I’m going to share with you an Ohio secret. It’s not a big secret, and it’s certainly not a secret because people don’t like to talk about it. Quite the opposite, in fact. Yet, somehow, not enough folks know about it. It’s Context, a convention dedicated to the world of speculative fiction with a special emphasis on writing.
For years I’d avoided the con due to a mixture of insecurity and misplaced ego. That was dumb of me. It turns out there’s a lot of fantastic and well respected authors living in Ohio and the surrounding states. It turns out they’re really cool folks, too, and eager to talk about their craft. Since first attending it three years ago, Context has become the center point of my writing year. I always come out of it ready to throw my fat, Lickman nose into the grindstone again.
What sets Context apart is its atmosphere. It’s small, almost intimate, and very low key. Each year it offers a number of writing workshops in addition to your more standard convention programming. Speaking from experience, the workshops are fantastic.
This year I took two workshops. One was on utilizing points of view to better effect, while the other was about plot construction. I also attended several panels. All were excellent, but I really got the most out of “Skewering the Trope: Tough Women in Literature.” I’ve been trying to focus more on women characters in my writing, so I appreciated the perspectives of the women who made up the panel. Who were these wise ladies, you may ask? None other than my Sidekicks! editor, Sarah Hans, fellow Sidekicks! writer, KW Taylor, and Bram Stoker Award-winning author, Lucy Snyder.
Another highlight of the convention each year is the Friday Night Flash Fiction Contest. Writing flash fiction scares the crap out of me. I find the thought of telling an entire story in less than 1500 words to be daunting. Yet the market for flash fiction continues to grow. At Context 25 I attended a workshop taught by Gary A. Braunbeck on how to write flash fiction. The workshop was very helpful, yet my one attempt at writing a flash fiction story after that was disappointing. I’ve avoided the format ever since.
Until a few weeks ago, that is. A wild hair grew up my keister and I decided that not only was I going to write a flash fiction story, but I was going to enter it in the contest Friday night. So I dug out my notes from Mr. Braunbeck’s workshop and got to work.
When I arrived at the con Friday evening my nerves were fried. I looked at the sign up sheet. There was still room in the contest. The five copies of my manuscript seemed to grow heavier inside my bag. I looked at the names already signed up. I recognized some of them. I chickened out.
Ten minutes later, with a jockey of self-loathing riding my backside, I returned to the table and signed up.
The contest was divided into two divisions: Pro and Amateur. Since I have no professional sales, I signed up for the amateur contest. The judging panel consisted of four people: Betsy Mitchell (the editor Guest of Honor), Jason Sizemore (editor of Apex Magazine), Matt Betts (professional writer), and Geoffrey Girard (professional writer). As the judges introduced themselves, my stomach twisted in knots. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I wasn’t expecting judges of their caliber.
One by one, we were called up to read our stories aloud while the judges wrote notes on the copies we had provided. After each reading, the judges gave their critiques. The pros went first (there were only two), and then us amateurs (there were six, including myself). I went either second or third.
As I read my story, I tried to focus on going slow and giving each character a distinct voice. Behind me, I heard Geoffrey Girard swipe through my manuscript with his pen. I stuttered.
“I suck,” I thought.
I caught my breath and refocused. When my story was finished, I returned to my seat. It was done. I thought of the bottle of scotch I had at home.
All four judges said the same thing about my story. It was too long. It could stand to trim the first few pages. Also, it seemed that I jumped points of view at the beginning. But they also said a number of very complementary things about the story and my writing. As they summed up their feedback, a thought struck me. “Holy cats! I just had my story critiqued by two professional editors and two professional writers.”
If you were to try and buy that sort of feedback elsewhere I promise you it would cost you a heck of a lot more than the price of admission to Context. That’s the sort of cool thing that can only happen at a small con like Context. That’s what I mean by intimate.
If you follow me on Twitter, than you already know how the contest ended. I won the amateur division. I was freaking stunned. For the rest of the night, I was the most cheery sunnavabitch around.
I regret that I didn’t get the opportunity to meet Jonathan Maberry, the Author Guest of Honor. However Betsy Mitchell was wonderful, and I’m not just saying that cause she liked my story. Her career spans back decades. She edited one of my favorite William Gibson novels, Virtual Light. It was great to hear her talk about her experiences. Again, it’s the sort of thing you will not get at a large comic con. But it’s at Context.
I’ve already registered for next year. Get this. Next year’s Author Guest of Honor is Chuck Wendig (!?). The Editor Guest of Honor is Ellen Datlow (!?!?!?!?). Ellen Datlow. Coming to Worthington, Ohio. I enjoy Chuck Wendig’s writing quite a bit, but Ellen Datlow is a living legend. You better believe I’m going to be at each of her panels with a bucket in hand, trying to catch every last drop of advice she has to give.
If you’re interested in writing, you should, too.