This blogpost has some context, some not-so-humble-bragging, and a response to current events in the literary community. You have been warned.
WorldCon, the annual celebration of science-fiction and fantasy works, where all full members select and vote on the best works of the year, was supposed to be in New Zealand this year.
This, being 2020, CoNZealand was held virtually.
Thanks to many of their staffers helping out with Virtual Balticon, I wanted to return the favor. I offered to do a few moderation shifts on Discord and up to 4 hours a week of other work.
And then the training staff reached out — most of whom I had worked with at Balticon.
I ended up having over 34 hours of check-ins and training sessions, not counting showing up early, not counting staying late to debug issues.
I created a virtual tour because I knew from the past that the different technologies are confusing and intimidating at first. I, and another staffer, ran these twice a day, until the last day of the con.
This “new normal” might be temporary, but we’re not going back to the old ways of doing things. I’ve talked with staffers of various conventions about the tech, about the challenges, and I have a few predictions.
While hosting a fully in-person and virtual convention simultaneously may be beyond the staffing and budget reach of most conventions, I expect there to be some overlap.
Depending on the size convention, I expect at least one room set up for virtual panelists. I expect a chat app that people are on, maybe even upvoting questions during live panels. I expect, at first, the in-person attendance to be light, although the parties may be epic. I expect mask fashion to be the newest huge-geek-trend. I expect lots of hand sanitization and handwashing. And? If we’re lucky? More people paying attention to their health and less con-crud — i.e. the standard cold-or-worse many con-goers get when they’re attending in-person conventions.
But for now? For last week? It was all virtual.
I’d intended to teach beforehand and then attend panels, but when the zoom host schedule came out, so filled with holes, I couldn’t not step up. I trained 14 zoom hosts during the first 3 days of the con and did my best to support them as they went out into the field. Between supporting them, monitoring discord, and my own zoom room hosting, I was basically on duty 10 hours a day from Tuesday through Saturday.
That being said, I did make it to two events. I made it to a workshop I’d signed up for before the zoom host schedule even dropped, and I managed to watch the first two hours of the Hugo awards.
There’s been a LOT said about the Hugos and its Toastmaster, who’d been tasked with providing Hugo context to a lot of newcomers.
He also gave us a great, heaping scoop of the fandom that had been and whose shoulders we stand upon. Of the old guard.
I mourn the stories that were never shared because their writer wasn’t given the support, the market, the time away from paying bills or caring for family. The ones shut out because the market said they “just didn’t connect” with a story that was simply outside of their experiences.
I listened to our toastmaster’s stories and watched his hat changes. I watched as the internet boiled in rage that he couldn’t take 5 minutes to google a name pronunciation. I know where that rage comes from. But me? I think of the dad in Pleasantville, whose complacency with a world made for him is rocked when other people’s happiness starts to matter. These didn’t use to be the rules, but now the world has progressed beyond him.
And I watched the winners. In all their diversity, in all their talent, in all their JOY.
Winners so far out from the old guard, that they’ve probably got whiplash.
Now I like the idea of the sf community having its own awards. I like the idea of them being more accessible, not just pay-to-play.
But right now? The Hugo’s are still a big deal and, if we stop looking at who’s handing out these awards and look at what the community if voting for, if we look at who’s winning these awards? The sf community already has a foot into the future. And we don’t look like we’re turning back any time soon.
Well. I ran social media, did tech support/moderation, was on panels, and attended panels all this past weekend.
It was definitely a bit much.
I still had my day-job, but after I signed off, my evening was all the last minute prep.
A donation for advertising gave me the go-ahead for some facebook ads on Thursday night. So, I tossed half the money at boosting the ‘Where to find Virtual Balticon’ post, and half at a short slide show, inviting people to the event. We got several thousand views, and a couple hundred engagements — including 5 or 6 people accusing us of spamming them (and my ‘Sorry. fb algorithms are unpredictable’ response led to the complainers accusing me of being a bot. But seriously, if they weren’t going to reply to each other’s ‘spam’ accusation comments, how was I supposed to know they were reading ANY of the comments. I didn’t see a reason to reword my answer to the same exact complaint if they didn’t see fit to reword the complaint).
