Conventional Wisdom

Well, it’s WorldCon weekend, and tonight is the night of the Hugo Awards. I’ve only been to one WorldCon before, at which I was a little bit of a cause celebre (that’s French for meme) because of my role in both explaining and skewering what we might call the, ah, alternatively righteous element in the community of science fiction and fantasy literature: those who believed their tastes were the same as objective truth, that their favorites (or indeed, their own works) were the only ones allowed to win awards, and that any other outcome meant the whole thing was rigged, rigged, rigged, I tell you. (WITCH HUNT!)

This is only my second WorldCon. I missed last year’s in Helsinki because of money and other external factors, but the year before that I made a point to go because that was the year of Sad Puppies Review Books and other satirical or analytical works. I knew I’d received many people’s nods for a Hugo Award, even if I didn’t quite make the shortlist, and I woke up the morning of the award ceremony the year before last feeling an overwhelming (and entirely unaccustomed) sense of humility in the face of how the fandom community had rallied against these gatekeepers, this ballot-stuffing clique of bullies who wanted to tell them what to read and who to like and what to do and who were determined to burn the whole concept of awards to the ground if we did not wholly surrender and give them everything they wanted. I wrote a blog post describing my thoughts and feelings about the whole thing.

It is a little bittersweet to read it now, as it is to read just about anything that touches on politics written in the fall of 2016. Before 2016, I would not have expected to be so close to a major industry award for non-fiction. After 2016, I found my always unconventional career taking a very different turn, one which I think my little skirmishes with the so-called Sad Puppies helped prepare me for. On November 8th, 2016, I found myself on Twitter, helping to explain what was happening. Then it kept happening, and it never stopped happening, and I have kept explaining. That’s not exactly a job, but it is certainly a calling, and it is, for now, how I pay my bills.

My burgeoning success as a political analyst, commentator, and all-around Weird Politics Mom on Twitter consumed so much of my attention that I didn’t have much to say about the Hugos last year. When I look at the two blog posts I linked above, though, I feel like that left things a little incomplete, that I didn’t have a finale for the little trilogy, full of pithy thoughts and wry observations about the final and saddest refutation of the Sad Puppies, when their influence died not with a bark but with a whimper.

But then, maybe silence was the appropriate way to mark that moment.

In any event, I am here at my second WorldCon, again on the morning of the Hugo Awards ceremony, and my thoughts are not on the puppies nor really on the awards but the convention itself. This is my second time at a convention larger than my beloved WisCon, and while this time I feel much more like a part of it and much less adrift in a sea of people… I’m now able to fully appreciate both how big a WorldCon is, and how it is big.

The people who sought first to steal and then downplay the awards insist that WorldCon is a little, piddly, rinky-dink little thing, because compared to one of the big media events like San Diego Comic Con or DragonCon… well, it’s just not at the same scale as those things. But it’s also not either of those things. It is its own things. It’s about all of science fiction and fantasy in every form insofar as it brings together people who love it in every form, but at the beginning and in the end it’s about books, which are intimate conversations between authors and readers.

And this is why WorldCon feels so huge to me: because I’m not here for movie spoilers and big announcements and I’m not here for an award, but I am here for the people. There may be more people at a media convention, but the attendees are just attendees. At a lit con, the attendees are the con. The people are the convention and the convention is the people, and if it were twice as long I could not possibly spend enough time with everyone I want to see.

I know (she said with all due modesty) that what I do right now is important to so many people. I know this because, among other indicators, I have had people come up to all weekend to tell me, “Thank you for what you do, it is so important.” And this is both uplifting and baffling to me, but I understand that even when I don’t know what to do with the information, it means something to the person saying it that they were able to say it. So more so than usual, I’ve been trying to keep myself available, make myself visible, make sure that anyone and everyone who want to find me and see me in person has the chance to do so.

But I know that for my best efforts, I’m going to get at least a few “I looked for you and couldn’t find you” messages, because that always happens, just as there are people I’ve been looking out for whom I haven’t seen.

That’s convention life, though. It is a sign of the health and vibrancy of the WorldCon community that even somebody on the fringes of it, as I am, can’t make all the connections she’d want to in the course of four days.

Back in 2016, I said that awards don’t matter so much as the genuine appreciation they represent matters. They’re a symbol, like a flag, and while a flag may stand for freedom the flag itself is not freedom. The map is not the territory. The symbol is not the thing.

Though I have recently become a bit more of a fiction writer again, I did very little in the speculative world in 2017 and I did not have the bandwidth to think much about stories or trophies. This year I have just started to kindle a bit of a spark of the old creativity and curiosity again, and in doing so I discovered what a wonderful thing a spark can be in the middle of a very long, very cold, and very dark night.

