Being able to even

I had most of a blog post written about convention programming at the intro level, the 101 level, how the internet has changed what 101 means, what “this is my first convention” implies about where you will be in conversation about genre. I like to think it was thoughtful. Maybe.

This is not actually about how the mean evil computer at my post, because it didn’t. I’m just having a hard time finding the right tone for that kind of interaction. “I have ideas about how this can be done better” is something that I want to do collaboratively. It is something that I want to do cheerfully–joyfully, if I can–with other people who want to do it well. This is what I like about well-chosen critique groups, for example. “Here is what is awesome about your book! Here is how I think it can be even better!” It is sometimes a feature of supper at my house: “This soup! It is good! With more basil, even better!” “How would you regard roasting the garlic?” “Roasting! Give it a go, why not!”

I don’t really enjoy the tone of conversation that is “you are doing something tediously badly, let me accost you about that.” It’s better than “you are doing something malicious,” certainly. But even a certain amount of “this thing: it is mediocre and can be actively good” can get to be a tedious conversation to have. Even though it can also be a necessary conversation to have for moving from mediocre to actively good.

I can’t even say no one has asked me. People have asked me. On this topic, recently. What I’m saying is: there are lots of things I’m having a hard time finding my way to right now, and last week was full of a giant pile of things, very few of which were particularly great, and right now? Right now it is very hard to wrestle my brain into the right configuration to get “I have observed very tedious examples of thing” into “how let’s do better than that together yay go team of positive people.”

I guess the positive thing I want to say is: I think giving people more credit tends to work out well–and when it doesn’t, it’s worth doing anyway. (In life! and in convention programming.) I think that saying very quickly “is everyone familiar with [idea, theory, essay, author]? no? okay, here’s the quick version” at the beginning of a panel often works far, far better than trying to pitch a lot of panels on the theory that no one is familiar with anything and you should rehash “how to write really technical hard SF” and “SF vs. fantasy: where exactly is the line” and the other ten ideas that have not only gone around conventions but also now the blogosphere and professional SF writing outlets forever.

So this got a little meta: reaching for the doing things better collaboratively conversation you want to be having. Even when you’re not at all sure it’s there. Yyyyeah.

The first question

I have a favor to ask. There are a lot of difficult conversations in this world right now, and I would like to ask you to pay attention to the first question you ask in those difficult conversations. Because it often gives a sense of your priorities–and sometimes it gives a sense of your priorities that is not the one you want.

Let me give you a couple of examples. When we’re talking about sexual harassment at conventions, if your first question is, “What do we do about the false reports?”, that tells me something very different than if your first question is, “How do we make sure that people trust us enough to report?” or “How do we keep clear records so that all the information we need is preserved?” And do I think, “I bet it’s because the people who are asking about false reports already have thorough answers to those other questions”? HAHAHA YEAH SURE I DO.

Similarly, disability and accessibility. If your first question is, “What about the times when accessibility needs conflict?”–and oh Lordy, that is so often the first question–that tells me so very very much about your priorities. And what it tells me is not great, frankly. Because again, I promise: the people and organizations who have this as their first question about disability and accessibility are not people and organizations who have smoothly and effortlessly handled all the first-tier, obvious accessibility needs and are now moving on to the hard ones.

Yeah, I know, sometimes the first thing that pops out of your head is something trivial, something random. I don’t think these examples are that. They’re too consistent to be random, and if you think they represent something trivial, you’ve probably never been on the wrong end of them.

Try to make sure your first question is not, “How do I put this problem back on the people who have been bearing the brunt of it all along?”, actually. That’s pretty important.

Oh, and if your stunningly insightful political question that “no one” is asking boils down to, “What if this group of people is actually just inferior? what if they just suck?”–guess what? It turns out people have asked that before. It turns out people ask that a lot. You are not new, you are not insightful, you are not hard-hitting. You’re just being an asshole. Social scientists have done a lot of research into whether one gender, one race, one ethnicity, etc. etc. etc. is inherently inferior to others, and it turns out that the scientific answer is, NO, AND ALSO STOP BEING SUCH AN ASSHOLE.

Worldbuilding: continuing thoughts after panels

I was on a worldbuilding panel at ConFusion that was labeled Worldbuilding 495, intended to be graduate level in contrast with another panel that was labeled 101. I’m not sure we got it that far, but we certainly took it beyond default questions. And then I went to another panel where an audience member’s commentary made me shoot steam out my ears (seriously, ask 4/6 of the panelists–maybe the other two too, but four of them commented on my face after), and so here we are with a handful of post-panel thoughts.

