All About Octocon 2015 by Paul Anthony Shortt

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Paul Anthony Shortt

As a fantasy author, the highlight of my calendar is Octocon. Ireland’s National Science Fiction Convention, Octocon has been running since 1990, only taking a break in 2014 to operate as Shamrokon for Ireland’s turn hosting the Eurocon European Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention.

This year’s event took place from October 9th to 11th, in the Camden Court Hotel, and I attended as one of several guests, taking part in a variety of panels over the course of the weekend. I also had the opportunity to interview committee member Janet O’Sullivan and get an inside perspective on the convention.

Janet informs me that somewhere around 250 people attended the convention over the weekend. her own role was in PR and social media management, which she also handled for Shamrokon last year. This was Janet’s first year on the Octocon committee. Like many SFF-related conventions, Ocotcon is organised and run entirely by a volunteer group making up 10 committee members and 6 staff members. There is no promotions company behind it, and every one of the hard-working people who keep this event going year after year do so out of their love for science fiction and fantasy. In my experience, that level of passion and commitment shine through in the punter’s experience. Ireland’s convention scene in this area has a well-deserved reputation for professionalism and quality.

My con started off on the Friday evening, where I had the pleasure of joining Ruth F Long, C.E. Murphy, and Alan Nolan to discuss the many things that make Ireland special as a setting for fantasy stories. Among the things I learned was that J.R.R. Tolkien believed Ireland to be “inherently evil,” that evil seeped up through the bogs and the trees, and the only thing which kept the Irish in line was strict adherence to religion. I could write whole essays on the darkness in Irish myth and folklore, and we all left the panel with a renewed sense of dread and respect for our native fairytales.

Writing Tip: When looking for inspiration, don’t forget that some of the best ideas can come from right outside your own front door.

Following on from that I was on a panel where we discussed how to reconcile loving a particular book, movie, or tv show despite problematic elements such as sexism or racism. SFF is a passion of mine, but it can be awfully bogged down in prejudice and insensitive portrayals of minorities. Many such cases are unintentional, so having the opportunity to openly discuss why we find certain elements problematic is important.

Writing Tip: Don’t be afraid to examine your work and seek an objective opinion. While it’s important to write what you love, you can alienate readers by allowing unintended implications to remain.

While we were talking on panels, the highlight of the Friday night was the Golden Blasters. This is an annual awards ceremony for short films in the SFF genres. Organised by John Vaughn, it celebrates the best new filmmaking around, and even includes an award decided entirely by the attening audience.

My Saturday kicked off early with a review of how the video game industry is shaping up this year, then a panel titled “My Parents Let Me Watch What?!!” This panel looked back at some of the frightening movies we all got to watch as kids, and asked if today’s parents would be as accepting of their kids viewing such material. There was some deep discussion on the need for kids to feel fear, to see villains that fightened them, and to see those villains defeated.

Writing Tip: Your protagonist needs to be challenged. A hero who overcomes every obstacle in short order is only a fraction of the hero who tries, falls, and gets back up to try again.

For my last panel of the day, I joined in the topic of self-publishing, sharing my experiences in that area.

Writing Tip: Don’t skimp out on professional services when self-publishing. Just because you feel you can self-edit or design your own cover doesn’t mean that you should.

That night was the Time Travellers Costume Ball. I couldn’t make it, but by all accounts it was a hit, and the prize for best costume went to a woman all decked out in the best-quality “Godfather” attire, complete with black fedora and white scarf.

Sunday was a little more sedate, given that most people had either stayed out late the night before or, like me, had been on multiple panels already and were starting to feel the strain. I was lucky enough to have nothing timetabled until 2 o’clock, when myself and my fellow panelists gathered to lament the differences between the new JJ Abrams Star trek and the series’ and movies we all grew up watching.

