Sunday, May 26, 2013

WisCon 37--A Partial Review

I was certain I wouldn't make it to WisCon this year, coming as it did right before my moving trip to Washington, D.C. But with some last-minute crunch and a willingness to run around disoriented (I've learned these will get you far in life, or at least lead me very far afield), I made it for at least the weekend and Friday evening.

Friday:
After hurriedly packing for DC, I stuffed my backpack with my immediate needs for one weekend and set out to brave the Memorial Day weekend traffic. And then Madison's one-way streets. This harrowing experience concluded in time for me to make it to dinner with my sister and some lovely strangers she met on the Internet. Between weekend festivities and the convention, every restaurant in central Madison was packed. Still, the 45 minutes before harried waitresses brought our food gave us time to go through our pocket pamphlets and circle likely-looking panels. This process is one of anticipation mixed with frustration--there's always 2 or 3 different panels going on at the same time that I want to see. And there's a limit to how much running around disoriented even I can do.

The first after-dinner panel we attended was "Cyborg Identities," a discussion of Donna Haraway's theory that cyborgs transcend science fiction and have potential for feminism and social theory--given the omnipresence of technology and constructed reality means that we are all cyborgs. I'm paraphrasing from what I gathered, as I haven't actually read Haraway (Megan, the grad student, made our panel decision there ;D). Still, it left me with some take-away thoughts on how reality is constructed--"there's no such thing as nature," if nature means a state where humans do not alter our environment through our interactions with it--and a glimmer of understanding about polyrythms as the panel was lead in an impromptu performance by panelist Andrea Hairston. I am not particularly good at managing even a monorythm, but it was interesting to know more complex patterns are possible.

We dropped by the QUILTBAG TARDIS party, but turned in early after a long day. Megan wanted to prepare for her reading and to be a panelist on Saturday, and I saw a morning panel that looked appealing.


Saturday
Woke up bright and early, hoping I could get lunch before the panel on 'Digital Death' that I dearly wanted to attend. I was in luck, as right outside the hotel doors I discovered a farmer's market, including multiple booths selling bakery items. Cinnamon raisin bagels provided me with nourishment to face the next few panels.

Digital death: Worrying about the privacy of your online information while you're alive is bad enough, but what do you do when you die? Who inherits your ebooks? How technologically savvy does your digital executor need to be? Are you better off just waiting for a grad student of the future to crack the encryption on your hard drive (much joking about what that student may find there--including disappointment that it's only 2D), or perhaps creating a "dead man's switch" to automatically revert your password to 'password1234' when you, presumably dead, fail to log in after a year? Takeaways to remember: Katherine Mankiller's story of the parents of a friend whose discovered, upon that friend's untimely death, the slash fanfiction on her LiveJournal (they made peace with that side of her, prompting the slogan "We love our dead slash-writing daughter!"); the importance of periodically reviewing your will and any listing you have of active accounts and passwords; the impact of changes in format ("Plain text is your friend," and maybe pdf if it's kept simple), and "loooove your data". Also sue people if you really want to do a favor to your future family genealogists; it's a great way to get your information recorded and preserved.

Women in Power: This one seemed to fly by far too quickly, before the panelists could really sink their teeth into issues like "what is our working definition of power?" and "Do we recognize power when it's coming from someone other than the recognized head of a community or association?" We did learn about a number of remarkable historical and modern women, from Wu Zetian (first female emperor of China) to a modern Chinese scientist who single-handedly fought an AIDS epidemic in her province. Also discussed was the importance of media attention, documentation, and the use of awards and public recognition to turn the personal power of an individual into the communal power of a movement.

I met up with Megan after the morning panels to grab lunch in the con suite (the sweet onion relish, which must come from a local Wisconsin farmer or his/her grandmother, is to die for; and for some reason all the LonCon fortune cookies we opened recommended stores by Iain M. Banks) and explored the dealers room and art show. Despite being too broke to buy much of anything--except a copy of Dr. Who Magazine with Paul McGann on the cover, modeling the Eighth Doctor's new black leather peacoat look--I made grabby hands and high-pitched yearning noises at books, jewelry, paintings, felt creatures, and a miniature clay figurine of Jon Snow and his white wolf puppy. I haven't even read the books or watched Game of Thrones.

