vcon37I just completed a program book for VCON, a mid-sized science fiction convention, for the third year in a row. Sample Reaction?

“For someone who knows bugger all about computers you’ve done a fantastic job!”

Typically I prepare content for one flat (four pages) of heavy photo stock glossy paper in full colour, and nine flats (thirty-six pages) of twenty lb white paper in black and white.

The Colour flat is easiest. You farm out the cover to the Artist Guest of Honour, the back cover to the fool who volunteered to chair next year’s convention (so he can create an ad promoting same), and the inside covers to the local merchants who actually make enough money in today’s economy to pay for ads.

When the time comes you present a USB stick containing individual files of the four cover pages in an amusing range of individual file formats (PNG, TIFF, JPG, etc.) to the printers while screaming “Full bleed! Full bleed!” They like that. Seems they know what it means. I don’t.

Now comes the hard part, editing 36 pages of text, photographs and illustrations you haven’t got yet because none of the promised contributors submitted anything by your deadline. Not a problem. Threaten them. Tell them you’ll make up stuff and place their name prominently at the head of the gibberish you’ve concocted. Articles will pour in.

You need to create a mock-up copy so you can keep track of what goes where. Take 10 sheets of ordinary paper, stack them, turn them sideways, fold them, then staple the crease with a long-reach stapler (all genuine faneds have a long-reach stapler) and voila! 40 page mock-up!

Holding pen firmly in hand, print in bold block letters on the front cover the words “FRONT COVER” so that from then on you’ll know exactly what it is. Do the same for the inside front cover, only use the words “INSIDE FRONT COVER” to prevent confusion. Then write “PAGE” on the next page, put a “1” beside it, and circle the “1” in vivid red ink as many times as you deem necessary. Carry on for the rest of the pages as appropriate. When done you will feel an enormous sense of accomplishment and completion, which is a great way to begin the task of editing a program book.

Next, take a pencil and write on page one “LIST OF GOHS” and “TABLE OF CONTENTS.” Not only can you tell at a glance WHICH page it is, but also WHAT page it is. Can’t go wrong with this system.

Why a pencil? The program book you envision never materializes as conceived. What you thought would fill four pages invariably fills six, or one. Change is inevitable. With an eraser you can remove the designated purpose of a given page then pencil in a new purpose. Thus you maintain situational awareness. Some people advocate spread sheets or such-like programs, but computers are no good at this sort of complicated business. Trust me. Use pencil and paper.

However, I do rely on the latest cutting edge computer technology to prepare the actual master file, namely MICROSOFT WORD. With this you can place one page after another (a concept I easily grasp), fill them up with junk, turn it into a PDF file, and proudly hand it to the printers. Apparently they know what to do with it.

A word on layout: I am famous for my insistence that a program book’s layout should be as simple as possible so that it can be easily eye-tracked for information quickly located and absorbed at a glance. No confusing fancy stuff (which I don’t know how to do anyway).

Basically, I use a two-column format with Times Roman font at eleven-point size. That’s it. I go crazy sometimes, underlining headings and bold-facing titles and that sort of madness, but generally I don’t waste no stinking time contemplating layout. Leaving a blank line between paragraphs is about as far out on a limb as I’m prepared to go.

vcon36 coverYou might say I have removed the task of layout from the job description of editor. Bloody genius if you ask me.

And now a few tips on the more essential tasks:

Guest of Honour section: Ideally, one page per GoH. They insist on sending you a photograph of themselves, a masterpiece of composition and lighting they paid a fortune to a professional photographer to provide. Just crop the darn thing till their face fills the image and stick that in. Put their name under it. Good enough.

Make absolutely certain each GoH photo printed is exactly the same size as all the other GoH portraits. You’ll never hear the end of it if you don’t.

Program Participants section: reserve for panelists. They think you’re going to assign them as much space as you give the GoHs, so tend to submit excessively long biographical essays whose artistry and profundity will bring tears to your eyes. Toss them. Give them four lines each.

Be aware that the four lines you choose to use need to be heavily reduced versions of what they submitted. Never use verbatim.


“How well I remember my many summers at my uncle’s country estate by the sacred river Avon, lying amidst the pleasant dandelions on the seedy lawn by the water’s edge, absorbing from lugubrious tomes keen lessons on how to conduct spritely orgies as revealed in the happy letters of Caligula, Casanova and Rasputin…”

Replace with:

“I am a lecherous drunk.” Readers will thank you for the brevity and for the warning.

Dealers Room Map: This is a complicated task to prepare. Dealers will compete tooth and claw to be located as near the entrance as possible. They will argue their right to weld metal jewellery amid highly flammable corsets. What do you care? Not your responsibility. Just tell the person in charge of the department to submit a JPG file. Insert it. Job done.

Art Show Room Map: Ditto.

Assorted Event Articles: Gaming room, Costume Contest, Hospitality, etc. Long list of games scheduled? Longer list of contest rules? Humongous catalogue of Vegan snack alternatives? Pressed for space? No problem. In every case substitute “TO BE ANNOUNCED.” You’ll save tons of space.

