Misunderstandings about writers was the topic of the toastmaster's speech at the opening ceremony. Even in these days of decline of published word the general public continues to perceive writers' lives as glamorous. Since the toastmaster shared a personal anecdote, I will refer to him only as T (to keep Google's prying eyes away). One time he told a stranger he played XBox with that he was a writer. The stranger immediately found this suspicious, and started asking T his name, address, and what books he has published. T answered his questions, all the while surprised that his XBox pal didn't think T could just have borrowed someone else's name and biographical facts. And though the XBox pal had never heard of this writer, he said: "Wow! I've never played XBox with anyone famous!" T replied: "You still haven't".
First row: Jeremy Lassen, Martin Wagner (speaking); second row: Liz Gorinsky, Robert Jackson Bennett, Joe McKinney; third row: Mark Finn, Matthew Bey, Nicole Duson -- teachers at the writers' workshop. See more pictures from ArmadilloCon 2012 in my photo gallery.
Writers' workshop. There are many ways to express how a writers' critique group can help you, and many of them involve self-deprecatory humor, which is apropos in anticipation of your "brilliant" story being trounced. For example, they might tell you when there's a toilet in your kitchen -- metaphorically speaking.
The writing game required us to smell, taste, and touch various items while blindfolded, and list 5 positive and 5 negative adjectives about each smell, taste, or texture. It was a mostly futile occupation for someone like me with only a rudimentary sense of smell or taste.
Nancy Jane Moore, Kevin Jewell, Marshall Maresca, Jessica Reisman, and Madeleine Dimond on the 'Workshopping to Success' panel. See more pictures from ArmadilloCon 2012 in my photo gallery.
Workshops are multifaceted things, and the advice given in them is not always helpful, as noted in the "Workshopping To Success" panel. Sometimes a critique group that points out a toilet in your kitchen simply doesn't understand the architecture of your home. For example, it may be a group of fantasy writers all into dragons and elves, but you don't write that kind of fantasy, and they'll be bored with your work. Perhaps you shouldn't bring your work into a critique group that thinks your whole genre is one big toilet? Or perhaps you should! Show your drafts to people who don't read your genre to see if you can keep them entertained. That's what Mary Doria Russell did. She showed the first draft of "The Sparrow" to her aunts, who only read mysteries, but no science fiction. And they kept reading it.
Another thing to note is that you need a different critique group for a novel than for short stories. You need first readers who are in it for a long run. If you bring new chapters of your novel to an open-to-all critique group, you'll see new people at every meeting. Those people will read the chapter and say: "I have no idea what's going on, but let me tell you what I think".
Kenneth Mark Hoover, Bill Frank, and Bob Mahoney on the panel on writing hard science fiction. See more pictures from ArmadilloCon 2012 in my photo gallery.
Writing hard science fiction. Why base a story on science fact? If you do so, you disarm people who say that "it" will never happen, "it" being the subject of your speculation -- for example, a total surveillance society. How much scientific or technical detail to put in a SF story? A good rule of thumb is this: you can mention how a headset works, but don't elaborate on the wiring, unless it plays part in electrocuting your character's brain.
Another thing reading and writing hard science fiction can teach you, is to think through what-if scenarios. It's a great life skill, says Bill Frank -- both at work and in personal life. Before you start a project, you can learn to identify potential points of failure, and come up with alternative plans.
Robert Jackson Bennett, Elizabeth Moon, Chris N. Brown, and Madeleine Dimond on a "Social Impacts of New Technology" panel. See more pictures from ArmadilloCon 2012 in my photo gallery.
Social Impacts of New Technology. Madeleine knows a professor who gives his students every 15 minutes a connect-break in class, when everybody is allowed to use their gadgets to check their email, etc., otherwise they'll get too anxious and distracted. Audience is shaking their heads in disbelief.
3-D printing has been on everyone's lips lately, and just a week before ArmadilloCon came an announcement that 3-D technology now makes it possible to print guns. Most people in the audience found this development chilling. Elizabeth Moon thinks that since such printing requires lots of energy, law enforcement officers might look at who is consuming lots of energy, to get clues as to who is printing guns. Robert Jackson Bennett is not sure how viable 3D printing is, given that power is going to get much more expensive in the near future. (My Twitter friends responded that you should be able to run such a printer off of solar energy.)
Chris N. Brown is hopeful about a future where technologies could be brought down to "garage level", and anyone could build surveillance drones in their garages. That way we should able to monitor what the police is doing as much as it monitors us. A woman in the audience noted that abundance of garage-level technologies might renew interest in science among American school children, 70% of which currently say science is too hard.
