FantasyCon 2016 by the Sea, or Why Cons are Great

The last weekend in September was FantasyCon, the British Fantasy Society’s annual shindig. And so I headed to sunny Scarborough, famed tourist lure of the Yorkshire coast, to paddle, play in the arcades, and maybe learn something about writing.

I always enjoy FantasyCon. There are lots of interesting people, the panels provide something to talk about, and there are bars. That means lots of interesting late night conversations with other people who love writing, reading, and sf+f. These days, I also know enough authors for there to be someone I know releasing a book. So I go along to hear a reading, offer my support, drink the free wine, and add more paper to my already overloaded to-read shelf.

Adrian Tchaikovsky and Keris McDonald signing The Private Life of Elder Things.
Adrian Tchaikovsky and Keris McDonald signing The Private Life of Elder Things.

I’m trying to broaden my reading, so this year I listened to panels about horror. This meant hearing new speakers, recommendations for books I hadn’t heard of, and some new perspectives on storytelling. Conventions can be great for that kind of thing.

I also talked on a panel about time travel in sf+f, which was a fun way to spend an hour. Of course I got in a small rant about inaccuracy in Braveheart, because any excuse.

And no, not freedom.

But honestly, the best part about conventions is getting to know people. I’ve come away with a load of new friends and contacts, as well as the memory of lots of interesting chats. I feel inspired and motivated by it all. I really look forward to seeing the same faces at future cons. These are the moments where a community of interest – something that exists largely online – becomes a physical community, and that’s great.

A Jolly Weekend at Mancunicon

Cram a thousand sci-fi writers and fans into a single hotel and what do you get? A fantastic weekend, it turns out.

I spent Easter weekend at Mancunicon, aka Eastercon 2016, one of the biggest UK science fiction and fantasy conventions of the year. It was a great weekend, with interesting talks and panels, lots of fantastic people, and a real ale bar to make up for the terrible hotel beer. I listened to mathematician Colin Wright talk about the maths of juggling, lawyer Lilian Edwards talk about how the Marvel universe explores privacy and identity, and a whole bunch of authors talk about plot twists.

That’s not to mention the late night bar conversations, on everything from the new series of Daredevil to the peril of bees to abandoning author R. A. Smith naked in the streets of Helsinki (it made sense when we were drunk).


If you’ve never attended a con then I heartily recommend it. If you’re in the UK then I particularly recommend Eastercon – I’ll certainly be back next year. Reading is more fun if you can enthuse about the books with others later. Writing is a lonely business, and meeting others in your field can be sanity saving. Frankly, any time you can spend with people who share your passions is great, and that’s what this was.

Huge thanks to the volunteers who ran the con.

I’ll finish with a few pictures from the hotel I stayed at. It was a couple of miles from the convention, out in Trafford. This is a somewhat neglected area of Manchester, and I expected a cheap hotel catering to football fans. What I’d forgotten was that it was near the BBC’s media city complex, and so the hotel catered to creative types. Which leads to this…



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What Conventions Mean to Me – a Lesson from Sledge Lit

sledge-litI love science fiction and fantasy conventions. They’re one of those perfect geekend activities where I get to immerse myself completely in the things that interest me – good company, lots of coffee, and discussing genre fiction.

For me, this is the role of conventions, and it shapes the way I see their component parts. I have friends who get frustrated at the lack of originality and controversy in panel programming. They want to see a real debate, some fire and passion, the rise and fall of new ideas. I have no aversion to those things, but I don’t mind their absence from conventions.

Take Sledge Lit, the con I went to in Derby a few weeks back. It was friendly, relaxed and well run. I had a great time. I went to a panel on whether fantasy is becoming broader as a genre. The panellists agreed with each other, and they didn’t say anything startlingly new or that would seem original if you follow fantasy discussions on the internet. Sure, any gamergaters in the audience might have been shocked by their liberalism, but I doubt many gamergaters go to conventions on fantasy literature. And let’s face it, the lack of crossover between gamergaters and sff convention attendees was part of the reason for the recent sad puppies teacup tornado.

So if I didn’t go to Sledge Lit to learn anything new, why did I go? What’s the point in a panel where most of what you hear is what you could read elsewhere?

The point is that the panels are conversation starters. People in the audience can go away and talk about them with each other, getting to know total strangers and hear their views. It’s then, in the more personal surroundings of a bar, that contrasting views can come out, in a context where you can shake hands and stay friends at the end. And even if the overall direction of the panel doesn’t lead anywhere radical, there are always new examples to hear and refinements on the points you’ve heard before. Whether it’s a book recommendation from Natasha Pulley or an example of historical bias cited by Juliet McKenna, hearing people who share our views can still be interesting.

I did learn some new things at Sledge Lit. But more importantly for me, I had a good time getting to know new people, and hanging out with friends. The arguments can stay on Twitter – I’m happy with cons as a bonding space.


The Changing Face of Book Marketing at #FantasyCon2015

BFS_Logo_red_SMALLOf all the panels I attended at Fantasy Con, the one that most sticks in the memory was ‘Turn Up the Volumes: Marketing and Selling Books’. Not because of how much I learned from it, but because of how different the tone was to last year’s equivalent.

Same Panel, Different Industry


Graeme Reynolds is a small press publisher, with an indie outlook and approach. Last year, he sat on a similar panel in a position of isolation. The conversation was oriented toward big publishers and big book shops, the mainstays of traditional publishing. A lone voice toward the self-publishing end of the spectrum, Graeme struggled to be heard, looking increasingly uncomfortable as the assumption behind the panel became clear – this was about how people published by big businesses could get themselves noticed.

