A Convention for High-Level Author Discussion
The 4th Street Fantasy
Convention Conversation describes itself this way:
- a convention for people who are serious about good fantasy and good stories.
- a weekend of high-quality, high-intensity, mind-stretching fun.
- a single track program sized so that everyone can experience the same panels.
- fascinating conversations.
- an opportunity to promote interest and quality in fantasy literature.
I like that they call it a Conversation, not a Convention. The panel programming is structured like a Convention, but the audience is allowed to interact add, and steer the conversation (under the control of a panel moderator). Some of the best conversation for me was found outside the actual programming, when writers would break into groups between panels, kibitzing in the back room, noshing at nearby venues, assembling in the hotel bar for some social lubrication, or taking over the conference room after hours for a late-night music jam. The ability to digest and process the info with other authors is great because it allows you to take the high-level theory back to the day-to-day applied practice of writing.
Fourth Street is geared more toward art than craft. The level of discussion is more philosophical and abstract than the discussions we have at MNSpec Writer’s Groups. The topics are heady, and even panel topics that were started simply because “I didn’t like it when author X did this…” end up getting analyzed at a high level that might throw newer authors. With a roomful of experience, intelligence, alcohol and overcompensating introverts, your mileage will definitely vary. You could get moments of non-topic pedantic bullshit, but the results are usually writer-philosophy-Nirvana.
Who-All Was There
It was good to see a respectable turnout of my fellow MNSpec writers: the talented, published (and MODEST, damn him) Michael Merriam, his lovely wife Sherry Merriam, the uber-talented Dana Baird, the lovely and talented and very pregnant Abra Staffin-Wiebe, the cheerful uber-hipster couple Eli Effinger-Weintraub and Leora, and the charming Tracy LaChance. It was comforting to know that we could have taken the conference if we had to (except maybe Elizabeth Bear, she seems like a scrapper) but fortunately it didn’t come to that. It would be great if MNSpec could have an even greater presence at 4th Street in 2012. I was glad to have plenty of people I knew at the convention, because socializing is a major component of the event, and if you have people there whom you know, (or if you’re naturally outgoing and extroverted) I think you’ll get more out of it.
I was forewarned that there is a “country club” feel to the 4th Street convention. I would say less than 10% of the group were first time attendees. Overall the regular crowd was friendly and accepting of The New People. There is also the core group that created 4th street called the Scribblies. These are the royalty in the not-so-invisible hierarchy of 4th Street. You don’t have to bow to them, but it’s clear that they run the show.
If the Scribblies are the Royal Court, then the Queen would be Janet Grouchy, the real power behind making 4th street a success. Janet is actually a Momma Duck in Disguise who made sure we were all taken care of over the long weekend. She was my personal caffeine source, keeping me supplied with Diet Coke and Louisiana Coffee for my high-octane needs. Janet was the epitome of Southern Hospitality. She checked on each table personally to make sure our lunches were alright before she sat down herself. Fourth Street is very lucky to have someone like Janet to coordinate this awesome event/resource for writers.
The #1 highlight of the convention for me was when one of my personal hometown heroes Emma Bull sat down beside me, and we got the chance to chat. Emma Bull wrote War for the Oaks in 1987, which is considered to be the book that defined the Urban Fantasy genre, and had a huge impact on my own writing career. I told Emma that her work inspired me greatly, but that she should not feel responsible or guilty for any stories I might publish because of that inspiration. After three days of observing Emma in action, I can tell you she is smart, sparky, fun, and still passionate about writing after almost 25 years. She is living proof that writing will not eventually turn you into Harlan Ellison.
Another personal highlight was during a panel called “Off with ‘is head!” which discussed how, when and why authors might kill off main characters. One audience member was struggling to come up with an example of a character who become immortal, even mythological, by transcending death. I yelled out “Frodo Lives!” The guy looked equal parts confused and annoyed, like I had Tourette’s Syndrome or something. I could just as easily have yelled out “Jesus Christ!” but I figured more of the audience had read The Lord Of The Rings than The Bible. (I’m waiting for the movie myself.) But seriously, I didn’t just make up this phrase. If it has it’s own wikipedia page, it qualifies as pop culture.
The “Another Panel” is complete genius. If anyone tries to take the discussion off-topic (intentionally or not) people can claim “That’s Another Panel” in which case someone writes it down on a board and the discussion returns to the topic at hand. At the end of the weekend, the last panel is called “Another Panel” where the list of topics is examined for further discussion.
There was so much book/author-name-dropping that it made me feel guilty for not reading more. The good news was that I was able to add a whole slew of fiction books to my amazon wish list. (Thank goodness for free wireless.) and a slew of movies to my Netflix queue. Uncle Hugo’s Science Fiction Bookstore had a handy table at the conference with an assortment of books by the authors in attendance.
I picked up a copy of The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, and got Scott to sign it. Scott is a great speaker with a great sense of humor and an odd combination of gregariousness and modesty. One of the discussion panel topics was about killing off main characters, which apparently happens in this book. Of course, I immediately had to buy it. Not because a main character dies, but I told Scott that any author willing to take chances like that is going to take chances in other areas too, and that’s the kind of author I want to read.
The best parts of 4th street for any author are information, motivation, and networking. Just talking about writing with writers, and bouncing around so many great ideas made me want to go home and write ten novels. If you’re a writer in the Minnesota/Minneapolis area, you owe it to yourself to attend the 4th Street Fantasy Conversation.
Things I learned at 4th Street Fantasy Conversation 2011
- If you have a clean house, you are not an author.
- If you aren’t a control freak, you aren’t really an author.
- Weight gain in authors is also known as “street cred.”
- Write better.
- Write things you have a passion for.
- Simply because you talk a good talk on a panel doesn’t mean your writing is good.
- Simply because you botch or get trounced on a panel doesn’t mean your writing sucks.
- You’re never going to keep your audience if you worry about keeping your audience.
- The deadline for your Science Fiction manuscript is Fantasy, and the deadline for your Fantasy manuscript is Science Fiction (esp since it involves Time Travel.)