Friday, November 24, 2006

Curb Your Hound of Evil: Finding the Dark Woods in an Urban World: a World Fantasy Convention 2006 panel

Panelists: David Coe, Robin Hobb, Tamara Siler Jones, Jane Lindskold (moderator), Kelly Link

Synopsis from the program book: Panelists discuss how the urban/modern world works as a backdrop to modern fantasy/dark fantasy. Where do we find "The Dark Woods" in the urban world, and what lies within? How much is left to explore in urban fantasy?

So, where do the panelists find an inspiration for urban fantasy in modern backdrops? Where does the mystery lie in the modern world? You could easily guess what source of inspiration was mentioned most often: old houses. Were these panelists refugees from the Fantasy Cliches panel? :-) (The latter, by the way, was quite funny and one of the most worthwhile panels at the WFC. I think it deserves a longer and more detailed report than my reports have been so far, and it will be forthcoming next week.)

Jane Lindskold. "I am fascinated by old spaces. For me to see the wires, the pipes, in a building, it's to see like your own hand cut open. It ties with what you (another panelist) said about "organic", only it's mechanical organic. I live in the most mundane ranch house, there are millions of them, and I can't believe how many secret compartments there are. Plus, remnants of a tear gas alarm system, and a couple of other strange things. [When we travel, we stick things we don't want other people to find, in them.]"

Other than old houses, where else?

Robin Hobb. You can take any fantasy setting and bring it into modern time. Why does once upon a time should be long, along ago? Why not yesterday? [You have to ask yourself:] who are the wizards in our cities? [and you'll get] a million ideas for stories.

David Coe. My character access to magic [in my urban fantasy] is through a hallucinogenic addictive drug that destroyed his father's mind and is now destroying his own. It's a journey to a mind of a drug addict. To me, the most fascinating dark woods are in the human mind, not in a fantasy or urban fantasy setting.

David Coe at the World Fantasy Convention 2006

David Coe. More pictures from the World Fantasy Convention 2006 can be found in my my series of blog posts on WFC 2006.

Moderator Jane Lindskold asks an interesting question. I was thinking about an interesting thing you might encounter when putting a story in play in the modern setting. How do things like guns, cell phones, cameras change [how you handle the mythic material?] For example, there are security cameras in grocery stores all over the place, [which makes it impossible for the mythical creatures like elves and fairies to pass unnoticed through a modern urban setting]. Or would you ignore those issues and hope that the readers do too?

Robin Hobb. It's almost more fun when you have very modern trappings to set things off, because then what is strange and archaic becomes even more strange and archaic. When you stay in a hotel, who are you tipping, is it really the hotel maid? (Did she mean that maybe the maid's work is done by little elves, or...? -- E.) What do the wizards do day-to-day in the city? They had to adapt, just like we had to adapt, to cars and cellphones.

Jane Lindskold answers her own question with this example from her experience [?]. "One of the first short stories I sold was a fantasy, but it came from a classic SFnal what if: what if you had a dog that had a transfusion of werewolf blood? It was alled "Good boy". A friend vet said that when they had a call of a dog hit by a car, they would call the local pound and get a large dog for a blood infusion. In my story, the pound happens to have a great big dog, and then a German shepherd gets a tranfusion of werewolf blood, and turns into a little boy when the moon turns full.

[To me one of great joys in urban fantasy is to think, what if all that stuff was real and crossed over to the modern world?]"

One of the more interesting moments came when a guy in the audience asked a question: "Why in the urban fantasy when you meet fairies, they are still in the middle ages? Why have they not evolved into modernity along with the humans?" The panelists are apparently well-versed in fairy'ology, because they are having a completely straight-faced discussion that goes like this:

Kelly Link. "One, fairies are allergic to iron, which makes building things complicated. Another reason is, that while it's not a parasitical relationship, but those people who live adjacent to us are not fond of our technology. Traditional fairies don't make things. They steal things from people."

Kelly Link at the World Fantasy Convention 2006

Kelly Link. More pictures from the World Fantasy Convention 2006 can be found in my my series of blog posts on WFC 2006.

Jane Lindskold. "Time flows differently in the fairlyand. So it would take them a very long time to catch up with our world."

A guy from the audience. And their magic may eliminate a need for technology.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Fantasy is Fundamental: Young Adult Fantasy in the 21st Century: a World Fantasy Convention 2006 panel

Panelists: Holly Black, Charles de Lint, Lisa Freitag (moderator), Barry Goldblatt, Mark London Williams

Synopsis from the program book: Fantasy is a core component of Young Adult literature. Like all literature, YA fantasy develops in the context of its time. Our panelists discuss how the social, cultural, and political context of the new century is shaping, and will continue to shape, YA fantasy literature.

