CONtraflow: New Orleans’ Own Taste of the Geek Life by Anna Harris

IMG_1807-0If someone had told me a few months ago that I’d get some of the best writing advice of my life at a hotel out by the airport, I’d have been suitably skeptical. It’s just that when one imagines a scene filled with award-winning authors, aspiring wordsmiths, and a sizeable contingent of steampunks and Chewbacchanalians, the Hilton on Airline Highway is probably not going to be the first place she thinks of. Not that the Hilton isn’t a great hotel, of course – just that it’s not that high in the list of wretched hives of scum and villainy. That fact notwithstanding, it turns out that the organizers couldn’t have picked a better spot to house the odd and amazing convergence known as CONtraflow.

Now in its fourth year, CONtraflow is a fan-organized, volunteer-run convention that focuses on science fiction and fantasy in literature and art. It’s a small convention (for right now, at least), but a robust one. This year the gathering boasted 100+ educational panels, parties, and concerts, featuring over 55 well-known names in the sci-fi and fantasy community. The gathering attracts writers, artists, vendors and fans (and everything in between), who mingle and bond over a shared love of geekdom.

At 32, until very recently it was a necessity to keep my geeky interests a secret, lest I be branded a weirdo. Even though pop culture has thoroughly embraced gaming, comic book heroes, and various sci-fi franchises over the last decade, if you’re my age (and especially if you’re female) you probably remember a time when it was just not possible to admit that you read fantasy novels and knew a smattering of Klingon without being ostracized. It’s only within the last couple of years that I started meeting geeks who were proud to share their interests with others, and started to realize that it was OK to be geeky. Meanwhile though, old habits die hard, and I’m still getting used to not being ashamed to buy comic books or profess my love for Settlers of Catan.

So while a large contingent of my comic book-loving, RPG-playing, sci-fi movie quoting friends regularly attend huge and hallowed conventions like Dragoncon and San Diego Comic-Con International, the bulk of my con experience begins and ends with Star Trek conventions with my mother, circa 1990. As you can imagine, I hadn’t revealed my secret to any of my friends – how embarrassing to basically be a con virgin! I was hoping that CONtraflow would give me a decent taste of what it’s like to go to a convention, without the huge crowds and overstimulation. I figured I could work my way up to the crazy stuff if the basics seemed interesting enough.

Luckily, my expectations were right on the money. From the moment the Hilton’s automatic doors sluiced open, enveloping me in brightly printed carpet and the sweet, sweet caress of over-conditioned air, I knew I was home. Two steampunk pirate wenches and an excellent Maleficent walked in with me from the parking lot, and I followed them through the hotel to the registration desk.

I had hoped to attend all three days, but as it turned out, Sunday was my only opening to check out the panels. I explained this to the lovely volunteer at registration, and she gamely recommended the best panels that day, based on my interests. While we were talking, I explained that I was new to this whole “being vocal about being a geek” thing. Without missing a beat, she reassured me that there’s nothing like going to a con – in fact, she’d met her husband at one! I made a mental note to keep my eyes peeled, just in case Destiny happened to be cosplaying that day.

The first panel on my list was “How to Write a Great First Line”, with author and radio talk show host M. B. Weston. Weston’s specialties are fantasy, YA, steampunk and paranormal fiction, and her enthusiasm for her craft was immediately evident as the panel got underway. “Punch, and punch hard!” was the message of the day. During the hour-long open Q&A, Weston shared her experience in crafting first lines made to immediately reel a reader in, and keep them hungry for more. The author explained that first lines were a kind of bait, or a drug, if you will. Keep adjusting the formula as you get to know your readers more. Introducing sensory details, inciting curiosity, and creating a sense of urgency are all ways to get the reader hooked. Most importantly, don’t get caught up on the first line. Keep writing, and let that perfect introduction come to you as you build the rest of the story. You can always go back and edit.

