Monday, July 16, 2012

A Muggle-Studies Professor's Report from Ascendio, a Fan-Writer Conference

A couple of days ago, I returned from Orlando where I attended the fabulously well-run Harry Potter fan conference, Ascendio2012.  I'd been invited months ago to present my Writer's Guide to Harry Potter workshop as part of their Quill Track, a mini-conference within the fan/scholar symposium specifically geared to writers.

Fan conferences like Ascendio are usually a very different animal than writer conferences like RWA or SCBWI.  To be perfectly honest, I usually feel more at home at the writer conference.  While I'm definitely a fan of Rowling's work and love to hunt out every hidden clue or mythical reference in her brilliant subtext, I admit to being a bit of the odd-woman-out in fan culture where most everyone dresses in wizard robes, will stand in lines for hours to see the YouTube stars of StarKid, and get into heated arguments over whether their favorite ship should have sailed instead of the ones Rowling set afloat.

I say none of this with any disrespect whatsoever.  Quite the opposite.  I find the people at fan conferences incredibly energizing and quite enlightening.  I've learned so much about what readers care passionately about...which can be quite different than the query guidelines and craft techniques which you'll learn in workshop after panel at a writer conference like RWA.  And yet, to get published, you must master things like POV and the dreaded synopsis in order to have readers who may debate minute aspects of your worldbuilding as if it were real or craft their own stories based on your characters.

Which is why Ascendio, the latest conference sponsored by the HP Education Fanon was so exciting for me.  While many of the other fan conferences I'd attended included workshops, like mine, geared to writers, Ascendio had planned a whole writer's track, The Quill Track, complete with booksignings by famous authors and pitch sessions to coveted agents.

This combination is a spark of brilliance and pairs beautifully because fan culture is filled with creatives.  So, at Ascendio, not only do you find a subset of people going wild over the Pygmy Puffs at the Craft Faire, but you'll also encounter a subset hyped up by a screening of fanfilms, or live theater written and produced by fans, and still others dancing the night away to the awesome Wizard Wrock.  With the new QuillTrack, a home was provided for writers of original and fanfiction alike to get together to study and improve their craft and learn how to get it before readers to develop their own fans.

And here is where the key difference can be seen between a conference like Ascendio to RWA -- while the average attendee at RWA is well into her adult years and may be approaching middle-age, the average attendee at a fan conference is an older teen or in her early twenties.  Yes, there are plenty of adults as well, especially at Ascendio, but the youth  energy drives this conference.  An energy that packs a room to hear the fabulous LogosPilgrim present a mystical reading on the spiritual insight gained through understanding Snape, but then empties before a presentation by a publishing professional that would be standing-room-only at RWA.  It's actually quite refreshing to see lines of fans clamoring to get into a screening of StarKids' A Very Potter Musical, a fan-based YouTube sensation that launched Darren Criss's Glee career, but open slots left in pitch sessions to wonderful agents like Joanna Volpe and Carlie Webber - something that would never happen at RWA.

Standing outside the agent pitch session, I found myself talking to a young Hufflepuff, around 16-17, calmly waiting her turn to pitch her completed YA novel to one of the agents.  I asked her to tell me about her story, and her eyes lit up and her hands waved into action as she got all enthused.  The details she shared spoke of a creativity I envied.  Her story envisioned a teen space odyssey that I thought might be quite marketable.  Then I asked how long was her novel.  9,000 words.

And this is the real reason why I love to speak at conferences like Ascendio, even if I find myself sitting alone there more frequently than I would at RWA.  In exchange for the energy I absorb and the fresh understanding I draw of what the reader desires most, I feel I have something valuable to offer in return.  These young writers, while deeply in touch with what appeals to them in regard to characterization and plotting, can be a bit fuzzy regarding the specific craft techniques that make a story readable and the arcane business practices (called publishing) one needs to navigate to get that work out there.  Some have fallen prey to those on the more unscrupulous side of the business.

If you're a YA writer, let me encourage you to attend a fan conference geared to a YA audience.  No, it probably will not give you the breadth of workshops and contacts that RWA or SCBWI can offer, but you'll meet and absorb something quite distinct and incredibly empowering -- the real, raw energy of the YA consumer.  It can take your breath away.

Unfortunately, Ascendio is the last conference HPEF has planned.  Some fandoms can continue conferences for years and years.  The Star Wars Celebration in Orlando still boasts 25,000 - 35,000 attendees annually.  But the Star Wars franchise has continued with new releases to fuel the fans' frenzy.

As the last Harry Potter book was published in 2007 and the last movie released a year ago, the divination waters for upcoming HP releases from Rowling are quite murky.  With the release of The Casual Vacancy in September, Rowling seems to be steering her career in a firmly different direction than the fantasy-driven youth culture of Harry Potter.  But she's not yet bolted the gates to Hogwarts.  Hope remains alive in the breast of the Harry Potter fan that we may yet, in a few years from now, see a new saga following Albus Severus, Rose, Teddy, Victoria... the next generation.

Perhaps it will be out in time for the children of the Potter generation to read it to their own kids...and then dress them in costume and wrock away at Ascendio part 2!

See you there!

Have you ever attended a fan conference?  What was your experience?

PS - To celebrate Ascendio and as a special offering to those attending my workshop, I listed The Boy Who Lived Comes to Die, my analysis of the ending of Deathly Hallows, for free on Kindle.  That offering runs through the end of today and anyone can download it for free.  If you don't have a Kindle, you can use the free Kindle for PC app.