ConQuest Report

I don’t know if kids still have to do those “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” essays, but here’s mine.

Over Memorial Day weekend, I went to the 49th ConQuest Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention, where I had the great honor and joy of serving on some panels.

I confess I was apprehensive about the sci-fi and fantasy charades, but since I was one of the judges, I didn’t have to publicly humiliate myself (I have no pride or restraint when it comes to things like charades). As it happens, I remembered a lot of the rules and was able to help the contestants with the clues like “sounds like”, how many words or syllables, the sign for plural, and so forth. The fun thing was, everyone was so familiar with the titles that guessing was a lot easier than I thought it would be. One of the participants was head and shoulders above everyone else, so we had a clear winner. If you haven’t played charades in a while, by all means, give it a go. If you invite me, I’ll come and make a fool of myself.

Other panels I served on were “Consent, Coercion, and Everything In-Between”, “The End of the World As We Know It”, and “Edgar Allan Poe”. There were lively discussions for all of them, but of course, the EAP panel was my favorite. In addition, I moderated the author speed dating. This was an opportunity for readers and authors to meet face to face for a few minutes and talk about the authors’ new books. I think everyone had a really good time with this, and I hope it will be a regular feature at future cons. Finally, I did a reading of Beloved Lives and a bit of Wasting Water.

Of the panels I attended, my favorite was “Solar Punk: A Brighter Future”, presented by Tyrell Gephardt. This was a look at a genre so new there are not yet any novels for it, only anthologies of short stories. I found it fascinating–the future with hope and eco-innovation. Tyrell did a great job researching the rise of new genres and presenting the trajectory of each. By all means, look for solar punk to add to your reading list.

I also enjoyed “For Your Listening Pleasure” about sound tracks for various movies (I have a sound track station on my Pandora account), the great vendor area, a few other panels I was able to catch bits of before having to get to something else, and the opening ceremony (I had a commitment that kept me from staying for the closing ceremony). But one of the things I hadn’t done so much in the past and made an effort to do this year was to go to as many readings as possible.

I was delighted by the quality of many of the readers’ work, with my special favorites being Sean Demory and Jack Campbell, Jr., although there were a lot of other great authors.

ConQuest is a small but dense convention with heavy emphasis on the written word. If you love to read sci-fi and fantasy, consider making a pilgrimage to it next year. Hopefully the Tattoo Convention will once again be happening at the same time just next door to provide interesting eye candy.

Image: Me in the party room at ConQuest (actually, that’s Venus at Pompeii. By Marilyn Evans)

Reading at The Writer’s Place

On Friday, August 17th, starting at 7 p.m., I will be joining a couple of other writer’s to do readings from our current and future works. I’m looking forward to this because The Writer’s Place has done so much to support writer’s in the K.C. area.

The Writer’s Place, 3607 Pennsylvania, Kansas City, MO 64111

www.writersplace.org

 

Put Down the Computer, Step Away From the Novel

One of the hardest things for me to do is to stop editing. I want to mess with the book and mess with it and mess with it until everything is despair and woe. At some point, I’ve got to put down the computer and step away from the novel. When I put distance between me and the story, I can see it objectively and recognize what the heck is wrong–sometimes. If I’m lucky, I’ve got weeks to do other things before I have to pick it up again and view it through fresh eyes. At that point, all the typos, plot confusion, really bad turns of phrase, and so forth jump right out and assault me so I can defend myself in a fit of justifiable murder. In an even better world, my readers can review the story and share with me what I have completely botched.

I’m not one of those writers who believes every word I type is golden. I can usually tell when what’s on the screen is crap, but sometimes I just can’t figure out how to uncrap it. Bless my readers, they usually can, or at least they can point me in the general direction of improvement. When I’m all smug and sure what I’ve written is as good as I can possibly make it, a few weeks cooling off time and a re-read or a sheaf of suggestions from friends are all I need to show me I have a long way to go.

