My First Worldcon

So I attended Worldcon 76, in San Jose, CA. It was my first Worldcon; the last one in my neck of the woods was Reno in 2011, and I was not in a good enough financial space to go to that one.

All in all, I enjoyed the experience, but as a baby writer whose book is not even out yet, it was … interesting.

I quickly learned that most of the writing craft-focused panels were not for me.  They were saying things I already knew. The sort of “theory”-based panels were much better, though I didn’t make it into a few of them due to overcrowded rooms.  C’est la vie.

I learned late on Saturday that the head of my publisher was in attendance, and I tried to arrange a meet, just to shake his hand and say hi, but we weren’t able to sync our schedules and get a minute.  Ah well, there will be other chances.

I attended a panel titled “The Revival of Space Opera,” which included among the panelists my Viable Paradise instructor, Teresa Nielsen Hayden.  I wanted to go talk to her at the end, but I didn’t feel like fighting my way through the press, and assumed I’d be able to find her somewhere else.  Sadly, I didn’t, so I didn’t get to talk to her, which I regret.  Teresa’s one of my favorite VP people.

I did learn that going to a con with my pre-teen daughter is difficult.  Tegan is 10, which presents a problem: the child-focused stuff was too young for her, and she’s not old enough to go hang out with teens yet.  So she spent much of her time being bored, though she did attend her first panel on her own at one point, and enjoyed that.  She felt better once her mom arrived on Friday evening, though daughter spent Friday night visiting her Bay Area-based cousins.  Tegan really wants to be my “assistant” if and when I ever do signings and the like, but I think we’ve both decided she’s not ready for that yet.  We’ll see what happens as she gets older.

What I really enjoyed the most about the Con was visiting my tribe members who came to Worldcon.  Through Beth Morris Tanner, who seemingly knows basically everyone in the SFF field, I also met Karen Osborne and Mary Anne Mohanraj, both of whom were delightful and I hope to see more of in the future.  I didn’t get to talk to all the people I wanted to, but that’s the reality of Big Social Events.  Dinner with my VP crew on Saturday was a high point, for sure.  Let me tell you, if you’re ever in need of some great SFF anecdotes, K.G. Anderson is the person to sit with.

I’m delighted that most of my Hugo votes were for the winners, and I gladly give my congratulations to all the winners, even the ones I didn’t vote for.

Now it’s time to get ready for the school year to begin, and keep plugging away on the writing projects I have going right now.

On “Leveling up” as a Writer

As an RPG player of long standing, as well as a video game-lover, the concept of “leveling up” is never far from my brain.  When I finished my first year of teaching, I called it “leveling up.”  There’s some truth to it; every year brings new skills, new ideas.  And not just annually; leveling up can happen mid-year, too.

As a writer, I’ve always thought of a sale as the obvious first “ding” to signal a new level.  Then I went to VP, which was a level-up, as I learned new skills and made some valuable contacts (mostly with fellow students, without whom I would still be trying to finish The Widening Gyre.

So, now that I’ve signed a contract, that’s a ding, right?  Right.  And now I’ve reached a new level of enlightenment about writing professionally, right?

Well, no, not so much.

I mean, yes, If I’m being honest, there’s some nifty “taking myself seriously” going on, where I’m no longer telling myself the book is terrible and nobody will ever like it.  But at the same time, now I have all sorts of new problems to figure out.

When my sorcerer hits a new level, he gets some new spells, he learns some new things, and he’s generally more powerful.  But he doesn’t usually end up with a series of new questions, at least not as part of his new level.

But now that I have a publisher, and an editor, and a contract that lays out certain things, I’m worried about new things.  Like… at what point do I add things like a dedication and acknowledgements?  When do I pitch book 2?  Right after I plot it out and write up a synopsis?  When it’s finished?  Or do I wait and see how Book 1 does in the marketplace to see if there’s even a point to writing it?

My editor is saved from dealing with my neurotic BS by the fact that I know he’s super busy prepping for the Imprint’s big roll out of the new titles beginning in September.  And I’m waiting for the edits on TWG before I do anything else.  Get that one “in the can,” so to speak.  But it’s still all spinning around and around in my head.