And so here is my insight for this year: the awards matter because they represent genuine appreciation, and the appreciation is genuine because it comes from people, from real people, a real community of people, a community of communities — some old, some newer, each diverse in different ways, each with their own competing and conflicting and even occasionally complementary tastes. This community is here at the convention and it is distributed somewhat haphazardly across the globe, wherever people are reading and writing and appreciating science fiction and fantasy literature published in the English language.

WorldCon is a concentration of that community, and the Hugo Awards are a concentration of WorldCon. The community is people, the convention is people, the awards are people, Soylent Green is people, and it is beautiful and it is glorious, even when the community stumbles.

If you have never peeked behind the curtain of a fandom convention, here is a key insight you must understand above all else: the best-run cons have just about enough time, money, resources, expertise, and personnel to not quite throw a convention, and then they do it anyway. When everything come together perfectly and for even a single shining moment it all just works, it’s like a perfect magic trick from the outside because the labor that goes into it is invisible. When there’s a false note or a missed step and something goes sideways or belly-up, those are the moments that the people in charge get the most recognition.

So while I will never not push a convention to do better — I think the essence of science fiction is being able to look at the world and imagine how it might be better — I think we do need to take a moment to recognize the miracle inherent in the fact that conventions get done at all, and then recognize that it is not a miracle, or if it is one, it is one that comes with great sacrifice on the part of people who, all things considered, probably wish they could just be attending the convention like the rest of us.

I am grateful to be here, I am grateful to be a part of this community. I am grateful for all the old friends I have been able to see and the new friends I am making. There is a song that says the latter is silver and the former gold, and if this is true then I have a positive embarrassment of riches, a hoard of treasure any dragon would envy.

My first WorldCon was a bit like a fairytale. I found myself at the legendary Hugo Losers’ Party hosted by the man himself, George R.R. Martin, not because I had lost a Hugo but because the puppies’ machinations had knocked me off the ballot, denying me the chance to even lose it. I was philosophical about this, because my works that had garnered the attention to get me within striking distance of the shortlist wouldn’t have existed without those same machinations, being a response to them. So I went to the convention with no expectations and yet the wildest ones I might have set would have been blown away.

I don’t know that I’ll ever be any closer to a Hugo Award than I was that year. My first Hugo Loser’s Party was probably my last one, too. My interests are eclectic and my career has been unconventional to say the least, and I just don’t see that kind of mainstream success for myself while I am called to do the work I’ve been doing on Twitter.

But even if it never happens, if I never find myself a Hugo winner or even an actual loser, I still had my moment, and if it happened in a way that seems ridiculous and impossible — nearly as ridiculous and impossible as throwing a convention in the first place — well, maybe that’s the only way it could have happened for me. I am, after all, a ridiculous and impossible woman.

I’m going to close this by noting once again that conventions are people, and that we go to conventions to see people. If I am one of the people you came here to see, you should know we are lighting out first thing tomorrow, slipping out for the airport like a thief in the very early morning. That means today is going to be your last chance say hello, introduce yourself, to talk about my writing or whatever’s on your mind, and if that is something you have a mind to do, I encourage you to do it.

Happy WorldCon, everybody.

Beating The Heat, Or, Raising Cane

Summer usually kicks my backside in July/August. This year has been worse than most, even though it seems like I’ve been doing less… staying in more, going out less.

Today, thanks to a timely reminder from Jack that I’d wanted to check out a mobility store, I put my finger on why: my general fitness level has gotten to the point that I haven’t used a cane regularly for about a year, so I just fell out of the habit of grabbing one or keeping one with me. And then summer came around, the time of year when I need one the most. And I never got back in the habit. And so in the midst of one of my best years for mobility/fatigue, I have found myself weighed down with exhaustion.

Well, I got two snazzy new canes… one a very lightweight cane that doesn’t fold but does collapse small enough to go in a suitcase, and one that does fold and is lighter than my previous folding cane. And both fit my current aesthetic better than the plain black one. And I will probably be using them for the rest of August, and into September if necessary.

A little stock-taking.

So, the one work thing that I’ve been a little anxious about is the short story for June. I’ve checked every other item on the patron goody list for the month, and while I was pushing back writing it for a few different reasons, every time I looked at the calendar and saw how many (or few) days were left in the month, I got a little nervous.

I’ve always known that I can write a short story in a single day, but it kind of has to be the right day. That is, I can’t sit down every day and do it, however much I’d like to. But when I have an idea? I have a pronounced tendency to kick out the first draft in a day, whether it’s 2,000 words or 12,000. In fact, I can’t think of a single story in the short story format that’s not part of something bigger where the major act of writing took me more than a day, and where I ever finished the story. I have stories I finished in a day, and I’ve got half-finished drafts.

Anyway, all of this is to say that I wound up writing June’s short story today. It needs what I call the “action/description pass”, as many of my stories do, which is both a general editing/polish pass and me going through and adding more visual descriptions and incidental physical business. I’ll probably post the story for my patrons tomorrow. As I teased on Twitter, it’s a story about two women trying to have a conversation in public, and one of them makes bees.

