On The Throwing of Parties

Last year we made the decision to host a party at this year’s WisCon. At the time we did not know what all that would entail or how to go about making it happen, but we were willing to learn.

And we did. And there were some bumps along the way (for instance: we not only ordered more of certain materials than we needed on the principle that if we could fit it in the budget it would be better to have more than we needed than less, but we found out as we were setting up that we had more than we’d even ordered, and no clear plan at the time for what to do with it all), but there were also some happy accidents and serendipities and flashes of inspiration, and all in all, the whole thing came off rather well.

I may have another post up later today that’s more analytical about what we did right and wrong, less for purposes of self-recrimination than for the fact that this way we won’t have to remember all of it for a year.

This post is about why we threw a party, and what it meant to us to be able to do so, and how much it means that it went well.

The proximate cause for the party was the realization, a year ago, that this June was going to be the tenth anniversary of the start of my most successful story project to date, Tales of MU. That was a milestone that meant a lot to me and that would be significant to the subset of the con that’s been fans of my fiction writing.

(I’m forever in a weird place where far more people are fans of my existence, of what I say and what I bring to people around me, than my actual work. Which is not a terrible place to be! It’s just surreal sometimes.)

But the deeper cause was the desire to do something for the con, to give something back to it. As I said in an earlier post today, I’m not suited for committee work. I can’t run the con. I don’t have the wherewithal to communicate directly with specific other people on a regular, frequent basis. I have barriers to traveling on my own. I work best when I just… do things, because the mood and muse have struck me. That’s not how you run a thing as big and complicated as a con.

But… I could throw a party.

The actual function of parties in the framework of the con is pretty important. This is the part where a lot of people would say something about “networking”, but I’m talking about what the parties do for the con as a whole.

See, when you throw a party, you’re helping to distribute the load of keeping people entertained, engaged, and fed. You’re taking on a portion of the catering bill and meal/snack planning. You’re providing an on-site space for socialization that’s not one of the bars, a narrow hallway, or noisy lobby, and you’re taking responsibility for that space so there’s always someone accountable even in the moment that Safety is not making rounds through it.

It is an important function. A vital function. And yes, the people who throw the parties are usually promoting something (I sure was), but I also approached it as an important trust and responsibility, and a chance to give a gift to the con that has become my home in fandom.

I would like to thank a few specific people who really helped make it happen:

Sooshe and Gretchen from the WisCon party committee who were quick to answer questions and fulfill our requests with precision and professional aplomb. The answers we got were timely and detailed.

Lynne let me borrow her expertise and a few moments of her time, giving me some advice that helped lessen my second-guessing and sooth my pre-party jitters at a time when I was really worried.

Theo showed us a different vision of what a con party could be last year with their chill, laid-back launch party for the coloring book The Robot’s Guide To Love. It was just such a different scene from the typical industry-oriented wine/cocktail party (which of course is not possible under the current rules binding the con and the hotel), and it gave us the confidence that we could pull together a party that would be more enjoyable for more people.

Cabell provided logistical support in receiving party supplies and arranging transportation to the Concourse.

Sarah, who was not in on the planning with Jack and myself, but pitched in on the execution in a big way and helped straighten out a hitch in the catering plans.

And last but not least Kit, for providing an impromptu conversation piece that was surprisingly on-theme.

Then, of course, there was everybody who showed up, and everybody who didn’t make it (to the con or the party) but who wanted to. The good news is we’re going to be doing something very similar next year, with refinements and improvements. I seriously think that now that we have experience and firmer numbers we could do the even better with half the budget, or less.

So if you’re bummed that you missed the party, or you didn’t know that there was even anything to miss… don’t sweat it. You’ll have another shot next year, and honestly, we’d love to build this into a WisCon institution.