So what to do while waiting for my brain to reset? I’ve got a garden and the ongoing war with the squirrels to keep me occupied, as well as the mystery of what can possibly be eating the eggplant bushes (they are in the nightshade family–why aren’t there poisoned culprits littering the yard?) I’ve got other books to mess about with, some coming along nicely, and some disasters that will in their turn get sent to the story ICU. There is my late uncle’s estate that is a bit of a confused mess and requiring some attention. There are the various book promotion activities to keep me busy and out of trouble including a recent reading at Aquarius in Westport and the upcoming ConQuest sci-fi/fantasy convention.

I’m quite looking forward to ConQuest, not only because I get to do a reading of Beloved Lives, but also because I’m on some panels. One is about Edgar Allan Poe, whom I adore and admire; it should be fantastic. Another panel is about post apocalyptic fiction–one of my favorites. I’ll be doing some other fun stuff as well as and getting to see all kinds of good folk.

If you find yourself at loose ends Friday, Saturday, or Sunday (May 25-27), mosey on down to the Sheraton Hotel at Crown Center in Kansas City, and join me. I’m pretty sure you’ll have a good time. And say, “Hi” of you see me.

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Image: Where I’ll be doing my reading at ConQuest (just kidding–that’s the theater at Pompeii). By Marilyn Evans

 

Reading and Writing

I went to the library recently to grab a few audio books to amuse me while I made a long car trip. While I was there, a saw a woman teaching another woman how to read. The progress was slow and painful, but it was happening. I thought what a wonderful thing that was, both on the part of the teacher and of the learner, to give the gift of reading to someone who doesn’t have it, and to learn to read and experience all the worlds that reading opens.

When I mentioned this incident on Facebook, a friend quipped, if you have audio books why bother to learn to read? Of course, not being able to read closes so many doors, but having audio books is a pretty wonderful thing, too–I can “read” without having to take my eyes off the highway, learn something interesting as I travel, be entertained instead of bored, pass the time in good company, and get through books I might not have time to otherwise.

My love affair with reading started when I was on a camping trip when I was about five years old. Before turning out the lantern, my dad was settling down in his sleeping bag to read as he did every night, at home or away. My brother, Paul, was reading his preferred literature, a comic book. I had nothing. I borrowed a comic book from Paul so I could read, too (even though I couldn’t read yet), and I was hooked for life. I still try to read every night before I go to sleep, and as often as I can manage in between.

Like so many people, I love that image of the man standing on top of a ladder in a library, books under his arms and one between his knees, completely engrossed in yet another book. This picture captures what reading is like for me and others like me–we know what it is to be hijacked by a book. For some of us, reading is a passion, but also a practice for our craft. Stephen King has said that those who don’t have time to read will have neither the time nor the tools to write. I suppose a great many people who read imagine they can write, but reading and writing are very different things. Still, it would be hard to write and write well if one didn’t read, and if you weren’t just a little bit in love with the written word.

When I got where I was going on that long car trip, I handed out a couple of my cards that have information about my book. This often happens when I’m asked, “What are you doing now that you’re retired?” One of the people I gave a card to, a relative, is a librarian, and said he would like to order a copy for his library. I said if he did, I would come and sign it. I wondered as I drove home what would be appropriate to write in the book to be shared in a library in a small town. I thought about all the wonders of reading and how much I have loved it, especially when I lived in a small town. I decided a good inscription might be, “Read every day, and you will always have adventure.”

Image: Captain Jack and Molydinum Wu helping us read. By Jonathan Hutchins.

 

 

Criticism: Love It, Hate It

Most people don’t know that Edgar Allan Poe was best known during his lifetime as a literary critic. Fellow critic, James Russell Lowell, described Poe as a “discriminating, philosophical, and fearless critic” who could be quite caustic. The poetry of Longfellow was a favorite target, Poe predicting that his style wouldn’t last, and Poe was right.

When it comes to critiquing of a writer’s work, the pre-critic critics, if you will, writer’s tend think they want honest criticism and recommendations, but I have found a lot of them really don’t. They want someone to tell them “I like this”, not what’s not working or needs to be improved. But without honest and constructive criticism, the work does not get better.

