So, I’m back from Ravencon this year. It was utterly exhausting. I enjoyed myself quite a lot, met a lot of interesting people, learned a few things, and made it home safe. Here’s a recap of how things went:
THE TRIP TO WILLIAMSBURG
I drove from my home in Ashburn, Va down to Williamsburg — normally a 2½ hour drive. My GPS said it would be 2½ hours. It wound up taking considerably longer.
First, my GPS decided to send me on a stressful detour through the side streets of another town a half-hour away before getting me onto the highway. This was completely unneccesary, and I still haven’t figured out why it did this.
Now, I was listening to the radio as I drove; sports radio (this sports station was the only remotely acceptable radio station I’d be able to listen to for most of the trip) broadcasting out of a sports bar ten minutes away from my home. Just as the broadcast was going to a commercial break, one of the broadcasters gave the startled shout of “Was that an earthquake?” (Commercial starts seconds later).
Um… what? I waited until I was stopped at a stoplight and called my mother, who lives in that area, and asked if she’d had an earthquake. She said it certainly seemed like it, as the house had rumbled and was shaking. (As it turns out, the USGS did NOT record an Earthquake in our area. We have talked it out, investigated local news reports, etc., and still don’t know what happened, but it was something that resembled an Earthquake hit the local area).
Then I landed in stop-and-go traffic. This was unusual because, even though it was Friday, I had timed the start of my trip to avoid the worst of the traffic (evening, rush hour, even on a Friday, usually starts mid-afternoon; I picked a time before then, but after the morning rush hour was supposed to have ended. I passed no obvious accidents or construction delays; things were just… slow).
But finally I passed that onto a different stretch of the highway (Interstate 95, if you were curious). I was in a 70 mph zone (in light traffic), and there was a little spout of rain. I started my windshield wipers. These were brand new windshield wipers, installed by my mechanic just days before the convention, and it was doing a great job… at first. But, about at the midway point between home and the convention, one of the wiper blades popped off. It sounded like glass breaking (it didn’t; I checked), and then started flopping around and banging on the windshield, still hooked on by a corner. Startling, and a bit scary, but I was eventually able to pull off to the side of the road and re-connect the wiper blade (as cars buzzed by me on the highway at roughly 80mph). After that, while I was a bit rattled, it was smooth sailing to the convention. And I was only an hour later arriving than the GPS said I should be.
This hotel, the Williamsburg Doubletree, is the newest home for both Marscon and Ravencon. I wasn’t able to attend Marscon this year (I was struggling to get In Forgery Divided out at the time), so this was my first experience with this hotel.
First impression is that it’s huge, but the layout is a little confusing. Now, once you get used to it, it makes some sense — there is one convention space wing, which starts with a big ballroom (which, in this case, was being used as the dealer room) and, if you go down a ramp, two additional floors of convention space. On the bottom floor, you have a pair of auditoriums and various meeting rooms listed by number. On the top floor, you have more meeting rooms listed by letter. The confusion is partly caused by the hotel;s signs, which seemed to be saying the rooms listed by number and the rooms listed by letter were on the same floor. And there were some rooms the signs wouldn’t direct to at all. And… well, basically, I’m not sure what was going on with them, but they were wrong.
The facilities were in pretty good shape. I had a slightly crooked bathroom door in my suite, which made it difficult to close, but everything else was far better maintenance-wise than past hotels for these two conventions. The amenities were nice, and they have a much better brand of coffee and tea than you usually find in hotels. So, overall, a good location for a convention.
Dining was an issue, however. They must have been understaffed, because they had the restaurant closed and were feeding people only from the bar. However, the bar never seemed to have enough workers to satisfy all the customers — they had one waitress, one bartender, one cleaning person, and one person running the orders from the kitchen to the bar and back. The food was good, but horribly overpriced (more overpriced than it was at either of the two conventions’ previous hotels; I’d budgeted for dining to be comparable to those two, but I wound up spending almost double and wasn’t ordering as much), and service was slow — you had to block out at least an hour and a half, sometimes two hours, if you wanted to be able to eat the meal you ordered. Room service was even slower (my food arrived cold after I waited nearly an hour and a half for it) and more expensive (they added service and delivery charges, and expected you to tip over that).