Editing for Writers--this after-lunch panel was packed, probably to the joy of panelists who remarked "There is not enough good editing going on." Being almost obsessive in my pursuit of melodious prose, I can only agree. However, the main problems are less stylistic than failures of clarity--or, as one panelist put it, "Is this clear? And is this funny to anybody but you?". Thus the importance of beta readers and professional editors, and the importance of listening to and communicating with your editor. However, the main flaw of beginning editors (and betas!) is tactlessness--being too blunt about the failures of a text. Sadly, I can testify to the truth of that myself (I and my friends have gotten way better since the first meeting of our high school writing club). Another observation true in my experience is that many new writers develop bad habits as a result of lax schooling--basically, teachers are so happy to find students who enjoy writing and have a grasp of grammar and structure that they never push us to try better. But again, that's what editors are for.

I attended this panel for more than one reason, given my freelance editing jobs. It was not exactly encouraging to hear one woman ask for advice on becoming an editor only to be pressed to keep writing instead--"You can make it rich writing!" Then again, these are also editorial positions that include wading through slush piles, which I have only heard horror stories about. Panelists did mention that developmental edits can be particularly useful for writers who have what they feel is a solid manuscript which keeps getting rejections for no reason they can discern. Developmental edits and copy edits are both essential for authors considering self-publishing--otherwise, the publisher will supply a copy edit. Sometimes a copy edit from Hell where all the flavorful local dialect your characters utter is corrected, but that's why communication is important! Personally, I think it's also appropriate to hire an editor when you have a manuscript which needs attention that beta readers can't give it (either because you can't find a beta in your genre, or want something more in-depth than most volunteers can offer) before being submitted for publication.

It's Actually Quite Hard to Rip a Bodice Part 2: The panel on historical accuracy in fiction was as much of a riot as it was last year! Refreshingly, there was a greater range of panelists this year--guest of honor Jo Walton said her method of research was less directed than "suddenly writes something and realizes random recreational reading of the past decade was leading up to it", which sounds more my style than "50% background research before story, 10% during, 40% after" because with my luck the 40% after will be what proves everything I wrote could not possibly have happened (in this world, at least). I'm more likely to look at real-world historical research for inspiration than to let it tell me what I can or can't do (*stops foot like petulant teenager, shakes fist at History*). All the same, I'm perfectly happy to hear what people who do research exhaustively write and discover. Discoveries include things as weird as the "Swiss army knives" carried by the Roman legions, and the fact that ancient Greeks and others told the future by examining the liver because they believe the liver is the seat of the mind. "Because it's triangular," Walton assured us. This somehow led to her wondering whether they ever told the future by the placenta (apparently you have to have seen one to get this; I have not and will take it on faith). They never did, so she can write that original idea into a story sometime...the payoff for intensive research, I guess.
Oh, and they've tried ripping bodices. From what I remember from the panel last year, bodices are sewn together in a way that resists tearing quite remarkably. Sorry.

Help, Gender Essentialism Is Everywhere!: I attended this panel on how writers can avoid gender essentialism to give support to my first-time panelist sister, missing out on a discussion of Large House vs Small Press vs Self-Publishing and, perhaps even more distressing, "Realistic and Unrealistic Sex in Fiction."
I jest.
Well, a little.
I did attend to provide moral support, but this was an intensely interesting panel that I would gladly have attended anyway (even to the point of missing out the other two? Well, that's what the internet's for! By which I mean the Absolute Write Water Cooler forum has plenty of discussion of publishing options--what did you think I meant?). The panelists discussed their own efforts to include sexualities outside the gender binary, what methods were successful, and what happens when reviewers get confused. Luckily, there seems to be a healthy number of short fiction markets that are enthusiastic about representing non-binary identities, though this may be more difficult in longer works with New York houses--none of us are exactly sure. My question about managing and countering stereotypes for characters who lie on multiple identities prompted one of my favorite quotes of the convention, from Keffy R.M. Kehrli: "Be careful when playing at intersections; you may get hit by a truck!" By which he meant not that it isn't worth doing, just that it needs to be done sensitively and with care. The air of the panel was overall encouraging: representing non-binary and/or trans* characters isn't to be done lightly, but it's also done far too rarely and many editors and readers are eager and supportive of writers willing to try.