I’ve made the decision that my MU updates are going to go on Tuesday and Friday rather than Tuesday and Thursday. T-Th appeals to my sense of symmetry, but it means I have most of the week between updates on one end, and a day between them on the other. Tuesday and Friday makes the gap between when I have to have a story finished and posted and when I have to do the same for the next one a lot more even. I’ll probably make this change official next week.

The Internet Is Not Your Global Village


Imagine you’re walking down the street of a small town where you’ve lived all your life, and you see someone whom you see almost every day, and you notice that their shoe lace is untied, or their fly is down, or their shirt is misbuttoned, or they have made some other small, easily corrected mishap that might lead to embarrassment or even an accident.

What is the kindest thing to do in this situation?

I think we all know the answer: you gently, discretely call their attention to the matter, so that it may be corrected.

Some among us might choose to do so with a bit of what we would think of as good-natured ribbing. How this is received is going to depend on how well we know the person and how good we are at judging situations and moods. But even if you’re kind of a boisterous jerk about it, a little “Hey, buddy, XYZ!” on the streets of a small town or in the halls of a school or at the office water cooler is not exactly amiss.

Imagine for a moment that someone snaps a selfie that reveals a similar mishap and posts it to social media. Are the rules the same? The situation isn’t. You’re not seeing the person in real time, but a moment of time now past, a snapshot of a situation. A word to the wise might save the recipient some embarrassment by allowing them to remove the picture and replace it with something a little more composed, if they’re so inclined, but whereas in real space you would have the chance to drop this word before anyone else can see or say anything, the timing is trickier online.

Chances are by the time you’ve seen something, so have many other people, and by the time you’ve said something, so have many other people. No matter how kind and gentle your words are, they are liable to arrive with a flood of other words, some similarly kind and gentle and some decidedly not.

Oftentimes when we interact with people online, we expect them to respond to us as if it were an encounter in what we might call a village setting: neighborly acquaintances passing each other exchanging a few words. Sometimes, often even, when things are going fine for people on both end, that’s even what it feels like.

That’s not what it is, though.

I’ve used the example of a minor wardrobe malfunction up above, but this really has to do with any kind of interaction where one follows the mores and codes of face-to-face interactions. People who give unsolicited advice to strangers or near-strangers on the internet are an example. People who think that any opinion voiced on social media is an invitation to debate (or a promise to defend said opinion against all comers) are an example.

Not everybody who does these sorts of things has actual good intentions, but the ones with good intentions aren’t necessarily that much easier to bear, not when they’re multiplied over time and space.

When you’re dealing with people who are actually your neighbors or colleagues, you have a much better idea what their situation is then the little snapshot or snippet you got online. You can see if they’re on their way somewhere or settling in for a chat. You can see if someone else is already there ahead of you, talking to them about whatever. And not only do you know them, but they know you. Offline, there’s something much more like a 1:1 correspondence between “I know you” and “you know me” than there is online.

The fact is, the internet is not a “village” situation. The people you see on it are not your neighbors. I say this and know that there are people I know online whom I know better and feel closer to than my actual physical neighbors. The point of this post is not to say “ONLINE ISN’T REAL!” or to disparage online friendships, relationships, and communities.

But to be blunt: the internet itself isn’t a community or a relationship. Being on Twitter or Tumblr isn’t like going to the same high school with everyone else on here.

Now, I don’t have a detailed set of guidelines or proposed social mores for interacting with people online to go with this observation. I can tell you this: the ones we use for offline interactions don’t work, and any proposed rule needs to take into account the vast differences between online interactions and offline ones.

So let’s take a quick stab at formulating some.

Existence Is Never Invitation

Only the jerkiest creeps and the creepiest jerks ever say, in so many words, “You wouldn’t be [place] doing/saying [thing] if you didn’t want attention,” and this is extra true when the place in question is a notional space as big as Twitter or Facebook or the internet in general.

Many people who are less jerky and creepy, though, still cleave to the logic of “If something is in front of me, it must be For A Reason.” So if someone posts about a problem and it crosses their sight, they feel asked for solutions (or, in some cases, they feel personally attacked by the implication that the problem exists). If someone posts a picture, they feel the need to say or do something about it. If someone shares an experience, they feel the need to relate it to themselves. If someone shares an opinion, they feel the need to pick a side an start fighting. If someone discloses a trauma, they feel the need to comment upon it like it’s an interesting phenomenon.

Now, a lot of the times, some (not all) of these kinds of responses would be just fine, expected and accepted, if they were responding to something someone said to them personally at a cocktail party or whatever. But they’re not. They’re seeing something and responding to it as if someone had said it personally to them, in some reasonably intimate social setting.

The truth is that if people are looking for something when they put something out there, they’re generally pretty good about saying. People with a question will ask it. People seeking advice will invite it. The difference between a “So this happened.” post and a “I’m at my wit’s end, what to do?” post is that the latter will say, “I’m at my wit’s end, what to do?”