There was a dining option — the convention had arranged for a relatively inexpensive “grab and go” menu to be serviced by the hotel. $4 would get you a burger, $3 for a hot dog, etc. This food was horrible; the burgers were like sawdust, and I never knew you could make a tasteless hot dog before this. And even if you were desperate enough to buy these, they weren’t always in stock when they should have been; I tried grabbing these grab and go “meals” four times during the convention, and it was only on Sunday that I found any in the warming trays.
Okay, that was a long rant about the dining, but overall I thought it was a fine hotel. Lots of convention space, the rooms were great, the amenities were satisfactory, etc. I’d gladly stay there, again (though I’d bring some of my own food from home)
Despite all the delays, I made it to the hotel in plenty of time to register (I normally pre-register, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to go until it was too late) and attend the earliest of the programming. I was focusing on attending panels and workshops which were on writing, self-publishing, and marketing.
So, I started with a panel called “Designing a Cover For Your Self-Published Book,” presented by Chris Kennedy. Now, I plan to have a seperate post on “Lessons Learned From Ravencon,” so I won’t go into too many details about what I learned from this panel here. I will say this was a fairly informative panel, but most of what was said was information I already knew.
I was hoping to see Allen Wold during the convention. He runs a fun and interesting set of writing workshops at several conventions across the East Coast, and worked with me one-on-one to help me with some techniques in self-editing. I haven’t seen much from him on social media in a while, however, because he’s recently had cataract surgery on both eyes. Scheduling issues prevented me from attending any of his workshops or readings this convention, but I’d hoped to at least have a chat and see how he was doing. I never got a chance to talk with him, however — whenever I saw him (and my first chance was right after that last panel) he was always rushing off to do something (in this case, to run his plotting workshop). I got to wave and say “hi” a few times, but I didn’t really need to ask — I was happy to see him looking hale and hearty following his eye surgery.
The next panel I went to was “Marketing and Branding for Authors,” featuring Baine Kelly, Gail Z. Martin, Alex Matsuo, and Michael A. Ventrella.
I won’t say I learned nothing from this panel, but I did (perhaps) come to the conclusion I’m just too boring for social media marketing.
I don’t have a cat to take silly pictures of, I don’t have a second career worth talking about, and my everyday life is mostly just spent sitting in the basement, writing. (Or, well, trying to write, at any rate). I don’t take very good pictures (something you’ll probably notice when you get to the pictures I started taking when I remembered that, oh, yeah, my iPod has a camera). I cook many of my family dinners, but my style of cuisine is more sloppy-chic than photogenic and I don’t really have that many good recipes. In other words, the panel advised “talk about something other than your writing,” and the only things I ever seem to be able to talk about is my writing.
(At least I know not to spam “Buy my books” to you all, all the time)
After that was dinner (and my first experience with how slow the restaurant was), and then more panels. I’m not going to say too much about the next couple I attended save to say I was a bit disappointed by them. While I was interested in the subject matter, they weren’t especially helpful, and I was starting to wonder if I would get anything out of this convention, after all.
But then I made it to my first ever Eye of Argon reading, and while I didn’t learn much of anything, this was worth the price of admission in and of itself.
For those who are unfamiliar, the Eye of Argon was a horribly-written story published originally in a low-end fanzine in the 1970s that has since been turned into something of a convention party game. The idea is to read it (in its original form, including pronouncing the words as they are misspelled rather than how they would be if properly spelled) without making mistakes or breaking down laughing. Not many can achieve this feat. There is an evolving set of forfiets if you make a mistake (this time, you would have to stop and act out the scenes that were read by the next player) and a small reward for participating.
