Friday, November 25, 2016

OryCon 2016 Report

Any report I make of OryCon (in Portland OR, on or near Veterans Day weekend) must be seen in highly personal context. For me, it’s never been just another convention, but part of other aspects of my life. I used to attend OryCon regularly. I’d gone to college and then graduate school in Portland and retained a fondness for the city. My best friend from college still lived there, and I’d stayed in close touch with her. So attending OryCon also meant a visit, usually after the con when decompression with long-time friendship, and maybe a long trail ride, were especially welcome. These visits became even more important when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I made a number of trips to Portland to help her and her family through the rounds of chemo that led to a series of remissions. In the nearly five years that followed, our OryCon visits became even more precious. In fall 2013, she entered hospice, and again I was present to do whatever was necessary to support her and her family in that transition. She died in October, when the weather had already turned chill and overcast with the approach of winter. That year, attending OryCon was out of the question, nor could I bring myself to consider returning to Portland for some time. This year, however, I ventured north with my older daughter to a reunion at our alma mater, Reed College. That shifted my thinking enough so that when I received an invitation to be a guest panelist at OryCon, I happily accepted. Of course, the first thing to arrange was a visit with my friend’s surviving family. Two visits, actually; one before and one after the con. A family dinner, complete with home made lasagna (vegetarian and vegan versions) marked an auspicious welcome back to Portland.

I won’t go into a recitation of all things travel and hotel. Needless to say, my usual disorientation upon encountering a new venue kicked into high gear, fueled by the vertical arrangement of the hotel (events were on 4 different floors, or was it 5 plus the green room on the 16th floor?) The OryConOps folks were as warm and welcoming as ever. I had a splendid roomie in Irene Radford, although we were both a bit too old to stay up all night talking.

My panels began Saturday morning with the topic “Fantasy vs. Science Fiction,” in which panelists and audience attempted to discern why anyone would think one better than the other when we all love them both. Conventional wisdom suggests that in science fiction, the laws of physics must be observed (with the notable exceptions of psi powers and faster-than-light travel); whereas in fantasy, magic introduces a fundamentally different system. The level of technology of the setting tends to put low-tech, medieval worlds into the fantasy camp and modern, futuristic, or space settings into science fiction. I threw out the idea that readers expect different experiences (fantasy – emotional, science fiction – intellectual, idea-driven) from the two genres, hoping it would provoke a juicy discussion. We all agreed that with the popularity of cross-overs, none of these distinctions holds true any longer.

Then, after running across the street for Chinese food with a friend, came Finding Diverse Voices and Characters in SF/F. The sad thing was that we had only one person of color on the panel, but we did our best to talk about how to write respectfully about people who are unlike us, and where to go to find stories by diverse authors.

From there, I careened over to Reaching Writers Who Don’t Know You Yet. Although the topic description mentioned strategies for SEO (Search Engine Optimization) – that is, making yourself visible to folks who Google you or are looking for the kind of fiction you write – most of the emphasis was on offering free ebooks (as through InstaFreebie) and other ways of building up mailing lists. That is, the focus was indie or self-published writers who must do all their own promotion. I am not convinced of the value of these strategies, but I defer to the romance writers who write 6 books a year, use these methods, and earn a good income. Since this is my blog and I get to hold forth however I want, I present Deborah’s Strategy for Acquiring Readers:
1.       Write great stuff.
2.      Say interesting things on panels and on your blog.
3.      Be kind to fans.
Dinner that night was a sort of mini-bar-con, since someone who clearly does not appreciate the rapacious appetites of fans declared the restaurant closed until 7:15 pm. I thought of snooping through evening panels or  parties, but old age got the better of me, like Bilbo, and I oozed off to bed instead.

Sunday morning is usually SFWA meeting time, but I neglected to inform Programming of my unavailability, so I had a panel on Endings: Cuddling with the Reader. I love the idea of leaving chocolate on the pillow for my devoted fans, although sometimes a jolt to the solar plexus is just what the story needs. Although not all the panelists agreed with me, my takeaway is that the ending should fulfill the promise the author makes at the beginning of the book. A steamy romance calls for a very different emotional tone in the wrap-up than does a detective thriller or a fluffy fantasy or a gritty dystopic novel. I believe an ending does not have to be “happy” to be satisfying, but satisfying is what’s needed. At the end of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo is wounded in ways that can never heal while he remains in Middle Earth; hence “The Scouring of the Shire” sequence in the books (not the films) allow us to mend what we can and grieve what has been lost.

My last two events were a reading (most of “Sage Mountain” from Sword and Sorceress 31) and autographing. Much fun was had by all at both events. Then a wonderful, generous fan gave me a ride to Powell’s Beaverton for their Authorfest. This year, the event took place in a much smaller space with only 20 of us, but it had the feel of a mini-convention, with authors, fans, and people who just wandered in to see what all the fuss was about, all mingling and having a great time.

OryCon will return to Jantzen Beach next year (no more verticality); I have no doubt it will remain the warm, welcoming environment in which to share enthusiasm for books (and graphic novels and films and so forth). If you live nearby and have never been to a convention before, check it out. See you there!

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