Post WisCon Blues

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I tried to figure it out this year. I try to figure it out every year but I really have lost track by now. However, I think my first WisCon may have been WisCon 20. WisCon was my first SFF convention, has been pretty much my only convention, save for a couple of forays into MinneCon and even one World Fantasy Con, the year it was in Saratoga.

For the first decade or so, I would leave WisCon energized, ready to get to my next project, finish my current project, read all the good stuff, do all the writing. In those days I came off of WisCon on an incredible high! There were years I did readings, I participate on panels. I met some really great authors and made some long-term friends there. Smokey Wizard Bacon, my writing group, was formed out at WisCon (alas, like my first WisCon, I don’t remember which year that was, either. I remember it happened during one of the “Living Room” sessions with Delia Sherman and Ellen Kushner. That narrows it down to a few years) and I wouldn’t have accomplished what I have with my writing if not for SWB.

But for the last several years, going to WisCon has ended with the blues. I’m not sure if my expectations were too high or my goals unrealistic. I know I was focused on selling my writing and maybe that was the issue. I’m not sure if its because fewer of those friends formed in the early years are going any longer, that I’m going to more panels alone. I’m not sure if it is because WisCon management treated my friend Elise really poorly or if, because of that total failure to do the right thing for a harassed woman at a feminist convention, I stopped going for a few years and haven’t been able to get back in to it.

Whatever the reason, by Memorial Day I feel entirely let down. I’m disillusioned, I’m ready to pack it all in. This year was no exception. I read on Friday but found no panels that I was interested in going to or at times I could attend. None. Zero. I’ve always been focused on the writing and business panels and I saw nothing that was of interest to me this year. I went to the Tiptree auction and the new auctioneer Sumana Harihareswara did a great job. She entertained and did the auction her way, and it was great. But she isn’t Ellen Klages (she wasn’t trying to be) and that just pointed out how much has changed.

The good is also the bad, I’m afraid. The GoH speeches were jaw droppingly amazing this year (I think they are pretty much every year). I was blown away by the power of those words, the power that words have to move people. (I’d link to them, but in another dissapointment, I don’t see them on the WisCon site).

At least my blue feelings didn’t last as long this time. I’m back reading and researching, I’m moving forward with my writing which is less and less focused on fantasy. I’m hoping to publish a mainstream novel in the next year and I’m working on a medieval murder mystery series. I’m sure next Memorial Day weekend I’ll think about heading downtown Madison to the Concourse. I’m just not sure I’ll make it all the way in or how I’ll feel afterward.

Living the Long Tail: WisCon 35 panels

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The first panel I went to at WisCon 35 was called Living the Long Tail and it continued my tradition of attending panels that aren’t what I think they are. I had anticipated that the panel would be discussing the book The Long Tail  which discusses developing and keeping a core audience. To some extent, we did talk about that, but it was really in the context of self-publishing and a web-based business model.
I really hadn’t been thinking in terms of self-publishing to this point. I’ve been steeped in the traditional publishing model my entire life. I like my physical books. My over-stuffed bookshelves have long been a source of pride and every move that required a paring away of my collection was faced with reluctance and angst.
The panel included a woman who had never published via the “New York” houses, those who had at one time but are now going it on their own, and one who is following both avenues. Their goal is to make money from their writing and they feel that maximizing the opportunities by pursuing new models makes the most sense.
A discussion of self-publishing seems to draw out the extremes in people. A couple of the people on the panel made it sound as if going the self-publishing route was the only way to go. No one needs NY! They don’t pay enough and they want to just screw the writer! After the panel I had a conversation that took place on the other end of the spectrum, describing those who pursue self-publishing as having drunk the Kool-aid, that it’s fit only for those who can’t make it in NY because NY is the only path to real success.
John Scalzi had a different take on this argument. In short (although you really should read the whole thing: his is very funny and this is not) there are functions in addition to writing that have to be done to take a story and make it into something people will pay money for. If the writer is doing all of these things, then when is there time to write?
The panel made me rethink some of my own prejudices regarding self-publishing. I agree with Scalzi that the publishing industry provides services to the author. These functions have to happen, at least to some extent. If those functions – editing, designing, packaging, marketing, publicizing, selling – are done by the writer, then the writer doesn’t have as much time to write. If they’re done poorly, then the final product (and that’s what we writers are doing, we’re creating a product) will seem unprofessional and of low value. The NY houses provide those services and the hope is that they will do them well, resulting in a professional product, something of higher value and worth. That means sales.
The competition to place a piece of writing with the NY houses is damn stiff. I’ve had little luck in placing short fiction to this point and it remains to be seen if I can place my long fiction with any more success. One of the panelists described her work as targeting a very small niche market. The NY houses spend a lot of money printing and distributing writing. They’re not going to do that if they don’t think there’s a market for the work. Self-publishing provides an outlet for writing that simply won’t sell to the NY houses because they can’t make enough money off it. Those small, niche, markets are no-doubt under-served and are willing to pay for writing directed at them. Provided that the writer accomplishes all of the functions from writing to editing to selling in such a way that the final product is something that customers in even under-served markets are willing to pay for.
Even the best writers don’t sell everything they write. Some pieces may be too experimental or not quite successful in their attempts or too specific in their subjects. No matter the author, any one piece of writing may simply not “meet our current needs” of the house they are with. Other than amusing the author’s friends and families, what happens to those pieces? Might there be life for them online?
As I thought about it over the weekend, I realized that I don’t see the situation as self-publishing VS the NY Publishing Industry. It doesn’t have to be an either/or for anyone who is lucky enough to find a NY publisher. I’ve heard more and more that some of the functions listed above, particularly the marketing end, is being off-loaded back onto the author. The avenues described by the various panelists seemed to me to speak as much to publicity and marketing as they do for sales.
This blog is a result of the Long Tail panel. It may be that, at some point, I may post one or more of my stories that haven’t sold. If the novel finds an agent (and the agent finds me a publisher), I may put some of my character or world-building information up to add to the experience of reading the novel. If people start reading this blog, there are opportunities to get readers to subscribe to it via the Kindle. If I generate interest and an audience, a newsletter is another option. Starting off, this gives me another way of generating an audience, connecting with readers, getting the word out. Should I get established, having an online presence may provide a second life for backlist. If I don’t find an agent, if I don’t get sales through traditional channels, then I may still be able to build some sort of income selling my writing online.
It’s all about connecting with an audience and utilizing every method out there to find and build a readership. Readership means sales, either in support of traditionally published works or directly to an audience. Either way, online and electronic formats offer me more options. I don’t see the need to limit myself to one or the other.

