Con? What Con?

Steve was editor of the Intersection newsletter Voice of the Mysterons. Not everything went according to plan...

Wednesday: Arrive at con, find that no-one knows where our rental computers are. Nobody knows where the paper is and nobody knows where anything else is. However, Chris from Gestetner has arrived and shows us how to work the duplicator. He keeps trying to sell the features of the machine and I keep telling him that I sweated blood persuading Intersection to pay for a Gestetner instead of getting a copier for free from Xerox. He leaves us the phone number of someone who'll come out and fix it if anything goes wrong, Bank Holiday or not.

Go and hunt for the other supplies. Discover vast quantity of paper in secure store. Mike Scott and I form ourselves into a horde of gophers and carry it upstairs to the newsroom in the manner of ants. No stencils or ink. I go hunting and discover find them in the film programme (the obvious place really, wonder why I didn't think of that earlier?) along with... two computers! Go and ask Ops if they are mine. Ops tell me that Gytha is looking for me to tell me that she can't find my computers. Eventually return to Hall 2 and find the computers being hauled away. But not to the newsroom. Discover from Richard the Rampant that, yes, these are my computers, but they have to be electrically tested. It appears that when they tested a random rental machine, it failed the test, so now all the machines have to be tested, as well as all our own gear. Fortunately, I brought a lot of spare power leads, just in case.

Set up and arrange newsroom despite an almost complete absence of tables. Find two tables from Hall 4 (they don't really need that many tables for kaffeklatches, surely? And despite having ordered five, we haven't got any). Eventually the first machine comes back from testing so we can start work at last.... It's the crappy 8086 I brought only for use in emergencies and it doesn't run anything remotely usable. At last we get one of the rental 486s back. It's got Windows but has no mouse...try spare doesn't work...plug in ancient trackball thrown in at last works! Start to install Office. Turns out to be wrong version of Office. Try floppies. Turn out to be upgrade only and it won't install. Panic. Go hunting round convention for copies of Word. Eventually get one from Wim van der Bospoort's laptop. We're up and running, but wait... I load in the template and there's no sign of our font. To hell with it.

Start entering text for Wednesday issue of VoM, it's about 6pm now and we're all getting frazzled, but I'm determined to get an issue out tonight. People keep coming up with new stories that absolutely have to go in and so we keep reducing the size of type and stripping out the silly filler stories that we prepared in advance. Eventually, we try and do a test-print. We attach the rental laser-printer and discover that it's leaving a streak down each page and we can't change the cartridge. Try other printer. This one seems to be using some obscure emulation and just produces pages of gibberish. We go back to the streaky one. We look at the printout and realise that our watermark number isn't there. By now, it's about 8pm and we were supposed to be going out to eat at 7pm. We don't have a number, we don't have our typeface, we don't have a masthead but we do have a lot of text. We say "Sod it!" and print (removing the streaks from the printout with Tippex fluid).

A typical rental computer

Nine pm. Issue 0 hits the Concourse and the VoM editorial team head for Mr Singh's India in a heap of frazzled nerves. Can we keep it up for the whole con?

Thursday. In the light of day and following a dubious night's sleep on the 24th floor of the YMCA, everything seems a lot better (even if the lift has stuck on the 25th, due to being full of Croatians, and we have to carry all our luggage down 24 flights of stairs). We go back to the newsroom, find and install the missing font, set up the assorted computers so everything is accessible, Chris O'Shea fixes the problem with the watermark numbers, Mike Scott fixes the problem with the printer emulation and we abandon the streaky printer to its fate. We still don't have a masthead picture so Mike goes looking for Sue Mason who does one on the spot and we size it to fit using the photocopier. Just in time, because shortly afterwards, the photocopier starts churning out black sheets and we have to call the engineer. But the Gestetner is still chugging away happily (having done about 5000 sheets as opposed to the 50 sheets that the photocopier's done)!

We start to do our first real issue and run into our first real problems. We do have some volunteers and these rapidly divide into the essential (like Jan van t'Ent, Kathy Westhead and Tom Becker), the occasionally usable, and Robert Sacks, who unfortunately puts everybody's backs up by whirling in and apparently trying to take over.

