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OnCon 2022 from Both Sides of the Curtain


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Beautiful OnCon banner with OWL

In September of this year, a strange and wonderful new force was unleashed on the world: an online conference for the Writer Unboxed audience. Aptly named OnConference (or OnCon for short), the event did a tremendous job of capturing within an entirely virtual environment the unique aspects of the amazing UnConference (UnCon) events that WU has become known for, which rank among the absolute best conferences I’ve ever attended or participated in.

WU Editorial Director and co-founder Therese Walsh and her awesome staff worked long and hard to plan, prepare and host this event, which had major similarities to previous UnCons, as well as some key differences.

Starting with the differences: The entire event was held online, with no in-person interaction. Another significant difference was the timing and duration. Instead of four or five days jam-packed with back-to-back (and frequently overlapping) sessions, OnCon was spread out over several weeks, and relegated to certain times of day, with the goal of allowing attendees to fit the conference in around their busy lives. And a key advantage of the online format was that it allowed for replay recordings to be posted, for those who were unable to attend a session in real time. For the session leaders, a welcome new aspect of this scheduling approach was that there were no simultaneous sessions, so nobody was competing against other presenters for an audience. (As a guy who’s been unlucky enough to have one of his sessions scheduled against a Donald Maass session at the last UnCon, I can tell you that this new approach was a HUGE relief!)

Obviously, the online setting made it impossible to enable the same in-person mingling and socializing that organically occurs in an onsite setting such as the Hawthorne Hotel in Salem (the site of previous UnCon events). But Therese and team did a terrific job of providing a welcoming online environment, complete with a “lobby” and plenty of virtual “tables” where attendees and session leaders could gather and chat—while able to see and hear each other via live-streamed Zoom-like video. Also available was a chat function, at both an event-wide and individual session and table level, along with the ability to send private messages to attendees and session leaders.

On October 18, the 2022 OnCon wrapped up its sessions, with a dual launch party for the new books from WU mainstays Barbara Linn Probst and Vaughn Roycroft, as well as something called an Owl-Off. (No, that’s not prison slang. More on the owls soon.) But early survey results are confirming my own assessment of the event as an unqualified success, with the vast majority of responses rating the event as “Excellent.”

Excellent...

No. Please don’t say it like that. Just… no.

Despite how well the event went, those of us behind the scenes know that what attendees experienced was the result of a long—and sometimes bumpy—journey.

The search is on

First came the challenge of HOW to do an online version of UnCon. This was definitely a “many are called, but few are chosen” scenario. Therese and her valiant crew of testers, led by hirsutely handsome hubby and all-around technical guru Sean Walsh, tried on multiple platforms for size. For those of you with any experience with online dating apps, this resulted in a predictably high number of “swipe left” situations, where it was clear that the proffered solution was just not a “love connection.”

swiping left

Ultimately the WU team landed on a platform called Airmeet. It seemed to represent the “Goldilocks solution,” offering a “just right” combination of the features needed to allow people to connect and interact both spontaneously and personally, but also providing powerful features for WU’s session leaders to present in a setting that could be as interactive as needed, depending on the topic and format of the session.

OnCon session leaders

A darn good-looking bunch…

Speaking of session leaders, Therese was also putting lots of time and effort into setting up the kind of agenda the WU audience has come to expect. A key difference between WU events and many other literary conferences is the lack of focus on “the biz.” There are countless conferences out there that let you pitch to agents and schmooze other literary players. The WU focus continues to be on the craft of writing, and on the unique aspects of the writing life. So Therese put together a roster of session leaders including a mix of mainstays from previous UnCons as well as some WU contributors we haven’t seen onstage before at a WU event.

The terrible, horrible, no good, very bad dress rehearsal

So, we had the groovy new platform. We had a killer agenda. And we had a rockstar cast of session leaders. Now all we needed was a quick run-through on the new platform, and we’d be ready for prime time. Easy peasy, right?

Yeah, not so much.

There’s a longstanding superstition among theater people. (Or would it be theatre people? I never freaking know. But I digress…) The superstition basically suggests that a bad dress rehearsal indicates that the opening night of the performance will be great. As a boy I was active in local amateur theater, and I have also seen the same belief expressed in the music business, and basically any other situation involving a live performance.

Let’s just say that your intrepid OnCon staff REALLY put that superstition to the test.

How bad was our dress rehearsal? To call it a “train wreck” would be overly generous. It was more like THREE train wrecks. In slow motion. With lasers. Okay, maybe no lasers, but there were certainly plenty of explosions…

Yeah, it was like that...

