Category Archives: Conventions

Ravencon Panels (I DID do): Why I DIDN’T Get a Book Launched

This was supposed to be a post on my first Ravencon Panel, “Swords Not Required.”  Those panel posts are going to be very long, however, and for various reasons this was a short week for me.  So, I figured I’d explain some things I didn’t get around to in last weeks post.

I mentioned during most of my panels that I would have had another book (a sci-fi novel) out, but I had to reject the cover art a month ago and therefore it was delayed.  That was… uh, not the full story (to put it mildly), but there was too much to discuss when just introducing myself.  But I can expound on it here, without restriction.

While I did not ask the convention for a book launch space, back around January I was hoping to launch a book at Ravencon.  That book was the long-delayed The Merrimack Event, which I’ve been talking about on this blog for years (literally).  It is a novel that’s actually older than my first-released novel (In Treachery Forged) but has been in the self-publishing version of development hell since before I filed the DBA for Fennec Fox Press.

I approached an editor for it; I checked him out, found I liked his style, negotiated a price for his service, and… he disappeared before signing the contract we’d agreed to.  Vanished off the internet, never responded to any more e-mails, etc.  I hadn’t paid him, nor had he seen the full manuscript, so it’s not like he was stealing from me… he just, well, vanished.

I like having different editors and cover artists for each novel series; I’d not had the time to investigate new editors, and every cover artist I queried with this book in mind (just to see if they were available, not even yet mentioning the project) never gave me any reply at all.

But around January, things were looking up.  It may have been piecemeal using beta readers, it may have been done in fits and starts, it may have partially been edited through a self-editing procedure I would normally never do because it was too labor intensive, but The Merrimack Event had reached a level of “edited” that I felt it was acceptable for release.  There were some minor tweaks that still needed to be done before the book could be built, but those tweaks were the equivalent of running a last spellcheck and fixing a few minor inconsistencies brought about through all the various edits.  The book could be released within days… if I could get cover art.

Then my budget was hit after I broke a tooth (or rather re-broke a tooth that had previously been repaired), and the money for the cover art went away.  I could pull the money from somewhere else, but that would slow one of my other projects.  However!  I had an option.  A professional artist was willing to do the cover for free (well, sort of; no money was to change hands, anyway).  Book covers weren’t their usual medium, but I’ve had success using artists who didn’t specialize in covers in the past.  So I said yes.

Unfortunately, come the start of April, their cover proposal showed up and was unacceptable.  It wasn’t completely hopeless, but you could tell this wasn’t the artist’s usual medium.  I tried working with the artist to maybe get it revised into something acceptable.  While things were getting closer and closer, I could tell the artist was getting frustrated.  I was struggling to get them to make the right changes (I am not an artist, myself; I have enough of an eye that I could see a problem, but I wasn’t sure how to explain that problem so that the artist would understand what I wanted).  I was taking more and more of their time away from the art projects they usually did.  Finally, I decided enough was enough; I pulled the plug and rejected the cover completely.

That’s not the end of the story, though.  There was still a month before the convention.  Both my mother (a professional quilt artist) AND my brother (who, for his first few years of college, studied mechanical design) decided they would make a go at trying to put something together; I might not have been able to get the print book out at that point, but if I could get an acceptable cover by the 25th I could submit the eBook and it would be for sale by the start of the convention.  Both of the cover proposals I received from them had possibilities, but both would need work… just like the first cover option did.  I didn’t want to go through all that again, so I just said “no” to both covers.  I’ve re-established a budget.  I’ll be hiring a professional cover artist… IF I can ever get one to reply to my e-mails, and then the book will (FINALLY) be out.

Incidentally, I had other observations from Ravencon which didn’t fit into last weeks recap:

  1.  I had produced some swag, but most of the other authors had much more than me.
  2. I did not ask for any book signing or reading times (during which an author can sell their book), nor did I rent a table in author alley to sell my books from, but maybe I should have (though I might need to replace my phone to something that will allow the use of a credit card reader, first).
  3. I was a little worried that I didn’t have the ‘pedigree’ to be a guest, but there were a number of guests at Ravencon who had the same sort of writing portfolio I had.
  4. Apparently, the end of April is the wrong time of the year for me to go down to Williamsburg; I have a lot of family in the area, but none of them were able to see me while I was there due to scheduling conflicts.  I like Ravencon, and plan to return, but maybe I should look into other conventions the area as well.
  5. I still need a name for my mascot fennec fox (stuffed animal).  Fortunately, no-one asked me what his name was when I was wearing him on my badge lanyard all weekend.

And… well, that’s it.  I’ll get that first “panel” page out next week, hopefully.  Until then….

Ravencon 2017 Recap

I’m going to start this recap with something that happened after the convention ended: I got con crud.  I’m usually very good about avoiding that, but somehow it hit me this time.  Ugh.  If this blog is less coherent than normal, well, that’s why. But for now… back to the beginning.

THURSDAY

I left for the convention on Thursday.  It’s about a 3 hr drive from my home to Williamsburg (a little less, actually, if you drive non-stop), and I got to the hotel a little before 2pm.  I found a full parking lot, because the previous event (some sort of meeting for Greenway planners, I think?) hadn’t broken up, yet, and my room wasn’t open right away.  I was told to try again an hour later, so I ducked into the hotel bar to wait it out.

You may recall, if you read my post on last year’s Ravencon, that my biggest complaint was the dining.  The food wasn’t bad, but it was slow.  I made efforts to prepare for a repeat of that experience, actually buying a microwave and lugging it down to Williamsburg with me (complete with a half-dozen cans of soup) so I’d be sure to be able to eat something as the convention was going on.

But, until I had my room, I couldn’t pull out that microwave, and I was trying to kill time anyway, so I figured I might as well have lunch.  The bar was empty, save for the bartender.  I let her know I was there for Ravencon, and asked whether they would be opening the restaurant this time.  I was told that it would, with buffet dining and a special Ravencon menu for most of the weekend.  “We learned our lesson from the last time,” she told me.  As it turns out, she was right — I never wound up using that microwave during the convention, and the food was actually much better than I remembered from last year.

After lunch, my room was ready for me to check in.  I let my Facebook friends know I was there, then unpacked, and rested up a bit.  I tried to make contact with some family who lives in the area to see if we could meet up, but that proved impossible.  I also tried to get to my e-mail, but found that the hotel wi-fi servers and the webmail access for my usual e-mail server were incompatible.  This proved to be important (as I’ll discuss later), but I spent about an hour trying to get things to work unsuccessfully.  So, with nothing else to do, I decided to try and find the spot where Con Ops was being set up.

I’d received an e-mail saying Con Ops would be in “Room M.”  I checked the hotel map — there was no Room M.  I checked the hotel’s posted activities list, and saw there would be set-up in Room J… but that room was empty.  I tried a few other locations I thought it might be at, but couldn’t find any evidence of the con set-up.  I finally gave up and (my settling-in having taken several hours) decided to have an early dinner.  So I was back to the bar.

Dinner was fine, but uneventful… until I was on my way out the door, where I ran into another Ravencon guest (and fellow panelist), Jennifer R. Povey.  I mentioned that this would be my first convention as a professional guest, and we traded stories about travel and conventions past.  I then joined her to again try and find Con Ops.  Which we did find… but only after Con Ops had shut down for the night.  It was in Room 8.

And that was it (for the con-relevant part, anyway) for Thursday.

FRIDAY

I learned why there was so much confusion about the rooms early on:  The hotel’s convention rooms are nice and laid out okay, but the normal room number system was confusing.  The Ravencon staff, after the problems from last year (another thing I mentioned in last year’s Ravencon Recap), decided to re-label the hotel’s room numbers to make things less confusing.  Which is fine, but they didn’t have those new room designations up Thursday… so Con Ops was in Room M, but only after the rooms had been relabeled on Friday.  The new room numbers made a lot of sense, actually, but that didn’t help on Thursday.

Badge pick-up was supposed to start at 1pm.  I met Jennifer R. Povey again at Badge Pick-up about five minutes before then, and started waiting.  And it did open at one… but not for guests.  The “guest packets” hadn’t been put together, and so we couldn’t pick up our badges.  While frustrating (and somehow tiring; I was more worn out waiting for my badge to finally be made available than anything else that I did over the weekend), the time wasn’t a total waste; instead, I learned a few tips about being a panelist from someone who had been on a few panels, herself (the aforementioned Jennifer R. Povey).

It was about three hours later that I was finally able to pick up my badge.  The guest packet included our badge, a copy of the programming booklet (which is the same whether you’re a guest or an attendee), a few letters to welcome the guests, our “final” schedule, and a folding paper nameplate.  Following one of those tips, I’ve kept the nameplate for future conventions which might not be quite as well prepared.

Now armed with a badge, a schedule, and a nameplate, it was time for the convention to begin.  The first event was authors-only:  A meet-and-greet in the Green Room.  I had high expectations for this, but it started out a bit dull; there wasn’t as much meeting and greeting as I had expected (possibly because there wasn’t enough seating for everyone to eat while they met and greeted one another, or possibly because several of us just trying to get something to eat before our panels).  After having a few snacks, however, I noticed a couple of people that I thought (correctly) would be on my first panel sitting — Jeanne Adams and Nancy Northcott — and went to introduce myself.  I was scheduled to be moderator (again, my first panel as a professional and I’m moderating?  Ack!), so I took the opportunity to briefly go over my plan for that panel (as Ravencon’s moderator instructions recommended.  I will note that, in the five other panels I was on, the moderator only did this once).

The meet and greet was interrupted (for me, Jeanne, and Nancy) for that first panel of the evening:  Swords Not Required, a discussion about arming your fantasy characters with weapons other than swords.  The three of us were joined by Chuck Gannon, the Literary Guest of Honor, adding just a touch of star power to my first-ever panel.

Now, over the next few weeks (health and time permitting) I intend to write blog posts on each of the panels I worked at Ravencon, so I won’t be covering the contents of each panel today, but I AM really looking forward to covering this one.  As moderator, it was my job to manage time while keeping the panel on topic and direct questions (either my own or the audience’s) to the panelists.  I figured I would let the panelists introduce themselves, then go through four or five of my own questions, and try to preserve about ten minutes for audience questions.  I was keeping a very close eye on the time.  While the panelists had plenty of time to come up with answers to my questions, there was no time left for me.  I was willing to cut people off if time was going to be an issue, but I wasn’t going to cut people off just so I could speak.  So… I never got to give my own answers.  Well, that’s partly what next week’s planned blog post is for — I’ll be answering giving my own viewpoints on the questions I asked my fellow panelists.

I think the panel went well enough.  My fellow authors, as well as some of the people from the audience, all gave me kudos for handling the moderation duties well.  I… well, my own case of imposter syndrome has me thinking that most of that praise was just people being polite to the newbie, but I’m willing to accept that I didn’t mess things up too badly.

After that panel it was time for the opening ceremonies.  Now, this may have been my first ever convention as a pro, but obviously I’ve been to conventions as an attendee (and, many years ago, as a fanfic panelist) many times over the years, having attended a few dozen conventions all told (I stopped counting at twenty or so).  However many conventions I’ve been to, however, I’ve ALWAYS skipped the opening ceremonies; they’ve never held any interest for me.  But I was a guest, and they were expecting me to attend, so there I went, not knowing what to expect.

Ravencon has over a hundred guests most years, and they promote a lot of guest turnover from year to year.  I figured I might have to stand up and be seen, but with so many guests — many of whom were, like me, first-time guests — I was NOT expecting to have to say anything.  But no, there I was, being asked to introduce myself (alongside twenty or so other new Ravencon guests) to a crowd of people interested in the convention guests.  I drew a complete blank about what to say, only mentioning the basics (that I was a self-published author and would be doing several panels that weekend), and was very glad when it was over.  Of course I thought of a million things I COULD have said, far too late to say any of them.  Next time I’m a guest at a convention, I’ll have to remember to be prepared to speak at the opening ceremonies, even if it seems like it would be impossible for me to do so.

