Saturday, July 19, 2008

A long Friday at Readercon

After reminding everybody in my writing group about it last winter, I missed the deadline to register for Readercon at the early-bird rate. Unemployment hit in early May: I decided not to register at the $50 rate. Besides, my family had so much fun at Arisia in January, I knew we'd be going back there next year.

But I thought I'd go to the free Thursday night activities. Only Thursday morning, I was in Wakefield for a job interview. By Thursday night I was too sleepy to drive. I looked at the one-day prices, and the schedule for Friday. It sounded like it could be very informative to just go for that one day.

The next morning I was still uncertain whether to spend the $45 it would cost ($35 for registration, at least $10 in gasoline to drive there). And also whether to take a day away from the job-search.

In the shower, I reasoned: One of my main goals is to write my novels well and get them published. These lectures and panels will probably help me with that goal. Then I should go to it, even though I didn't register in time for the less expensive rate.

My sweet husband agreed to stay with the kids for another day. I drove down to Burlington. The great thing about Readercon, from the point of view of one who has to drive to it, is the adjacent free parking lot. Arisia and Boskone are more accessible from Public Transportation, but that's not really practical from NH.

There was only a short line at registration, so I had no problem getting to the first panel on time.

At 10 am there were two panels that sounded interesting: In Salon F, a talk on the Four Categories of Fantasy, and in the ME/CT room Robert Sawyer was going to talk about his new Web based pilot for the CBC on "SF as a Mirror for Reality", and invite the audience to contribute ideas. Well I'm into Web stuff and new media, but I thought there might be less expert and useful information in some sort of audience participation thing, so I went to the talk on the Four Categories of Fantasy. I've written some fantasy. I might write more. I thought it might be helpful.

The talk was very erudite and literary. The divisions of the 4 categories sounded like a good idea:
  1. portal, where normal people enter a panel to a fantastic world, like The Lion, The Witch And the Wardrobe.
  2. immersive, where the characters live in the fantasy world and see it as normal. Like The Hobbit.
  3. intrusion, where the fantasy elements come into the real world, like, Interview with a Vampire.
  4. liminal. This is less clear, but seems to me to be one in which the fantasy element was ambiguous. Kind of like things disappearing in the fog when you never do have clear evidence of a monster grabbing them. I think I've seen old TV shows where a character had a particular magic quality, but the magic could also be explained away as coincidence or something. Nanny and the Professor? I wonder if Radar's abilities in MASH would qualify. Even though his skills were based on those of an actual person.
But other than that, they lost me. There was a lot of talk with words like "teleological" and so on. I kept trying to pay attention. I kept failing. Do I need more caffeine? I asked myself. Do I need ritalin? Finally, I decided I'd spent too much money to sit it through out of politeness.

I left and went to Sawyer's panel, which was entertaining and interesting. I was sorry I missed the beginning.

At noon I went to a panel on the Sycamore Hill Writing workshop. It looked like a lot of the writers who'd been at least once to this workshop came to Readercon. They were spread out across the front of the room--about a dozen of them. As I'm in a monthly writing group, it is of interest to hear how other groups of writers help each other with writing. The panel was relatively useful in that vein, and amusing in its anecdotes, and in the way the panelists teased and interacted with each other.

At 1pm there was a panel on "Transcending Your Influences." I think it was a good panel because Ellen Kushner was such a good moderator. She kept the participants on topic, and asked them good interview questions: What were your influences? When did you turn the corner in escaping imitation? etc. She had quite a variety of personalities to keep in line, which kept things lively.

James Morrow talked about being billed as "influenced by Kurt Vonnegut" in his early works, and how it got to annoy him. He also said it was gratifying to read reviews of new writers who are described as being "influenced by James Morrow". It's a good sign you've arrived.

I made a note to read something by James Morrow. I like Kurt Vonnegut, and I liked the way Morrow talked.

The 2pm talk on "Consciousness, Free-Will, Evolution" was a live equivalent of the old fashioned speculative essay, with a break for a very interesting 7-minute introduction to Spinoza. The main speaker tied in particle physics and neuroscience for an explanation of subjectivity and consciousness. At the end, I said to the woman sitting next to me, "He lost me pretty early, but it was very entertaining." She agreed.

