A weekend with friends and words

Hi All! I’m just back from spending the weekend outside Boston at the annual Readercon convention. For those who don’t know, Readercon is a fantasy and science fiction convention with a strong focus on writing and books.

This is my third (or maybe fourth?) Readercon and I keep going back for several reasons. First, I really like the size. It is big enough that it attracts an interesting and varied crowd of authors, industry folks, and fans, but small enough that it feels intimate and isn’t overwhelming. Also, the writing track is usually at the foreground and there are always lots of compelling and thought-provoking panels. Finally, it isn’t too far away from where I live, so going doesn’t feel like a massive, time-zone spanning production.

This year, a friend and I drove up from the New York area, escaping the swamp-like humidity for a few days to write, hang with friends, and listen to smart people talk about interesting things. Some panels that really stuck out (for me) were those that focused on writing female characters and friendships, and those discussing the incorporation of greater diversity into our books without misappropriating and misrepresenting.

It was obvious from listening to panelists and audience members that these issues are front and center for a lot of people right now (finally!) and that there are many viewpoints on the topic, all with a lot of emotion behind them. In my opinion, this is one of the things fiction is for: grappling with the complexity of social issues. I was really glad to see these topics playing a major role in the programming and to see greater representation of women and members of the LGBTQ community on many the panels. With a few exceptions, though, POC were not nearly as well represented — a problem that was called out by a lot of people and hopefully will be improved upon next year.

As always, I came away from the convention kind of drained but also inspired. There’s nothing quite as important for writers as getting out of our heads and into conversation with others. The writing shed can be a good place to lock in for the sake of productivity, but it can also create insular thinking. After the weekend, I’m back at my computer full of questions and doubts, but also bursting with new ideas to improve my manuscripts.

So, to work!

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 🙂

Readercon talks cities

I’m pilfering internet access at the Boston Logan airport on my way home from Readercon and thought it might be a good time to share some thoughts on the more compelling of the panels I attended.

A number of the Readercon panels this year focused on the role of cities in SF/F.  Topics ranged from the way cities (be they real or imaginary) function as characters in their own right, living and changing beyond the confines of the narrative, to how we can create imaginary cities that feel real and authentic to readers.

This latter issue really struck me as interesting.  I doubt there’s one of us out there who hasn’t tried their hand at creating an imaginary city, just as I’d bet most of us felt the frustrating two-dimensionality of those places as we tried to breathe life into them.  It seems no matter how hard we work at it, there’s a strange, metallic flatness to them, a sense that something is off, a knowledge that they are fake.

One reason for this may relate to the fact that real cities exist for a reason, not just as a location for a story to take place.  Real cities sit on harbors that, two thousand years ago, sheltered the first traders in the region.  They are located at the confluence of rivers, one gushing down from the mineral rich mountains, the other gliding stately towards the sea.  They build up around religious sites, beginning as little more than a cluster of pilgrims’ tents, or are oases in the desert where nomads stop for water, news, and trade.

Very old cities have grown in unpredictable, organic ways.  Their streets wander into places of darkness and light, and many parts of them defy logic.  They are palimpsests of social and historical intersections and interactions, the character of their neighborhoods shading from one thing to another, malleable in the face of time, economy, and whim.

And cities are much more diverse, complex, and illogical than the imagination of one writer sitting alone at their desk could ever create – no matter how many voices live inside our heads.  What brings people to cities, what makes them stay, and the interactions that change and give shape to their lives is diverse and driven by as many different reasons as there are city dwellers.

The shape, feel, and history of our imaginary cities should reflect all this.

So, when you think about it, it’s no wonder we find it hard to bring imaginary cities to life.  As seems to be typical at convention panels, few suggestions for defeating these difficulties were offered at Readercon.  Just honing an awareness of the complex factors shaping real cities, though, can help us build more authentic imaginary ones.

When shaping words into the illusion of place, we can now start at both ends – at the idea of the city we have in our heads and at the place of its origins.  Why did this city come into being?  What has shaped its long history, put graffiti on its alley walls, caused its main square to house a gallows rather than a park, or created not just a jewelers row but also a street where, for two hundred years, vendors have hawked ferret’s teeth as a cure for gout?


I’m off to Readercon this afternoon and will be in lovely Burlington, MA through Sunday.  If you’re going to be there too, let me know!

Stay tuned for updates and thoughts on the Con.

That is all.

Where did I pack my pen?

For someone who considers herself a homebody, I sure do a lot of traveling.  In 2010 I traveled to Seattle (2x), New Orleans (2x), Boston, the British Virgin Islands, England, Scotland, and Spain.  And that’s just the trips I remember.  I figure I spent at least a quarter of the year away from home (and thus away from my desk).  And, for the first two months of 2011 alone, I have trips planned to New Orleans (where I am as I write this), Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, and Phoenix.

Travel presents a range of delights and agonies, but perhaps one of the most challenging for me is not losing momentum on my writing.  There’s the trip itself, which, if it’s a vacation, can mean getting nothing done, but also the lead-up and unwinding after you get back — all lethal to my writing output.

Sometimes being out and seeing the world is a source of inspiration, prompting unexpected visits from the writing Beast, and the experiences accrued from traveling most certainly benefit us writers.  Getting away from daily life and leaving behind your mundane worries and tasks can be mentally liberating, too.  But, just as often, even if you pack your laptop and best intentions, the writing well remains dry…or ignored altogether.

Here are 2 things I do every time I travel, which unfailingly result in a productivity rate of zero:

1. print out draft versions of short stories or novels with the intent of line-editing them on the plane.  Because you wouldn’t want to be stuck with nothing to do but watch all those free movies on the seat-back screen.  Riiiiiight.

2. pack a blank notebook with the idea that all my “downtime” (cause there’s always so much of that on the road) will be ideal for world-building/brainstorming/plotting.  I have a lot of blank notebooks, many of them now yellowed around the edges.

So far, the only thing I’ve found that works in the slightest is to just stuff the ole’ laptop into my purse (yes, I have a huge purse) and carry it around.  When a free moment or two strikes, I pull it out and keep working on whatever I’d be working on if I was at home.  Pretty prosaic, and pretty hit-and-miss in terms of productivity (also, that shoulder bag gets heavy).  But it’s the best I’ve got so far.

A few other observations: when I’m traveling alone and staying in a hotel, I’m quite productive at night and/or early in the morning.  Along these lines, when I attended Readercon last year I got a ton of writing done.  Being around other writers and attending writing panels was really inspiring.  I’ll be at the Superstars Writing Seminar in Salt Lake later this month and I’m hoping I find the same thing to be true there.

But, given how much I travel, I’d really like to develop more consistent strategies for keeping up with my writing.  So, I’m asking for your input, advice, and tips.  What works for you when you travel, and what tactics are a bust?