ConQuesT 46: Thoughts and Observations

On Friday and Saturday, I attended ConQuesT 46, a long-running local Kansas City convention that I heard about for the first time this year, despite having lived in the area for going on four years now.  (Advertising in the Planet Comicon program was a good move.)  I’ve only really attended big industry cons in the past; hell, SDCC was my first one, which is kind of saying something.  So this is probably the most intimate con I’ve ever attended, which I dug.

A few thoughts:

  • The programming was really densely packed.  The schedule was organized in hour-long chunks, and each panel ran pretty much from the top of the hour to the bottom.  But this leaves no time at all between panels, and that’s a real problem.  People were coming and going constantly during the panels, which could get really distracting (especially when panelists were running late).  One panel going over in a situation like that has a cascading effect that messes with everything else after it.  Most of the panels were on the same floor, but not all, and the elevator situation was kind of a mess.  There was very little chance to grab water or take a bathroom break if you didn’t want to miss your programming.  And honestly, spending six straight hours in panel discussions is draining as hell even when the panels are all great.  If they’re going to stick to a block schedule, I’d have preferred to see the panels limited to 50-55 minutes rather than going the whole 60.  Speaking of which…
  • Moderation was kind of hit and miss.  Some mods were great at keeping things on track and keeping any one panelist from dominating discussion, but for the most part (especially on my Friday panels), things had a tendency to wander.  Stronger moderation might have also prevented a couple of unfortunate situations where a random dude in the crowd basically decided that he was on the panel, including talking over the designated panelists.  Perhaps some sort of survey system would help the organizers identify who their best moderators are and leverage that information in the future.
  • I attended eleven panels over the course of the two days, and every single one was mixed gender!  Gender representation on panels is a well-documented problem in the industry, and it seemed like the organizers made a conscious decision to combat that.  There was also a clear harassment policy and a phone number for reporting that was listed on the back of every badge.  These don’t seem like huge steps, but they’re very important components of making a convention feel safe and welcoming, and the folks in charge deserve recognition and commendation.
  • Other kinds of representation, on the other hand…  I was really glad that there was a black dude on my final panel, because room after room with just white people was getting a bit awkward.  That might be a function of it being a smaller con in the Midwest, so to a certain extent they have to work with who they can get.  Still, I’d love to see more development and outreach in that area.
  • I was really surprised by the hospitality on offer.  As I mentioned, I’d never been to a hotel con, so it wasn’t until opening ceremonies the first evening that I heard about the Consuite, a giant room with couches and free food.  My husband had opted not to attend, but said he might have changed his mind had he known about the room parties (which weren’t mentioned on the website).  I ended up spending quite a bit of time chilling in Consuite on Saturday when I needed a breather or a sandwich.  Definitely a perk of attending a smaller event; no way something like that would be possible for attendees at SDCC.
  • Story in a Bag was great!  At a convention largely based on writing, it’s nice to have an opportunity to, you know, write.  I may be a little biased toward it, since my story, Model Operative, was one of the winners in the sci-fi amateur division.  Also, immense gratitude to the Lawrence NaNoWriMo contingent who brought a printer and kindly let me use it, because no one would have been able to read my atrocious handwriting.

Overall, it was a lot of fun.  I took loads of notes at the panels and got some good ideas I’m looking forward to applying.  I’m definitely planning on going back next year.  (Which, given that KC is getting Worldcon and I’m very likely going to New York Comic Con, is going to be a pretty busy year…)

#AtoZChallenge Wrap-Up: An Actually Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

A-to-Z+Reflection+[2015]+-+LgSo, we’ve survived the A-to-Z Challenge!  This was my first year, and I managed to pull off the whole thing more or less on time, with only one slight cheat to the schedule (taking a break day on a Friday instead of the Sunday).  I found some interesting new blogs, picked up some Twitter followers, saw a huge jump in site traffic, and have a couple dozen essays I didn’t have before.

So it was a pretty good first year.  It’s also going to be my last year.

This is not an indictment on the challenge itself.  It’s a great idea and a great community, and definitely something worth trying.  This is a solid case of, “It’s not you, it’s me.”

For one thing, my posts are long.  I deal in analysis, which means cited examples and explanations.  I almost choked when I saw that posts for the challenge should be 100-300 words.  I mean, that’s barely an introduction!  My posts averaged about 700 words or so, and I clocked in just over 18,000 words of posts for the month.  That is a lot of words.  The process of writing a post–figuring out what my point actually is, sourcing all the links, putting together images, etc.–takes an hour or two, and that’s not counting revisiting the source material if I hadn’t watched it recently.

There’s also the fact that April is kinda busy for me.  Of 30 days in the month, I was traveling for 10 of them.  So getting ready for the trips and actually being on the trips demanded a lot of my time and attention.  I had fully intended to spend my downtime on vacation reading, because I have a ridiculous Goodreads goal for the year and I’m 7 books behind schedule, but I barely got any in because I was spending so much time on blog stuff.

The shit is this?

The shit is this?