Programming: A hodgepodge of essays detailing not only what the panels are all about but also the significance and importance of said topics? Not what the convention members want to read. Just print the gist so they can figure out whether to attend.

Two examples of how to edit programming items:

Example One:

Saturn’s Day, Star Date 7[00] Parsec 770 to Quadrant 8[00] Lunar time Martian Solstice


Gather to commiserate with outraged legendary Secret Masters of Fandom who will, with impeccable logic and eloquent fury, eviscerate the miserable scum who call themselves science fiction fans merely because they like science fiction. If time permits, an auto-da-fé of them as use the term “sci-fi” will follow. Moderated by Lord Pilaser Suggoth the Third.

Replace with:

Saturday, 7:00 PM, Small Ballroom


Debate – moderated by John Smith.

Example Two:

Boogie Woogie The Joint Is Jumping Hot To Trot Evening Total Bliss Wipe Out Time


Blistering DJ Lord Rawtime will blast you into oblivion with a rockin’ roar mix of Middle Eastern Rock, Corsican Bag Pipe Music and famous Kettle Drum Solos, set to the eye-ripping display of twenty-year-old psychedelic three-primary-colour rotating lights so you can wiggle, hop and jump as if you have nothing better to do! Shake that thing! Do it twice!

Replace with:

Saturday, 7:00 PM to Midnight, Main Ballroom


DJ. Music. Cash bar.

To Sum Up:

This year the Convention Chair asked me to reduce the internal pages of the program book by one sheet to save expense.

I cut to 28 pages and went quietly insane trying to fit in everything that needed to go in. Only on the very day the master file was due to be submitted to the printers did I suddenly realize I’d cut the internal pages by two sheets instead of one. It had been 36 pages. The goal was 32 pages. Somehow I became fixated on 28 pages.

My reputation for attention to detail has suffered, for some petty reason…

Truth is the key to producing a good quality program book is to assign the task to someone with youthful mental energy, someone who knows how to multitask, someone hip to the latest computer programming techniques, someone who knows what they’re doing.

I am none of these things. Don’t use me.

Best advice I can give you.

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  1. Hah! Kicking up the loc counter another notch…

    I’m so evil…

    What I’m actually doing, in case you haven’t noticed, is treating the ‘reply’ section as an extension of my column…

    With the added bonus of giving myself bragging writes over my colleagues: “I get more locs than any of them do.”

    They won’t mind.

  2. Hey! What am I doing here replying to myself?

    Shameless self-promotion of course. I’m betting on casual viewers passing over my ‘entry site’ for one reason or another, but noting the ‘fact’ that I’ve got (4) letters of comment and thinking, ‘hey, this guy must be pretty good, better check him out sometime..’.

    Not to mention the other columnists seeing the (4) and thinking ‘Ghu dang it, this newbie is getting more action than I am! What the Great Spider am I doing wrong?’ Gnash their teeth they will.

    Or haven’t you noticed the level of one-upmanship in fandom? The very ‘spirit’ of fandom, the very ‘joy’! This is why being a fan is so much fun!

    Hmm, giving away too much here. Gotta save it for an upcoming column on egoboo…

    See? You CAN have fun responding to the columns in Amazing. You don’t have to compose cogent, coherent, comprehensive, complex missives that’ll put you in for a Hugo in best fan writing, just babble on like I do!

    I’m having fun. Doesn’t matter to me whether you do reading this. I’ve got my kicks out of it already. It’s up to you to derive pleasure from my subtle wit… and if you don’t, write an angry replay… chastise me for wasting your time… condemn me to the pits of Tartarus, hurl me from the Tarpeian Rock!… and kick my loc counter up another notch…

    Aha! Now you understand my diabolical plan!

    Being a fan is all about having fun. SF itself offers the ol’ sense-a-wunder, good enough, but being a fan of SF is a license to fill your life with glee, even better.

    Don’t be a passive fan! Interact! Enjoy! Become a member of the Amazing tribe so you can condemn the other columnists and praise me outrageously.

    I won’t mind.

  3. Thank you Jenni!

    In the same sentence you quote from above I make reference to “the fool” as being “he.’ This is because the original version of this column was very generic in nature with no mention of VCON.

    But editor Steve, knowing what he was doing (which is more than I ever do), wanted to add some visual treats “Come on, show what you’re talking about. Let’s see those nifty covers by Ng and Normand.” So I sent them.

    About a day later I realized that would give the cat away inasmuch as the hidden identity of the “mid-sized convention” would be starkly revealed. Contrasting this with my generic article would make ME look like a fool to the uninitiated (as opposed to the people I know who ALREADY know I’m a fool) and I was happy with that.

    But then my “can’t leave well enough alone” instincts got a hold of me and I inserted “VCON” but forgot to change “he” to “she”, thus missing an opportunity to publically hint that YOU are a fool. Sorry about that.

  4. Well, as one of the members of the ConCom for which your program books have been created I think you’ve done a smashing job all three years.

    And, as “the fool who volunteered to chair next year’s convention” I will graciously allow you to bow out next year. Now I just need to find someone who “knows what they’re doing” (or at least thinks they do!)

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