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Dianne Salerni : Writer of Teen and Middle Grade Fiction | Blog

First Impressions: HOTEL ROOM

Photo Credit: Eunice Stahl via Unsplash

It’s been a long time since I hosted a First Impressions here on my blog! This submission came through Marcy Hatch’s blog, and is the first page of an adult novel by Selena. I am going to insert a few grammatical fixes in the text, then summarize my advice afterward.

HOTEL ROOM

She woke up with a splitting headache and a muddled mind. Without opening her eyes or trying to form a coherent thought, she pushed her head deeper into the soft pillow and sent a silent prayer to the heavens for the pain to go away and let her sleep a little longer. Unfortunately, it took only seconds for a nagging feeling to appear in her stomach, telling her something was wrong. Peeling her eyelids open, she took in her surroundings. The city lights coming through the large floor-to-ceiling window were enough for the sleek lines of the furniture around her to form a disturbing picture in her head. A hotel room. She was in a hotel room. An expensive one at that, if the leather armchairs positioned by the coffee table and plush curtains framing the window were anything to go by. At the same time, she noticed the silky feel of the sheets covering her body and realized she was naked. Panic made her lift her head up with the a jerk, and she immediately regretted the move since blindingly sharp needles of pain pierced her brain. Firmly shutting her eyes, she let her head fall back down and waited for the onslaught of nausea to pass. She really was in a hotel with possibly the worst hangover of her life. The good news was that the room was still dark which meant the morning didn’t hadn’t come yet. Nobody was in bed with her or even in the room, so she didn’t have to get up right this second. Her brain will would probably offer some information about the last night events at some point, so there was no need to panic. She allowed herself to relax just a little bit and sunk sank into the softness of the bed trying to decide on the course of action that will would get her out of this room and home. Preferably as soon as possible. A The headache wasn’t going anywhere, and she didn’t have any painkillers so the shower should probably be the first stop of her escape route. That will would clear her head enough to find her stuff, leave the hotel and find a cab that will to drive her home. Well, it appears appeared that forging the plan wasn’t so hard after all.

 

First of all, if this character has a name – and if there is no reason to withhold it – I would suggest naming her in the first line instead of opening with the pronoun she. Secondly, this is a long block of text that would read easier if divided into smaller paragraphs. If it were me, I would break the paragraph before these sentences:

  • Peeling her eyelids open, she took in her surroundings.
  • Panic made her lift her head up with the jerk …
  • The good news was that the room was still dark …
  • She allowed herself to relax …

There are quite a number of adjectives and adverbs used in this passage, and the text would read more cleanly it they were reduced. For instance, it’s vivid enough to say that needles pierced her brain when she moved. It’s not necessary to add that they were blindingly sharp.

As for the hook of this opening, I would definitely read further! I think we can all imagine the horror of waking up in a hotel room naked, having no memory of how we got there. I immediately want to know whether this is a complete aberration for her, or if this is not the first time she’s found herself in a situation like this.

Selena, thanks for sharing your first page! Best of luck with the rest of your manuscript. Check out Marcy’s blog, Mainewords, for additional feedback on this opening page.

 

Uncanny Gifts

Earlier this week, I was in Miami for a partly-expected but still surprising Christmas gift. Last fall, when I heard The Killers would be touring in January, I asked my husband to get us tickets. He did, but in a typical Bob-fashion, instead of buying them for our local Philadelphia show, he bought them for the Miami show and planned a mini-vacation around it.

The concert was AMAZING, but that’s not what I’m writing about today. The day after the show, with Change Your Mind and All the Things That I’ve Done still ringing in my mind, we visited Coral Castle in Homestead, Florida.

You may be familiar with Coral Castle, sometimes known as “America’s Stonehenge,” especially if you watch TV shows about unsolved mysteries. This bizarre rock garden, filled with carved stones weighing thousands of pounds each, was built in the 1930s by a single man using only handmade tools. Edward Leedskalnin, a Latvian immigrant who weighed less than 100 pounds and was only 5 feet tall, excavated these stones and assembled the structures by himself, working only at night and in secret. To this day, no one knows how he did it.