And that’s just on my own blog.  Visiting other blogs?  Forget it.  I was pretty good about it for the first week, but once vacation prep kicked in there was just no time.  I mean, I can barely keep up with my own stuff as it is.  My Feedly backlog is so huge that the unread counter has stopped talking to me.  That’s not a joke.  I did add a few new blogs to my Feedly for the challenge, but they’re a small percentage of the (presumed) total.

As for leaving comments, it’s just not my thing.  For one, I only comment if I feel like I have something substantive and original to add to the conversation.  Part of why I consume this stuff through RSS is that that need is a very rare occurrence.  For another, I’ve never gotten the hang of following an actual conversation on a blog post.  You can subscribe to comments, but that ends up with a whole lot of spam on popular posts to see if someone has responded to me (which they usually don’t).  I much prefer something like G+ or a forum where I can see all the relevant updates in one place and it can feel like an actual conversation.  And I’ve been around the internet long enough that the lesson of “Don’t read the comments.  Ever.  Seriously, just don’t read the comments.  Why did you read the comments?  What did I just say?” is pretty deeply rooted in my brain.

I think what I’ve learned from this experience is that I’m not actually a blogger.  This thing exists so that there’s something resembling content on this site, and so I can do something with the observations and theses my media studies brain can’t help producing.  Perhaps I do need to keep to a stricter schedule, but daily is right the hell out.  Balancing my time between myriad projects is a continual struggle for me, and this challenge created a massive time sink that I couldn’t afford.

I don’t regret participating, necessarily.  I’m proud of what I accomplished this month.  But if anyone ever suggests that I sign up for another blogging challenge, my response is going to be, “Hahaha, no.”

Z is for Zap: Lightning-Fast Character Introductions in Guardians of the Galaxy

Z is for Zap: Lightning-Fast Character Introductions in Guardians of the Galaxy

(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Guardians of the Galaxy.)

ZThis is probably the biggest stretch of any of my letters, but shut up, it’s the end of the month.  Anyway, we all know that beginnings are hard.  You have to very quickly orient your audience in your new world and get them rooting for the right characters, and you have to do it in a way that feels natural while making the whole thing interesting enough to keep people hooked.  We’ve already looked at a couple of examples of this balance that were less than great, so let’s go for one that does it really well.

I’m not the first person to express admiration for the opening credits of Guardians of the Galaxy, and I’m probably not going to be the last, but really, it’s glorious.  After the gut-crushing cold open, we see the adult Peter landing on a dead planet.  He takes off his imposing mask, slips on some headphones, and starts grooving.  Right away, it establishes the tone of the movie, alternating between grandiose and goofy.  But more importantly, it establishes the character of adult Peter within seconds.  By the time that title card appears, with Peter dancing his heart out underneath it, you know who this guy is: he’s a space pirate with a shameless sense of fun.  There’s a little more to him than that, but you’re already on board after that opening.  (Cleverly, there’s actually plot being foreshadowed with this sequence too, since Peter dancing to his mix tape winds up being a surprisingly crucial part of the climax.)

Star-Lord’s intro gets the most attention, but they do it with others, too.  Let’s look at Rocket and Groot’s intro on Xandar.  It’s no accident that it starts with Rocket’s voiceover; a talking raccoon gets dangerously into kiddie movie cute animal territory, which was one of the big reasons people were so skeptical about this movie’s chances for success.  But you get the sarcastic, misanthropic running commentary first, before you see that it’s coming from a tiny fuzzy guy.  It cuts off any preconceptions toward cuteness before they can take root.  Meanwhile, Groot is playing adorably in the fountain, and pouts when Rocket yells at him.

It’s not just the heroes getting this treatment, either.  Ronan’s first appearance shows him ritualistically preparing to brutally murder a member of the Nova Corps.  He doesn’t actually get a lot of screentime in the movie; his presence is more felt by the other characters’ fear of him, and of what he could do with the Orb.  But that’s not quite enough to make the audience feel that same fear, hence he gets a more… impactful introduction.  (I would apologize for that pun, but nope, not gonna.)

Even if you’re writing a more plot-driven story, it’s still characters that people connect to, and so their introductions should be handled carefully.  What’s the most important thing that we need to know about them right off the bat?  Where is their character arc going to end up, and what’s an effective way to contrast that?  What kind of impression do you want this character to make?  Answering these questions can help you craft an electrifying and memorable opening that lets the audience dive right in.

Y is for Yoga: Star Trek and the Uncomfortably Twisted Plot

Y is for Yoga: Star Trek and the Uncomfortably Twisted Plot

(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Star Trek (2009).  Page image is TNG, but I’m using it because holy shit, “star trek yoga” actually gave me an image result.  Wasn’t expecting that.)

YOkay, I’ll admit, using “yoga” to describe this concept is a bit of a stretch, twisting what I have (an idea for a blog post) into the not-necessarily compatible position that I need it to be in (a tricky letter in this alphabet challenge).  But that makes it quite a perfect metaphor for the topic at hand, really.  The trope of the day is Contrived Coincidence.  You all know this one: the plot gets stuck in a corner, and some outlandish, utterly improbable occurrence comes along to get it moving again.  This is mostly an acceptable break from reality as long as it’s not too egregious.  After all, insane coincidences happen in real life all the time, and depending on the tone of the story, the audience is frequently willing to just go along with it to keep things moving.  Hell, sometimes it gets explained by there being some force within the story that’s manipulating events to its liking (instead of it just being, you know, the author doing exactly that).

