If you attended the Geek Thoughts: Top Blogs Discuss Writing About Science Fiction, Fantasy and Fandom panel at New York Comic Con this past weekend then you discovered the terrible secret behind what makes sci-fi/fantasy blogs like io9, Blastr, Boing Boing, The Mary Sue, Bleeding Cool, and Tor.com so entertaining: We’re all complete goofballs.
Really smart total goofballs, that is. The panel, moderated by Tor.com’s Ryan Britt, went into both the practical and quirkier bits of what it’s like to fashion minute-to-minute sci-fi/fantasy/comics news and original content for a wide internet audience. And revealed the sharp, deeply terrified wit that drives it all forward.
The panel consisted of Cyriaque Lamar of io9, Jamie Frevele of Boing Boing, Jill Pantozzi of The Mary Sue, Rich Johnston of Bleeding Cool, and Craig Engler of Blastr. (Heidi MacDonald of The Beat was also slated to attend, but couldn’t make it due to a family emergency.)
The panelists and Britt kept the discussion rolling smoothly throughout the entire hour, with jokes and helpful information being rolled out at a rapid pace. We’ve quoted out some of the highlights below.
How we approach breaking nerd news. What’s our first reaction?
Jamie Frevele: Just panic. That’s how that works.
Rich Johnston: I feel an advantage living in London because, due to the time zone difference, we get news while you’re asleep or out. I get time to think about it! Plus, Bleeding Cool tries to get to stories before the PR circuit does, just so we can have time to think about how to frame it. Although generally panicking is a good description.
Cyriaque Lamar: You don’t proofread it so it’s basically insane beat poetry when it hits the web.
Craig Engler: We have long discussions at the [Blastr] office about how to handle incoming news. What’s going to be important to the reader? Do you just want to get the information out as quickly as possible or do you have to put it into context? We have long debates on whether to rush something or whether to wait or whether to cover it in greater detail. Really, every story is different.
But if it’s something like Joss Whedon you just put it up there because there’s nothing we’re going to say, or need to say, that’s going to make you stop and consider him.
On the personal nerd loves/biases of the panelists:
Jamie: I am NOT a Batman person. I was the lone non-Batman…woman…at The Mary Sue.
I also wrote an article about Ryan Reynolds being in a new Highlander without having seen the movie and people got ANG. RY. But I have seen it since and I liked it! It was fun.
Cyriaque: I read a lot of Tintin at a young age and when you do that you grow to really appreciate cobras and the opium trade… and that’s impossible to explain to adults. Like, yeah, here’s this androgynous boy and he hangs out with a drunk old man in a mansion. And the dog can talk. When the movie came out I was basically twisting arms to get anyone to care about it. “No, it’s great! It’s this weird-looking plastic-y young boy running around with Gollum!” So that’s my pro-bias and I guess my anti-bias is Smallville since I had to recap it.
Ryan Britt (to the audience): I need to know how many Smallville fans are in the house. Because it was on for ten years and I’ve never met anyone who’s ever seen an episode.
Craig: I have a friend who wrote on Smallville and I don’t think even he has seen all the episodes.
Rich: I think honesty is good when writing pieces about things you don’t like because at least you’re dealing with it respectfully. The people who do like it will still see where you’re coming from, even if they don’t agree.
For example, something I had no idea about was My Little Pony. We ran a news piece on it a while ago and it nearly took the server down, but I got no particular personal joy from that. Until last night when I went to a My Little Pony party [at the con]. I got my hair in braids and I saw all the fans’ designs and as of this morning I’m a brony! I can see it now! There’s nothing quite as addictive as talking to a fan about something they love.
Jill: My problem is not things I dislike but things that I like that others do. I’m pretty deeply into Batman but so is Susannah, The Mary Sue’s editor, so who is going to get to write about Batman?
Ryan: Tor.com has that problem with pretty much anything with the words “Star” and “Trek” in them.
Has something you love been tainted by the fact that you’ve had to work with it or write about it every day?
Jill: Comics in general. Seeing how the sausage is made kind of taints it a little bit for me.
Rich: I LOVE seeing how the sausage is made!
Jamie: I had the opposite in that something I had to write about constantly I ended up loving, which was The Avengers. I felt like I was writing five things a day for two months leading up to the movie’s release and it was just… if I have to look at another cat dressed like an Avenger I’m going to kill Batman!