Off the proverbial hot seat and with opening ceremonies (thankfully) over, I rushed off to the restaurant for dinner.  I’d had some snacks at the meet-and-greet, but those were just to tide me over.  I only had two hours until my next panel, and remembering last year I was afraid I barely had enough time to eat.  As it turns out, I had plenty of time:  I got to the hotel restaurant, and was shown a nearly empty buffet with no lines and almost no wait time for the staff.  The food was excellent (I had both the fish and the chicken; neither were overcooked, neither were dry, and both were well-seasoned and flavorful; you can’t ask for more than that from a buffet) and I was done with much more time to spare than I thought possible.

So, I went to attend my first panel on the “fan” side of the table, the “Economics of Self-Publishing” panel.  Ravencon has had this panel for several years, now, and it was moderated (as it had been last year) by the inestimable Chris Kennedy.  Now, for a very long time, the draft schedule for the convention had me listed on this panel; it was only in the last few weeks before the convention started that I was dropped from it.  That was fine, as it wasn’t my favorite aspect on the topic of self-publishing to cover (I was scheduled for a different panel on self-publishing later in the convention, which I figured was more my speed), but I’d been mentally preparing for this panel for weeks.  Most of what was covered by the panelists were things I was already well acquainted with, and there were a few things I’d thought of that I never heard mentioned during the panel.  It kind of made me regret not pushing harder to be on this panel; I think I could have contributed.

And then it was time for my Mythology as the Basis for Speculative Fiction panel.  Again, I will discuss the contents of the panel in a later blog post, but here are a few off-topic comments on this panel:  This was my panel alongside Guest of Honor Mercedes Lackey.  That was a great experience, but it’s entirely possible that I caught the con crud from her:  She had a cold (well, I gather it was a little more serious than a mere cold), and was warning people that she would be our “patient zero” for the convention.  Even the moderator said that we should keep at least two seats between her and us while we were setting up.

Other than Mercedes Lackey, my fellow panelists included Jennifer R. Povey, Christopher L. Smith, and moderator Bishop O’Connell.  The difference in experience between the Guest of Honor and the rest of us panelists became stark when we started talking about our publication credits.  A few short stories and anthology credits for a couple of them, four books for the moderator, three books for myself (and an anthology story theoretically coming out at Balticon in May, and one more novel I nearly had ready before Ravencon.  I mentioned a simplified version of why I didn’t get that book out in time during my panels, but the full story of what’s going on with that is worth a blog post on its own).  Then Mercedes Lackey mentioned her book total:  128.  (Well, she pointed out, 129, but the 129th wasn’t yet available for sale)

At any rate, all of the panelists had something to contribute to the panel, and the audience seemed to enjoy themselves, so I’d call it a success.  And as for me, it was the end of my evening.

SATURDAY

I started the day by ordering a room service breakfast that actually arrived in time for me to eat it (another sign that the hotel learned some lessons from last year).  I needed it fast, because I had a panel first thing that day:  Using Tropes to Tell Stories.

The panel consisted of myself, Bishop O’Connell, and Jim Bernheimer.  We were short a panelist (someone must have cancelled at the very last second), and it started a bit slow — we all needed coffee or something, I think — but we rallied, and in the end it was a success.

I went back to my room after that and had that cup of coffee (hotel room coffee… which wasn’t as bad as what I’ve had from some hotels, but still wasn’t great), spending the next hour getting myself better prepared for my next panel:  Building Worlds for Fiction with Dave Joria, Rob Balder, Mark Wandrey, and myself.  It was an interesting panel, though I kind of wish I had been moderating this one for one reason:  Two of us panelists were novelists, two were in webcomics.  I was hoping to get more about the different perspectives on building a world when writing prose versus when you could use illustrations for a portion of your worldbuilding.  I don’t think that topic was touched on, much, during the panel.

I had a long break after that panel, and decided to go to the hotel restaurant for lunch.  I almost chose to use the buffet, as the dinner buffet from the night before had been so good, but I wasn’t all that enthused by the buffet menu and went into the bar, instead.  This may very well have been the most fortuitous decision I made during the entire convention.

The bar waitress was showing me to my seat when, from what was the largest table in the room, I heard someone call, “Hey, are you here by yourself?”  I wasn’t sure they were talking to me at first, but once I was sure I indicated I was.  “Well, then, get your butt over here!”  I was being invited to sit at his table.

The person calling me was Baen Books‘ consulting editor, Kelly Lockhart.  Also at the table were Baen Books science consultant (and proponent of scientific outreach) Dr. Tedd Roberts, and Baen authors Mike Massa, Kacey Ezell, and Christopher L. Smith.  (There were also a couple other people at the table who I have yet to identify).

There were discussions about a number of things — other Baen authors, other conventions, a few scientific anecdotes from Tedd Roberts, and far too many other things to discuss in this post.  There were interesting conversations going on all sides of the table, and it was hard to keep track of everything being said.  Needless to say, this was an unexpected and welcome event in and of itself.

But lunch eventually broke up, and it was back to the convention proper.  I’d signed up for a wine and cheese tasting at 2pm, largely because the wines involved were coming from Three Fox Vineyards (as my self-publishing company is called Fennec Fox Press, you might guess that I have a bit of an interest in foxes), so I went straight there.  Unfortunately, things were horribly disorganized at first — I was “carded” three times, by three different people (twice by the panel organizers, once by someone sent down from Con Ops just to ensure everyone had been carded), they didn’t have the cutting board they needed for the cheese selection, they had to get the hotel staff to find them a couple pitchers of water before they could start, and so forth.  With the tasting running long, I wound up having to leave in the middle to make it to my next panel.

That panel was Self-Publishing 2017, with fellow authors Thomas A. Mays, Toi Thomas, myself, and (replacing the two expected panelists I mentioned in my last post) Christine McDonnell along with moderator Jim McDonald.  Now, as I’ve said before, I’m not going to be discussing panel content in this write-up; that’s for follow-up posts over the next few weeks.  There’s not much to say about the content of this panel which wasn’t mentioned somewhere in my Self-Publishing Roundtable blog series from a couple years ago, anyway.  There was something I wasn’t able to discuss at this panel, however, which will be in that topic:

In preparation for the convention, I had contacted my local library system about resources they were making available to self-published authors.  My local library is very supportive of the local author scene, and I wanted to know if there was anything they particularly wanted discussed.  I got an e-mail with all of that information… on the 28th, when I was already at the convention and couldn’t read it.  So, in place of a “Self-Publishing 2017” blog post, I’ll be making a “Self-Publishing and the Local Library” blog that week.

After the Self-Publishing 2017 panel, I had a brief break.  After my lunch at the “Baen table,” I very nearly stopped by the Baen Books Traveling Roadshow (a regular panel at many conventions I go to).  That panel wasn’t supposed to actually start until 4:30pm, though, and I had a panel at 5; I would have had to leave shortly after they started.

My 5pm panel (my last as a panelist, this convention) was on the Mechanics of Magic in Fantasy & Science Fiction, coming full circle with fellow panelists from my first panel Nancy Northcott and Jeanne Adams.  Along with us was Joe Wetmore, one half of the Instant Replay Live Youtube channel, which does lets-plays and game reviews (an odd panel for such a guest, but it worked out well for us).

Now, I had planned on attending a bunch of other panels after that, but I was exhausted.  I went back to my hotel room, rested up a bit, had dinner, rested up some more, went to sleep… and overslept the next morning.

SUNDAY

Well, “overslept” may not technically be right (I didn’t set an alarm, or have any particular place I had to be that morning, so I didn’t miss anything; had I been scheduled for a panel, I would have had alarms set and room wake-up calls going before I went to bed the night before), but I woke up so late that I couldn’t go to any of the morning panels.  After a much less eventful lunch than Saturday (skipping breakfast because I woke up so late), I went to a final convention panel as an attendee:  The Mad Scientist’s Revenge!

This panel consisted of Carolyn O’Neal, Samantha Bryant, Tedd Roberts, and his grad student going by the psuedonym of EvilPenguin.  Two writers, two mad scientists.

I felt a bit sorry for the writers.  The moderator (who was one of the writers) didn’t seem to recognize that this wasn’t going to be a different kind of panel.  She was trying to ask questions as if this was a standard writer’s panel, but based on the write-up (“Presenting preposterous theories for world domination and evil conspiracies”) it was intended to be more of a silly, story-telling humor panel to close out the convention with rather than “education for creatives” like so many of the other panels were.  Tedd Roberts and EvilPenguin, however, had such strong personalities and such interesting anecdotes that the panel worked more as I believe it was intended than it otherwise might have.  The other writer, caught between the two big-personality scientists and the moderator who didn’t understand what kind of panel she was on, barely got a word in edge-wise.  Still, from the audience’s perspective, it was fun and entertaining…

And then the convention was over.  Well, for most of the attendees, anyway.  There was one more event:  The Dead Dog Dinner.  Basically, as you might guess from the name, it’s a dinner, at which guests and staff who were staying at the hotel for the night could get together and chat about the convention.

I wound up sitting at a table with the programming director, the assistant to the con chair, and several other staff members; there were other panelists at the dinner, but somehow all of them wound up at different tables.  Still, it was nice to be able to have a conversation breaking down some of the things that happened during the convention with the staff.  (And I got some “gossip” about the state of the convention which I won’t discuss here, because I’m not sure how much of that was in confidence).

And then I was done for the day.  I spent the rest of the day packing and resting up, and then returned home on Monday.

And by Tuesday I knew for sure I had come down with con crud.  *sigh*

Health permitting, next week I’ll start my next blog series on Ravencon Panels (I DID do).  Until then…

Ravencon Panels I AM Doing: Next Week’s Schedule

So, Ravencon is next weekend (so I PROBABLY won’t be doing a post next weekend for that reason, but there is a chance; more on that later), which means I’ve run out of time for the series on Ravencon Panels (I’m NOT Doing) so I can talk about the Ravencon Panels I AM doing.

The schedule may still change (I’ve been at enough conventions to know that schedules sometimes get altered minutes before the panel begins, though I haven’t known Ravencon to be quite that bad), but it’s as set as it ever is.  So, if you’re at the convention and want to find me, here are the panels I’m on (complete with current room locations (the most likely thing to change), Amazon links to my fellow panelists, and the panel descriptions:

I. Swords Not Required
Location:  Room G
Time:  Friday, 6pm-7pm
Guests:  Nancy Northcott, Jeanne Adams, Charles E. Gannon, and myself (Moderating).

Panelists discuss ways to arm characters in fantasy worlds without always relying on swords.

(Yes, I’m moderating my first panel at my first pro-appearance at a convention.  Gulp)

II. Mythology as the Basis for Speculative Fiction
Location:  Room 8
Time:  Friday, 10pm-11pm
Guests:  Mercedes Lackey, Bishop O’Connell (moderating), Christopher L. Smith, Jennifer R. Povey, and myself

Our panelists take a look at mythologies around the world; discussing their similarities and why some of them are so appealing to modern speculative fiction authors. Should myths be updated for a modern audience, or do you respect them as canon and hold to their roots? Does an understanding of mythology make better speculative fiction, and what is its current role within SF writing?

III.  Using Tropes to Tell Stories
Location:  Room 8
Time:  Saturday, 9am-10am
Guests:  Jim Bernheimer (moderating), R.S. Belcher, Bishop O’Connell, and myself

Cliches in fantasy and science fiction are a big no-no… except when they aren’t. The internet contains a lot of rants against tropes, but are tropes really that bad? What happens to a fantasy story that tries to avoid every trope? Is such a story revolutionary or unmarketable? Is it even doable? Panelists discuss the use and avoidance of tropes in developing storylines. What are the most-used tropes in SF/F? Why are they so overused? Are they always bad? Are there ways they can be twisted to say new things about the genre?

IV.  Building Worlds for Fiction
Location:  Room G
Time:  Saturday, 11am-12pm
Guests:  Dave Joria, Rob Balder, Mark Wandrey (moderator), and myself

Building a comprehensive world—whether it is for a novel, comic, or serial—can be a huge challenge. Join our panelists as they discuss tools, strategies, and both successes and failures in world-building.

