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I’ve heard that it’s important for writers to have a brand. If you pick up something by JK Rowling, or Stephen King, you know what you’re in for. They have a particular style, particular themes, and of course genre. From a marketing perspective, some authors have found it useful to jump genres under a pseudonym, so that their current fans won’t be disappointed. The downside is that some fans appreciate good writing no matter what the genre. Perhaps it’s the voice, rather than the tropes, that make for a good read.
Astute as always, Kevin Andrew Murphy has this to say about one of his favorite authors.
“I’m going to wade mildly into the fray currently in F&SF. I backed the Women Destroy Science Fiction! Kickstarter from Lightspeed and am downloading it, looking forward to reading the stories by numerous friends and colleagues. I was also… wondering if Paula Volsky had any new books out since her Curse of the Witch Queen was my absolute favorite at sixteen–and still a favorite–but when you’re a writer, your reading time goes down. I discovered she’s got a new trilogy but it’s published under the pseudonym of Paula Brandon. As romance. But looking at the descriptions of The Veiled Islands Trilogy–The Traitor’s Daughtor, The Ruined City, & The Wanderers–they look like classic Volsky. Yes, a romance plot, but lots of action and adventure and fun magic. Plus zombies. But the covers? The Bridesmaid Dress, Return of the Bridesmaid Dress (now with more sparkles!), and The Bridesmaid Dress Revisited (now dripping with lace cuffs!). And the model’s head cut out of the frame.
While I know a bunch of people have been saying, “Boys don’t read books by women” and I’ve been thinking, “But I’ve got piles of books by women! More than half my favorite authors were women when I was a teen!” they do not have covers like this. And that, I think, is the problem. Boys are fine with someone who looks like a competent, even prettily attired, heroine on the cover, but not with something that looks indistinguishable from an issue of Modern Bride.
And that’s part of the problem. How hard is it to have the heroine in the lavish gown fighting a zombie?”
I’m still drafting my report on BayCon, but realized that post was getting rather lengthy. Here I’m going to a breakdown of how I prepared for that convention, and what I would have done differently.
First, let me make a distinction between a convention and a conference. To my mind, a convention is a fan event, where you’re going to interact with people in and out of the industry for the purpose of fun, enjoyment and sharing. A conference is primarily a business and networking event, designed to help you move to the next stage of your career through information sessions, networking, and formal pitching events (or similar.)
That may not be a textbook definition, and there is certainly some overlap. I’ve made most of my professional connections at conventions. But that’s not our quibble today!
Here’s how to prepare for a convention — a fun, fan event — as a pro.
1. If you’re speaking on panels or giving a presentation
Make friends with the organizers. See what they’re expecting of you. Reach out to others who are speaking on the same panel as you, and get to know them. Read their work. It helps to know how the discussion will go, so that you can prepare relevant information.
2. Prepare relevant information
If you’re going to an instructional workshop, have your notes with you. Simplify and break them down into small chunks the audience can follow without getting lost — but don’t go overboard. Generally, you’re not lecturing. Find a balance between being informative and entertaining.
3. If you’re moderating a panel for others
Read their work. Check out their web sites. You should be able to give a brief introduction of each person — or better yet — be able to use their accomplishments as a starting point to introduce the topics of discussion. Prepare more questions than you need. One method of question-prep is to list out every question that comes to mind on the topic, and then erasing all the boring ones. Remember, you’re there to facilitate them; not hog the spotlight yourself.
4. Clothing and Costuming
This is something I’m still figuring out**, so I invite your comments and suggestions.
Generally speaking, if you’re going to be at a convention as a pro, you should dress the part. I’m a little put off by the idea of setting a glass wall between me and other people — fans, pros, or otherwise — but Kevin Andrew Murphy once said, “it’s not so much a glass wall as costuming as your authorial persona. Don’t wear anything on a panel that you wouldn’t want for your dust jacket photo. Dressy casual is good.”
Of course, dressy casual is relative.
