Lessons from authors at Balticon 43

Outside of my Balticon panel coverage in the previous post, I had a couple of interactions with authors that led me to important insights.

Charles Stross was the Guest of Honor (GoH) and I both talked with him and went to his Q&A. I also follow his blog quite closely and this is an amalgamation of all of things he has said in all of these venues that were either directed at me or could have been had I been standing in front of him, annoying him as he spoke or wrote them.

For some reason, when he discusses writing, he breaks it down in a way that makes the process sound unmysterious and so damn feasible. See his post at Tor.com about how he gets ideas stresses how easy it is if you are naturally curious and not working too hard at it. The submarine bit in The Jennifer Morgue he got from a real-life documentary about just such a thing. His rules for stealing ideas is to steal from the best and make sure they are clearly dead (but do not murder them).

He writes SF for geeks who he thinks didn't have an author writing for them. SF has been dominated by speed and power, he says, rocket engineers and frontier types. It's nearly a mature art, though and he seemed to hint that it's time may have passed, or at least the common tropes need to get replaced. His latest novel, Saturn's Children, pretty much screams that SF needs to reorient to something more meaningful and timely than interplanetary work commutes, aliens, time travel and terraforming.

His Laundry novels he just has so much fun writing and it makes it easier for him and more enjoyable. Another point in the 'do what you love' column.

He is a real geek, much more so than I. He's a fiction geek almost like Spielberg is a film geek. Something for me to aspire to.

I got an inkling that social science fiction may not be for the real geek crowd. Charlie (can I call you that, Mr. Stross?) and I had a short debate over whether increasing social complexity is a good thing or not, that I think I need to continue further, if he'll indulge me. But that aside, if no one in the shrinking sci-fi world even gets much social science, or has much interest, then my stuff is not headed toward the right place.

Stephanie Draven is a friend of mine from high school days, who probably associates with me against her better judgment given all that she and her sister know about me from back in the day. She is a recently published author with an agent, and a book deal and deadlines and contracts. Things that I learned or knew but she reinforced in my head include:

SF literature is having a hard time while romance and fantasy are doing well, in an industry that overall is doing badly. Escapist fiction seems to be doing very well, even while science fiction does well at the box office and on TV. People are drawn to fantasy for some reason in print, especially if there be vampires or bodice-ripping. Meanwhile, rivets, outer space, aliens and lasers work well visually: go figure.

Dumb down my pitches. Way down. I made a pitch that referenced Tom Friedman's pop social science classic about globalization: The Lexus and the Olive Tree. No one at the writer's workshop expressed any recognition of it. I tried other pitches out that mentioned Malcolm Gladwell's books and others. She kept shaking her head patiently, motioning to bring it down more. I stopped before I got to Captain Underpants. Apparently, it's not too hard to go above the heads of publishing acquisition folks and the marketing department.

She also boosted my confidence that Scrivener is the way to go for a writing project software. I bought it shortly afterwards, which I had been planning on doing, but did so with gusto, folks.

Balticon 43 Report

Things I learned at Balticon 43: (yes, it's not done yet, but still)

Hard science for beginners: Dr. Cmar, a friend of mine, was on a panel with three physicist types and they fielded audience questions. I was hoping it would be a good old 'hard' vs. 'soft' science battle, but it was more of really well informed physics geeks trying to stump older physicist geeks about MHDs, string theory, dark matter, etc. I'm below the level of a physics beginner, and it was only interesting to find out some interesting sources for beginners. And poor Cmar only got to mention syphilis once or twice.

Writer's Workshop:
I was the only sci-fi writer in the room; everyone else is or has been focused on fantasy.
My one line Hollywood pitch failed miserably in part because of point #1. I referenced a New York Times Bestseller that no one had heard of. More about that later.

Pitch panel:
Excellent. Jonathon Maberry has taught how to pitch projects, the moderator actually moderated, Neal Levin is a publisher who gave his perspective. How to pitch a project in a business sense is different than the artistic argument and how to handle subgenre, buzzwords, structure the query letter, etc. were very insightful.

AI panel:
Mostly a review of how it has been used in sci-fi (robot, computer, augment) and a little about how close to real-life it could get. It was okay.

Psychohistory Update:
Nathan Bos from Applied Physics Lab wowed me not with the mind control and ESP stuff, but with the predicting the future stuff. Unfortunately it was towards the end and we only got a bit into the prediction markets and stuff before I had to bail. I may have to link up with him professionally as we may have social science modeling interests in common.

Games2U Truck: massive amounts of awesome, especially for my 6 yr old clone, who was tired and cranky when we approached it. He ended up having about an hour of fun playing Kung Fu Panda on an Xbox 360.

The conversations I had about writing with writers I'll get into in another post.

So what are you?

The newest survey on Americans' religious preferences is out. Guess what? People who have no organized religion are still a growing proportion, and the percent of atheist/agnostic is up to 12%, 34% in Vermont. Catholics are shifting from the Northeast to the Southwest, probably because of immigration in the Southwest more than anything going on in the Northeast. ABC has a summary of the findings, but please ignore their asinine 'informal survey on Twitter.'

At the very least, the country is becoming much more pluralistic when it comes to religion, and that is a good thing. When a dominating majority of Americans were one flavor of Christian or another, everyone assumed everyone was. Now, it's harder to tell. People have to ask: what are you?

But even that question sounds a bit creaky and outdated. One phenomenon that has grown is Americans changing their religious affiliation. What are you implies that your religious ID is permanent and fixed. What do you believe? Or What do you call yourself? May be more apt.

And finally, lets deal with the 'nones,' the 'seculars,' the atheist/agnostic/unsure catchall. Atheist is the new gay, as evidenced by the polling data that it has overtaken race as the thing parents don't want to find in their children's significant other. As gay marriage is approved by a new state every other week, atheism has become the new gay. But it may not last very long in that spot.

Somehow, in a hurry, the U.S. is joining Western Europe as a more open, tolerant, polyglot society. It seems to be driven by 'the young people' which our press subtly implies is anyone under age 45.

While waiting for the bus recently, I was talking with a friendly middle-aged, self-identified Jewish woman who is reading Chris Hitchens' book God is not Great. She found the book interesting, and not threatening to her beliefs. I haven't read the book, but read reviews and debates about it, and was able to chat about it a bit. The interesting part is she never asked me: so what are you? That is some real progress.