Harry Potter is credited with inspiring children to read. But has it, really? One of the panelists (it may have been Barry Goldblatt) says kids did not suddenly start loving reading. It wasn't that they wanted to read more of all sorts of literature. They just wanted to read more of Harry Potter, or something very much like it.

Barry Goldblatt. "Kids eat Harry Potter and all the knockoffs. Kids are voracious readers, and they also very quickly make up their mind about what they like and what they don't like. It's is actually very easy to get kids to try new things. What is hard is to get them to like new things. They become set in their ways very quickly.

The trick is to give kids something like Harry Potter so they recognize all the touchstones, but is also perhaps different enough so that they could stretch a little bit. Librarians and educators are struggling to do this, because it's very hard. "

YA becoming more mature and risque

One of the major themes of this discussion was an increased specialization of YA fiction. These days you have young-young adult (12-14 years) and old-young adult (14 years and up). All the panelists remember the time (such as in their adolescent years) when not only these subcategories did not exist, the very category of Young Adult fiction barely existed. Teens who had outgrown children's books had to quickly start reading grown-up books since there wasn't much else.

This is a part of a larger cultural debate, says Mark London Williams, on is what is a teenager. "It is a category that did not always exist. Similarly, there were times when there was [no literature] for teenagers. I went from Lord Of The Rings to Manchurian Candidate. When I wanted to read books about politics, I took them from my parents' shelves."

On the other hand, a lot of books written for grown-ups are nowadays being repackaged as Young Adult, such as books by Andre Norton, or Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game.

Holly Black. "Teenagers were reading Charles De Lint books for many years. His stories that were originally adult stories were republished for kids. I'm looking for a word: spongeability... fungeability..."

A voice from the audience: permeability?

Holly Black: "Yes, that's what it is." (Erasing boudaries between adult and young adult fiction.)

Barry Goldblatt. "A lot of books were published as adult books that now make up the YA cannon. Like "To Kill A Mockingbird". If you published something like "To Kill A Mockingbird" today, it would immediately be recognized as as YA book. "

He says back then children's fantasy books were supposed to be sweetness and light. Controversial topics were off limits. In contrast, these days Young Adult literature does not shy away from mature topics. This was a big point of the discussion.

Holly Black. "[It's been said that] there are two things you can't do in YA: boring and bestiality. And [whenever I quote it], the entire room immediately starts coming up with titles of books that have bestiality in them. Everything else you can think of has been tried in the YA books. [...] One of the reasons why YA is now allowed to publish a lot of controversial material, is because teenagers are spending their own money for it. A little younger kids, for which their parents buy books, you can't do it. "

Charles De Lint. "[YA books with adult themes] were around always, like Holly said, but they were not in the foreground. But these days kids are exposed to a lot more. [And they want to recognize themselves in the characters of the books they read.] So these days if you have two 14-year-olds in a story [who are hot for each other, and all they do is hold hands, kids are not going to read that book, because that's not realistic.]"

So it would seem that the Young Adult category is essentially a marketing invention, created in an ongoing attempt of publishers to make teenagers part with their money. Holly Black says, though, that there is an upside to YA marketing. "What I love about YA marketing, is [that in the YA section of a bookstore] you see genre books next to literary books, fantasy books next to mystery books, etc. So kids [don't get boxed in by the genre]."

A much debated question: do boys read? If not, why not?

A woman from the audience says: "I used to work as a bookseller. In the middle grade boys used to read like crazy, but in the upper teenage years, boys drop out. In the old YA category all the books I sold were almost exclusively to females. I wonder if anything it's done to address them."

Barry Goldblatt. "We always look for great books for boys. But it's like leading the horse to water: you can't make them drink. We haven't found a magic bullet to get the boys to read. Boys are taught that everything is more important than reading: sports, dating. Boys who read are considered geeks.

There's still an understanding from parents that reading is supposed to be educational, not fun. And we work really hard in our educational system to make reading not fun. That's why a lot of girls still hang on to reading, whereas boys just drop out. Don't make them write book reports about it. Don't make them take tests on the books they've read."

Holly Black. "In defense of boys; when I've gotten into classics for teenagers, there are often guy writers in the programs. When I ask them what they are reading, they often say adult. I get an impression that a lot of guys are reading, they are just not reading teen books."

A woman in the audience would like the panelists to address the question of the gender of protagonist. It seems the girls would read the books with a boy protagonist, but boys won't read books with a girl protagonist.

Charles De Lint says that even though a lot of fans who contact him are girls, there is a significant percentage of boys, even though his protagonists are girls.

