The Obligatory (and Rather Belated) Thought Bubble 2013 Post

Thought Bubble was the weekend-bef0re-last – the Leeds Comic Convention that’s ended up a fixture in my yearly schedule – and this year certainly did nothing to make me change my mind about that. It’s the first time me and my girlfriend Emma actually did it as a proper weekend, going up on the Friday night (as the event itself is Saturday–Sunday), and I’m very glad we did, as it made life an awful lot easier. Comic Conventions are always a very different vibe to SF literary conventions, and this year was just as friendly, diverse and colourful as ever, with a large number of cosplayers, and a whole variety of comic folk, from small-scale indies to big-level Marvel/DC folk.

It was a great time, but I’ve got the worrying feeling that I didn’t quite make the most of it. It’s probably the curse of huge expectations – I’ve basically been looking forward to this since last year – and of peaking way too early, thanks to the first thing I did on Saturday being queueing for a while to get sketches from artists Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba – but the con did feel a little broader and less easy to take in this time. The three halls were huge, and packed full of stuff, which made it easy to miss things, and also I ended up frequently caught between considering whether or not I wanted to queue for other artists and potentially get sketches (the first year I’ve tried to do this seriously), or if I wanted to do other stuff like visit panels, just browse, or – rather more importantly – eat.

I’ve ended up feeling as if there’s an awful lot I missed. I did catch the writer’s panel on Sunday, with people like Matt Fraction, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Brandon Graham talking wonderful sense about the writing life, and it’s once again left me feeling like I need to get off my arse and try to actually fit some comics writing into my already busy-as-hell life. That was the only panel I properly caught, unfortunately (which wasn’t helped by the awesomely user-unfriendly programme, which was a tabloid-sized newsprint-style magazine, and laid out in a way that made the programme hard to unravel), but while there may have been a bit of directionless drifting at times, I also took in some excellent comics, and got to catch up with a whole variety of friends as well.

It also didn’t help that the mid-con party, which last year was awesome, was this year somewhat marred by an organisational snafu that led to us having to queue for almost forty-five minutes in the freezing Leeds cold, thanks to them not having enough bouncers to cover the venue’s capacity. (We kept being told “the venue’s full” by certain people – only to find there was plenty of room once we got in). Thankfully, I’d brought wine with me that helped keep me warm (and slightly mitigated the fact that I wasn’t in any way dressed for cold weather, having not expected to queue at all), and we did end up having a brilliant time on the dancefloor once we got inside, but things didn’t always feel quite so smooth and effortlessly fun as they did last year, which was a small shame.

However, there were still plenty of highlights – like getting more comics from John Allison, the artist behind fabulous webcomic Bad Machinery, and getting to have a chat with artist Cameron Stewart while he signed and sketched in my copy of his fantastically creepy comic Sin Titulo. I also, in a moment of pure what-the-hell managed to get ace designer and artist Rian Hughes to sign a copy of his gorgeous art book Soho Dives, Soho Divas. And, on Sunday, after having given up on the plan of getting anything else major signed, especially by Brandon Graham, an independent artist who writes the bonkers SF saga Prophet, me and Emma had said our goodbyes and we were literally about to leave – I was in the entrance foyer to the main hall, waiting for Em – when I actually ran into Brandon Graham. Again, in one of those moments of mad impulsiveness, I grabbed the chance to just say “Hello, just wanted to say that I really love your work”, and he actually ended up doing a sketch for me there and then, which also gave me the chance to briefly geek out with him over the pleasures of mid-1970s Doctor Who (a big influence on Prophet) and Blake’s 7. The sketch was awesome, and the whole encounter left me in a complete daze for the rest of the evening – and while there may have been a few ups and downs for my personal Thought Bubble experience, overall it’s just made me even more determined to make sure I don’t miss out on stuff next year….

(I would have included some pictures, but I seem to specialise in taking the least interesting con photos ever. My iPhone 3GS has the magical capability of taking an environment packed with colour and fun, and turning it into nondescript shots of people milling around lots of tables. Next time, I shall do better…)

That Was The WFC That Was… (Belated Thoughts on World Fantasy Con 2013)

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 Pier

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 WFC Comics Panel, including Joe Hill and Neil Gaiman...

The WFC Comics Panel, including Joe Hill and Neil Gaiman…

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…




Blog: Ice Cold (and Red Hot) in Prestatyn – The SFX Weekender 3

SFX Weekender pic 2This Sunday evening, I returned from the wilds of North Wales where the weekend-long third annual SFX Weekender event was taking place. (And here is the point where I have to do full-disclosure and say that I’ve been writing in a freelance capacity for SFX magazine for the past ten years – I got a discount on the Weekender ticket price thanks to my SFX work, so you can take or leave whatever I say according to that, but hopefully you’ll see that this is as honest an appraisal as I can manage of the ups and downs of the weekend’s festivities).