I’ve had mixed responses as far as, say, a fairy costume. Some fans thought it was great, and made me more approachable — whereas other pros were less impressed, and saw it as a reason not to take me seriously. Consider who you’re dressing for. That said, the convention you go to might have costumed events such as a masquerade ball, or regency dance party. Dressing up at night for parties is generally acceptable.
FOOD: Hotel food is expensive. I usually pack my own, as though I were going camping.
RECORDING EQUIPMENT: I also pack extra notebooks to take notes on panels (even the ones I speak on, you never know what you’ll learn from the folks you’re sitting next to.) It’s also a good idea to take a camera or minirecorder if you want to recap your performance to see how you can improve. Always ask for permission to record, of course.
MISC: Band-aids, painkillers, allergy medicine, needle & thread, bathing suit, extra socks — prepare for it all.
CASH: Again, sort of a no-brainer. Between the dealer’s room, the parties, and meals, having cash in your pocket, rather than your whole bank account on a card, is a quick way to budget your weekend.
It’s always better to over-prepare and not need it, than to under-prepare and get caught with your pants down. Remember, whether you’re there to make friends or to sell your books, conventions should be FUN. All the prep you do should be to self-facilitate, and make the live experience as smooth as possible.
How do you do it? Did I miss anything important?
** With regard to costuming… this probably merits a post all its own. Wearing costumes is easily one of my favorite things about conventions, and the prospect of them being off-limits deeply saddens me. I dressed up as a yellow fairy for two reasons: I have a story coming out from Fey Publishing this June, and wanted to promote that. Also, I have a friend named Fritz, and I had to make a joke referencing Bakshi’s animated film, “Wizards.”
Here’s a quote to contradict Murphy’s, regarding my costumes specifically:
“I thought you did an excellent job with the two panels I attended. Your personal excitement and passion for the subjects made them much more accessible than they otherwise might have been. The entire panel on building your writing community was easily the best at the con. The chemistry of the panelists and the sensitivity that each of you all brought to the subject was model perfect. Frankly the “glass wall” can (in some cases) hinder the process. Of course we attend panels primarily to listen and learn, but we also go to engage and respond. The audience’s “yes” and “Ah’s” as well as the questions are what bring such panels to life.” – Andrew Roberts
I have more than one critique group — I’m a hussy like that — and I put my precious baby up for review at both of them this month. I was surprised to find that, after numerous other reviews and feedback sessions, anticipating these results had me nervous, anxious and (to my surprise!) prematurely defensive. This doesn’t usually happen, so I sat with the feeling and tried to figure out what was causing them. I realized what the stakes were.
The feedback I received at this stage would determine whether I fix this story or shelve it and move on. I had psyched myself out. I am definitely not the smartest person in the room in either group, so their semi-pro and pro opinions would make or break me and this story. I mentioned this to some of my fellow writers, and they reassured me that everyone goes through this experience.
So, bracing myself for the avalanche of problems, unresolvable questions and general distaste, I loaded up on wine and chocolate, pulled out my notebook and took it.
There were problems. Of course there were problems. Fortunately, they were fixable and my fellow writers very generously supplied me with handouts on grammar and point-of-view. Free classes! Woohoo!
Almost all of the unanswerable questions did, in fact, have very fleshed-out answers; but they were in my head and not on the page. That’s the neat thing about going through multiple drafts — the more you get to know your world, and the more notes you take, the more comfortable you feel cherry-picking the relevant details for the book. It’s much more natural than dumping a two-page history lesson in the middle of a narrative story.
We tend to remember our fuck-ups more vividly than our successes. At first, I was concerned that they had softened their answers because I told them I was nervous; but the pre-printed feedback notes told me otherwise. To beat back the doubts and anxiety, I mark here some of the things they said I did well.
“[The book’s] flaws–and there are some–are technical ones, and quite easy to fix. If I were offered this in my capacity as an editor, I’d jump on it.”
“The prose, with one exception that I’ll get into later, felt very polished and downright poetic in places.”
“There were two arcs that needed to be closed, I liked that one ended happily and the other ended sadly.”
