RetroCon Day 16: Crimefest 2017


I’ve been wanting to go to CrimeFest for years, ever since being a runner-up in the 2012 Flashbang competition, organised by Sarah Hilary and judged by Zoe Sharp, for which a place at the convention was on offer for the winner.

So this year I finally broke that duck in the Con’s unexpectedly sun-drenched and surprisingly beautiful resident city of Bristol. It started on Thursday 18th May, and my first perk on day one was discovering a Pizza Hut a few doors away from the convention hotel. One all you can eat buffet later I dragged myself in for the opening panel on debut authors. Steph Broadribb had an impressive tale of training as a bounty hunter as research for her book, although I found Mary Torjussen’s contrastingly prosaic setting within her own home town more endearing.

The last two panels were my favourites , with Felix Francis, following in father Dick’s footsteps, stealing the show in the Hunter Hunted panel. I worked in a betting shop for ten years and love a day at the races, but had never felt drawn to these books until now.  After that a fresher, more youthful group put on my favourite panel of the day, with Catherine Ryan Howard revealing that the best way to get away with murder is to commit it on a cruise ship, and Felicia Yap intriguing us with her forthcoming release ‘Yesterday’, which seems to veer so far into Science Fiction that it would be better suited to neighbouring BristolCon, but is no less appealing to me for that.

I was back on Friday morning at the brutally early time of 9am, which cost me a hotel breakfast. But at least two interesting panels helped wake me up, one on serial killers and the other about racing against time. And after that, quite fittingly seeing as where my interest started, I got my first two autographs of the con from Zoe Sharp and Sarah Hilary.

After lunch I returned to an excellent and useful panel on genre boundaries, after which I got my copy of Behind Her Eyes signed by Sarah Pinborough, and after sitting in on one more, returned to my hotel room to prepare for the CWA Dagger award nominations. With it mostly being longlists, and in a multitude of categories, I won’t list them all here, but I was most pleased about the nomination for The Beautiful Dead by Belinda Bauer. And the free wine; that was good too.

What with the hangover and getting a hotel breakfast this time,  Saturday’s early start was even more daunting, so I was just a smidge late for the first panel, but found Sarah Pinborough especially on top form the discussion about scaring readers, with the genres being crossed to namecheck Silence of the Lambs and M.R. James, not for the first nor last times in the con. Genre remained in focus next, in a discussion outlining all the subgenres that can fall under the crime umbrella. Quite cheering for the aspiring author this, providing reassurance that there is an audience for many more types of story than you might realise.

Alison Bruce had a brilliant idea for the next panel on good and bad guys in police procedurals, issuing red, yellow and green cards to a panel featuring two authors I’ve been meaning to read, Fergus McNeill (who I should not have missed at Totton Library) and Sharon Bolton (who proudly collected most of the reds). Unfortunately the whole theme had me ruminating on my own murky morality and cloudy conscience, so I may have zoned out for parts of a very lively and amusing discussion.

After a break in which I failed to charm my way into the hotel swimming pool, denting my self-confidence, breaking a budding tradition, and meaning I’d packed the previous day’s pants for nothing, I returned for entertaining and informative Guest of Honour interviews with Anthony Horowitz and Anne Cleeves, and the obligatory book signing afterwards, before taking an early night, the lure of Doctor Who in my hotel room proving stronger than the desire for another hangover.

It was just a short session on Sunday, with me kicking myself for booking a train that departed too close for comfort from the end of the event. I did at least have time for two panels quite useful for the aspiring writer; the first being on self-publishing, a refreshing change from the big-press bias shown hitherto. However, the eye-watering recommended expenditure of 500 on covers and 1500 on editing would alienate most bottom rung writers, and leaves me glad I have such unshakeable belief in my own editing ability (I’m available for freelance editing by the way, and cheaper than quoted above), and hoping I haven’t ripped off Karl Miller too badly (best 100 quid I ever spent, and highly recommended for anyone wanting a hand-drawn cover image).

My convention swansong panel was on short stories. I see a big market for them in speculative fiction, but less so in crime, and there were more cross-genre recommendations, once again for M.R. James, and also for my favourite sci-fi short, The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster, a dystopian story which has pretty much come true a century later, forecasting the rise of social media and the way it divides as much as unites us.

Other highlights of the Sunday included presenting Christopher Fowler with a whole stack of Bryant & Mays to sign (bringing my autographed book collection to 128 as long as I can find Marcus Tillett’s tome about computer programming) thinking Sarah Hilary had won the CWA Dagger for comedy(!) before realising she had in fact won the prize draw for predicting the winner, and chatting to Felicia Yap about the enormous sci-fi potential of her forthcoming book, and extolling the spec-fic convention scene, not least a return to this city for BristolCon.