I’ve spoken before (most often while in the planning phases of this) about how the WisCon party culture is changing, the convention party culture as a whole is changing, and how this isn’t a bad thing. There’s still a bar right there in the hotel for social drinking and people still have the option of throwing their own private shindigs and providing whatever legal substances they feel like providing. Grousing that the officially programmed parties can’t fill this need anymore is counterproductive and unnecessary. I honestly feel a lot safer to drink and enjoy drinking in the spaces that are left for it than I ever did on the party floor. That’s a bit of a tangent and might be worth its own post.

The point is: we looked at what is possible and permissible and built our party concept around that, and I think that’s got a lot to do with how much we just hit it out of the ballpark on our first time out.

I wasn’t sitting there with a clicker counting people coming in or anything, but I know for a fact we went through just under 100 serving glasses of drinks (with most guests only having one), and our food supplies that were calibrated for somewhere between 75 and 100 people were all but wiped out. (There was a bit of the juicier fruit tray selections left, probably because I blanked on getting forks.)

There were some people who came through and sampled the wares and left, and I count that as a success, again, part of the function of the party is to feed some portion of the con some portion of their daily intake, shouldering a bit of the burden of that task. There were people who stayed for however long it took them to eat a plate and drink a drink, or as long as the craft table kept them occupied. And there were people who were there for an hour or more, going between talking to me about my work and my life and talking to each other, or even just talking quietly in a corner with the same friends they came in with.

Every single one of those people are part of the success story of the party. None of them were ~*partying wrong*~. My goal was to provide a space that was safe as it could be and structured for people to be entertained, and I think I delivered.

All in all, I think the future of WisCon’s party culture is on a solid footing. It just takes a different mindset than “buy booze, set booze out, commence boozing”.

The Uncanny Magazine party was a great model of what’s possible and what works. They had a theme (SPACE UNICORNS), an attraction (sparkly unicorn cakes!), and an activity (balloon sculpting). Again, Lynne Thomas helped reassure me about my catering levels, but it was also just reassuring to look at their set-up and note they had the same basic sorts of elements we’d aimed for: a theme (which had become superheroes by the time the con rolled around), an attractor (the mocktail bar), and an activity (the mask crafting station).

I’d say anybody who wants to throw a party at a con with an open party floor should try to include those three things. It’s a great formula. It gets people in the door and it gives them a reason to stick around for a while, and something to talk about.

I’d guess the fourth element would be something visible and distinctive for them to carry out onto the larger floor. For a lot of parties it’s the craft element (like the crowns and tiaras that come out of the Carl Brandon Society party), but for ours it seemed to be the fancy glasses we brought even more so than the superhero mask. I was just looking for something that looked more like a real bar glass while being lightweight and safe, but it really did the job of getting people out in the hall and other rooms asking our former guests what they were drinking and where they’d gotten it from.

 

“Welcome to WisCon”

Well, last weekend was WisCon. Very late last night or very early this morning, I made it home from there.

I told a dear but distant friend who was at the con for part of it but whom I missed in both applicable senses of the word that I was having a silver/gold situation this year: lots of old friends, lots of new ones, and not enough time to go around. Another very good friend told me that she did not even go to any official programming this year, which surprised me until she laid out how she was prioritizing her time and I realized that if I had the same constraints and I had to choose between programming and seeing my con friends, I would have made the same choice.

In fact, I largely had. For years I’ve dealt with the problem of too many panels/not enough time-turners by setting my priorities around which people I wanted to who I hadn’t seen yet. This year, every single programming item I attended had one or more person on the roster I was there to see. I also realized that the general trend for me has been to attend fewer formal programming items over time.

The first years, when I knew few people, fewer of them well, and fewer still from anywhere face-to-face, attending panels and readings and speeches gave me a structured way to participate, to interact, and to meet people. A lot of the people I’m now unabashed fans of and even friends with, it started with seeing them on panels.

And a lot of my friends have had a similar arc.

A con is, at its core, people (most things are, babies), and if you keep going to a con long enough, then past a certain point what you’re really going for there is the people, both the individual persons whom you know and the amorphous, energetic, memetic organism that is generated by the interactions of these people in large numbers.

