With another year’s FantasyCon now in the rearview mirror, we asked Teika Marija Smits to reflect on her experience. Here’s what she delivered.
(And stay tuned for news of FantasyCon 2024, coming very very soon!)
Fantasycon 2023 (by way of the 7 basic plots)
Probably one of the best known plots in the fantasy genre is ‘the quest’. Famous examples are Homer’s Odyssey and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Sometimes, just getting to Fantasycon is a quest in itself. I certainly felt very hot and bothered and somewhat teary when I got lost in Birmingham after leaving the train station and asking a local (or so he claimed) for directions to the Leonardo Royal Hotel. Reader, he sent me off to the Bullring – which is in completely the opposite direction! (And Birmingham sure does love its bulls; the one pictured stands proud in the middle of Birmingham New Street train station.)
Thankfully, I had enough sense to realise that I was going the wrong way, made a U-turn and then dragged myself and my super heavy suitcase in the right direction. Just as I was approaching the hotel, I met with the ever-lovely and talented writer, Tim Major, and that serendipitous meeting seemed like a good way to start the con proper.
The con itself consisted of a series of micro quests: check in; get to my room; get ready for the NewCon Press book launch; don’t muff up my prepared few words about my debut short story collection, Umbilical; remember to eat and sleep enough; get to my reading and panels on time. Not to mention the other “quest list” in my head, which was mainly about catching up with friends and speaking to as many of the lovely members of the fantasy community as possible. Thankfully, I pretty much successfully completed all my quests, though there were, as usual, a few people that I didn’t get around to talking to for long enough. Ah well, there’s always next year…
Overcoming the Monster
Another well-known basic plot involves a lowly hero having to muster his or her own inner strength to fight the seemingly invincible monster. Examples I’m sure you’ll be familiar with are Jaws and virtually every James Bond film. But this plot has been around for a long time, as we can see from the Epic of Gilgamesh and Beowulf. Thankfully, there weren’t any real monsters to slay at Fantasycon (only fictional ones!), but I did note a slithery and potentially monstrous shadowy creature lurking in my own psyche that in some way I did have to overcome. You see, when in a room full of well-known literary folk, and particularly when on a panel with some incredibly talented people, I find it easy to become starstruck and begin to question my own worth.
What can I bring to this panel? I’m not experienced enough! And who’s interested in listening to me read from my book – I haven’t got enough publications to my name! Maybe they’ll all realize I’m a literary fraud and run off laughing! etc etc
And as Yoda wisely explained to Luke Skywalker, anxiety and fear can lead to a whole host of negative emotions which can transform us into monsters…
Thankfully, I’m now at an age where I can more easily shrug and think: Oh well, they’ll get what they get!
But also, experience has taught me that the people who attend Fantasycon are pretty much unfailingly supportive and interested in each other’s writing and careers. Even (and sometimes especially) the “biggest” name authors.
Voyage and Return
The classic example of the Voyage and Return plot is Alice in Wonderland, in which a heroine finds herself in a completely different and magical world. Journeying from the familiarity of home and everyday life to Fantasycon kind of mirrors this plot. For one weekend, it really does feel like you’re in a completely different world; a world in which magic is in the air. And when hearing authors read from their books, the listener can travel even further by going into any number of different realms, and they can even take those wonderful realms away with them in the form of a book. Of course, there’s always the jolt of reality when going back home – the pile of laundry to deal with and work emails to answer – but as an introvert who loves her home, it’s still lovely to be “back to base”, as we say in our family.
Thankfully, tragedy – on the scale of Macbeth, say, or Romeo and Juliet – was not to be found at Fantasycon. But still… if you’ll allow me to stretch the definition, I would say that I did experience a certain tristesse at the awards evening, and also when saying goodbye to friends at the end of the con. Because there is a hint of sadness, a definitiveness, to conclusions, although they might be the most heart-warming of conclusions. It’s the closing of the door on other possibilities, such as there being a different outcome to the judges’ decisions. It’s also the knowledge that you’ll only see certain friends the following year rather than the following day. But, of course, that’s just life. We cannot experience all the potential outcomes or paths we’d like to go down. There is only the one path. (So thank goodness for fiction which allows us to explore alternate realities!)
