Readercon wrap-up: 5 reasons to attend cons

I’m on board the Acela express, speeding south from Boston on my way home from Readercon.  I’m exhausted from a barrage of information, ideas, people, and fun.  It’s overwhelming, but as much as I feel a weary yen for my own bed and a home-cooked meal, I feel even more invigorated.

I blogged the other day about some of the great panels I’d been attending and how inspiring they were.  Today I’d like to reflect more generally on why I think cons (and Readercon in particular) are worth attending.  So, here are my thoughts, in no particular order:

1. They’re social.  We writers can be a solitary lot.  Much of our interaction with fellow writers occurs online, often of necessity as our writer friends are scattered across the country (or even the globe).  Cons are a good way to strengthen and develop relationships face to face and provide a valuable reminder of the actual people behind the critiques, online chats, and so forth.  Cons help keep us connected.

2. They reinforce what we know.  Some people complain that panels rehash the same old stuff year after year, or that they’re only valuable for newbies.  While these are certainly valid comments, I’d argue there’s great value in being reminded of things we already know.  It’s a little kick in the pants, a refresher (particularly about things we may prefer to ignore, such as daily writing practices or making harder choices when it comes to characterization or plotting).  Often we’ve heard a piece of writing advice before but weren’t, perhaps, ready to process or understand it yet.  Hearing it again, at the right time, can make all the difference.

3. They inspire.  Hearing other writers talk about their work casts our writing and ideas in a new light.  I can’t tell you  how many times I’ve left a con or workshop with a new perspective to enliven my writing.  For instance, for my current project, I’m incorporating the notion of communicable diseases.  I’ve read a lot about epidemiology, as well as other novels that incorporate disease.  I’ve pondered the topic till my eyes have rolled back in my head.  But at a one hour panel this morning, I got about 43 million new ideas, just from listening to five writers bounce around ideas about paranormal diseases.  We cannot be one-man (or woman) idea generating machines.  We need collaboration and input from others.  Panels are one way to get that.

4. They’re a space outside the flow of our daily lives.  This is so important.  In everyday life a billion little things pull at our attention.  The dirty dishes.  The cat.  Our families.  Errands.  Television, and so on.  When you go to a writing-focused con like Readercon, or to workshop, you get to set all that aside and just narrow the world down to the part of your life that’s about writing.  Anytime you have an opportunity to do something like that, you should seize it.

5. They push the boundaries of our comfort zone.  This is a tough one for me, and probably my least favorite aspect of con attendance.  It may (or may not) surprise some of you to know that I’m very shy with people I don’t know well.  I try to put on a brave face and be friendly, but I’m deadly afraid of going up to new people, or people I’ve only met once or twice, or online…or even just haven’t seen in a long while.  What if they don’t remember me?  What if I’m suddenly struck dumb, with nothing to say?  What if I’m interrupting?  Ugh.  HATE IT.  Just met me?  I promise, behind that big smile is a great wall of nervous terror.  So…all the more reason to put myself in a situation where I have to meet new people.  If I stay home, I’ll never get any better at it, after all.

So, that’s five reasons to attend cons, which seems like more than enough to make it worth the time, travel, and resultant exhaustion.

Now, excuse me please while I take a nap 🙂

Notes from Readercon: Anthropology, Protagonists, and Horror

Greetings from Readercon!

Since I’ve been traveling so much the last few months, I really debated whether I wanted to attend the Con this year.  After my first day here, however, I can say I’m thrilled I chose to come.  I’ve only attended 3 panels so far, but already I feel stimulated and inspired.  In fact, this is my primary reason for attending this particular Con year after year.  The panels are (typically) thought-provoking and often help me step outside the little insular writing box I’ve been in, providing outside stimulus and new perspectives.

So, here’s a sneak peek at what’s been going on.

I attended two panels on Friday.  The first was “Anthropology for Writers”, which you might guess I’d be pretty interested in.  I went in suspecting the panel wouldn’t offer me anything new (but hoping it would).  What I got instead was a lot of key ideas that were so much a part of my way of seeing the world that I hadn’t even consciously realized how valuable they could be for writing.  I think this tends to happen to anyone who specializes in a particular topic; we internalize the most critical, basic observations of that field and can’t get out of our own heads and really appreciate them.

A few things brought up:

When it comes to culture, people say they do one thing (and may even believe it to be true) but actually do something else entirely.  This is a basic assumption in Anthropology and one I take for granted as true…so much so that I never even considered it a tool for fiction writing.  But, of course, it is — especially when it comes to worldbuilding and character action as a means of revealing that worldbuilding.