So there is always the danger (and frequently, from what I hear, the reality) that a long-running con will grow insular at its core, reach a tipping point where it’s pulling inwards more than it is reaching outwards. It’s not an absolute (few things are, babies), and there have certainly been shades of that at WisCon. There likely still are, in places.

While the con was ongoing, though, there was a conversation that kept happening from two different ends, which I kept or hearing or having.

From the one side, it always started something like this, “Every time I tell someone this is my first WisCon, their face just lights up. Like they’re really happy to see me. Like they’re really happy for me.”

From the other side, it went more like this, “There are just so many new people this year, I’m so excited for them. It’s such a great energy this year.”

And it’s such a great feeling, to be part of a con that can be so warm and welcoming, that doesn’t hold with the idea that people have to “pay their dues” in some fashion other than literally paying the actual membership dues before the con is “for them”… and I know there are gradations of this, I know there are multiple factors at play and that there are still doubtlessly a few people who cling on to the con with both hands while grumbling about how all these newcomers are changing the tone, but in the terms of trends and prevailing factors: I like where this is going. I like the way the wind is blowing.

One of the secrets of congoing is that whether anyone is going out of their way to make you feel unwelcome or even if someone has gone out of their way to make you feel welcome… a lot of the time, you do have to kind of stick with it a bit before it’s really actually as fun and rewarding as you feel like it should be. There’s impostor syndrome, and there’s also just not knowing how to navigate the event in a way that you get the most out of it… believe it or not, going to cons is a skill. In fact, I’d say each con is its own skill.

And some cons will never be worth it for you personally, so you’re taking a risk by putting the time, money, and effort into it. And the hypothetical best con in the world might not be worth taking that chance for a year or two or three, when it might never pay off and the harm you suffer in the meantime is still real.

And there’s really no way around that, just like there’s no way to make a space filled with people safe in an absolute sense rather than safer, always a little safer than it was or would be without the effort. But I like to think that at WisCon, we’re doing what we can to speed people through the adjustment period, invest them with the skill of being at WisCon, and give them a softer landing into con culture. It’s both a formal effort by the people doing the hard work of running the con (the volunteers and the committee members) and it’s part of the feeling on the floor, as it were.

I tried the committee thing a while back and found that it’s outside my strongest skill sets and current level of ability, but nonetheless, I’m doing what I can to be a good member, a good representative of the WisCon brand, a good guide for newbies, and a good ambassador between the con and the world outside. And while I can hardly take credit for the still ongoing improvement myself, I feel confident I can say I’ve been helping. It’s part of why I was so committed to throwing a party for the con this year.

Last year, when I was talking to a new friend about the almost inevitable impostor syndrome that almost everyone feels their first year, she told me that she must be weird because she didn’t feel that way at all. I thought this must be something special about her (and she is pretty special, to be honest), but maybe that was also partly just a sign of our progress as a con, because I heard from a lot more people saying the same this year.

This was also the year I had the most people coming up and talking to me, instead of finding Jack when I’m not right by his side and telling him that they’d wanted to do so, but were too intimidated. Maybe part of that is the fact that I spent an entire year, off and on, telling the internet “I’m going to be at WisCon and I’m there to see people and this includes anyone who wants to see me, for real for true.” Maybe part of it is the con’s increasingly welcoming atmosphere making the whole experience less scary. Maybe I’m just figuring out how to be more approachable.

I’m sure a part of it was the fact that more people than usual this year were there specifically to see me, but the thing is, the heartbreaking thing about the people who tell Jack (or tell me later, online, after the con) that they were too afraid to say hi is that some of them have always said that.

This is so far the year where I have heard the least stories of how the con as an entity egregiously failed, harmed, or let someone down. It’s not perfect. It will never be perfect. But a science fiction convention of all things should never let the impossibility of reaching the heavens prevent it from reaching for them.

