So, last weekend, a hefty chunk of SF/Fantasy publishing and fandom all descended upon Brighton for World Fantasy Con. It was big, it went on for five days, and it was the first con that my girlfriend and I had been to for eighteen months, which meant we were a little bit more tentative about it than you might expect.
The reasons? Well, 2012 was not an altogether good year for either of us, in a whole selection of ways, and it should tell you a lot that having a book turned down by a publisher was actually one of the easier problems I had to tackle. Personally and professionally, 2012 was a rough time, and various things happened that made me feel like the best thing to do was just retreat to the shadows, keep out of trouble, and keep my head down. World Fantasy Con struck me as a good time to return to the fold – originally I’d made enthusiastic plans (“I will have THREE NOVELS REWRITTEN and out being looked at by publishers by the time WFC arrives!”) that then became slightly less enthusiastic (“I will have TWO NOVELS REWRITTEN and out being looked at by publishers by the time WFC arrives!”) and then ultimately became realistic (“It’s okay if I actually don’t have any novels completely finished and ‘out there’ by the time WFC arrives.”)
Cons can end up slightly strange experiences when you’re not only part of fandom, and not only trying to get yourself ‘properly’ published, but also earning most of your money from working in SF/Fantasy-related publishing. I was nervous about dipping my toe back into these waters – when you’re insecure, it’s easy to get edgy about things, especially places like cons which can sometimes feel simultaneously welcoming and like the most clique-driven places you’ll find outside of an average American high school.
It didn’t help that WFC 2013 also managed a wide range of some of the worst con-related PR decisions I’ve seen, from accessibility problems, to absurdly punitive charges like the £75 charge for anyone who needed a replacement membership badge, and the £5 charges for the meeting-with-authors Kaffeeklatsch events (which, according to a Facebook post on the WFC group that mysteriously vanished a day later, were supposedly refunded after the con to those who had turned up – and if I’d known that, I might actually have gone to a couple of those events and not refused on principle). The general air of the pre-con publicity and statements were weirdly confrontational and didn’t give the impression that this was going to be anything other than an exceptionally weird and stressful time.
As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. World Fantasy Con may not have been an awe-inspiring experience that changed my life, and I did have a couple of emotional wobbles across the weekend (for reasons which are, to be honest, way too complicated and involved to go into), but it was a very enjoyable con which gave me the most important things about cons – new people to meet. It’s people who make cons (I should know this – I met the woman I’m currently head over heels in love with at a con), and the nicest thing about this con was not only being able to meet people I’d only previously encountered on Twitter, but also meeting people I hadn’t expected, sometimes in wonderfully surreal and drunken late-night encounters that’ll live with me for quite a while.
Brighton itself was fascinating – a genuine old-school Victorian beach resort with plenty of faded decadence that was aided by a level of blustery wind along the seafront that nearly flattened me on several occasions. We ate out plenty, mainly in JB’s Diner, an American-style restaurant along the seafront that did an impressive burger, and also found some time to explore the bizarre and head-spinning pleasures of Brighton Pier, although we missed out on seeing the oddball magnificence of Brighton Pavillions simply from lack of time.
The con itself was huge, taking place across a bewildering number of levels on a layout that took a lot of getting used to, and as is traditional with cons, any aim at seeing the maximum number of panels soon flew out of the window in favour of a more improvisational approach. The panels I did see were, on the whole, very good indeed – interviews with writers like Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett and Joe Hill, along with a talk about comics that did manage to go to some places that SF/Fantasy con panels don’t normally go. (I could start on about the general negative approach to comics from the World Fantasy ‘Board’, who govern what WFCs can do – that it would be easily possible to do a series of panels that would concentrate on the literary side of fantasy comics – but the fact that a Sandman issue won the World Fantasy Award best story in 1992 seems to have permanently scarred them, so that seems to be that…). The most interesting panel I managed was actually the Steampunk panel, which managed to be different from the usual run-of-the-mill con Steampunk panel by having Tim Powers, James Blaylock and K.W. Jeter, the three men who actually invented Steampunk, where I found out that the Steampunk subgenre was actually kicked off thanks to an abortive series about reincarnations of King Arthur that fell through, leaving K.W. Jeter with a load of material about Victorian London and nothing to do with it…
There were also the parties. A cunning person could surf on free red wine from one publishing party to another, and there was lots of entertaining talk to be had. I met an awful lot of new people at the con – people I’ll hopefully be able to keep in touch with over Twitter – and some of the most fun moments were the least expected. Among many highlights, there was hanging out in the bar the first night with Charles Stross, the impromptu conversation about travelling across America I had with Kaaron Warren, winning a book thanks to my unexpected skill with a fairground crossbow, hearing an eye-opening late-night story from the splendid Max Edwards, as well as the encounter that myself, my girlfriend Emma and another friend had with a drunken Irish woman that was hilariously surreal simply thanks to the fact that it didn’t feel like it was ever going to end.
Nicest of all, I got to the end of the con and felt like I could actually let go of some of the stuff that had been bothering me for a while. One of the reasons I’d been troubled by the idea of cons is simply that they’re regular reminders that I’m not where I want to be, in terms of my writing, and that plenty of people are speeding ahead of me while I look like I’ve been standing still. I got an agent back in 2008, and it was in no way part of my ‘plan’ to be still trying to get myself published over five years later. But sometimes, things don’t go according to plan, and you can rail against that and complain and bitch and moan, or you can simply pick yourself up, continue onwards, and fail better. I haven’t always been good at doing that – letting go of the past – but thanks to WFC 2013, I felt like that goal was a little more achievable, like a little of the mess inside my head had been resolved.
I’m very good at feeling like I don’t quite fit in, even at places that are almost entirely populated by people who don’t feel like they quite fit in, but WFC 2013 was overall a good time for me. I know it wasn’t ideal for everyone – I certainly heard enough about organisational and communications snafus to make me thankful I wasn’t one of the amazing hard-working red-jacketed volunteers, several of which were good friends – but I came through it feeling better about myself, having had plenty of fun, and with a suitcase of new books, most of which I was able to pick up for free. And that can’t in any way be bad… I doubt that I’ll be making it to another WFC anytime soon, as the fact that it’s normally held in various areas of America basically makes it a no-go for now, but I’m glad I went, and I’ll do it again if I do get the chance.
(There’d only be one request if I ever go to another WFC – chairs. For the love of God, chairs. I realise it was principally a result of the hotel, but the only ‘lounge’ area for a con with upwards of 1500 people was a fairly small bar with limited seating. Many of the publishing parties took place in huge rooms with hardly any seating available, and by the fourth and fifth days, we were hi-jacking chairs wherever we could find them or sitting on the floor. A decently-sized chill-out area would have made a massive difference to the comfort level – and hopefully that’s something next year’s London-based Worldcon will be bearing in mind…)
Of course, in two weeks time, there’s the Leeds-based comic convention Thought Bubble, which I’m absurdly excited by, and which is likely to be a very different experience. I’ve been regularly impressed by Thought Bubble’s ability to evolve and grow as it’s become more popular, and it’s the friendly atmosphere – combined with this year’s awesome guest list – that has me looking forward to this with a giddy amount of enthusiasm…