V.  Self-Publishing 2017
Location:  Room G
Time:  Saturday, 3pm-4pm
Guests:  Philippa “Pip” Ballentine, Alex Matsuo (Moderating), Toi Thomas, Thomas A. Mays, and myself

This panel discusses today’s self-publishing options and business models. Our panelists include authors who are both self- and traditionally published, in fiction and nonfiction, including people who are making an income entirely by self-publishing. We’ll discuss why we made the choice to self-publish, the pitfalls and lessons learned, and which business choices we’ve made on our respective self-publishing efforts.

VI.  Mechanics of Magic in Fantasy & SF
Location:  Room E
Time:  5-6pm
Guests:  Joe Wetmore, myself, Jeanne Adams, Nancy Northcott (Moderating)

Does a magical system for a story need rules? Costs, unintended consequences, social factors? What about reliability issues? How can we avoid worn-out tropes? How should magic in an RPG and story differ? Is some of the tech in SF “magic” and should the same considerations apply?

So that’s six panels, including a couple alongside the guests of honor.  Not bad for my first convention as a pro.

There are still quite a few panels that I’m NOT doing that are on topics I’m interested in.  I mean, I made up a schedule for myself, and if I did all the panels I’m scheduled for AND went to all the other panels I’m interested in, I would have a grand total of one one-hour break during the entire weekend (not happening; while I’ll be poking my nose into some of those panels as a fan, I’d wear myself out AND starve for the weekend if I tried going to all of them).  Unfortunately, if I haven’t gotten to those panel topics on this blog by now, I’m probably not going to any time soon, as I’m going to move into the Ravencon panel topics I will have actually been on.

I’d been trying to get The Merrimack Event done by Ravencon itself, but the cover art is going to be late (among other issues) and I don’t know if I’ll be able to finish building the book in time, even if it shows up between now and then.  I haven’t been talking about the possibility that often because, without the book cover, I don’t have anything I can show you guys… so maybe, if I DO get a blog post out next week, it will be with a Surprise! Book Release! Announcement.  (Heck, I don’t have anything scheduled for Sunday, currently, even if I’ll still be at the hotel… if the cover art comes in, and everything else is ready, I might spend the day putting the book together).  If not… well, it’s not like I asked Ravencon to fit a Book Launch into the schedule… (I thought about it, but thankfully didn’t; that would have been a mess).

And then, the next weekend following the convention, maybe I’ll start a new series:  Ravencon Panels (I DID Do):  My Final (?) Words.

Edit:  The convention is now over, and comments are closed because spambots keep trying to spam the comment section.

Ravencon Panels (I’m Not Doing): One Man’s Villain Is Another Man’s Hero

This is the fifth in my series of blogs on panels at Ravencon I’m NOT doing.  For further explanation, see my earlier blog here.  (I noted last week I had apparently been cut from several of the panels I was originally scheduled for; well, the program guide has been… well, not quite finalized, because these sorts of things tend to change at the last minute, but close enough — they’ve made a PDF of the schedule public here. In the end I was put back on some of those I originally feared I had been cut from, and should now be on listed on six panels, which (assuming nothing changes) I’ll mention next week.

One Man’s Villain is Another Man’s Hero

Here is the Ravencon write-up for this panel:

Twirling mustaches and obvious evil plans are a thing of the past. Today’s villains and heroes are as complicated as the world we live in. Discuss with our panelists what makes the difference between villain and hero, and how thin that line can be.

Once again, we’ve got an interesting topic.  Now, I’m not sure you’ll find many complex villains in my own novels (I try to focus on developing the heroes at the start of a series, with the villain getting more development later in the series.  Unfortunately, it’s still very early in all of the series I’ve released, so my best villains haven’t shown up yet.  That’s partly why I didn’t sign up for this panel), but I do know something about the topic nonetheless.

It’s actually fairly easy to advise people on how to make a complex villain.  “Give your villain a sympathetic back story,” and “everyone is a hero in their own story; your villain must think he’s doing the right thing” are things I’ve repeatedly heard.  That seems to just be common sense… although (a) common sense is not common and (b) sometimes the story you’re writing doesn’t make it easy to show your villain’s point of view.

There’s also the matter that, well, there have been plenty of popular stories with popular villains who aren’t exactly complex.  While a powerful force of nature and a great danger to all of the people of Middle Earth, Sauron is a fairly straight-forward villain who didn’t need a sympathetic back story to become the main villain of Lord of the Rings (now, he did GET an interesting backstory when the Silmarillion was released, but that wasn’t published until almost twenty years after Sauron was introduced to the reading public).  While the now-non-canon expanded universe did eventually fill out his story, Boba Fett was a villain who became a cultural icon from his physical appearance alone.  His past was a mystery (some people actually think his character was weakened when it was filled in), his motivations were unclear, he had a tiny role, and yet he developed a fan following as big as many of the major villains of the series. (In fact, much of the backstory for him was created BECAUSE he became so popular, if I understand things correctly)

And the villain doesn’t have to be a person.  A “villain” can be a natural disaster, for example, or simply surviving alone in the wilderness.  While not typical of fantasy or science fiction (my main genre), there have been a number of stories where the big struggle is surviving against the odds, and those odds aren’t someone else at all. It can, though — one of the biggest hits in recent years is The Martian, which features a struggle to survive in an alien landscape.  Mars itself is the villain of the story… well, sort of.  “The elements of Mars,” perhaps?

But this topic is specifically about creating a complex villain, and saying (effectively) “give them a sympathetic back story” might not be enough help. It’s a great piece of advice; if you’ve ever seen Batman: The Animated Series, their sympathetic treatment of Mr. Freeze took a Batman villain often considered a comic laughingstock and made him into a major villain that many people could hope succeeded some day.  In fact, I’d argue that series is a virtual blueprint for creating sympathetic villains.  But just that line itself — “Give them a sympathetic back story” — is, well, not enough.

It’s too generic of a piece of advice, and honestly it isn’t always true.  I’ve read many an amateur effort at writing (thanks to my background in fanfiction) where the writer tries too hard at giving the villain a sympathetic back story, and while the villain may be “sympathetic” (or not; if the ‘excuse’ for becoming a villain is too weak, it feels like “Really? That’s it?  That’s why this guy is trying to take over the world?”), but if you make things go too far your villain can appear… well, pathetic, not sympathetic.  So perhaps just “try and give them a sympathetic backstory” isn’t the best piece of advice.

So, what else can you use to make your villain seem complex? Well, how about using other techniques for making a villain compelling and complex.

In the Lord of the Rings, we know next to nothing about Saruman’s back story… except that he was supposed to be a good guy, in fact a leader of good guys, who turned traitor when he thought he was going to lose.  As a villain, he is more complex and compelling than Sauron.  It’s a common technique for the creation of a villain; TV Tropes refers to it (using wrestling parlance, of all things) a “Face-Heel Turn.”

One of the best-known villains in the world of mystery novels has almost no backstory, sympathetic or not, but he is thought to be complex and compelling because, well, he’s basically a villainous version of Sherlock Holmes (I am, of course, referring to Moriarty).

If your villain has a complex, intricate plan, and your reader can follow along with it (even if they may not know the villain’s true end goal), that can make them seem complex and compelling. It’s a method a lot of television shows with a-plot\b-plot formats (the episode has a specific “a” plot that is the focus of that episode’s story, but there’s also elements from an overall seasonal “b” plot) use.

So, there are many ways to create a complex and compelling villain… if you need one.

Ravencon Panels (I’m Not Doing): Gearing Up For War

This is the fourth in my series of blogs on panels at Ravencon I’m NOT doing.  For further explanation, see my earlier blog here.

GEARING UP FOR WAR

This panel is described in the (still just a draft) write-up as “Depending on the time period, terrain, and the nature of the fight, you’re going to need different kinds of kit. We’ll discuss how human beings prepare for battle physically and mentally — and what that says about their society.” I really feel under-qualified for the topic of mental and physical preparation, and I don’t even want to touch the one about what these preparations “say about society” (talk about a land mine for those of us who try to maintain politically neutral public faces!).

But discussing military kit? That I can do, if only from the perspective of a military history buff who’s done enough research into this topic to know (at one time) what people were supposed to receive in a few historic kits by heart. (Okay, so, um, my focus was the history of the US Sailing Navy, but sailors needed kits, too!  And it has been a while since I last studied this, so don’t test me; I probably can’t recite everything from memory, any more)

Now, one of the things to remember is that, until the last century or so, a soldier’s “kit” was largely theoretical. Some bureaucrat somewhere would write up a list of what was supposed to be in a soldier’s kit and set a budget (usually below what was actually needed) for obtaining these supplies; some lesser bureaucrat elsewhere would receive the money to put these kits together, skim some of it off the top, and then toss it down the chain. Each toss down the chain to the next layer of government usually meant less money for each kit, to the point that soldiers and sailors rarely received much the kit they were assigned.

But, for the sake of our sanity, let’s talk about what was SUPPOSED to be issued to soldiers and sailors throughout the various eras we have records for… and we have records, in some cases, dating back to Roman times.  Sometimes the government paid for these kits, sometimes the soldier or sailor were responsible for paying for these things themselves; sometimes the kit was required to fit a uniform standard and design, and sometimes the soldier or sailor (or, especially, feudal lords\knights) could customize or fit themselves out on their own, and sometimes some things were provided and you had to pay for others.  Usually, the only ‘advantage’ of paying for your own kit is the ability to customize things.

Regardless, whether you were a Roman Soldier or a member of the modern military, there are several things which are common to every soldier’s (or sailor’s) kits:

Some form of weaponry.  Whether that’s swords, spears, bows and arrows, or firearms, you would get a weapon (sometimes more than one).  At times in history, the weapons would not actually be issued with the kit, but handed out right before battle; regardless a weapon of some type should be considered part of the kit.

Body armor.  Note that this isn’t always a part of your kit; early Roman infantry soldiers wore none to increase speed and ease of movement (and as a cost-cutting measure), though later on various different types of armor were developed and issued.  Sailors from the Napoleanic era certainly didn’t wear armor into battle (though Spanish officers sometimes did).  Frequently, armor was something the soldier would have to pay for out of his own pocket (or get docked out of his pay), as it often had to be custom-fit to the person wearing it.  Today, soldiers are usually issued body armor (bulletproof vests) as part of their kit, though occasionally soldiers may purchase “civilian” gear if the issued equipment is defective or insufficient and replacement gear is slow to arrive (this is technically not permitted in the US Army, but the rule has been relaxed and\or ignored at various times of crisis).

An “entrenching tool” (aka, a shovel) were part of most soldiers kits (though not most sailors, as you obviously aren’t going to be digging through your wooden ship’s decking; in its place, however, sailors were issued tools for splicing rope or similar Naval tasks).  A soldier needed his shovel to be able to dig out camp latrines, dig in temporary fortifications and trenches, and more.  Plus, they could work as a backup weapon in a pinch.

Usually, soldiers were also issued clothing.  This could be something as simple as basic livery to go over your armor, or multiple types of uniform for use in different times of the year and on different occasions.  This can include not just the obvious uniform pieces, but also things like socks, shoes, underwear, belts, etc.

A water containment device (whether that’s a waterskin, a canteen, or something else).

Cooking gear of some sort.  You might not have the tools for gourmet cooking on hand, but some way to build a fire and hold food over that fire is quite handy.  You also need some method of eating food given to you, so a bowl for soups and stews, a spoon, a knife, a fork if they’ve been invented… that kind of thing.

An axe or saw for cutting wood.  Because you need some way of getting fuel for those cooking fires.

A satchel\backpack\bag of some kind.  Because you’ve got a lot of gear you need to carry around.

Bedding.  This could be anything from just a simple blanket to a full-on kit for a tent, a sleeping bag, a rain tarp, and more.  The most original bit of bedding kit I recall is from the American Civil War, where soldiers were each issued HALF of a two-person tent; if your buddy lost his gear, you were out of luck.

