Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Small Adventures in a Large WoldCon – Part 1 – August 6th, 2008

Woke up at 5am (talk about early starts), at the Orange County airport by 5:45am, flight took off at around 7:00 am, landed in Denver International Airport at around 10:15 am, taxi ride to the Hyatt, completed registration at the Denver Convention Center (which is over half a million square feet) by about 11:40, and rushed to the first panel of the day (late by about 10 minutes).

Panel 1 - Writers as Readers – 11:30 am
Panel Blurb: “Some SF&F writers are avid readers, starting before they became writers. Some don't read the stuff much. A discussion of what writers read, why the read, and how it influences what they write — if it does.”
Participants: Connie Willis, George RR Martin, Lois McMaster Bujold, Louise Marley, ( m) Mary Morman

Some great reminiscences about early reading from these folks, including comments on now defunct genres like “nurse novels” and “gothics.” Connie Willis emphasized how she grew up in a household where reading was the exception and where the phrase “nose in a book” made numerous appearances (Martin concurred about that phrase being in common use when he was growing up also).

I left just before the panel was over, wanting to hit the dealer’s room before the 1 pm panel. After finding the title I bolted back and made the next panel only five minutes late (hey, an improvement over the first one).

Panel 2 - Great Expectations. Panelists read & discuss favorite story openings - 1 pm
Panel Blurb: What makes an opening good? What should it cover? How long should it be? What does it tell the reader about the rest of the story? Can an opening be a cheat?
Participants: James Patrick Kelly (JPK), James Van Pelt (JVP), ( m) Steven Silver (SS)

A real fun panel. Kelly and Pelt had some awesome selections and funny comments; although I didn’t care for Silver’s picks quite as much, or his function as moderator, they made for an interesting mix with the others and the tone was light-hearted. I may also be biased since I greatly admire the short fiction by JPK and JVP but can’t remember reading any by SS.

Here were favorite story and novel openings picked by the above participants (I’m not including every single one, but most):

JPK – “Day Million” by Frederick Pohl, “Ballad of Lost C’Mell” by Cordwainer Smith, “Voluntary State” by Christopher Rogue, BRING THE JUBILEE by Ward Moore, “Do Good” by JVP (that was a cool tribute), “Fondly Fahrenheit” by Alfred Bester, openings by Daryl Gregory.

JVP – “Ripples in the Dirac Sea” by Geoffrey Landis, “Stable Strategies in Middle Management” by Eileen Gunn, “Silent Town” by Ray Bradbury, “Think Like a Dinosaur” by JPK (again, very cool, and appropriate), STARS MY DESTINATION by Alfred Bester, “The Dead” by Michael Swanwick (I may have been the only person in the room to immediately recognize this opening, other than JPK, but it’s a story that’s dear to my heart), openings by Ted Chiang.

SS – JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR NORREL by Susanna Clarke, CLARKE COUNTY by Allen Steele, “Division by Zero” by Ted Chiang.

Interesting points made were that undue weight is sometimes placed on openings, creating a burden for writers, specially starting writers, when openings in and of themselves are often not that impressive (they become much more so when considered in conjunction with story’s endings.) Not only should an opening establish an appropriate level of “cognitive dissonance” from our world, so that readers will want to read on in an effort to reduce such dissonance, but they should also teach the reader the mode in which the story should be read, helping to define the correct expectations for the reading experience. The point was also made that in comical stories the humor should be established right away, possibly in the first line (a C. L. Moore tale was quoted by SS), but of course masters can get away with breaking this rule, and all others (JVP’s opening to “Silent Town” proves this, since it creates a somber mood for what will eventually be a funny story).

JPK also talked about the sophistication of conceptualization and the fine writing in much work of the 1950s and 1960s (he deliberately skipped to the 90s after that), and the openings by Bester and Smith definitely confirmed it. I was a little surprised there were no picks of stories by Theodore Sturgeon or Philip K. Dick and specially Damon Knight and James Blish, whose technique was the bomb. One of my all-time favorite openings is from Silverberg’s “Sailing to Byzantium.” Of recent stories, Jeffrey Ford’s opening to “Under the Bottom of the Lake” also destroyed me.