You Having Something To Say Is Not The Same As Me Having Something To Hear

If you and I are having a conversation and what I say sparks some kind of personal connection with you, then by all means, you take that tangent and you run with it. I mean, there are nuances and shades… if I’m talking about the time my true love got caught in a bear trap along with a bear who mauled them to death while a swarm of bees enraged by the bear stealing honey stung them both, further aggravating the bear, and you say, “Yeah, speaking of pain, that reminds me of the time I got a paper cut. Hurt like anything, it did!”… well, I think most people would say that’s a bit boorish.

But if we’re just talking, and I mention a frustration and you’re like, “I know what that’s like, [similar experience]”… that’s a conversation.

The line between “here is a related thing to show that I can relate” and “I just minimized what happened to you and now I’m making it about me” can be hard to navigate when it’s two people who know each other conversing face-to-face. When you’re talking to a near stranger on the internet, though? The line is practically dotted. You might think you know exactly what another person is going through, but again, you’re looking at a snapshot.

To use two personal examples: I’ve blogged about both my sleep issues (chronic insomnia) and my difficulty getting to a grocery store (I don’t drive, for reasons linked to disability), and had people give me advice based on assumptions about what I was talking about (sleep apnea, and anxiety linked to sensory issues specific to grocery stores).

This isn’t to say that if something you read online reminds you of an experience, you should keep your experiences to yourself! Chances are excellent that the very same place you read or saw a link to the other person’s thoughts is also a platform where you can share yours. Before you involve the person whose words sparked your own thoughts, ask yourself if there’s actually a reason to.

Check The Situation

This one is pretty simple, and it comes down to the internet not being the same as a hallway or small-town street: before you rush to tell someone that their conversational zipper is down, check the notes/comments on the post, check the person’s mentions. Take thirty seconds to see if you’re really the first person to notice someone made a gaffe.

Another angle you can take on this: before you say something, ask yourself the likelihood that someone else looking at the same situation would have the same response. Imagine how obnoxious it would be to hear what you’re about to say that many times. Then see if you still feel the need to say it.

Respect Boundaries

Also simple. The hard part is not being defensive about it. Oftentimes when someone asserts or emphasizes a boundary with others, the kneejerk response is something like “SO I GUESS I’M NOT ALLOWED TO ASK QUESTIONS/GIVE ADVICE/GIVE A COMPLIMENT/DEBATE A PROPOSITION ANYMORE”.

But your right to do something does not require others to entertain you, and while some people are so entitled that they do feel they should be able to corner strangers and make these kinds of demands of them, I think most people who do so online are doing so not because they honestly believe they’re entitled to someone else’s time but because they have mistaken the internet for a small town and the semi-random collection of people they see on it for their close friends and neighbors.

The bottom line: the internet is not a global village. While it enables communities, it is not a community, and when you interact with random people you see on it as if you were all part of a single tight-knit community or a face-to-face social situation, you ignore the actual nature of the internet and risk stepping on toes, or worse.

Bank Shenanigans, Part II

Okay, so, I referenced in my status post for today that my bank is playing games with my deposits, holding them for longer than usual to keep my account balance low in order to fish for overdraft fees. This along with selectively processing debits out of sequence “for your convenience” are among the tricks banks are known to use to pad out their bottom line at your expense.

The protection against this is to maintain sufficient cushion in your account as to never give them the opportunity. It’s nice if you can manage, but a lot of people can’t. Just another example of how it costs more money to be poor than otherwise.

Come to find out that they’ve been doing the same thing to the other major bank account in our household, shared by Jack and Sarah. Sarah got paid on Thursday, and originally we were going to get groceries with that on Friday. The money hadn’t cleared, though, and as of today it still hasn’t.

We’ve been limping along on leftovers and odds and ends, and will be continuing to do so at least through some of the meals tomorrow. This is harder for us to do because we have specialized dietary needs that rule out a lot of the cheapest, bulkiest staples for filling out a meal.

So if you can help, I would appreciate the help. The best way to do so is to leave a tip in my PayPal jar (or, or if you’ve been thinking about signing up for my writing class this coming Friday, do so sooner rather than later. Either of those things make money available for me to spend at the grocery store with almost no delay. You can also send money through Square Cash ($AlexandraErin) if PayPal won’t work for you, but that’s likely to be subject to the same delaying tactics.

This is the kind of situation I’ve been talking about when I’ve been describing my financial status as okay but insecure. The growth of my income from things like Patreon and my D&D writing are going to help in the long-term, but none of that is going to come through soon enough to make a difference to our immediate situation. Right now we are skating on thin ice and the ice is getting thinner.

So, that was my birthday.