The shame of the day was having to leave before the final event, in which a chance to win tickets for next year were up for grabs. I’ve taken a vow not to come to any more until I’m a proper pro writer (exceptions are BristolCon and FantasyCon if it returns to Brighton), but winning tickets would have blown that vow away. Maybe I could find another loophole in volunteering for a Con, but that’s something to think about when I get home. In any case, I look forward to returning to CrimeFest, whensoe’er it may be.

As a postscript, the lowlights of the last day came after the Fest, and are what gave me the silly title for this piece. First, about three steps outside my hotel, one of Bristol’s avian residents decided to drop that which it drops, right on my head. First time in 42 and a quarter years of life that’s happened. I went back into the hotel where the concierge told me that means good luck, which was great consolation as I went into the toilets to wash my hair with dispenser soap, then dry it by squatting unfeasibly low so I could be beneath the hand dryer. And although I dodged that particular bullet second time I left, good luck was thin on the ground as the wheels on my luggage broke, leaving me needing to push, drag, and backbreakingly carry a bag full of books the half mile to Temple Meads, which became three quarters of a mile due to my starting in the wrong direction in my poopyheaded confusion. But some good fortune occurred at the station when my train was right there when I went through the turnstiles, no waiting, and moreover, no stairs. It ends on a win!

On a very big win, in fact – during the five minutes the train wi-fi actually worked, I found this excellent review and interview: I’d gladly wear a guano hat all the live long day for that kind of reader response!


RetroCon Day 15: BristolCon 2016

BristolCon, it’s been too long. Three years in fact, having missed the last two, and missed it badly. And to make this year’s event even more special for me, it marked my long-awaited (by me, if not the rest of the world!) debut as a panellist, discussing small presses.

Before that though, I had the ludicrously early start and the inevitably delayed train. It some ways the two and half hours away that I live is the worst possible distance: too far to be an easy journey on the day, but too close to easily justify staying at the hotel. It meant I arrived after the start of Sarah Pinborough’s kaffeeklatsch in The Snug, but sheepishly wedged myself in for an entertaining and informative talk.

I then went into a very crowded and humid Room Two, largely to scope out the venue and get into place for my panel that followed (I was pleased to find it had a microphone each, instead of the pass-the-kouchie communal one of FantasyCon). It was an interesting and lively panel, focusing on diversity, with Dev Agarwal on top form, and helped take my mind off my growing nerves.

The crowd thinned out for my panel, but I expected it with the line-up in Room One, and I wasn’t complaining. I had fellow Grimmies Sammy Smith and Joanne Hall either side of me, with Cheryl Morgan and Adrian Faulkner completing the line-up. It was nice atmosphere, and felt just like an informal chat between friends, who just happened to have microphones in front of them. Sitting alongside the very knowledgeable Cheryl Morgan was an education, and when I remembered the presence of the audience I extolled the creative freedom and family atmosphere of the small presses, and encouraged the support of Crowdfunder and Patreon campaigns to keep them going. I can’t remember what else, but the 50 minutes absolutely flew by.

I needed down time afterwards though, and found it at the Grimbold stand in the dealers’ room to enjoy seeing my name on a banner for the first time, and pick up signed books by Frances Kay, Joel Cornah and Steven Poore. Further relaxation came in the Lego Room where I took a tea break with Steven, audiobook narrator Di Croft, Jo Hall and Isha Crowe, who I’ve been wanting to meet for years after we went through Open University Creative Writing courses together and she went to the two BristolCons that I missed.

I then settled into Room One for an extended stay, starting with cookies and cake at Rob Harkess’s book launch and BristolCon favourites Juliet McKenna and eventually Gareth L Powell signing books for me, followed by Anna Smith-Spark and Dolly Garland starring in the Murderous Woman panel, Sarah Pinborough’s excellent Guest of Honour interview, and finally a panel on the practicalities of publishing which was capped by a brilliant reading from Sammy Smith.

I went back into Room 2 for one last panel before I had to get my train home, Fangorn being an engaging presence even when discussing monster poo, but I was already tiring by this time after a long day. I made my exit straight after, stopping to book my place for next year, when I might well book into the hotel, and to take the nameplate from my panel as a souvenir.

It was a great con and I’m already looking forward to the next, but I have to add a big thank you to Jo Hall, who’s stood down from organising this brilliant event after eight great years. It’s not the biggest convention out there, but it’s one the best.


RetroCon Day 14: FantasyCon 2016

fcon 16

I write this immediately after my return from Scarborough, the remote but admittedly beautiful setting for this year’s FantasyCon.

After previous times going as an aspirer, a socialiser, and a would-be self-promoter, this year I decided I would go unashamedly as a fan, and thus adding to my sixty-strong signed book collection became a priority. I packed a load of unsigned books from my collection, along with a fullish wallet for buying new ones.

But the wallet was already stretched by the distance, which meant an expensive train ride and the necessity for an extra day of travelling either side, which in turn meant a four night stay as opposed to the two I can get away with in Brighton. So I saved a bit of money by avoiding the much-criticised Con hotel in favour of a much less expensive, and TripAdvisor acclaimed guest house a mile away, which would come back to haunt me later.