I think the thing I didn’t get to after my own panel was about sidelong politics and parallel social structures. We have those! We have them everywhere. If you ask who is president of the US, who is prime minister of Canada, etc.–even who is in Congress, who is on the Supreme Court–that doesn’t give you influential members of the communities that might interest you. Who’s the president of a charity, who are the major donors. Who are the people who make sure there are chairs set up for that charity’s talk. Who’s the lecturer at the university people want to hear; who’s the journalist who calls them. All of these groups have their own internal and overlapping politics. If you read about monarchs and heads of state, you’ll get one picture–and maybe that’s the picture you want to draw. But if you read about things that are less centrally about governance, a different picture emerges–sometimes overlapping, sometimes not.

Sometimes even basic social structures don’t overlap much with the official government. The work of James C. Scott has been really influential in my thinking about this. He writes about hill people as a particular category of peripheral social groups to empire, and how and when they succeed at keeping themselves out of the imperial eye. And we have a bit of that in our legends with Robin Hood, but I think there’s a lot more potential here.

I left the other panel with a strong sense of classism in worldbuilding, and I’ve just run into it in the book I’m reading too. I think it’s worth asking ourselves, especially in urban fantasy and near-future SF, how much the shorthand we’re using for “these are bad people” overlaps with “these are poor people, these are the lower classes.” I think it’s worth making some effort not to do that. And if it’s farther-future SF, it’s worth considering whether what you’re saying is “some groups of people are just squalid and awful no matter what you try to do for them because they inherently aren’t like us.” And don’t do that either.

The commenter at the panel used “eating potato chips and watching TV” as his flag for the mentally inferior lower classes. There were potato chips in the consuite and lots of panels on TV shows…but we all know he didn’t mean our snack foods and filmed entertainment, he meant their snack foods and filmed entertainment. You know. Them. And if we lived in a post-scarcity society, he went on, they would likely outbreed us, and what would happen to our utopia then?

Because, y’know, education is not a scarce resource now, nor are time and energy, so any way that they are is because of how they are. Previous situations where people’s standard of living was improved and their family patterns changed are not relevant for reasons. But it’s not racial! It’s just…about groups of people…who have inherent group traits that make it just and right that they’re poor and we aren’t. And all the nerds who have families who don’t understand them don’t count as counterarguments to the idea of being swallowed up by a growing inherent inferior class, apparently, because reasons. Because it’s so much more satisfying to create an us vs. them. Because you can say beer and cable TV, as the book I’m reading now does, safe in the knowledge that it’s not our beer (which is the good beer) and our cable TV (which is the quality shows). And if one of our people happens to like entertainment with a broad base of appeal, clearly we’re liking it differently and it doesn’t count like when one of them likes it.

“The Marching Morons” needs to go. March on. March away. Just stop doing your worldbuilding in ways that postulate that people are entirely awful by demographic group. We can all do better. And we should.

ConFusion schedule

I will be in attendance at ConFusion next week, my dears, and here is what I am doing, officially and on the program:

Saturday, 10:00 a.m., Charlevoix. What Should I Write Next? The first book or series is all wrapped up, maybe even under contract. What comes next? Maybe a palate-cleansing change of genre, or building on strength and staying close to where you started? What about a pseudonymous guilty pleasure? Experts weigh in! Dave Robison (M), John Chu, Jackie Morgan, Ty Franck (James SA Corey), Marissa Lingen.

Saturday, noon, Ballroom A&B. Worldbuilding 495. Genre fiction, in all its many forms, relies on the author’s ability to invest its reader in a world other than their own. What are some of the advanced methods of adding a sense of the real to invented worlds? How do authors get themselves out of tricky spots when deep into a series? Marissa Lingen (M), John Chu, Dave Robison, Mary G. Thompson [Anything you think is crucial to this panel but unlikely to occur to me, please put in a comment or an email. Since I’m the moderator, I feel the need for a great many more notes and avenues of possible exploration to ignore in pursuit of just going with whatever we come up with in the moment than I do when I’m just a panelist.] [Note: they have gone and put Max Gladstone on the 101 version of this panel. Where I am sure he will be interesting, but anyone interested in waylaying Max and herding him into the 495 version would be performing a service to humanity as represented by the panel audience.]