After the panel was over I accosted JPK and got him to sign the copy of his gorgeous new collection of short stories, WRECK OF THE GODSPEED, which I’d barely purchased an hour before. Even though he was in a rush he was great and even personalized it. I also squeezed in a few words with JVP, letting him know I was the blogger who had reviewed his dazzling story “Light of a Thousand Suns,” a review he had enjoyed. I got to ask him a few questions about the compositional process of this story, and he too was extremely pleasant.

With the dallying on these items at the end of the panel I was once again in a hurry. I caught a quick sandwich (which I ate while walking from the stand to the dealer’s room) and a bottled water. Haven’t really noticed the 1-mile Denver elevation so far, except for possibly a mild irritation in the eyes (which may not even be related, lol). On to the next panel.

Panel 3 - The Year in SF - 2:30 PM
Panel Blurb: The year's not over yet, but our panelists already have some striking suggestions about what's best and most interesting in the world of SF for 2008.
Participants: Charles Brown, David Hartwell, Jonathan Strahan

There was a preliminary recommended list with all the obligatory entries, and getting Strahan’s take versus Charlie’s and Hartwell’s and Gary Wolfe’s was fascinating (Strahan seemed to have a different opinion the most often). There was talk of Doctorow’s LITTLE BROTHER being voted best SF novel next year, which made me uncomfortable, since despite all of its cleverness and YA techno-appeal its narrative technique is mediocre at best (and not even Doctorow’s novel-length best technique, which we witnessed in SOMEONE COMES TO TOWN) – fortunately Wolfe moderated this enthusiasm by reminding everyone that LITTLE BROTHER has a few “shortcuts” in its skeleton which really guarantee it is not a great novel, though it may be highly entertaining to a YA audience. Many anthologies and collections and magazines and novels were named. One that was missing was Tobias Buckell’s forthcoming TIDES FROM NEW WORLDS, which I’m personally much looking forward to.

While getting a drink I spotted Jonathan Strahan and harassed him for a few minutes with questions on his opinion of certain stories in Datlow’s Del Rey anthology. He was very polite and kind enough to entertain my rambling inquiries (and nervousness) before being joined by his other companions at his coffee table. I hope I have to chance to speak with him a bit more before the Con is over.

I also was able to speak with Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Larry Niven for a few minutes, and they were really entertaining and polite. Don’t want this summary to turn into name-dropping, but at the same time these were kind, congenial fellow Con attendees, so there…

Panel 4 - Survival Tips for Beginning Writers - 4pm
Panel Blurb: You've sold a few short stories, or your first book. What will you do to continue in your chosen profession? Get some guidance from some writers who have already
been down that path.
Participants: Darlene Marshall, David Coe, Mary Robinette Kowal

Pretty tired by now, but aided by a 40-calorie energy drink, I was blown away by this panel. It rocked! It was fun to learn about these three writer’s individual paths to professional careers (and those paths were all different). They were articulate, had funny anecdotes, but best of all, a ton of practical, sound advice, pertaining to relationships with agents and editors, the discipline required for regular writing, the usefulness of outlines, ways to ensuring consistency, saving deleted scenes from current manuscripts in “Clipped Writing” folders on your computer (because who knows when those scenes could come in handy for another story or novel), listening to character’s voices, pushing through the tremendous insecurities that typically arise during the two-third mark of a novel, which websites to use, how to self-market, and more. I asked Mary a follow-up question about the use of Creative Commons licensing and whether she endorsed giving away free copies of work as eBooks, and her answer made a lot of sense; yes, as long as you have been able to publish the piece in a paying market, or think you may be completely unable to place it. Heinlein’s rules on submission were also reiterated.

I hit the dealer room once again after this fantastic panel and got some sweet deals on about a dozen paperbacks. It seemed like a better option than the opening ceremonies, which would have probably been mostly fluff (besides, I was tired of sitting).

Aided by a protein bar I then walked then three and half blocks to my hotel, the Grand Hyatt, and unpacked my suitcase, had my fridge delivered (I’m not totally happy unless I can keep stuff cool, including unusual items like hair gel and toothpaste), and went over tomorrow’s plan.

It’s now just around 9:30 pm and I’ll set out to get some dinner, maybe take a stroll. Tomorrow’s gonna be just as busy. Which, I’m pretty sure, is a good thing.
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