The six hour journey up left me with little energy for anything other than a little walk to find my way around, and needless to say I got hopelessly lost and had to ask a local for directions – a big step for a shy boy such as myself. But at least it meant I could find the Grand Hotel with no trouble on Friday, to take in a panel on ‘selling out’ and more importantly take in the launch of my fellow Grimboldians Joanne Hall, Steven Poore and AJ Dalton, while Joel Cornah, the talk of Westminster because of his Miliverse Twitter feed, gallantly manned the book stall. But carrying a heavy bag of books made the disco awkward, and my attire made it impossible. Last year I suffered an unfortunate low-flying wardrobe malfunction; this year it was the burgundy trousers themselves threatening to slide their way down my hips and around my ankles. At least it shows my recent return to running has shifted a couple of pounds, but I must remember to wear a belt with those from now on.

I took a chunk out of Saturday to watch my beloved Chester FC in their cross-border derby with Wrexham, and although the 0-0 draw was a decent result, the lack of entertainment on offer made me wish I’d stayed put. But I returned to get the most important signatures of all, Derek Landy on my son’s two Skullduggery Pleasant books. Then after the obligatory post-apocalyptic fiction panel (one day I need to be on one), it was on to the David Gemmell Awards, a glitzy occasion somewhat undermined by the absence of the actual trophy! But at least it had free wine, of which I had enough to make me forget I can’t sing, so apologies to anyone who had to listen to my terrible Nik Kershaw rendition when the karaoke followed in the same room.

Highlight of Sunday was the candid and humorous Joe Hill interview, before the BFS Awards. It was dreadfully overcrowded, but there were plenty of worthy winners, my favourite being Priya Sharma, who I never saw properly this year, but who should be glad she avoided my karaoke. But the hardly seeing people, or not at all, was my only disappointment this year, the two hotel format, and me being perma-tired from dragging heavy book bags around cutting down my opportunities. Still, I did get triathlon advice from Tim Lebbon, a good chat with Neil John Buchanan, more bonding with the Grimbold lot which will continue at BristolCon next month, pole position to see Ross Warren’s panel debut, and a recurring rendezvous with Stephen Bacon in the gents (!), along with various other all too brief encounters.

Last thing before I left the Con was watching my other team Southampton beating West Ham 3-0 away, a good end to a great weekend, tempered by the revelation of a health scare to long-time online friend and Crystal Lake Publishing founder Joe Mynhardt, but latest news is that isn’t too serious.

So now I hope that rumours about it being in Daventry next year turn out not to be true (no offence intended to any Daventrians reading), but first I have BristolCon next month and maybe – just maybe – my own panel debut. But whether I’m sat in the audience or facing the audience, I can’t wait.


RetroCon Day 13: FantasyCon 2015


The Prep:

I suppose I am in an enviable position for this Con, in that the wonderful people at New Writing South have given me a grant to attend the event, covering Con ticket, hotel and train fare. But with privilege comes responsibility: I can’t merely enjoy Fcon, I have to be able to show that my attendance benefits my writing career. But how to do that? By attending all the panels and taking detailed notes? I’ve done that already. Or by schmoozing and sucking up to as many influential people as I can? Not really my style, that.

I think it’s a question of balance, and trying to find it. I’ve marked a fair few panels, readings and launches on the programme; I’ll learn what I can and pick up tips at the first of these – and that doesn’t have to be a solitary process anyway – and be at my most sociable at the other. And at least I have a good starting basis of friendships, mostly established online but renewed at previous Cons, and there are some people who I’ve come to value as really good friends, that I’ll be meeting in person for the very first time: therein lies the true beauty of these events, and social media (when used wisely).

I scored a couple of sociability own goals last week, though: a combination of poor planning and childcare availability caused me to miss James Barclay’s talk at Winchester University, and V.H. Leslie’s Skein and Bone book launch in Portsmouth. So  having missed them in my own back yard, I now have to go halfway up the country to catch up with them.

And the other socialibility dilemma is the Con Bar, seen by many as the true heart of the Con experience. I may have enjoyed a session or three in my twenties, but I’m a very reluctant drinker now. However, I don’t want to look like a killjoy, and I may need something to overcome my shyness.

Whatever it is, I may need to find it within myself: I woke up yesterday with an ear infection, and the doctor has given me ear drops and antibiotics, along with a stern telling off for washing my hair by dunking it in the bath, and an even sterner one for using cotton buds (don’t do it kids). So on the one hand I have the drinking question taken out of my control, on the other, if you are speaking to me and I seem to be ignoring you, move from my left side to my right and I might be able to hear you.

At least my other ailment seems to be easing. I suffered a major stubbed toe last week which gave me a nasty cut, ugly bruising and almost removed the nail. I’ve had to cancel a couple of runs, and thought I had no hope of making the FCon disco. As someone who hasn’t set foot on a dancefloor all year, that’s a big deal for me.