At 3pm I went to a panel on Writers Groups and Writers. I actually managed to meet someone I knew there--I sat next to Janet, who is in my writing group. The panel there gave some reasonable advice and amusing anectdotes. One member of the panel teaches writing, and has directed plays and written plays and screenplays and stories. I asked her if I should give my screenplay to my regular writing group or find a screenwriting group. She said the format for plays and screenplays is so different that it makes sense to find people who understand screenplays to critique it.

Janet and I compared schedules for the rest of the day. We'd each chosen a different panel for each remaining slot. She was staying in the same room for the 4pm talk on The Influences of Blade Runner. It sounded very intriguing. At the very least, I thought it would be fun to listen to people talk about Blade Runner. But it was given at the same time as a panel called "Objects in the Room may be Scarier than They Appear", which seemed to be about how to write details about objects in stories to give them significance and add to the suspense or creepiness. I don't write horror, but it still sounded more useful in learning the craft of writing. So I decided to go to that instead of to the talk that I thought would be more fun. Wrong decision.

The "Objects" panelists said that an object should only be in a story if it's going to be used, or is very important, for example, in illustrating a character. Fair enough.

My problem is that "illustrating a character" leaves a very large loophole of ambiguity. Dickens will wax on and on about the contents of a character's room, but I know we can't get away with that any more. Nor do I wish to. The panel wasn't able to offer any rules other than to use your instinct to decide on whether to include something. That, and write to the end and then prune out what wasn't needed. Reasonable advice, but I was hoping for more techniques, heuristics, illustrations from actual stories. Illustrations on how to make an object scary.

I'd always thought one of my weaknesses is in deciding how much detail to paint in a scene. So, at the question period, I asked how you find the right level between Dickens and people just interacting in a white nothingness.

The quantity of details Dickens uses is too high, one of the panelists agreed, with some amusing images to back him up.

"But how do you know what's the right amount?" I asked.

"Less is more," they said. "Kill your darlings." Really new advice.

"But I think my problem is the other extreme," I said. "If I write all dialog and no descriptions, should I just give up and write screenplays?"

I'd become a persistent questioner. That horrible annoyance of question periods. Bad Margie. But I'd spent my $35, I was missing the Blade Runner talk, and I wanted to learn something.

Objects, I thought. This panel is on objects in stories. What other advice with respect to objects could they give? So after someone else had a turn, I raised my hand and tried to ask a question that seemed closer to what was implied in the panel's title.

"What about a red herring?" I asked. "Like in a mystery. If there was one object of significance, and you wanted to disguise it among other objects, how would you do that?"

"I wouldn't know how," said one panelist, and they went on to the next question.

For this, I missed a fun discussion of Blade Runner. Janet said she'd go to it. If you're reading this, Janet, how did that go?

At 5pm I went to "A Tale of Two Disciplines" where panelists discussed the joys of connecting areas of study, and the need to fight against the academic bureaucracy's tendency to divide them. Several said they started writing SF as a means of combining disciplines. One of them said the best ideas for sf stories come from combining two disciplines that may seem to be the most difficult to connect.

At 6pm I went to a panel labelled "If All Men Were Tolerant...How would you shock your sister?" In part, I went to hear Celia Tan, whom I've heard give hilarious readings at Arisia, and who has a clear fun way of speaking when on a panel. I suppose I was also hoping to hear something that might be a bit shocking. There was some discussion of the satirycal Obama New Yorker cover. Barry Maltzberg complained that it's just the stupid liberals who can't stand to win, trying to shoot themselves and lose an election that they would otherwise be set up to win. Maltzberg also complained about the Thomas Disch video that was to be shown later that night. That is too shocking, he said. It is too close to his death. It is wrong to take his greatness and pathologize him.

At 7pm I went to "Economics as the S in SF".
The panelists just didn't explain very much about economics or SF. They didn't go deeply into anything, aside from a decent discussion as to what lay behind the monetary system. I was hoping to hear a good analysis of novels like Pohl & Kornbluth's The Space Merchants or hear of new titles and how some novel postulated an economic system or event and created a society from it. Someone asked about The Space Merchants, and they said, "Good example," but didn't elaborate as to why. I wanted to ask them to compare The Space Merchant's society to that of Ursula K LeGuin's The Dispossessed, but what was the point? I don't even think they discussed the John Brunner novel that was in the blurb.