In a way that just seems totally appropriate for a celebration of such a mistake-ridden piece of fiction, things went wrong before the game even began. The quick-reference grid guide, the programming guide, the pocket program, and the signs indicating the programming in each room disagreed about where the reading was supposed to take place. So, if you wanted to go, you had to guess whether it would be in the Small Auditorium, the Large Auditorium, Room E, or… well, I don’t have copies of the room signs to look up where they were directing people.
But people eventually did find it (including the guests who were supposed to be hosting the panel, though two of them were late), and the reading began. So, with a multi-fauceted scarlet emerald, a knife forced from a rat pelvis, and as many incorrect spellings of the word “swivelled” as you can imagine, we delved into the epic tale of Grignr the Ecordian.
An attempt at reading it can be found here, just to give you an idea, but it really is an event that must be experienced to get the full idea of how ridiculous it can be. The guests\panelists involved in this reading were particularly experienced (and still bungled their readings on occasion). This was a dramatic reading, and I really have to say Gray Rinehart really hit it out of the park. Other guests included Michael A. Ventrella, Gail Z. Martin, and (as judge) Peter Prellwitz.
And so, with a heart lightened after hearing of that mighty quest, I returned to my suite and rested for the long night.
Okay, I think I have the Eye of Argon out of my system. Friday was a bit of a weak start, but I really learned a lot from the Saturday panels. And I remembered I had a camera on my iPod, so there’s that, too.
I started the day with a panel called “Self-Publishing Doesn’t Mean Solo Publishing,” presented by Doc Coleman, GB Macrae, Alex Matsuo, and Christine McDonnell.
Okay, I’ve decided at this point, since I’m not actually saying what I heard from these panels, I’m not going to bother mentioning them unless I have a viable picture to go with it, or something more to say than “I went to (such and such a) panel.” I am not a photographer (an understatement), and a lot of the pictures I tried taking didn’t turn out.
As proof of how bad, I couldn’t even identify the picture I took of the above panel, which I was going to put here instead of this paragraph. The surviving pictures aren’t especially exciting, but I know that panelists are always happy to see pictures of themselves running a panel, however bad the picture.
I also met briefly one-on-one with Meryl Yourish, who tried to help me work out a problem with WordPress. (We’ll see if what she said helps the next time I try to schedule a blog post)
That meeting had me a minute or two late to my next panel, Self-Publishing 2.0: Maximizing Your Profits With Amazon.com, presented by Chris Kennedy.
This was a very informative panel, and I took a lot of notes… some of which I will discuss in my upcoming “Things I Learned From Ravencon” post.
Then Lunch (with another Allen Wold “I wish I could have talked to him, but we were both too busy going in opposite directions” sighting). Slow service killed almost all of my time until the next panel, but I was able to catch a few minutes of one particular event that was taking place right outside of the restaurant: Splendid Teapot Racing.
(Yes, you can’t make anything out beyond a little bit of a ramp. I said I wasn’t a photographer, didn’t I?)
The one race I caught was fun while it lasted, though the “teapot” in question (it resembled the classic-series Starship Enterprise) flipped over and crashed exiting the ramp.
Watching the teapot races made me late to my next panel, as well. That was the Worldbuilding: Creating Fictional Political Systems with Larry Hodges, DJ McGuire (no website or author page I can find), Kate Paulk, and Stephen J. Simmons (moderator).
Unless you want images too blurred to make anything out or a picture of the back of some blue-haired person’s head, I don’t have pictures from my next couple panels (Researching Your Book followed by Worldbuilding: Economics and infrastructure).
I did get a viable picture of the What Sciences Haven’t Been Used panel, featuring Christopher Weuve, Susan Zee (another person who I can’t find a viable website for), an unscheduled (at least according to the program book) appearance by Lou Antonelli, and moderated by Kate Paulk.
This panel was quite interesting — less so for the practical reasons that were discussed, but more for inspirational reasons. It gave me an idea for a possible short story collection or anthology… but I’ll have to save that idea for a future post. This blog entry is already getting long, and there’s still a lot to go.
