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?
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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 9/7/14

Women, women, women. In retrospect it seems that last week my reading was all about women and all the myriad ways they think, feel and engage in this world. I think I have a really great line-up of articles to share. Enjoy!

Photo via The Guardian

Photo via The Guardian

From The Guardian: Mary J Blige interview: ‘The UK is a better place to make music than the States’
Tagline: The soul singer talks about her month in London making an album with the cream of British talent including Disclosure, Naughty Boy and Sam Smith – and why she just had to meet Mitch Winehouse.
Favorite quote: “When I’m singing, I don’t think about anything but what I’m doing. I could look crazy in that moment, it doesn’t matter to me. I’m just trying to get all this stuff out. Because it feels good to get it out. It feels good to sing. It’s like you can fly almost, when you singing that stuff.”

From The Washington Post: Being informed and fashionable is natural for women.
Favorite quote: “Is it so inconceivable that a smart, accomplished woman would have both the latest issue of the Economist and the second season of “The Mindy Project” downloaded on her iPad? Sorry, but modern women see no contradiction there.”

Photo via Goodreads

Photo via Goodreads

 

From The Rumpus: Interview with Maya Angelou by New Orleanian Whitney Mackman
Favorite quote: “I don’t expect negative, and when I find it, I run like hell and holler “fire!”

 

 

 

From Slate: That Screaming Lady
Tagline: Lena Dunham, Jill Soloway, and other funny women on what Joan Rivers meant to them.
Favorite quote: “She ran at comedy full-tilt and punched a hole so big that any girl who wanted to give it a try could walk right through.”

Photo via Slate

Photo via Slate

From The Daily Mail UK: Margaret Atwood on being called offensive and man-hating
Tagline: Almost 30 years after the publication of The Handmaid’s Tale, her work has lost none of its ability to unsettle.

Favorite quote: ‘Social media was supposed to make us all aware of one another’s point of view, but it self-sorts,’ she says.‘People turn off anything they don’t already like and only pay attention to people who agree with them. That can be very polarising.’

 

From The Daily Mail UK: The Secret Torment of Joni Mitchell
Tagline: Unflinching insight into the reclusive 70s icon’s battles with a disease that makes her skin crawl, is haunted by stalkers and the heartache of giving her daughter up for adoption.
Favorite quote: “I’d come through such a rough, tormented period as a destitute, unwed mother. It was like you killed somebody. I had some serious battles for a twenty-one-year-old.”

From Brain Pickings: Famous Writers on the Creative Benefits of Keeping a Diary
Tagline: Reflections on the value of recording our inner lives from Woolf, Thoreau, Sontag, Emerson, Nin, Plath, and more.
Favorite quote: “We are creatures of remarkable moodiness and mental turbulence, and what we think we believe at any given moment — those capital-T Truths we arrive at about ourselves and the world — can be profoundly different from our beliefs a decade, a year, and sometimes even a day later.”

From Luna Luna Magazine: Gossip as a Mean of Bonding
Favorite quote: “It’s a shame that humans bond so effectively over gossip that can destroy someone so easily.”

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Book List: Unbeknownst to me, August was Women in Translation 66016-witmonth3252btext1Month which was created to  “Increase the dialogue and discussion about women writers in translation”. Our list this week is via Maclehose Press   and features such countries as Portugal, Italy, Germany, and Mozambique in its list of books by women. We have some catching up to do! Next year we’ll be ready.

 

And our poem of the week is by Laurel Blossom. Big thanks to Laurel for granting permission to post her poem, Radio. I’m dedicating this poem to my dear friend, Harriet, whose car was stolen a few days ago.

Radio

No radio
in car

No radio on board

No radio
Already stolen

Absolutely no radio!

Radio broken
Alarm is set
To go off

No radio
No money

No radio
No valuables

No radio or
valuables
in car or trunk

No radio
Stolen 3X

No radio
Empty trunk
Empty glove compartment
Honest

In car
Nothing of value

No radio
No nuthin
(No kidding)

Radio Broken
Nothing Left!

Radio Gone
Note Hole in Dashboard

Warning!
Radio Will Not Play
When Removed
Security Code Required

Would you keep
Anything valuable
On this wreck?

No valuables
In this van

Please do not
Break in
Unnecessarily

Thank you
For your kind
Consideration

Nothing of value
in car
No radio
No tapes
No telephone

_______________________

Don’t forget to check out our Pinterest board during the week for more Hot Reads and have a great reading week!