So.  Level up, but be wary–just like in RPGs, the battles aren’t over yet.

Life After Viable Paradise – One Writer’s Path

The first few weeks–maybe even months–after I got home from Viable Paradise 17, I was filled with a righteous fire for writing.  Anything that got in the way of writing was crap.  I k

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Viable Paradise 17. I’m the goober in the top row, second from the left, standing next to Beth Tanner. You probably know her.

new–KNEW–that it was only a matter of time before I would be signing copies of my book.

You really can’t sustain that level of hellfire.  Well, I can’t, at any rate.   That’s not to say VP left me with unrealistic goals–but I created for myself some unrealistic expectations.

As the instructors took pains to tell us, several times, Viable Paradise is not the Easy Button.  It’d be damned nice if it were, and I’m fairly certain the instructors would be just as stoked for that as the students, but publishing simply doesn’t work that way.  Even the best among us took some time to get a story published, and one of the best writers in my class (my opinion, of course) is still writing her book.  Me?  Nada.  I am still a Nobody in the writing world.  No short story I’ve sent out has been published.

As for novels, I finished mine; the third one I’ve ever written, but the first one that wasn’t pure shit.  And as I’ve rather irritatingly chronicled here, it isn’t really going anywhere yet.  Maybe it stinks, or maybe it just hasn’t found the right agent.  But the bottom line is, it’s still sitting here, unread by all but one publisher, and they gave me a form rejection.

That doesn’t mean I’m awful–but it does mean that, VP grad or not, I have the same steep hill of probability to climb as any other writer.  I have to do the same slog through Agent Search Hell that any other writer does, just as every VP student before me, and every one after me, will have to do.

Aside from that, there’s the whole “living your life” thing to do, as well.  I know some writers like to go on about how, if you want to write, you will Do Whatever You Have To to write, but the truth is, very few writers can afford to do that.  Most of us have Things We Must Do. Sooner or later, the student work you haven’t graded demands your attention.  Your daughter* still wants to play Lego Marvel with you, and she won’t understand that your book needs to be written NOW.  And of course, your spouse needs your attention, too, as do your friends.  You can put them off sometimes, but not often.  Unless, of course, you want a divorce, which… let’s just assume you don’t.  Who needs that?

In my case, I found ways to cope with the demands of life but still manage to write.  I go to the coffee shop some nights after dinner, and write.  I try to get up early on the weekend and write a bit before my daughter wakes up and fills my house with the ungodly voices of YouTube.  I take occasional–very occasional, in my case–weekend retreats on my own to write in a nice, clean, quiet hotel room (I want to do that one more often, but it gets set aside by Things We Must Do).  And, of course, as a public school teacher, I do get some time in the summer to write (and take care of my daughter, who is of course also on vacation at that time).

Anyway, the trick to surviving life after Viable Paradise is twofold: First, you have to recognize the realities of the writing life, and manage your expectations of how quickly you’re going to hit the shelves (if ever).  Second, you have to find a way to balance your life between work, family, and the needs of the muse.  Is it easy?  No.  But what else are you going to do?

 

*Or son. Or cat, if yours is sufficiently evolved to have opposable thumbs.  Not dogs, though.  They don’t appreciate Marvel Comics. They’re more into Image**

**Yes yes, your dog appreciates Marvel and thinks Liefeld is a terrible artist.  But most dogs think Liefeld is the shit.  So, y’know.  Ew.

What Impostor Syndrome Looks Like From The Inside

Impostor Syndrome, the belief that one is a fraud, sometimes hits a lot of writers.  Most of the writers I know, both professional and not, suffer from it from time to time.  I feel lately like I live there.  It makes writing very difficult–how can you focus on the work when you’re convinced you’re terrible at it?