I had a pretty good birthday. I’ll be celebrating it again on Sunday with the out-laws, but today was my actual birthday and I observed it with a light and low-key day of work after a few weeks of pretty solid pushing. I flogged my Amazon wishlist a bit more than I ever have, mostly because I felt like, what the heck, it’s my birthday? I think I might possibly get some new wigs and pills out of it. Wasn’t really expecting anyone to go for the big ticket items like the window A/Cs, the futon mattress, or the smart watch(es), as they’re mostly saved there for my reference.

I got a nice birthday card from my parents, which had money for dinner, so we went out to dinner and had giant fajita platters, then took a walk along the old C&O canal, a thing I’ve never done in all the time I’ve been here, though we have stopped in at the little park before. We watched a groundhog emerging from its den and creep up the bank to peer over the top at some humans, and then dart back around an abutment to hide like it was in a spy movie.

Friday night is usually when we do Jack’s D&D game, but I wasn’t feeling up for it after going out, so we ended up watching Big Eyes, a movie about artistic plagiarism that I directed.

And now it’s 12:34, thirty-four minutes past my birthday proper and into the year of the me and I am suddenly super tired, so I think I’m going to cut it off there. Goodnight, internet.

Lessons learned at WisCon this year.

  1. It is normal for authors to struggle, financially and creatively.
  2. Past successes are built on by subsequent successes, not eroded by slow or fallow periods.
  3. Every career is different. Every path is different.
  4. Taking the path I’ve taken means I have avoided certain entanglements and compromises that might otherwise have seemed necessary.
  5. The ability to recognize other people as a big deal does not mean that I am not also a big deal; big deals are big in different ways.
  6. Drink more water.
  7. People are far more likely to be touched that they are known/remembered/acknowledged than they are to be wounded that you would claim association with them.
  8. The Prayer of St. Francis provides a good structure for navigating complex social spaces as an awkward person with relative privilege. If you want to feel welcome, welcome others. If you want to feel included, be the one who includes others. It is in making space for others that we find the space for ourselves.

Tales of MU 10th Birthday Party: Next Year In Madison

Okay, so.

Back in June of 2007, I started a serial story on Livejournal to see how that would go and the answer was, it went. Nine years later, it’s still frequently going strong even at times in my life when I am not.

I’ve always resisted the idea of doing “fan events” at cons and such because I didn’t see them as necessary. Like, I’m just a person, right? When I go to WisCon, I’m a registered member like everyone else, including the people who come up and tell me that they love Tales of MU, or who tell me later that they wanted to do so but were to shy… something that happens every year, and so every subsequent year I do more to try to make myself approachable so people don’t feel they can’t come up and squee with me.

This year, I apparently had a banner year for being approachable, because more people than ever came up… to tell me, frequently in so many words, that they still found me too cool to talk to. This is not a problem I ever anticipated growing up.

It was at one point when there was a thread mutual appreciation pinging around the room and I realized that we were all sort of standing there in awe of each other that it hit me that fan events really are necessary. It’s not about self-aggrandizement. It’s not about putting yourself above the people who like and appreciate your work. It’s about what I’ve been trying to do, which is making yourself accessible. An event creates a context in which people know that it’s okay to approach you. It gives them something of a script to follow, if they need one. It makes sure they won’t be the only one doing so.

So next year, at WisCon 41—held, as always, over Memorial Day Weekend in downtown Madison—I am going to be doing two things I have never done at the con. Chronologically second and less ambitiously, I am going to be participating in the Sign-Out, where authors and artists sit at a table in a big hall so that people who haven’t had the chance or the nerve to shake their hand or say a few words or get something signed can come up and do so. First and more boldly, I am going to throw a party: a 10th anniversary party for Tales of MU. (Hat tip to Jack for pointing out the upcoming milestone and suggesting it as a theme.)

Why not? There are a lot of people at WisCon who read or have read Tales of MU. It’s a seminal (tee hee) work in the area of web serials, its success directly inspiring such things as Cat Valente’s initial Fairyland fundraiser and Cecilia Tan’s still-extant Daron’s Guitar Chronicles. I think there’d be sufficient interest among regular congoers to justify a party, as even for people who don’t yet read it, I can’t really deny that my name and presence are becoming a draw for programming events. Then we throw into the mix any MU readers who haven’t yet come to WisCon but might for something like this.

Now, there are limited spaces and slots available for official parties. I’m going to make a pitch for one as soon as they’re open for requests. Apart from my ability to draw people to the party and the con, my party plans are being tailored to the evolving reality of the party/alcohol rules at WisCon. While some grouse that the new rules have destroyed the party atmosphere, I think a lot of people are looking for a different experience, and I’ve gotten really good at inventing drinks using flavor syrups. The MU party is going to have a “mock bar” serving flavored non-alcoholic drinks themed around MU characters and things. My boyfriend Jack will play the role of pretend bartender (or “pretender”, if you will). Our party’s fare will also be friendly for diabetics and people who are watching their carb intake or blood sugar levels for whatever reason.