Mikki Kendall has a post up about her own complicated relationship with the con. In her post (which you really should be reading in full), she pushes back against the too-prevalent idea that people of color attending the convention aren’t investing in it, a notion which baffles* me as women of color in particular (including Mikki herself) have saved the body and soul of the con often at great personal effort and cost.

But as she also notes: new people are coming in all the time. They bring with them new ideas and new energy. And a con is, at its heart, people. New people make a new con.

And as I said up above: I like where this is going.


(*I mean, it doesn’t really baffle me, because I know that racism and sexism, and their painful intersection, exist.)

 

Things I learned at WisCon39…

…About Tales of MU

First of all, there was a conversation I kept having around the subject of Tales of MU, involving people who were either lapsed readers or current readers who were far behind. Someone would ask me how often I update it, and I would say, apologetically, that I try for more, but just lately it’s been one a week most weeks.

And the response would be something like, “Oh, good, maybe I’ll start reading/catch up.”

I’ve always seen frequent updates as a key to maintaining an audience and also making sure I’m giving sufficient value for my readers’ money, but after the third time I had a conversation like that, I started to wonder if my sense of “frequency” isn’t calibrated a little high. I am an unusually fast reader, after all.

I’ve been thinking about the value I give my readers, but I hadn’t given much (or any) thought to the time investment being a reader requires of them. Maybe having 6,000-9,000 words of new story a week is too high an “engagement cost” to most readers, compared to 2,000-3,000.

So, as an experiment, I’m going to be dialing it back to once a week, intentionally. I know I’ve done this before, but always for internal reasons. Here I’m going to have a mixture of internal and external. The current book is already intended to be a good jumping-on point for new readers, so I’ll also point it out to former readers looking to ease back in without having to archive binge first if that’s not their thing. We’ll continue onward at the relatively gentle pace of one chapter a week… though not this week. My travel misadventure plus (ongoing) sickness has not given me much in the way of creative time or energy.

Second, it’s striking how frequently readers I meet in person mention how hot/well done the sex scenes are. This is something I have a great deal of insecurity/uncertainty about. The idea of writing straight out erotica with the MU characters/in the MU world (as in stand-alone shorts that don’t need to be understood in the context of the larger story) is one that is evergreen, but one that I’ve never quite been able to pull off… but I feel like there could be interest (and thus money) there.

Third, even people who have drifted away from or outgrown the series appreciate it. Multiple individuals told me words to the effect that the story was there for them when they needed it or taught them something that they needed to know. That’s a good feeling.

…About Myself

First, I am much better at moderating panels than I am at moderating forums or comments sections. I was assigned to moderate one of the panels that I was on, which gave me some concern as I’ve never counted moderation as being within my skillset. It actually went fairly smoothly, with some understandable first time hiccups that didn’t seem as noticeable to anyone who talked to me about it afterwards, and next year I intend to actually put myself forward as a moderator.

Second, I am getting much better at recognizing people. Frankly, I think this is partially down to going to WisCon every year, but I think Tumblr deserves a little bit of the credit.

…About Life

My first panel of the weekend was on the subject of managing canon, how much one cares about maintaining strict continuity. I may make a blog post summing up my feelings on this later, if I still feel like doing it when I have a more orderly brain, but one thing that came up in the panel that was sort of a theme for me for the rest of the con was the idea that we are not the same people who wrote our first books/earlier works.

And this helped slot some things into place that I’ve been trying to get a handle on in my personal life, where I spent about five years trying to live my life in a holding pattern and have been having a hard time shifting out of that. I think the major problem there is that I can’t go back to who I was in 2009 and hit resume, which is what I’ve been trying to do.

…About WisCon

As (WisCon 39 Co-Chair) Mikki Kendall has noted, the situation was never quite as dire as the mythmaking has made it out to be. WisCon 39 was always going to happen as long as enough people were willing to make it happen. Of course, “enough people” is a slippery concept… we really need to better distribute the load for next year.