“You mention a lot of really cool stuff, but there’s no payoff (or it’s subtle/implicit in other interactions) make sure those answers are in the text.”
I can’t express my gratitude to this group enough for their patience and support. I’m constantly learning from their examples and perspectives. They are a truly brilliant and dedicated group. Thanks guys. You rock.
I do apologize for my absence. There are a number of projects that have absorbed my attention. In my research, however, I came across this fascinating article about a woman who commanded troops against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
One of the many choice excerpts that caught my attention was this:
Commander Kaftar was leading a group of men opposed to the Taliban. During this bitter standoff, a Talib commander new to the area tuned in to Kaftar’s radio frequency from his hilltop bunker. He introduced himself to his enemy: “I am Mullah Baqi and I will fuck your wife.”
Kaftar grabbed the radio and fired back, “My husband will fuck your wife.”
Confused, Mullah Baqi thought he’d heard wrong. Commander Kaftar, whose nom de guerre translates to Commander Dove, clarified that she was in fact a woman. The Talib had unwittingly found himself squaring off against Afghanistan’s only known female warlord.
It’s really easy to write something off as utter crap. Certain products of pop-culture leap to mind, such as rap, country music, Barney, Gertrude Stein, and Stephanie Meyer’s “Twilight” series. Somehow it has become socially acceptable (and even encouraged) to reject and deride these forms of expression and their creators. The reason this list creates such avid fandom and rabid hatred can be summed up in one word: audience.
We’ve talked about audience a bit before — by writing from your heart, and writing as honestly as you can, you will eventually find your audience. When something isn’t aimed at you, it’s more difficult to see its appeal. As an audience, we search for things that resonate with us, and forget that sometimes the world as a whole can’t cater to just us. A sumptuous love story that tantalizes a teenage girl won’t be received the same way by someone who only reads gritty thrillers. Music that emerged from cultural roots of one region won’t ring true with people who didn’t share that history.
Barney was designed for children, so it’s pretty clear why college students and adults can’t stand him: they are not his audience.
The legitimacy of a creative work is defined by our life experience, our personalities, and our tastes. When you encounter a story that’s awful, or one of your friends reads your work and hates it, don’t write it off immediately. Stop and ask yourself: Who is the audience?
“My play was a complete success. The audience was a failure.”
— Ashleigh Brilliant
“All religions issue Bibles against Satan, and say the most injurious things against him, but we never hear his side.”
— Mark Twain
Back when I was on Facebook, I found this link on Gloria Steinem’s page about the kind of impact we can have as we get older. I thought about what kind of change I want to affect, but couldn’t come up with an answer. I don’t know how the world will be. Instead, I thought about what kind of woman I want to be by the time I’m fifty.
Then I made a list of skills I want to learn, and experiences I’d like to have. The list was very physical. In short, 80% of the skills and experience would be complete by playing a major part in a guerilla war — a notion as arrogant as it is absurd.
Survive in the wilderness for at least two weeks — the first item on the list — was something I’d have to build up to. I don’t know the first thing about making fire or cleansing water. Most documentaries and TV shows focus on the drama rather than technical skills. I had to go do it myself. When I found a few programs that were relatively nearby I waffled. I have writing to finish. I have events planned. Then this little voice in the back of my head said:
DO YOU WANT THIS OR NOT?
So I booked the earliest available Saturday.
Here’s some of what we covered.
The human body comes with certain limitations. You will die in….
- Three minutes without air
- Three hours without shelter
- Three days without water
- Three weeks without food
- Three years without love (aww)
Survival doesn’t have to be uncomfortable. If you’re uncomfortable, you’re doing it wrong. If you’re cold — do something about it. If you’re hungry — do something about it. If you don’t know what you’re doing with your life — do something about it. The key to effective survival is to be as lazy as possible, burning as little energy as possible, and making tools that do the work for you. I’ll do a quick gloss of what we learned (because you should take the class yourself!)