Then again, we still had plenty of people — many regular Balticon members — that said they didn’t hear about it until half-way through — or after it was all done. Somehow my own mother, despite listening to me ramble about this con on numerous occasions, missed that it was going to be free. *facepalm*
Social media only works so well — and you can only communicate to the people who are on and looking.
Before bed on Thursday, I also scheduled hourly reminders of each panel with links to register. I finished about 4am, after 3 tag-ups with different team members after 11pm.
Friday morning was helping people log on, and making the moderation schedule (tech had said they would do it, but several emergencies meant they ran out of time).
I’ve never seen Opening Ceremonies before, but when I watched it, I got that ‘It’s Go Time’ feeling, just like I do at a physical con. Only alone. And in silence in my own house. It was very surreal.
I wanted to see all the panels like I normally do, but couldn’t stop myself from making sure everything was still running smoothly on Discord. And helping people sort out how to log-on and talking them through any technical issues.
I have some partial notes from… wow! 11 of the 13 panels/presentations I hit. I didn’t think I did that well.
At first, I tried to get the screenshots from all the techs and post them during the first 10 minutes of the next hour… It only took me 2 hours to give up on that level of perfectionism.
With panels only running until 10pm, I decided I’d just wait until AFTER the last panel of the day, and batch process them. Sure, it wasn’t quite as lively for the social media feed, but they were already getting the hourly schedule. There’s trying to make things convenient for people, and then there’s flooding them.
On Friday, I only hit one panel that I tried to take notes on: the 6pm Writing For Themed Anthologies. The other two, Bad Book Covers and This Kaiju Life LIVE were presentations — or performances — I could just enjoy. Plus? They were after dinner, so the tech support had slowed down by then.
After the final panel, I hit a Discord party or two, hanging out and chatting with con attendees, just like hitting a room party at a con. Only, you had to bring your own drink and snacks. While there, I prepped and posted all the screenshot images, and headed off to bed by 3am.
I woke and caught up on the Discord threads and social media before logging onto the 10am You Can’t Shop at Target in Middle Earth only a few minutes late. Next up, I got to hear Nick Martell and Keith DeCandido read some excerpts from their work while eating a bagel. Nick introduced us to his world and characters, and Keith ripped out our hearts.
I was doing tech support, but got to hear most of the noon, Tips for Writing Combat. Then, an hour solo-tasking, and checking all the social media locations to see who needed help. 2pm was storytime with Kingdom of Warrior Women: The Dahomey Kingdom and its Amazons.
I’d considered a few of the 3 and 4 o’clock panels, but ended up just doing Discord and then prepping for my 1st panel at my home convention, and second panel EVER: Dealing With Literary Rejection. We had people who gave rejections, people who received rejections, and people who did both. I had the joy of having the agent I’d gotten my first rejection letter from (via his assistant) on the panel (Joshua Bilmes of Jabberwocky). I did my best to come across as intelligent and well-spoken, and hope I was at least a little entertaining.
After a good hour in the Discord After Panel Discussions room, with some lively chatter, I sat in on Science Fiction Has Always Been Political with some excellent discussion and great examples, and Making Painful Edits. I finished my day listening to some pulpy adventures with Daniel Kimmel and Michael Ventrella.
I took a quiet evening walk around the block, just to move. My back had started tingling, like it was going numb. NOT a sensation I’d felt before. I might should see my chiropractor again…
Then, I visited the tech crew zoom party. While, of course, prepping the screenshot posts and working on outlining my questions for the panel I was going to be on in the morning. Finally, I swung through through the New Media party, just long enough to say goodnight. At half-past-three am. Again.
No way to sleep in on Sunday — I was starting off my day with two panels. Sure, 10am sounds perfectly reasonable to most people, but that’s about when I show up to my dayjob, and I don’t usually care if my hair’s dry from the shower or my face is made up before I roll into the office or up to my work-from-home desk. No, I do not own a hair-dryer.
But, I made it, showered and made-up in time for the 9:30am pre-panel check-in. Well, maybe it was 9:32am, but still.
Beta-reading propositions, What Are You In For? By this panel, I started to feel a little more solid with my speaking skills, (although, I think I used the same interjection a couple times.) We’ll see if I’m brave enough to watch it when it rolls out. Then, the after-panel discussion and a quick moderator meeting, before the 11:30 am call for my third and final panel of the weekend.