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The stones aren’t actually made of coral; they’re a form of limestone that resembles coral. Leedskalnin himself called the place Rock Gate Garden, and the name was changed only after his death. The garden contains rocking chairs weighing 1000 pounds each that move with the gentle nudge of a foot. There’s a working, oblong gate weighing 9000 pounds that I, myself, rotated with one hand. And there’s also an 18,000 pound upright gate that used to rotate with the touch of a finger – until it fell out of alignment in the 1980s. A team of university engineers, using modern equipment, was unable to restore it.

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I was familiar with pictures of Coral Castle before I went, but upon my arrival, I was struck by the unexpected beauty of the place. There’s no doubt Leedskalnin built his “castle” to impress, and also incorporated many intriguing astronomical and Masonic symbols, but it was first and foremost a garden. Today, it is possible to rent Coral Castle for private parties. Our guide told us there was a wedding there just two weeks prior to our visit, and I thought, What a lovely, other-worldly setting this would be for a small reception!

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As for the question of how Leedskalnin built this place, our guide laughed at the various “out-of-this-world” theories regarding levitation, magnetism, and aliens. The staff at Coral Castle doesn’t know exactly how Leedskalnin lifted and moved these stones, but they take him at his word that it merely involved weight, leverage, and balance. Leedskalnin claimed that he could find the balance point of any stone, no matter how large or irregular, and all evidence suggests that he was telling the truth.

Throughout history, there have been individuals widely acknowledged as geniuses, whose talent crosses many disciplines – for example, Leonardo da Vinci and Nikola Tesla. These individuals tend to be well-educated and extend their knowledge through study and experimentation. However, I wonder if we have not given enough attention to people who seem to be born with a very narrow and specific – and often uncanny – ability that defies scientific explanation.

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Edward Leedskalnin had a preternatural talent for understanding rocks. When you look at the giant structures he erected by hand, that is abundantly clear. While leaving his garden, I reflected on this and was immediately reminded of another individual with a similarly unexplained – and very narrow – talent.

AnnieOakley

Annie Oakley, by all accounts, was blessed with a miraculous talent for aim. Eye witness accounts of her feats often remark that her gift was unnerving, as if she simply had a sensory perception other people lacked.

So, help me out, readers. Can you think of anyone else who fits this description? Not a person with a brilliant mind – like Einstein or Hawking – or someone who made discoveries through hard work and trial and error – like Edison. But people who simply have one narrow gift or perception that defies explanation?

You can learn more about Coral Castle here.

Anatomy of a Pitch

Mr Powers author illustratorThis past weekend, I attended the Baltimore Book Festival, a 3-day event located along Baltimore’s scenic Inner Harbor. I happened to share a tent with author/illustrator team, Stephen McGill and Ronald Campbell.

Stephen and Ron have a book that debuted in April, The Electrifying Adventures of Mr. Powers. I was immediately impressed by the way they pitched their book to readers. They sold out in the last hour of the last day of the festival, which is pretty much the definition of bringing exactly the right amount of stock.

I’ve attended a lot of book festivals in the past seven years, and I’ve heard a lot of pitches. It’s impossible not to hear your neighbors’ pitches over and over and over.

One year, I sat next to a woman who pitched her contemporary YA this way: “It’s about a girl who’s going through some dark stuff.” It felt like she was apologizing for writing the book and warning people away from it.

Another year, another event – I shared a booth with a picture book author who told everyone: “My book teaches an important lesson.” Story first, please! No one buys a book to learn a lesson. They buy a book to read a good story, and if a lesson is learned, it’s incidental.

I’ve also heard many long pitches that ramble on until the listener’s eyes glaze over. This hurts not only that author, but all the authors nearby, because as soon as there’s an opportunity, the listener will flee to a new, less intense location.

On Saturday, I chatted with Stephen McGill about these experiences, and he shared what must be the worst pitch ever. Earlier that day, he asked a neighboring author about her book, and her response was, “It’s a children’s book.”

“But what is it about?” he asked.

“I don’t want to say,” she replied with a coy smile. “You have to read it.”