Barry Goldblatt says Scott Westerfeld's books are eaten up by many girls, but there are also a lot of boys who read it because there's all those cool gadgets in it. His books, while they have female protagonists on the covers, are very boy-accessible.

(A guy in the audience next to me wonders out loud at the term "boy-accessible".)

Barry Goldblatt thinks it's more about what the protagonist does, rather than what gender he or she is. If a girl is obsessing about dating, the boys probably won't read them. But if she is like Jennifer Garner in Alias, they might read them despite the fact that she's female.

Lisa Freitag. "The more irreverent the tone of the book is, the better things seem to go [i.e. the more boys are likely to read it]."

Finally, here are some good new YA novel recommendations from the panelists.

Mark London Williams recommends "Boy Proof" by Cecil Castellucci. "It's a book about a teenage girl growing up as a genre geek-fan, who is a kind of person who goes to World Fantasy Convention."

Charles De Lint. Ellen Klages "The Green Glass Sea" is a book about what it means to be a 12 year old. She captured it wonderfully.

Barry Goldblatt "Life As We Knew It" by Susan Beth Pfeffer is one of my favorite post-apocalyptic books of all time. At the beginning the girl protagonist is only concerned about going to the prom, and the news about a meteorit that's about to hit the moon doesn't really impact her. I've never seen a picture of what it's like wen the world is destroyed, from a point of view of a small town girl, who's not at the epicenter, but it builds up over time. It's a wonderful book.

Holly Black. Delia Sherman's Changeling came out recently, it's hard to describe, it's wonderful in many ways.

CIMG4411 Barry Goldblatt and Holly Black at the Young Adult Fantasy in the 21st Century panel at the World Fantasy Convention 2006

Barry Goldblatt and Holly Black

. More pictures from this and others World Fantasy Convention 2006 panels can be found in my series of blog posts from WFC 2006.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Fantasy, Social Networking, and the Blogosphere: a World Fantasy Convention 2006 panel

Panelists: Elizabeth Bear, Matt Cardin, Lynn Flewelling (moderator), David Levine, Andrew Wheeler

What it was supposed to be about? Here's a preview of the panel as published in the program book. What are the benefits and drawbacks of community development and audience interaction in the new online environments? Does the ease and speed of feedback change the nature of the fantasy writer's process and work?

If there was one panel at the World Fantasy Convention that was a waste of time, this was it. A decade after the internet became mainstream, some of the panelists sounded as if they still lived in the mid-nineties era of wide-eyed wonder: OMG, there are people inside my computer!. To be fair, this tone was set by one particular panelist, who was 10-15 years older than everyone else on that panel, and a self-proclaimed Luddite. This person's comments were peppered by such exclamations as "On the other side of that wall, the screen of the computer, are total strangers, who are reading about my personal thoughts! People who read my blog now know where I live and what I do in the morning!" Hence, this person concludes: "I don't post anything that I wouldn't say out loud. And I don't mention the names of my children." Earth-shattering revelations, no less. :-)

Most other panelists seemed to have a much more comfortable relationship with technology. Unfortunately, the panel did not go beyond rehashing some old cliches about the internet. Is a persona one presents to the internet as real as the actual person? Are online activities more like acting, where you create the kind of persona you like? Etc. Is there anything left to say on this topic that hasn't been said since the 1990s? Judging from the panelists' comments, no.

To be fair, one panelist countered the usual perception that people's online faces are all fake. His online personality feels to him more authentic than his real-life personality, because his blog is the only place where he can fully express himself, where he can talk about things that truly interest him.

"I make my money by being a high school teacher. I deal with sophomores and juniors that tell me I use too many big words. My wife has no much use for books, reading, anything like that. She is very creative in a whole lots of ways, but we can't talk on this level. So these things I can't say in the social context, in the family context. So in my blog I say a lot of things that I can't say anywhere else, but they are authentic to me. "

This isn't unheard of; it was the "My wife has no much use for books, reading, anything like that" part, coming from a writer, that gave me a pause. :-)

Three or so writers in this group have blogs on LiveJournal: among them, Elizabeth Bear (LJ username "matociquala" and "elizabethbear", and David Levine (LJ username "davidlevine"). Some others had blogs on Blogger. They compared notes on different types of blogs. It was agreed that, to quote Andrew Wheeler, "LiveJournal is more community driven, it gets more comments, more comments on comments. The software it runs it is very friendly in that way. It's good for threading comments. Blogger is more linear. So you get fewer comments."

Elizabeth Bear. In LiveJournal, threading is very helpful to posing a quick question and getting answers, or making a 1-line comment on a movie you've just seen.