Weston’s talk was so engaging that I found myself staying put through the break to chat with other members of the crowd who’d stuck around to talk about first lines. Before I knew it, the next panel was getting under way. During “How to Promote Yourself & Your Writing”, independent author Ben Herr and author/actor/publisher Allan Gilbreath encouraged the writers in the crowd to start thinking of themselves as brands, and to start getting their messaging out to the right target market. Herr, creator of YA fantasy series Alynia Sky, is a fascinating example of how to be your own best brand ambassador. He shared valuable lessons on what’s worked – and what hasn’t – for him as he’s made it his mission to see his stories travel the globe. Gilbreath’s advice was even more interesting, as he’s had the opportunity to view the process from the writer’s chair as well as from the publisher’s point of view. His tips on how to succeed (and avoid screwing up) were useful and frequently hilarious, including the best thing I heard all day: “Interns are an invaluable resource – and they compost well!”

Despite the great advice had in the first two panels, the next panel I attended was definitely my favorite. Authors J. L. Mulvihill, Rob Cerio, and Kimberly Daniels led a very engaged crowd through an active discussion on “Writing Good Villains”. Between the three panelists, they covered a diverse set of genres, including YA, steampunk, fantasy, sci-fi, and comedy, but also were able to reference villains and plot points from TV, movies, comic books, classic fiction and even non-fiction sources. This created a rich and very accepting conversation, where the crowd felt encouraged to bring up ideas and share their struggles and successes with writing villainous characters. We even talked about how societal norms change our concept of villainy, and how to build a story where the villain is the landscape, or the society, or even the protagonist. Best of all, during the panel, I felt a light bulb switch on in my mind, as a story character I’d been writing and rewriting for a couple of years now suddenly completely made sense.

Afterward the day of awesome panels, I realized that it was pointless to try avoiding the siren song of geeky baubles any longer. As I wound my way through the serpentine field of merch tables, exploring my options, I could almost hear my bank account groaning. Bags laden with new books, I wandered back out to the parking lot, mentally signing myself up for next year’s CONtraflow. Wonder if the Hilton takes Vulcans?
Anna Harris is a New Orleans-based marketing consultant and blogger. You can find her online at Compass & Quill and The Camino Plan.

Hot Reads 9/21/14

Last week’s reading was all over the spectrum. I just finished watching the first season of Orange Is the New Black on Netflix and totally get all the hoopla I’d been hearing about the show. It’s funny and heartbreaking and I’m starting season 2 as soon as I finish this post. The first link is by a writer of the show – I think you’ll like it. Also in the mix are stories about a local music legend, healthcare issues and, of course, books.
Happy Reading!

Photo via Identities.Mic

Photo via Identities.Mic

From Identities.Mic: “While Writing for ‘Orange Is the New Black,’ I Realized I Am Gay
Favorite quote: “I was finally forced to consider a question that had never, ever occurred to me before: Holy shit, am I gay?”

Photo via

Photo via

From The Cosimo Code: A Tribute to Cosimo Matassa
Tagline: A Fond Farewell to the true Architect of Rock & Roll and The Godfather of New Orleans R&B
Favorite quote: “For all his appealing modesty, Cosimo Matassa was able to take pride in his twilight years in seeing tangible recognition in the form of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement in Music Business Award in 2007, historic landmark status for J&M studios by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010, and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012.”

From Unclutterer.: When Multitasking Can Be Dangerous
Favorite quote: “Someone talking on a cell phone, hands-free or not, is about four times more likely to be involved in an accident than someone who isn’t using a cell phone.”
Note: I know I’ve had some close calls from drivers on cell phones. Just. Don’t.

From The Daily Sheeple: Lead Developer Of HPV Vaccines Comes Clean, Warns Parents & Young Girls It’s All A Giant Deadly Scam
Favorite quote: ” Dr. Harper made her surprising confession at the 4th International Conference on Vaccination which took place in Reston, Virginia. Her speech, which was originally intended to promote the benefits of the vaccines, took a 180-degree turn when she chose instead to clean her conscience about the deadly vaccines so she “could sleep at night”.
Note: Knowledge is power.

