The Art of the Con: Can*Con 2016

The Art of the Con: Can*Con 2016

Can*Con promo image designed by Jay Odjick
Can*Con promo image designed by Jay Odjick

Earlier this year I was invited to join the programming team for Can*Con, the annual conference on speculative arts and literature held in Ottawa, Ontario. Since about January, I’ve been working with co-chair Derek Kunsken (who also blogs for Black Gate) and fellow author Evan May to develop the panels, presentations, workshops, etc, for this year’s conference, which will be held from September 9th to 11th at the Novotel Hotel. The next few paragraphs will be a glance behind the curtain at the work that goes into putting a con together.

I like to joke that behind that curtain are a few bedraggled wizards desperately seeking additional caffeine and occasionally pulling out the little hair left on their heads … but in all seriousness planning Can*Con has been a delight. My role really came into play after the Guests of Honor (GoHs) had already been confirmed by Derek. Those GoHs are critical because your programming tracks are based around them in many ways. For example, having Sheila Williams, editor of Asimov’s, attending this year allows us to create panels looking specifically at her magazine, analyzing what it means to be a woman in the publishing industry, and so on. If you want to have an entire track related to comics or costuming, you need a solid GoH to establish your framework. But that’s just a piece: the programming you can develop is also largely dependent on your Special Guests and panelists, and the sooner their attendance can be confirmed, the sooner you can start drafting ideas. That was pretty much where Evan and I came in earlier this year.

We started by asking potential panelists for panel ideas they would like to see or contribute to, as well as presentations, workshops, etc, they would be willing to offer. The more you can tap into people’s expertise and interest, the stronger your programming will be; you can’t have a really excellent panel focusing on queer narratives in science fiction, or the fundamentals of witchcraft, or whether The Exorcist still works in the 21st century unless you have panelists with a deep understanding of those topics. A lot of the work at this stage is emailing back and forth with panelists, to both solicit ideas and then sometimes refine them, if the idea is too similar to something that ran the year before or something that we don’t think would quite appeal to our attendees. The little brainstorming sessions with panelists hopefully yield programming that is compelling and which everyone is happy with.

Once we generate our draft list of programming, panelists get to take a look and tell us which panels they would like to be on and how they would contribute. One of the real challenges then is to decide who is going to be on each panel. This gets particularly tricky when you have a panel that about twenty people want to be on (no joke, this happened) and you can only pick four. Or you have a panel that two people are really excited about participating in, but you can’t find anyone else who wants to be on it.

Sheila Williams (2016)
Sheila Williams (2016)

One of the other things we try to do (and I imagine this is a challenge for other cons as well) is balance the number of panels that everyone is on. Much as we might want to put someone on a lot of programming, we need to be cognizant of fairness, since programming is an opportunity for our fellow writers to showcase themselves to the public. I was amazed this year at the sheer number of awesome people we have in attendance, which resulted in most panelists only being on 2-4 panels once the schedule was created.

That actual schedule, with its hour-by-hour slots over three days, was easily the most challenging part of planning Can*Con this year – the bane of my existence but also the sort of maddening puzzle that makes you feel like a god when you’ve finally solved it. It’s a constant battle of shifting to avoid double- or triple-bookings while also keeping in mind the best time of day for, say, a panel on the diversification of the comic industry versus a panel on the mechanics of sex.

The first draft of this schedule, I discovered, will have a bunch of errors. The second draft will, too. There have been several nights spent moving things around on my computer while muttering a string of curses under my breath until finally I was able to solve a single issue … and then move onto the next one. Some of you are probably thinking that this sounds like a gigantic pain in the ass. And it kind of is. But apparently I enjoyed it, since I’ll be doing it again next year.

There are a ton of other matters that need to be set up for an event like Can*Con – the dealer’s room, publisher pitches, Blue Pencil critiques, online advertising, postering around town, radio interviews, confirming party details, finding volunteers, etc. – and we’re very lucky to have a supremely talented group of people handling things. (And not just our actual Programming and Corporate teams. Anyone who has helped develop ideas, publicize the con, etc. – you’re all awesome.) Even with an amazing team, planning a con is a ton of work – but it’s honestly work that I’ve enjoyed, I think, because at the end of the day it’s all about creating something for other people’s enjoyment, which is also my goal when I write. You want your attendees to have fun. You want your GoHs and panelists to have fun. You want it to be the best freaking event possible. For me, at least, it’s worth a few more gray hairs and an increased addiction to caffeine, because Can*Con from start to finish has proven to be an absolute blast.

For more information about Can*Con, including the (gods-willing) final schedule, panelist bios and registration details, please visit You can learn more about Brandon’s writing or contact him about Can*Con via Twitter ( or on his website:

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Ah…programming CAN-CON…I remember many nights of sheets of bristol board which had the programming grid on them taped to the wall, festooned with yellow post-it notes with the name of the panels and panelists….the horror….the horror….:-)

Luckily, Derek came along and took all that over, and now a new f/o/o/l/ brave soul has joined the effort! Thank you for doing this!!!

John ONeill

Ahoy Farrell! Didn’t you attend Maplecon, back in the day? I don’t know if you remember me… I think we made one or two road trips together in the mid-80s, with other local fans like Mandy Slater.

[…] to help plan Can*Con has been a blast, as I discussed on Black Gate one or two weeks ago (I lose all track of my days when I’m not teaching) and being involved […]

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