 

or maybe more like that...

 

no, really - it was like THAT.

Suffice to say, things did NOT go well. There was audio failure. Video failure. PowerPoint failure. Potential liver failure (after some much-needed post-rehearsal drinking). There was gnashing of teeth, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria… basically all the worst parts of the Bible.

Nevertheless, she persisted

That dress rehearsal would have been enough to stop many would-be conference hosts in their tracks. But not Therese. She rallied the troops, figured out what went wrong and went back to the session leaders whose rehearsals had gone so badly off the rails. Together, they troubleshot (or is it troubleshooted? Yikes, that’s awful, so I’ll hope I was right the first time) the technical issues they’d encountered, and soon we were ready to open the curtain and launch the event that many of us had been awaiting for YEARS.

First and foremost, a safe space

While I’ve touched on some ways OnCon differed from previous in-person events, I think one reason OnCon went so well was by staying true to the unspoken but clear charter of WU to provide a safe space for writers from all walks of life. Writing is a pursuit that tends to attract introverts (believe it or not, I’m one of them), and the idea of a large gathering—whether online or in person—can be VERY daunting.

Fortunately, Therese and team have had a lot of practice at creating and maintaining an environment that is, at its best, both welcoming and not overwhelming. The live UnCon events were held at the beautiful Hawthorne Hotel, a lovely and character-filled setting that offers plenty of opportunities to break away from the crowds for either some small and intimate conversations, or simply some much-needed solo recharging.

OnCon provided similar options, with a large virtual “lobby” populated by tables that were labeled to attract like-minded attendees, along with the ability to create your own table and control how many people could “sit” at it with you.

Choose your own adventure

One area where OnCon provided even more control than an in-person event was in terms of how much—or how little—our attendees chose to share and interact with each other. Participants could choose their own screen names, use their own photo or simply an icon with the initials of their screen name, and would only be brought “onstage” to talk and possibly share their webcam video if first they “raised their hand” using a specific icon. Which meant that if you chose to, you were free to remain completely anonymous, silent and invisible throughout the entire event.

But OnCon took that freedom up a notch: You didn’t even have to attend a session while it was happening. Instead, you could simply view a replay of the session afterward, at your convenience. While this meant you missed out on any live interaction, chat or “emoji-throwing” (more on that momentarily), it also meant that you could fit OnCon around YOUR schedule.

This turned out to be another advantage OnCon offered over a conventional in-person event. I had numerous attendees confide in me that they’d always wanted to come to one of WU’s UnCon events in Salem, but were prevented from doing so for a variety of reasons:

  • Seasonal timing of the event
  • Inability to be away from home and/or work for that long
  • Costs of the event, travel and hotel
  • Discomfort at being surrounded by strangers
  • Pandemic-related health concerns (to clarify: These were NOT an issue for previous UnCons, but an obvious consideration going forward)

Give me emojis or give me death

As one of the session leaders, and having spoken at many live literary events, I can share with you a unique aspect of presenting at OnCon: You’re physically all by yourself, speaking to an empty room. Your audience can see you, but you can’t see them. For a person who draws a LOT of energy from his audience, I’ll confess this was a bit unnerving. But what saved the day was the emoji icons each OnCon viewer had at their disposal. Whenever they clicked on these, the presenter would see a gentle spray of emojis floating upward on their screen, in a sort of reverse snowfall of smileys, hearts, clapping hands and other symbols that let you know that yes, there actually WAS somebody watching and listening.

Better living through emojis

I’ll admit: this rapidly turned me into a self-proclaimed “emoji slut,” and I found myself making subtle hints to the audience that some emojis would be welcome after some particularly soul-baring revelation I’d just shared. And okay, maybe sometimes my hints were not all that subtle. Still, you’d be amazed how gratifying it is to be sitting alone in your office, yakking away into a webcam, and occasionally seeing a smiley face drift upward on your monitor. It became quite a Pavlovian experience for me, and I suspect I was not alone among my OnCon session-leader colleagues in quickly developing an insatiable craving for “just one more smiley face.”

Seriously, what’s up with the owls?

But if I were unprepared for the place of importance that smiley-faced emojis would briefly occupy in my life, I was even more surprised by another visual that soon became inescapable. Regardless of your upbringing or ideology, if there’s one universal lesson that the vast majority of us learned from Covid, it’s that the backgrounds behind the people you’re watching on video calls are often FAR more intriguing to investigate—and okay, judge—than the people themselves. And with Donald Maass kicking off the OnCon, we soon became aware of the importance of… wait for it… owls as a key theme in his approach to home décor.

