Tuesday, August 30, 2011

ArmadilloCon 2011: What is Texas Weird, and other gems of wisdom from the writers' workshop

ArmadilloCon writers' workshop followed the familiar agenda from the years before. The unexpected, as always, happened at the time of games and critiques.

The writing game was dreamt up by Scott Lynch at 3 a.m. the night before. Surprisingly (or not), it was one of the more meaningful games compared to previous workshops. (I just can't get into "let's collectively write a story" exercises. If I'm not in a complete control of my story, I stall. This was different.) You had to come up with a 4-sentence a story, or a synopsis thereof. Then an "evil" editor would tell you to make changes to make the story more sellable. You had to make them in 10 minutes. Finally everyone was supposed to read their original story, editor's comments, and the final story out loud. Luckily for me, due to time pressure only 4 or 5 people had to share their works.

Jayme Lynn Blaschke, Allyson and Jason

Jayme Lynn Blaschke, the "editor" (left), gives sly suggestions how to improve Allyson's and Jason's stories at the writing game. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2011 are in my photo gallery.

The editors were supposed to be intentionally evil: their feedback required the author to throw away his or her precious idea. Let's say you wrote a story where humans, having landed on an alien planet, drilled into its core and found intelligent life there. The editor would praise your hard SF concept, and tell you that the drill actually bore into hell, and it's not aliens there, but demons. Or if your plot is influenced by the physics of a rotating black hole, the editor would say that rotating black holes are so last decade, and you should make it a diamond star (which was on the news recently).

Such an exercise may seem absurd, but its point was to teach us how to write "on demand". An editor can and will ask to make changes, and you have to cooperate even if your muse doesn't. Don't wait for the muse to inspire you, but crank out a product when you're asked to, and don't treat your ideas as sacred.

Paolo Bacigalupi, Lou Anders, and Mark Finn

Paolo Bacigalupi, Lou Anders, and Mark Finn at the critique group. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2011 are in my photo gallery.

Later it was time for critiques. I was lucky to be in a group that not only was taught by great critiquers -- Guest of Honor Paolo Bacigalupi, and Mark Finn (who, by the way, has an uncanny ability to come up with plot twists to improve students' stories), but a third pro spontaneously joined our group. It was Pyr editor Lou Anders. I don't know what prompted him to join us, but he speed-read students' stories while the other group members were speaking, and gave critiques on the spot. Speed-reading (which, I presume, is all he does as an editor) made the stories look different to him than they did to other members who gave them more consideration. This was good, because it made the flaws really stand out. He didn't pick up on what other people (including the pros) identified as good parts of my story, but immediately pointed out a major flaw. It is invaluable to know how an editor sees a story.

All three pros not only pointed out what was wrong with the students' works, but gave suggestions how to improve them. That doesn't always happen. It gives me more confidence that maybe this will be the year I will revise my story based on the feedback. (No, I didn't do it the previous years. Bad writer. Bad!)

So what is Texas Weird?

A comment by Mark Finn clarified for me what "Texas Weird" genre is. Brainstorming ways to make one student's story better, he said: "Your opening sentence should be 'The President was holding a closed door meeting with severed heads.'" This would put the story in the Texas Weird genre. It pulls the curtain off the key historical moments and shows us how certain world-changing decisions were made, Mark explained. Yes, a president consulting severed heads might not even be the most unreasonable explanation for some US foreign or domestic policy decisions of recent decades.

Pictures from Armadillocon 2011 are in my photo gallery.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

ArmadilloCon 2011 panels I want to see

Here are the panels I want to see at this year's ArmadilloCon (August 26-28). In square brackets are my comments on why I'm interested in that particular panel. The ones in bold are must-see for me. Well... as must-see as can be after going for a decade to a convention where pretty much all the same people are on panels year after year, and you more or less know what they are going to say. Fortunately, guests of honor can liven things up.