Both me and my girlfriend ended up seriously tired (to the extent that most of the following Monday was taken up with recovery)– it was a good weekend overall, and a sometimes brilliant one, although there were some problems and snafus along the way. Hanging out in a Pontins holiday camp in North Wales in February may not be everybody’s idea of a good time – we knew roughly what we were getting into when we signed up, but it’s still a bit dispiriting to arrive in a place that looks more like a Communist work-camp than somewhere designed to actually be fun:

SFX Weekender pic 3

As you can see, what was soon less-than-affectionately christened ‘Prestatyngrad’ features lots of utilitarian architecture, and the chalets themselves could only really be described as functional, but ours was clean and didn’t have any problems, and it’s easy to see that an event like the Weekender really couldn’t be run in many other places at its current scale (not without cranking the expense up to ridiculous levels).

SFX Weekender pic 1The Weekender is a loud, brash, entertaining con that packs an awful lot into two solid days (with an added Thursday evening for early arrivals), and it really seems to inhabit an interesting world between the commercial ‘please pay here to get your actor autograph’ conventions and the usually more genteel fan-run cons that I’ve been to in the past. It also, unfortunately, ended up a very good example of the “It’s a really really good con – but…” effect. No event is ever going to run perfectly smoothly – it’s a simple fact that problems are always going to come along – and for the 75% of the time when the Weekender was firing on all cylinders, it really was a tremendous amount of fun. But – there’s that 25% of the time, which resulted in my overall feeling about the con being “mixed, but really good”, and a lot of it comes down to first impressions.

Our journey to the site, for the Thursday evening ‘pre-show party’ was actually fairly smooth – we live in Manchester, so it’s an hour-and-a-half drive – and while I was a little nervous about some of the facilities (having heard horror stories about the accommodation at Camber Sands, the previous venue), I didn’t know exactly what to expect, and was looking forward to getting inside and exploring the con locations. Unfortunately, what we got when we arrived at Prestatyn at just before 5pm was a massive two-hour queue to check in, an hour of which was outside the main building in temperatures that rapidly went sub-zero. Annoyed is not the word, and it didn’t help that there was no communication, no staff members letting us know what was happening (or that the credit card machines had crashed, meaning they couldn’t process people’s security deposits fast enough) – just an hour in the freezing, FREEZING cold, and then another hour winding through a queue in a pretty small reception area, where there were only three check-in-windows. One of the only things that kept me going in the last half-hour was the idea of going to the chip-shop I’d spotted outside – the chalet was self-catering and we’d brought plenty of food, but I wanted something as soon as possible, so once we got our keys and found our chalet, I rushed off to get some food… and found that the chip shop had shut. At 6pm. I found out later that there was a canteen and a fast food ‘outlet’ (neither of which were incredibly appetising), and soon sorted myself out with something from the shop that I cooked back at the chalet… but it was the kind of massive disappointment that should have been avoided. Add to that a sleepless night due to a stiff and uncomfortable mattress, and my enjoyment of the Weekender took a major hit that took a while to recover.

There were, of course, certain other problems that nobody could do anything about – like the unexpectedly arctic weather, or the train derailment that ended up prevented several guests from arriving, and which delayed others. But there were organisational problems, and communication errors that could have been avoided –  like the lack of any specific printed schedule or map in the ‘Welcome Packs’ we received, and the absence of a communal noticeboard where you could go to get updates, which left the whole event occasionally feeling a little vague frustrating.

It was only the avoidable problems that really bugged me. You don’t sign up to a con that involves staying in a Holiday camp chalet without understanding roughly what you’re getting into, but there were ways of dealing with problems like this, and (in order to let it all out and clear my head), here’s my constructive suggestions that I’d make in order for next year’s Weekender (which I am, despite the problems, still pretty damn likely to sign up for) even better:

1: The event doesn’t start for Weekender customers once they’ve checked in – it starts once they’ve arrived. Our journey only took us an hour and a half- there were people there who’d been travelling for much longer, and who had to queue for even longer than we did, and I dread to think exactly how annoyed I’d have felt if that were the case. At the least, there could have been more people manning the check-in counters, and staff there to handle the queue and generally communicate with people – a couple of explanations and heartfelt apologies for the delays would have gone a long way. At the best, there could have been hot drinks laid on for anyone who wanted them, or the check-in should have been opened much earlier than 5pm (going for a 1 or 2pm start would have definitely reduced the amount of congestion). The venue may not be perfect, but good service and first impressions are really important, and treating your customers like cattle isn’t a good way of getting them in the mood for a weekend of sci-fi fun.

2: Maps in the welcome packs, along with printed schedules. People need to know where everything is, and how to get there. My girlfriend had the schedule stored on her phone, but the whole point is that she shouldn’t have to – communication is vital. (Plus, all important information relating to the chalet should have been in the welcome pack – many people were complaining about having no hot water, when it was only because the water heater needed to be switched on, and the piece of paper telling you this wasn’t immediately apparent.)

3: A central ops area (or desk) seperate from the main reception area, where people can come with any queries or problems, and attached to that, a noticeboard of some kind where changes to the schedule can be posted. Yes, put the changes on Twitter as well, but you shouldn’t rely on social media and/or word of mouth at a place like this.