Criticism isn’t easy. Anyone can say, “This sucks.” But what sucks? Is it the pace? Are the characters one dimensional? Is the description too sparse? Are there typos, grammar errors, punctuation issues, misused words? Is the plot hard to follow? Some people can constructively criticize, others can’t. “I don’t like it” isn’t criticism.

The Kansas City Star, our local newspaper, used to have Robert W. Butler, their movie critic, review all the new releases. The problem was, while Mr. Butler is an excellent critic, he does not care for genre films. If he liked a movie, I would probably like it, but if he hated a movie, there was a chance I might not hate it. There was no value in having him tell me, “This is a science fiction film or a horror film, and it was terrible.” The Star finally figured out that genre films should be reviewed by people who can tell a good one from a bad one, someone who can tell if the target audience will like the film or not. The right critic makes a difference for both the material being reviewed and the person who will base their decision to see the movie or read the book on that review.

I currently have two problems with my new novel. The first is that it sucks. It needs a lot of work, and there are a lot of problems with it. I need to fix most of those before I send it to the poor, benighted martyrs who have agreed to read it in its unfinished form and give me constructive feedback, my first line reviewers and critics. The second problem is I am missing some important demographic representatives in my reviewing population. If everyone reading the book has the same background and ideas, I can’t know whether or not the book will appeal to or be understood by the folks who have different backgrounds and ideas.

If you happen to know of a Christian or Jewish male who likes reading and reviewing manuscripts, let me know. Extra points if he’s in law enforcement. In the mean time, I’m going to go fix this sucky book.

Image: Chihuahuan raven; by Quinn Dombrowski from Chicago, USA

Research: The Root of the Matter

I was going to dash off a blog post about doing research for writing because I’ve been doing a fair bit of that lately, but I discovered as I started the post, I have more opinions (some of them conflicting) than I expected. I had to sit down and think about it for a day or two. You see, I spent forty years or so looking at the world through the eyes of a scientist, so data, facts, research are kind of important to me. But what kinds of research should I be doing for my fiction? How much is enough? And how much is too much?

In an interview on NPR, Richard Powers admits to knowing very little about trees most of his life, but his book, Overstory, indicates he did vast research before writing his novel. Andy Weir, in his wonderful book, The Martian, included so much detail and accuracy that, when the film based on the movie was given a Hugo, honest-to-goodness astronauts were on hand to present the award.

When I’m reading a story, nothing pulls me up short faster than stumbling over a something I know isn’t true. On the other hand, facts can be stranger than fiction. There are things in the news that no one would ever believe in a novel. On the other, other hand, some people hold popular opinions that are, in fact, wrong. It can be frustrating to be challenged by someone who has more opinions than facts, especially after I’ve gone to the trouble of finding out what is real.

Some would say you can never do too much research, but is that really true? I have a dear friend that loves falling down research rabbit holes, getting lost in the twining threads of topics until she sometimes loses track of what the original question was. That, I suspect, is too much research, especially if the results never end up on paper. Though, all knowledge is good knowledge, and if you live long enough, you’re bound to use it sooner or later. Or distort the memory over time. Or forget entirely.

Good and dutiful soul that I am, when I found my story required a missing-person investigation, I contacted the local police’s public relations officer and asked for help. She graciously supplied me with the department’s SOP. I was happy to discover that I had included pretty much everything that was in their procedure. I’m not saying it wasn’t good to have verification, but that step might not have been necessary. As a reasonable person, I could deduce what the police are likely to do if someone goes missing, and so my readers would probably accept my assumptions. Or not. A cop might by some odd chance read my story or maybe even someone who has requested a missing person investigation. They’ll notice if I get it wrong.

I’m not sure I have a conclusion. So far, if I find I have no personal experience of something that is necessary to my story, I try to read up, ask someone, go do something, or visit somewhere. Mind you, I don’t plan to kill anyone in order to write a murder mystery, and I’m not likely to ever make it off planet to research a space opera. And, honestly, I’m a bit too old to spend ten painstaking years researching my magnum opus. In the end, I guess the answer is, enough research and the right research is whatever serves the story. Within reason. Still conflicted. Still thinking about it.