So as much as I have a plan it’s this: learn from the panels, go to my friends’ readings, buy their books, dance like I mean it, and make every moment count.


Day 1:

After all the anticipation, and travelling up the day before, it didn’t look good on the first morning. I went to breakfast already feeling down after waking up troubled with earache, to see the restaurant full of people I recognise and admire, but who don’t know me at all. Inferiority complex abounds, shyness takes over; Jay speaks to no one. I wallowed in my solitude and misery, and pined for the cavalry.

The first pick-me-up came on registration though, and the bag full of swag I got my hands on: three guys named Joe (Abercrombie, Hill and Lansdale, four Jo’s if you count Harris), two Toms (Lloyd and Fletcher, no sign of Pollock), two Pauls (Kane and McAuley), and more besides.

Best of all was when the friends started rolling in, starting with the svelte form of Mark West. I should take a leaf out of his book: after running the London Marathon six months ago, and smugly reminiscing on it rather than running more, my own weight is close to an all-time high.

Ben Jones arrived just in time for his own reading, and fared quite well, but really came into his own on the Weird Western panel, a subject he is very knowledgeable and passionate about. In between, Emma Audsley overcame first Con nerves to moderate a fascinating panel on the writing of Fear in front of a packed room, and lots of people missed a treat as Joe Hill and others shared laughs and insight aplenty at an excellent End of the World panel in a half-empty room.

Later into the night, and it was about attending readings and actually meeting people, some for the first time in two years, some for the first time ever. Ray Cluley signed my copy of Water for Drowning, which if it wins the fiercely competitive Best Novella award, might be unique in having two BFS award winners between its covers (bonus story Shark! Shark! a winner in 2013). Ross Warren came and went with a fiver of my money (absolute bargain for Bacon & West’s Lost Film novellas), I finally got to meet Lisa Childs and Carole Johnstone, (five and a half years after we were supposed to meet up at WHC 2010!), and had the joy of discussing Nik Kershaw’s underrated songwriting genius with Priya Sharma. I also got to right last week’s wrongs, collecting a souvenir poster from V.H. Leslie for her forthcoming book launch of Skein and Bone, and meeting James Barclay to warn him of the danger of a beating at the fight panel, and I myself avoided a beating as Graeme Reynolds forgave me for the most overdue rewrite ever.
All the readings were very good: V.H. Leslie, Carrie Buchanan, and Simon Bestwick, but perhaps best of all was from Marion Pitman, the hilarious story delivered with real flair and gusto.

Tomorrow looks like an even busier day, including CurryCon and the disco, as well as all the book stuff. I can’t wait!


Day 2:

More crowded breakfast room on the Saturday, and lots of people to nod, wave or wish good morning to, but I had to eat in a hurry after struggling to get up for the 10am fight scene panel. Said panel was hosted by new chum James Barclay, with lots of good insight from Juliet McKenna and Jo Thomas. Good tips, very interesting, but I think it would have benefitted from the live demo which illuminated a similar panel back in BristolCon 2010. I would have put my hand up to request this, but for the fear that do so would be to volunteer to be the victim.

After grabbing John Connolly for a signature on my current read, it was into the reading room for Ray Cluley, to find that he had Joe Hill in tow as his warm-up man! Hill’s forthcoming novel Fireman sounds brilliant so far, and the reading contained a superb mix of high concept, clever humour, and a decidedly liberal political take that issues a sharp riposte to the Sad Puppies and their ilk.

After a stint catching up with Christopher Teague in the dealers’ room, and a short break for lunch, it was back to the reading room for Joanne Hall, who read an entertaining passage from Spark and Carousel. Then it was on to the panel on marketing, which was about to get underway when the fire alarm went off. I remember this also happened during George R.R. Martin’s talk at EasterCon 2012, but he ignored it and no one moved a muscle, and he just spoke over it until it stopped. No one present could command that level of authority, so we all traipsed out in typically British good humour, and what a sight we made! Hundreds of speculative fiction authors congregated in close quarters outside the doors like a polite and better-looking Dawn of the Dead; an image captured by Neil John Buchanan in what must be the selfie of the Con.

The panel resumed after a short interlude and was well worth the wait, and this gets my vote for best panel of the entire Con. It had individuals coming from different perspectives but finding a unified voice and an encouraging message, with a great mix of useful info and humorous anecdotes. The general agreement is that you can promote yourself effectively, even on a minimal budget, if you’re smart with your online presence. This probably includes not changing your name to a Monty Python character, but I was already coming round to that way of thinking anyway.