After grabbing dinner (and an ARC of Sam Sykes' The Skybound Sea, which I was literally unable to put down--I tried, but blasphemous monstrosities were rising from the ocean and the prose sang in my ears), Megan and I grabbed seats somewhat in view of the stage for the Tiptree Auction. Last year we were on the far side of the ballroom, but really, wherever you're sitting the auction is as good or better than a night with the stand up comedian of your choice. From the opening bids on a paperback copy of the 1971 classic The Feminists--our sacred text went for almost $50; not bad considering I think the cover said 35 cents--to an Alice Sheldon pillow, decorated rocket ship tiles, original Lynda Berry illustrations, more pulp paperbacks featuring buxom 'hoydens' and sheer pastel spacesuits (I'd have bid on A Woman in Space but it was already over $30, which given my budget seemed a bit much even for such a juicy morsel), a Space Babe engraved hip flask, a robot-decorated bag featuring the damn cutest baby robot ever, and the shirt off Ellen Klages' back. Also an Ellen Klages doll, which I'm sure we never knew we needed before. And a bottle of Lysol, which I'm sure was never ever never needed for its advertised purpose. Why we need feminism, indeed (well, that and in order to round up all the men for breeding chattel. I read it in a paperback, it must be true).

We popped out of the auction long enough to see Lauren Jankowski read from her first novel, Sere from the Green, at the Broad Universe reading, but then we came back because we were having just too much fun. We left once the auction started winding down.

Sunday
No farmer's market, but I did have to jog across the Madison Memorial Day Marathon to get to the Concourse. Not quite certain what to do, I stood on the curb and applauded runners approaching the finish line until I saw a clear space.

Another early morning panel for me, this one on "Intimate vs Remote Gods". Panelists ran the gamut from a Lutheran minister to a content atheist, so lots of interesting discussion made it worthwhile. Also one of the panelists recommended C.S. Friedman's Coldfire Trilogy, and I savor the proof that I am not the only human being to read and enjoy it (logically the fansites and fanfiction suggest I'm not, but I never run into fellow fans in-person). I also need to check out the Dark Faith anthologies, which kept providing intriguing examples.

Race and Class in Urban Planning--though the topic has some applicability to science fiction and fantasy, this panel was mostly about real life: school closures in Chicago, "affordable housing" in San Francisco, gentrification everywhere and enough hipster artists and "urban pioneers" to make you want to call pest control. By which I mean hipster urban pioneers were discussed; if any actually attended the panel they kept it well hidden (wisely). Audible dismay passed through the room when we learned that classrooms in Chicago public schools are considered "underutilized" if they contain less than 32 students. My parochial school class was treated as unmanageable in the second grade for having 31 kids. Which wasn't inaccurate. Developers still only pay lip service to consulting communities before going ahead with projects that can destroy neighborhoods--except when they run into committed citizens ("granny power" as one panelist described what happens when the retired and unemployed in a community go to work lobbying for its interests) who can command media attention. This is the sort of fascinating conflict that should be appearing more in fiction.

Megan and I compared notes and realized we each technically meet the threshold for the Mid-Career Writers lunch roundtable: we've both been publishing short fiction since 2008 or earlier. In any event, we didn't get thrown out. New writers have a lot of resources to draw on, which is great, but what happens for the rest of your professional life? A group of eight or nine of us introduced ourselves, described what was going on and particular challenges faced at this point in our careers, and brainstormed solutions. This is the sort of meeting I'd like to attend more often, although still being on the very new end of the mid-career I spent most of the time listening.

My last event of the day was the Outer Alliance Reading, with Megan along with 6 other writers reading excerpts, short stories, and poetry. I don't usually read Megan's fiction for some reason, maybe lack of time or the feeling that I'll be asked to beta for her again one day (I don't think I'm afraid of being influenced by her; our styles have gone in very different directions), but ohh boy, I had goosebumps at her reading. Other stories were more lighthearted. Especially fun were Cliff Winnig's "The Call of the Sky" (in When the Hero Comes Home 2), with clone families and ensuing identity crises that were just complicated enough to be refreshing rather than confusing, and Sunny Moraine's snappy, elderly seer confronting the wastrel playboy of her space-nomadic tribe in Line and Orbit. In my post on using bookmarks for promotion I mentioned that they are useful more as a reference for individual readers than as a sales tool, but Moraine made good use of them for both--I grabbed one after her reading convinced me her story is something I'd really enjoy.

I drove home after the OA reading, to finish packing and get some rest before setting out tomorrow. This is my last blog post from Wisconsin in who knows how long. At least you can be a fantasy fan & writer from anywhere!