My Thoughts on Nerdcon:Stories

I attended Nerdcon:Stories as a featured guest this last weekend, and let me tell you why I think it was one of the best conventions I’ve been to in a while.

1. It was shockingly well-run, especially for a first-time convention. From my point of view as a guest, everything went off almost without a hitch, and when I did have a hitch (my family’s badges went missing), it was resolved in roughly a minute and a half, without any sort of fuss. The backstage areas were tightly and professionally run, Nerdcon staff were on top of things to make sure everyone was where they were supposed to be, and the guests were provided places, during convention hours and outside of them, to relax and hang out with each other. It ran more smoothly than nearly any other convention I’ve been to, much less a first-time convention, in which it was understood this was the “shake-out” cruise, as it were, to see where the problems were for next time.

I suspect that one reason it ran so smoothly was that while it was a first-time convention, the people running it were not first-timers; it was Hank Green and his crew from VidCon. VidCon’s been around for five years now and the 2015 iteration of it had 20,000 attendees, so Nerdcon’s 3,000 (or so) attendees probably were not a huge challenge to manage relative to that. I expect Hank’s team grafted some of their best practices at VidCon onto Nerdcon, and tweaked from there as the show went along.

Nevertheless, at the end of the day, a first-time convention is a first-time convention. There are things you don’t know that can go wrong simply because they’ve never happened before. You’re flying blind, basically. The Nerdcon staff handled it all very very well. As someone who’s been in the chain of command for running a convention, I was impressed.

2. It wasn’t too big. 3,000 is a healthy size for a convention — ask most science fiction conventions if they’d like to have 3,000 attendees — but what I mean by “big” here is that Nerdcon didn’t try to do every single possible thing the first time out of the gate. The convention had “main stage” track of events, three auditoriums to run panels out of, and a signing room. By and large the “main stage” programming didn’t cut into the panels and signings, and vice versa. There was enough to do, but it didn’t feel overwhelming, or that some guests (and fans) had been flung off into some far province of the convention. Also, from the guest point of view, it also meant that everything you participated in was well-attended, which is a nice thing, too, for various reasons.

3. The featured guest list was well-curated, diverse and multidisciplinary. The emphasis for the convention was on storytelling (as evidenced by the convention’s full title, “Nerdcon:Stories”), but the convention took a small “c” catholic approach to what “storytelling” was, which meant that among the featured guests there were writers and pod-and-vid-casters and musicians and performers and playwrights and others, and all sorts of combinations of the above. The convention also made the point to reflect the diversity of creativity in terms of who creates as well, very easily giving lie to the idea that it’s somehow difficult to find enough amazingly talented people from diverse backgrounds to fill a convention’s featured guest roster.

In short, Nerdcon’s guest list wasn’t just “the usual suspects,” however you imagine that phrase to function. This was great for the convention, but it was also good for the guests, including me. I can guarantee you that a very large chunk of the Nerdcon audience had no idea who I was before the convention. Now they know me, if nothing else, as “the guy who got killed on stage during the puppet show.”

4. None of the featured guests were jerks. The guest list was also well-curated in that everyone involved, as far as I can see, was really into the idea that we were all storytellers, and that we were happy to cross the streams to engage and perform with each other, not just on panels but in other events as well. None of the featured guests — again, as far as I could tell — fell into hierarchical panic mode, trying to figure out who was the most famous or talented person in the room, and if someone did, they were probably defeated in the attempt by the fact that since so many of the guests were from different creative fields than they, any stab at a ranking would fail.

Which is good! Screw hierarchy! Better — and more fun for everyone, guests and attendees alike — if everyone on the stage just plain trusted their colleagues up there with them to be interesting and smart and talented. It seemed to work. This is was a refreshingly ego-free (or at the very least, ego-reduced) convention. I liked it. And I liked what came out of it: A chance to get up on a stage with other really talented, very smart people and put on a show for a willing audience. Which leads to the next point:

5. The convention placed an emphasis on keeping the crowd entertained. Small fan-run conventions are often more about the fans running (and attending) the conventions than the people invited as guests; large, comic-con-sized conventions are often more about being a marketplace of toys and art and autographs. This isn’t a complaint in either case — I enjoy cons large and small for the reasons mentioned above — but as a guest and in a very real sense a performer, I liked that Nerdcon was about putting on a storytelling show for an audience that had come to see that very thing.

I especially liked the “Main Stage” chunks of the convention, which featured a number of fast moving bits (rapid fire Q&A, three-song-concerts, mock debates, etc) that gave the convention an almost vaudeville feel, as in, “bored with this bit? Wait a few minutes.” That combined with the performers’ general willingness to dive in and just plain entertain meant that even if something flopped (and very little seemed to do that) it wasn’t because those of us up on stage didn’t make an effort.

(On the flip side, it helped that Nerdcon was also a very forgiving audience — they wanted to be entertained, and seemed delighted that we were willing to oblige. Thanks, folks!)

6. It didn’t go on too long. The convention was two days and done: Friday and Saturday and that was all she wrote. Enough time for everyone to have fun, not so long that one got that “hangover” feeling on the last day of the convention (“why are we all even still here?”). This is not to say two days is somehow the optimal length for a convention, merely that it seemed to be the optimal length for this one.