Um. No. Just no.

Mr Powers coverBut Stephen and Ron had the perfect pitch for their book, which I heard approximately 300 times over the 3 days.

Mr. Powers is a single dad and also a superhero.

By day, he’s an entrepreneur, and by night, while his children are asleep, he’s keeping the world safe from bullies on the bus, monsters under the bed, and creatures in the closet.

Let’s break that down.

Mr. Powers is a single dad and also a superhero.

Ten words to encapsulate the main character and the premise. Come on, you’re hooked, right? Single dad. Superhero. How does he make that work?

The next sentence is an elaboration of the first one.

By day, he’s an entrepreneur, and by night, while his children are asleep, he’s keeping the world safe…

Now we know he’s a hard working business man, probably a role model in his community. We also realize his kids don’t know what he’s up to while they’re sleeping. Then finally, the humorous twist …

from bullies on the bus, monsters under the bed, and creatures in the closet.

I laughed the first time I heard this part and realized what kind of villains Mr. Powers fights: the kind that bother his children.

Stephen and Ron adapted the pitch as needed. The word entrepreneur was for adults. When talking to kids, they substituted personal trainer or fitness guru, depending on the age of the listener.

Tweaking your pitch for the audience is important. My standard pitch for The Eighth Day is two sentences long:

A boy discovers a secret day of the week hidden between Wednesday and Thursday. Then he discovers a girl hiding in the house next door who exists only on that secret day and doesn’t experience the regular seven.

But that’s mostly for kids. I drop the second sentence and elaborate on the first ( … with ties to Arthurian legend and Celtic mythology) when talking to adults, older teens, and – yes, this happened once – if the kid is wearing a King Arthur T-shirt. When I’m talking to a teacher or librarian, I add: The Eighth Day has been on six state reading lists and counting!

The final part of a good pitch, which my tent-mates knew, is to stop talking. After two brief sentences, it’s time to let the listener speak, ask questions, and/or look at the book.

In summary, a good pitch has a hook that catches the audience’s attention in as few words as possible. This is followed by a sentence that elaborates on the main idea – and if you’ve got a humorous twist, use that to wrap up. Then, let the other person respond.

You can find Stephen McGill and Ronald Campbell on Twitter HERE and HERE and on Instagram HERE – and The Electrifying Adventures of Mr. Powers on Amazon HERE.

Summer 2017

Apparently, “not returning to a regular blogging schedule” means “not blogging until people start asking if I’m okay.” Since two people have asked this week why I haven’t updated my blog, I thought I’d make an entry and let you all know I’m not dead. I’ve been devoting more time to writing, which is a good thing, I think.

My husband and I just returned from a week’s vacation in Europe. My youngest daughter, Gina, is still there, enjoying a few more days without us. Don’t worry! She’s not alone, as you will see.

We started out in Munich, Germany.

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One of the most amazing sights in Munich for us were these surfers. They are surfing across the width of a man-made channel under the bridge where the Englischer Garten meets the streets of Old Town Munich.

Surfer 1

 

Surfer 2

If it looks dangerous, that’s because it is. In typical German fashion, the dangers are bluntly and prominently displayed, but the activity is not forbidden by law. Do it at your own risk.

Surfer Sign

From Munich, we took the train to Prague in the Czech Republic. You might think it goes without saying not to throw bottles from the train window. You’d be wrong. It does need to be said, apparently.

Train Sign

Prague is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen. These pictures don’t come close to doing it justice. I loved the ubiquitous archways and winding, cobblestones streets.

Prague 1

 

Prague 2

 

Prague Bubbles

From Prague, we took another train (remembering not to throw bottles out the windows) to Lubeck, Germany. Lubeck is located in northern Germany on the Baltic Sea and is the home of Marie, the German student who lived with us for 10 months this past year. Bob and I spent a couple days there as guests of Marie’s family and left Gina to spend a few extra days with her German sister.

