A while ago, I attended Mysticon with a question in mind. What transforms the casually interested into full blown fans of speculative fiction?

Advertising and promotions only serve one purpose: to ignite the initial spark of “buy and try.” Great commercials can only convince us to give something a shot. Entertainment is plentiful and fickle. If we’re not sold, we may meander before wandering off to find something else.

But social connections…? Friends and chums can often be the factor that anchors audiences, that make all the differences. Movies and television are easily shared; games can be too. Novels, normally the realm of the introverted, often get by through book clubs and internet groups. Conventions such as Mysticon— held at the end of February in Roanoke, Virginia— are the hallmark of these gatherings.

So I took it upon myself to engage in an act of mild Gonzo journalism. Arriving Friday, I collected my badge and began my initial wandering.

At the heart of the convention was the shop floor. Vibrant and well-planned, the merchandise there catered to just about everything one could imagine. DVDs of hard-to-find science fiction movies, board games both well recognized and indie, bookstores that focused on long out-of-print copies. There were cosplay booths, catering to anything from high fantasy to steampunk to science fiction tropes. There were boxes of comic books, amusing and original stickers and knickknacks.

Brianne Sew Crafty shop at Mysticon, VA.

This variety also extended to the unusual and functional. I stopped by a booth owned by Brianne Sew Crafty. Her specialty? Custom pillow cases, made of leather and/or velvet, displaying various house banners from Game of Thrones and the Harry Potter series, and iconic images from movies and TV series. I couldn’t resist getting one of the Maschinemensch of Metropolis.

I also took a moment to chat with few guys running a board game booth and they had this to say about convention.

"We love Mysticon and Mysticon loves us. The End Games has been coming to Mysticon for three years now and each year is a delightful treat for us. From the amazing cosplayers to the wonderful scholarship auction, there is something for all of us each year. We always do very well in the vendor room and want to thank our loyal customers that seek us ouch each year to supply them with the latest games, rare old role playing game books, and Magic cards from Feed the Monkey."

—Shane, The End Games

I left the showroom half explored for later. Fridays are unique in that people trickle into the convention over the course of the day. The conferences and panels, usually an hour long, didn’t begin until 3:00 pm.

With most events and fun planned for Saturday, I picked out a single event to attend: “What are Cult Classics?” The conversation between the panel attendees proved quite interesting. The questions began with what their personal favorite cult classics were. The discussion also moved into movies which brought out of cult followings and into mainstream success, such as Star Wars. I was a bit saddened that they seemed to avoid the “so bad it’s good” type films, like Tommy Wiseau’s The Room however.

With a few minutes to burn afterwards, I decided to crash into the armor patterning class, hosted by Matthew and Allegra of Ribbons and Rivets. The last thing I expected was an actual, applicable lesson in leather crafting, not cosplay. To elaborate; Matthew gave everyone sheets of tough paper, hole punchers, scissors, eyelets and fasteners. The goal here was to create a pattern that would be repeated when cutting and assembling pieces of leather armor. I had to admit, his and Allegra’s designs are awesome to behold.

Saturday kicked off at 9:00 am with the “Marketing Your Books After Release” panel with authors Liz Long and Tally Johnson. The pair proved to be a riot of information and laughs: Liz possesses a sharp marketing acumen that even experienced authors could learn a thing or two from, while Tally brought a southern wit to his stories about handling criticism politely.

I chased this enjoyable panel with “Face to Face Slushpile” with host Gray Rinehart, slush pile editor for Baen Books. There, I picked up several tips on publishing:

  • If possible, learn the name of the editor. Research helps. It also helps to connect the publisher with what you are submitting (Baen Books publishes military sci-fi, etc).
  • Shorter is better. Screwing up grammar or spelling in your cover letter will be a death sentence.
  • Keep synopses of various lengths. Some editors want 2 pages, others want 4 or 8.
  • Avoid cheat words on the synopsis. Never use “somehow.”
  • You don’t have control over your title. It’s a suggestion, but may change per market needs.

During a break from the panels, I decided to explore more of Mysticon’s other attractions. Now, an unspoken axiom goes that should one value the antiquated, head to the country. The nature of cities demands the efficient and innovative; maximum value in minimal volume. But the spaciousness of the rural countryside is more tolerant of the obsolete.

Hence the showroom is packed with items and media that time has made rare. I found myself rummaging among aging copies of Marvel properties and looking through long, out-of-print novels. I even ended up purchasing a few of the aging Shadowrun novels.

But the most eye-widening discovery here was the game selections available on every floor of Mysticon. Floors higher than the second had various kinds of card and board games, along with hordes of people to play. But the second floor boasted a full-blown arcade: an arcade of games for every console system ever made. Attendants at a store room offered to swap out cartridges and CDs to a vast library of titles.

Onomatopoeia Man at Mysticon.

I had to discipline myself, lest hours be gorged trying titles from my youth I desperately wanted to enjoy.

At 1:00 pm, I attended the “Creating an Author Platform to Promote Yourself on Social Media” panel, which included authors Nicole Zoltack and Pamela K. Kinney. The expounded the values of mailing lists, how comic book writers should try Instagram for artistic possibilities, and how the TV Tropes page can drive net traffic. The big tip from that was to push to get sequel novels onto “upcoming new release” lists, just because people may go check out the first installment.

A solid tip I heard for any cosplayers out there was to wear their costumes on Saturday, and try to enjoy the attendant con on Friday and Sunday. Especially given the Costume Masquerade held at 7:00 pm. The event was preceded by a gentle trivia contest, before rolling out with a spectacle of Harley Quinns, Plague Doctors and Green Arrows.

The night ended at 2:00 am with another fantastic show. A joy of travel is the chance to enjoy local flavors, particularly music. And Mysticon lined up quite a talented batch of bands.

Bella Morte, who performed at the Mysticon music show.

The show began with the brooding, industrial lyrics of Gild the Mourn. I was on my feet for the hilarious and scream-filled Gothsicles, who made game references to Goonies II and NES Ice Hockey. And by the dark wave tunes of Bella Morte, I was rocking with the rest of the crowd. I would highly recommend giving each band a listen on the Bandcamp links included here.

So wowed, I couldn’t resist the chance to grab a few DVDs and ask the bands for their autographs. And they were awesome people to chat with, still grinning wide from the euphoria of a great show.

By Sunday, I was on the road home. But the insight that came with me was eye-opening; a mix of business and fun, a chance to rehash the stuff I miss and root around for the new. And I found myself looking forward to Mysticon next year…

About James Fadeley

James is a short story author and novelist who spends way too much time playing video games. His first novel, The Gift of Hadrborg is based on The Banner Saga universe. If you think yourself insane, he can be followed on Twitter @JamesFadeley.