Having praised Nerdcon:Stories highly, let me now note I’m not saying that every convention should be like Nerdcon; they shouldn’t. Nerdcon feels to me like a very specific species of a larger genus of “convention.” It’s not a small science fiction convention or a comic-con-sized media convention, and it’s not like a book fair or trade show. It’s a specific, tuned event: a cross-disciplinary, performance-based convention. In a very real sense there’s not much out there that’s like it — the closest thing I can actually think of to it is the JoCo Cruise, in point of fact, although there are a whole lot of differences there as well.

I think that a lot of what Nerdcon has done could be applicable to other cons (for example, how they ran their signing room, which featured a sitting area for people waiting for autographs, which was brilliant and makes me wonder why it was the first time I’ve seen that outside of a bookstore event, where people were already sitting before the signing), but I don’t know that the gestalt of Nerdcon is transferable. It may be its own thing.

Or, it may be the start of another type of thing: of cross-disciplinary, diverse, performance-centered conventions like Nerdcon. Which I certainly wouldn’t mind — if they were done as well as Nerdcon managed this time.

All of which is to say: Nerdcon:Stories was a blast. I’m glad I was part of it, and glad I got to meet really excellent people, on its stage and off of it. I want to come back and do it again.

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The great flying Scalzi at @nerdconstories .

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The Big Idea: David Barnett

In today’s Big Idea for Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper, author David Barnett admits to some of the things he doesn’t know… or didn’t, until he started writing this book.

DAVID BARNETT:

One of the first things you get told as a writer is “write what you know”.

Which is a fine idea, out of which you will probably get precisely one book.

First novels are wonderful things, into which we pour everything, all our heartbreak and joy and love and hate and intimate knowledge of the internal combustion engine and the 1969 Football Association Challenge Cup Final.

They can be a cathartic experience. Sometimes they can actually be good novels. And on occasion, they can actually be published. But they’re a necessary step on the road to becoming a novelist, and once they’re done they free up the writer to do the stuff that’s really fun about writing books, and which no-one really tells you about.

I’m talking about writing what you don’t know.

The third book in my Gideon Smith series of alternate-history Victorian fantasies (oh, go on, then, call it steampunk if you want to – I’m feeling in expansive mood) is published today, via Tor in the US and Snowbooks in the UK. It’s called Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper and it’s absolutely stuffed to the gunwales with things I don’t know – or at least, I didn’t know before I started writing it.

If there’s one big idea in Mask of the Ripper, I suppose it would be identity, and whether we really are what we think ourselves to be and what other people tell us we should or shouldn’t be. This is explored in various ways – the (nominal) protagonist Gideon is stripped of his memory and set adrift in a riot-torn London of Christmas 1890; a major character is charged with murder and their identity which we have come to accept is revealed to be a carefully constructed fiction. Then there is Maria, the mechanical girl introduced in the first book, who is seeking some answers concerning her own place in the world.

But dancing around the big idea are lots and lots of little ideas, and these zephyrs which keep the main theme aloft are largely composed of things of which I knew nothing before writing the book, or at least knew very little.

It can be quite exciting. It’s pointing your airship at the bit of the map marked terra incognita, here be dragons, do not cross. It’s stretching your writerly muscles, rather than just chucking in the same old same old.

Thus, for Mask of the Ripper, I found myself learning all about the early days of research into DNA. It was quite important for me that the trial of the character on a murder charge featured this timeline’s first usage in criminal proceedings of DNA evidence. Only problem was, 1890 was a little early for this in reality.

So I had to find out when it all happened, fit it into my own alternate-history, and spend long hours chewing over often impenetrable essays so I could work out whether or not I could have what I wanted: a device or machine that would allow DNA samples to be tested in front of a Crown Court jury with rather dramatic results.

(The scientists among you will be throwing up their hands in horror; relax. This is fantasy. I got all of the science together, gave it a bit of a stir, then made some stuff up. It happens).

For another character, I needed some motivation that would put him in London’s sewers with a team of Thuggee assassins. I came up with the Great Famine of 1876-78 in India. The sub-continent at that time was, of course, under the control of the British Empire, both in reality and in Gideon Smith’s world. The British were building a great canal, a show of strength, a Victorian architectural and engineering marvel – but ultimately a folly. Hundreds of thousands of Indians died in the famine, and the British made it worse by putting them to work on the canal that would ultimately carry their rice and grain away from the starving masses and on to British dinner tables. So, yeah, motivation there.

And finally, I had Gloria Monday. Gloria is just a supporting character in the book, and I wish I could have made more of her. Gloria is a trans woman, another concept I had to bend to my steampunk will to make it fit into my timeline. I’m indebted to Cheryl Morgan, a writer an publisher who looked at my Gloria chapters and deemed them to be, if not wonderful, at least not as offensive as they could be.

Because as a white dude from the north of England, the chances are I’m going to have screwed that one up substantially. And fear of that almost made me not write Gloria.

But… write what you don’t know.

Why? Well, a writer who repeatedly dashes off novels that require no research or stretching of imagination and knowledge would, eventually, be doing their readers a disservice, I think.

Certainly, I would. If I wrote only what I know, or was comfortable with writing, it would make for very boring books in the long run, safe books, books that take no chances.

There’s always a risk with taking chances that you will offend, upset, just plain get it all wrong wrong wrong and piss everyone off.

Or you may get it completely right and be the toast of book-land.

Or, which is more likely, you may get it both right and wrong, but with a bit of a tailwind you might get it more right than wrong, have learned something in the process, and planted your flag in a tiny little bit of terra incognita… at least for you.

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Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s|Amazon UK

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.