We internalize our culture — it’s not something we tend to reflect on or discuss in daily life.  Many of us never even consciously consider our “cultural” beliefs until they are challenged.  This is important to keep in mind when working worldbuilding into fiction.  Characters aren’t going to walk around saying “that’s not how we do this” or “as you know, we believe that”.  We internalize the rules and act accordingly; if we want our characters to be believable, they must too.

and, a final gem:

The way we remember the past is very different from what actually happened in the past.  This as true of the way we construct our own histories (how we remember events from our childhood, for instance) as it is of the way we remember and make meaning of our cultural histories.  The example given, which I think is a great one, is that of King Gilgamesh.  What we know historically about Gilgamesh (a real Mesopotamian king) is pretty short on detail, but the historical myths we’ve created and passed down over the centuries about his adventures (from the Epic of Gilgamesh, most of which likely never occurred) are something else entirely – richer, more interesting, and more revealing of ourselves than of Gilgamesh.  Our novels can benefit immensely from keeping this way of cultural “remembering” in mind.

The second panel I attended yesterday was Reimagining Protagonist Agency and it focused on what it means for a protagonist to be “active” versus “passive”.  Questions raised included:

how important is it for a protagonist to have agency?  Can a passive protagonist truly have a story? and, what middle ground is there between these two extremes?

More interesting for me, though, was a comment made by John Clute about why we cling to active protagonists.  He suggested that protagonists who really “protag” (meaning they go out and ACT in the world, making things happen) appeal to us in part because they make reading easy for us.  We immediately have someone to identify with.  The protagonist serves as our guide through the landscape of the story, translating for us, leading us, and making decisions for us.  The protagonist is someone to root for and shows us what to want in terms of story outcome (since we identify with the protagonist, we want whatever it is they want).  All of this makes for easier reading, in which we (as readers) have no real need to make decisions or interpret what’s happening in a meaningful way.  Does this make us lazy readers?  Does it make having a strong, active protagonist out to save the world a writer’s trick for snaring their readers?  I don’t know, but I sure found the idea interesting.

The final panel I’d like to mention in what is rapidly become a long post (sorry!) is the one I attended this morning, called Horror and the Social Compact.  The basic premise under discussion here was the idea that horror emerges when the social compact is violated.  The social compact can be described as an agreement we make with each other in which we give up certain freedoms and commit to abide by shared rules in exchange for protection and a sense of security.  When that compact is broken in some way, we not only feel betrayed — we also feel the terrifying potential for the horrific to happen.

I don’t read or write a lot of horror (though, my first published story was horror), so these ideas were new to me, and very interesting.  The panel explored the various ways social compacts could break down (on a wide scale, which some suggested would result not in horror but in dystopia) or on an individual level, and on how often stories that focused in on this were set in isolated places (a boarding school, a space station adrift in the black, a building cut off from the world in a catastrophe, etc.).  Also posed for discussion was the horror to be found when individuals realize the extent to which the web of the social compact constrains their individual freedom – that social rules make it impossible for us to escape from a horrific situation.

So, as you can see, there’s quite a diversity of compelling discussions going on.  I’m finding it extremely stimulating (last night I skipped out on the parties and went back to my room, wrote about 1K and really interrogated the outline for my current novel).  All synapses are firing.  I suspect Con fatigue will set in any time now, but for now I’m riding the wave!

More to follow…but for now I’m off to a panel titled Un/Orthodox Genre.  Which could mean anything!

Readercon, here I come!

Tomorrow I’m hopping the Amtrak up to Boston to spend the weekend at Readercon!

Readercon is the first Con I ever attended, and one I’ve gone back to year after year.  I like it (obviously).  It’s small.  The writing track is emphasized.  Lots of cool people usually attend, and it’s not too far from New York so it doesn’t feel like a massive production to go.

This year there are a number of panels I’m really excited about, including one about incorporating Anthropology and fiction, one on re-imagining protagonist agency, another on writing cities (a topic I can never seem to get enough of), and one on unexamined assumptions in Science Fiction.

There also look to be a few panels that might provide inspiration for my current writing projects, including one on time travel and another on paranormal diseases.

Plus, lots of good friends from VP and Paradise Lost will be there.  So, should be fun!

I may post some musings and updates while on the road, so check back soon!