Image: Trees near Avebury stone circle, Wiltshire, England. By Marilyn Evans.

 

Where Am I, Exactly?

I was engaging in one of my guilty pleasures, rewatching Conan the Barbarian, and got curious about Conan’s origin. So off I went, down the delightful rabbit hole of the history of Robert E. Howard and how he created Conan. I was particularly fascinated by his creation of maps as well as a history and cast of important characters for the Hyborian Age where the stories take place.

Who doesn’t love a map, especially when it’s attached to a great story? I have always spent time pouring over the maps for any book that has them, figuring out who is where and (because I’m that kind of girl) trying to figure out how the terrain would affect the local climate. My late brother, George, when he was reading Lord of the Rings, had a map of Middle Earth tacked to his bedroom wall with colored pins for each character as he traced their progress through the story. I love the opening sequences of Games of Thrones with the wonderful theme song and the maps that tell you where we are going in the episode. There is nothing like a map to keep a story organized and oriented.

It’s pretty obvious that anyone creating a fantasy world needs to have some idea of the layout of their world. But other fiction also can get murky if you don’t know who is where and whether or not it’s even possible to get from point A to point B in the time allotted. That’s not so difficult if you live where you’re writing and can pace it out, but it’s a little trickier in a place you haven’t been in a long time, or have never been, or that hasn’t existed for centuries, or has never existed.

In the story I’m working on at the moment, I found a slightly different version of the problem. Not only did I need a map–I needed a floor plan. For the mansion where some of the action takes place, I need to know, what are the grounds around it like? How do you get from one part of the house to another? Where are the stairs, the kitchen, and the library? So here I sit, with grid paper in hand, making a map so my characters and I won’t get lost. Hopefully my readers won’t either if I can stick to the (floor)plan.

Image: A plaque atop White Horse Hill, Oxfordshire, England, showing where things are in relation to the hill. By Jonathan Hutchins.

The Sound of My Own Voice

I’ve had the good fortune to take a few writing classes taught by Brian Shawver through The Writer’s Place. Either he is a fantastic teacher (very likely since he is now chair of English and Modern Languages at Park University), or I was lucky enough to have the teacher I needed at the time I needed him–maybe both. At any rate, one piece I worked on in one of his classes was Wasting Water. The story is told by a teenaged girl who lives on a farm with her mother and their animals in the near future when the rain has all but stopped. Brian noted that the voice of the character, Livie, is quite different from my own. That was the first time I realized my character’s voice was borrowed in large part from my father, the only person I knew well who had grown up on a farm during hard times and without one of his parents for much of that time.

Voice for a writer, so I am told, tends to be unique to that writer–his or her own way of using words and seeing the world, of interpreting that world and putting that interpretation down on paper. The voice used by Mark Twain in his many writings in unmistakable, as is the voice of Ernest Hemingway. The voice used by Jane Austen would never be mistaken for one of those other authors. Apparently, most editors in the universe are looking for writers with unique and distinctive voices.

I’ve just finished reading a chapter in one of my writing books about the use of voice. One of the things that struck me as good advise was to be sure your voice is consistent throughout any given book. Some writers may have a voice that comes through from the very first and remains constant throughout their career. Others may need to develop theirs over time. As a writer learns and grows, there is the possibility that how they express themselves may change, perhaps even within a single book. That is something I will be watching for in my own writing.

One might think it’s hard to write in anything but your own voice. However, I suspect a character that has a strong personality might be able to express themselves in spite of the author, just as my Livie did. I did not mean to write Wasting Water in my father’s voice, but his was the one I heard in my head. Livie spoke, and I just wrote down what she said.

Wasting Water will be appearing in Undeniable: Writers Respond to Climate Change to be published by Alternating Current Press. They still are open for submissions through April 30, so check it out if you have poetry, nonfiction, fiction, or hybrid pieces dealing with climate change.