Gina and Marie

 

Lubeck 1

 

Lubeck 2

While Bob and Gina and I were exploring Europe, my older daughter, Gabbey, was holding down the fort at home and starring in a community theater production of Fiddler on the Roof. Gabbey played Hodel, the daughter who falls in love with a revolutionary. I got to see her in two of the shows before we left on her trip, and I was so very proud of her. She reduced the audience to blubbering piles of goo with her heartbreaking solo, Far From the Home I Love, when she follows her fiance to Siberia, where he is imprisoned.

Aghast

 

Dancing

 

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And that pretty much brings me up to date! I hope all my blogging friends are enjoying a summer that is relaxing or exciting, as suits your preference!

 

Catching Up

DSaudHello, all! It’s been awhile since I posted here, and I feel a little guilty about that. Not a lot, though. You see, since I’ve been here last I have:

  • Driven 1800 miles and flown 1550 miles for book events
  • Given 11 large group presentations
  • Conducted 3 writing workshops
  • Delivered 1 keynote address
  • Virtually visited 3 classrooms via Skype

That was all pretty exciting, and more driving than I’ve ever done in my life. Thank heavens for Waze, my new favorite app! I’ve been all over the state of Pennsylvania – southeast, northeast, central, and southwest. The only area of PA I haven’t visited is the northwest. Anybody out in Erie want to invite me your way?

I also went to Georgia to participate in the Tome Student Literary Society’s spring conference as a featured author. It was my first time giving a keynote address, and I loved every minute of it in spite of the fact that I nearly froze to death. Georgia was not as warm as advertised, and I had not packed appropriately! Still, I missed the big snowstorm in Pennsylvania while I was gone. My only worry was how the teenagers back home were handling it. Worriedly, I texted all three girls: How much snow have you gotten?

My answers:

Gabbey: I don’t know. I haven’t measured it.

Gina: Somewhere between 0 and 90 inches.

Marie: I haven’t seen it. I’m still in bed.

If that doesn’t give you the flavor of all three girls’ personalities, I don’t know what will.

All this traveling and presenting was pretty exciting, but what I’m most proud of accomplishing during my blogging hiatus is 56,000 words on a new WIP. I’m within two chapters of completing the manuscript. I hope to wrap up the first draft before the end of this week, and start making a list of needed revisions. My last completed WIP was a terrible mess, and I haven’t been able to force myself to look at since typing THE END back in December. This one, I think, is more successful, and it’s a big relief to have written something I actually like after struggling so much on the last one.

I won’t be returning to my once-a-week blogging schedule, but I hope to be around more often. Good luck to everyone participating in A to Z! AND check out this amazing clock I spotted in the library of Garnet Valley Middle School. Don’t you want one just like it? (Note whose book is at the 8 position! I screamed out loud when I saw it.)

Book Clock

Happy New Year

Wishing a very happy new year to all my wonderful blogging friends!

I’m taking a hiatus from blogging for a couple months. I hope to be back and visiting you all later this year!

All the best ~~~ Dianne

Deja Vu Blogfest: The Day of the Do-Over

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I’m ending the year of 2016 on my blog by participating in DL Hammons’s inspired Deja Vu Blogfest, in which we replay a post from the year that we are particularly proud of.

I’ve chosen to share my January post on Celtic Mythology in The Morrigan’s Curse. I had to wait a long time to share this information, so I’m gonna go ahead and share it TWICE.

***

morriganscurse-finalI had a lot of fun researching this book. A LOT. And since I started the first draft all the way back in 2013 — before the first book in the series, The Eighth Day, was even released, I’ve been sitting on all this cool stuff for a long time. With the book finally coming out next week, I’d like to talk about the myths and legends that produced some of the characters – and magical objects – in The Morrigan’s Curse.

As with the first two books, I drew on Arthurian legends for my Transitioner characters. In The Morrigan’s Curse you’ll meet Calvin Bedivere and Ash Pellinore. The Sir Bedivere of legend had only one hand, so I assigned my Bedivere “the hand of power” as his family talent. Sir Pellinore was known best for his pursuit of a great Beast. Therefore, I gave Ash Pellinore … no, wait. I’m going to keep that one a secret.