WisCon parties are the responsibility of the hosts, and we’ve already sorted out most of the logistics re: catering this thing. It’s not pie in the sky. We have plans to make it happen. In the event that we are not awarded a space, though, the party will still happen. It might be a “room party” (a thing that also happens), it might be in borrowed space, we might crowdfund a party space offsite, though that would be less than ideal for accessibility reasons. I want everybody to be prepared for the fact that the actual details and level of officialness are likely to be up in the air until sometime early next year, but also to be aware that this thing is happening. I want to say now, a year out, that this is a thing that is happening, so that you all have a year to figure out how you can get to it.

If you’re a MU fan and WisConite, this is going to be your fan. If you’re a WisCon goer who has mainly known me through WisCon and not my most famous (non-meme) work, this is going to be your chance to get acquainted with my writing. If you’re a MU fan who has never been to WisCon, this post is a good place to start your planning:

See you next year!

So, you want to go to WisCon?

I’ve been tagging people on Twitter telling them they should come to WisCon next year. I’m also planning a big event for Tales of MU readers at WisCon 41, and while I  know a lot of readers who already attend the con, this may well tempt some new folks to come out for the first time.

Left to my own devices, I would have been too nervous and anxious and insecure to navigate actually coming to the con and participating on my own. It took people all but dragging me there and promising to hold my hand to get me there. I know how daunting it can be!

Here’s what you need to know.

WisCon is an annual convention every Memorial Day weekend in Madison, Wisconsin. It is more of a literary and academic convention than a media/entertainment convention. That is, we don’t bring in big screen celebrities or have big industry events. There are usually a few launch parties for books, particularly indie/small press ones and the like, though.

If you read fantasy and science fiction, you will see names you recognize from books on name tags, but the people wearing them are there as members of the convention, exactly the same as you. Respect their boundaries as you would have others respect yours, but by all means, say hi! There are no handlers, no velvet ropes, no appearance fees or signing fees.

WisCon is run by a committee of members, staffed by member volunteers, and runs program items (panel discussions, readings) with members. And to be clear: if you register and show up, you are a member. There are not secret special categories of members who are “allowed” to do things.

Over 90% of the con events are held within the official con hotel, the beautiful Madison Concourse Hotel in beautiful downtown Madison. Some readings are at a coffee shop just down the street; traditionally there is a reception for the guests of honor at a nearby bookstore the night before the con officially opens. If you’re able to stay at the Concourse, this makes travel logistics and navigation is very easy. You don’t have to worry about getting lost or stranded somewhere in a strange city.

If you fly in, even getting from the airport to the hotel is easy-peasy. There is a board by the baggage claim in the Madison airport with a courtesy phone and pictures of all the hotels. Each hotel has a two digit extension. Just pick up the phone and dial and you will be connected to the hotel’s courtesy shuttle and/or front desk. Simply say the words, “I have a party of [number of people] at the airport for pickup.” and you will be told what the wait is. Then follow the signs to the bus shelter looking thing outdoors and wait. That’s it!

The convention bills itself as a feminist science fiction convention. It is increasingly a place that works to make everyone feel welcome, and I believe this shows in the number of people of color, trans and non-binary and otherwise visibly queer people, and people with disabilities (visible and not) who are comfortable hanging out and who express feeling not merely ~*tolerated*~ but welcomed.

Most conversations I’ve had in recent years about people feeling like they don’t belong have revolved more around impostor syndrome or the feeling that everybody else in the room is there because they did something amazing and noteworthy while the speaker is “merely” a reader or fan or someone who is struggling to create something… and honestly, such conversations tend to reveal that most of the people there feel or have felt the same way.

WisCon makes ongoing and evolving efforts to improve accessibility to con spaces, resources, and discussions to those with disabilities. This includes measures to avoid hallway congestion, reserving seats up front for those with sensory issues, having spaces for wheelchairs in panel rooms with reserved chairs nearby to keep their parties together, captioning services, etc. I can’t say there’s no room for improvement, but in this area as in many others, WisCon’s hallmark is its responsiveness.

WisCon has both a Statement of Principles and a Code of Conduct for members. The formulation and application of these texts have had a huge effect on making the con a safer, warmer, and more welcoming place. WisCon’s safety team walks the con regularly in highly visible yellow vests. My experiences with them have always shown them to be sensitive, discreet, and responsive.

The term “safety” over “security” is, as far as I know, a very deliberate choice, and one that they reflect in their conduct. When I got egged by a passing car at the con one year (this happened outside the hotel, obviously, and I am quite certain no one connected to the con was inside the vehicle), there was not a single thing a security guard could have done about that, but a member of the safety team sat with me until I felt… safe.

This year, a member of the safety team gently reminded me that not everyone was in on the joke with my satirical live tweets, and we agreed I should put up a little note. It was a very friendly conversation, not the least bit confrontational. The safety team is not a security force. They do act to enforce the code of conduct as needed, but they’re not the cops. There are members of the safety team who are visibly disabled, visibly queer, people of color. Young. Old. In between. Like everyone else, they’re your fellow con members.

