alexandraerin: (Default)

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.

 

Originally published at Blue Author Is About To Write.

alexandraerin: (Default)

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.)

 

Originally published at Blue Author Is About To Write.

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