Because some of the major characters in Morrigan are Kin – loosely based on the Tuatha de Danann  – I also had the opportunity to delve into Celtic mythology. Each Kin character is linked to some god or goddess out of Celtic lore: Corra is an oracle, Aeron is the god of war and strife, Ratis is the god of boundaries and fortification.

Lloyd Alexander drew on this same mythology in his Prydain Chronicles, and I found myself needing to use some of the same names: Llyr, Mathonwy, Arawn. I did my best to make my characters as different as possible from his, even using the alternate spelling of Arawen so as not to draw a parallel with Alexander’s ultimate villain, Arawn.

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One of the best and most fun people to write about was the titular character, The Morrigan – a three-in-one deity who embodies chaos and destruction. She appears as either an old crone, a middle-aged woman, or a young girl (named by me as Girl of Crows). When I first stumbled across the Morrigan in my preliminary research, I knew at once that she needed a place in my third book. And when I was hit by THE IDEA, THE DELICIOUSLY SHOCKING IDEA about how to use the Morrigan, I had to go back into the second book, The Inquisitor’s Mark, and revise major sections to set up for her arrival.

Finally, what’s a fantasy story without a few magic items? Especially ones that might be trickier than they first appear! Here I called upon the Treasures of the Tuatha de Danaan: The Cauldron of Dagda, The Spear of Lugh, the Sword of Nuadu, and the Stone of Fal. In the legends, each one had a very specific magical use, but when I stumbled upon a website describing the symbolic purpose of each item … well, then I had the backbone of this story.

I hope that readers will enjoy how I put this all together! One of the best compliments I received from my editor was, “I kept having to Google the names in your manuscript because I couldn’t tell what you were getting from legend and what you were making up!”

Isn’t that what we aspire to?

***

The paperback version of The Morrigan’s Curse releases next year, on January 24, 2017.

Continue the flashback with more Deja Vu posts:

WAH! I’m unable to successfully post the Linky Tool, but you can find the list on D.L. Hammons’s site HERE!

Wishing everyone a holiday season filled with laughter, cheer, and books!

 

The Year in Numbers

One of my favorite recent tweets …

2016

2016 — Good-bye and good riddance.

Although it hasn’t been a bad year for me personally. Granted, it started off kind of rough, but if you discount the world and national news, it wasn’t all bad. Here’s the accounting of my year:

  • 1 broken foot and 3 weeks of immobility
  • 1 new release, The Morrigan’s Curse, and 1 paperback release, The Inquisitor’s Mark

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  • 2 awesome vacations, Key West and St. Croix
  • 13 school visits
  • 17 Skype visits
  • 6 book festivals
  • 10 other book events (libraries, stores, etc)

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  • 1 1/2 new manuscripts written (if I meet my end-of-year goal to finish this WIP)
  • 1 older manuscript revised
  • 3 awesome teenage girls in the house

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This is my penultimate post for the year. I’ll be back on the weekend as part of D.L. Hammons’s annual Deja Vu Blogfest — you can join HERE — and then signing off for the year.

First Impressions: CURIOSITY KILLS

sketchbookThis is the last First Impressions post for 2016! Our author is Jasmine, a middle school student, and this is the first page of her science fiction novel, CURIOSITY KILLS.

***

The air was light and crisp, the wind lightly flowing through the trees, gently shaking the leaves which slowly moved their way down to the soft dirt ground. The mood slowly departed to let the sun take over the sky. Purples, pinks, oranges and reds all painted the sky like a brand new canvas waiting to be framed. Axel sat patiently on his smooth wooden windowsill seat. He waited for the perfect time for the sky to set in its place.

“Bingo.” With his notebook in hand, he very gently and gracefully colored a picture of the sky in all its beauty. He grabbed all different kinds of colors form the new pencil set he bought from the store. He had finally saved up enough to buy the best pencils in town. Many of the townspeople would tell him that it was a waste to buy pencils when he could spend his money on something more useful and important. He was very talented, though many people did not approve. He didn’t listen, though. He made quite a good profit by selling all of his artwork, proving to people that it wasn’t a waste. Despite always being busy helping his mother around the house, he usually found time to relax and draw.