I suffer from it both as a teacher and as a writer, but mostly as a writer.  And when I’m in the depths of Writer Impostor mode, these are the things that go through my mind  (In case it’s not obvious, I need to point out that every single one of these is BS and I know it):

  • I’m a hack.  My book sucks.
  • I’m not analytical enough.  All my friends are waxing eloquent about that book’s structure and plot and character, and I’m sitting here with my Literature degree thinking only “I liked it; it was a good story.”  How can I be a good writer if I don’t analyze everything I read like that?
  • Writing is hard.  It wouldn’t be this hard if I was any good.
  • Fuck (insert writer whose career I’m jealous of that day)
  • I’m good at grammar but I suck at everything else.
  • I am never going to be published.  What’s the point of bothering to put my soul into this if it isn’t going to go anywhere?
  • It would be easier to just stop and be a reader.
  • My ideas are all trite and unoriginal.
  • Taking a dump would be more productive than this writing session.
  • VP lied to me to get my money. The instructors all laughed about how bad I am.
  • All my VP classmates think I suck.  They just tell me it’s good because they like me.
  • They don’t even really like me.
  • I’m wasting time I could be doing something more fun chasing a dream that will never come true.  I’m a fool.

VP Directory Project

Fellow VPers! Some have expressed interest in a VP Alumni Directory. In an attempt to get that started, I’ve created a Google Form to collect data.

Required fields are Name, VP year, City, State, and Email. I didn’t think it was useful to let those be optional, though if people have an issue with that I can change it. Phone number is entirely optional (I didn’t put mine in).

The downside of this form is that it’s open to anyone with the link, but there’s just no way to control for that without requiring people to sign in to Google. I felt this way works.

Right now only I can see the results; my plan is to compile the information into a directory available only to VP Alums and Staff. If enough people would prefer the underlying spreadsheet be available I can do that, too.

If you have any suggestions or critique re: information sought, please do talk to me.

The form can be found at the end of this link.

Revision: How A Book Gets Better

So, I’m pretty sure this is a good book that I’m writing.  I mean, I don’t know for sure that it’s publishable, especially in the current condition, but I know it’s at least almost there.

And it’s getting better.

I’m now in Chapter 3 of the revision pass.  Last night, I saw that I ended one scene with the character leaping onto a vehicle and heading off to pick someone up, and then in the next scene, I begin when he gets there.  In reading these scenes, I realized that there’s a problem, and it’s kind of a big one:  The character makes a life-changing decision in the space between scenes.

Well, that’s clearly not going to work.  So I started writing what Jim Butcher calls a “sequel,” that is, a quiet scene in which the character reacts emotionally to the previous scene, works through his possible options, and makes choices.  They also allow (and even encourage) the reader to connect emotionally to the character.

In the process, I added several hundred words.  And I’m not even finished, yet.

It’s this ability to easily insert the scene that is why I love Scrivener so much.  Sure, I could do the same thing in Word or some other word processing software, but the way that Scrivener makes it easy is really something, and it doesn’t require me to reformat anything, move any text, or anything other than insert the scene where I want it and write.

The most important thing about this, though, has nothing to do with the tool I’m using.  It’s that even recognizing the lack means that I’m getting better as a writer.

And that’s precious.  That’s what I got from Viable Paradise, and it’s why I’ll keep telling people to apply until the day VP stops happening (may that day never come!).

VP Novel First Draft: DONE

Yep.  I did it.

Not the first novel-length thing I’ve done, but certainly the first that has ANY chance of being seen by other people.  Lots of work remains before that point, however.  I need a revision pass, then beta readers, and then another revision pass.  Then I’ll consider submitting it to agents.

This may not be the novel to get my career started, but I’m going to give it a shot.

I owe thanks to my Viable Paradise instructors, who enkindled in me the confidence to work on this novel with purpose, and not just fart around with it every once in a while, as I did before VP.

I owe thanks to my fellow students of Viable Paradise 17, who have steadfastly encouraged me and commiserated with me over the last year or so.  I realize I have a tendency toward the dramatic, but it is no exaggeration that without their encouragement, I may well have given up the very idea of being a writer over the past year, as I have so many times before.

Let this serve as encouragement to friends and other fellow writers who might be thinking of applying to VP: It’s well worth the money.  All in all, the week at VP cost me about $2000, between airfare, my room cost, and tuition.  And it was worth every single penny, and more beside, because not only did I get a chance to hobnob with people whose writing I’ve adored for years, but I got encouraging advice and critique from editors who are near, if not at, the top of their field, but I met 23 people who will be friends for years to come.