After a panel on the state of British horror, I retreated to prepare myself for an evening of CurryCon and a night at the disco. CurryCon saw 30 or so of us taking over Beeston’s best (only?) curry house for the night, and we stretched their waiting staff to breaking point. I ended up on a table of six with Steve Byrne, Stuart Young, John Travis, Terry Grimwood, and next to me, one of my favourite authors Simon Clark. We shared our love of Day of the Triffids, and our naan breads and rice, before we were thankfully the first table to get the bill and could get back to the Con, while others faced an interminable wait for service. I was still too late for V.H. Leslie’s book launch, but consoled myself at the Fcon disco. It hadn’t got busy yet, and I started to worry that it wouldn’t, but by the time I’d changed from my sensuously tactile long sleeved shirt into my Atticus t-shirt that glows in the dark, and heard an excellent short story at Kit Power’s reading, the party was really kicking in. Cue strutting, spinning, jumping and shaking, and working up an epic sweat to an eclectic music mix with a cool and talented crowd. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Boom!


Day 3:

I always see the Fcon disco as the pinnacle of the event, so what follows is perhaps an appendix, an encore if you will. A day that I’ve sometimes eschewed entirely, or otherwise had a cursory one hour stay before departing after the first panel. This time, (massive) thanks once again to the good people at New Writing South, I was able to take in the whole thing.

After breakfasting with Carole Johnstone and Priya Sharma (the most naturally friendly person I have ever met, anywhere), I went into the Con centre to find an overriding atmosphere of hungover happiness. I met up with Ben Jones, Ross Warren and Lisa Childs to attend a panel on the writer’s life with the latter pair. There was some sound advice on being realistic about your expectations, how to manage the transition from hobbyist to professional, and some amusing and innovative examples of self-promotion from Simon Clark and Heide Goody. However, much of my attention was taken by the loveliest baby since my own in the seat in front, grinning and gurgling at us over mummy’s shoulder.

That was the end of the panelling, so it was straight from there to the signing, where I got Sarah Pinborough and Paul Kane to etch their names onto my treasured tomes, and all that remained after that was the awards. Here is the link to all the winners: but the highlights were emotional acceptances from Adele Wearing was when the tables were turned on presenter Juliet McKenna and she was given the Karl Edward Wagner Award for lifetime achievement, for her body of work and contribution to the genre, which includes organising conventions, her role in the Write Fantastic group, and fighting the good fight over unfair taxation for the self-published.

And thus it ended; in my (admittedly limited) experience the best FantasyCon ever. If you rewind back to my first ever post on this blog, you’ll see that I criticise the event, and its divide between fantasy and horror content, writers and fans. That was not an issue here; the programme was harmoniously balanced in terms of content, and the timing of that content, so that whatever your taste there would always be something for you.

I spent the rest of Sunday night looking through Facebook at Con-related posts from friends old and new, which was great, apart from finding the one and only picture of me from the convention … in which I am suffering a very prominent wardrobe malfunction at the front of the shot!

I’m sure next year’s FantasyCon in Scarborough will be brilliant as well. In the words of Derek Zoolander, I guess I have a lot of things to ponder regarding the distance (Paris would be closer for me!), but if I need motivation to make the journey, all I need to do is remember this weekend.


RetroCon Day 12: World Fantasy Con 2013


Day 1:

Following 2010’s World Horror Convention and Fantasycons 2011 and 2012, I returned to Brighton for the fourth year in a row for perhaps the biggest convention yet, moved from the Royal Albion Hotel to the Hilton Metropole, the World Fantasy Convention.

After last year’s meeting up with Ross Warren, fun running with Tim Lebbon and Gary McMahon, and the memorable merriment of the Fcon disco, I’d made a vow to continue being a more social animal this time around and not lapse into my earlier loner habits. I achieved this in a way, in as much as I reacted to the convention falling in half term week by bringing my wife and son for a family holiday at the seaside.

After dropping them off at the luxury five star Travelodge where we were staying, I walked the very short distance to the rather more lavish and opulent surroundings of the convention hotel. Well, I presume it was lavish and opulent, but I couldn’t see any of the décor for the throng of seemingly thousands of authors, agents, bloggers and publishers milling around in the lobby, bars and registration area, which I found the latter after getting confused and lost for a few minutes. When I eventually emerged from the scrum with two bags full of books, and I went in slightly late to my first panel of the convention.

What a contrast! After being engulfed in the massive crowd in such a confined space, suddenly I found myself virtually alone in a vast and empty hall. It brought home to me the adage that: “everything happens in the bar”, and made me wonder how much of this convention I would be missing out on as a reluctant drinker who wasn’t staying on for the evenings. Even after my arrival the panellists outnumbered the audience, but they carried on for the few of us present, paying tribute to the great and good of the genre who have lost their lives in the past year: Iain M Banks, Basil Copper, Harry Harrison, Ray Harryhausen, James Herbert, Jack Vance and Frederick Pohl. They may also have talked about Richard Matheson prior to my arrival, but he also had a longer tribute still to come.

This was followed by a panel on the influence of Arthur Machen’s use of land and cityscape in fantasy and horror fiction. It was very thoughtfully moderated by Adam Nevill and had insightful contributions by several authors I already knew well: Ramsey Campbell, Alison Littlewood and S. K. Unsworth, along with Samantha Shannon who I hadn’t previously heard of but expressed some good ideas well and could be an author worth checking out.