This time? I was moderating. I toasted another bagel, (cinnamon raisin with plain cream cheese for those of you who are curious), then looked frantically for where I’d put that outline. By the time we had most of the line-up, I followed procedure from what my other moderators had done for me. I asked if the other panelists wanted to hear my questions in advance, read them out, and then asked if they had anything to add. Nothing.
What’s This About A Social Media Presence. I had some solid panelists, including the very chatty Tee Morris who literally wrote the books on social media. Luckily, he knew he had a tendency to chat and smoothly finished his sentence and ceded the floor after each gentle “thank you,” from me. We had a moment of veering into politics (losing one attendee loudly from that, on the chat), but for the most part, it went very smoothly.
In the Discord After-Panel Discussion, Tee complimented my moderation and I admitted it was my first time. Polite or not, I was glad to hear the rest of the panelists thought it had gone well.
I drifted in and out of the Dinosaurs: The Update presentation, then tuned in for most of Momentum for writers and How to Self-Edit That Lousy First Draft.
By the end of that panel? I was FRIED. I wanted to see more. I wanted to support friends and see them chat. But I was DEAD.
Plus? As I reminded myself, I could always rewatch the panels once they went up on Youtube.
So, I swung by the virtual con suite, got myself some hotdogs, and chatted with my dad and another con-goer about guitars until I had food in me. For those who don’t know, my dad usually hangs out in the con suite, and that’s where you go to find snacks and random conversations. That hang out was one of the most-like-a-physical-con aspects all weekend.
And then I NAPPED. For nearly two hours.
I realized when I woke up that I’d never made a special announcement for the film festival, which had gotten its schedule finalized rather late. And that the festival had already started, so it was too late. So, all I could do was announce the Monday 1pm rerun. I’m Sorry Short Film Festival Lovers! I dropped the ball.
But, I made it up in time for most of Choosing Your Perspective and then, because it would NOT be recorded, made sure to take a lot of notes at, Body Disposal – A Primer for Writers. Unfortunately, this presenter has had her presentation stolen, wholesale, 3 times, so I will NOT be sharing these notes publically online.
I did not realize when I went in, that the Body Disposal panel was 2 hours long. And because it was the last presentation of the night, they let it run over and run over it did. I wanted to hit 3 of the zoom parties (closer in feel than I would have expected to the standard room party), but by the time I hopped out of the second one, the third had just gone to bed. At quarter to four in the morning. Again. Whoops!
I slept til 10:45 am when my alarm went off. I caught up with my alerts, got dressed, and then my alarm went off. That’s when I realized the first alarm was my weekly “don’t forget to sync your fitbit alarm.” Oh well, it’s not like it had woken me up that much early.
At 11:30am, I was hosting my one-and-only zoom session for bluestonearcher’s Reference Like an Artist. He’d been running training for the techs and the panelists for the last two weeks, helping me with documentation and things, so it was fun to run, and I wanted to do it right with my trainer watching. But! I flubbed giving him Any Time Warnings At All. So, he was halfway through a sketch when I messaged, “Um, here’s is your 10, 5, and 1 minute warning.” We managed to wrap with 90 seconds to hand-off the stream so the next panel could go to twitch. WAY too close. Sorry!
I listened in some on Novel, Novella, or Short Story right when that wrapped, getting a scattering of notes. Then, I prepped and listened in on the final panel of the con, Improving Balticon. I logged on in case people had Social Media questions, but no one did.
With the text-only format forcing people to formulate their questions before we got to them, we managed to get through 170ish questions in under 2 hours.
I know many people hated the lack of video/audio from panel attendees, but others LOVED the ability to chat without interrupting the panel. Especially for “what was the name of that book”, but also any side comments. Plus, a lot of people’s bandwidth starts to choke when streaming more than 6 or 8 videos.
During the Improving Balticon panel, I posted the rest of the screenshots our techs had gotten me. On average, 1 an hour. I wanted to be sure the con had faces, not just technology.
And just like that? The con was over. The Discord quieted to a dull roar, I threw together a “Thank You” image to post, and I ordered some Thai for dinner.
I never made it to our Second Life portion — never even installed it on my laptop. Discord was enough of a resource hog.
