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Monday, August 9, 2010

Ruminations of an Old Goat

I spent the last four days attending NASFIC. Here are my thoughts on the convention. While there, I took several short videos to embed into this post. Unfortunately blogspot's video upload isn't successfully uploading my videos. Maybe we'll have something useful from Dragon*Con, but you'll just have to settle for words and some pictures this time around.


No line for registration. That's a bad sign.

I met up with Marc shortly after 10:00, nothing going on to start with. We went to overlook for dealer's room, which wasn't open yet. It wasn't very big:

The small dealers' room was made even smaller by cavernous space. However, we did meet the editor for Bull Spec magazine, a locally published magazine that attempts to have at least half of the content written by local authors. They have two issues out and it looks like a professional product. With payment around five cents per word, Bull Spec looks like a decent market. Admittedly, it's a better market for Marc and me, as the magazine currently has plenty of non-local stories. In other words, Marc and I will be submitting stories soon. (Update: Marc handed the editor a story Sunday afternoon before I left the convention. I'm sure he'll keep us posted.)

After lunch, we attended a panel on designing role playing games. I tossed out comments and asked a few questions. Marc, who has no interest in role playing games, made plans for future panels. The panel was long on generalities but not so long on details. This was probably due to the fact that one person running the panel hadn't written any RPG material in 15 years or so.

Later, we attended the opening ceremonies and the Guest of Honor banquet. The food was okay at the banquet and we got to know the people sitting with us, including the convention treasurer. As of the close of registration on Thursday, the con had about 600 preregistered attendees and 81 walk-ins. Looks like early estimate of 750 attendees is going to be pretty accurate.


No lines for registration again.

We attended a panel on science fiction in 1960. One person dominated the panel, many times talking over other panelists and people asking questions. The general feeling was that the writers were better wordsmiths in 1960 than they are today. There was also a claim that writers put more humor into their stories fifty years ago than they do today. My observation that fewer editors were willing to mentor new writers was acknowledged, with panelists saying that observation applied to about half the editors out there.

Next up was a panel on Young Adult fiction. I really enjoyed this one as there was lively discussion among the panelists and the audience. There was a general opinion that the science fiction writers and editors in the 1960s and 1970s had been too willing to leave the market to Heinlein's juveniles, leading to very little new YA science fiction during that time. Meanwhile, there was plenty of YA fantasy, which may be why fantasy outsells science fiction two to one at the adult level. There was further concern over the disappearance of YA science fiction that was optimistic about the future; the future in which technology serves mankind and makes life better. The panelists all agree a lack of knowledge and lack of interest in science among YA authors was to blame for all these distopias. On the plus side, science fiction may be making a comeback in YA. John Hemry, aka Jack Campbell, author of the Lost Fleet series that I have recommended in the past, has a YA trilogy looking for a home right now. Meanwhile, YA is now the place to be for sales, as you get not only the young adult market but also have significant crossover by adult readers (and we're not just talking Harry Potter).

Wandering around while Marc attended something else, I ran across this guy:

I wish the video would upload properly, as he's completely decked out in leather from head to toe. He said he was a steampunk airship pirate. The costume included a nifty sidearm, chains, and all sorts of neat steampunk stuff. This was easily the best costume I saw until the one I'll show a bit later on. Get this, the guy made the costume in one month.

Next up was the Baen Traveling Road Show featuring lots of info on upcoming Baen titles, including cover artwork and release dates. Baen also brought uncorrected proofs of a bunch of upcoming novels. These were given away to audience members as a reward for asking insightful questions or making comments the publisher liked. The uncorrected proofs included two copies of Lois McMaster Bujold's upcoming novel, Cryoburn (the one I wrote about in a recent Ultimate Geek Fu column). Unfortunately, both copies were gone before I made a comment the publisher liked. Still, I got a free book by local author Mark L. Van Name (yes, that's his real name) titled Children No More, the fourth book in Van Name's Jon and Lobo series. This was a fun and lively presentation that really drove home the idea that Baen is the publisher to go to if your fiction involves big guns, explosions, or space battles. Baen also doesn't shy away from strong political leanings, as many of their authors do not hesitate to have their characters take strong political positions (though ones generally appropriate to the story, not shoehorned in as a lecture).

There weren't any panels coming up that really grabbed my attention, so I wrapped it up early and headed home to spend some time with the family.


Still no lines at registration.

I began the day by attending a panel on creative insults. It was entertaining, especially when 2008 John C. Campbell award winner Mary Robinette Kowal showed us many of the ways a woman in the early 1800s could use a folding fan to issue insults, invitations, and send other important social signals. The helpful bit of the discussion centered around figuring out what is sacred and profane in the culture in which your story is set. Setting those limits within your society is vital to ensure your characters act appropriately and lend a sense of reality to the insults within that society.

Marc and I hit a series of writing panels after lunch. The first was on revising your work. The main thing I could take away from that panel is that there is no one way to revise your work. Some writers plow through their first draft, never looking back until it's done. Others write a few chapters, revise those, write a few more chapters, revise again, etc. The important point is figuring out what works for you and then sticking with it.