Frequently, sewing supplies were a part of a soldier’s kit.  Soldiers and sailors were responsible for the maintenance of their clothing, so having a needle and thread were handy.  Plus, it gave you something to do in your downtime.  Macramé may popularly be thought to have its origins in the fringe work of arabic carpets, and in modern times is often stereotypically found in some hippie peacenik fashions, but making it was an extremely popular hobby among 17th, 18th, and 19th century sailors.

Finally, most soldiers starting out get a small supply of consumables — some hard tack biscuits or similar emergency rations, a half-a pint of rum a day (usually watered down into grog on shipboard), gunpowder when needed to support a black powder weapon, oils for maintaining equipment, soaps for keeping clean, etc.  How regularly these consumables were replaced (or whether they were replaced at all) varied from army to army.

Specific parts of the military might get special items, as well.  For example, if you were in the horse cavalry, you’d probably get special gear for your horse (while I know this is true, I’m fuzzy on the particulars of what would be issued).  Scouts might be issued some form of looking glass (binoculars, special sights, etc.).  Etc.

Of course, even if the military provides all of that, there were still things soldiers and sailors loved to add to their kit whenever possible.  Games (such as chess sets), cards, small musical instruments, and other material designed for entertainment were often more of a necessity than the shovels, cooking gear, and spare underwear, but rarely would any government service give them to their soldiers for free.

And if you’re a writer, you may need to add a few more unusual items to the kit, depending on genre.  I mean, if you’re writing a sword and sorcery, any magical characters may require certain components for ammo.  In certain science fiction universes (think Star Trek), some sort of portable sensor (think tricorder) would likely be a part of your kit.  That sort of thing.

As a writer, you may never need to let your readers know everything that’s in your fictional character’s kit, but it’s generally a good idea to keep track of the resources your character has as a writer.  Otherwise, you might wind up in a situation where your character has a ridiculous number of little-used items (like, say, Bat Shark-Repellant) that can turn the whole thing into a joke.  And it’s a good idea to get some idea of how much a soldier can store on themselves — it’s probably more than you think, but less than you want — while composing your characters’ kits.

Of course, like every other bit of writing advice you might receive, it’s not a hard and fast rule.  After all, the 1960s Batman is still a popular cultural icon, Bat Shark-Repellant and all…

Edit:  Comments closed due to multiple spam attempts.  E-mail me if you want it re-opened.

Ravencon Panels (I’m Not Doing): Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?

This is the third in my series of blogs on panels at Ravencon I’m NOT doing.  For further explanation, see my earlier blog here.

WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR IDEAS FROM?

When people find out my mother is a professional art quilter, they almost always say, “Oh!  My grandmother was a quilter!”  And maybe they’ll follow that up with something about patchwork scraps or the like.  Note that my mother uses computer-aided design, state-of-the-art quilting machines, laser-guidance, and all kinds of things your average grandmother-the-quilter would never bother using for a hand-stitched patchwork quilt (nor would my mother, for that matter; they’d be unnecessary).  My mother usually gives some form of “smile and nod” type response, knowing there is no real comparison between what she does and that.

As a writer, there are certain things you hear all the time that the best response is a similar “smile and nod.”  Among them are “Oh, I’d like to write a book some day.  My memoirs would be fascinating!” (The people who live lives interesting enough to make good memoirs are often too busy living those lives to think about writing them) and “Oh, you wrote a book?  Anything I might have read?” (How would we know?  Usually, we don’t even know these people well enough to know whether they read at all, much less if they might possibly have read anything we wrote).

Another question we often have to deal with in the topic of this Ravencon panel:  “Where do you get your ideas?”  And often, as a writer, the answer is a smile, a nod, and some pithy nonsense answer.  Sometimes we’ll expound on it, and yes, following whatever we suggest WILL (usually) give you some ideas.

But here’s the thing:  If you’ve been writing for a while (like I have, and most writers who’ve published have), coming up with new ideas isn’t the problem.  The problem is we have so many ideas that it’s impossible to get around to them all, and usually coming up with an answer to that question gives us even more.

Because ideas come from everywhere, and are in everything we do.  Do you want to know where the ideas have come from for things I’ve written (published and not published)?

  1. I was in the sixth grade.  Inspired by a character from the Danny Dunn books, I challenged some kids in my class to give me a word, any word, and I’d give them a story around it.  The word they gave me was eyeballs.  I gave them a story involving mutant eyeballs taking over the town.  Sadly, like everything else I wrote in my school years, it was lost (at least the handwritten stuff, like this thing; the schools were supposed to keep permanent records of everything I wrote that would follow me from elementary to junior high to high school.  Come high school, my file was “misplaced.”  Shame, that — while none of it was usable at all, some of it might have been worth saving to re-visit some day).
  2. Back when I was in high school, I had a teacher that said “You cannot write from a 1st person omniscient perspective.”  I suddenly felt challenged to write a story in the first person omniscient perspective whose main character was a mind reader.  (This resulted in a short piece, almost flash, that I still plan to publish if I ever find somewhere for it… but it’s far too small to publish on its own, and I have nothing to group it with)
  3. I was in a college.  I had been assigned to read Oedipus Rex for a class.  This was the fourth or fifth time I was being required to read this “classic” piece of dreck.  I heard for the first time, however (and I’ve never bothered to confirm it) that the three plays that are the current “Oedipus Trilogy” are actually the only three survivors of a set of NINE plays (3 interconnected trilogies).  So, to try and get myself through reading the play again, I used it as research for a new prequel (perhaps explaining just why the gods entrapped Jocasta and Oedipus so horribly).
  4. A discussion about whether axes would really be a good weapon for stock-fantasy-race Dwarves, and if so why (and\or in what situations), and if not what really would be a good weapon for them.  This contributed to In Treachery Forged (but was not the sole idea behind that story).
  5. Back before self-publishing became viable (or at least before I recognized the opportunity), I was trying to go for a traditional publishing deal.  I used many tools to find possible places to submit my books and short stories, including a book (the Writer’s Marketplace) which listed what genres each publisher was looking for.  There was one particular publisher which noted they mostly did non-fiction, but they did publish four novels each year “focusing on caves and spelunking.”  I came up with an idea for a story of a fictional cave — whose layout and general location would be based on a composite of the three or four different caves I have been spelunking in — that had been involved in numerous incidents over the millennia (a prehistoric man’s home, a refuge during the civil war, a boy scout-esque educational trip, and more), the cave itself unchanging.  Unfinished; as a compilation of short stories (I’m even slower in the short form than I am writing novels) it’s a slog.  I haven’t given up on it, but it’s very low priority.
  6. I saw one too many anime and cartoons where characters existed who had hair over their eyes.  I started wondering why someone would have that hairstyle.  (Inspiration for Euleilla from In Treachery Forged)
  7. As I’ve said before, The Kitsune Stratagem came about because I ran into too many people who were saying “Elves and Dwarves are so overplayed!  If I see another book with an elf in it I’m going to throw it across the room!” (and similar sentiments).  I figured I’d see just how overplayed it came across if I tried a similar story to one I would have written using Elves and Dwarves and Dragons. but instead substituted in other types of fantastical creatures (in this case, Kitsune and Wulvers and Bunyips, oh my!)
  8. I was watching some long-forgotten TV show where there was a discussion of sawed-off shotguns.  I started wondering what the fantasy equivalent would be.  The resulting story will be appearing in the upcoming World’s Enough anthology, due to be published in time for a launch party at Balticon (May 26-29).  Since I’m not the one who set that schedule, there’s a slim chance it’ll actually be released on time.
  9. Getting a bit silly, and instead of saying the phrase “he brought a knife to a gun fight” I replaced it with “he brought a trebuchet to a sword fight.”  Something unfinished and put off for a while, but maybe I’ll get around to it some time.
  10. I wanted a non-stereotypical hero (think someone like Porkins in Star Wars) in a space-based science fiction novel.  I wrote about half of it before I learned that my plot was almost identical to Night Train to Rigel.  (Well, maybe it was Slow Train to Arcturus.  I always mix those two up)  I liked what I had, but I decided I needed to re-plot the whole thing, so it’s waiting for a while.
  11. I was watching a hockey game, and started wondering how hockey would be played in space.  That was the origin of the Rink of War.
  12. While researching the California gold rush (for the Rink of War), I read the story of real-life character Emperor Norton.  I thought about bringing someone like him into a sci-fi boom-town setting.  The result (Emperor Norton II) makes a brief appearance in the Rink of War, but was a central figure in the sequels… of which four are mostly written, but since there was so little interest in the Rink of War itself I’ve abandoned that project.  I may revisit it, some day, retooling the planned series of shorts (short stories, novelettes, and novellas) as a full length novel.

I could go on.  And on.  And on.  My full idea bank of unwritten\unfinished stories (even just the ones I’ve made some effort to plot out or take notes on) would be ten, twenty, a hundred times that long.  So, yeah.  The idea that ideas are hard to come by seems… alien to me.  Which might be why I didn’t sign up for this panel in the first place….

Edit:  Comments closed because of multiple spam attempts.

Ravencon Panels (I’m Not Doing): Daily Life in Fantasy Settings

This is the second part of a blog series about panels on the upcoming Ravencon panels, specifically the ones I didn’t sign up for that nevertheless look interesting.  For a more complete description, see the first post here.

DAILY LIFE IN FANTASY SETTINGS

The (draft version, so if you get a hold of the program book and the description is different, it’s because things have changed between now and then) description of this panel is “Economics, food and where it comes from, spiritual systems, laws – all things that impact our daily lives but often get glossed over in fantasy world-building. Let’s take a deep dive in building daily lives in fantasy worlds.”

This.  Is.  A.  FASCINATING.  Topic.  Had I seen it when the sign-up sheet was sent out, I would have signed up for it in a second (it was easy to miss, mind you — the sign-up sheet included almost five hundred panels, some of which were miscatalogued (there will not be five hundred panels at the convention; about three out of every four panels didn’t make it to the final list).  There were probably other panels I would have loved to do that I missed, but of those that made it to the schedule this is the one I regret not seeing the most).

Now, there is a term in writing fiction called “worldbuilding,” which refers to establishing the rules of your fictional world.  Figuring out the daily life of your characters is all worldbuilding.

There are a lot of factors to consider before you can even start to come up with a character’s daily life.  Is your fantasy novel in a real world setting?  If so, the key is researching what daily life was really like in that setting.  Simple (well, not really, but at least simple to say).  If not, you have several questions you need to answer (because no one else will):

What do you want to use as your fantasy world’s tech base? This is important because it can effect… well, everything.  A Roman-era tech base might give you flush toilets (of a sort) but you might not have had pasta (as we understand it today, anyway).  A medieval farmer would practice crop rotation; that is, he would have his farmland divided into three sections, one left fallow while the other two grew different crops; a Roman-era farmer also practice crop rotation, but would only have two fields (one fallow, one with a single crop).  An early-mid 20th century farmer would still be practicing crop rotation, with any number of different crop fields and nothing left fallow, but in some of those fields he would be growing crops that he knows would restore the nutrients in the soil (thanks, George Washington Carver!)  A late 20th century farmer might, however, move on from crop rotation to use specially formulated fertilizers that would do roughly the same thing.

In my fantasy books, I want as much flexibility as possible, so I generally have a policy that any technology is fair game… unless it requires electricity, modern chemistry, or gunpowder to discover it and\or make it work.  This means I can have characters using flush toilets after eating a large pasta dinner, if I want.  But I could also restrict myself to only those technologies that were available in specific places during specific eras… which means I might have a culture that could eat pasta, but then would have to go in the woods rather than at a flush toilet.

Is your fantasy world in a dark ages (or has it recently emerged from a dark ages)?  Then it’s possible that your characters might be required to live one way, but might find or use artifacts from a more advanced version of their same culture.