Okay, time to lighten the mood with a bit of comedy. According to Christopher Booker (the author of The Seven Basic Plots), the basic plot of comedy dates back to the ancient Greeks, and at its heart it’s about a hero and heroine overcoming all odds in order to be together. It also usually involves a scheming patriarch or matriarch, a bunch of disguises and a whole host of amusing misunderstandings. (Think Terry Pratchett’s, Mort.) Nowadays, the plot of comedy either tends to romance or to laughs, but I’m sure that most readers and movie-goers will know what to expect from something that is billed as ‘comedy’. Fantasycon, being an event in which to catch up with friends, is full of good humoured laughter. Particularly when you happen to have lovely friends like Donna Scott and Neil Bond, who are very talented comedians. (Go check out their shows!)
But there was also the comedy of the everyday that couldn’t help but make me smile, such as the fancy Nespresso coffee machine in my hotel bedroom that only made a decent coffee one in every three goes, prompting me to either take a hammer to it, or to laugh at the ridiculousness of me oohing over a fancy coffee machine. Never again!
Oh, and there was also the time when a certain middle-aged woman decided to do some karate instead of a reading at the launch of the BFS anthology, Portraits of Patriarchs. Now, that was rather amusing…!
(Pictured right, the author showing off her moves.)
Rags to Riches
A staple story of the literary world is the one in which an unknown writer signs with an agent, gets a book deal, and then goes on to become one of the bestselling authors ever… It’s a classic tale of rags to riches, just like the fairy tale, ‘Cinderella’, and I’m pretty sure that there isn’t a writer out there who hasn’t entertained the fleeting thought/hope that maybe, just maybe, that might be their story one day… Now, Fantasycon, being a place where writers, agents and editors mingle, is just such an environment in which that fairy tale could become a reality. Unhelpfully, my memory has gone blank right now, so I can’t regale you with stories of bestselling authors to whom this has happened, but certainly, Fantasycon IS a place in which good publishing-related stuff happens to writers.
Indeed, it was at my first ever Fantasycon (in Peterborough in 2017) that I met Ian Whates of NewCon Press, who is now my publisher. Knowing that he published genre short story collections, I introduced myself to him and asked his opinion on whether it was okay to mash together SF, horror and fantasy in a debut collection. He couldn’t give me an answer at the time – he had to rush off to a panel – but about five years later (and after I’d written a hell of a lot more short stories) he called me to ask if I’d like to publish a collection with NewCon Press. Of course I said yes! That collection became Umbilical,which was launched at Fantasycon 2023. So if you went to Fantasycon and approached an agent or editor about your book, I wish you the very best of luck! And keep us updated!
It’s often said that writing is a lonely pursuit. And while that can be true, I think that nowadays we’re incredibly fortunate in having access to the online community of genre writers – a community that happens to be super supportive. (I can still remember the pre-internet days when I knew zero writers, and submissions had to be sent by post.) Certainly, whenever I’ve hit a low spot, I’ve always been able to message or phone a writing pal to have a good, restorative chat. That said, there’s nothing quite like meeting with writing friends in real life and getting excited and inspired by their love and enthusiasm for the craft. And I know that others feel like that too. It’s almost as if we arrive at Fantasycon somewhat jaded or fatigued by the whole writing thing (even, perhaps, a little Scroogish), and then we’re transformed and leave reborn; newly alive to the possibilities and joys of writing…
A HUGE thank you to all the organizers and volunteers who made Fantasycon 2023 such a wonderful event. Roll on 2024!
Teika Marija Smits is a UK-based writer and freelance editor. She writes poetry and fiction, and her speculative short stories have been published in IZ Digital, Parsec, Reckoning, Shoreline of Infinity, Best of British Science Fiction and Great British Horror 6. Her debut poetry pamphlet, Russian Doll, was published by Indigo Dreams Publishing in March 2021, and Umbilical, her first collection of short stories, was published by NewCon Press in August 2023. A fan of all things fae, she is delighted by the fact that Teika means fairy tale in Latvian. She can be found at her website, or via @MarijaSmits on Twitter/X.