MidSouthCon 36

Last Sunday, my wife and I made a last-minute decision to drive to Memphis, TN and catch the final day of MidSouthCon.  We had to work Friday and Saturday, and because Memphis is a couple hours of driving each way, and we didn’t have a dog-sitter, we only had a few hours at the con.  So, this will be the lamest convention report ever written, but I thought it might be of some interest to people who’ve never been to a con, or to people who were curious about MidSouthCon.

I don’t have a lot of experience with other cons.  I went to at least one GenCon back when it was being held in Wisconsin (I lived in the midwest at the time), and I took my wife to an anime con in Singapore a few years back.  Here’s a picture of us giving a wedgie to a demon king’s baby:

beelz 12

That character is from a manga/anime called Beelzebub, where a demon king chooses a high school bully to raise his son, because (of course) he wants the right values instilled in the little tyke.  The baby character is nude in the Japanese anime, but Singapore forced them to animate a diaper onto him.  I watched an episode where Japanese women kept chastising the bully for not putting a diaper on the baby, even though I could clearly see a diaper, and I was all “wow, anime is really weird” until my wife explained things to me.

Getting back to MidSouthCon, our plan was to split up, with my wife attending anime and cosplay events while I hit book-related ones.  About halfway through my second event, my wife joined me, saying she missed me and wanted to stay with me.  Yes, I realize you all now think my wife is imaginary.  For our third event, we picked something where our interests overlapped.

I quickly cruised by a ballroom where at least a hundred, maybe two hundred, people were playing boardgames, but I didn’t have a chance to peek in on what they were playing.  I also had to cruise by a smaller room where people were playing roleplaying games, and two larger rooms set aside for vendors.  I came back to them after our third event, but the vendors and boardgamers had cleared out.  The RPG crowd still seemed to be going strong.

I ended up attending three literature-related panels.  I’ll mention each below, but here are some general thoughts:

  1. People would frequently get up and walk out in the middle of panels.  It makes sense — why sit through something you’re not enjoying when it’s just a hobby?  For some reason, it still struck me as odd behavior, though.
  2. When speakers tried to illustrate a point, they would bring up a movie or television show far more often than a book.  Maybe this is because those media are more important culturally, or maybe it’s because greater numbers of books are released than films or tv shows, so it’s hard to find a book that’s a common experience for the audience.
  3. Panels can wander far from their stated topics, and it didn’t seem like some panelists had experience with the topic, had researched the topic, or even had an awareness of what the topic was before entering the room.  I found the off-topic discussions interesting, but I can see how others might be disappointed.
  4. There are people in the audience who, when asking “questions”, turn them into long statements about themselves or something they want to talk about.  A strong panel moderator/coordinator is important — someone who will interrupt with something like “That’s a great topic for discussion.  Joe, what do you think?”

Panel #1:  Short Stories vs Novels

This panel had five panelists, versus two for the other panels I attended.  It probably could have done with fewer, as most attention was paid to one of the con’s guests of honor, Mike Resnick.  (Mike is the author of one of the best short stories I’ve ever read, The Olympians).  The audience seemed to be made up entirely of aspiring authors.

There were some on-topic portions of this panel, such as questions about the number of characters in a story.  Should a novel have more characters than a short story?  What’s the minimum number of characters for a full novel?  There were several variants on these questions, but the answer was the same:  use the minimum number of characters necessary to tell the story the author wants to tell.

There were off-topic portions as well, such as Mike discussing his early career writing “soft-core porn”.  He was writing 24-25 novels of it per year, and his income decreased significantly when he switched over to writing sci-fi and fantasy full time.  Mike is an extremely entertaining speaker, so I can see why conventions would want him as a guest.

Panel #2:  Space Opera

This panel strayed the most from its topic, and, possibly as a consequence, it had the highest number of people leaving mid-panel.  Most of the audience appeared to be fans rather than authors.

The panelists didn’t manage a good definition for what is and isn’t considered space opera.  They also didn’t give the audience suggestions of space opera novels, classic or modern, to read.  They did mention Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon as the originators of the subgenre, and an audience member mentioned the Lensman series by EE Doc Smith.