Sunday, 10:00 a.m., Manitou. Reading: John Chu, Annalee Flower Horne, Marissa Lingen. [What it says on the tin. Since it’s an hour long reading slot with three people in it, they encourage us to keep our readings short, so I will probably do “Running Safety Tips for Humans,” forthcoming from Nature this spring but not yet available to the public. I know that a lot of people read part of a work in a reading that short, but I’ve gotten pretty attached to delivering a complete story experience in the time allotted to me, so…”Running Safety Tips for Humans” it is, unless something strikes me as more suitable for the occasion between now and then.]

Fourth Street schedule (specifically mine)

The panel schedule is up for Fourth Street Fantasy con, which starts in about a week. (That is: there’s a social event Thursday night. Programming starts Friday.) I’m on two panels, and here they are:

Truth, Lies, and Meta. Friday, 4:30 p.m. Marissa Lingen, Emma Bull, Casey Blair. Fiction, by its nature, isn’t real, which means that when narration lies (deliberately or by omission), or a creator breaks the fourth wall, there are multiple layers of plausibility, trust, and ‘reality’ in play. How do the techniques we use to get readers to believe in a made-up world interact with cuing them that the narrator or a character in said world is a liar? (See also: Kayfabe in Wrestling; and accidental subtext, where authors make choices which suggest their world doesn’t actually work the way their narrative claims it does.) What makes us believe in a world or a character, what undermines that, and how can that tension be leveraged?

Disability in Speculative Fiction, 2:00 p.m. John Wiswell, Michael D. Thomas, Mishell Baker, Marissa Lingen. Representation of disability and chronic illness often comes in two forms: writing *the* experience or writing *an* experience. How much you define the character by their condition can define the story. Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl follows India Phelps’ struggling with her schizophrenia and treatment for it, while N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdom follows Oree handling bloody plots of the gods while happening to be blind. Has there been a quantitative or qualitative shift in treatment of disabilities in SF/F in its recent history?

The full listing of panels can be found here.

To illustrate my last remark YET AGAIN

Last night I didn’t read Anna Karenina. I didn’t watch Simon & Simon or consume walnuts or gluten or alcohol. I didn’t play Moonlight Sonata on the harmonium. I didn’t buy a hamster.

All the things you don’t do are pretty boring to write about.

For one of my friends, though, not consuming alcohol was a little more interesting, because she was recently actively staying sober as a choice that she needed to make for her health. Not like me–I’m at a point with my vertigo and my vertigo meds where I can have a bottle of cider or a glass of wine and enjoy the pleasant taste, and some days I do, and most days I don’t. When I do, the taste can be interesting to comment on; when I don’t, the lack is completely boring.

Earlier this week, people in my Twitter feed were talking about the perception that all writers are heavy drinkers. And honestly some of the reason for this is that a bunch of writers really are heavy drinkers. And some of the reason for it is that conventions bring out the heavy drinker in some people who are otherwise pretty moderate. But some of the reason for it is that those of us who are, like me, light drinkers, and those who are non-drinkers, don’t talk about it in those terms; it’s just not an interesting thing to discuss. At best, boring. At worst, it sounds defensive or false. “There I was, playing the harmonium and TOTALLY NOT DRINKING HEAVILY WHY WOULD YOU EVEN THINK THAT, GOD, EVELYN.” Or, “There I was, buying a hamster and NOT drinking heavily NOT LIKE SOME PEOPLE, KYLE.”

So it’s a good thing to keep in mind: like many topics, you’re not going to hear most of what other people do, and that occasionally means you hear from people like my friend who say, hey, this is how many days (or in the case of other friends, years) I’ve been sober. But for most cases it means you hear, hey, I’m having this drink, and it tastes like this. Or, I’m having this many drinks, wooo! (If you’re thinking that I find “it tastes like this” more interesting than “wooo!”, yeah, guilty. But people get to have their “wooo!”)

If you’re trying to work in this field and do convention culture and you’re someone who is concerned about heavy drinking in writer culture, though, for personal reasons–maybe you’re someone like my friend who needs to stay sober for your own health. Maybe you’re shy and not very comfortable drinking in professional circumstances. Maybe you just don’t like loud bars. A million reasons. I think it’s probably a good idea to think of what positive things you’re doing for convention/colleague bonding instead. So that you have something to talk about and focus on–“hey, I am doing fancy brunch with people!” or “I am doing tea tasting!” or whatever else you are doing. Rather than, “I am not drinking!” Karaoke. Trying to find someone who knows about fight scenes and is willing to nerd out about yours until you can fix it. An outing to the best restaurant you could find in walking distance–they have [specialty of the house here] and you heard it’s amazing.