Then I ended up loving it. Seeing it twice. Bought the DVD. Of course! It’s a wonderful movie. But I think it was because I was so dead set against it that I loved it, since it won me over.
Craig (to Jamie): What DO you like?
Jamie: I’m a horror nerd! In the Bruce Campbell panel he blessed the new Evil Dead movie, given it his benediction, in the most amazing way. He said, “If you want me to crown the new female Ash, I will do it my fucking self!” I got so emotional….
Craig: I work in TV and we cover a lot of it so I don’t want to watch TV but because of that I’ve rediscovered my love of comics. I just saw Grant Morrison at his panel and, you know, I’m married and I love my wife but he’s a pretty attractive guy!
And Neil Gaiman’s not bad looking.
Cyriaque: I am so, so burnt out on Big Trouble in Little China, I write something about it every day….
Craig: Fuck you!
Cyriaque: Nah, I don’t get to write about it ENOUGH. I love everything!
Ryan: I love the idea of being exhausted about something so specific. Like… I’m so sick of The Land Before Time! That fandom is wack! That’s the next bronies, by the way, you heard it here.
Jill, do you consider the angle of your particular website while writing?
Jill: As women we write about women regardless, but The Mary Sue is directed at everyone. We love our commenters and it’s great to see guys come on the site and give a thought-provoking perspective. It’s a geek girl site but it can be for everyone and that’s why I love it.
Rich, why are so many geeky things British-based?
Rich: We actually take American stuff, give it a little bit of British life, send it back and you guys are like, “We’ve never seen anything like it before! It’s genius!”
Another thing is that Americans don’t know British actors. So when you see these shows you’re getting these Shakespearean actors or people who have been working in television for decades. You don’t get to see how that particular sausage is made, you see them after years and years of work.
Ryan: Well I was a fan of Billie Piper’s pop music.
Jamie: Do you fancy Billie Piper, sir?
Ryan: I… can’t answer that.
About the hooks and hyperbole in io9’s headlines:
Cyriaque: There’s a kind of P. T. Barnum thing, so you’ve got that going on, but we talk about these weird, arcane facets of well-known properties like the X-Men so you kind of have to condense it. It’s about trying to be as straightforward as possible to a wide audience. And you should swear sometimes. That helps.
Ryan: We’ve discovered the words “tentacle” and “porn” really get people’s attention.
Cyriaque: Yeah, Google is your friend in strange ways.
Any headline phrases that work for the other sites?
Rich: “Make money fast” actually works.
Ryan: So… “Make Money Fast By Watching Reruns of Seaquest”?
Jamie, how do you decide what to cover on Boing Boing?
Jamie: The freedom is terrifying! I still have that instinct of seeing breaking news and trying to write about it immediately, but that’s not my mission. My beat is entertainment and other news that I personally find interesting. If I find something weird anywhere I can write a post about it, like Nicholas Cage’s impression of Pokey from Gumby in the movie Peggy Sue Got Married. Knowing that I can write about any entertainment news is a little intimidating, but if I’m interesting in something then BOOM. I’m there.
Ryan: BOOM. Money. That’s what it’s all about.
Afterwards, Craig related how he did a two-week stint as a guest blogger at Boing Boing and was given absolutely no editorial direction from them at all, realizing that that is the genius of Boing Boing. They pick the writers, but after that they let them do their own thing and present a pure editorial voice.
About seemingly random numbers in Blastr list posts:
Craig: It came from magazine publishing where the newsstand sellers would actually come to you and say “lists of 10 work but lists of 11 work even better because it feels like the reader is getting something extra and that you REALLY thought about the list.” But it doesn’t matter what the number is! Although sometimes we’ll change article that have only 10 because now that seems wrong, it seems artificial.
People know that they can get in and get out of these posts in a certain amount of time. That’s why numbered lists work. The reader knows they’ll get 11 of this or this and not pages and pages of rambling.
On the definitiveness of list posts:
Craig: I’m always telling the editors at Blastr to read the first comment in a list post because that’ll be the first thing you miss, then go back into the article and add it in, then say you added it because it was in the comments. Every time!
Jill: Even if you’re not saying it’s a top…whatever, even if it’s a random list, you’ll get 20 comments saying that no, you missed this important thing and this important thing.
Cyriaque: People like hierarchy, that’s just what it is. Even if it’s just about something like… the number of times Superman’s eye blew out of his head like an exploding cantaloupe.