Writing Tip: When approaching a particular genre, or if you’re fortunate enough to be writing an ongoing series, remember what it is that loyal readers love about it. They’re the ones who’ll keep you in business, so don’t let them down

My last panel of the con was called Practical Magic, and delved into the relationship between magic as an element of fiction and an element of real faith. We had panelists who wrote fantasy novels, games, and who were open about their pagan spirituality. For my own part, in addition to being a fantasy author and a gamer, I am also a reiki master and have some fairly ecclectic spiritual beliefs. Suffice to say the conversation was varied and insightful. It’s not often I get to discuss spirituality in a really open and safe setting, so this was a wonderful experience.

Writing Tip: As was mentioned on the panel, “Don’t turn someone else’s god into your monster.” When drawing inspiration from real-world cultures, show respect. For you, it might be a fun bit of folklore to turn into a story, but for some it might be something they hold in very high regard. Remember what I said about alienating readers before.

On a personal note, one of the things I’ve always loved about science fiction and fantasy is that physical ability has never been a prerequisite for involvement. My wife is a wheelchair user, and I saw many others at the convention, so I asked Janet about Octocon’s policy on accessibility:

“Accessibility is something which the committee is very mindful of, which is why we hold Octocon in the Camden Court Hotel. This allows us to all of the rooms for programme items on the same floor, and why we make sure that all our programme rooms have audio equipment, esp for panels.

As a whole, Octocon was a wonderful event this year. I had an amazing time and came away feeling relaxed and fulfilled.

One of the most notable points about the convention was how much its attendance defied stereotypes. Typical attitudes towards science fiction and fantasy paint SFF fans as geeky guys obsessed with our chosen fandoms and awkward around the opposite sex. I’m happy to report that Octocon resoundedly defied this stereotype. I asked Janet about this, too, and her response was very encouraging:

“I think Octocon defies this stereotype and has done from the very beginning. The 1st chair person was Helen Ryder, ( who I was so pleased was here this year and brought a wealth of memorabilia with her) and there have been several other women who have held this position over the last 25 years. This years committee had a gender split of 50/50, both our Guest of Honor were women, Maura McHugh and Emma Newman and we had many women guest and panelists.  To be frank “isms” aren’t welcome at Octocon not just sexism; Irish fandom is very diverse and Octocon does it’s best to try reflect that and be a welcoming space.”

Following on from this, I noted that the lowest ratio of women to men at any panel I was involved in was 1:3, and even then, on most panels the women outnumbered the men. Given the problems of diversity in SFF, and the recent Gamergate controversy, this is something very important to me, personally, and Janet had some words on this, too:

“We are lucky that fandom is so diverse here in Ireland and we have so many people who are happy to be on panels and that they find it a space they are comfortable doing so in. Be it women who are writers or experts in their fields, to  people of a range of cultural back grounds as well as diversity in gender and sexualities. Certainly you were not the only man who found themselves being the sole man on a panel over the weekend, or being on a panel with more women then men.”

What does the future hold for Octocon? Well, I’ll let Janet tell you:

“Octocon will return to the Camden Court Hotel in 2016, which is a wonderful venue on the 14th to the 16th of October. We hope to grow the convention in terms of numbers who attend, sponsorship and keep building on the inclusive diverse event we are.”

This really was the highlight of my year, in terms of my writing-related activities. Octocon is a wonderful experience, a place to indulge in the love of stories that break the bounds of the mundane. As Janet says, “Octocon is about stories we love, the characters in them, the concepts they examine and a chance to discuss them with each other. It doesn’t really matter if those stories are told via books, comics, tv, audio plays/books, games or video games.” There is a place for everyone there, and the staff, committee, and attendees really go out of their way to make sure everyone is welcome.

Here’s to seeing you all at Octocon 2016

(c)Paul Anthony Shortt

About the author

Paul Anthony Shortt believes in magic and monsters; in ghosts and fairies, the creatures that lurk under the bed and inside the closet. The things that live in the dark, and the heroes who stand against them. Above all, he believes that stories have the power to change the world, and the most important stories are the ones which show that monsters can be beaten.
Paul’s work includes the Memory Wars Trilogy and the Lady Raven Series. His short fiction has appeared in the Amazon #1 bestselling anthology, Sojourn Volume 2.

Website: http://www.paulanthonyshortt.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pashortt

Twitter: @PAShortt

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