What I Loved at Con-volution 2015

Con-volution 2015: Legion of Fandom in Burlingame, CA. A most excellent Con. Definitely one I will return to next year. Unlike the book-focused cons I mostly prefer, Con-volution’s totally inclusive. Books, bronies, babies, battles, beer, it’s all good. The result is a nice mix of ages (strollers to seniors), ethnicities, genders, interests. It was delightfully eclectic (and eccentric).

With its central location at the Hyatt airport hotel in Burlingame, a lot of people came by either for the whole Con or for a visit.  I got to meet writer buddies I hadn’t seen for a while, both Conning and Bar-conning. Many were local or semi-local, others came from Southern California. It’s so lovely hanging out with interesting people who are doing and writing intriguing things. We had the traditional Codex meetup (Codex being an online group of writers), always a pleasure.

your book is why daddy drinksBesides panels, there are some fun events that I don’t see at the literary cons I more usually attend. I have to say a highlight was the podcast, Your book is why Daddy drinks. The panel discussed (or made fun of) “Tarnsman of Gor,” while imbibing much booze, dressed in fur bikinis because they’d met their charity fundraising challenge goal. The Gor stories (for the generation that is blissfully unaware) are a series of 33 misogynist books that started in 1966 based on a fantasy world which was also, the panel told us, a rip-off of Edgar Rice Burroughs. This ran from 12 midnight to 2 a.m., and it was hilarious. Thanks, intrepid panelists!


The panels were unusually good. Last year, I enjoyed the panels too, but in most cases, only a few people went and they ran out of steam early. This Con I didn’t feel that way at all.  A decent number showed up for nearly every panel I attended – enough to keep it interesting, small enough that audience participation was easy.  Here are the ones I went to. (For some panels, my notes got so long I linked them separately.)

How to get started as a voiceover actor.  (Xander Jeanneret, Bonnie Gordon) This was an immensely useful intro panel, presented in an engaging way by Bonnie and Xander. Here are my Detailed Notes.

To be or not to be: Listening to critique. (Jennifer Carson, Marie Brennan, Bradford Lyau and Cliff Winnig) Again, a panel that delivered what it promised – a discussion of how to use critiques, best and worst examples, and what to do with strongly negative criticism. Marie described how someone critiqued one of her stories, and found the exact thing that wasn’t working about it. Jennifer described one incident when a big-name author came in late, interrupted the session in progress because he was in a hurry, critiqued 2 sci-fi stories at considerable length, and used his last few minutes to be utterly dismissive of a fantasy story. Jennifer named no names. But I thought I’d met that author.

Kinky and geeky. (Dario Ciriello, Jaym Gates, Veronica Belmont , Lance Moore) This started out with a funny anecdote about how Dario found himself an inadvertent Dom on Second Life, but quickly got serious. What I came away with was a discussion of how difficult it can be to create safe spaces for kink especially in those parts of the US that are more conservative and not kink-friendly or sex-positive. There’s a need to preserve anonymity, to enforce a very strict policy non-photography policy, and also to maintain physical safety. There were a couple of sad stories out there, including a young woman getting murdered because she wouldn’t believe that she was at risk from someone who thought he was entitled to her because she danced near-naked. The SF Bay Area is, fortunately, relatively accepting.

Actual science in science fiction. (M Christian, Jay Hartlove, C. Sanford Lowe, Edward Pizzini Ph.D., Heidi Stauffer)  Many of the panelists were scientists. The discussion centered on the balance between getting the science right, and changing it in the interests of not boring the audience you’re writing for. Someone gave the example of CSI. In its first season, it was very accurate, but it appealed to a limited audience. In the second season, the producers went with flashiness over accuracy, and it grew in popularity. This popularity even unrealistically skewed expectations regarding the speed and accuracy of forensic science. But it’s also inspired a lot of young people to become scientists by making it cool. This has always been an important role for science fiction. So in the end, it’s a balance between: How much accuracy and research do I need to make me-the-author happy? What does my audience need to know (barring the experts, who’ll probably be thrown out of the story anyway)? What’s my responsibility to the public who will learn science from my stories (example: Michel Crichton’s recent climate-change-is-fake book)? What’s my responsibility to people who will be inspired to learn or to fund science? My only quarrel with this really good panel was that there was no time for questions.

Cover me, which was about book and comic covers. (Jennifer Carson, Maya Bohnhoff,  Anna Warren Cebrian, Cliff Winnig) Again, a very practical panel. The tl:dr version: A cover advertises a book. Color palette and image often determine the genre, and the font must match. It’s got to work as a thumbnail. The author name font should be as large as the book title font. Lots more detail including cost discussions in my panel report.