While many people are understandably disappointed in some of the decisions that were made during the transition between the old guard and the new, the quiet efficiency with which certain problems were handled this year speaks to a more pro-active and nimble approach to things that I think will make for a safer and more pleasant convention all around. Many people I spoke to noted a change in the atmosphere that was hard to define, but welcome.

I don’t know. I left very hopeful for the future of WisCon. I didn’t do as much to support WisCon 39 as I’d wanted to, partially because my life was bumpy in unexpected ways but also partially because I think I misjudged where I could most easily make the largest contributions. Knowing better where my skills are needed is going to let me contribute much more to WisCon 40.

Hello, WisCon!

So, today we leave for Madison, one day earlier than planned. We won’t necessarily be at the Concourse before tomorrow… that depends on how we feel after a day of traveling, following closely on the heels of a day of panicky, last minute packing and preparations.

If you’re going to be at the Con and you want to say hi and/or hang out, here’s what you need to know:

  1. Because I have a high degree of face blindness myself, I have a habit of making myself recognizable, especially at the con. My trademark rainbow fringe is actually a style I adopted specifically for WisCon two years ago. Depending on when you see me, I might have black hair with rainbow bangs or full-on rainbow hair. I won’t necessarily be the only person with rainbow hair, but the combination of rainbow hair, a floppy black hat, and a floor-length skirt are pretty distinctive.
  2. A thing I hear from people quite often is “I wanted to say hi, but you looked tired/sad/lost in thought.” I assure you, that is just my face. I mean, I might be tired. I have a chronic fatigue condition so I’m often tired. But if I let that stop me from having a good time, I would never have one. I am not the most social person in the world, but once a year I fly hundreds of miles and spend hundreds of dollars to meet people and be social. Help me get my money’s worth!
  3. The face blindness thing is real. If you do come up to say hi, please introduce yourself and please tell me if we’ve met before. I mean whether or not we have. Like, “Hi, my name is Connie Wisconsinconson. We’ve never met, but I wanted to say hi.” The reason I ask this is because if someone comes up and says hi to me, in most contexts this means we know each other and ordinary social norms require me to pretend I recognize them while I silently try to figure out who the heck they are. At con, I’m more likely to say fudge it and explain that I don’t recognize faces, because people are more likely to understand it.
  4. Name tags make things easier, but understand that even if I see you multiple times during a day, I will probably be scoping your tag each and every time. So far WisCon is the one place where I’ve had to do this that no one has been noticeably offended by it, but just letting you know.
  5. I am jumpy when touched unexpectedly. I do enjoy hugs, with sufficient warning.

And that’s about it. I am on a boatload of panels and my boyfriend Jack is also on panels for the first time and I’d like to support him when I am able to do so, so my schedule is not going to be terribly flexible, but seriously, if you want to say hi, say hi.

My WisCon Schedule

Getting caught up on stuff now that I have a bit more energy. I am on five panels at WisCon this year. This is the first time I’ve done that since… the first time I was on five panels and immediately vowed never again. But that was also the year I mixed up my pills and took my sleeping pills on Sunday morning. I’m told I killed on my Sunday panels, but I don’t remember much about them.

I kick things off right off the bat on Friday at 4:00 with How Much Do I Worry About My Own Canon? My short take on this is: the past is pilot. I can’t think of a single great work of serial fiction in any media that didn’t benefit from ignoring/re-imagining/re-working something that was established early on rather than allowing themselves to be painted into a corner.

Saturday I have back to back panels at 1:00 and 2:30, on Feminism, Ethics, and BDSM and Dysphoria Is Not Magic… someone had the bright idea to make me the moderator of the second one.

Sunday at 10:00 a.m. I’m on a panel about Call-Out Culture that is a follow-up to a panel at last year’s WisCon that I don’t believe I was on, but someone suggested I join this one.

And then at 11:30 at night, I’m on a panel called What Kind of a World Do We Trans People Want? I know this is going to be a late one and people might be crashing and/or partying, but my boyfriend Jack is also on this panel, so if you want to see us together, there’s that.