After this panel, Lou Antonelli talked me into delaying my dinner (though in the process, he inspired a craving for a Wendy’s hamburger that I have yet to fulfill) to attend the Ask SFWA: What Do You Do For Writers panel. There were almost more people on the panel than there were in the audience: Lou Antonelli, Rob Balder, Jack Clemons, Harry Heckel, Gail Z. Martin, Bishop O’Connell, and Bud Sparhawk. Here’s a distant, out-of-focus picture of them all:
This actually could have been a very interesting panel. When the SFWA opened its doors to self-published writers, I was eligible (and I should be eligible again) to become a member. However, I was a bit reluctant because the SFWA has worked against self-publishers best interests in the past (whatever they claim, they picked the wrong side for most self-publishers, and arguably most authors. Even the members of the SFWA’s own self-publishing committee were in disagreement with the decision, and committee member MCA Hogarth mentioned in the comments section of the Passive Voice blog that the committee wasn’t even consulted before the decision was made) in the matter of the Amazon-Hachette kerfuffle about two years ago.
I wanted to ask about this incident, and whether steps have been taken to ensure that the SFWA won’t run roughshod over the interests of a portion of its membership (again) in the future, but the moderator had made it clear from the beginning that they weren’t going to take on controversial topics after the topic of the Hugos came up. I stuck it out for an hour of the (scheduled, though they thought they would end early) two hour panel, but it was mostly an SFWA love-fest and I was starting to get a headache from lack of food. So, I walked out and went to go eat dinner.
This was the dinner which I tried to get through room-service (hoping that cutting out the fifteen-twenty minutes it took to attract the attention of the waitress and make my order would speed the dinner order) that arrived very late and cold. Some of it was no longer palatable, but I was so hungry by then that I ate through it anyway.
However, I’d been in a Facebook dialog with Joelle Presby about a cake being delivered to the Baen Barfly room party at 9 that evening (she was promising that the cake wasn’t a lie, and I feigned not being sure if I believed her). And she posted that the cake arrived.
“Food!” was the only consideration. I went to my first ever Baen Barfly party. And yes, there was cake, decorated with Joelle’s latest book cover, and she was quite happy to cut it.
Now, a little bit of history of me and Baen: Back when the late Jim Baen was alive, and I was polishing my first book for submission to a publisher, I was a member of Baen’s Bar, the forum for Baen Books. I was a big fan of several of the authors, who were frequently found on the forum. As the years passed, fewer of the authors showed up on the Bar, Jim passed away, and I went to an all-lurker format (it used to be accessible through a Usenet reader, if you remember usenet, but my usenet-reader was read-only). That usenet access went away, at one point; I remained a fan of the author (and the publisher), but quit going to the Bar forums.
But I remember hearing about so many interesting discussions and things happening at these Barfly parties. I’d never been to one, however, for a variety of reasons (usually some combination of scheduling conflicts and just not being able to figure out where the darned thing was), so I was really looking forward to finally making it… but first I had to have my piece of cake, because I was starving.
I had an interesting chat or two while eating the cake, but afterwards… well, I hate to say it, but I fell asleep. Not because there weren’t interesting discussions going on, but because I was just so horribly drained by the day, by the lack of\late\bad food, etc., etc. So, while there was still interesting programming later that day, I figured if I fell asleep at the Barfly party I wouldn’t make it through any of the other panels. I wound up calling it a night, and that was it.
An early night led to an early morning, and I made it to the first panel of the day. Sadly, I don’t have any photographic evidence of that, but the panel was on Book Covers that Sell Books (my second panel on book covers; this one was less of a “how to make a book cover” and more of a “this is what looks good on a cover and this is what doesn’t”).
I followed that up with “The Economics of Self-Publishing.” This panel featured Chris Kennedy, Alex Matsuo, and Nancy Northcott.