At 8pm there was a small group in a big room listening to a discussion on the personal essay. It was nice hearing the personal situations that led the various fiction authors to turn to the personal essay. (Or, in Judith Moffet's case, to be about to turn to it--she's started to write about the birds and other fauna about her rural home.)

At the question period I asked them to compare the personal essay to blogs. Of course, I had in mind that I like to blog about the sort of topics that would go into a personal essay, but I prefer stories to be in more formal containers.
Panelists praised the formal constraints of a proper essay and dismissed the blog as allowing too much immediacy and spelling errors and lack of editing.

I nodded meekly, thinking, "but I try to edit it." Several bloggers in the audience didn't take it so meekly. Farrah Mendelsohn defended the artistic merit of the blog she had kept for a few years, and the value it had had to her readers and herself. Another blogger had a similar comment. The panelists said, we're not saying blogs are bad, just that they don't have the formal constraints of an essay. Tom Purdon, who was on the panel, said he contributed entries to Asimov's forums, but, as a professional writer, always felt an obligation to carefully edit his words, no matter in what format they were to appear.

I was glad I'd asked a question that got people animated.

At 9pm I went to the panel that was comparing translations from the first page of Zemyatin's novel We. I was glad they had a native Russian speaker on the panel, as well as someone else who had done Russian translations. The other two panelists also had good input as to the philosophy of translating. There was a handout for this talk--a grid in which 4 translator's versions were compared side by side. I wondered which one I had read in paperback from the library years ago--certainly not the most recent one, which, in all but one case, anyway, turned out to be the least favorite.

After that I stuck around to go to the "Meet the Prose" party. It had sounded fun--the authors were going to have sheets of stickers with a line or two from their works. We plebians were to be given sheets of wax paper with which to collect the stickers, and then be able to rearrange the words, kind of like in the refrigerator magnet poetry game.

The start of the party was running late. I watched the awarding of the "Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award" It seemed in line with having a dead guest of honor. This award was to a dead sf writer who'd been forgotten for many years but shouldn't have been, because his work was Really Really Great. Barry Malzberg, in announcing the award, said that it didn't have to go to a dead writer, but that no living writer would want it.

I looked around for refreshments, saw only a cash bar. I wondered what kind of a goyishe definition of the word "party" meant a cash bar and no food. But I thought it would still be fun to get all the stickers and put them together. Then they announced that they had forgotten to obtain the wax paper for us to hold the stickers. I thought, if I'd known, I could have brought some from home. I also thought, don't they have volunteers? Aren't there grocery stores in Burlington? Couldn't they have sent someone out to buy some?

So I walked around collecting stickers. That was fun. It was interesting to read the bit of a story, and sometimes ask the author about an intriguing line, or complement him or her on one that made a pithy or amusing point. I met a few French-Canadian authors who said they wrote in English first, even though they had been raised in French. I had some nice conversations with people. The sticker thing was a good way to get people to talk and mingle.

I only wish I'd had a reasonable place to put them. I started with my plastic badge, but it got full. Then I reasoned that t-shirts often have messages on them anyway, so I started to collect them on my t-shirt. I was hoping that it would be easier to pull them off and re-stick them from the cloth than it would be from paper. People at the party seemed to think it was some kind of wild statement to be decorating my shirt like that. I could only compare this crowd to that at Arisia, where stickers on a t-shirt would be the weakest sort of personal statement.

It seems like Arisia has an unstated purpose as a place for the different drummer types to be able to express themselves in wild exhibitionist ways in an friendly accepting environment.

An unstated purpose of Readercon seems to be to let obscure science fiction writers get together and talk about being writers, and maybe meet some of the few people who are actually reading their stories, and try to sell to them and to the small group of other potential readers. That's fine. Because it also drove home the lesson that even if I achieve what I see as an utterly desired milestone of writing success--a story in Analog, a novel actually in print and in the bookstore--it wouldn't be an amazing Nirvana. I'd just be milling around in that room, with an orange stripe on my badge (indicating "participant") instead of a blue one (indicating "attendee").

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