Ari Marmell, Bev Hale, Madeleine Dimond, and Matthew Bey on the "Story ideas I don't want to see again" panel. See more pictures from ArmadilloCon 2012 in my photo gallery.
"Story ideas I don't want to see again" panel quickly got bogged down in trivial stuff, as the panelists started complaining how they never wanted to see skimpily dressed women on book covers again.
-- Why can't healthy, loving relationships ever be discussed in genre fiction? Quick answer: healthy relationships are too "boring" for fiction, because most fiction is fueled by conflict. Bev Hale then said that there are some science fiction works that portray loving relationships -- for example, Lois Bujold Miles Vorkosigan series or Firefly.
-- Some of the relationships tropes that the panelists DON'T want to see again are "The fate of the whole world depends on these two people getting together, and their relationship is more important than the whole world", as well as "I'm so special that there is no mere man who is worthy to be my mate. He has to be a werewolf or vampire."
-- We also don't want to see rape universally used as "something bad that happened in the heroine's past that made her come back stronger", says Ari Marmell. Too often it's used as a lazy character-building shortcut, as if there was no other adversity that a woman protagonist could possibly experience and overcome.
-- Another trope we don't want to see: white people go to another planet and save the natives.
Al Jackson, John Gibbons, Alan Porter and Paige Roberts / Ewing on the "Is Interstellar Space Travel Possible?" panel. See more pictures from ArmadilloCon 2012 in my photo gallery.
"Is Interstellar Space Travel Possible?" John Gibbons pointed out that there is a perception that the problem with interstellar travel is the speed of light, but in reality getting close to the speed of light is not even a question. A fusion bomb-powered spaceship would take an amount of fuel the size of a small planet to reach even a 10th of the speed of light. There's no way to do it on a planetary energy budget. The only way to do it is to colonize the solar system first, and to gain a solar system-sized energy budget.
A common science fiction scenario, generation ship, was also discussed on the panel. Paige Roberts doesn't think a generation ship would have much chance of arriving to the destination and colonizing a distant planet, because over many generations the people in the ship might evolve or progress to the point where they don't remember where or why they are going; or don't care. Or that they wouldn't overuse their resources. It's unlikely that they'll stay the same and faithful to their purpose. Alan Porter also thinks it's implausible.
So, sad to say, we did not brainstorm new and promising ways to get out to interstellar space.
Jaime Lee Moyer, Patrice Sarath, Rhiannon Frater, Chloe Neill, Michael Bracken and Katherine Eliska Kimbriel at the "Writing Strong Female Characters" panel. See more pictures from ArmadilloCon 2012 in my photo gallery.
"Writing Strong Female Characters" panel was thoughtfully moderated by Patrice, who asked good questions.
-- Rhiannon Frater says: mothers in fiction are typically portrayed as weak characters, though in reality mothers defending their children can be fierce and heroic.
-- Can male writers write believable female characters? Michael Bracken says he's pretty sure he can, as he had plenty of strong women in his family.
-- Kick-ass women protagonists as lone wolves with no female friends is a damaging cliche.
We don't get many costumes (read: almost none) at ArmadilloCon, but here is Raven as Elizabeth Shaw from Prometheus. Who, one could say, IS a strong female character. See more pictures from ArmadilloCon 2012 in my photo gallery.
-- What does a strong character mean anyway, even when speaking about males? Rhiannon Frater said that some guys who read her fiction said her male characters sound like normal guys one would like a barbecue with, but the men in her critique group criticized her male characters for not being a Rambo. It seems too many people think that in genre fiction a strong character has to be a cliche.
What sciences haven't been used yet in science fiction?. I didn't even take a picture of the panelists, because this panel reached an all-time intellectual low in my memory of ArmadilloCon. It happened when a certain poet (I don't know why he was on the panel, because he didn't seem to have a clue about science) said that a new "scientific" idea that still hasn't been used was a spaceship powered by "emissions" from eating Mexican food. Moderator Madeleine Dimond tried hard to keep it on track, and in fact the panel later recovered from the poet's verbal emissions. We had a brief, but interesting discussion whether cyberpunk fell in the realm of computer science, or not -- Madeleine agreed with me that it didn't, and that real computer science is one of those very underutilized sciences in SF. Another guy in the audience suggested cyberpunk takes a transhumanist approach, without being necessarily scientific.
In the style of the "Gorilla of the Gasbags" challenge, Madeleine issued her own challenge to the audience -- to write a SF story based on an underused science. She let everyone who wanted to draw a slip of paper with a science on it. I drew alien psychology. That shouldn't be too hard -- I'll just base the story on my own psychology. And the best thing, we have two years to submit our stories for the challenge, because there won't be an Armadillocon next year.