Mythologies: The world outside Olympus and Asgard. (Bret Sweet · Emily Jiang · Balogun Ojetade · Jason Malcolm Stewart.)  This dealt with non-European mythologies, and to my delight focused mainly on African myth systems. There was a good discussion of the importance of the feminine in traditional myths in Africa (missed which tradition, may be Yoruba). They also talked of how African myths got transformed when slaves brought them to the U.S. – trickster stories became Brer Rabbit stories. They also considered Native American influences. (Someone suggested that Trickster meets Coyote would be a cool theme for a book!) I ended up buying several books recommended by Balogun on the spot. (Thanks, Amazon.) Emily accidentally missed the beginning, but contributed some interesting inputs about East Asian mythos, and written vs oral traditions. Jason talked about how a Western audience is trained to expect the three-act structure: Presentation/ conflict/ resolution. As a result, they may be quite unable to accept other ways of story-telling. For writers, there’s a trade-off, in that if we want to sell our work, we do have to conform to reader expectations. I’m really there. I looked at this issue in “Why I write American” a blog-post later published in the electronic version of the Wiscon Chronicles.

Writing fight scenes that aren’t wack.  (Balogun Ojetade)  This was a great panel for me. I have no martial arts training – unlike just about every writer I know, who all seem to have some exposure to aikido or karate or fencing or something. (The others are all linguists. Some are linguists who do martial arts.) But fight scenes are an essential part of every spec-fic writer’s vocabulary, so off I went. Balogun is an expert in African fighting styles (and there are many of them). An interesting point he made: African “wrestling” (which includes fighting with weapons) incorporates “feminine” moves. “I’m 6′ 3,” he said, “and weigh 200 lbs. In a fight, I’ll use my strength. But if a woman who’s 5′ 2 and weighs maybe 120 lbs has to fight, she’ll develop effective techniques. That’s what you need to know.” He showed us, with actual demos, why staged fight scenes *have* to be choreographed to be completely different from real fights – and why we have to describe real fights. He cautioned against too much actual description of blood and guts except when writing horror, because reality is really very very gory. Weapons and fighting styles have to match, and are often determined not just by the level of technology but by culture. Zulu and Yoruba fight differently, as do medieval swordsmen and Chicago knife-fighters. The Zulu, for instance, fight using stealth tactics. The example he gave: “You’re charging at a Zulu warrior with your broadsword, and he’s only got a short spear. You’ll kill him, easy. But when you run at him, you fall into a trench he’s standing behind – and then he gets you with the spear.” (It was only just now when I looked it up on the schedule that I realized this was a Master Class limited to 6 people and I was supposed to have pre-registered. Oops.)

[The short spear was called an “ikwa.” I’d never heard of it before. And then, two days later, at a consignment store I found this:

pics36 001 ikwaThe note said, “This is an ikwa (e-kwah). Zulu short spear. South Africa.” Neat coincidence!]

The one that got away: Cultural Appreciation or Appropriation? I didn’t go because I’d heard this topic discussed elsewhere, notably Wiscon. But… the reports I got afterwards made me wish I’d attended. It ran for three hours of its allotted 75 minutes!


library bards and dancing robot
Library Bards and dancing robot

Besides the crazy fur-bikini booze-fueled book critique podcast, I attended the Liars’ Panel, which was also hilarious. It was a bunch of people dishonestly answering embarrassing questions.

The Diplomat’s Ball was notable because of the Library Bards (Xander Jeanneret and Bonnie Gordon, who perform great sci-fi parodies of the Top 40 Hits) and a 5-foot-tall dancing robot. My writer friend A.E Marling showed up in his Dr Horrible costume, and joined them onstage for the appropriate section.

The Masquerade was a creative melange of 18 quite different entries. Disney Steampunk was a performance by a family of kids, reprising Aladdin in the steampunk genre (the magic lamp is reinvented as a ray-gun), with Princess Elsa of Frozen visiting too.

Roadside Warrior Shaman wore a costume that included a staff that was covered with interesting stuff, and rebooted the world with Control-Alt-Delete! Of course there were Mad Max: Fury Road tributes. And a huge white furry nine-tailed fox.

some of the prizewinners

This was my second year at Con-volution (here’s my report from 2014). It’s an easy local Con for me.  Staying at the hotel anyway lets me do the late night/ early morning stuff that just wouldn’t happen if I were driving in. Like that “Your book is why Daddy Drinks” podcast!


