Monday, March 9, 2009

Potlatch 18 Convention: the Pros and Non-Pros

We've all attended conventions where many of the panel topics are so esoteric, so over-the-top, that not only is no preparation necessary by the guest participants, but the nature of the topic allows the panelists to spout nearly an hour's worth of endless drivel of whatever spontaneously comes to mind. Everyone has a good laugh and the panelists pat each other on the back for a job well done. Fifteen minutes later you have no recollection of anything said during the panel you just attended (certainly the panel wasn't worthy enough for note-taking), but you think you had a good time. If you're a serious, albeit non-pro writer, I would think you would want more (expect more) out of your convention attendance. Then there's "pay it forward" -- sharing your knowledge, your skills, your experiences good and bad, on the path to becoming a pro, with those who aren't quite there yet. But if skills and biz-related panels/workshops aren't included in the convention's programming, then does the con become little more than a mutual appreciation society for the pros?

February 28 and March 1 I attended Potlatch 18, the first Silicon Valley Potlatch, held at the Domain Hotel in Sunnyvale California. To quote from the program book: "Potlatch is a small literary-oriented convention with a single track of panels, and it's fundamentally about books and conversations." And, from the con's website: "Proceeds from Potlatch benefit Clarion West -- an intensive six-week workshop for writers who are preparing for professional careers in science fiction and fantasy." This was my first Potlatch, and I was a bit sceptical, once I learned last October from the person in charge of programming that there are no panels or workshops on the craft of writing, no discussions on the business-end of writing (e.g. agents, publishers, self-promotion, etc.), which I thought odd given the relationship between Potlach and Clarion West.

But what Potlatch does have that other, even literary, conventions do not (at least, not to my knowledge) are "Algonquins." Named for the Algonquin Round Table meetings made famous by Dorothy Parker and friends in 1920s New York, the Potlatch Algonquins can be anything from "a demonstration of a craft, art, or technology, to a continuation of a discussion from a panel, to whatever you like." A sign-up board is maintained on which attendees can post meeting ideas, times, and locations. I had wanted to attend an Algonquin early Sunday afternoon -- a meeting of journeymen writers, those who have made a couple professional sales, to discuss their craft, self-promotion, etc. -- and though I'm not a writer, I had hoped the group would allow me to sit in as an editor. Unfortunately, I had already set up a meeting with author Elizabeth Gibson to critique an excerpt from her novel, and that meeting lasted nearly two hours. Had I had more familiarity with Algonquins, I would have attended the convention Friday evening and posted my own idea for a weekend discussion/workshop.

Ursula K. Le Guin was this year's author guest of honor. Actually, Potlatch has no author guest of honor; what it does have is a Book(s) of Honor -- in this case, Always Coming Home -- and Ms. Le Guin just happened to be the book's author. The other Book of Honor was John M. Ford's Growing Up Weightless, but, alas, "Mike" left this plane of existence nearly three years ago, so if he was in attendance at the convention, it was in spirit only. The Books of Honor were discussed at length during Friday evening's programming.

The highlight (at least in my 0pinion) of the weekend was Ms. Le Guin's reading on Saturday afternoon from Always Coming Home, which was streamed live into Info Island on the Second Life virtual world. Picture this: We're sitting in the audience in the convention meeting room as Ms. Le Guin, seated to the left of the stage, reads from her book while a video camera captures her performance, and streams it live to Info Island; on the large wall screen in front of us, we're also watching a computer projection of Info Island in Second Life. On the Info Island stage is a large screen, and appearing on that screen is the video streaming of Ursula K. Le Guin, reading. Le Guin: live and virtual, simultaneously. Ms. Le Guin then answered questions from both the audience as well as Second Life residents. There were approximately 200 participants at Potlatch, and I think nearly all of them were in attendance at this event.

I had had an opportunity earlier in the day to chat very briefly with Ms. Le Guin ("First Contact with the Gorgonids") and Molly Gloss ("Lambing Season") about the use of their stories in my "alien contact" reprint anthology. And before Le Guin's reading Saturday afternoon, I spoke at length with Jude-Marie Green, associate editor for Abyss & Apex, who had submitted a story ("In the Season of Blue Storms") as well for the reprint anthology.

In fact, Potlatch lived up to its hype as a convention "about books and conversations." Throughout the weekend, I had an opportunity to speak at length with Night Shade Books publisher Jeremy Lassen and Tachyon Publications publisher Jacob Weisman, both of whom were working in the dealers room. I'm hopeful that new projects -- and new opportunities -- will be forthcoming from both publishers. Also working in the dealers room were two old friends, Michael Rightor (Read Ink Books) and Jude Feldman (Borderlands Books). Michael and I go back at least fifteen years, if not more, when he and I were struggling with short fiction writing; I now help publish books and he now sells books! I've seen Jude, Borderlands's General Manager, at the store in San Francisco for years, but we only had a chance to really converse at Potlatch. It turns out we have old stomping grounds in common: Sonoma State University and the surrounding countryside, including Sebastopol, Rio Nido, and Highway 116 to the coast.

The remainder of Sunday afternoon was spent chatting in the hotel lobby with old acquaintances whom I haven't seen for quite some time (Eileen Gunn, Ellen Klages, Michael Ward), and making some new acquaintances (John Berry, Jeanne Gomoll). Believe it or not, nearly all of our discussions that afternoon had to do with copyediting! In particular, Ellen Klages shared some of her experiences with her publisher (Viking Juvenile) regarding the copyediting of her two novels, The Green Glass Sea and White Sands, Red Menace. And I was happy to have finally met John Berry, who does the interior design and composition for nearly all of Tachyon's books, the most recent being Andrew Fox's The Good Humor Man, which I had the honor to edit.

A good time was (hopefully) had by all, including yours truly.

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