Writing Trauma and Rape: WisCon 35 Panels

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I started going to WisCon some 18 years ago, primarily looking for advice as an aspiring writer. The writing workshops there have been great for me to work on the craft and meet some fascinating, kind, and very helpful people. Sometimes the critiques have been good, sometimes devastating (those aren’t mutually exclusive categories), and while sometimes I’ve thought the comments may have missed the mark, the process has always led to an improvement in how I practice the craft of writing.
The novel I’m working on contains scenes of physical violence, including sexual violence, and I wanted to be sure I got those scenes “right,” that I dealt with both issues realistically and appropriately. Too often simply considered “action” scenes, I knew that getting characters knocked about comes at a cost, and one that I needed to take into account in my plotting. Two panels at WisCon 35 jumped out at me as “must attend” panels: One Thousand Ways to Die and Return of the Rape Panel.  On the first panel were medical professionals and writers (and writers who were medical professionals) on the second panel were rape counselors and writers (we did not learn if anyone had been sexually assaulted because really, not germane or our business. The panel members took great care in laying ground rules to keep the discussion respectful of anyone’s experiences). Both panels ended up with similar discussions and conclusions, which isn’t surprising since rape is physical assault/trauma, and trauma often has emotional and psychological ramifications no matter what the source of the trauma.
What I learned is that most writers don’t handle trauma and/or rape very well. Movies and trauma-of-the-week police procedurals are particularly bad and this callous approach to assault has wider ramifications for how we, as a culture, respond to and treat survivors of rape and physical trauma. We think that people who get shot, beat up, knocked out, and raped (both violently and insidiously), should be back up kicking ass and taking names before the end of the hour, or at least by the next episode or chapter. In the case of rape, there does seem to be a second option to totally fine almost immediately, and that’s broken irrevocably.
Great options, there. Not fitting with any real-world humans that I know.
Speaking of which, the moderator for the One Thousand Ways to Die panel did posit three different possibilities for speculative fiction, and these three approaches would inform how the character heals. I leave it to the reader to decide how much these three realities might affect the sexual assault survivor.
  1. Real world with real humans. Our world as we know it to be populated by us and people just like us. AKA reality.
  2. Real world with aliens or altered humans. Paranormal stories or urban fantasies. Buffy and the vamps she fights don’t hurt or heal in the same way we normal humans do. Wolverine, Spock, or The Doctor each have their own rules for what hurts them, to what extent, and how long it takes to heal.
  3. Fantasy worlds with fantasy characters. Thomas Covenant may heal through Earth Magic, Paksenarrion may have Gird reach down and remove all traces of her otherwise-mortal wounds, and other worlds will have still other rules.
In my opinion, the success of worlds two and three is going to rely heavily on the author being consistent in how the rules work in that world and in how they differ from what we know. We concentrated on the first category and strove to make sure we knew what actually happens in a trauma.
The most telling instance for me came when the panel talked about someone being knocked out. The doctor on the panel said: “If you’re knocked out for an hour, you’re out for a week.” For one thing, consciousness is not like a light switch, it isn’t a binary system. There are degrees of consciousness and even if you posit some sort of drug, anything that gets you that deep is also going to come with a chance that your hero will forget to breathe. Coming to won’t be a picnic either: dizziness, blurred vision, memory loss, and worse will all happen to your hero for a long time after being knocked unconscious. No one in our world or one like it is going to come to in the villain’s lair after being knocked out by the goons, spring up, and fight the army of bad guys. Doesn’t happen, doesn’t work like that. Healing takes time. Blasts that send people flying through the air mean that the explosion is close enough to cook one side of a person (as well as embedding glass and other debris in the skin). Healing takes time.
