BristolCon is the Bristol Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention. And it wasn't what I expected. I guess I was thinking it would be more like one of the big conventions, with hundreds of people milling about, authors, exhibitors, fans etc. It was like that, but much smaller and very intimate. It was interesting to note from the outset that there was a large element of community there, with a large proportion of the attendees knowing each other (in the earlier part of the day the bulk where made up by guests, although the balance between guests and interested parties/fans shifted throughout the day).
The two guests of honour were Paul Cornell and Joe Abercrombie, accompanied by various published SF/F authors, artists, film people (?), etc. Various panels and readings were held, and, in the main, were excellent.
Getting Published panel
This was an interesting one for me, and a number of people in the audience. The panel itself was made up of a mix of authors (new and old), the editor of SFX magazine, a film-maker and an artist.
It was clear from the outset that certain members of this panel had prejudices about the routes into publishing and that, for me, was a little disappointing. It was interesting to hear individual experiences but the advice given was generally stuff you can find from good editor's/publisher's/agent's/author's blogs on the web (such as Nicola Morgan's).
Fan-fic was derided, mainly for the quality aspect, which holds true for all writing. As a writing exercise though it cannot be faulted, especially if it gets you writing and enthusiastic about writing. Interestingly I had just received a NaNoWriMo pep-talk email from Mercedes Lackey extolling the virtues of writing fan-fiction.
Word count was discussed, and two messages came out, both at odds with each other. The panel seemed to be saying that you had to be within the 150,000 words and yet Paul Cornell and Joe Abercrombie (in the audience) appeared to be contesting this position, using clear examples of new authors with big books.
There was some disagreement about short story writing as a way into getting published, with some saying it provided kudos and a confirmation of quality, and others saying it didn't matter as the two mediums are very different. The state of the marke was also questioned, and here I would contend that there seemed to be a lack of knowledge (or it was dismissed) of the general market, with an upsurge in forums and competitions exactly in this area in the mainstream arena (Bristo Prize, Bridport, plus countless others). All in all, short story writing is different, but the lessons of tightness of writing, impact, tension, drama and characterisation are all there and can feed quite successfully into novel-writing, even if the structure is different.
All in all, the main points for me were:
1. Write the best story you can, whatever length it is. The story is what sells
2. Re-draft, edit, tighten
3. Write the best query you can
4. Choose specialist agents
5. Don't give up
Joe Abercrombie Q&A
This was perhaps my favourite panel, with Cheryl Morgan asking JA a variety of questions before throwing it open to the audience.
Joe came across as affable, self-effacing, funny and very insightful. It was fascinating to understand how he writes and the process involved (another tight plotter, a la Iain Banks). His enjoyment of the medium and the genre was clearly there to see, and it was interesting to hear of his main influences (Tolkein, Ursula Le Guin, Moorcock and GRR Martin).
Imagining Fabulous Worlds
This panel had a lot of potential but got sidetracked into cover creation and the like. However some good things were said, not least about the grounding of the fantastical element of your world in some form of reality (JA keeps his minimal).
1. Less is more. Too much detail is offputting and doesn't allow the reader to fill in the gaps. Hint and refer but don't always explain.
2. Ensure the familiar stuff works, and that the fantastical element sits beside it.
3. Don't solve everything with a wave of the (magic) hand. Put restrictions and challenges in place that restrict magic/technology so that they are not instantly the panacea for resolving problems.
Science we want to see
This panel started off in quite a stilted way, but soon livened up as the panellists found their feet. AI, dystopian SF, FTL, gravity, laws of physics, bio-technology, all sorts of areas were covered and discussed, with some disagreement at times.
The panellists clearly had a lot of fun with this, and it was fascinating to hear what concerned them or informed their writing.
How to write fight scenes
I don't know whether to like this one or not. As a tool for writing fight scenes it had some important and interesting lessons. Whilst entertaining, it ended up being a demonstration of martial arts by two of the authors, often at the expense of the hapless Joe Abercrombie. Luckily they all remembered (occasionally) to drag it back to writing.
All in all, great fun, but not quite as useful as I had hoped. Still, I enjoyed it.
1. Less is more. Don't over describe the action in minute detail, allow the reader to build this in their mind.
2. Fighting takes training, and your characters' actions should reflect their experience, skill and training.
3. Awareness is key, and the limits of awareness too. A character needs this, but it is limited and influences a scene heavily.
4. Fights in the real world are short and messy. Reflect this in your writing.
I missed several of the sessions due to other commitments, but thoroughly enjoyed the ones I attended, even if I found the value of them different to what I expected at times, although they tended to make up for that in other ways.
It was interesting to hear the authors speak on a variety of subjects, and the interspersed readings were excellent. It was superb to see and hear Joe Abercrombie, Paul Cornell and Alistair Reynolds, and the rest of the panellists were entertaining, clever and insightful.
It ended up being a smaller event than I expected, but all the more intimate for it. The organisation was superb, the atmosphere light hearted, and I met a couple of people I have known from Twitter (Gareth Powell and Meg) as well as several other interesting people.
Will I attend next year? Absolutely. It was fun, educational, entertaining and friendly. You couldn't ask for much more.
The programme for the event (including details of all the guests, panels, etc) can be found at the BristolCon website (above) or can be downloaded directly here.