Viable Paradise 19 will be held 18-23 October, 2015.  Applications are accepted until 15 June 2015.  Go to www.viableparadise.net for details.

Viable Paradise: Day 3, Tuesday

The morning began with our breakout critique groups.  My roommate Alex was in my group, and she cried during her critique—but the good kind of tears, as her novel excerpt was amazing and everyone said so.  Not that it was perfect, but that it’s damned close.

The first lecture of the day was from Debra Doyle, on grammar and standard usage in fiction.  Not much there I didn’t already know, but then I teach this stuff. That said, I learned a few interesting things.

Elizabeth Bear gave a lecture on POV, which had lots of useful information and during which I asked a question I immediately felt stupid for asking, as the first example given as an answer is a book I’ve taught before—so should have known the answer already.  Ah well.  Nobody’s perfect.

Next up, Scott Lynch lead a great Collegium on non-expositional description.  The collegia are similar to the lectures in that information is given and one instructor leads it; however, there’s a major difference: In the lectures, one of the teachers will present the lesson, and occasionally one of the others will interject something.  The Collegia are more informal, with instructors piping up whenever they have anything to say, and sometimes the instructor mediating the session has to shut them down.  They’re great fun, and sometimes have more information than I could take notes on—so it’s a good thing I recorded most of them.

Then came my one-on-one with Steve Gould.

I am not exaggerating overly much when I say that he ripped my story a new one.  Now, two things about this: I can’t say I disagreed with anything he said, and it hurt.  But… he said nothing unkind, and I know he was helping me—not trying to help, but helping.  But when you’ve worked so hard on something, it sometimes hurts to have someone show you where you went wrong.  So I came away a little raw from the meeting.  He didn’t just show me where I’d gone wrong, though—he also helped me see what I could do to make it better.  He made suggestions that I am free to take or leave, but even the ones I won’t use pointed me in the direction I will go.

Bottom line?  He made my book better, just by talking to me.  As I processed not only my emotional state, but the information I got from him, I made several leaps of thought that lead to new ideas.  The first chapter?  It needs to be rewritten, and while I’ll keep some of it, I’ll be changing a lot of it.  But I have a much better idea, even before my critique group, on how to make it work.

After dinner was the Beer with the Bard event.  We sat in a big circle, and everyone had their drink of choice and the script of William Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor.  This has got to be one of the dirtiest of Shakespeare’s plays.  We read the play, with parts going around the circle, changing at each act.  I ended up with Mistress Page at one point, but the next time it got to me, I had Hostess Quickly, and I read her with a bored monotone voice and a Northern-ish accent, somewhat like Holly from Red Dwarf.  It was a hit, and combined with Quickly’s absurd and dirty lines, it worked.

After the play, we all scattered to our own events; I spent some time with Steven Brust, Elizabeth Bear, and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, along with Shannon, Latasha, Beth, Alex, and some others for music, then eventually returned to my room to go to bed—where instead I ended up talking to Beth until sometime around 2am.

Viable Paradise: Day 2, Monday

Note to readers: While I’ll mention the topic of each lecture and collegium, I won’t discuss the specific information we were given; I don’t feel it would be right to do so.  We were specifically asked not to spread the recordings of the lectures many of us made; so don’t ask.  The exception: If any of my classmates didn’t record a session, give me a holler.

I still really can’t believe I’m actually here.

The morning began when I woke up at 7:45 and jumped in the shower.  Once awake, we went down to the lecture room for an early-morning announcement session, then went to our critique group breakout sessions.

My story isn’t coming up for review until Wednesday, so I have two days to stew.  I critiqued two really strong stories this morning.  The critiques follow the Milford format:  Each group member has 5 minutes to speak.  We’re encouraged to say true things, and helpful things, and to be nice.   I think we did that.  When each member of the group has spoken, the two pros who are moderating the critique speak.  Then the author can talk, and then it opens into a group discussion on the story.

I found these to be amazing and illuminating even though my story wasn’t up for critique yet.  As Theresa Nielsen-Hayden said to me, “Nothing teaches you how to write like critiquing someone else’s story.”