You’ll end up with some of the heavy drinkers with you, because they like [specialty of the house here], too, and karaoke and tea and brunch and fight scenes, too. And also some of the moderate drinkers and the light drinkers and the non-drinkers. And hey, isn’t that what you wanted? Because the stuff you’re not doing…is kind of boring. And not your focus anyway. So better to accentuate the positive, see how that works. And if it doesn’t, try a different positive, because messing with Mr. In-Between is pretty much never the answer.

On the giving of advice

Last week I had a post about panels at conventions, and I got interested in how to talk about doing panels better. I’d like to see more people talk about that–especially in the contexts of different kinds of panels. Getting slightly more specific seems like it might be a fertile source of good advice, because I think one of the places people hesitate is that panels vary so much. Does it really make sense to tell people to reread a few of their favorite short stories on the topic so that their minds are fresh without a huge time commitment, if “the topic” is long series, or TV shows, or if they can’t readily think of what short stories would be applicable because it’s something like grimdark or paranormal romance that has had its main flowering in novel form? Answer: no, but anyone who has any chance of being a good panelist has the sense to filter out what advice doesn’t apply to their specific panel, I would think.

But I started thinking about the more general problem of giving advice, which is audience and characteristic error. Even in the standard panel advice that is focused on etiquette, I see this problem. For example! One of the most common pieces of advice I see is, “Don’t monopolize the panel. Let the other panelists have an equal amount of time to talk.” Except…what if you’re on a panel on Non-Western Cultures in Fantasy with four middle-aged white men, two of whom think that Lord of Light is the last word on the subject but are maaaaybe willing to allow for Bridge of Birds if you stretch a bit? Do you sit back and let them go on and on about those and then squeeze in your long contemporary list (complete with non-Western writers GO FIGURE) on your “fair share” of the panel? HELL NO YOU DO NOT. At least–I didn’t. And I am not sorry I didn’t. But that is not my characteristic error. My characteristic error is not to sit down at the end of the panel and stare at my hands and say, “very true, Socrates.”

But for some people it is. So when you give the “don’t monopolize the panel, don’t run your mouth” advice, the odds that you will make a dent in the people who monologue about their own brilliance for twenty minutes: fairly low. The odds that Sherwood or Caroline* will hear this and nod and say, “Oh, very true, it’s so important not to rattle on,” and will shut their mouths even further? Unfortunately high. So trying to dodge the pitfalls of advice-giving in that regard gets difficult, and the question becomes: who is your actual audience for advice in the first place?

For me, talking about panels, it’s mostly new people. Because new people do not have a shtick already. New people know that they don’t know things. They are looking to know more things. (Ideally so are experienced people, but we know that doesn’t always work out.) So you might be able to catch J. New Shyauthor and say, hey, you’re on the panel for a reason, here’s how to prepare for it so that you can feel more confident. And you also might grab L. New Blabbermouth early enough that they at least have moments of self-awareness when they remember to turn to Pamela** and ask what she thinks while the panel is still going on and not just out for supper later.

This is true of writing advice, too. The people who were likely to get down on themselves for not writing ten million words every day are the ones who will pick up on the “writers write every day” quote from whoever they’ve picked now to be the person to use to beat yourself up over it. The people who were likely to be flaky butterfly writers are going to choose the “art finds YOU” quotes instead. People gravitate to their own characteristic errors. Yes, even me. Especially me. So: balance, balance, balance. And seeking out advice from people not like oneself. And asking oneself who the audience is for advice in the first place and whether it’s even worth the time, because if you’re not going to be able to get past characteristic errors so that the person who needs it can hear it, better to write about how to make a macrame owl.

Nobody makes macrame owls anymore. I am from the tail-end of a generation consumed with kitsch and retro, and yet are there macrame owls everywhere? There are not. It seems that everybody’s characteristic error is not making macrame owls. You folks might really want to get on that. I’m telling you for your own good.

…eh, who am I kidding, nobody listens to unsolicited advice.

*Randomly selected names for hypothetical panelists. Resemblance to actual insightful fantasy writers entirely coincidental.