From Book Riot: 8 Authors Whose Biggest Successes Came After the Age of 50
Favorite quote: All of it! How refreshing! People not in their 20’s actually have fresh ideas and can actually write books! Who knew?

From BuzzFeed: The Books Who Made Me Who I Am
Tagline: I am the product of endless books.
Favorite quote: “I read this book so often the spine is now white and softened, the pages yellowed with age and the ministrations of my tear-stained fingers.”
Note: Yes, another Roxane Gay essay. I might have to rename this feature “Hot Reads Including Roxane Gay”. But, seriously, this is really good about the FaceBook meme that’s been going around lately. You’ve done it, haven’t you?
*My list below!

50Book list of the week is via Flavorwire: 50 Romantic Novels for People Who Hate Romance Novels because, yes, sometimes you just want to read a love story that’s not all 19th century scoundrels ripping bodices filled with heaving breasts.

Speaking of romance, what about the quiet romance of a long-term relationship? Read our poem of the week, “Starfish” by Eleanor Lerman, on This is a poem I printed out and pasted in my journal a couple of years ago. I read it often. My favorite part below:

Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out. This is life’s way of letting you know that
you are lucky.

Lucky. Yes.

Have a great reading week and don’t forget to follow our Hot Reads board on Pinterest for new reads every week.


*Grimm’s Fairy Tales
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer
The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
A Working a Girl Can’t Win by Deborah Garrison
Blindness by Jose Saramago


A Morning Ritual for World Peace

Two months ago I started reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, the seminal book on spiritual healing for the creative force in all of us. I found myself blocked, frustrated, and constantly nursing this place of fear inside of me when it came to sitting down with any piece of fiction I wrote. This fear manifested in physical symptoms—clenched stomach, quickened heartbeat, an icky feeling in my chest—that encouraged me even more to abandon writing and pursue other avenues of satisfaction (shopping online for boots anyone?).

The Artist’s Way speaks directly to this kind of creative atrophy and anxiety. Even when I found myself outwardly rolling my eyes at all that Great-Creator-Within business, inwardly I nodded along as she talked about nurturing the inner self before outward production. This made tremendous sense to me. So, without my usual trepidation or excuse-making I dove right into one of Cameron’s two prescriptions for the creative soul: Morning Pages. Her other exercise required a weekly excursion, called an Artist’s Date, that you made with yourself to try something new each week. I didn’t prove so diligent here.

For some reason, Morning Pages clicked with me. Each morning, (okay, most mornings) I wake up, brew a pot of coffee, and load a Pages document—password protected, of course—and write three pages of whatever pops into my head. Sometimes I write about my daily tasks ahead. Other times I write about something bothering me too newly formed or personal to disclose to anyone else. I’ve even written about having nothing to write. What I write isn’t the point though. I just need to show up to something, every day. A commitment, a practice, some continual thread in my life, a constant I can look to and learn to count on.

I can’t point to anything in my life two months later and attribute some change directly to this practice of Morning Pages. But I can testify to a daily sense of satisfaction and accomplishment with the completion of those pages, and that something in me has changed. Cameron says in her book that it’s almost impossible to write about something every single day and not eventually be forced to make a change. I’ve found that to be true, and some of these changes have happened almost unconsciously. I discovered that my attitude has changed completely when I went back this morning and read my very first week of Morning Pages. Two months ago I was pessimistic, depressed, angry and overly critical of the people around me. My Morning Pages for the month of January look nothing like this at all.

Dedicating your mornings to this kind of daily practice can give you a sense of accumulation and allow you to discover meaning in your daily life. It also creates an almost effortless record—of your moods, your worries, your daily life. I was surprised when I read about an unusually pleasant dinner I hadn’t thought of since that night. Those pages can serve as reinforcement of the positive, reminders of the small experiences that make life worth living but also become overshadowed by the larger and more emotionally taxing events of our lives. There is also an immense satisfaction in the act of building. Over the past two months, I’ve built a document over 30,000 words and almost 100 pages long.

