BayCon, a science fiction fantasy convention held in the San Francisco Bay Area over Memorial Day weekend, has been my local con for almost 20 years. Attending has been more of a challenge these last couple of years when the convention moved from a location where I could commute from home, to one that required me to either get a hotel room or crash with a friend. Last year, I stayed with a fellow writer and carpooled to the hotel. This year she was out of town, so I booked a room for Saturday night and asked the programming folks to schedule me for only Saturday and Sunday. It was an interesting experiment, one I am apt to repeat.
In order to discuss the convention, I have to write about the hotel. The San Mateo Marriott has earned its nickname of “the Escher hotel” not only for its inexplicable split-level staircases but the difficulty of finding the elevator that will take you to your destination floor. (Once you’ve made it to the floor on which most but not all of the events are held, it’s not all that hard to navigate – but beware if you want to go from there to, say, the Green Room or Con Suite.) This year, major renovation of the hotel’s lobby added a whole new dimension to the chaos. The restaurant got moved to the 6th floor, the bar to the 3rd floor (meaning that from the convention floor, you had to go down one elevator, through a maze of corridors to another elevator to go back up to either destination). Given these challenges, the convention folks put forth a heroic effort, by way of signs and many helpers wandering the halls in search of those who are lost, to ameliorate the confusion. And the hotel registration staff allowed me to check in quite a few hours early, so I was all set for my first panel.
As for what I was thinking when I asked programming for my usual heavy schedule, without taking into account unforeseen illness, the less said the better. I was a Very Busy Camper.
My first panel, one I did not moderate so I had a chance to transition from driving through my redwood mountains to being in a hotel with lots of people, all talking at once, was Saving What We Love: A look at how the concept of resistance in SF has changed as well as kept a continuity and what different generations have to teach each other, ably moderated by Jennifer Nestojko, with Colin Fisk, Skye Allen, and Tyler Hayes. We looked at how resistance movements have been depicted in genre literature over the decades, and examined the role of literature in general and sf/f/h in particular in generating, supporting, and being the voice of the resistance. I talked about how I came to write Collaborators, my occupation-and-resistance sf novel that was a Lambda Literary Award Finalist. I’d lived in Lyon, France, the center of the French resistance to the Nazi occupation, and had become intrigued by all the ways people either resisted or collaborated. With my memories of protesting the Vietnam War in mind, I wanted to show each side acting for reasons that seemed good yet getting caught in a cycle of escalating, violent retaliation. It’s important in our fictional portrayals that we not demonize or dehumanize the other side but to create bridges where, by slow steps or sudden epiphanies, enemies can discover common ground.
Without missing a beat, or a break, I launched into my next panel, moderating Evolving Career Strategies: How non-traditional publishing is changing the options for a new writer, for good or bad, with M. Todd Gallowglas, Skye Allen, and Melissa Snark. We were a mix of traditionally published, hybrid, indie and small press authors. Snark has her own imprint, meaning she acts as a full publisher for herself. Gallowglass related experience with Amazon Kindle Unlimited, BookBub, and other promotional strategies; we agreed that the time for each of these has passed and they aren’t worth the time and money.
For my break, I ran away to a restaurant with Pat MacEwen and Lilian Csernica (and a good time, with chips, was had by all), arriving back in the nick of time to moderate Taking over Another Person's Writing, the Joys and Pitfalls: Pastiche, shared universe, or inherited worlds - the special qualities. Rights and invitations. Or lack thereof ... with Megan Messinger, Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff, Paul Preuss, and Chad Peterman. It was an awesomely good conversation, with stories of how we stumbled/fell/were dragged into collaborative work, hilarity and all. Preuss worked with Arthur C. Clarke on a number of novels set in Clarke's Venus Prime series, based upon incidents, characters, and places from Clarke's short stories. We had a lively discussion regarding continuity of style and natural literary voices.
My voice was beginning to suffer as I headed into my last panel (2nd back-to-back) but teaching always revives me. This was a Master Class, in which Fred Wiehe ably assisted me, although I took point. Master Class: Diagnosing Sick Stories: Diagnosing story fail problems, especially for intermediate and above writers, those who've sold a novel or a handful or stories and want to take their work to the next level. What do you do when you know your story isn't working, or working as well as you'd hoped, but not why? The class will give participants a variety of tools for discovering where their project falls apart and how to re-envision it anew. Not a critique or fix-it session, and not for those still struggling to complete a story. I’d prepared a handout of analytic tools and ways of looking at story elements and structure that have proven useful (included at the end of this post). Although Fred and I had never worked together before, the balance and complementarity were wonderful. Plus I got to sit down and rest my voice while he talked. The class was amazing, lively and full of interesting on-point questions.
Then I went up to my room, took a long hot shower, and fell into bed, leaving The Eye of Argon to those with more resilience.
The programming gods had smiled upon me since the next morning (a) my first panel wasn’t until 11:30; (b) I wasn’t moderating it; (3) Katharine Kit Kerr was, and it was her idea to do a panel on Can You Go Home Again? A good many authors these days are returning to the worlds of their successes in years past. Some critics and readers sneer. But why shouldn't writers expand a beloved concept, if they have something new to say about it? With Kevin Andrew Murphy and Jon Chaisson. The best part for me was listening to Kit’s tales of her Deverry series, a long-running world that exemplifies the gap between an enthusiastic and loyal international readership and the short-sighted stupidity of certain publishers (and the courage of others, in picking up an orphaned series).
I actually had time for lunch (the 6th floor restaurant, one buffet menu) before my last panel, Writing from the Heart: How to discover and nurture your authentic voice as a storyteller, with Fred Wiehe, M. Todd Gallowglas, and J. T. Doty. The conversation moved easily from the more intellectual (what is “authentic voice”? what is “voice”?) to personal stories of anguish pouring onto the page to slogging through a million words until we find “the way we write.” Along the way, we tackled writer’s block, pastiches, and that euphoria when words flow through you and you know you’ve nailed what you wanted to say. We did not all have the same experiences or strategies, but we were all listening to one another, the parts contributing to a greater whole. The best kind of panel.
Then I went and sat by myself (at the autographing table, tucked way out of sight), chatted with a few friendly folks, and went to dinner with friends before wending my way back to my redwood mountains and home.
Come to think of it, it was a great con.
Diagnostic Tools for Sick Stories – Deborah J. Ross and Fred Wiehe
Motive Force – where’s the story energy? (Setting, Character, Puzzle/Idea, Plot)
5 point plot structure, with limitations (a sympathetic character overcomes significant hurdles to achieve a worthwhile goal by their own efforts)
3 act structure (suspension bridge); beginnings middles ends
More on Structure:
Profluence – each action leads inevitably to the next, more dramatic one
Hook, Inciting Incident, Plot Point 1, Rising tension/things going wrong/getting worse/escalating stakes, Plot Point 2, Climax, Resolution
Upping the stakes
Who cares? Deepening character
Playing fair: Chekhov’s gun on the wall
Bookends and mirrors: balancing the story; fulfilling the promise at the beginning; switching genres in midstream
Layered stories that start out as one thing but change as a deeper story emerges
Misdirection vs contradictions/ambiguities. Mysterious vs mystifying
Trusting the reader: don’t tell her how to feel, but give her enough to experience the story in her own way.