Fr1600SB Welcome to ArmadilloCon
Fri 4:00 PM-5:00 PM Sabine
S. Bobo, B. Denton*, J. Juday, K. Meschke, W. Spencer
Our panelists will talk about the essential elements of sf cons in general and ArmadilloCon in particular. Learn about all the can't-miss events you should attend to get the most out of our con.

[ Brad Denton usually brings barbecue, and Scott Bobo brings martinis, right? ]


Fr1700SB Introduction to SF/F Fandom
Fri 5:00 PM-6:00 PM Sabine
B. Crider, F. Duarte*, A. Jackson, M. Walsh, P. Wells
Learn about all the aspects of organized science fiction fandom. By the end you'll be able to use fannish jargon like filk, BNF, BEM, and more!

[ I have been in science fiction fandom for many years, but haven't participated in an organized way, my on-and-off FACT membership notwithstanding. Maybe I should hear about the wonders of organized fandom.]

Fr1900T Opening Ceremonies
Fri 7:00 PM-7:30 PM Trinity
L. Anders, P. Bacigalupi, E. Bull, F. Duarte, Ma. Finn*, J. Juday, W. Shetterly, C. Siros, V. Villafranca
This formally kicks off the con. Get introduced to the con's major guests. Afterward attend the Meet the Pros party.

Fr1930A Meet the Pros Party
Fri 7:30 PM-9:30 PM Plaza Area
Here's an opportunity to meet your favorite author or artist.

Fr2000T Building a Fictional Society from the Ground Up
Fri 8:00 PM-9:00 PM Trinity
P. Bacigalupi, E. Bear*, A. Latner, A. Marmell, J. Reisman, M. Wells
A discussion of worldbuilding in sf/f.

[ Must attend it because Paolo Bacigalupi, the writer Guest of Honor, is in it. But I've seen so many worldbuilding panels, they occupy a sizeable section of my blog, and they all blur together ].


Fr2000SM How Would an Alien Presence on Earth Affect Our Society?
Fri 8:00 PM-9:00 PM San Marcos
A. Jackson, K. Kimbriel, A. Martinez*, P. Jones, B. Mahoney, B. Yansky
A classic "what if" scenario discussed by a panel of writers and scientists.

[ If only Paolo Bacigalupi was in this one! But at every con there are at least two panels I want to see at the same time. This year, it's "Building a Fictional Society" and this one. ]


Sa1000SA Stump the Panel: Make Up an SF/F Use for an Everyday Object
Sat 10:00 AM-11:00 AM San Antonio
B. Foster, M. Muenzler, J. Nevins*, J. Reisman, F. Summers
The audience supplies the items, and the panel provides the imagination.

[ Maybe? Stump the Panel has been getting less and less funny over the years, and completely fizzled out last year. ]

Sa1100SA Imagining a World without Fossil Fuels
Sat 11:00 AM-Noon San Antonio
P. Bacigalupi, M. Bey, J. Blaschke*, M. Cardin, D. Chang, K. Stauber
Discussing the implications of this all-too-plausible scenario.

[ Well, Paolo Bacigalupi will be in this one, and he has created quite an interesting post fossil-fuel world in "The Windup Girl", so it's worth seeing just for that. ]

Sa1400SA Writing a Strong Female Protagonist
Sat 2:00 PM-3:00 PM San Antonio
A. Allston, E. Bull, A. Downum, J. Kenner*, T. Mallory, M. Wells
The challenges of writing a tough-yet-relatable heroine.

[ Maybe? Very little writing advice seems new to me anymore. But having heard it all doesn't mean I know how to apply it -- that only comes with practice. So perhaps there isn't much point in going to such panels. ]

Sa1600SA What You Should Have Read in 2010-2011
Sat 4:00 PM-5:00 PM San Antonio
E. Bear, M. Muenzler, J. Nevins*, W. Siros, T. Wagner
Our annual rundown of the year's best.