I use this in my own books; the world of The Kitsune Stratagem is still emerging from a dark age society, and a lot of technology (and the entire field of magic, but we’ll discuss that later) has been lost and is slowly being re-discovered; for example, they have ancient roads they’re trying to maintain, but until recently they didn’t know how they were built in the first place.  Towards the end of In Forgery Divided I show that my (other) fantasy world has also experienced a dark age, and while the events that caused it ended some time before there is still evidence of it:  The characters have to travel using transportation from an ancient Dwarven tunnel system… using steam-powered mining carts (which didn’t exist in the real world until the 1830s) that the modern Dwarves aren’t able to re-build.  The only way to get to that system involves a steam-powered lock very similar to something Hero(n) of Alexandria developed for pagan temples in Ancient Rome… a technology that in rea life, from what I can tell, was lost even before the dark ages began.

Technology isn’t the only thing.  Do you have multiple fantasy races?  Is there some degree of inequality between the races (or sexes, or whatever… but that’s trending towards a political discussion, and I want to keep politics off my blog)?  Well, you can justify anything in this regard, if you need to, but you need to make this decision before you start writing.  You can’t go three hundred pages in your book with your male human and your female dwarf fighting side-by-side, drinking together, meeting royalty together, etc. with nary a word about their differences, and then suddenly the inn won’t allow your female dwarf inside because “we don’t serve their kind, here!”  Not unless you’ve moved your characters into a new culture, which might have different rules (but then you need to establish the rules of THAT culture, instead).

Then we start moving into style.  What do things look like in your world?  Borrowing from the real world makes a lot of sense, but takes a lot of research.

Take architecture, for example.  You can’t say a building uses Tudor-style architecture if there were no Tudors in your fantasy world; you need to know the buildings are (usually) waddle-and-daub built into timber frames.  And you need to know the consequence of the material you’re using; if the buildings are built using “pink” bricks, your characters are probably living in an iron-rich area.

Alternatively, you could create your own construction material, but you still need to know some details about how it works.  In the aforementioned In Forgery Divided, I introduce the idea of Ancient Elves making buildings out of giant crystals.  How were these crystals formed?

Well, “magic” could be one way to explain it, but it wouldn’t explain why they STOPPED using crystalline construction.  So instead I decided to look up how artificial crystals were formed in real life. There are several processes, including some that have been turned into educational kits for children, but I needed one that worked for larger crystals.  I found one that required a high-temperature smelter that would be ideal; I didn’t know everything about it, but I did learn enough of the broad strokes to design a similar process… using dragonfire.

Would it really work?  Well, there are no real-life dragons, so that’s hard to say, and I didn’t go into the details in either my study of the real life process or the process I “invented,” but I had enough details to make it plausible.  All you need to do is make the “scientific” process plausible enough that your readers buy it (and your more educated readers don’t complain) and you’re good to go.  Still takes research just to make it plausible, though.

You don’t need to explain everything (though you need to know it, just in case it comes up), but it’s probably a good idea to explain the more exotic details of your world.  And there are a LOT of details to consider:

Architecture (a character living in a two-floor Tudor-style house intended for one family would have different home-life issues than a character living in a communal long-house)

What and how people eat (Victory!  Time to party!  So, what dishes will your heroes likely be served in celebration?  Or how skilled would a spy need to be to infiltrate the castle as a cook?  And do they eat food by hand, using forks, using chopsticks, or something else?)

How everyday people view and enjoy art and music (Tolkien showed this by interspersing ballads — both in English and in his own constructed languages — throughout all his books.  A number of other fantasy writers have followed suit, with mixed results)

What would your hero drink? (not everyone drank just beer or water.  There’s wine (you need an environment where grapes or similar fruits can grow for that), mead (made from honey; means there are bees common in that part of the world, and that honey is cultivated.  Yes, Vikings loved mead, so that meant there must have been Viking beekeepers.  If you just pictured someone in a horned beekeeper’s hat, you probably found that concept as amusing as I did), rice “wine” (arguably more of a beer-process; rice wine would mean rice, which means rice patties, which can effect the terrain and limit or effect the battlefield if armies come marching in), hot chocolate (and the type of hot chocolate; the type of hot chocolate Montezuma served to his guests is more like coffee than the hot chocolate of today), tea (again, has agricultural implications), milk (what type of milk-producing animal is likely to be living in the area, though?)… I could go on.

Government matters, even if your characters never interact with a single member of the government or enforcer of its laws.  A feudal system would affect characters based on their class (like medieval England or Japan; peasants were most likely serfs, which effects their ability to move around legally and means they had little or no money.  That’s not to say there were no freemen, even in feudal times.  Freemen usually had money, businesses, even land and so forth, and could travel at will, but held no titles, and they could lose their rights if they lost their property.  A noble or knight’s retainers might also have social status equal to or greater than normal free men, but again had no hereditary titles.  Knights were both landed and landless, with landless knights (or ronin… well, in very rough equivalencies) having a low status about equal to freemen and landed knights (or samurai) having a high status about equal to a semi-autonomous governor, and then the full-on lords and nobles (or daimyo) who employed the knights (or samurai) and were almost de facto equals in power to the kings, shoguns, and emperors themselves), a republic might change a character’s status with the populace depending on the circumstances of his or her birth (citizens at least theoretically have rights; there are codified laws and a council of some kind — often consisting of citizens — who can make and change those laws.  But these laws usually only applied to citizens; a non-citizen girl might be attracted to a man simply because he is a citizen and can therefore give any offspring they have the rights of citizenship), direct and absolute monarchy\dictatorship (in which case, the bureaucracy that maintains civil order is probably weak… but enforcement of laws that the king cares about is probably swift and strong, because otherwise the king is going to lose power very quickly), a “constitutional” monarchy (which often has some of the same elements as a republic, but may maintain the elements of  social stratification of the feudal system), or… well, democracies DID exist (see ancient Athens) but, outside of Athens itself, rarely survived for very long in the Ancient world.

What industry supports the village\city your characters are in?  It may be easy enough to come up with a job your character does in the village, but villages don’t usually sprout up in the middle of nowhere.  Were they founded in a militarily strategic location (and if so, why was this site strategic militarily?)  Are they a fishing village (means a waterfront)?  Are they a farming village (in which case the decision on the government matters, because farms with a bunch of serfs or slaves to maintain them can grow different crops than a single farmer overseeing a field he owns and runs himself)?  Are they centered around a specific natural resource (gold, iron, silver, etc.  Heck, several of the more wealthy cities in prehistory were centered around salt, believe it or not; a phenomenon that continued for millennia)?  Were they formed as a trading outpost along a major trade route (in which case, what is being traded)?  Etc.

Religion.  Your characters will have some.  Is your culture monotheistic, polytheistic, anamistic, spiritualistic, etc., etc.  Do they worship at central temples or in home-based shrines?  Atheism would probably not be the norm in a fantasy setting (although there may be some other form of “ism” if, in your fantasy world, your characters believe there was a god but he is dead).  Are there holy days, sacred rites, etc.  If you bury a body, what is the method of the funeral?  In fantasy novels, these sorts of questions come up all the time.  Even if you don’t need them for a story element, it helps to have an idea of what sort of religions your characters practice to determine their motivations (a scene where my characters are appealing to their god(s) or otherwise worshiping in their religions has never come up in either of my fantasy series; that said, I have several details in mind about what the religions are like in both of them, whenever one of my characters must face a moral choice.  So if the religious practices of these characters ever come up, I’m covered)

Fashion.  Even soldiers and mercenaries didn’t walk around in armor all the time; when not in armor, did your fantasy civilization wear tunics and pants?  Togas?  Kilts?  Kimono?  Do your characters typically wear hats (a common uniform component, even when not part of armor)?  Are these clothes made of wool, cotton, silk, linen, leather, or something else (don’t ask.  Well, if you really need to know)?  Learn the properties of these cloth types, and how they may cause your characters problems (or how to avoid turning them into problems, if you want to streamline things); linen wrinkles easily, wool would typically be uncomfortable in hot environments, cotton and silk have environmental challenges, and leather requires a lot of maintenance.

How cosmopolitan is your society?  Your hero may live in a trading town of Tudor-style buildings, drinking lingonberry wine, eating stew, wearing a buckskin leather hunting outfit while trying to come up with a law proposal for the town council, but if a stranger wearing a kilt, with the smell of mead on him, comes into the room offering to sell him a ton of his liege lord’s chalk, how strange will your hero think this guy is?

Does your world have magic?  If so, how would that change the way your world has developed.  Is the prevalence of magic the only reason no-one ever developed gunpowder or electricity?  Is magic fairly common, or incredibly rare?  Are people who use magic feared, hated, beloved, worshiped?  Is magic used for everyday things like cooking, cleaning, etc. (after all, we’re talking “daily life” here), or is it only ever used in exceptional circumstances?  How does magic even WORK in this world?

I’m sure there are things I haven’t thought of (in fact, I’m sure of it; I’m posting this blog a day late, and there were things I was thinking of including last night that I can’t think of right now).  The key thing is that, to come up with a daily life for your characters, you must think everything through, and make sure the decisions you’ve made work together.  A person living in a desert is unlikely to eat fish all that often, unless he’s on the coast.  A religion that makes the displaying naked bodies taboo would be very hard to work with inside of a communal longhouse (where EVERYTHING is done publicly.  Yes, even that!).

And if you’ve made it this far, through all the walls of text, you’ve… just barely scratched the surface of what you need to think about for daily life in a fantasy novel.  It’s a big, broad topic, probably worth a whole series of blog posts on its own.  Enough that there are whole books on the topic.

A few recommendations for further reading:

(For Free)

Roman Dress

Sengoku Daimyo

Rosalie’s Medieval Woman

The Viking Answer Lady

(For Bookstores\Libraries)

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diane Wynne Jones

What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank: A Fantasy Lovers Food Guide by Krista D. Ball

Lobscouse and Spotted Dog:  A Gastronomic Companion to the Aubrey\Maturin Novels

Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders: A Writer’s (and Editor’s) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, and Myths

1001 Inventions That Changed the World by Jack Challoner

The Prairie Traveler: The 1859 Handbook for Westbound Pioneers by Randolph B. Marcy

Old-Time Farm and Garden Devices and How to Make Them by Rolfe Cobleigh

Book of Old-Time Trades and Tools

And many, many more.  These are just the things I could find on my shelves or in my bookmarks after a few minutes of checking.  If I really wanted to make a comprehensive list, I would have hundreds of bookmarks and thousands of books listed.

Like I said… maybe this is a topic that deserves a whole series of blogs on its own.

Edit:  Comments closed due to spam attempts.

Ravencon Panels (I’m Not Doing): Imposter Syndrome

INTRODUCTION TO THIS SERIES OF BLOGS

This blog has been dead for a while — largely because I’ve been too busy, but now I’m having trouble getting into the habit, again.

Ravencon (which, if you’ve missed the last several blogs, I’ve been invited to appear as a guest; note that other conventions only use the term “guest” for the Guest of Honor, in which case this role would instead be referred to as an “attending professional” or something similar) is coming up in a month and a half.

There was a limit to the number of panels I was allowed to sign up for (they wanted guests to pick a minimum of four panels and a maximum of ten).  I looked up some advice for first-time guests, and one overarching point I saw was not to take it easy.  So, I signed up for six panels… but also provided about nine possible alternates.  As it turns out, it looks as if four of these fifteen panels were cut, and four more were merged into other similar panels I’d signed up for… and I’ve wound up, in this draft of the schedule, having seven panels.  Heh.

At any rate, in addition to the panels I signed up for, there were quite a number which I was very interested in but which didn’t make the cut (either because I figured I wasn’t the right person for the panel, didn’t know enough, or I just had too many panels I was already planning to do).  And some of the topics in the draft schedule I was sent look more interesting now than when the sign-up sheet went up.  At any rate, it occured to me I could solve my “dead blog” problem by writing posts on those panels I’m NOT going to be doing at Ravencon.  (And then maybe, after Ravencon is over, I’ll do some blogs on those panels I DID cover… but we’ll see how things go.

THE TOPIC AT HAND:  IMPOSTER SYNDROME

So, for this week, a topic I probably wouldn’t have signed up for even if I’d had no limitations for sign up, but which I figure I’ll be fighting against for a lot of these blog posts and maybe even some of the panels I’m signed up for:  Imposter Syndrome.

