How to Grow a Con

Last weekend I attended RadCon in Pasco, WA.  For those of you just passing through, a con is a Science Fiction/Fantasy convention.  It’s a great place to network with professional peers and editors, meet up with old friends, and new fans.  There are parties, panel discussions,  autograph sessions, writing workshops, table top and live action role play games, and costume contests. The most important meeting place is the coffee shop or the bar.

RadCon is named for Radiation Containment (or something similar) since the nearby Hanford Nuclear reservation is the largest employer in the region.  I like to think they named it for me after I was Guest of Honor in 2003.

That’s me doing a reading on Friday afternoon.

Lately when I take stock of the people who attend cons—I do 3-4 a year—I notice more and more grey hair.  The same people who attended the first edition of the con are the same ones coming this year.  The same corps of volunteers who started the con are still running it.  There has been little influx of new members.

Not RadCon.  In the 7 years I’ve been trekking 200 miles east of Portland, Oregon for this grand party, the demographic remains 18-24 rather than 45 creeping towards 60.

How do they do that?

RadCon sponsors 2 programs that have kept it young and vibrant with a constant flow of new volunteers.

First they send the professional authors attending the con into the schools.  This year I spent 2½ hours in the library of Kiona-Benton High talking with 2 different groups of students.  I’ve been here before.  Some of the students had heard about me from older siblings who have since graduated.  Part of every talk is a plotting workshop.  We begin with the question “Male of female?”  Then we decided age, ethnic and socio-economic background.  Most important I ask what this person wants most out of life and what keeps him/her from achieving it.

Some years I have to pry ideas out of the student’s heads like digging for worms.  This year I got lucky with 4 students on an accelerated program where they attend community college half day and high school the other half.  They were bright and eager.  We had a rough outline of a book in about 10 minutes.  During the second talk they scribbled notes, filling page after page, actually starting the story.

I loved the idea too.  We made a challenge, all of us will come back next year and compare manuscripts.  I’ve got my work cut out for me to keep up with them.

Of course I recommended the con to all the students as an opportunity to explore science fiction and fantasy as literature, as media, as a costume event, or gaming.  Most cons have a series of panels on the craft of writing.

The second program to bring in more young people to the con is a writing contest for high school and middle school students.  Aspiring authors are eager to get their stuff read by pros.  Any student who enters pays $10 to cover the cost of copying the story and mailing it to a panel of professional writers for judging.  That $10 also gets them a weekend pass to the con and half price membership for the rest of their family.  Parents like escorting the kids for at least the first year until they realize it is a “safe” environment.

Prizes are solicited from the vendors attending the con and from local businesses, especially book stores.  Finalists may get a one-on-one critique of their story with a professional writer.  The writer has strict instructions to encourage the student to keep writing.

RadCon does not just welcome young people to attend the con, they reach out and ensnare them.


Phyllis Irene Radford blogs at the Book View Cafe on Thursdays the same day her cozy mystery “Lacing Up For Murder” is serialized on the front page.  She posts more frequently about a wide variety of subjects as ramblin_phyl on Live Journal, or Phyllis Irene Radford on Facebook.  Visit her bookshelf or her website for a full list of titles.


About Phyllis Irene Radford

Irene Radford has been writing stories ever since she figured out what a pencil was for. A member of an endangered species—a native Oregonian who lives in Oregon—she and her husband make their home in Welches, Oregon where deer, bears, coyotes, hawks, owls, and woodpeckers feed regularly on their back deck. A museum trained historian, Irene has spent many hours prowling pioneer cemeteries deepening her connections to the past. Raised in a military family she grew up all over the US and learned early on that books are friends that don’t get left behind with a move. Her interests and reading range from ancient history, to spiritual meditations, to space stations, and a whole lot in between. Mostly Irene writes fantasy and historical fantasy including the best-selling Dragon Nimbus Series and the masterwork Merlin’s Descendants series. In other lifetimes she writes urban fantasy as P.R. Frost or Phyllis Ames, and space opera as C.F. Bentley. Later this year she ventures into Steampunk as someone else. If you wish information on the latest releases from Ms Radford, under any of her pen names, you can subscribe to her newsletter: Promises of no spam, merely occasional updates and news of personal appearances.


How to Grow a Con — 3 Comments

  1. I too love the youth aspect of RadCon and wish other cons would take notes on such. Lots of resistance seems to be the rule locally for some reason.

  2. The SF/F community is supposed to be as progressive as the literature, leading the way into the future, embracing technology, etc.

    But it worked 20 years ago, shouldn’t be their mantra but it often is.

    More like: The power of leading this con is mine, you can have it only when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.

  3. I’ll be going to my first Scifi/Fantasy Con in Memphis next month with some other writer friends – we are so looking forward to it! I’m definitely not in the youth category, but just the anticipation of doing something that just seems so much fun has me feeling young.