**See previous footnote.

A good example for this panel…

One of the things Alec and I talk about a lot is how to make panels at conventions better. Because he did the programming for Fourth Street for four years, naturally some of that conversation has been from the programming side: how do you choose panelists, how do you choose a moderator, how do you write the panel description so that the panelists don’t stare blankly at each other wondering what on earth you were thinking or wander off into the weeds. But he hasn’t been doing programming, and we’ve been talking about it from the other angle a lot more lately: as panelists, how do you do panels well.

I think one of the most interesting questions is how to get depth for those who are ready without making the new people feel completely lost at sea. And one theory I have right now that I would like to propose and see what other people think of it is what sorts of things are most useful for squee and what things are more useful for analysis. Specifically: I think that if you have a clear choice, if you have a ton of examples to choose from, the most commonly known things are best for analysis, and the least commonly known things are the best for squee. With a spectrum between, and with the possibility of giving more than one example or speaking comparatively, obviously.

Of course depending on the convention there are entire panels based on squee. These are usually clearly labeled: “Professor Whom Fans Latest Season Recap: what’s awesome, what are we looking for next season?”, that sort of thing–very different from the panel where the Professor Whom fans are analyzing the Sniffling Cherub episodes in detail and what particular motifs recur in them. But I mean in general, on a panel that invites analysis, the more commonly known a work, the more people will have access to the analytical point you try to make. Or alternately, providing triangulation–if you can think of two or three lesser known examples, you increase the odds that your listener will know one of them. So that will help with what you’re saying about how to build complex character relationships, or how to do exposition, or whatever it is that you’re analyzing.

And of course squee about lesser known things gives people more of a chance to find out about something they might not have heard about. We all get overcome by exuberance for things we love, and I don’t want to stifle that if it happens that the thing you love is loved by other people. But squee after squee can make a panel shallow. I once went to a panel that was literally only a list of anime the panelists liked. Not even descriptions. Just titles. So that’s one end of a spectrum from squee to analysis that was…I think suboptimal. I think that while there was a bonding experience to be had from the people who were saying, “And I watch this!” “Yeah!”, it was perhaps not the best panel to be had. Obviously a certain amount of spontaneity is part of the point of doing panels at all, rather than inviting individuals to give prepared speeches. But if you’re one of the panelists, you know the topic in advance, so you have a chance to think through: what am I enthusiastic about that is less known. What examples can I use that might be accessible to the listeners I have in this particular audience. Am I missing a way anything about that approach, do you think? Do you have other ideas about squee, analysis, and other panel behavior that isn’t the standard etiquette advice?

Access, ability, health: this week’s round

After the debacle that has been several years of World Fantasy Con, Mary Robinette Kowal has posted a convention accessibility pledge. It’s worth a look; it’s worth thinking and talking about. I specifically want to highlight something that I know Mary and the other people who have been talking about this pledge agree with: that the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) is a starting point for convention accessibility, not the be-all and end-all. Not everyone will want to sign this pledge for a number of reasons, but taking part in the conversation and advocating for accessibility is important for all of us regardless of what form it takes.

Accessibility is an ongoing conversation in part because it never takes part on just one axis. Something that makes a convention more accessible for people with one kind of limited mobility won’t help people with another kind; mobility accessibility won’t help people with hearing limitations; and so on. We understand more about neurodiversity than we did twenty years ago, or even ten, but our understanding is still imperfect.

It’s been disheartening to watch people get defensive on these issues, to see comments that amount to “I’ve tried hard and been a good person and that should be enough”–especially since “trying hard” often applies to completely different fields of endeavor: you can try very hard to have an allergen-friendly green room, and that’s wonderful, and it doesn’t do anything for wheelchair access to panels.

The post I intended to write, before this came up, was about unhelpful reactions to other people’s medical situations–thankfully not mine, no one’s in my house. I have watched people play “guess the random diagnosis” for a friend who was having enough trouble without having their random friends with no medical expertise whatsoever pelt them with guesses for diagnosis and treatment. I have listened to stories of misrecorded personal details that could have serious impact on future care. I have heard reports of care costs that were supposed to be covered by insurance and were not, to the tune of four figures–or that were covered by insurance, and were still four figures. So the main thing I wanted to say was, “Never start talking about someone else’s medical care with, ‘you should just…’ because it’s almost never ‘just.'”