To begin with, Imposter Syndrome is not currently classified as a psychosis, neurosis, or any other type of mental disease.  It’s perfectly normal.  According to Wikipedia, it is:

“…a concept describing high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.”

As an author, I follow a lot of other authors, and one thing I can say is that most of us (myself included) suffer from at least a mild form of this phenomenon.  So, by the way, do musicians, painters, and quilters (hi, mom!), and artists of all other types.

It shows up in all kinds of ways, and sometimes you can recognize it in yourself.  This very post has an example of it (and, in fact, that is why I chose Imposter Syndrome as the first topic in this series).  You notice how I made that clarification that being a “guest” at Ravencon was more like a “attending professional” at other conventions (even though “guest” is just as common, if not a more common, title for what that role is)?  It’s because I’m afraid people will see me say I’m a guest at a convention and think I’m claiming to be more than I am.  That is a practical example of mild Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome manifests in a number of ways.  For example, JUST related to things that will come up in the next couple months:

  1. I’m going to be a panelist at Ravencon.  I’m just this self-published author with three novels, a single short work, and a couple still-in-production works to my name.  Am I really enough of an expert to justify my selection as a convention guest?  (The answer, I know intellectually, is yes; even though the number of title I have written is low, I’m also constantly educating myself in the fields of writing, self-publishing, etc.  I know for a fact that I’m more of an expert in the field of self-publishing better than several self-publishing “experts” I’ve encountered at various conventions in the past.  But there is still that doubt…)
  2. I’ve been accepted into an anthology (the title will be World’s Enough: Fantastic Defenders).  I was given back some editorial comments, though, and a deadline of the end of February to get the rewrites in.  Then I broke a tooth.  Even though I’d been told I could ask for more time if I needed it (and even though everything else on this anthology has run late, so far), I was terrified to ask for an extension of just a few days after I broke my tooth and found myself unable to work on it at the worst possible time.  If I’m more trouble than I’m worth, will they just drop me and go with one fewer story?  (Of course, I got the extension, no problem.  But now I’m worried that I didn’t do enough with the changes to make my editor happy after having gotten that extension)
  3. I’m trying pretty hard to get one more book out there before Ravencon (The Merrimack Event, in this case).  I’d hoped to have at least five books out, but I’m struggling to make it to four.  I may not make it at all (at this point, it depends on factors outside my control; namely, the cover art), but with every new release — especially for a new series, and in a new genre — I have to wonder if the success I had with my first book will carry over.  I may have 4+ stars on both Amazon and Goodreads for all my books, but I still have this fear people will read the new book and think “Oh, look — this guy’s just an amateur after all!”  (stay tuned for this one)
  4. Saying “I’m bringing back the Weekly Sunday Blog Post” and then never remembering that it’s Sunday to write a blog, or having any topics in mind to write about when I try (although I have ideas, now, and I’m remembering to do it this Sunday).  The fact that I almost NEVER get comments on this blog hurts (even if I do get the occasional comment on Facebook or Twitter).

So… yeah.  Some of these things actually help fight the Imposter Syndrome (someone at Ravencon must think my resumé is strong enough to be acceptable as a “professional,” at a minimum.  I was accepted into the anthology, regardless of the editorial work needed.  I’m actually getting books out, even if not at the pace I’d like, and most of them do have good sales early on and good reviews the longer they sell.  Etc.) at the same time that they hurt.  Imposter Syndrome is funny that way.

So, how do you combat Imposter Syndrome?  You want to overcome that under-confidence that makes you feel like a fraud, but not get so cocky you annoy your fans and turn people off, or start ignoring your editors, or let your books go out before they’re ready, etc.

I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t know if there are any specific treatments or therapies being developed for it.  I do know that it’s an irrational fear.  Like most irrational fears, it takes a while to overcome.  Genuine moments of success (such as selling new books, being invited as a guest at a convention, etc.) help. Positive feedback (aka good reviews) help.  But ultimately?  It’s something you have to work through yourself.

You just have to be sure you never let those fears prevent you from doing the things you need to do for your job.  Don’t knock yourself down too much, don’t stop yourself from applying to be a convention guest or releasing that next book because you’re not sure you’re good enough, etc.

In other words, don’t let your fears go to your head.

Lessons Learned From Ravencon

As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, here is everything (new) I learned from the panels and workshops at Ravencon. Before we begin, however, a little bit about how I’m going to do this:

Some of the “lessons learned” weren’t in things anyone said, but were more conclusions drawn by putting a little of what person A said, a little of what person B said, and my own experiences together, which might make it hard to properly attribute.  Besides, I didn’t properly attribute everything in my notes (hey, I couldn’t even remember who some of the speakers WERE without a program book, and I would have lost valuable information looking them up). So… sorry, but I’m not going to identify just which panel or panelist inspired these “lessons.”  Still, I’d recommend reading my Ravencon Recap to get a list of the panelists from whom these lessons were derived.

I.  On Marketing

A lot of the things that I heard from this convention on marketing were things I already knew, but maybe haven’t thought to mention on this blog before.

For example, an emphasis was made on doing things in what I would call the “set-up phase” of getting your eBook ready.  By this I mean things like making sure you add the right keywords to get in the most categories on Amazon and making sure you set up your Author Central page on Amazon (the guest who said this pointed out that he’d checked the author pages for the guests at Ravencon, and roughly two thirds of the authors attending had never filled out this page.  This is something to do even if you’re trad-pubbed, guys!).

One thing I did not know about this involved the keywords.  I knew you could get your ebook into more Amazon categories with the right keywords in the KDP set-up process, but I didn’t know that worked with Createspace as well, and you could use the keywords with your Createspace books to get you into even more categories.

I also didn’t know how many categories you could get a single book into — one of the panelists pointed out that he had his book in over fifteen different categories on Amazon.

I will note that the panelist who gave this example said the keywords you need to get into specific niche categories were listed on Amazon, but I don’t think that’s a complete listing — at any rate, I’m still not sure what specific keyword got The Kitsune Stratagem into the Science Fiction & Fantasy > Fantasy > Myths & Legends > Asian category.

Another phrase I heard that I already knew (and recent experience says is pretty true) is that the best marketing you can do for Book I is to release Book II.  Now, I also know it’s kind of hard to do that if you haven’t written Book II, yet, so I was hoping for a little more advice on what to do in the interim.

Several panelists emphasized keeping up with your social media — your Facebook feed, your Twitter page, your home page, your blog (heh).  You need to be sure to not just spam your followers with “Buy my book!” type posts, but rather try to engage them with interesting posts on whatever subject matter you can — politics, cats, the paranormal, etc., and anything else that might interest the people you’re marketing to.

Blogging about writing and publishing isn’t enough (again, something I knew, but I couldn’t think of what else to focus this blog around), because then you’re marketing to other writers.  I came to the conclusion I’m just too boring for social media marketing, as most of the posts I have are either on writing or are “buy my book” type posts.  I don’t want to talk about politics, I have no interest in the paranormal, and I don’t have any cats.  And even if I did have cats, I’m too lousy of a photography to take funny pictures of them, as my pictures from the first Ravencon recap likely demonstrate.  What can you do?  I apologize to my fans for boring you all.  Sorry.

Several panelists discussed the boost (or lack thereof) in sales that giving your book away or offering some books for free can give you.  A lot of things were said, but I think the point that newer authors shouldn’t go this route (it’s entirely ineffective if you don’t have much of anything for people who liked the free book to buy when they’re done) is a good one.  On the other hand, if you have a long series, making the first book free can help… though even this is of limited worth, especially considering how long a series has been out.

One suggestion regarding the free book path that I thought made a lot of sense, though, is — instead of making the first book free — you release an entirely new prequel book that you make free, with the hope the readers of that book will move on to the completed series.  That way, you get both the “new release” buzz and the “free book” buzz.

I also heard a call for joining professional organizations, because they can offer networking opportunities and marketing opportunities you just won’t find anywhere else.  Also, for some of these organizations, being eligible to join is proof you can show to the outside world that you’ve sold a certain number of books.

I’m a bit dubious of joining the SFWA, though if I did join one it would be that one.  Once they opened the doors to self-publishers who could demonstrate certain sales figures, I was eligible through the sales of “In Treachery Forged” (and In Forgery Divided, while selling at a rate a little slower than its predecessor, should cross that same threshold this month, barring a very sudden and dramatic decline in the sales).

I’m still thinking about it.  While I’m dubious about whether such an organization has any value to self-publishers, outside of the “proof my books sell” label, there were a few pilot programs mentioned that sound like they might be useful.  Things like a program to help people who use crowdfunding platforms when launching their books.

If any of my readers are current SFWA members, contact me — I have a few questions that the “Ask SFWA” panel didn’t sound willing to answer.

One self-published writer noted that being a guest at a convention was good promotion for their book, as well (something I’ve long suspected, but had no proof of).   She said that sales for her books jumped higher than they ever had, before, once she was announced as a guest at Ravencon.  Well, I’ve started applying to be a guest at several conventions (though, as I said before, I was too late for this year’s Ravencon, or really any 2016 conventions), so hopefully I’ll be able to tell you how true this is soon.

There was some talk about “swag.”  In this case, swag refers to bookmarks, postcards, and that kind of thing, which can be given away at conventions (like Ravencon) and bookstores as promotional material.  Now I’ve heard from other sources that bookmarks and postcards are increasingly useless, with so many authors trying to be discovered using them that they appear to be nothing more than litter.

However, some forms of re-usable swag (t-shirts, tote bags, tumblers, that sort of thing) can still be good advertising, if done right — giving them away for free (or even charging for them, if you can find buyers) may target only one customer, but then everyone who wears those T-shirts or carries those tote bags displays the logo, website address, book cover, etc., just like a billboard.

Providing enough free t-shirts or tote bags for an entire convention would get pretty expensive (Ravencon requires a minimum of 600 copies of an item to include it in their swag bag.  At $14.14 per t-shirt (drawn from the bulk pricing estimate at Cafepress; you might find it cheaper elsewhere, but it’s a good enough number for this estimate) that’s well over $8000), but having a few made to give away at an event like a book signing, or offering some branded gear for sale on your website, can be worth a little expense.  (Whether you make back your money from that level of advertising is another question, but it does work)

Another interesting piece of “swag” was a small excerpt, eleven pages long, of J.T. Bock’s The Grandfather Paradox.  It’s something that might have been made by your local Kinko’s or UPS Store, or even by the author herself using a laser printer and a long-arm stapler.  The last page of this chapbook has the text “Find out what happens next!  Get a FREE ebook of A Grandfather Paradox short story.  Go to www.JTBock.com and sign up for the ezine.”  I don’t know how many sales this has generated for the author, but this is something that someone would be far more likely to pay attention to than a simple bookmark, and if you can keep the costs down by DIYing it, you might find it cheaper than purchasing a set of bookmarks.

Another thing that was discussed was cross-promotion.  By this, I mean having several authors work jointly to market their books to each others fanbases.  In my earlier Self-Publishing Roundtable post on marketing, I did discuss the theory of this type of promotion as one of the more effective (in concept, at least).  In that article, I mostly was considering the idea of anthologies, but that was the limit to what I really thought of.  At Ravencon, the idea of sharing your backmatter advertising space with other indie authors (some above you in the genre rankings, others below you, all providing quid-pro-quo for the other authors) was proposed.  It sounds intriguing enough I might just try it, next time.

Finally, there were several mentions of getting reviews out for your book.  Enough points were raised it deserves a topic of its own.

II.  On Reviews

“The hardest thing to do in publishing is getting people to review.”  (Since that’s a direct quote, I’ll note that it was Chris Kennedy who said that line).  In my experience, this is true — in terms of “natural” (unsolicited) reviews, it seems less than 0.75% of the people who purchase my books review them (it used to be 1%, but the older my books have gotten the smaller that percentage has become).  When it comes to solicited reviews, I gave away signed several signed print copies of The Kitsune Stratagem in exchange for a promise that the people getting them would give me a honest review in exchange.  Less than 25% of the people who took this offer actually provided a review of any kind.