Fitting In At The Con

First, we have name tags, which are compulsory within con spaces. You need not put your legal name on the tag; indeed, if there are people there who will know you by a screen name or nickname or pseudonym, it’s better to put that there. WisCon folks are generally understanding and forgiving of things like poor memories and face blindness and varying levels of ability to process normal social cues; a lot of us know what that’s like.

In case you’re not sure that it’s okay to talk to someone: as of 2015, we’ve started using a series of optional social flags that can attach to the name tags: green, yellow, and red, to show the level of social interaction you’re looking for.

So if someone’s flying a green flag, that’s your sign that it’s okay to come up and say howdy. Not only are they willing to accept your attention, they’re probably looking for it. The flags also have the name of the color and a geometric shape printed on them, for those who cannot distinguish them by colors. Similarly, pronoun stickers are available to take the guesswork out of the proper way to refer to someone.

There are events geared at allowing first timers to make friends and integrate themselves within the con community. First major programming item on Friday is the Gathering, which is basically WisCon’s “school carnival”… you go into the ballroom and there’s such things as face painting, refreshments, ice breaker games, a clothing swap… and there are organized “first WisCon” dinner excursions that night. It can seem daunting to be new in a place where so many people know each other, but there will be people who will be willing to greet you and make introductions.

WisCon has a well-established safer space for people of color to gather away from the white gaze and microaggressions (as well as just regular type aggressions, which do happen). Recent years have seen a similar lounge for trans/non-binary people, and a disability lounge was added this year. I’ve heard many stories from people who weren’t sure they’d have an easy time meeting people they felt safe around until they dropped into their safer space and were basically welcomed home.

And one of the best, quickest ways to meet people and acquire that warm feeling of belonging is to pitch in and help as a volunteer or panelist, or both. It’s hard not to realize that you’re an essential part of the con when you are, in fact, an essential part of the con.

The high cost of conning…

…is not that high, comparatively. I mean, going is one of the biggest expenses my family has in a year, in part because we also treat it as our big blow-out vacation (downtown Madison is a great spot for that,), but you can do things on a budget better than at many cons.

First, full membership in the con costs $50 for adults, $20 for the teens and the youths. This gives you full admission to the con for all four days it runs (Friday-Monday of Memorial Day Weekend). You can buy a day pass for a mere $25 on Saturday or Sunday; programming on Friday and Monday (of which there is less) is absotively free, though you will still be expected to sign in and take a name tag at the registration desk if you show up for those days. If you’re local, you can “try before you buy”, so to speak, by showing up Friday afternoon.

Rooms at the Concourse itself and the nearby overflow hotels are discounted for congoers. Use the links on the hotel information page to make your reservation. If you, like many people who attend the con, have to save for months to afford the hotel bill, don’t sweat it when it’s time to reserve. Your card is not run or even authorized when you make the reservation, only when you check in next May. Rooms are available starting at $110 a night for one person, plus $10 a night for each additional person… of course, if you’re splitting the costs, this means the cost is $110 for one, $60 each for two, $43 each for three, and $35 each for four. If you can match up with three people you’re comfortable sharing a room for, you could stay in the hotel from Friday until Monday for just a bit over $100 total.

In the past, I have known folks who saved money by staying at budget motels or hostels, but this can increase the travel logistics involved and may not be a good solution for those who can’t bring a car or walk long distances.

There is both a member assistance fund run by and for WisCon, and for people of color and other non-white folks, assistance may be available from Con or Bust.

There are restaurants to suit most budgets within relatively easy walking distance for a relatively able-bodied person; for those who cannot walk, the hotel has a courtesy shuttle (subject to availability) and the con itself can provide taxi vouchers for those stuck traveling late at night. I’ve been to places where we spent less than $10 a person to eat and places that were upwards of $50. The con provides a dining guide that has a rough pricing level ($, $$, or $$$, I think), and of course in this day and age you can usually find menus and prices online.

If you have the money to fund your own transport, Union Cab of Madison is courteous and efficient and you can order a cab from their website on your phone without having to talk to anyone. I am told that they have an app in the works, which might well debut before next May. The cab rates as of right now are a $3.50 base, plus $0.35 cents per eighth of a mile. There are dozens and dozens of restaurants within one mile of the hotel, so if it comes to paying for a cab, figure that $10 will get you anywhere you want to go, tip included.

The in-hotel dining options are fairly pricey, but the con itself provides a ConSuite with free meals and snacks to suit a range of dietary requirements. The continuing operation of the ConSuite depends on availability and willingness of people to do the work, so it should not be taken for granted, but while it exists, its mission is to make sure no one spends their time at the con hungry, regardless of mobility or budget. On Saturday and Sunday, there are numerous parties on the second and sixth floor which generally have some catered snacks and treats (provided by the party-throwers, who are also fellow con members), so you’ll have some options.