The last panel of the opening day was a tribute to Richard Matheson, led by the author’s son R. C. Matheson and featuring amongst others, another author who knows what it’s like to ply your trade in the shadow of a famous father in Joe Hill, and one of Richard Matheson’s closest and oldest friends in William F. Nolan. It was Nolan who frequently stole the show, amusing the audience and other panellists alike with his habit of ignoring questions and saying the first thing that came into his head instead, but also providing the most moving momentswhen he told R. C. how proud and loving his father was of his achievements.

I’d been cruelly overlooked in the nominations for the David Gemmell awards, plus I had a family to get back to, so I left the Metropole and instead took my wife and son along with me on the famous Ghost Walk of the Lanes, especially apt as it was Halloween. We were taken on a spooky tour down the weird, winding and absurdly narrow streets, and introduced to the ghosts of Brighton’s old chief constable, a nun who was entombed alive as a punishment for falling in love, and the severed head of old John Robinson.
Day 2:

I met up with fellow Dark Minds author Mark West at breakfast on Friday morning, and walked with him and Sue Moorcroft to a second day that was heavy on all-star interviews. Joanne Harris was up first, intervewed by Muriel Gray. She entertained the sparse audience throughout, and especially with the story about how she took revenge on her daughter’s bully by putting him in one of her books and tormenting him over and over again.

The second interview was with Neil Gaiman; this was one I expected to fill the room, but perhaps as it was a late change to the programme, only announced on an insert in the guide book, word may not have got around and there were still rows of mostly empty seats. And not everyone present seemed to know much about him: a man sat behind me observed, “these American authors all look like rock stars”. He spent an hour in conversation with Jo Fletcher, in which he revealed his secret past as Duran Duran’s biographer, in which time he wrote a book which is now so rare that a signed copy sold for £10,000, and also said that last time he’d stayed in the Metropole on a convention 26 years ago, he’d returned from an all-nighter at the convention bar to find his possessions gone and other people staying in his room. He rounded off the interview by saying that that incident was the only regret of his career.

The audience swelled somewhat, but still to nowhere near full, for Joe Hill being interviewed by Gollancz editor GillianRedfearn. He claimed a greater affinity with the British genre scene than the American, having broken through here first andattended conventions here before he’d done so in his own country. He gave some fascinating insights into his decision to change his name to avoid being used as a cash-in for his father, and also into the writing process of his novels and short stories.
During the lunch break I met two more Dark Minders, firstly Ray Cluley with V. H. Leslie. I explained the inspirational benefits of early Sunday jogging and passed on my best wishes for his story ‘Shark! Shark!’, nominated for a British Fantasy Society award in the Best Short Story category. Then I saw John Travis, and we talked about his writing collaborations with D. F. Lewis before it was time for the next panel.

It was called ‘The End is Now’ and was about my favourite subgenre, apocalyptic fiction. I braced myself for the usual derision and disdain for zombie novels, but instead the panel addressed the issue of what constitutes an apocalypse, and whether the description should include dystopia and revolution. Tricia Sullivan pointed out that the very notion of apocalypse is steeped in middle class Western bias, since millions of people around the world are already living in conditions no better than we would expect to in the aftermath of a disaster. As before, William F. Nolan said what he wanted to say whatever question he’d been asked and claimed that readers are owed a happy ending at the novel, although Samantha Shannon qualified this by saying she thought a satisfying ending was more important than a happy one. I almost got through without hearing the z word, until Kathleen Ann Goonan, unprompted by a question and seemingly talking to herself, remembered the existence of zombie fiction but said she couldn’t understand why anybody read it.

Next up, the main hall was finally filled to capacity for Sir Terry Pratchett’s appearance. Given Sir Terry’s illness, it was understandable that he only spoke briefly and infrequently, and delegated the reading from his new novel ‘Raising Steam’ to his assistant Rob Wilkins, who added an extra element of comedy with his attempts to master the northern accent.
After that it was back to family man mode, so I had to disappoint my legion of autograph hunting fans and take my wife and son to see a film instead. As the torrential downpour kicked in we were thankful of the right next door proximity of the cinema and our hotel.


Day 3:

Saturday started with the family holiday still taking priority over the writer’s convention, as we did the whole Brighton tourist thing, strolling along the promenade to the Brighton Wheel, where two of us enjoyed the panoramic views and Steve Coogan’s slightly Partridge tinged commentary, and the other one concentrated on not falling out, not looking down, and surviving to the end of the ride.

Then we went on to the famous pier, where I took my son to the arcade and then on the impressive Horror Hotel ghost train and the bumper cars, before my wife gained some revenge for the Brighton Wheel by putting me on some spinnyround bouncy up and down thing which I did not enjoy at all.