One of the authors, John Jackson Miller, has made a career out of writing within corporate-owned universes:  Star Trek, Star Wars, Halo, etc., so there was an interesting discussion of what it’s like to write under those conditions.  Apparently, there are people with the corporate job of poring over authors’ work and identifying elements that might clash with previous work or introduce new concepts.  The author then must bring forth references to previous work to justify what they’ve written.

Panel #3:  Dark Fiction

Due to a very small crowd (probably because of an error in the con’s printed schedule) and the inclinations of the panelists, this turned into more of a group discussion than a traditional panel.  There was some discussion whether there was a distinction between dark fantasy and grimdark, with the consensus conclusion being that they are just alternate marketing terms.  Someone pointed out that the Horror Writers of America had given up on trying to place a defining boundary between horror and dark fiction.

I hadn’t seen any of the dark films or read any of the dark books brought up in the discussion, but every time one was mentioned, my wife had seen or read it.  I kept giving her sideways glances like “why do you know all this dark stuff?”, and she’d just give me back a cute, bubblegum smile.

Once the panelists, and another author in the audience, found out that my wife was from overseas, they had a bunch of questions for her.  They asked her what she thought of some paranormal/horror stuff, and she was all “your western ghosts are like little babies”.  It reminded me of a Halloween episode of That ’70s Show where they tell the foreign exchange student a ghost story, and he’s like “when I was eight, the rebels came to my town and hung the mayor from a tree.”

They also asked my wife what she thought of “cultural appropriation”.  She said she didn’t care about that concept at all, but she would be annoyed if someone wrote about her home country and got the details wrong.

My closing thoughts

There was a lot going on at MidSouthCon.  I only attended literary panels, but most time slots also had panels related to anime, cosplay, comics, science, and visual art.  I wonder if it might be worthwhile for organizers to identify panels that are oriented towards fans versus those oriented towards people who want to work in the field, but perhaps that’s often determined by the audience that shows up.

Someone who doesn’t have access to a gaming group, due to an unusual work schedule or rural location, might want to visit MidSouthCon for non-stop board and RPG gaming, and skip the panels altogether.

Drop me a comment below if you’ve ever been to a con.  Was it local, or did you travel to it?  Did you enjoy the experience? Did you go for the panels, or to play games?  Is there a con that you attend regularly?

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21 comments

  1. I will never attend a Con. Crowds of people, not what I’m looking for when seeking a good time.

    Glad it worked out for you though. Well, kind of worked out for you. Is going to a Con all weekend something you really want to do, or just one of those “things to try out sometime”?

    1. This one wasn’t crowded, at least on Sunday afternoon. Maybe it was at other times. The Singapore con would’ve needed a hydraulic press to fit more people in.

      I’m not decided on my answer to your question. There’s a tiny con being held in a much smaller town in April, and since it’s minus the 2 hr drive, we’ll probably do that. We might hit MidSouthCon again in the future, since it’s close by and we get to stop at a Memphis BBQ restaurant on the way home, but it would probably be a one-day thing again, not the whole con.

  2. I enjoy cons, I’ve been to dozens. I’m having more fun now as a panelist. Your description of panels is dead on. The programming staff tries to get interesting topics and knowledgeable guests together, but sometimes the puzzle pieces won’t fit.

    Gaming at cons can be a good way to discover games you hadn’t heard of or rope people into trying one you love that your local group isn’t interested in.

    1. Do you think you pick up many new readers for your books at the cons? I had been hoping to meet some indie authors in the vendor area, but like I said, everyone had cleared out by the time I got there.

      Good point about the games, I hadn’t thought about someone not getting to play their favorite game because their gaming group hates it.

      1. Many? No. But I’ve found a few new readers at each con. Most cons have a readings track where authors can share part of their book (or a whole short story). I haven’t tried being a vendor other than an hour or two at the autographing table.

        1. I don’t know if I could read something I’d written to an audience. I might go over-the-top melodramatic, or think I was doing so, and overcompensate into monotone robot mode.