And this ties back in with convention accessibility, because if you’re dealing with health problems and/or disability. Even if they’re short-term–even if you’re “just” broken your leg and “only” have to get around on crutches for weeks. You are already wrestling with a labyrinthine system that is draining your time and energy in addition to the health problem that is draining your time and energy. And then you turn to your leisure activities to relax, and you’re the one who has to put in more and more time and energy to make them baseline functional. If the conrunners don’t do it in advance, it’s the people who are already having problems in the first place (this is a known pattern across other concerns) who have to put in more time and energy that they already have depleted.

I had a miniature hissy fit while doing some revisions on Itasca Peterson, Wendigo Hunter. I was adding supporting characters, and I noticed that everyone in the book was apparently able-bodied. And I had a miniature meltdown in the privacy of my office, going, “I have to deal with disability crap both first-hand and second-hand every day. Literally every. Day. Why can’t some able-bodied person who lives only with able-bodied people be the one to notice and deal with it in their children’s book?” I am not proud of this hissy fit, and when I had finished with my meltdown, I pulled up my socks and gave one of the kickass college students Itasca looks up to a kickass walker that is painted with cool designs. Which is not the ne plus ultra of disability in children’s books, so hey, any able-bodied person who lives only with able-bodied people who wants to notice and deal, feel free. But it circles back again: the people who have to deal with this stuff, statistically, will be the ones who deal with this stuff.

So if that’s not you, one way or another…think about changing the trend somehow? Thanks.

Things I didn’t get around to saying at 4th St.

One of the great joys of a good panel is that there’s always more to say about the topic than will fit in the panel slot. When I was moderating, I had probably twenty names on my “so-and-so has a comment, call on them next” list, and almost all of them were people I already knew, and all the people I already knew were people I knew to be smart and insightful. And we often get smart, insightful new people too. Never enough time!

So! Here are some bits and pieces of things I didn’t get around to saying, labeled if I can remember when/why I wrote them down. Also a few things other people did say, because I wanted to pull them out and look at the shiny.

(Does the arc of fantasy bend towards justice? panel) I think one of the hardest parts about countering the narrative of the American White Secessionist South is that almost all the story templates we have are of the empire enforcing things on an unwilling populace being a bad thing. That makes the empire the villains. We don’t tend to tell the stories of the empire enforcing civil rights on a populace that is attached to keeping them from a minority. And it’s particularly difficult to construct that narrative because we’ve seen the (very very) down side of colonialist narrative about Bringing Enlightenment To The Savages. Yet I think that at least some counter to the dominant “if you’re rebelling, you must be on the side of right” narrative would be a really positive thing if people can figure out how to construct it–both as a social good and as a different story.

Post-apocalyptic lit references I didn’t get to talk about on the post-apocalyptic lit panel: Kathleen Ann Goonan Queen City Jazz, in which the serious disruption comes from positive-ish or positive-looking tech developments; Nalo Hopkinson Brown Girl in the Ring; Gwyneth Jones Bold As Love; Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu The Shadow Speaker; Nick Sagan Idlewild; S.M. Stirling; John Crowley Engine Summer; Kurt Vonnegut Cat’s Cradle; Walter Miller A Canticle for Leibowitz; Robert Charles Wilson, king of sudden disruption; “Attack on Titan” (anime); “Wall-E” (movie); Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith Stranger; Kim Stanley Robinson The Wild Shore and the climate change trilogy; Laurie King/Leigh Richards Califa’s Daughters; Michaela Roessner The Vanishing Point; “Tank Girl” (movie), which we later categorized in conversation as Lori Petty battling the camera and winning; Karina Sumner-Smith Radiant; Lois McMaster Bujold The Sharing Knife; Suzy McKee Charnas Walk to the End of the World; Orson Scott Card, The Folk of the Fringe; Lisa Goldstein A Mask for the General; Gregory Frost and the 7th Day Adventist apocalypse that wasn’t; Bradley Denton’s Blackburn and Laughin’ Boy, two of the best personal/individual apocalypse books I know, completely the feel of post-apocalyptic.

Yes, we did manage to talk about post-apocalyptic books even excluding all of the above. There is quite a lot to say. Max Gladstone said, “If you love something, smash it with a hammer,” and that was good, and Sarah Olsen said, “We’re searching for what’s valuable in our culture to preserve,” and that’s good too, especially the verb tense she chose, and then Elizabeth Bear said, “One of the most exciting things about post-apocalyptic literature is that you can treat society like a character.” Which is a fun thing to do generally but almost required in post-apocalyptic. And Emma Bull noticed that everyone is necessary for the rebuilding in John M. Ford’s The Last Hot Time, which, yes, oh yes, thanks Emma and as always thanks Mike. We are all needed. We are none of us optional.