After critique group we gathered for a lecture by “Uncle Jim,” James D. Macdonald*, on plot.  I won’t talk about the specifics of what he said, but if you Google “Learn Writing With Uncle Jim,” you’ll find a series of posts in which he says the same things, more or less.

Then we talked with Elizabeth Bear about plot, and created a very silly plot in about five minutes—but, I hasten to add, a “very silly plot” that could actually work if you approached it properly.

After that we broke for one-on-one sessions.  My first was with Jim Macdonald, author of books I grew up on.  Jim really helped me figure out that the theme of redemption in my story wasn’t right—it’s really a story about family, and building a family to replace the one you lost.  That opened up huge realms of plot for me.  He also told me some very nice things about my style, my protagonist’s voice, and that I really need to finish this book.  The most amazing thing I got from him, however, was a picture he drew on the back of my manuscript that clarified my plot structure immensely and linked thematically to the book’s inspiration.  That man is a goddamned genius, and you can tell him so if you ever meet him.

I’m going to be a little bit vague, because the things he said to me, while not personal per se, were deeply meaningful to me personally, and I want to keep that to myself.  But the short version is that he banished a lot of the self-doubt I’ve been carrying around with me, and made me realize that I can and will be published.  I just need to keep working, and not let myself get bogged down by worries of inadequacy.   And yes, I’ve been told this by others, but look—hearing it from a professional in the business, who has made his living as a writer for half my life, is inherently more meaningful than my friends saying it.

We also got the Doom today.  We were split into three groups.  Each group had a writing assignment for a fictional themed anthology—and all stories are due at 3pm Thursday.

After dinner, a bunch of us—probably about 20 of the 24 students, and a few of the instructors—walked about half a mile down the road to see the glowing jellyfish come in with the tide.  They glow just a little, but when anything disturbs them, they flash brighter.  It was an amazing display, and the wind on the coast was practically nothing, so we walked down to the beach and stood looking toward Boston and Nantucket for a time.

When we returned to the Inn, some of the instructors and a few students broke out instruments and song books, and spent the evening singing and playing.  They weren’t playing anything I knew, so I just sat and listened.

At around midnight I returned to my room to go to bed, but got into a discussion with one of my roommates and we ended up talking for another hour.

I got exceedingly lucky with my roommates.  Both are very interesting people whom I get along with like a house on fire; we’ve had a lot of fun together even as we’re sitting around writing critiques or researching for the stories we have to write, and creating not a few enduring in-jokes in the process, one of which I’m sure will crack us all up in future meetings.  It’s not much different in the larger group.  In any large group, there will be some people you like more than others, and this group is no exception.  But even there I can’t say there’s anyone I dislike.

When I read the blog posts of those who came to Viable Paradise before me, I admit I rolled my eyes at the common exclamation that “I’ve found my tribe!” I am hereby apologizing to all the previous VP bloggers I did that to—because they were right.  These students will, in future, be the writers I run into at conventions and know.  They’ll be my professional colleagues and compatriots, and we already have inside jokes we’ll be talking about for years.

And the best part is?  This is only Monday.

*Yes, that’s how you spell it.

It’s official. VP is a GO.

VPXVIIBlogBanner-2-dkblueOkay then!  All is figured out, all is arranged.  I sent my tuition check yesterday, I’m arranging my flight today.  Then all I need to is steel myself for the painful but oh-so-useful criticism, prepare to suck up information, and try to be patient.

Oh, and plan for not only the classes I’ll be teaching this year, but the week I’ll miss to go to VP.  That part’s not so bad; if I get a good sub I can even give them great lessons that will actually be taught, as opposed to the usual “Oh my god I’m sick what can I have them do that won’t be a TOTAL waste of time?!?!?” when I need a sub in an emergency.  Hell, I’ll even write the lessons for him/her.

I still keep expecting to get an email telling me there’s been a terrible mistake and I wasn’t actually accepted.  My wife is probably ready to slap me the next time I say that.  But that’s life in my head, I suppose.

One good side effect is that getting that “Yes, you’re not a total loser at this” has reenergized my writing.  I’ve been having trouble forcing myself to work, but now I’m going like crazy, trying to convince myself to trust in what’s coming out of my fingers.

Speaking of which, I’m behind on today’s quota.  See you later!