Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Con Report: Au Contraire, Wellington, August 27-29 2010

Au Contraire was my first convention, and my first convention as a writer. I believe I had a far better time going as a writer than I would have had as a fan, because there was so much stimulating involvement. I struck it lucky on my first go - fantastic panels and workshops, interesting people, and a hectic pace from start to finish.

The Au Contraire that I gleened from the weekend was for writers, by writers. There was some modelling, cosplay, animation and audio, and many people have commented that it was weighted in favour of fandom, but I found there was plenty to keep a writer happy. There were even a few things I had to miss out on because of such a loaded timetable.

Final numbers given at the closing ceremony put attendance at approximately 250, with about 50 overseas attendees. Local attendance was posited as unusually high, considering the number of people who had invested in going to Worldcon in Melbourne the following weekend, instead of partaking of the local fare.

Nonetheless, it was a stimulating mix of people. As within this sort of fandom, there are a few dominant personalities, and Cheryl Morgan mentioned it in her con report that, quite rightly so, some local fans may not be aware of the more formal conventions of contributing at panels. There was a bit of over-talking and larger personalities dominating certain talks. Nicole Murphy also mentioned it in her con report, and I agree, I did see some frustration from participants and panellists - we were there to listen to them, not ourselves. I appreciated the efforts panel mods and participants took to include all in the room, and try to make it as much an egalitarian affair for all involved.

That small niggle aside, everyone was super friendly, and incredibly polite. I experienced no hassles, and had complete strangers approach me (yay! Thank you!) by opening conversations about my hair (purple), my jacket (funky quilted ties), and involvement with Brokensea (more on that later).

I would like to congratulate the concom for a spectacularly well organized con. The evidence of your hard work and stress is right before you - so many people had such a wonderful time. It all flowed smoothly, there were lots of smiles and laughter, the informal formality of the opening and closing ceremonies put me at ease, and the central location (gotta love Cuba St shopping!) was an excellent choice.

Day One:
Registration was a fairly informal affair. I immediately headed to the workshop run by Juliet Marillier on how to find your unique Writing Voice. The intimate boardroom was an excellent venue, limiting numbers to around twenty. Juliet was a very pleasant teacher who took us through a variety of mental and written exercises to challenge and stretch our writing into new narratives.

At 2pm, I assisted my friend Paul Mannering, the Fan Guest of Honour, with his Radio Play Workshop. Paul had written a Star Wars parody called "Death Star Noir" and I pushed the buttons for the sound effects and music. Paul took his small group of enthusiasts through a short history of online radio plays and his involvement, and the various resources involved, then directed the team through a practise of the play. At 5pm, we performed the play for an enthusiastic audience who thankfully laughed in all the right places. It was a lot like the old school performances radio play performances of yesteryear, but with better technology. The performance was so successful that another was scheduled for 9am the following day. That had nothing to do with the fact that I somehow managed to crash the recording software. No, not at all.

With only a short break for sushi, I moved on to the launch of "A Foreign Country" at 6pm. It was fantastic to see so many New Zealand specfic writers enthusiastic about an outlet for our genre, considering there are so very few! Congratulations to publishers Random Static, editors Anna Caro and Juliet Buchanan, and to all the authors involved.

At 7pm, I headed up to the con suite for "Con 101". If you're a con newbie, this was the perfect place to go. We ate chocolate fish, introduced ourselves to complete strangers, heard from experienced hands about the "conventions of conventions", got told about what can happen at the bigger cons, and were taught a few local idiosyncrasies (eg: when to chant for "Norm", a local con legend).

8pm was the opening ceremony, and we were treated to the enthusiasm of Daphne, who rocked the party (and the tequila) all weekend long. She was a hell of a cheerleader!

For the rest of the evening I drifted between my room, the bar and the dance party, but didn't really get into party mode. I eventually had an early night, because my network-fu failed me somewhat.

Day Two:
In an effort to save myself from fully burning out too early, I skipped the 9am panel on Science and instead started with the 10am World building workshop with Russell Kirkpatrick. A university lecturer, Russell ran a sharp panel on how to plan and construct politics, culture, religion, and maps (a specialty of his) in your fantasy world. We all needed a little loosening up at the start, and I'm afraid I blinked like a guppy at Russell's first joke. In the end, we were all playing with coloured pencils! It's amazing how one's real world and inherent scientific view can inform one's World Building! Research people, research.

At 12 noon, I joined Tim Jones' panel on Getting Published in New Zealand. This panel was immensely helpful to a newbie like me. I've added to my list a few more markets I may be able to submit to. We also discussed the styles of SF&F most popular in New Zealand (YA; dystopian), and how difficult it was to have a novel published in New Zealand (economics, population, swings in the market).

After such an intense morning, I needed a little de-stressing so I played Vampire: The Eternal Struggle (my CCG of choice) with friends for a few hours.

At 4pm, I went to the panel on Queer SF, with Elizabeth Knox and Cheryl Morgan, moderated by Daphne. While many interesting points were touched on, the informality of contributing, limited time, and emphasis on fanfic slash meant so much was glossed over and missed. I did pick up some great tips for further reading, especially about trans in spec.