You could tell that everyone, both audience members and panelists, had been worn down by this panel — one person (not listed) never showed, Nancy Northcot dropped her tablet (I was sitting in the front road and picked it up for her; no damage), and there was a bit of a lazy air to everything. A lot of this was rehashing of information I already knew, but I think I picked up a tip or two (one reason I’m making the “lessons learned” is that I’ve only got bits and scraps from several panels, and I’m not always sure where I learned what bit that I put in my notes).
I went for lunch after that (FINALLY finding the items from the “Grab ‘N Go Menu” in stock… and discovering that they were the most tasteless burgers and hotdogs I’ve ever tried, even going back to Elementary school). The convention was almost over… but not quite. I had one more panel to attend.
That panel was the one on Species Creation: SF vs. Fantasy panel with Bill Blume and Harry Heckel… and we waited a bit for a third panelist who never showed up. That led to some… interesting conversation. But first, a picture of the two who did show up.
(Actually, maybe that is three. But we’ll get into the dragon in a moment)
I’m not sure how much of the subject I took away from this topic. I remember disagreeing with the panelists on several things. Not that it matters — it was a fun, and at times utterly hilarious, ending to a really good convention.
Harry Heckel was the first to show up, as he had been on the last panel to use that room (How to Be a Writer With a Day Job). However, the other two panelists were late. It was Sunday, the last panel of the con, so he decided to give the other panelists some extra time before starting.
To fill the intervening time, however, Harry Heckel brought up his own “it’s the third day of the convention and we’re all exhausted” tale. Earlier that day, he was supposed to moderate the aforementioned How to Be a Writer With a Day Job panel. He had the room wrong, though, and was sitting in the moderators seat for another panel, the Future of Love and Courtship panel. The other panelists for that panel didn’t say anything to him about it — it was only after someone else in the audience prompted him that he realized he was in the wrong room.
That led to some speculation about what that panel would have been like. We (both Harry and the audience) speculated that it would have become a mash-up panel of some sort. “The Future of Love and Courtship With a Day Job.” “How to Be a Writer With Love and Courtship.” Etc., etc.
Then Bill Blume showed up, only a minute or two late. Now, throughout the rest of the convention he’d apparently been accompanied by a stuffed dragon named Windsor (great name for a dragon, btw). Harry Heckel had his own dragon with him, Magdella (I don’t know if I’m spelling that right, but Magdella wasn’t listed in the program book).
The mention of a “dragon habit” was made (I can’t remember which of them said it first, but both agreed that they had one, collecting stuffed dragons when they could). Between Windsor, Magdella, and (from conventions past) Barry Mantelo, I’ve come to the conclusion that writers are well-served to have their own mascot. Or at least I would be… but I’ll decide what that mascot would be later.
And after that, there was a really, really long nap (I crashed at 4pm Sunday and woke up at 9am Monday. I had to rush packing to get everything packed in my car before check-out time), I drove home in the two and a half hours the trip is supposed to take.
If I had one real criticism of the panels, it was mostly that the self-publishing panels seemed a bit weak on, well, self-publishers. There were a few (Chris Kennedy, in particular) who really knew their stuff, but many of the self-publishing panelists weren’t actually self-publishers. By that, I mean they weren’t focusing their writing careers around self-publishing; many of the panelists were trad-published writers who may have self-published one or two short stories and re-published some of their backlist on their own. There’s nothing wrong with that — getting that perspective can be a good thing, if you have plenty of people from the more ‘self-publishing-centric’ side of the equation — and these people were not bad guests overall, but they weren’t really self-publishing experts. They didn’t have any real insight on the field of self-publishing.
Again, this wasn’t true of all of the guests on these panels, just a few of them (and I won’t name names, here, because I don’t want to offend anyone, and that’s not the point. The panelists did the best they could), but it did feel odd that they’d been put on these panels.
I really did enjoy Ravencon a lot, despite the few flaws I had with it. I just hope I can come back as a guest next year. (I won’t make the mistake of applying too late to be considered, this time)