After a while, Axel finished his drawing, satisfied with his work. He sat at his windowsill for a little while longer, watching the sun climb up the sky and the white, puffy clouds roll in. He then stood up, put his notebook on the seat, and walked over to his mirror. He was quite the handsome boy, just like his father. His raven black hair was slicked back and curling a bit on the ends. Crystal blue eyes, like his mother’s, shone like large diamonds on his white pale face. He had broad shoulders and a strong voice. A strong voice he faked 80 percent of the time only to impress the girls his age in the town.

Axel ran his bony fingers through his hair, making it messier than it already was. Even though he went to bed pretty early the previous night, he was still exhausted. The clanking of pots and pans, and the sound of running water could be heard coming from their large marble-based kitchen. The delicious smell of pancakes and bacon came wafting up the stairs and into his bedroom.

***

Although there’s no hint of science fiction yet, I wonder if Axel’s artistic talent will play a role in the speculative elements of this story.  Since Jasmine chooses to start the book with Axel sketching the sky, I assume his artwork is going to be important. I can’t wait to find out how!

This passage is very visual, and the focus is on his drawing. The description is strong but could benefit from stripping out some of the adjectives and adverbs. Me, I put tons of adjectives and adverbs into my sentences when I first write them. Then I spend the rest of my time taking them out. Instead of using multiple describers in one sentence, pick the perfect describing word and use that instead. Figurative language (similes, personification, etc.) are also good substitutes for ordinary adjectives. (Ex: … watching the sun climb up the sky and the cotton candy clouds roll in.)

This book is written in close third person, following Axel and Axel’s thoughts. Therefore, try to avoid putting things in the narrative that Axel wouldn’t be thinking about – like his kitchen counters being made of marble. Another example is when the narrative says that townspeople wouldn’t approve of him wasting his money on fancy pencils or spending time on his hobby. An actual memory of someone commenting on his purchase would cover the same information and seem more natural to his thought process. It would also give you the opportunity to share a reason for their disapproval in the dialogue. (I wonder what their problem is?!)

Likewise, watch out for describing Axel too much. You can get away with that more in third person omniscient, but in close third person you want to only use descriptions that would naturally cross Axel’s mind. He might be looking into the mirror to fix his hair or check for pimples or admire himself. But he probably won’t be comparing his hair color to ravens or his eye color to crystals or noticing that his fingers are bony. Remember, it’s okay not to completely describe him on page one.

Readers, do you have anything to add?

Jasmine, thanks for being brave enough to share your first page with us. I hope you find these tips useful! Good luck with your story and keep writing! Don’t forget to read feedback from Marcy and Krystalyn!

 

WriteOnCon is Returning February 2-4, 2017

 

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“From 2010 to 2014, the popular online kidlit conference WriteOnCon offered writers a unique opportunity to learn and grow their craft, all from the comfort of their own homes. Over 13,000 people attended during the last year! Unfortunately, increasing time commitments meant the organizers were unable to continue the event in subsequent years. But now WriteOnCon is returning, with a new organizing team but the same purpose: to provide an affordable and fun conference experience that’s accessible to everyone.” ~ The 2017 WriteOnCon Team

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If you attended WriteOnCon in the past, then I needn’t say anymore, and you can skip the rest of this post and go right to the links at the bottom. But for anyone unfamiliar with WOC, this is a 3-day online writing conference for kidlit writers. There are writing forums where you can get feedback on your query or first five pages, blog posts, live events – and Ninja Agents! The Ninja Agents – real life literary agents appearing anonymously – sneak into the forums to read, comment, and sometimes request! WOC has all the benefits of a big writing conference and none of the disadvantages (high costs, travel expenses, having to wear pants, etc.).

ninja-agent

The time for Early Registration is NOW. It’s easy; it’s affordable; and there are perks. Critiques are on offer from agents, editors, and published authors – and they’re selling out fast. (But don’t worry. I keep seeing new ones being added.)

Visit the WriteOnCon website.

Watch the video.

Register here.

Follow WriteOnCon on Facebook and Twitter.

See you there!