Virtual Balticon was a massive undertaking, achieved in under 2 months of work. Massive kudos go out to the staff that pulled it together, the panelists/guests who went through all of our training and provided the content, and the fans — without whom, we’d be talking to empty rooms.
I learned this weekend that it’s a LOT harder to attend ALL-THE-PANELS when you’re trying to moderate the Discord and monitor all the social media.
I took notes at a few panels, but for most of the ones I hit, I’ll probably want to watch the recording once the closed-captioning is adhered and it’s up on youtube.
A longer post to come, but for my own tracking purposes, these are the panels I managed to make it to: 13 panels/presentations, 1 show, 2 readings, was on 3 panels, and ran tech for 1 panel.
I definitely hit a wall halfway through Sunday.
6pm Writing For Themed Anthologies 7pm Bad Book Covers 9pm This Kaiju Life LIVE
10am You Can’t Shop at Target in Middle Earth 11am Readings: DeCandido and Martell 12pm Tips for Writing Combat 2pm Kingdom of Warrior Women: The Dahomey Kingdom and its Amazons 5pm Dealing With Literary Rejection – I WAS A PANELIST! 7pm Science Fiction Has Always Been Political 8pm Making Painful Edits 9pm Readings: Kimmel and Ventralla
10am Beta-Reading Propositions, What Are You In For? – I WAS A PANELIST! 12pm What’s This About A Social Media Presence – I WAS THE MODERATOR – my first time 1pm Dinosaurs: The Update (90 min) 3pm Momentum for writers 4pm How to Self-Edit That Lousy First Draft NAP 8pm Choosing Your Perspective 9pm Body Disposal – A Primer for Writers
11am Ran tech for Reference Like An Artist 1pm Novel, Novella, or Short Story
If you managed to hit any of Virtual Balticon, let me know which panels/presentations YOU enjoyed!
I’ll be back again on Thursday with a more in-depth view.
Memorial Day weekend, I usually hit up Balticon, Maryland’s regional Sci-fi and fantasy con, where I proceed to attend 30ish panels in four days, meet tons of people, and forget what sleep looks like.
This year is different.
In-person gatherings are banned. And? This time, I’m involved. A LOT more involved.
I felt a little self-serving when I decided on this topic for today’s blogpost — but then I looked back and saw that I pretty much ALWAYS do a blogpost on the con I’m about to head to, so that part isn’t out of my usual.
What IS different is I’m working on staff and I’m speaking on panels for this convention.
In case you’re curious about what Morgan’s been up to for the past month and half…
What Is Virtual Balticon?
Before I make this whole post about me, I should probably explain exactly WHAT Virtual Balticon is.
As I’ve told others:
Balticon is the Maryland Regional science fiction and fantasy convention, sponsored by the Baltimore Science Fiction Society (BSFS). Scheduled this year for Memorial Day Weekend, it has been held annually since 1966. Due to the pandemic, Balticon, unfortunately, could not meet in person this year. The good news? Balticon realized it could go VIRTUAL!
Balticon features discussions and presentations among authors, editors, publishers, artists, filmmakers, scientists, gamers, and, most importantly, fans.
Virtual Balticon will have author readings, panels, and presentations; science programming, a film festival, watch parties, artists and dealers, a masquerade costume contest, plus, a variety of role-playing, video, board games, and more. You can find Virtual Balticon 54 on Zoom, Discord, Twitch, YouTube, and even Second Life.
My Roles At Virtual Balticon
I’d already applied to be a panelist when programming contacted me, asking for some input. Apparently, attending approximately 30 panels a year, then blogging about them, makes programming think you might have some ideas on panel concepts that work, panel concepts that don’t, and which panelists are totally worth the hour long panel investment for attendees.
So, I attended several working meetings, tasked with data processing and helping contribute to wording panel descriptions.
Separately, my application had already been accepted to panel at the convention.
Then, 2 weeks after the COVID-19 shutdown, Balticon reached out to me and asked if I would run their social media.
They already — and still have — Matt, their social media director who works for the parent organization: The Baltimore Science Fiction Society (BSFS), but the burden to go virtual was more than one man could handle.
Running Social Media
For running social media, I mostly create images and posts for all of our accounts (twitter, instagram, many fb groups/pages/etc). I’m working on 100% consistant branding, but some things take time.