          1. Practice helps. Listen to audiobooks and try to match a style you like. Have your wife listen and give her opinion if she’s willing.

            Plus, some stories beg for over the top melodramatic.

  3. Never been to one, but I’d like to sit in on some panels. Oddly, when I use examples on my blog, I try to refer to films. I do it because more people will likely relate to them.

    1. I was too busy to look into local conventions when I lived in Africa or Asia. My wife just happened to notice the one in Singapore.

      I’ve done the same thing on my blog, using a Star Wars reference because I figure everyone’s seen it. It still just seems funny to go to a book/writing panel, and most of the time is spent talking about TV and movies.

      1. Film is hard to compete with. Watch a movie in two hours or read the book in two weeks. I admit to doing it myself.

  4. Janne Wass · · Reply

    I attended Worldcon last year when they made their way to Helsinki, and I think what struck me about that one was how small it was, compared to the book fairs I normally attend. A second problem I found was the one that you mentioned about panelists not being prepared for a discussion. Or, let’s say my primary pet peeve is moderators who have no idea how to moderate and haven’t prepared and read up on the subject. Several discussions at Worldcon were just rambling talkathons veering in all directions, as 1) the moderator knew too little about the subject to pose specific questions, and instead asked too many open, broad questions, 2) the moderator didn’t understand the subject at hand and asked questions that were beside the topic, 3) the moderator didn’t cut off panelists who went completely off-topic, but allowed the whole discussion to get side-tracked, 4) the moderator didn’t actually understand what a moderator is, and said “I don’t have any thoughts on what this discussion should focus on, and I don’t have any questions, I’m just here as a moderator”. Yes, this actually happened. So there were a lot of potentially very interesting discussions that were just ruined by bad moderating. Another common sin is moderators who just use up all of the discussion by talking themselves.

    1. Alas, there is no training or certification program for being a panel moderator. I’ve seen all the sins you mentioned. Plus one usually hidden from the audience: “Who’s moderating this?” “You are.” “Crap.” There is some good advice on how to do it on blogs and the programming staff has some idea of who’s better at moderating. But if a panel was put together with authors who’ve written about a topic or a replacement for someone who just dropped out it’s a crap shoot.

      (I’ve been that replacement. I was summoned to ConOps and asked to moderate a panel. “But my opinions on that aren’t moderate.” Yes, I did moderate, and I think I did a decent job of it.)

      1. Janne Wass · · Reply

        My standard advice when in doubt is to try and get a journalist as moderator. Even if they’re not experts on a given subject, they usually know how to coax interesting discussions and keep a decent flow going. It’s not always a winner, but it’s a good bet when crap shoot is the alternative.

    2. I’ve never been to a book fair, and I’m not sure I can even remember hearing of one in my area.

      Wow, I’m glad I didn’t get one of the moderators who talked about themselves the whole time. I might have walked out of that.

      1. Janne Wass · · Reply

        Book fairs are a necessary evil for anyone working in the literary field. As a culture magazine editor I’ve been to a good number of them. Most are super-commercial and gobbled up by the big publishing houses and media companies, and treat big authors kind of like rock stars. And the crowds are huge.

  5. I’ve been to a few cons, usually because they had someone there I wanted to meet, and maybe get an autograph. The panels and everything else is a nice bonus to me. I do have a hard time with the crowds, though.

    1. Yeah, I think a favorite author being present might be the biggest reason I’d go to a con in the future.

      Crowds used to bother me a lot, but since I lived in Asia for a few years, no crowd in the USA has even seemed like above-average density to me.

  6. You and your imaginary wife are too cute.

    A lot of Cons specifically have writing tracks.

    1. Thanks!

      If I ever get serious about my own writing, maybe I’ll look for a con with a writing track.

  7. I clicked over here after you visited my blog and I am so glad I did. Science fiction was my first love and lately I’ve been wanting to revisit her.

    1. Thanks for visiting. I’ve built up a good bit of sci-fi content here over the years.

      I found your blog when a twitter follower posted a link to one of your stories. I like your writing, even though it’s outside my normal genres.

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