Elizabeth Bear further says: I'm on LiveJournal. I liked the way its communities work. You wind up in a comunity, there's a network. I use my LiveJournal as a resource, when I need an answer. I ask the most amazing questions. Like about penis tattoing. I got really good answers from professionals, who have done that kind of work. I'm, wow, this is a tool! So to speak. (Audience laughs.)

That's a undoubtedly correct observation, but what's the use of discussing it in a World Fantasy Convention, when there are much better forums out there for discussing online communications? I don't see much writerly insight in that.

While others were comparing different kinds of blogging software, the self-proclaimed Luddite went into a detailed comparison between blogs (and LiveJournal in particular) and newsgroups. This person thought of blogs as being a special kind of newsgroups.

"A difference between a newsgroup and LiveJournal is that in LiveJournal you are the host of the party. But a newsgroup is much more egalitarian: everybody speaks. I prefer the newsgroup: it's less work, and the onus is not on you to be interesting several times a week. I feel a lot more exposed in LiveJournal. LiveJournal is about advertising: you make yourself more available."

Hmm. To me, newsgroups and blogs are two very different animals, and I never thought of one in terms of the other. Perhaps this would be natural if my first familiarity with the internet was through newsgroups, and this form of participatory activity imprinted itself so firmly in my mind that I would see any kind of internet community as a kind-of-a newsgroup. But there are fundamental distinctions between the two, such as the one pointed out later by one of the panelists: "On Usenet SF groups you would not post a message "I had a bad day" but on LiveJournal you would. LJ is much more personal." Also, as Elizabeth Bear noted, "on Usenet, everytime you post something, somebody would jump on your throat and correct your punctuation. It's just not worth it." I very much agree. Somehow the comments on LJ rarely get as vicious as flame wars in newsgroups. It could be that people are much more polite when they comment on someone's post than they would be in newsgroups, because they are on the other person's "turf". To berate someone in their blog post comments would be similar to coming to their house and slugging them in the face. :-) In the newsgroups, though, we are all on equal turf.

Such distinctions may be of interest to sociologists, but again, I don't see how this topic is relevant to the World Fantasy Convention. Are these insights specific to fantasy or science fiction writers? Hardly. Well, it's just that, perhaps, you know the panelists are writers when they employ metaphors such as these:

Andrew Wheeler: In Blogger you feel like you are holding forth from a podium.

David Levine. LiveJournal is more like, everyone has a little table in their corner of the room, and we are passing notes...

Lynn Flewelling. Or throwing paper airplanes at each other.

By the way, the questions posed in the panel synopsis in the program book could have been answered in two sentences:

Does the ease and speed of feedback change the nature of the fantasy writer's process and work?

All the panelists gave an unequivocal "no". Or rather: the reader community influences what they write about in their blogs, but not their fiction writing.

Matt Cardin. I have a small dedicated audience who read my stuff. [...] When I started to blog this past summer, it picked up a lot of steam, there's a lot of comments flying back and forth. So the blog posts I'm writing to somebody. But my fiction [is something I'm writing for myself]. Blogging hasn't affected the way I write.

Andrew Wheeler. Sometimes you feel you do blogging for comments, or for links. You want to throw stuff out there and you want to see what people think about it. So you say things in a bigger, stronger way than you would otherwise.

None of the panelists think it's a good idea to tailor your fiction to what you perceive your blog readers want. Matt Cardin tells a story about Orson Scott Card started to respond to his readers' feedback in the newsgroups on the first two books in some of his series (not Ender), and quality of his next books plummeted.

Andrew Wheeler. One thing to remember is that the people who talk back are not usually representative of the larger readership. Knowing what the readers who are NOT talking to you actually want is fairly difficult.

Elizabeth Bear. If you start doing what everybody wants, you'll achieve mediocrity. There isn't a good book that hasn't bounced off at least one wall. If you are perfectly nice in your writing, you'll produce pabulum.

The writers seem to agree that while blogs don't actually help to sell books (Elizabeth Bear says she has sold no more than a couple of books through her blog), they are still a useful marketing tool.

David Levine. Having a blog is a lot like being at a convention. Having a face. I use my own name on my blog, and my own picture as my LiveJournal user icon...

(Elizabeth Bear. That's not Will Shakespeare?

David Levine. That's older, Jewish Shakespeare.)

David Levine. ... so that the editors would recognize my name and face from my blog. Just like at conventions, editors may think, he seems like a nice guy, he seems like he won't embarrass me if I send him on a book tour.