The organizers got so much right that it seems churlish to mention the few things that didn’t work so well, but I will for completeness.

They ran out of program books – printed way too few of them. I got there before the opening ceremonies, and they were already gone. This was in response to the previous year’s surplus and the high cost of printing. So the only way to know the program was to stay in the hotel (so you had free wifi) and use your smartphone. Or to have printed the program out in advance (which, very luckily, is what I did). The downside to that was you couldn’t print out any details like who the panelists were and what the panel was actually about (“Cover me”?) Again, fortunately, I had an iPad in my room, so I could look up details and then hand-write them on the printout I’d made. I felt like I had The Knowledge. (Except, not quite: see my Oops under the Fight scene panel.)

I suggested an easy fix would be a big bulletin board next to the Reg desk. They could post the Schedule. Honored Guest bios. The map of the hotel (it takes some getting used to, with events happening on two floors or more, on two sides of the quadrilateral of the hotel). The newsletter (they had one, but I never saw it.) Notices/ changes. Maybe even a members bulletin board if you want to contact someone (Wiscon has one of those, and it’s useful.)

Some people mentioned programming clashes. I usually had at least 3 things I wanted to attend in each time-slot, but that’s okay. I’m beginning to realize that’s a sign of a good match between me and the Con I’m attending. And there apparently were a few sparse panels, but not the ones I attended.


The Dealer Room and Art Show were fun. I only got one thing this year: This picture. Daniel Cortopassi does these whimsical cartoons of cats. They were all amusing, but I really couldn’t resist this one.

himalayan hijinx by daniel cortopassi



How to Get Started as a Voice Actor – Panel Notes from Con-Volution 2015

library bards poster smThis was the kind of panel I attend because it’s a subject about which I am Totally Clueless. It was totally worth it. Xander Jeanneret and Bonnie Gordon are voice actors who started in in theater, and now do voicing. As the Library Bards, they sing nerdy parodies of current hit songs.

Main points:

  • Major markets can be split into: Commercial, industrial, games, anime. Usually commercial and industrial pay the best – and may require Union membership.  They may also pay residuals i.e. like royalties every time the sound clip is used. (The relevant Union is SAG-AFTRA.) Anime, games, cartoons tend to pay a one-time fee and that’s it.
  • You need to be able to record and edit your own clips. They recommended Audacity and a good microphone that plugs into your laptop. They use a Snowball mic. (I’ve done Audacity once, and it wasn’t easy – but I could see how it could become so with practice.)
  • You don’t need a home studio, you can improvise. A closet makes a good studio, because the clothes damp the sound and improve the acoustics. In an emergency (like recording in a hotel room), you can throw a blanket or towel over your head, the mic and the laptop. Audacity has a noise reduction option; if you give it a few minutes of silence before you start recording, that defines a background “noise” to get rid of.
  • Sometimes, local studios are available for rental by the hour.
  • You can do a lot of voices by changing speed, level, pitch, or adding a speech impediment. T.C. Helicon  audio equipment can help change pitch.
  • You absolutely need a “reel” – a demonstration MP3. Some voice actors include actual work they’ve done. People who are just starting out can invent their own – read some stuff out loud and show the voices you can do. (Tip: Do not do existing commercials! But you can make up your own commercial for a fictitious product.) Xander recommends putting your reel on Youtube with a headshot so it’s easy to share.
  • You can get projects on the internet. The three sites they mentioned were Voices.com (free), Voices123 (which charges a fee), and ACX.com which is an Amazon audio-book site.
  • You can get voiceover agents, but Bonnie didn’t feel it was very valuable for her. This was in part because she took on a lot of very small projects, mostly from Voices.com
  • Bonnie recommended taking all the gigs you can get initially – even unpaid ones – to build your contacts. Sometimes, you can do voice work for someone as a favor, and they can give you some professional help.
  • Union membership is a double-edged sword. Union jobs pay better, but there aren’t that many of them – and especially people who are starting out need to do non-Union jobs to build their networks. If you’re Union, you can do a non-Union job, though it’s frowned on; but if you’re not in the Union you aren’t eligible for Union gigs.
  • Screen actors are beginning to do voice-acting work and are in demand because of the name recognition. Not all of them are good voice actors, though!
  • Voice acting usually requires exaggeration, not perfect realism. One of the best ways to learn is to listen. Watch the commercials, listen to how they do it.
  • They recommended Dee Bradley Baker’s blog, I want to be a Voice Actor as a good place for beginners.