After recovering well enough to get my appetite back and have a pub lunch, my wife and son went in to the Sealife Centre while I battled the high winds to trek to the convention hotel for the afternoon session. First up was a panel on to what extent e-books represent the future of genre publishing, and the general consensus was that even if electronic publishing becomes dominant, there will always be room for paper books.

The room filled up for the next panel, in which publishers including Jo Fletcher, Bella Pagan of Tor UK, Lee Harris of Angry Robot and Gillian Redfearn of Gollancz said what sort of submissions they received most of, and what they never wanted to see again. The size of the audience demonstrated how many authors out there are still trying to make that breakthrough, and the main points were that the quality of a submission is more important than the subject matter or subgenre, and although nothing is taboo, extreme content must be handled very sensitively, be written well, and be essential to the plot if it is to be considered. Once again, I almost made it through to the end without any zombie disparagement, only for Gordon Van Gelder to roll his eyes and mention them with atut and sigh, and the rest of the panel to voice their agreement.

I then retreated to the café, only intending to be there half an hour, but I got talking to author and Bristolcon organiser Joanne Hall when she told me that she was in a brainstorming session for next year’s Fantasycon. Before I knew it, and having accepted a cup of tea from Lee Harris, I was in on it too. I spent nearly an hour and a half dreaming and scheming about a convention that looks like it will be one of the best ever, but which I might not even make because of its northerly location and the clash of dates with a charity trek from Stonehenge to Avebury, which I have tentatively planned with a couple of friends from university.

The discussion was still going strong, but I broke away in time to catch Graeme Reynold’s excellent reading from the hotly anticipated ‘High Moor 3’, and he very kindly signed my copy of the second in the series afterwards. After that, I finally got to do the talking shop in the bar thing, which I had envied in others and aspired to for years. The outcome of this was that a quality publisher has expressed a strong interest in publishing ‘The Dead Shall Feed’, pending a rewrite.


Day 4:

Unless you’ve been nominated for a reward, which does not apply to me, the Sunday of a convention always feels like an anticlimactic add on at the end of the event; indeed, last year I eschewed it completely to take an early train home. This time I was set on paying at least a fleeting visit to catch most of a couple of panels, ransack the free books table, and hope to catch up with Ray Cluley one last time before the awards. My son had come back from the Sealife Centre with a couple of shark’s teeth as souvenirs, which made me immediately think it was a good omen for him and his story, and I wanted to show him the lucky charm before I left. After a panel about modern day expansions on H. P. Lovecraft’s CthulhuMythos, I was lucky enough to see Ray before a panel that was fitting to him, about making a living as a short story writer. Some of the great practitioners of the art were there: Robert Shearman, Steve Rasnic Tem, John Llewellyn Probert, Lynda E. Rucker, Ellen Klages and R. C. Matheson, but still the general message was that unless you are both incredibly prolific and able to subsist on bread and water indefinitely, there is no realistic way to support yourself with short story writing alone. However, that was not to disregard the short story as an art form, which most of the panellists said was the greatest and most enjoyable form of literature.

I made a hasty escape from there to head for home, which was a painstakingly long and fragmented journey due to railway maintenance in West Sussex, and then again just outside Southampton. Eventually, after taking nearly four hours for a 55 mile journey, we arrived home to the good news that as hoped, Ray Cluley’s ‘Shark! Shark!’ had deservedly been crowned Best Short Story. That helped shake off the travel weariness, as did the great memories of the combined convention and family holiday. I had feared that the two purposes would clash and I’d end up not getting the best out of either, but everything came together perfectly. The only downside was that through hardly attending the convention in the evenings I didn’t manage to meet up with everyone I’d hoped to, but still I was never lonely, never bored, my time was spent constructively and the people I loved were always nearby. Husband, father and author in perfect harmony then, and long may it continue.

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RetroCon Day 11: BristolCon 2013

The fifth ever Bristolcon, and my fourth, took place on Saturday 26th October. And I’m not going to lie to you: I almost didn’t go to this one! Not that there’s anything not to like about this consistently enjoyable convention, but I was booked to take part in the Great South Run the next morning and the logistical difficulties were putting me off.

In the end, Ross Warren of the critically acclaimed Dark Minds Press talked me into it, and for a while I was cursing him: I got a good look at the people of Portsmouth a day early thanks to their football fans filling up the train. Needless to say, as a Southampton man this was an uncomfortable time, but after checking and reassuring myself that I was wearing my Fortean Times t-shirt instead of anything with a Saints badge I buried myself inside my copy of Mortal Engines and never looked up.