And healing may never get the injured person back to 100%. Two things: the physical trauma may very well destroy tissue and the healing process may develop scar tissue. That hand may never be the same, there may always be a ringing in the ears or a susceptibility to headaches, the burns may never fade. For writers this means, be careful in how you beat up your characters because if you want to get it right, those traumas will always be with your character from then on out.
Second thing is the mental trauma. Both sets of panelists were quick to point out the reality of PTSD for survivors of trauma, including sexual assault. That’s a lot for a person to experience and those experiences may take a long time to heal and, just like with the physical injuries that may have happened at the same time, may never fully bring the person back to the way they were before the experience. There is a “new normal” that has to be accounted for.
This is not to say that someone is irrevocably broken by an experience such as sexual assault, certainly not as portrayed in most of the popular media. Rape is too often used too casually as a plot device intended to portray vulnerability or the callousness of humankind. There are lasting effects to rape, and those effects will vary in intensity and duration from person to person, as in any healing process.
As writers, we need to beware of the extremes and avoid all good or all bad. Very little writing can be successful with undifferentiated minions in the black hat roles or Mary Sues in all the hero roles. In the same way, violence against characters that result in severe trauma, both mental and physical, are neither going to disappear without a trace or always and forever “destroy” someone or their ability to function. (If the writer decides to portray trauma so severe that it ends in death, then that’s a different story, isn’t it?)
The good writer is going to give nuance to their characters faced with trauma so that even the most severely assaulted survivors will have individual responses to their traumas. If the writer wants to get it “right” then it’s best to avoid the simplistic, and dare I say lazy, approach to writing about trauma, including sexual traumas. If the plot point becomes physical or mental injuries to your characters, then it’s going to mean that there are repercussions that will go on for the rest of the story, the chapter, the novel, even the series. It’s more realistic.
I’m trying to do that in my novel, and I’ll wait to see if I’ve done it “right” or not. I’ve struggled with the need to keep the story going and deal with the physical changes I’ve made to my character. Even more, I’m paying attention so that the changes to my characters stemming from their physical and/or sexual traumas don’t come up only when required by the plot, but truly integrate the change into the characters’ responses: that leg always hurts now when she reaches for the peanut butter on the top shelf, or he moves the peanut butter because of the pain or she now flinches anytime she pass that one place where she went that one time. It made writing my novel a bit more challenging, but I’m pleased with the result. I think the story is better because of it.

Update: Amanda has a post on how people have different reactions to harassment. It’s good to remember that there is no one, true, way a person is going to react to trauma of any degree.

The WisCon Weekend

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WisCon 35 wrapped up last weekend and the highlight of the weekend was that I made my self-imposed deadline. More or less. Two years ago, I set WisCon as the deadline for finishing the rewrite of my novel. I made that deadline (luckily, I hadn’t specified which WisCon) even though I bought a house and moved in between. The rewrite was extensive and based on feedback from my writer’s group and other readers. The story is sharper, more focused even as I managed to expand it in a way that makes it seem (to me, at least) a more fulfilling story.

Having finished the rewrite, it’s time to begin the agent search. In other words, the business side of writing. I haven’t had that much success with that side of things to date. I’ve had one short story sold to one webzine in the last couple of years, and that’s it. To be fair, for most of the last 4 years I’ve been focused on the novel, but having finished that major creative project, now I have to focus on the business, the selling side that goes with the creation if I want to do anything more than enjoy the process of writing in and of itself.

Pursuant to the advice I learned at some of the panels at WisCon last weekend, I’ve started this blog and I’ve begun to examine markets, agents, and strategies for the business, both for the novel just finished and the short stories now and to come. I’m not the first to go through this process (at least one other member of my writing group has searched for [and found] an agent) but this is my journey. Now I have something to talk about.