Starting a comment with, “I’m probably the only one here who’s read this,” is not very useful and just makes you look pompous. People will have read things or won’t have. Flagging obscurity is not necessary unless the discussion is explicitly about highly popular works, and flagging it in that particular way is just self-aggrandizing.

On the music panel, people ended up talking about thinking through who in a scene was carrying the melody and who was doing different kinds of harmony, and I thought that the concept of ensemble-building analogies with musical groups would be useful in building an ensemble cast in general–that if you don’t have enough rhythm and/or enough bass in your character list, the whole will fall over. Also suddenly my proclivity for low-pitched instruments lined up very well with my preference for supporting characters in semi-ensemble cast shows, and all was clear.

Max Gladstone was talking during the sex panel about different lines between private and public behaviors/standards/etc. in different cultures, and I really would like to see people do a lot more with that. There are some ways in which the author’s choices of what to show and how to show it in depictions of sex and sexuality can either mirror or distinctly contrast with what privacy/publicity would be expected in the culture portrayed, and that would be cool, but also playing with the private/public lines for non-sex issues gets a big thumbs up from me.

I would also like to see more speculative fiction that’s extrapolated from current culture and doesn’t assume that religious developments will be linear. Because as Mark’s recent rantings about naked Anabaptist parades demonstrate, things that are directly motivated by a known religious context can still go off completely unpredictable haywire directions.

Elizabeth Bear said, “The absolute hardest thing about writing is limiting your options.” This = true. It’s one of the reasons that people who are depressed struggle so much with their writing: because depression worsens choice paralysis. So basically people who manage to write while depressed should get ALL THE PROPS EVER from the rest of us, because it is a Harrison Bergeron sort of deal and they are MAKING IT ALOFT ANYWAY DESPITE THE GIANT WEIGHTS.

(Ahem. Strong feelings: I have them.)

A friend of mine commented that they had not thought through the emotional difference between having a meal alone at a con because you know (and like!) dozens of people and did not make the logistics work and having a meal alone at a con because you’re new and know nobody, but once somebody pointed it out, friend felt that it was very clarifying. So good then.

Relating also to new people and their reception, I feel that there is a line at about six friends. If you have one or two friends at a con, it can be pretty scary, and while it’s still a good idea to reach out to people you don’t know, you don’t have as much of an emotional base for doing it with one or two friends. It’s harder. But once you have six or more friends at a convention, if you complain that it’s cliquish but you don’t reach out to new people, sorry, you are part of the problem. Six friends gives you a base. It gives you a place to stand while you reach out. It can also give you your own clique while you are complaining about the cliques of others. I know it’s hard for some people to make social overtures, but “I have a hard time making social overtures” is a different problem from “other people are behaving exactly like I am, but when they do it, it’s bad.” Especially if you are not visibly a minority at the convention you’re attending. Especially if you’re a published pro. Especially if you’re not struggling with health problems. Etc. But in general: a good convention comes with a lot of reciprocity, and if you have half a dozen friends there, you’re in a much better position to make the first conversational move than some people.

You can always choose not to reach out to people. That’s your prerogative. But choosing that while complaining about how they are not reaching out to you…is pretty sketchy at best.

Skyler White had two comments on the same panel that fit really well together for me. It was the panel on how you play the cards you ain’t been dealt–that is, how to get better at things that are not natural to you. Skyler first said, “Asking yourself progressively better questions before you start writing is one of the best ways to deal with the cards you weren’t dealt.” Ooh. Yes. Then later she said, “Anything I do before I start writing, if I do it past the time when I could have started writing, becomes a handicap.” That has nice nuance and edges to it. It balances out the thinking/questioning with action, and it can be iterated throughout a long writing process, and…yes. Go Skyler.

I felt that Steven Brust demonstrated the importance of the vivid detail when we were all deciding on That’s A Different panel for the end of the con. He proposed a panel complete with a slate of panelists. Entirely possible that his topic would have won anyway, but he gave the audience the crucial ability to imagine themselves at that panel by saying who would be on it. Very meta. (And not a technique limited to Steve, if people find themselves strongly partisan about a particular panel in future similar circumstances.)