Image: My father, John P. Evans; mother, Geneva; older brother, Paul; and me, on a farm my folks once owned. Photographer unknown.

From Where I Stand: POV

One of the things that writer’s should never, ever do, we are repeatedly told, is “head hop.” You must establish your point of view and stick to it. You can change POV if you make a solid break in the narrative, but the rule is, no head hopping, keep a consistent point of view throughout a scene or chapter. The thing is, one of the greatest of writers, one of my favorites, anyway, Jane Austen, can tell you within a few paragraphs and within the same chapter, what two different people are thinking or feeling. And when she does it, it does not disconcert the reader in any way.

But, but, you may sputter in protest, she didn’t know the rules, or those were different times, or she was a great writer so she could get away with it. Maybe those things are true, but the real reason she did it was because it served the story. Without knowing what her characters think and feel, there is no story. She does this even if it means the scene or chapter is not told entirely from one person’s point of view. Nor is she being god-like with the ability to know and see all, distant and omniscient; rather she can jump from person to person because what the people are feeling is immediate and important, and that is how the story must be told.

People will tell you the dead (with the exception of zombies or vampires) can’t be narrators, can’t have a point of view. That would be silly–they’re dead. But Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett wrote Sunset Boulevard with a dead man as the narrator. Alice Seabold in The Lovely Bones has a dead girl tell her own story from her personal Heaven. And in both cases, the story is told this way because it is the best way to tell the story.

Rules for writing are not made to be broken–they are made to keep us from looking like idiots when we write. Rules, however, are just rules, not laws carrying the death penalty if broken. It’s best to follow them when you’re a beginner, like I am, but if the story requires it, think long and hard, then break the rule without apology. After all, telling the story as it demands is not a rule–it’s the law.

Image: Stourhead, Wiltshire, England; view from the back. By Marilyn Evans.

Writing From the Well

I once thought my ideas for stories were like drawing water from a pond or tank. I thought I had just so many, and when those were exhausted, I would be done. The ideas I had, I hoarded and tried to keep close to me until they were written and polished. Only slowly, like a trickle from a tap, would I let them be released lest I dry up my source. I worried that writing exercises would deplete my pond. Of course, I was wrong. Ideas for stories and essays and books, writing in general, is much more like an endless flow from a river or a spring.

In Ireland there are holy wells fed by springs that flow year round. Originally they were sacred to Brigit or Boann or some other form of earth goddess. Nowadays they are sacred to various saints. My favorite is Saint Dymphna, patron saint of the mentally ill. One well in Ireland that is dedicated to her is a lovely place with a statue that people decorate, and where gifts and offerings are regularly left.

Ireland gets a lot of rain. The water percolates through the earth and emerges again in the springs. Some spring-fed wells have existed for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years, and the water always flows. But in County Galway, I saw a well that had once been dedicated to Saint Brigit that no longer had water and instead was full of trash. Perhaps the town had grown around Bridget’s well in such a way that the underground water course was blocked and could no longer supply it. Perhaps the saint had just been neglected for so long that she moved her blessings elsewhere.

Writing is nothing like a pond or tank but rather like those rain-renewed wells. And the rain that renews writing is the practice of writing. The flow is endless, but must be tended. Writing begets writing.

I once thought I could never come up with enough ideas for a blog, but I have been surprised how easily the ideas keep coming–at least so far. I thought I’d have maybe three books in me at most, yet now I find five, six, more waiting their turn. I tend my well of ideas by writing more, not less. I have begun to collect writing prompts, exercises, and inspirations from other writers. Once I get going, my brain won’t shut up at night and let me sleep until I at least make a few notes to work from in the morning.

My well may run dry some day, but I will keep tending it. I will make my offerings of time and study and whatever else it takes to keep my saints or goddesses happy. And surely they will let the words keep flowing.

Image: Marilyn at St. Dympna’s Well (note the different spelling), County Galway, Ireland. By Jonathan Hutchins.