Jamie: If you know you’re going to read 10 short things or 8 short things then it’s more appealing. Boom, you’re done!
Ryan: BOOM. It happened again.
About fans and appreciations of the panelists work:
Cyriaque: I criticized the song “Howard the Duck” by George Clinton and Thomas Dolby and received an email from Thomas Dolby a week later saying, “Yeah I wasn’t a fan of it either!” I interviewed him two years later and brought it up and “Yeah, Howard the Duck was a time in my life...” is all he would elaborate with.
Rich: I got a lovely piece of Sherlock artwork from Josh Adams a few days after the show premiered and it was absolutely gorgeous, so I sent it off to Steven Moffat. Moffat tweets it and this guy just fell apart with joy.
Jill: I wrote a piece about Barbara Gordon/Batwoman and I still get people, to this day even here at Comic Con, who thank me for it, which feels great.
Cyriaque: It’s great to meet people who read the site in person. Usually I’m drinking coffee at home in my underwear afraid of the outside world, or in the office, so it’s actually nice to see people who read the site. So thank you all for… being in the flesh, I guess!
Rich: When I’m on the international flight to get here I don’t have access to the internet so I write a bunch of stuff beforehand about small press releases that you can buy at New York Comic Con. It’s there on the site in some cases to fill up the space while I’m offline, but then what happens is that I get here and stroll through Artist’s Alley and I get someone coming over to me going, “We just sold out on a Thursday!” The people who read those posts are really passionate about finding new cool stuff and that’s a lot of fun to see.
I was physically assaulted last year at NYCC. I get death threats… But this year it’s been lovely.
Jamie: I try not to read my comments ever because I like to have a good day. Not that commenters are generally mean but… you’re having a good day and then you see that one bad comment and your good day is OVER.
The way I approach writing is like it’s a stand-up comedy show. If you guys love it and you laugh, awesome, but at the end of the show good night and have a good one.
Although when someone says they liked something that I wrote that makes my day. Like… the sun comes out. It’s wonderful. If you tell a blogger that after they’re crunching deadlines all day, staring into a monitor 24 hours straight… you have no idea how good it feels. Knowing that you’re reading and enjoying our work is the best. The absolute best.
But don’t send me mean tweets! I. Don’t. Like. Them.
Ryan: You love mean tweets!
Craig then proceeded to send Jamie a mean message from his Twitter account.
A question from the audience regarding the urge the urge to engage with meaner commenters:
Cyriaque: Whenever something really gets my goat I just imagine that one of the ghosts from Pac-Man is typing at me. Because how could I stay angry at them? They’re funny! They’re like these crazy, wild ghosts! That sounds stupid but that actually defuses me to the point where I can take five and walk away.
Rich: There’s a trick a policeman taught me once that when you’re dealing with absolute scum, be incredibly polite and respectful. People can scream at you but you never scream back. Staying polite is key.
A question from the audience regarding how freelancers can get their work out there:
Jamie: Can I say that you should be a whore? Not a sexual one! Put your stuff out there, email tons of people, because you have no idea who’s going to say yes. All it takes is one person with a thousand Twitter followers to tweet your thing and it can blow up.
Rich: Put your stuff out there on a weekend or a holiday. You might not get hits but someone looking for news outside of the usual cycle will find your article.
Craig: If you’re writing about someone or writing about something that you know someone is interested in, tweet it at them. Let them know.
Ryan: Send The Land Before Time stuff to me.
A question from the audience on how a freelance blogger can differentiate themselves from the masses:
Cyriaque: Have your thing that you’re known for. Readers may not know your name but they know what you do.
Jill: Stay true to your own voice. If it’s just you and your personality, that’s what’s going to attract people to your writing. Because everyone, no matter how similar they are, has a different writing style.
Rich: I expect there’s something that you as a writer really, really like that isn’t being written about as much as you think it should be. And I bet there’s a whole bunch of people who would like to read that, they just haven’t found it yet.
There’s something that you love more than anything else, and that’s what you need to write about.
And that was the panel! A big thank you goes out to our lovely, ridiculously funny panelists and a big thank you goes out to YOU for attending the panel and/or and reading this!
All photos by Irene Gallo. See the entire set here.
Chris Lough is the production manager of Tor.com and was the guy you saw getting into Stubby the Rocket outside after the panel. Be well, Earth.