So, I went to the conference hunting for suggestions on how to get more customer reviews.  I’m not so sure I heard anything I hadn’t tried, before (at least, not that I currently have the connections and\or other resources to try) but I did hear a few other things about reviews which either add to or contradict what I’ve heard before.

To begin with, I heard that the fantasy genre (which all of my currently published books are in) is one of the hardest to get reviews in.  I didn’t hear any explanation as to why that might be, but it seems to agree with the reality I’ve heard from authors in other genre.

Fortunately, reviews aren’t quite as important as I originally believed.  Amazon’s algorithms (Amazon has several algorithms that help an author sell something; some are used to determine sales rank, others to determine your book’s also-bot mentions, others are used to determine how much free promotion they provide, others are used to determine where your book appears in Amazon’s search engine relative to other books with a similar title… and there are probably others as well) are not as reliant on the number of reviews as much as they are by how they’re weighted.  Reviews are weighted based on how many people vote a review as being useful (or not useful), how old the review is, whether a review comes from a verified purchaser or not, and so forth.

In other words, even if you don’t write reviews, it can help support the writer to click “this review is helpful” on positive reviews.

Where the number of reviews is still important is in getting into promotional websites.  Bookbub (while it doesn’t say so on its website) and Pixel of Ink, generally regarded as the two most effective promotional websites, won’t accept your book for promotion until you get at least 20 reviews.   Ereadernewstoday has a minimum of 10.   Book Blast requires 5.  These are but a few examples where the quantity is more important than the quality of the reviews you get.

While the discussion did not come up at Ravencon, a few things said by the panelists have me looking more into the value of editorial reviews.  Editorial reviews do not get submitted to Amazon in the same way as customer reviews; they are solicited, and even “best practice” includes a fee for the service (paid for either by the author, in self-publishing, or the publisher, for some trad-pub.  I’ve heard that the prices are cheaper for trad-pub, but I can’t be sure about that).  These are the sorts of reviews journals that libraries and other bookstores look at when deciding whether to buy your book. You pay them, they write a review, and you can include a quote or two in a special section (at Amazon’s Author Central, they have a section for entering these called, curiously enough, “Editorial Reviews.”  This section is even open for trad-pub authors to add such reviews.)

Createspace offers one such editorial review service, itself, but it’s far too expensive (Kirkus; as I once mentioned in a past blog post, this is a once quite reputable review journal that went bankrupt and was bought out, and now makes its money by gouging authors for such reviews, though they do seem to be maintaining their good reputation when they deal with trad-pub).  There may be better such services, however; after hearing a few writers talk about this, I’m thinking of experimenting with one or two I know of.  If I do (still a big if), I’ll get back to you on how effective they seem to be.

III.  Story Ideas

Of course, there was more to the convention than lessons for self-publishing.

I’ve decided I need a mascot.  Too many authors have started carrying around there own mascots (dragons, treecats, buffalitos, etc.), and I have too many potential mascots in my own books (foxes, dragons, and other creatures) to ignore this trend.

An intriguing discussion of “sciences not used in science fiction” (which was really “well, everything has been done at least once, but these are far less common sciences featured in science fiction”) gave me an idea for an anthology or collection of stories featuring, well, sciences not commonly featured in the harder forms of science fiction.  Library sciences, linguistics, historians, anthropologists, geologists, meteorologists (in a non-climatological sense; there’s been a recent spate of “Cli-Fi” (Climatologically-messaged science fiction) which has become more common, but other aspects of a meteorologist’s job are still largely ignored), etc.

A tip for con-goers:  Even if you plan to do all of your dining in the hotel restaurant, bring along at least one meal you can safely store in your room that’s grab-and-go.  Even if it’s just the fixings for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  That way, if you get talked into going to a panel that takes over the window of time you scheduled for yourself to get your dinner, you’re less likely to miss another panel you want to attend to make up for it.  I usually bring drinks and snacks, but I REALLY could have used a sandwich that Saturday night.

And I’ll conclude with one more tip for the con-goer:  If you’re going to take notes on the panels you attend, it’s so much easier to keep them on your laptop than to try and type them on your iPod or tablet device.  And those notes can be really helpful when you’re trying to write your blog on the lessons you learned at the convention.  And it’s really a good idea to remember to take that laptop with you… even on the first day of the convention.  (Oops)

Ravencon 2016 Recap

So, I’m back from Ravencon this year. It was utterly exhausting. I enjoyed myself quite a lot, met a lot of interesting people, learned a few things, and made it home safe.  Here’s a recap of how things went:

THE TRIP TO WILLIAMSBURG

I drove from my home in Ashburn, Va down to Williamsburg — normally a 2½ hour drive.  My GPS said it would be 2½ hours.  It wound up taking considerably longer.

First, my GPS decided to send me on a stressful detour through the side streets of another town a half-hour away before getting me onto the highway.  This was completely unneccesary, and I still haven’t figured out why it did this.

Now, I was listening to the radio as I drove; sports radio (this sports station was the only remotely acceptable radio station I’d be able to listen to for most of the trip) broadcasting out of a sports bar ten minutes away from my home.  Just as the broadcast was going to a commercial break, one of the broadcasters gave the startled shout of “Was that an earthquake?” (Commercial starts seconds later).

Um… what?  I waited until I was stopped at a stoplight and called my mother, who lives in that area, and asked if she’d had an earthquake.  She said it certainly seemed like it, as the house had rumbled and was shaking.  (As it turns out, the USGS did NOT record an Earthquake in our area.  We have talked it out, investigated local news reports, etc., and still don’t know what happened, but it was something that resembled an Earthquake hit the local area).

Then I landed in stop-and-go traffic.  This was unusual because, even though it was Friday, I had timed the start of my trip to avoid the worst of the traffic (evening, rush hour, even on a Friday, usually starts mid-afternoon; I picked a time before then, but after the morning rush hour was supposed to have ended.  I passed no obvious accidents or construction delays; things were just… slow).

But finally I passed that onto a different stretch of the highway (Interstate 95, if you were curious).  I was in a 70 mph zone (in light traffic), and there was a little spout of rain.  I started my windshield wipers.  These were brand new windshield wipers, installed by my mechanic just days before the convention, and it was doing a great job… at first.  But, about at the midway point between home and the convention, one of the wiper blades popped off.  It sounded like glass breaking (it didn’t; I checked), and then started flopping around and banging on the windshield, still hooked on by a corner.  Startling, and a bit scary, but I was eventually able to pull off to the side of the road and re-connect the wiper blade (as cars buzzed by me on the highway at roughly 80mph).  After that, while I was a bit rattled, it was smooth sailing to the convention.   And I was only an hour later arriving than the GPS said I should be.

THE VENUE

This hotel, the Williamsburg Doubletree, is the newest home for both Marscon and Ravencon.  I wasn’t able to attend Marscon this year (I was struggling to get In Forgery Divided out at the time), so this was my first experience with this hotel.

First impression is that it’s huge, but the layout is a little confusing.  Now, once you get used to it, it makes some sense — there is one convention space wing, which starts with a big ballroom (which, in this case, was being used as the dealer room) and, if you go down a ramp, two additional floors of convention space.  On the bottom floor, you have a pair of auditoriums and various meeting rooms listed by number.  On the top floor, you have more meeting rooms listed by letter.  The confusion is partly caused by the hotel;s signs, which seemed to be saying the rooms listed by number and the rooms listed by letter were on the same floor.  And there were some rooms the signs wouldn’t direct to at all.  And… well, basically, I’m not sure what was going on with them, but they were wrong.

The facilities were in pretty good shape.  I had a slightly crooked bathroom door in my suite, which made it difficult to close, but everything else was far better maintenance-wise than past hotels for these two conventions.  The amenities were nice, and they have a much better brand of coffee and tea than you usually find in hotels.  So, overall, a good location for a convention.

Dining was an issue, however.  They must have been understaffed, because they had the restaurant closed and were feeding people only from the bar.  However, the bar never seemed to have enough workers to satisfy all the customers — they had one waitress, one bartender, one cleaning person, and one person running the orders from the kitchen to the bar and back.  The food was good, but horribly overpriced (more overpriced than it was at either of the two conventions’ previous hotels; I’d budgeted for dining to be comparable to those two, but I wound up spending almost double and wasn’t ordering as much), and service was slow — you had to block out at least an hour and a half, sometimes two hours, if you wanted to be able to eat the meal you ordered.  Room service was even slower (my food arrived cold after I waited nearly an hour and a half for it) and more expensive (they added service and delivery charges, and expected you to tip over that).

There was a dining option — the convention had arranged for a relatively inexpensive “grab and go” menu to be serviced by the hotel.  $4 would get you a burger, $3 for a hot dog, etc.  This food was horrible; the burgers were like sawdust, and I never knew you could make a tasteless hot dog before this.  And even if you were desperate enough to buy these, they weren’t always in stock when they should have been; I tried grabbing these grab and go “meals” four times during the convention, and it was only on Sunday that I found any in the warming trays.

Okay, that was a long rant about the dining, but overall I thought it was a fine hotel.  Lots of convention space, the rooms were great, the amenities were satisfactory, etc.  I’d gladly stay there, again (though I’d bring some of my own food from home)

FRIDAY

Despite all the delays, I made it to the hotel in plenty of time to register (I normally pre-register, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to go until it was too late) and attend the earliest of the programming.  I was focusing on attending panels and workshops which were on writing, self-publishing, and marketing.

So, I started with a panel called “Designing a Cover For Your Self-Published Book,” presented by Chris Kennedy.  Now, I plan to have a seperate post on “Lessons Learned From Ravencon,” so I won’t go into too many details about what I learned from this panel here.  I will say this was a fairly informative panel, but most of what was said was information I already knew.

I was hoping to see Allen Wold during the convention.  He runs a fun and interesting set of writing workshops at several conventions across the East Coast, and worked with me one-on-one to help me with some techniques in self-editing.  I haven’t seen much from him on social media in a while, however, because he’s recently had cataract surgery on both eyes.  Scheduling issues prevented me from attending any of his workshops or readings this convention, but I’d hoped to at least have a chat and see how he was doing.  I never got a chance to talk with him, however — whenever I saw him (and my first chance was right after that last panel) he was always rushing off to do something (in this case, to run his plotting workshop).  I got to wave and say “hi” a few times, but I didn’t really need to ask — I was happy to see him looking hale and hearty following his eye surgery.

The next panel I went to was “Marketing and Branding for Authors,” featuring Baine Kelly, Gail Z. Martin, Alex Matsuo, and Michael A. Ventrella.

I won’t say I learned nothing from this panel, but I did (perhaps) come to the conclusion I’m just too boring for social media marketing.

I don’t have a cat to take silly pictures of, I don’t have a second career worth talking about, and my everyday life is mostly just spent sitting in the basement, writing.  (Or, well, trying to write, at any rate).  I don’t take very good pictures (something you’ll probably notice when you get to the pictures I started taking when I remembered that, oh, yeah, my iPod has a camera).  I cook many of my family dinners, but my style of cuisine is more sloppy-chic than photogenic and I don’t really have that many good recipes.  In other words, the panel advised “talk about something other than your writing,” and the only things I ever seem to be able to talk about is my writing.

(At least I know not to spam “Buy my books” to you all, all the time)

After that was dinner (and my first experience with how slow the restaurant was), and then more panels.  I’m not going to say too much about the next couple I attended save to say I was a bit disappointed by them.  While I was interested in the subject matter, they weren’t especially helpful, and I was starting to wonder if I would get anything out of this convention, after all.

But then I made it to my first ever Eye of Argon reading, and while I didn’t learn much of anything, this was worth the price of admission in and of itself.

For those who are unfamiliar, the Eye of Argon was a horribly-written story published originally in a low-end fanzine in the 1970s that has since been turned into something of a convention party game.  The idea is to read it (in its original form, including pronouncing the words as they are misspelled rather than how they would be if properly spelled) without making mistakes or breaking down laughing.  Not many can achieve this feat.  There is an evolving set of forfiets if you make a mistake (this time, you would have to stop and act out the scenes that were read by the next player) and a small reward for participating.