Still, it’s kind of a lazy technique, frequently the mark of a writer with two preconceived story points and no reasonable way to connect them who just said “Fuck it” and moved on.  It’s laid out in one of Pixar’s rules of storytelling: “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.”  Once you get past a certain point in the story, the audience wants things to connect, to pay off the setups and tie everything together.

The Star Trek reboot is a prime example of cheating coincidences.  Of course having every leadership position on the ship vacated just in time for the familiar characters to step in is a bit of a stretch, but it pales in comparison to what happens after Vulcan gets ‘sploded.  Spock dumps Kirk on the nearest planet, where he almost immediately finds… Spock Prime!  And naturally, the elder Spock has information to impart that’s critical for moving the plot forward.  Naturally.

I know, dude. I can't believe it either.

I know, dude. I can’t believe it either.

That would already be a pretty staggering example, but it gets worse!  Because only a few miles away from the Ice Cave of Destiny, there’s a Federation outpost, staffed by none other than Scotty.  The fact that it’s Scotty is not that huge a stretch; this is an origin story after all, so he’s not a main character at this point, just a random dude.  The fact that said random dude has just invented exactly the technology that Kirk needs to get back onto the Enterprise?  Less forgivable.

The worst part of all is that there’s no explanation.  This goes back to what we discussed earlier this month about lampshade hanging: when you’re giving suspension of disbelief that rough a buggering, there desperately needs to be some sort of acknowledgment to keep it from breaking entirely.  In this case, you could have had Kirk dropped off actually at the Federation outpost, or have Spock somehow mention that he’s purposefully dropping him not too far away, which solves one Scotty conundrum.  As for the transwarp beaming, perhaps a throwaway line earlier in the movie about some dude who was working on that technology would have softened that blow.  And with Spock Prime, well, any way you slice it, that’s still going to be one hell of a coincidence.  But having it piled atop the other whoppers pushes things from “That’s rather unlikely” to “Look, if you’re not going to take this seriously…

Willing suspension of disbelief relies on trust.  It’s the writer being able to credibly say, “Yes, I know what I’m doing.  This is going somewhere worthwhile.  Just stay with me and we’ll have a good time.”  But leaning too heavily on something like coincidence jeopardizes that trust.  Like an inexperienced yoga practitioner attempting a pose that’s way beyond their level, the whole thing is unstable and likely to fall over if you look at it funny.  The foundation of a good story is a logical progression of events (even if that logic isn’t readily apparent the whole time).  Life can rely on coincidence sometimes, but as a writer, you should probably think twice.

X is for Xerox: When Copying Isn’t Quite Copying

X is for Xerox: When Copying Isn’t Quite Copying

X(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to The Book of MormonWickedThe Lion King, and The Music Man.)

We got the soundtrack for The Book of Mormon pretty much as soon as it was released, and I was utterly engrossed.  But one thing bothered me quite a bit.  The song “You and Me (But Mostly Me)”…

…sounded awfully familiar.

It kind of stuck in my craw.  The rest of the songs are great, so why rip off something contemporary and distinctive?  But the more I listened, the more I realized that it’s supposed to sound like Wicked, because they do the same thing throughout the show.

The thing is, it’s not a straight copy so much as a quote.  The difference is that they’re doing something with it, using the musical similarity to make a distinction.  With this and with the other similar songs, they’re using the same familiar music to accompany a polar opposite situation.

Let’s look at this pairing to start.  “Defying Gravity” sees both Glinda and Elphaba realizing that while they’re choosing to walk different paths, they’re still joined together as friends and equals.  However, in “You and Me (But Mostly Me),” Elders Price and Cunningham are acknowledging that they’re being forced onto the same path, but they’re not so much with the friends and equals.

It goes on like this.  The Ugandans’ song “Hasa Diga Eebowai”…

…actually references its doppelganger:

In the latter, Simba has left his home in terror and shame, only to discover that his fate isn’t nearly as unpleasant as he feared.  In the former, the missionaries leave their home in triumphant expectation, only to discover that their situation is far worse than they could have imagined.

One more! “All-American Prophet” kicks it old-school:

Harold Hill doesn’t remotely believe the things he’s saying, but the townsfolk are all over it.  Kevin Price believes what he’s saying body and soul, but the townsfolk are decidedly unimpressed.

Sure, the writers could still establish the story beats on their own.  But by invoking these familiar standbys, they subtly set up audience expectations, which can then be subverted to add another layer to the joke.  There’s an old saying about knowing your audience, but it’s not just about what they’re likely to find funny or offensive or what have you.  If you have a good idea of the works your audience is familiar with (someone who sees one musical has probably seen others, for instance), you can use that knowledge as a sort of springboard to let you build something new.

The important thing is to make it new, mind.  Just pointing to something familiar and saying, “Hey, here’s a thing you should recognize!” isn’t going to get you many points.  But if you can provide a twist to it, that’s when you’ve got something special.