Next up was a panel entitled "Turn to the Past in SF." The panel had no moderator and no one on the panel knew what the title meant. Time travel? Alternate history? SF in the past vs. SF today? So, we got a bit of everything except time travel. It turned out to be pretty entertaining, though I wouldn't say I learned anything that will help my writing.

I wandered back down to the dealers' room for a bit and ran across steampunk costume number two:

He claims to be a Chrono Cartographer, mapping the time stream for the rest of us. The video, which again failed to upload properly, shows all of the nifty equipment he has below his waist attached to his belt and includes his description of what each item is. I still like the airship pirate costume better, but this one seems to have been more carefully planned.

Wandering down to the dealers' room, I had a good time talking with the people at the SFWA (Science Fiction Writer's Association) table. I plugged Stupefying Stories (a title that brought a chuckle from all who heard it) and was roundly congratulated for making my first sale.

At the autograph table, I found one of the authors had no one even approaching her. She's a college professor who teaches science fiction, fantasy, Harry Potter, and the like and was on the Young Adult panel. I stopped and told her how much I had enjoyed the panel then asked about her books, neither of which were available in the dealers' room. It turned out she had edited a collection of essays about Native American mythology and it's influence on many American fantasy writers. I told her I was a storyteller and the two of us spent the next forty minutes talking about storytelling, mythology, and the benefits of including both in elementary education. This was truly my highlight of the convention.

I returned to panels in the middle of one on creating believable alien races. The main point I took away from this one was that all the panelists were of the opinion that an advanced, totally alien race -- one humans are simply not capable of understanding -- simply does not exist. They supported their point by listing the things they believe must be common to all advanced races, including ingesting energy in some form and using existing natural resources to create energy to power an advanced civilization.

The next panel I attended played into my discussion with the professor, as it concerned using mythology to add depth to your writing. The gist of the panel was that there are too many generic fantasies in which the characters ride thousands of miles from their homes yet never find anything particularly different from home. Customs may change somewhat, but there is rarely any kind of underlying mythology that differentiates one place from another. In our own world, one need merely look at the mythological differences between Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales to see how unrealistic that kind of approach truly is. The panelists did not suggest that authors attempt to create an entire mythology but they did suggest fantasy authors study mythology and find ways to adapt existing mythology to fit in their world.

We finished up the evening in a panel on internet publishing. In general, the advice was not to expect to make any money publishing on the internet unless or until you have a solid fan base. There was also heavy speculation that some of the larger book publishers are severely under reporting sales of ebooks. This is certainly plausible, as there isn't any physical inventory to count. Amazon did not escape notice, as there were claims that they were possibly under reporting Kindle sales, again because there isn't any trackable inventory. All is not doom and gloom, by any stretch of the imagination, but the electronic publishing is seriously affecting the way business is done in the publishing industry. Oh, and every panelist agreed that your publishing contract must include the disposition of electronic publishing rights and a reasonable way in which those rights revert to the author. It seems some book publishers are using electronic sales figures as a way to avoid returning publishing rights to authors.


There was still no line at the registration table, though that's not uncommon for the last day of the convention.

I came in to the con on Sunday for one panel. The panel was on writing in a shared universe. We got some interesting war stories from the panelists before they opened it up for questions. Probably the most valuable advice they offered was the setup an agreement which all authors writing in the universe must sign before being let in to play. They also suggested that one person should be assigned to role of "tie breaker," making the final choice on issues that split the contributing authors down the middle. This was followed with more war stories. One panelist discussed a divorce in which custody of the shared universe was the single largest bone of contention. As my publisher said when we were hammering out the contract for him to publish the comic books I wrote, "We're all friends now but you never know when one of might turn to the dark side." Even if money isn't involved, having everything spelled out in advance could save a friendship or maybe even a marriage.


NASFIC would have felt well attended had it been held in a single hotel. With two hotels and a huge convention center, it felt as if hardly anyone was there. I doubt I attended a panel that had more than 50 attendees. If I had a dollar for every time I heard the word "intimate" used to describe the convention, I might have earned back my membership fee. Flat out, this was a poorly attended NASFIC. Sunday afternoon, I overheard a book dealer saying he had just broken $1000 in business for the entire four day weekend. I'd have to say it will be a long, long time before Raleigh has any chance at anything like NASFIC.

However, because of the "intimate" nature of the convention, fans were able to spend quite a bit of time in one-on-one conversation with writers. This was driven home to me when Joe Haldeman's wife saw Marc in the dealer's room and made a point of introducing him to all of the SFWA members in the area. Marc had to have spent at least an hour, probably more, talking with the Haldemans.

Overall, this would have been a very good weekend convention; one that opens mid afternoon on Friday and runs through mid afternoon on Sunday and costs $50 or $60 for a membership. As a four day, $110 membership convention, it left a lot to be desired.
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