In a way that just seems totally appropriate for a celebration of such a mistake-ridden piece of fiction, things went wrong before the game even began.  The quick-reference grid guide, the programming guide, the pocket program, and the signs indicating the programming in each room disagreed about where the reading was supposed to take place.  So, if you wanted to go, you had to guess whether it would be in the Small Auditorium, the Large Auditorium, Room E, or… well, I don’t have copies of the room signs to look up where they were directing people.

But people eventually did find it (including the guests who were supposed to be hosting the panel, though two of them were late), and the reading began.  So, with a multi-fauceted scarlet emerald, a knife forced from a rat pelvis, and as many incorrect spellings of the word “swivelled” as you can imagine, we delved into the epic tale of Grignr the Ecordian.

An attempt at reading it can be found here, just to give you an idea, but it really is an event that must be experienced to get the full idea of how ridiculous it can be.  The guests\panelists involved in this reading were particularly experienced (and still bungled their readings on occasion).  This was a dramatic reading, and I really have to say Gray Rinehart really hit it out of the park.  Other guests included Michael A. Ventrella, Gail Z. Martin, and (as judge) Peter Prellwitz.

And so, with a heart lightened after hearing of that mighty quest, I returned to my suite and rested for the long night.

SATURDAY

Okay, I think I have the Eye of Argon out of my system.  Friday was a bit of a weak start, but I really learned a lot from the Saturday panels.  And I remembered I had a camera on my iPod, so there’s that, too.

I started the day with a panel called “Self-Publishing Doesn’t Mean Solo Publishing,” presented by Doc Coleman, GB Macrae, Alex Matsuo, and Christine McDonnell.

Okay, I’ve decided at this point, since I’m not actually saying what I heard from these panels, I’m not going to bother mentioning them unless I have a viable picture to go with it, or something more to say than “I went to (such and such a) panel.”  I am not a photographer (an understatement), and a lot of the pictures I tried taking didn’t turn out.

As proof of how bad, I couldn’t even identify the picture I took of the above panel, which I was going to put here instead of this paragraph.  The surviving pictures aren’t especially exciting, but I know that panelists are always happy to see pictures of themselves running a panel, however bad the picture.

I also met briefly one-on-one with Meryl Yourish, who tried to help me work out a problem with WordPress.  (We’ll see if what she said helps the next time I try to schedule a blog post)

That meeting had me a minute or two late to my next panel, Self-Publishing 2.0: Maximizing Your Profits With Amazon.com, presented by Chris Kennedy.

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This was a very informative panel, and I took a lot of notes… some of which I will discuss in my upcoming “Things I Learned From Ravencon” post.

Then Lunch (with another Allen Wold “I wish I could have talked to him, but we were both too busy going in opposite directions” sighting).  Slow service killed almost all of my time until the next panel, but I was able to catch a few minutes of one particular event that was taking place right outside of the restaurant:  Splendid Teapot Racing.

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(Yes, you can’t make anything out beyond a little bit of a ramp.  I said I wasn’t a photographer, didn’t I?)

The one race I caught was fun while it lasted, though the “teapot” in question (it resembled the classic-series Starship Enterprise) flipped over and crashed exiting the ramp.

Watching the teapot races made me late to my next panel, as well.  That was the Worldbuilding: Creating Fictional Political Systems with Larry Hodges, DJ McGuire (no website or author page I can find), Kate Paulk, and Stephen J. Simmons (moderator).

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Unless you want images too blurred to make anything out or a picture of the back of some blue-haired person’s head, I don’t have pictures from my next couple panels (Researching Your Book followed by Worldbuilding: Economics and infrastructure).

I did get a viable picture of the What Sciences Haven’t Been Used panel, featuring Christopher Weuve, Susan Zee (another person who I can’t find a viable website for), an unscheduled (at least according to the program book) appearance by Lou Antonelli, and moderated by Kate Paulk.

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This panel was quite interesting — less so for the practical reasons that were discussed, but more for inspirational reasons.  It gave me an idea for a possible short story collection or anthology… but I’ll have to save that idea for a future post.  This blog entry is already getting long, and there’s still a lot to go.

After this panel, Lou Antonelli talked me into delaying my dinner (though in the process, he inspired a craving for a Wendy’s hamburger that I have yet to fulfill) to attend the Ask SFWA: What Do You Do For Writers panel.  There were almost more people on the panel than there were in the audience:  Lou Antonelli, Rob Balder, Jack Clemons, Harry Heckel, Gail Z. Martin, Bishop O’Connell, and Bud Sparhawk.  Here’s a distant, out-of-focus picture of them all:

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This actually could have been a very interesting panel.  When the SFWA opened its doors to self-published writers, I was eligible (and I should be eligible again) to become a member.  However, I was a bit reluctant because the SFWA has worked against self-publishers best interests in the past (whatever they claim, they picked the wrong side for most self-publishers, and arguably most authors.  Even the members of the SFWA’s own self-publishing committee were in disagreement with the decision, and committee member MCA Hogarth mentioned in the comments section of the Passive Voice blog that the committee wasn’t even consulted before the decision was made) in the matter of the Amazon-Hachette kerfuffle about two years ago.

I wanted to ask about this incident, and whether steps have been taken to ensure that the SFWA won’t run roughshod over the interests of a portion of its membership (again) in the future, but the moderator had made it clear from the beginning that they weren’t going to take on controversial topics after the topic of the Hugos came up.  I stuck it out for an hour of the (scheduled, though they thought they would end early) two hour panel, but it was mostly an SFWA love-fest and I was starting to get a headache from lack of food.  So, I walked out and went to go eat dinner.

This was the dinner which I tried to get through room-service (hoping that cutting out the fifteen-twenty minutes it took to attract the attention of the waitress and make my order would speed the dinner order) that arrived very late and cold.  Some of it was no longer palatable, but I was so hungry by then that I ate through it anyway.

However, I’d been in a Facebook dialog with Joelle Presby about a cake being delivered to the Baen Barfly room party at 9 that evening (she was promising that the cake wasn’t a lie, and I feigned not being sure if I believed her).  And she posted that the cake arrived.

“Food!” was the only consideration.  I went to my first ever Baen Barfly party.  And yes, there was cake, decorated with Joelle’s latest book cover, and she was quite happy to cut it.

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Now, a little bit of history of me and Baen:  Back when the late Jim Baen was alive, and I was polishing my first book for submission to a publisher, I was a member of Baen’s Bar, the forum for Baen Books.  I was a big fan of several of the authors, who were frequently found on the forum.  As the years passed, fewer of the authors showed up on the Bar, Jim passed away, and I went to an all-lurker format (it used to be accessible through a Usenet reader, if you remember usenet, but my usenet-reader was read-only).  That usenet access went away, at one point; I remained a fan of the author (and the publisher), but quit going to the Bar forums.

But I remember hearing about so many interesting discussions and things happening at these Barfly parties.  I’d never been to one, however, for a variety of reasons (usually some combination of scheduling conflicts and just not being able to figure out where the darned thing was), so I was really looking forward to finally making it… but first I had to have my piece of cake, because I was starving.

I had an interesting chat or two while eating the cake, but afterwards… well, I hate to say it, but I fell asleep.  Not because there weren’t interesting discussions going on, but because I was just so horribly drained by the day, by the lack of\late\bad food, etc., etc.  So, while there was still interesting programming later that day, I figured if I fell asleep at the Barfly party I wouldn’t make it through any of the other panels.  I wound up calling it a night, and that was it.

SUNDAY

An early night led to an early morning, and I made it to the first panel of the day.  Sadly, I don’t have any photographic evidence of that, but the panel was on Book Covers that Sell Books (my second panel on book covers; this one was less of a “how to make a book cover” and more of a “this is what looks good on a cover and this is what doesn’t”).

I followed that up with “The Economics of Self-Publishing.”  This panel featured Chris Kennedy, Alex Matsuo, and Nancy Northcott.

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You could tell that everyone, both audience members and panelists, had been worn down by this panel — one person (not listed) never showed, Nancy Northcot dropped her tablet (I was sitting in the front road and picked it up for her; no damage), and there was a bit of a lazy air to everything.  A lot of this was rehashing of information I already knew, but I think I picked up a tip or two (one reason I’m making the “lessons learned” is that I’ve only got bits and scraps from several panels, and I’m not always sure where I learned what bit that I put in my notes).

I went for lunch after that (FINALLY finding the items from the “Grab ‘N Go Menu” in stock… and discovering that they were the most tasteless burgers and hotdogs I’ve ever tried, even going back to Elementary school).  The convention was almost over… but not quite.  I had one more panel to attend.

That panel was the one on Species Creation: SF vs. Fantasy panel with Bill Blume and Harry Heckel… and we waited a bit for a third panelist who never showed up.  That led to some… interesting conversation.  But first, a picture of the two who did show up.

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(Actually, maybe that is three.  But we’ll get into the dragon in a moment)

I’m not sure how much of the subject I took away from this topic.  I remember disagreeing with the panelists on several things.  Not that it matters — it was a fun, and at times utterly hilarious, ending to a really good convention.

Harry Heckel was the first to show up, as he had been on the last panel to use that room (How to Be a Writer With a Day Job).  However, the other two panelists were late.  It was Sunday, the last panel of the con, so he decided to give the other panelists some extra time before starting.

To fill the intervening time, however, Harry Heckel brought up his own “it’s the third day of the convention and we’re all exhausted” tale.  Earlier that day, he was supposed to moderate the aforementioned How to Be a Writer With a Day Job panel.  He had the room wrong, though, and was sitting in the moderators seat for another panel, the Future of Love and Courtship panel.  The other panelists for that panel didn’t say anything to him about it — it was only after someone else in the audience prompted him that he realized he was in the wrong room.

That led to some speculation about what that panel would have been like.  We (both Harry and the audience) speculated that it would have become a mash-up panel of some sort.  “The Future of Love and Courtship With a Day Job.”  “How to Be a Writer With Love and Courtship.”  Etc., etc.

Then Bill Blume showed up, only a minute or two late.  Now, throughout the rest of the convention he’d apparently been accompanied by a stuffed dragon named Windsor (great name for a dragon, btw).  Harry Heckel had his own dragon with him, Magdella (I don’t know if I’m spelling that right, but Magdella wasn’t listed in the program book).

The mention of a “dragon habit” was made (I can’t remember which of them said it first, but both agreed that they had one, collecting stuffed dragons when they could).  Between Windsor, Magdella, and (from conventions past) Barry Mantelo, I’ve come to the conclusion that writers are well-served to have their own mascot.  Or at least I would be… but I’ll decide what that mascot would be later.

CONCLUSION

And after that, there was a really, really long nap (I crashed at 4pm Sunday and woke up at 9am Monday.  I had to rush packing to get everything packed in my car before check-out time), I drove home in the two and a half hours the trip is supposed to take.

If I had one real criticism of the panels, it was mostly that the self-publishing panels seemed a bit weak on, well, self-publishers.  There were a few (Chris Kennedy, in particular) who really knew their stuff, but many of the self-publishing panelists weren’t actually self-publishers.  By that, I mean they weren’t focusing their writing careers around self-publishing; many of the panelists were trad-published writers who may have self-published one or two short stories and re-published some of their backlist on their own.  There’s nothing wrong with that — getting that perspective can be a good thing, if you have plenty of people from the more ‘self-publishing-centric’ side of the equation — and these people were not bad guests overall, but they weren’t really self-publishing experts.  They didn’t have any real insight on the field of self-publishing.

Again, this wasn’t true of all of the guests on these panels, just a few of them (and I won’t name names, here, because I don’t want to offend anyone, and that’s not the point.  The panelists did the best they could), but it did feel odd that they’d been put on these panels.

I really did enjoy Ravencon a lot, despite the few flaws I had with it.  I just hope I can come back as a guest next year.  (I won’t make the mistake of applying too late to be considered, this time)