Dark Forces Gathering
It's a little-known fact that FACT – the Fandom Association of Central Texas – has made ArmadilloCon a regular date for readers and writers of science fiction and fantasy since 1979. Convention co-chair Elizabeth Burton called the gathering "the best-kept secret in Austin. It's been going 32 years, and yet every year we discover hundreds of people who might be interested in coming but have never heard of us."
For what the organizers mildly describe as a little literary convention, the program participant list reads like a who's who of genre pioneers and Nebula Award winners. Longtime regular guests like novelist and ArmadilloCon 1 toastmaster Howard Waldrop and the king of Nacogdoches Gothic, Joe Lansdale, rub shoulders with youngbloods like Austin-based comics writer Paul Benjamin, the plotter behind Tokyopop's manga Pantheon High, and San Antonio homicide cop/Bram Stoker Award-nominated horror writer Joe McKinney. What makes ArmadilloCon special, Burton said, is that it "is really a place where people who like to read can rub shoulders with the people who make what it is they like to read." For the authors, she said, "It's a good place to just hang out, lay back, and have a good time for three days."
The mix of panels and readings by new and established authors stays the same: What changes every year is the emphasis. Back in the mid-Eighties, when cyberpunk was the bleeding edge, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling served as back-to-back guests of honor. Since then, according to local author and ArmadilloCon veteran Stina Leicht, "vampires have been huge, and zombies have been huge, and the paranormal romance has been a juggernaut through the landscape." That's reflected in this year's special guests, as the post-Buffy the Vampire Slayer urban fantasies of husband-and-wife duo Ilona and Gordon Andrews share the stage with the copper-plated steampunk stylings of Michael Bishop.
Wannabe authors shouldn't reserve their pens for autograph hunting, as the three-day weekend begins with the sold-out writers' workshop. Leicht isn't just running the program: The former BookPeople employee is a graduate, too. As an aspiring writer, the organizers of Austin's dedicated bimonthly science fiction and fantasy study group SlugTribe recommended that she attend ArmadilloCon. "It was really exciting to go to a convention that was so focused on the literary side of things," Leicht said. It also put her in direct contact with the publishing industry: The first person to critique one of her stories was award-winning young-adult fantasy novelist Sharon Shinn, and in her second year there, her short story ended up in the hands of veteran sci-fi and fantasy editor Jim Minz. The emphasis on small fellowships of writers working directly with published authors, editors, and reviewers means "they're given personal critiques and personal advice from professionals," Leicht said. Even if an editor doesn't ask for your manuscript there and then, she added, "if you submit your work later on down the line, they will remember you."
The workshop will mix helpful criticism with discussions about the brutal realities of getting anything published. Leicht said, "People don't have any idea about what it takes to be an author or how you go about becoming one, and it's a long, complicated journey, and bits of it can be quite confusing." That's especially true in science fiction and fantasy literature, where small publishers work in very particular niches, and so, she added, "by going to workshops you learn where those markets are and who you should talk to."
It may not work for everyone, but Leicht said that attending ArmadilloCon and meeting with like-minded writers "helped a great deal" with her fledgling literary career. Her debut novel, Of Blood and Honey (a dark fantasy set in conflict-riddled Northern Ireland in the 1970s), is scheduled to be published through Night Shade Books next February. However, that new success doesn't mean she'll be running the workshop from far, far away. She said: "I love helping other writers, and it's been good for me because I get to learn. I get to sit in the room and listen to all these wonderful authors talk."
ArmadilloCon 32 takes place Aug. 27-29 at the Renaissance Austin Hotel (9721 Arboretum Blvd.). See www.armadillocon.org for tickets and info.
For more information about the SlugTribe writers' group, visit www.slugtribe.org.