgeous Marsh’s Library — the oldest public library in the country.

Marsh’s is well worth a visit is you’re in the area; the section open to the public is small, but the ambience is incredible! You can just imagine the scholars of the past sitting at the wooden desks pouring over the leather-bound tomes… (Go follow their lovely bookish feed on Instagram!) Next, I strolled past Dublin Castle and visited my last stop of the day: the Chester Beatty Library, a fabulous building that mixes the old and the modern beautifully. The Chester Beatty houses a collection of manuscripts, rare books, and other fascinating items from Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. I wandered back home via Temple Bar and the Ha’Penny Bridge, to pack my bags ready for Belfast the next morning.

On Tuesday August 20th, Pol and I set off for Northern Ireland, with a picturesque train ride up through the Irish countryside. In Belfast, I headed to Jo Zebedee’s house in Carrickfergus — a huge thanks to Jo and her wonderful family for hosting me for a week! Titancon began on Thursday, so on Wednesday we still had time for a little sightseeing, which began with a drive up the coast (and past the filming location for the Wall and Castle Black in Game of Thrones), stopping at the ruins of the ‘Bishop’s Palace’ in the parish where Jonathan Swift was minister. A thoroughly rainy afternoon was spent in company of fellow Chrons members Pol and Paul, visiting Carrickfergus Castle before a well-deserved pub dinner.

Thursday August 22nd was the first day of Titancon/Eurocon. I was instantly smitten! This is a much smaller con than the madness that was Dublin, and I thoroughly enjoyed the casual atmosphere, with good conversations waiting around every corner, and a small but interesting selection of panels. After the opening ceremony with Guest of Honor George R.R. Martin himself, it was time for my own panel: I was moderating Found in Translation (Juliana Spink Mills, Francesco Verso, Radoslaw Kot, Jean Bürlesk) and have been assured I did a decent job of it! Jo and I left early, without staying for the famous Titancon Literature Night, but all in all it was a great first day.

Friday, I skipped the morning programming and headed over to the Titanic Belfast museum, which was particularly interesting for the glimpse of Belfast in the early 1900s, as well as the scope of the shipping industry in the day. I made it back just in time to catch a great panel on Medbots, Tricorders, and More (Kerry Buchanan, Catherine Sharp, David Nordley, Christine Doyle), where Christine drew a parallel between space exploration and the colonial era on Earth, talking not only about a fear of being contaminated with alien diseases, but also that care will be needed not to contaminate other species/peoples with Earth diseases.

Following this, I caught a presentation on underwater archeology by Radoslaw Kot: Capital Ships Lost. My next program item was A Closer Look at Anthologies (Ellen Datlow, Kerry Buchanan, Paul Corcoran, Sarah Murray, Claude Lalumière). I found the differences in approach taken by an editor dealing with larges presses (Ellen) and small presses that depend on the KU pages-read system (Paul) particularly interesting, in terms of specific strategies used.

The last event on Friday was our DISTAFF book launch. DISTAFF is an all-women’s sci fi anthology put together by a group of us from the SFFChronicles.com forum, including Kerry Buchanan, Jo Zebedee, and myself, all present at Titancon. The anthology was officially released on August 15th (see our website and my blog post for more information), and finally we had a chance to celebrate all our hard work! We had a great turnout for the launch party, which included readings, an interview by author and editor Paul Corcoran, and lovely cupcakes and sci fi themed chocolates. A huge thanks to everyone who came and made our evening such a special one!

Saturday was the last official day of Titancon, apart from the traditional Sunday coach tour (see upcoming blog post) and feast (which I skipped). My first program item of the day was Peader Ó Guilín’s Toast Mutant Interview , followed by a panel on the Modern Use of Irish Mythology (Jo Zebedee, Ruth Frances Long, Ian McDonald), where Ruth told us that, regarding different parts of Ireland and mythology, “We come at things from different angles, but we all end up at the same point.”

Next up was a panel called YA For Everyone (Ruth Frances Long, Karen, Rain Devlin, Peader Ó Guilín), where Peader reminded us that YA isn’t just about plot-driven stories, but also stories that people think young people should read, that will educate them—issue-driven stories (drug use, disability, etc.). The panelists also brought up another matter, that of shelving issues: if YA is treated as a genre, do we need subgenres? The closing ceremony came soon after, with Toast Mutants Peader and Pat Cadigan, and Guest of Honor George R.R. Martin. Afterwards, six of us Chrons folk topped this off with our very own farewell dinner — a lovely and fitting end to the event.

More to come! The Titancon coach tour and my day out in Howth…

Click here for Part III.