Don digs owls

Just look over your shoulder, and owl be there…

Yes, it turns out that Donald is an owl guy. Who knew?

But wait: It turned out Don was not alone. Soon a veritable plethora of owl enthusiasts outed themselves using the various means of communicating within the OnCon platform, and a friendly competition was born, asking the all-important question: Whose owl was the most… um… owly, I guess? Below is a glimpse of some of the competing entries:

a whole lotta owls

On the closing night of OnCon, a vote was held, and the Ultimate Owl Winner of Doom (okay, that might not be the actual title) was named, while a crowd of emoji-throwing fans cheered both the victor and all the fierce competitors. This might be a “you had to be there” kind of thing, but trust me, it was a lovely moment. And the experience left me with an important note-to-self: I need to get me some damn owls before the next OnCon!

It’s not just me (or, the critics rave)

I know I’m being an unabashed fanboy about Therese and all things WU, but I really do feel she and her team found a new way to capture the experience of a WU gathering, but in a virtual format. Lest you think I’m the only one who felt this way, below is a sampling from the many emails, chats and survey comments that have come in since the event concluded:

“Despite first being introduced to Writer Unboxed and its promise of craft and community in 2013, it took me nine more years to answer the call that mattered: The call to attend a Writer Unboxed conference. This year’s OnConference was a feast—a feast that will last all year and probably a lifetime thanks to the hard work of so many…”

“For an online conference, the platform chosen was EXCELLENT. It was great to have the networking element built right in.”

“WU conferences are the crème de la crème. Each conference is designed to serve a writer’s soul—delivering exactly what I need to hear when I most need to hear it.”

“As a non-fiction (memoir) writer, I was unsure if this conference would be valuable to me. I needn’t have worried, because every session I attended was amazing! I found knowledge, inspiration, tools, and thought provocation, in ways I did not expect but I am very grateful for. When does registration open for next year’s conference?”

“Great job recreating the experience of the previous live events, and giving people the opportunity to participate actively or passively, based on their comfort level.”

“Solid presentations on the craft of writing and/or aspects of the ‘writing life’. Loved that we could access the lounge early on and that we can continue to do so. Being able to start writing sessions was perfect for what I needed. Loved meeting new people and hearing their perspectives.”

“This was my first experience with a writing conference of any kind, so I have nothing to compare it to. However, I enjoyed everything about it: There was a variety of sessions, the speakers were thorough, the format & platform were inclusive & user friendly. I appreciated the recordings, as they allowed me greater access than I would have otherwise had.”

“You created the best environment possible for craft and community! Amazing! The Airmeet environment had the perfect number of bells and whistles to make things fun but not overwhelming. And the warm, welcoming, interesting community of attendees was just as strongly felt as the in-person conference.”

OnCon withdrawal: It’s a thing

One final similarity between this year’s OnCon and our previous UnCon events is the aftermath: the “day after the big holiday” sense of emptiness one feels when it’s all over.

What does it all mean?

Writing can be such a solitary venture, that after spending days on end feeling such strong connections with kindred spirits who are openly as excited about writing as you are, it can leave you feeling a bit adrift when those connections are abruptly switched off.

But that’s another nice thing about OnCon: The switch can still be flipped ON. The Airmeet platform is still there, and some writers are still gathering for daily writing sprints, and there’s a casual Friday-night gathering where you can usually find at least a few OnConners sitting at a virtual table together, chatting about writing and anything else that comes to mind. Kind of like the random and organic gatherings you would see in the various nooks and hallways of a certain hotel in Salem a few years ago.

I’ll admit to suffering a pretty strong case of OnCon withdrawal. But it’s a small price to pay for the incredible experience that Therese and her team put so much love and effort into providing!

How about you?

Got any OnCon memories to share? Did you find any advantages or disadvantages to a virtual event that I didn’t cover? Do you have a newfound respect for the power of emojis? Please chime in and share your stories. Thanks for reading, and please stay safe.

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About Keith Cronin

Author of the novels Me Again (originally published by Five Star/Gale), and Tony Partly Cloudy (published under his pen name Nick Rollins), Keith Cronin (he/him) is a corporate speechwriter and professional rock drummer who has performed and recorded with artists including Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, and Pat Travers. Keith's fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine, Amarillo Bay, The Scruffy Dog Review, Zinos, and a University of Phoenix management course. A native of South Florida, Keith spends his free time serenading local ducks and alligators with his ukulele.

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