4: Try and improve the food options. Con food is very rarely spectacular (it’s one of the touchstones of the convention lifestyle), but there were very few options available, and most of them were very understaffed. It took me fifty minutes to queue for fish and chips on the Friday, and the fact that the chip shop wasn’t set up to open late into the evening (except on Saturday, where it stayed open till 8pm) was ludicrous. At the least, a selection of hot dog stands or burger vans would have fulfilled people’s emergency protein needs, or the chip shop should have been paid to open until at least 10pm. Either that, or it needs to be very, VERY clear in the Weekender literature that it’s vital to bring your own food for the entire weekend, especially with the town centre being a taxi-drive rather than a walk away.

5: Add a chill-out area – because while the noise and activity was mostly great, it was also – to be honest – pretty damn noisy. It’s a little like being in Las Vegas: the noise and activity is thrilling, but there comes a point where you want something a little quieter, and maybe the chance to sit and talk with friends or new acquaintances. The pub was always crowded and very noisy, while the main bar was directly behind the screening room, which late-at-night was showing a succession of horror movies, so not the most relaxing of environments. If the only opportunity to get something a little quieter and more peaceful is to go back to the chalet, there’s something wrong – and if it means losing something like the VIP bar (so that there’s more room for *everybody* to relax), then so be it.

6: Hang the DJ. Or, at least, make sure that the non-legendary Pat Sharp never gets within range of the music choice again (proving, as if it needed to be proven, that playing ‘Three Lions’ at a sci-fi convention is an excellent way of clearing the dance floor). Craig Charles’s DJ set was barnstormingly excellent, but the other DJ sets were sporadically good at best, and mostly featured an overload of the kind of bangin’ Nineties house that didn’t seem to be making masses of people want to dance. The music needs to be better…

7: Nametags. Meeting new people – and particularly meeting authors and writers – is a hell of a lot easier when everybody knows everybody else’s name. It’s a small touch that I really think would make a big difference to the social side of the event.

SFX Weekender pci 5 Brian BlessedIf they can pull off the options listed above, the Weekender might not be perfect, but it’d be well on the way to being genuinely great – because while the above problems were all there, and unavoidable at times, when the SFX Weekender got things right, it got them extremely right. Once you’ve gotten to know a few people, fan-run conventions can sometimes feel like a fantastic excuse to hang out in a bar talking to SF geeks and drinking, with panels and events as an occasional distraction, but the Weekender did a very good job of packing the schedule, resulting in very few bare patches, and plenty of moments where I was forced to choose between several enticing options. While I did end up missing some attention-grabbing events (thanks to the usual con excuses like ‘I have to eat’), my highlights include Sylvester McCoy prowling the audience and being fantastically entertaining, the epic Blastermind quiz where my esoteric knowledge of bizarre films helped my team get third place (out of dozens of teams) and won me a stack of cult horror DVD/Blu-Rays, and the incredible panel with Brian Blessed which was as deafeningly loud and hilarious as you’d expect, along with the realisation that alongside Blessed’s jaw-droppingly eccentric manner, there’s a passion for life and inspiration that’s seriously admirable. The Saturday night disco, featuring Craig Charles DJ’ing, stage dancers, illuminated stiltwalkers, angle-grinders and hallucinatory video projection was also amazing, and all the way through the weekend there was a brilliant atmosphere – the dealers room was the most active, energised and lively I’ve ever seen at a con, there were costumed Star Wars Stormtroopers and Daleks prowling the halls, and the level of cosplay from the fans themselves was truly epic, with people throwing an incredible amount of effort into some of the most entertainingly kooky costumes I’ve ever seen, and a whole selection of character-appearances I never expected in a million years.

Once past the initial organisational errors, on the whole it was a very welcoming con, and the SFX crew obviously worked their arses off in order to keep things running as smoothly as they could. Since Sunday, there’s been various posts on the SFX forums claiming that loads of people were hideously disappointed (as were everybody they spoke to, apparently), but aside from a few mild grumbles here and there, what I saw for the whole weekend was a gigantic crowd of people having a truly excellent time. There’s a lot that other, smaller cons could learn from the Weekender about the kind of fun and energy that will bring new people into the Con and fandom lifestyle. Ultimately, the issues that I listed above were only truly frustrating because everything else was so good, and the Weekender really did get close to being a top-notch experience crammed with weirdness and geekery. The high-points of this weekend certainly blew the hell out of any convention I’ve been to in the past (I’ve never laughed so loud or applauded so hard as I did at the Brian Blessed panel, for example), and it’s also excellent that they emphasised the literary and comic-book side of things as well as the more attention-grabbing TV stars, putting on a selection of panels that acted as a really good intro and discussion of many aspects of the genre. I just hope SFX and the organisers can take the feedback they’re getting onboard – as away from its flaws, the Weekender really is an impressive amount of fun, and is in serious danger of being the kind of con we need to see more of…