By the time I’d met Ross at Temple Meads and we’d walked to the Doubletree Hotel, the first panels were too far underway to be worth going to. That was a shame, as I’m always on the lookout for seriously inventive ways of killing people, but it meant my first event was the one I was most looking forward to – a kaffeeklatch with Philip Reeve, author of the aforementioned book that had almost made me cry in a carriage full of enemy soldiers. He treated the ten of us crammed into the tiny room to a tin of chocolate biscuits, and kept us entertained for an hour with tales of trans-Atlantic alterations, planned movie adaptations and older to younger audience regression. I asked him about being on the Open University syllabus, and me admitted that he’d completely forgotten about being on it, critics found meanings that he never knew were there and he just wrote as he went along, which inspires both admiration and envy in this author. So did the way he signed my copy of Mortal Engines, augmenting his name with an intricate doodle of an airship in just a few seconds, demonstrating the illustrator roots he had mentioned earlier.

My first panel was on evolution of genre, and the battle between zombies and vampires in print, film and television, but it was the convention’s own Joanne Hall who made a tongue in cheek remark about squidpunk being the next big thing and might just have started a craze. From there I left the convention for a leisurely lunch with a dear friend before returning to the most difficult clash of the day, between Philip Reeve’s guest of honour interview and a panel about small presses. As I’d already spent an hour sat next to Philip Reeve and I was in the company of a small press proprietor, we plumped for the latter. None of the panellists claimed that you could make a living in the small presses but all agreed that they’re a good launching pad for a career, and will consider subjects and word counts that bigger publishers won’t.

After an entertaining reading by Philip Reeve of a story written in Pidgin – whichmade him sound a bit like Pam Ayres! – the next two panels were on magic in fantasy and creating plausible critters. After gently clashing with Paul Cornell over the magical verisimilitude of Lord of the Rings, Icelandic author SnorriKristjansson emerged as the star of both panels, capped with a wonderfully expletive-ridden reading from his novel Swords of Good Men, which he assures us is available in all good bookstores.

After the announcement of John Courtenay Grimwood and Emma Newman as next year’s guests of honour and a tribute to the late Iain Banks, I had another train ride to try to stay awake on, and remember not to get off at my usual stop. And although the travelling left me tired, the post-con afterglow must have put a spring in my step next morning, as I came within a couple of minutes of beating my 10 mile personal best, despite running the last two miles directly into gale force winds. Thanks Bristolcon, see you next year.


RetroCon Day 10: BristolCon 2012

Three weeks after FantasyCon, with the buzz still not having worn off yet, the Bristol F & SF Society staged their smaller, but very worthwhile event. In fact, they seem to have squeezed more panels into their one-day convention than FantasyCon did into three.

The first one I went to was based on real-life science, and the possibility of ever colonising the solar system. In brief, the panellists felt that it might be scientifically plausible, but would never be economically viable.

Next up was the interview with guest of honour John Meaney. Last time I saw him he was offending everybody with ill-judged jokes at EasterCon, but thankfully this time he was more circumspect, as his thoughtful chat with Juliet McKenna touched on Norse mythology, martial arts, and concepts of pride and humility.

Cage fighter turned über-blogger Marc Aplin hosted the next panel, and a useful one it was on establishing and maintaining the right kind of web presence. Amongst the warnings were: remember that your tweets could be seen by anyone at any time, don’t drink and blog, and please, please, please don’t write your own reviews. There was also a tentative recommendation for Goodreads, as long as you don’t spend too much time there.

I went into the smaller second room for a panel on dysfunctional families in space travel, looking forward to hearing from Gareth L Powell, who covered this topic well in his excellent novel The Recollection. However, he seemed less comfortable in the limelight than previous guests of honour Paul Cornell and Joe Abercrombie, and it was left to the modest but engaging Emma Newman and some insightful comments from Alex Dally McFarlane (even though she wasn’t actually on the panel) to keep the discussion moving.

After lunch it was time for battle of the books, won by Nick Walters’ pick Hothouse by Brian Aldiss, with Schismatrix by Bruce Sterling in second, and a joint bronze medal for Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman and Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett.

Next up was my perennial favourite, the apocalyptic panel, but my hopes of a zombie love-in were quickly dashed when Juliet McKenna said she never wanted to read about another zombie again, and most of the room agreed. I’m afraid I couldn’t hear the rest of the discussion over the sound of my teeth grinding.

The next panel was on taking your real-life friends, family and acquaintances and turning them into characters. There’s not much they can teach me about that; most of the characters in The Dead Shall Feed were punters at the betting shop where I used to work. The one new thing I did learn was the name for it – tuckerism. I am a confirmed tuckerist.

After a moving tribute to the late Colin Harvey, and an excellent short film based on one of his stories, the last panel was on NanoWrimo, perfectly timed  a week and a half before the big event. I was pleased that everybody was all for it, although my suggested ‘cheat’ techniques drew nothing but scorn.

A decent convention overall, and I accept that it’s unfair to make direct comparisons with FantasyCon, but whereas I made a lot of friends at Brighton that was less the case here, and I think I’m coming to the end of what I can gain from watching other people sit on panels.

Having said that, the cheap entry fee and train fare, and no need to stay overnight, meant that the value of my free books far exceeded my financial outlay. So I will be back, and my mission now should be to achieve enough that I get invited to sit on a panel next time instead of just watching.