Elizabeth Bear and David Levine. See more pictures from this panel in my blog post on the "Fantasy, blogosphere and social networking" panel.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

World Fantasy Convention: The Lone Star State of Fantasy

The only discussion panel I made it to on Thursday night was "The Lone Star State of Fantasy". The panelists were Jayme Lynn Blaschke, Rick Klaw, Caroline Spector and Eric Marin.

I found it disappointing. The whole panel was devoted to the discussion of what makes Texas fantasy weird. Some of the obvious reasons were ponted out, such as that Texas is so damn big. In between all these open spaces there are many isolated towns where anything can happen.

A guy in the audience. In Texas you can find little towns that would scare the crap out of you. Where people drag people behind cars.

Jayme Lynn Blaschke. A farmer in San Antonio shot this dog-thing that was almost blue. It was almost necrotic. It was kind of cool, so I put it up on my blog. Then I got an email from East Texas: hey, I shot one of these things too! I started getting all these emails of people who thought they shot a chupacabra.

Another factor is that that the Texas state itself is playing up the mythology. Everything is bigger in Texas, as they say.

Jayme Lynn Blaschke. At A&M they have a hornets' nest that's 14 feet across. It's the 3rd largest in Texas. It's about 2.5 million wasps. If you are going to write it in a story, everyone is gonna say, oh, get out of here!

Yet another reason why Texas inspires weird fiction is that Texas still has a frontier mentality; it is perceived by writers as a state where unknown lurks and anything can be expected. This said, the panelists magnanimously acknowledged that Australians has a lot of affinity with Texans because of the frontier mentality; hence, weird fiction set in Australia would also have a true ring.

Other parts of the world, it was implied, can hardly live up to the task of serving as a setting for weird fiction. The only panelist who wasn't from Texas -- he was from Maine -- conceded that weird fiction would be less believeable if it was set in Maine, as opposed to Texas. He didn't explain why. But isn't a lot of Stephen King's fiction set in New England, in its quaint, little, time-forgotten towns? Isn't the supernatural element quite believable in King's stories? I wondered. I am hardly a judge of this subject, since I'm not being very familiar with Texas fantasy, and I don't know what's weird about it. But it all sounded a bit parochial to me.

Left to right: Jayme Lynn Blaschke, Rick Klaw, Caroline Spector. Read more about the World Fantasy Convention 2006 in my blog.


Monday, November 06, 2006

World Fantasy Convention: Day 1: Thursday

Thursday was day 1 of the World Fantasy Convention. This year it's in Austin, so I am attending it even though I'm not a big fan of fantasy. Who knows, maybe I could be convinced otherwise. I've heard ome intimidating things about WFC, such as that it's a professional convention, whose goal is to bring writers, agents and editors together to make book deals, and they don't want lowly fans to be cluttering the halls. But they do take the fans' money and sell them memberships, so I guess we are welcome at least in that way.

Thursday night there was only one discussion panel I wanted to go to, so I mostly hung out at the bar and in the ConSuite. This wasn't any different than it is at a usual, "fan-friendly" convention. The pros drink as heartily as us fans. At the ConSuite I ran into a family of very friendly writers -- a woman, her husband, and their 15-year-old son (the latter too had sold SF stories professionally!) -- and had an interesting chat with them. The woman was born and grew up in Portugal (but has lived more than 20 years in the US) is a SF/F writer. She writes in English. She has published a few books. So, it was very encouraging to know that it's not unheard of for a non-native English speaker to successfully write in English. Nabokov wasn't the only one, apparently. The woman said she knew several more SF/F authors in that category.

Authors Leah Bobet and Elizabeth Bear at the World Fantasy Convention 2006. More pictures from WFC can be found on my blog

On the other hand, being a non-native speaker sometimes actually helps to undestand the language, as is evident from a funny fact the guy mentioned. Whenever he calls customer service or some such thing where he's supposed to give his name over the phone, the customer service reps often misinterpret his last name. Especially if the rep sounds like he/she may be a Southerner. His last name is Hoyt, and people (especially Southerners) universally hear it as White. He always has to spell it out very carefully, and even then they are sometimes not convinced it's not White.

As a non-native English speaker, I suspect that spelling versus pronunciation are mapped out differently in my brain than in the brain of a native English speaker. For me there is very little overlap between Hoyt and White, so I would never confuse the two.

So far the World Fantasy Convention seems like any other convention, only more humane. There are no more than 2 discussion panels going on at the same time, and there are breaks for lunch and dinner! This makes convention experience less taxing. Also, people here are a little better looking. :-) (Maybe it's an infusion of literary agents from glamorous places like New York that's raising the looks quotient of the convention. :-)) The difference is rather subtle, though. The people are a little more dressed up than in a typical convention. Instead of Fannish Drab, the color scale runs towards Gothy Black.