[ I always go to this one, and repost the list on my blog -- in fact, this is one of the very few events when people *ask* for the URL of my blog. ]

Sa1700T Fannish Feud
Sat 5:00 PM-6:00 PM Trinity
L. Anders, P. Bacigalupi, S. Bobo, E. Bull, S. Cupp, F. Duarte, Ma. Finn*, W. Shetterly, V. Villafranca, M. Walsh, P. Wells
Come see our Fans vs. Pros game show event.

[ I have never seen a Fannish Feud -- let's make this a year when I'll finally see one. ]

Sa1900T What is the Next Big Literary Movement in Texas SF/F?
Sat 7:00 PM-8:00 PM Trinity
L. Antonelli, J. Blaschke, R. Eudaly, K. Stauber, D. Webb*, L. Thomas
In the 80s and 90s, Texas writers were intimately involved with the cyberpunk movement. Is there a current movement that's about to sweep up the new crop of Lone Star authors?

[ Maybe? I heard of most Texas SF/F authors, and have checked out the ones that sounded interesting, but perhaps I'll find a new reason to check out some of the rest?

Sa2000T Wiscon and Elizabeth Moon: What Happened and What Can We Learn from It?
Sat 8:00 PM-9:00 PM Trinity
E. Bull*, S. Leicht, S. Lynch, L. Person, C. Rambo, L. Thomas
Elizabeth Moon was invited and announced as Guest of Honor for the 2011 Wiscon, but the invitation was withdrawn following a noteworthy blog post she wrote. What were the issues, and was the situation handled appropriately? How do we avoid similar situations?

[ I didn't find Elizabeth Moon's notorious rant offensive, even though I, as an immigrant, should have been among those who were offended by it. Parts of it, though, rubbed me the wrong way. Honestly, I have long forgotten about it, but mmm... fandom drama! Must hear the juicy details! ]

Sa2200SA Is the Singularity Possible?
Sat 10:00 PM-11:00 PM San Antonio
J. Gibbons*, A. Latner, M. Maresca, A. Simmons, K. Stauber
Hard sf writers such as Vernor Vinge have long speculated that someday machine intelligence will outpace that of humans. Recently some writers including Charles Stross have suggested that this is impossible. Our panelists discuss.

[ While I doubt the panelists will cover ground that wasn't already covered by Vernor Vinge in this ArmadilloCon 2003 panel, or by an AI researcher and a president of the Singularity Institute in this SXSW 2011 panel, still... I simply can't resist anything with S-word in it! ]

Sa2300T Ghost Stories
Sat 11:00 PM-Midnight Trinity
S. Allen, S. Johnson, J. McDermott, N. Southard*, W. Spencer, D. Webb
Want to hear something really scary? Our panelists tell their favorite ghost stories.

[ This should be plain fun. ]


Nothing really must-see until 1 p.m., and then only a couple of panels of mild-to-moderate interest to me.

Su1300SB Harry Potter Movies: A Look Back
Sun 1:00 PM-2:00 PM Sabine
R. Clement-Moore, F. Duarte*, Ma. Finn, J. Kenner
Now that the movies are over, let's discuss the series for a final time and see how it measured up to the books.

[I'm fond of Harry Potter books and movies, so why not?]


Su1300SM Finding Your Voice as a Storyteller
Sun 1:00 PM-2:00 PM San Marcos
N. Barrett, J. Blaschke*, S. Brust, A. Downum, W. Spencer, S. White
The most fun writers to read are those with distinctive narrative voices. How does a writer develop one?

[ Again, I've heard most writing advice, so I'm not sure it's worth it. ]

Su1400SA Writing from a Viewpoint Other than Your Own
Sun 2:00 PM-3:00 PM San Antonio
A. Allston, J. Lansdale, S. Leicht, A. Martinez*, W. Shetterly
How does a writer approach a viewpoint character of a different gender, religion, ethnicity, age, or moral code?

[ This could be very interesting if it goes beyond the obvious and the platitudes. It's just that panels about difficult things (and I think writing a viewpoint character of a different background is very difficult) often doesn't go beyond stating that it's hard and you just have to figure it out yourself. :-) ]