5pm was Sean Williams Guest of Honour speech. I knew little about Sean before this weekend, but after having the chance to hear him speak about his work, and actually getting to meet him briefly (yes, I finally sucked it up!), I am most keen to read more. I bought "The Crooked Letter" after his "recommendation" - he spoke at least twice during the weekend about how this book was the most difficult to write, and the one he was least pleased with in his career, and yet it has won the most accolades. This very much made me want to read it! Sean was a really pleasant guy, I appreciate the small moment he gave me, and he plays some pretty cool 80s music in his guise as a DJ.

6pm was the launch of SpecFicNZ. This was a great chance to meet some other writers with common goals - Hi Anna, Ripley Patton, Pat Whittaker and Lee Pletzers! For a small country, we know very little about each other, and are so spread out. SpecFicNZ intends to remedy this, with mentoring, a community, support and advice.

After an incredibly delicious feed of fish and chips from an awesome takeaways over the road from the hotel, 8pm was the Masquerade, a costume and talent show. This was followed by a viewing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I put on my sparkly hat and a feather boa. It's been a long time since I did a participation RHPS! While fun, it was not as well attended as I expected. I think other people were hosting their own parties (again, network-fu let me down).

That was one intense day!

Day Three:Sunday morning was my "crash moment". I was tired from two already full-on days, plus a late night. But I stuck some caffeine into me and soldiered on!

10am, I attended the panel on "Myths and Fairytales in Fantasy". The panellists were Juliet Marillier, Ripley Patton and Kathryn Sullivan. Whereas some other panels were deep-end jumps, this panel was a nice, quiet introduction to the history of certain tropes and how they've been subverted by writers rebelling against the historical constraints (eg: Victorian norms making fairy tales for children). While I have never considered overtly using myths and fairy tales in my writing, this panel was certainly an eye-opener to how much they inform everyone's writings and what a large part of storytelling they are.

11am, and I was in the Characterisation workshop run by Nicole Murphy. This one was brilliant, and gave me some simple yet effective tools to help build characters and avoid lazy writing. Some real Click Moments in this one, and I very much appreciated Nicole's succinct teaching style. Out of all the workshops I attended, this one sent me home with a huge list of editing Must Dos.

After lunch I was off and running for a full-on afternoon of panels. At 2pm, I sat in on the "Religion and Faith in SF" panel, which included Lynne Jamneck and Russell Kirkpatrick, and the GUFF and DUFF reps. I'd been introduced to Lynne by Paul, because she was the writer of "Outside the Box", of which I did the narration in the enhanced audio for Brokensea.

Next panel was "Computer Games" at 3pm, with Paul and game reviewer/blogger Andy Astruc. A reasonably informal affair, where again the time constraints didn't allow us much chance to speculate on gaming futures, or go further into the politics and social justice in gaming (a favourite topic of mine).

4pm was the Q&A with Patrick Nielsen Hayden, editor for Tor. I was having another wee crash here (neeeed caffeeeeeine), and by the time things started getting interesting (talking DRM, since he's Cory Doctorow's editor - squee - and e-publishing) the hour was up.

5pm, and it was time to be a cheerleader for Paul's Fan Guest of Honour Speech. It was really nice that Sean Williams sat in for it. Paul was stoked that it started a conversation about Doctor Who between Sean and himself (Sean's a big fan) that lasted on and off for the rest of the evening. Paul was really happy with his entire weekend - he spent most of the last evening squiffy on Sonic Screwdrivers with a big grin on his face - and thought it was great exposure for Brokensea.

By 7pm I was dolled up for the cocktail party, Sir Julius Vogel Awards and closing ceremony. During the cocktail party, I was privileged to be introduced one-to-one to Sean Williams and Russell Kirkpatrick by Paul (thanks brah!).

Congrats to all the winners of SJVs, it was very cool to actually know some of the nominees and winners. I even allowed myself the thought of "Hey, wouldn't it be great if that was me..."

And then it was over. Well, not quite over, as a drunken meeting of the BASFA (Bay Area Science Fiction Association) ensued during the after-show (that moment when nobody really wanted to admit it was all over and didn't want to leave). I was lucky enough to witness history unfold, as Norm Cates was "auctioned off" to Sean Williams, who then proceeded to endow Norm with the task of bringing Worldcon to New Zealand in 2020. Worldcon! In New Zealand! Within 20 minutes, even more surreality occurred as a logo designer, t-shirt printer, and website developer were roped in, and even Daphne pledged her allegiance to the task. I sat there like a stunned mullet watching this all unfold, wondering whether I'd had too much to drink, or not enough.

And so, after a spectacular weekend with much brain explosion and running around on adrenalin, I'm back to reality. Now, to put all I've learned into practise. What, you mean I have to actually BE a writer instead of just talking about it?!

Thanks Au Contraire. It was something. It was meaningful. We'll always have Wellington.


  1. It was fun, wasn't it? Glad you enjoyed the workshop and that you've gained something from it. That makes me an exceptionally happy little workshop giver :)

  2. Best description I've read of Au Contraire yet, thanks for bringing it to life for us who couldn't be there.