So if you can figure the cost of getting yourself there, plus $50 for registration, plus your hotel room times the number of nights divided by the number of people splitting it, you’ll have a good idea the minimum cost of attending. Remember to include a few bucks each day for tipping the housekeeping staff of your hotel (I believe the recommendation is something like $2, plus $1 for each additional person in the room; you’re certainly welcome to pay more), a couple of bucks to tip the shuttle driver both directions if you’re flying in and out, and it never hurts to have a few extra small bills on hand for miscellaneous tips in this age where a lot of us are used to paying for everything electronically.

(On that note, the front desk of the hotel will be happy to make change for you, again, subject to availability.)

But basically, it’s not completely unreasonable that, when you’re bunking in a room with four people, you could spend less than $200 for the whole WisCon experience, and that’s with a bit of padding. $250 might be more reasonable to add for unexpected expenses, of which there always seems to be some. I don’t think I’ve spent that little since my first time, but it can be done.

If you can splurge, I’m going to recommend that you splurge. Buy and eat some amazing food. Buy some books while you’re standing under the same roof as the author who can sign it. The WisCon dealer room isn’t full of commercial merchandise, but small press books and comics and amazing hand-crafted jewelry and accessories.

And if you do come, and you for even one moment feel lost or alone…

…hop on Twitter and say so in the con’s tag for that year, and I’ll bet you’ll find the support you need. If you feel awkward doing that, then forget the tag and tweet at me. I’m @alexandraerin on Twitter. If I’m not scheduled to be somewhere, I’ll come hang with you, or help you find your way around, or extract you from an awkward situation. If I can’t, I’ll try to help you find someone who can.

Exactly Where I Needed To Be

Back in May, when I started making the big plans that I’m putting into motion now, I said on Twitter that this year is going to be my year, the year that people learn my name and take notice of me. I was talking specifically about the time period between June 10th, 2016—when I turn 36, an age that is a perfect square—and June 10th, 2017, when my age will be a prime number.

I didn’t mean to wait until my birthday to start doing things, but I figured it would take me several weeks to get any momentum or traction. And I’m definitely still finding my footing. But I think the Year of Achieving Notice is off to a decent start, as WisCon 40 really was a bit of a breakout year for me.

I’d classify my overall WisCon experience as positive, tracked across the years. I’d say—I have said—that I’ve had a good time most of the time. But the truth is that while I’ve justified it as a career-building experience, for years I’ve been coming away feeling like I just took a very expensive vacation whose major benefits included an exciting new collection of upper respiratory infections and a touch-up job for my impostor syndrome. I’d hang out with friends and make new ones, of course, and there were certainly fun experiences, but networking? Career advancement? Self-promotion? There was all this tantalizing potential I could sort of sense was there, but I had no idea how to do it.

This year… something clicked. I think part of it was that I stopped giving a dang about that stuff, which allowed me to relax, which allowed me to spot opportunities and go with the flow. I think part of it was just a lot of right time, right place.

I made connections with people, not at the expense of making new friends and hanging out with my old ones, but as a natural extension of it. I didn’t do much explicit self-promotion, but people still learned my name. I gained a lot of perspective in terms of what my strengths are, how people relate to each other in fannish circles and across the reader/author divide, and stuff like that.

There were a lot of great moments during and around the con. I met Mark “Does Stuff” Oshiro in a hot tub. I moderated a panel in the big room with returning guest of honor Nalo Hopksinson and past guest of honor Andrea Hairston. John Scalzi stopped while power walking to the bathroom to shake my head. I had a drunken, rambling conversation in the hallway with Na’amen Gobert Tilahun about how I felt like being a young Neil Gaiman fan had prepared me to be a mature fan of writing like his and N.K. Jemisin. At a moment before all of that when I was at my lowest, feeling like my life was made up of missed opportunities and squandered potential, two people who were passing me on the sidewalk stopped to tell me that I was amazing and had great presence. All weekend long, people I think of as fashion icons in their circles stopped to tell me that I looked fabulous. There’s a part of me that usually suspects any comment on my appearance, no matter how complimentary, is a cruel joke, but that part of me was asleep at the time.

I had a business lunch. I made introductions for people. All weekend long, it was just right place, right time. I was actually in a cafe at one point where Amy Steinberg’s “Exactly” was playing, and I was exactly where I needed to be. It was so crowded and noisy that if I hadn’t known the song by heart I might not have recognized it over the general hubbub, but I do and I did and it became my theme for the weekend.

There’s a lot of stuff that happened in the last week of a “Because I ______, this happened.” nature, and more of it is still unfolding.

The con was not perfect this year, as it hasn’t been perfect yet, and there are definitely problems that need to be addressed. Unrelated to any of the issues in that post or to anyone’s issues but my own, I did not personally have a fun time 100% from start to finish, and the point where it got bad, I think I exacerbated by freaking out about the fact that something had not gone perfectly. But even that part can be put under the heading of “all’s well that end’s well”.