We manage two issues on Thursday and set the tone for the whole con. Basically, I eat, drink and sleep in the newsroom, occasionally getting away when it's not my shift. The shift leaders run their shifts and help out on most of the other shifts. We keep having to pad stories out because the long articles submitted by people like Robert have to be cut right down to make them at all readable. We also have to chuck out a fair proportion of stories because they are either too cryptic, too insulting or just totally uninteresting. At this point we're running a system based on PostIt notes -- we attach a PostIt to each story and put the scrap of paper it's on into a tray, when we use the story it goes into another tray -- which does have some major disadvantages.

Distribution is proving to be a problem. We decided to go for boxes with "News" in huge letters on a fluorescent pink background. If I was doing this again, I might see what I could do with the idea of distribution racks -- the problem with boxes is that they sit on a table and aren't visible through a crowd.

Friday. Get to newsroom late and am told by grinning staff member that they have solved the Robert Sacks problem. Still don't know what they did, except that we don't see Robert again all con and I am now on Kevin Standlee's blacklist (maybe he was hoping Robert would stay in the newsroom for the weekend).

Things seem to be going smoothly... and then various members of the committee start taking me aside and whispering contradictory stories about John Brunner's health and what we can and cannot print. I'm also handed two separate party reports for the previous night (I've never really seen the point of party reports and I wasn't going to bother) so since Dana Siegel is there being useful, I run hers. Big mistake. It appears that (i) she's been rather derogatory about some parties which, it appears, just isn't done in Worldcon newsletters. But also (ii) Scott Bobo and Kurt Baty have committee approval to supply party reports to the newsletter. Deep sigh. Promise Kurt and Scott that I'll run their reports in future, apologise to Dana and make mental note to blame her if anyone complains about the review.

Then Martin Easterbrook turns up and hauls me away to the SFWA suite and breaks the news. John Brunner is dead. Things get very emotional for a while and then we discuss what to do. This isn't something we'd even thought of planning for. We decide to do a short announcement so we can have it out in the SECC before any rumours start flying around. We also agree that we will do a proper memorial edition the next day. Martin and Vince want me to do the announcement in secret, but there's no way to keep something like this hidden from the rest of the newsroom. I bind them to secrecy for the next half hour, lock the newsroom door and we get to work. We make it just a short announcement, with the Romeo and Juliet quote at the foot. I also decide to use the VoM logo so people know this is official, but remove the masthead cartoon as being out of place in a formal announcement. Then we distribute by hand, with the board's assistance, to as many places as we can reach. I think this was the best solution and I think we did a good job. The only problem we had was that someone with more feeling than sense takes it upon themself to go around removing all copies of the previous issue in which we announced that John was sick in hospital. I nearly hit the roof, check with the board that this hasn't originated with them and prepare to reprint that issue. Fortunately, we find the missing newsletters under a table in Security and redistribute those instead. (This still annoys me, months later. You don't destroy newspapers because they refer to someone who's since died, do you? You just print the news in the next edition).

Steve working hard...

Saturday. The newsroom is packed with people typing in stuff for the John Brunner tribute. It quickly becomes obvious that we're going to have too much material and we're trying diplomatically to get all these famous authors and BNFs to restrict themselves to a single paragraph. We're also trying to get a morning issue of the newsletter out at the same time and we're so short of real copy that we're reduced to lists of videos and dubious gossip. A member of the team, who shall remain nameless, scrapes the bottom of the barrel and fills in the final hole with a couple of lines on how we were so late getting out the Friday night issue that we missed the free booze at the publishers' party. Everyone's so relieved about finishing that it doesn't really register that the story is headlined "Scum! Scum! Scum!" since we're pre-occupied with ripping bits out of the Brunner tribute. In the end, we manage by an amazing feat of layout to get all the pieces intact into the Brunner Special, albeit at a much reduced typesize and not in the order that we had been trying for. Everybody totally exhausted and emotionally wrung-out. We go to press. We distribute. Everybody very happy with Brunner tribute. Then we learn that the publishers... No, let me rephrase that. One editor has seen that piece of last-minute filler and been so outraged that she is threatening to walk out of the convention and leave the bill for the publishers' party to be paid by the con. Several people say that it might be worth it, but we agree to apologise in the next issue of VoM. We do.

According to our schedule, for the Saturday night issue we have to include the Masquerade results and the site selection. The site selection's not that much of a problem, Kevin Standlee turns up with the figures early on -- except that Kevin tells us the figures are unofficial until the next day's business meeting. We run it anyway, putting in lots of "allegedly"s and "from a usually reliable source" into the story. The Masquerade, on the other hand, is a problem. We send a couple of newsletter people down to be in the audience and try to arrange to get the results from the MC or the judges. However, the usual masquerade confusion messes everything up and we can't get hold of anyone to give us an official list of prize winners. Eventually we have to put together a list and hope it's right. We make a couple of minor errors but mostly it's correct.