Building Shelter, Insulation
We learned how to make shelters strong enough to walk on top of. We learned which leaves help keep you dry, and which ones suck up water. The most important part of shelter building is to pick your location. Don’t be near water that will flood. Don’t build your home under dead branches that will fall. Stay high up. Like gathering mist, low points concentrate cooler air. Use what’s available and build around that. Be as lazy as possible.
We also talked about more advanced stuff like vestibules, retaining walls, and effective shelter-building for multiple people. Snuggling won’t necessarily keep you warm — extra heat requires extra insulation.
I was surprised to learn that wet doesn’t mean cold. Wool retains 70% of its insulation value when soaking wet. Leaves don’t lose their insulation when wet; but, of course, dry leaves are probably more comfortable.
Our instructor, Jack, said that native traditions are one of the greatest resources for regional knowledge. Some trees are more likely to drop branches on you during a high wind. For you writer-types and worldbuilders, native people often worshipped the strong trees. Same thing with good wood for making fires — they use the same word for the tree itself as the word for ‘fire board.’
This part sucked. The instructors were great, no bad words for them — but it was really hard.
There are 31 distinct techniques for rubbing sticks together. We focused on the bow drill. We learned how to fashion the bow, good measurements for it, how to carve a spindle, and how to fashion a fire board where the baby coal is born. You have the notch the fire board in a certain way so that the dust created from your friction drains into a specific spot.
Once you have everything together, you need to hold all your materials as still as possible, and then saw away with your bow. If it’s squeaking and squealing, you’ve got good friction. Keep going until it smokes, then go a little longer. Once you’ve got a coal, let it sit and breathe (as it’s just been born, and we all know birth takes a lot of energy.) Then, when it’s got a nice smolder going, drop it into your little tinder nest. It’s important to pinch the bundle of tinder rather than cup it, as cupping it prevents air flow. The coal will last a little longer than your tinder bundle. It’s flammable but not that hot.
1% Dehydration – you feel a little loopy
4% Dehydration – you feel sick
7% Dehydration – dead human
Of course, you can’t measure yourself with a hydration stick, so stay in touch with how you feel.
Always assume your water is dirty. Once you’ve got your fire you can burn a hollow into a thick piece of wood and use that as a bowl. The easiest way to purify water is to take your bowl, and set it near the fire. Put some rocks in the fire* until they glow. Use some long branches like chopsticks to fish ’em out, then drop them in your bowl.
*Be careful to put some space between you and your rocks. If there’s moisture in the rock via cracks or crevices or what have you… it will explode when that water evaporates. Welcome to primitive IEDs.
Dig with a stick, not your hands. Again — be lazy. Let the tools do the work.
Don’t kill anything unless you can finish the whole thing in one meal.
Being a vegetarian will severely limit you. Based on the growing season, you can only live on plants for about six weeks a year while they’re plentiful.
Don’t attack anything unless you’re ready for it to fight back.
Wood boring grubs are ok, and taste like almonds. Oh, and since they bore through wood, they’ll probably bore through your throat on the way down. Just like with building shelter, consider what’s at hand and be smart.
Don’t eat slugs, snails or carcass-eating crawlies. Don’t eat lizards. Berries are like mushrooms. If you don’t know, don’t eat it.
Jack gave us a list of plants and how to eat them that were specific to this region of California. Different regions have different pantries.
Do it yourself!
I really enjoyed the class up in the Marin county woods. Even with frost on the ground we had a great time. The best way to keep these skills alive, to maintain our connection to our own world is to understand it and teach others. I encourage you to visit Adventure Out and learn what I learned. In fact, here’s a 25% discount code: jackh
“The way is clear, the light is good,
I have no fear, nor no one should.
The woods are just trees, the trees are just wood.
No need to be afraid there-
There’s something in the glade there…”
— Stephen Sondheim
“Study how water flows in a valley stream, smoothly and freely between the rocks. Also learn from holy books and wise people. Everything – even mountains, rivers, plants and trees – should be your teacher.”
— Morihei Ueshiba