Other departments will let me know when an announcement needs to go out, and I’ll make it. If people contact Balticon for details, I help draft the wording.
I’ve already started scheduling hourly posts to help people find the panels, presentations, and events coming up each hour when Virtual Balticon is in full swing.
I also recorded a “How To…” guide for each of the online applications Balticon is using, and am scheduled to address the technology basics for the Opening Ceremonies.
Since there was no one technological solution for creating this virtual convention, we had to pick and choose our tools.
For our panels, presentations, and many of our events, Shogren Productions donated use of a Business-level Zoom account. Because Virtual Balticon went free, and most of our donations are just going to help pay for the closed-captioning (1 panel per hour, unless someone wants to sponsor us at $2,000 per additional panel/hour), we’ll only have 5 webinars running at a time — so the typical Balticon schedule was cut drastically.
Attendees will have to register here for each event separately, but by using Zoom webinars, we can keep out trolls and bad-actors, and add security to the panel. This does mean that all the people watching can only ask questions via the Q&A window, but all the side comments people love to make? Book suggestions and more? There’s no reason not to toss those all in the attendee chat!
We’re using Discord for most of the “convention hall” space. The Dealers Room, Artists Alley, and Fan Tables can be found there. Plus, the Consuite, after panel break out discussion rooms, tons of gaming rooms (this is Discord, after all), and more. [The gaming can be signed up for here]
Two panels per hour will be livestreamed to either our Youtube [BaltimoreSciFi] or our Twitch account [twitch.tv/bsfsBalticon], with the rest of the recorded panels to come (once we get them closed captioned, using volunteer labor, rather than the paid stuff). Sunday and Monday, you’ll find our Film Festival on there as well.
And, for those on Second Life, or who create a free account, you can join our “Balticon 54” group, and hangout at Balticon station. Many of vendors will also be found there, as well.
All The Training
Now, these technologies are all well-and-good but… before we can run stuff with them, we need to make sure we have enough staff TRAINED.
We need to make sure our panelists can ATTEND.
So, in the transition from physical con to virtual con, the panelists we had space to bring over all had to go through a zoom test session, to make sure they had the audio, video, and internet capabilities to make it even possible.
Matt, BSFS’s Social Media Director stepped up to become our VirtualCon Platform Admin/Expert, helping shepherd us through the process.
We’ve been running 3 practice panel sessions every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for nearly a month to give both our technicians and our panelists opportunities to practice.
One of our artist alley members, bluestonearcher, joined the discord server early and offered to help me make some promo pictures. 2 days later, his teaching background had him volunteering to help run our Zoom training and lighten the load on our VirtualCon admin, taking over those 9 practice sessions a week!
For our Discord Servers, I’ve run 4 training sessions for our Moderators and Admins. I’ve drafted guides for our Vendors, Artists, and Fan Table guests.
Not to mention, of course, all the tech trouble-shooting I’ve done, including three 1am sessions with my dad, helping him try to get a very old, donated web camera working on a linux system. So far, we’ve got the driver installed, the camera working, and the camera option enabled in zoom. Next up? Sort out why the video is blank — but only in zoom.
What Morgan Will Be Up To This Weekend
I will be on discord all weekend, both as admin, and because I’m a chatty sort of person.
If you’ve been following me for a while, you’ve probably noticed I have no sense of my limits when it comes to attending panels. I’ve signed up, just like a regular attendee, to see 28 panels. (I thought it was 22, but I’d miscounted.)
Since I often take copious notes at the writing panels, I didn’t want to run tech while watching those panels. However, I did review my schedule, and for the fun-to-watch, but maybe not ‘informative’ ones, let the tech team know they could schedule me as a backup technician. I did take the training after all.
Being ON Panels [the other side of the table!]
And lastly, but CERTAINLY not leastly, I’m going to be on THREE panels. I’m even moderating one of them – my first time moderating a live panel, and my second time ever being a panelist at any convention.
I hope all of you are planning to have a safe, but fun, and relaxing weekend. And please, feel free to check out balticon.org to find out all the stuff we have planned and scheduled. Let me know if you have any questions… it’s literally my (unpaid) job.
I’ll be back again next week, with more writing tips and writerly musings. Most likely? The Balticon post-con mortem.