Sunday. Today we're doing the spoof as well as the usual three issues. Fortunately, we've mostly sub-contracted the spoof to Alison Scott and Steven Cain so it's not nearly as frantic as Saturday. Yes, everything's going OK... until we get told that the publishers are refusing to accept our apology in Issue 7 and want a really serious groveling apology or else they're going to go away and never come to an SF convention ever again. Serious debate follows on whether or not we actually need the publishers. After all they are an incredible amount of hassle to deal with and most convention attendees wouldn't miss them. It's not as if it was someone important like the agents or the bookdealers, anyway. Still, we agree that we'll try running another apology and Jan offers to go and grovel personally (for which I am forever in his debt, really I should have gone and done it). Amazingly, this seems to work.

The system for submitting stories has now completely broken down, so we invent a new one which works much better. We run off a hundred or so submission sheets with boxes for who submitted the story, when it was submitted, when it expires by etc. and we attach one of these to each story instead of a scrappy PostIt. Everything suddenly becomes organised and efficient. We really should have been doing this from the start; life would have been ever so much easier. Since we also insist that anyone submitting a story writes it out on the sheet, we're getting better source material because it's forcing them to do a re-write.

So today, we have to print the Hugo results and what I want to do is have them ready at the doors as the audience leaves the ceremony. Mike Moir took a lot of convincing before he would agree to give us the results in advance but eventually he saw my point of view after I swore a terrible oath that I would keep them secret until after the ceremony or see my figgin placed upon a spike. Just before the Hugos, Mike comes to the newsroom and gives me three sealed envelopes (one for us, one for Locus and one for Science Fiction Chronicle) each containing a disk and a printout. He leaves and we lock the doors and wait for the ceremony to start. Tension mounts. Eventually we reach the agreed hour and break the seal on our envelope. Nothing really surprising. Alex takes the disk, sticks it in the drive... and all hell breaks loose. The memory-resident virus checker starts screaming its head off, I punch the eject button on the drive closely followed by the off-switch. I dig the anti-virus stuff out of the box of bits and we check the hard drive. Clean. We check the floppy. Virus detected in the boot sector. Oh shit. We start to type in the results from the printout. Then it occurs to someone, what about those other two sealed envelopes? So we open the other envelopes, check the disks (both clean, by the way) and reseal them with me signing my name across the seal together with an brief note saying "opened for virus check". Be still my trembling heart. And we go to press not a moment too soon because the ceremony is nearly over. We do a short run of 500 copies and take them out still slightly wet, just in time to catch the first people leaving the hall. Phew! Go and watch fireworks while trusty Jan prints the other 2500 copies. Oh, and I explain to Mike Moir how the other envelopes came to be opened, and circulate a general virus warning to all areas of the convention using computers.

Monday. After all that, anything would be a relief. Things go swimmingly, Dave Kyle comes upstairs and is complimentary about VoM as are a number of other people. Ah! Egoboo! Actually, nothing beats the feeling of distributing a newsletter and having hordes of people descend on you for copies and go away laughing at the jokes you've spent several hours agonising over. We were only going to do two issues today, but we end up doing the usual three, anyway (even if we do have to include a big picture of Samuel Delany to fill up space). Jan even has time to do some reprints of early issues for people who missed them. Of course tonight's is the last issue...

Tuesday. Oh, come on, we've got to do an issue today. If only we can get to the newsroom before Gestetner come and take their machine away. So we do. We even get it out before Kurt and Scott come around with their dead dog party report (which I've still got lying around somewhere, come to think of it. Shame to waste it...). I think we're the last area to clear out of the SECC, but everyone seems to appreciate having a post-con issue. Chris from Gestetner turns up and is more than mildly boggled when he discovers that we've run the machine well past its next service point over the weekend. I tell him that any time Gestetner want a testimonial I'll give him anything they want and personally I want that machine's babies. The photocopier (may it rust in Hell) broke down twice and ended up doing about 600 copies, max., mostly fan repro and resizing fillos. The Gestetner on the other hand has never faltered and has provided an endless supply of sensawunda from fans coming into the newsroom and saying "Hey! That photocopier sounds just like a mimeo..."

Then he wheels the duplicator into the lift and, for us, the con is over.

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