This year was completely different. Graeme was in the mainstream of the conversation, alongside other small press and indie writers. Big publishing was represented on the panel, but it didn’t dominate. The result was advice that anybody could use, and a far more relaxed Graeme Reynolds. He was actually smiling when he came out of the panel.

The Difference Twelve Months Makes

Why am I talking about this?

Because I think it’s very telling. Publishing is changing at a huge speed. Self-publishers and indie publishers are finding more success due to the internet and particularly Amazon. Big publishers are ditching their marketing budgets for all but the biggest names. To be relevant, a panel on marketing books has to be providing advice you can follow even if you’ll never get on the shelves of Waterstones.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into a single panel, but it seems to me that attitudes are shifting. Fantasy Con is quite oriented toward traditional publishing, but this year its marketing panel was built around where the industry is going, not where it used to be. Everyone is adjusting to a new reality that makes big publishers less central, but also makes the hardline indie voices, who believe the big publishers are dead weight giants, look less realistic and more fanatical.

A more diverse, do-it-yourself industry is emerging, and it’s one where hard working, determined small publishers like Graeme can comfortably be heard.

Where’s Our Advice?

So having sat through such a practical panel, what advice can I offer you? What nuggets of wisdom did the panel offer?

Honestly, very little I hadn’t heard before. Be positive; interact with people on social media instead of spamming them with sales; do what you’re comfortable worth; identify and focus on your ideal readers.

Half the reason old and new publishing have found this middle ground is that there’s a growing consensus on how to sell books in the early 21st century. If you want to learn about it then don’t listen to me, go direct to experts like Joanna Penn, the Sell More Books Show, or Graeme Reynolds himself.

Books, Booze and Brandon Sanderson – My #FantasyCon2015 Highlights

My Fantasy Con 2015 book haul
My Fantasy Con 2015 book haul

I love a good geeky get together. Talking about the stuff I love, meeting fellow fans and writers, learning about books I’ve never heard of. Fantasy Con, the British Fantasy Society’s annual convention, is great for this.

I’ll write up some meaningful panel notes another week, but here are some of my personal highlights from the con:

The fairy tales panel. The panellists struck up a relaxed, interesting conversation, and it was great to see Charlotte Bond showing her smarts on her first panel appearance.

The bizarre Friday night karaoke. The room was too well lit, the bar wasn’t serving booze, and I had no intention of singing. But the atmosphere was so relaxed, it made a great background to hanging out and chatting.

Sitting in the bar with Ian Sales and Hal Duncan, listening to them enthuse about linguistics and biblical history. Listening to knowledgeable, enthusiastic people discuss favourite subjects is always a joy.

The launch party for V. H. Leslie’s Skein and Bone. There was sangria, and I found someone to talk with about the awesomeness of Dark Matter. Also the book is lovely – my only paper purchase of the weekend.

David Tallerman’s reading. It wasn’t well attended, but it was a great short story.

Thanking Brandon Sanderson for Writing Excuses, and getting a fist bump when I told him I make a living off what I learned from his podcast.

My first time talking on a convention panel. It was great to meet the other panellists, and Alex Davis did a great job of keeping the conversation go. Despite being tense and over-caffeinated, I managed not to make a complete tit of myself.

All in all, a fun time was had. Huge thanks to the con chairman Lee Harris, all the volunteers, and Charlotte and David for company on the journey and around the con. Next up, Sledge-Lit.

Writing Lessons From My Early Nerdery

Dignity was never my top priority as a student
Dignity was never my top priority as a student

Preparing to head back to Durham for the Nerd East convention has me feeling all nostalgic. I lived and studied there for seven years in total, and though I didn’t do much writing it has really shaped me as a writer. Joining the live roleplay society got me back into fantasy and science fiction in a big way, as well as giving me lots of great friends and character ideas. My first published story was in the university Science Fiction and Fantasy Society’s in-house fanzine, and won me a week’s worth of calories in chocolate form.

And as always, there were the lessons that weren’t directly writing related but have proved useful. I learned to work with others creating plots through LRP, as well as finding out how much chainmail weighs. I gained the confidence to put my stories and other creations out there. I watched a wide range of science fiction and fantasy films, making me better informed about the genres. And where else but a university game of killer could I have experienced what it’s like to stake out someone’s house? (I mean aside from the mob.)

Often the things we label as distractions provide useful lessons. Sure, that’s less true of all the time I spent drinking in the Student Union bar, but then I never needed my dignity all that much.

Or my liver.

If you’re in north east England then you can hear me talk on this more, as well as enjoying a day of geekery and gaming, on 30 May at Nerd East.

Writing Workshop and a New Book

bookdesign348No Writing Excuses exercise from me this week, as I’m spending the time preparing to teach some writing instead. In an act that is either terrifying hubris or putting my money where mouth is, I’ve volunteered to give a talk and run a writing workshop at Nerd East, a convention in north-east England on 30 May. This is a return to my old turf of Durham, so my talk will be on what my experiences there taught me as a writer. The workshop is on using seven point story structure to develop a plot, because this struck me as the most practical thing I could do.

If you live near Durham, or are just looking for a fun convention to attend, then I recommend checking out Nerd East. It’ll be a lot of fun.

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On a different topic, the first two volumes of my Epiphany Club series of steampunk adventure stories are now up on Amazon, Smashwords and other ebook stores. The first volume, Guns and Guano, is free, so why not go give it a read?