Every morning, the best you can.

Notice up above I conceded *almost* every day. I seem to operate at about 70% of the time. I’m terrible about the weekends and not as dedicated midweek. Set a goal of every morning, five mornings a week, or just every Sunday. Whatever your goal, try to reach it. My Morning Pages don’t take me long at all, but I’m a super typer. (Thanks should now be given to my cruel high school typing teacher who would bark out the letters and slap a ruler on her desk to beat time. This gesture also subtly conveyed to her sophomore typing class that if we missed a single letter, she just might beat time on our knuckles. I was scared to death of that woman and even hated the class, but there is no denying 80 WPM.)

How to—

Write in whatever medium you feel comfortable. I’ve gotten out of the habit of longhand writing, but Cameron recommends this way in order to allow your brain time to slow down and think. If you write comfortably this way, do it. If you like to type on an old Remington despite the key jams and ink blotches, then that’s the best way for you. Do whatever way you find most comfortable and know that this is the right way. But, if you decide to write longhand make sure you find a place to keep it so that you feel safe writing. Nothing kills this whole self-reflection process like a deep fear of prying eyes.

Nothing to write about. Not.

Although I’ve written a couple times that I couldn’t think of anything to write, most of the times I can. Our brains are wheel hamsters on steroids, constantly whirring with all kinds of thoughts. There is always something to write about. In the beginning, write about how pissed off you are, how your partner leaves the effing milk out to let it spoil, how the bank overdrew your account, or how you got a bad haircut. Think of these mornings as dumps for all those negative feelings. By getting all of these thoughts cleared out of the way, you open your mind up for something more positive. If you share space with others, password-protect these pages so that you are the only eyes that ever see them.

Eventually rev up your engine and get ready to drive

I got a little tired of my own whining even though I never went back to read it. I knew it was there, front-loaded all over my then 60 page document. So I decided to change directions. I started writing about my goals, my dreams, the things I wanted. Attainable things like a house with an office that gets tons of sunlight. Completely unrealistic things like a Pulitzer prize. Everything in between. The act of wanting is incredibly powerful. When we don’t name the things we want, we are almost sure never to receive them. Plus, it’s just fun to daydream sometimes. Put me in a way better mood than talking about how pissy I was. Start pushing your Morning Pages to talk about the way you want your life to be and see what happens. I credit this more than anything else with changing my perspective.

Just like that old adage about life, this is a journey not a destination

Seriously. Don’t look for some direct means of measuring the success of your Morning Pages. Don’t even think of them in terms of success. (By doing so, you unconsciously signal to your little dude within that you will measure this in success or failure, opening up an outcome you will label failure.) Writing these every day is about growth, but also about dedicating yourself to something. One of the greatest unintended consequences of these things for me has been just proving that I can stick with something. That’s worth my 30 minutes every day no matter what.

Good luck and happy writing. You won’t regret it.

Publisher Weekly’s Manly List

Somehow I missed it but Gender Across Borders points out that recently Publishers Weekly put out it’s list of the top ten books for 2009 which does not include a single woman author. Not.One.

According to HuffPo, “PW admits that they’re not “the most politically correct” choices — the list doesn’t include any female authors — but, to the editors, they were the best among the top 100 that they had chosen.”

BTW – only 29 women made it into their top 100. In my view, the point is not being “politically correct” but just being plain old balanced. This hardly seems balanced.

Poet Amy King looked into the content of the top ten and concluded, “Simple to observe that the content that “stood out from the rest,” according to PW, is all about mostly male protagonists and their realities: war, adventure, science, boyhood adventures, taming the wilderness, the male writer’s life, etc. In other words, the novels that deal with women’s realities simply “don’t stand out”. Her comments on each book are biting while being deliciously amusing.

Women in Letters and Literary Arts has started The WILLA List wiki specifically to document great books by women that PW, ummmm, missed? Yeah, that’s it – all the great books they missed. Anyone can create an entry to add their favorites. The list closes at the end of the month.