Musings from a Barnes & Noble Writing Panel

As the title of this post suggests, last week I attended a writers’ panel at a local Barnes & Noble with five sci-fi and fantasy authors from the Raleigh area. I’d never been to a panel like this outside of a sci-fi con, so I decided to check it out– and besides, I like listening to authors. They’re always quirky, interesting people (in my experience).

The authors in question were David Drake, Kelly Gay, James Maxey, Mark Van Name, and Lisa Shearin. Of them, I was only familiar with David Drake, but I came away impressed with everyone. There were about 30 or 40 people in the audience, and when question time came, I asked one of the first questions, which was: “When you’re in the middle of writing a book, what’s your daily routine like? Do you write in a particular place and time of day? And do you restrict yourself to one project at a time?”

Okay, so it was really more like three questions, but they didn’t seem to mind. And I had a reason for asking what I did. Since I’m in the middle of trying to write a novel, I was curious to hear from a few professional authors how they structure their routine, particularly authors who have a day job (only David Drake and Kelly Gay write full-time). And each person’s answer was different, although there were a couple threads in common: (1)write every day, even if just for half an hour. And (2), only work on one project at a time. I was somewhat surprised to hear the second one, but it does makes sense, and it’s similar to a response I heard at a ConCarolinas writing panel, namely: you can only get paid for the things you finish.

Recently I’ve been pretty good about writing every day, but not so much about writing on the same project every day: I tend to jump around, with about five or six projects going at any one time, and as a result have a difficult time finishing stuff (case in point: my novel). Part of me always wants to jump to the latest and greatest idea. But if I want to do this for real, I need to follow through and complete my projects. It’s the only way I can even potentially get paid for them.

In the process of answering another question, Mark Van Name said something else that resonated with me: professional writing is hard and doesn’t pay well (except for a very select few). If you have to write, then write. But if you can possibly not write, if you can do anything else, then you should really do that instead.

Oddly, I found this encouraging. Over the past couple months, I’ve come to the realization that writing is what I want to do, full-time, professionally. And even if I spend the rest of my life trying and failing at it, I still wouldn’t regret having tried.

I’ve never published a story or an article and gotten paid for it, nor I have a finished a draft of a full-length novel. But I’ve spent most of the last several years generally unsure of what I want to do with life, unsatisfied, mentally adrift, never quite sure of where I want to go or what I want to do. And it’s only when I think about writing, whether it’s travelogues, or novels, or short stories, that I feel like I have a direction, that I feel a strong, burning passion to do something.

When I think about how hard it is to write, and on top of that how hard it is to make a living as a writer, it doesn’t discourage me: it makes me want to do it even more. That, above everything else, makes me sure that this is the path I want to pursue. For years I’ve put off writing, afraid of writing things that turned out to be crap, or simply afraid of trying and failing. It’s time for me to stop being afraid of failure and just write.

This has strayed quite a bit from a report on a writing panel, hasn’t it? Nevertheless, it was these thoughts that occupied me as the questions continued. I did still pay attention… from other questions, I learned that vampires are on the way out and zombies are the hot monster of the moment (but where are the teenage zombie romances?). I also learned (or, rather, confirmed) that short stories aren’t worth it, economically speaking, and that while everyone has a different story of how they broke into the business, writing, like all businesses, comes down largely to who you meet and who you know. That doesn’t worry me too much; like any business, there are ways to network and meet people in the field (cons and events like these, for one). Besides, my first priority right now isn’t getting published, it’s writing more.

Time to get back to work!

“Memphis” Wins! Neener Neener!

This weekend, the Broadway musical “Memphis” won the Tony Award for Best Musical. It was a triumph I was glad to see, because as I mentioned in this post from January, my brother Charlie is part of the ensemble. He was with the show while it was in La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, and then at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in Seattle, and was able to stay with it when it graduated to Broadway.

So congratulations to Charlie and the rest of the Memphis cast! Even setting aside the fact that my brother is in it, it was a great musical, and from what I’ve seen and heard, the cast and crew seem like a really great group of people.

Because I have a keen appreciation of schadenfreude, I poked around various news sites to see what the reaction was. I was pleased to note that overall Memphis garnered a lot of praise, even from the media. But I did find a few critics whose tears I could savor, most notably Michael Reidel of the New York Post, who complained about musicals being created for “hick audiences around the country” by “cynical producers who want to make pots of money.” I found this particularly amusing, because hey, news flash Mike: you work for freaking RUPERT MURDOCH. I think you’d best get off that high horse there.

Seriously, though, I was intrigued by the articles which complained that the Tony voters went the safe choice in “Memphis”, instead of choosing the edgier “Fela!” or “American Idiot.” I realize it’s a debate that goes on in the media all the time (mainly after awards shows), but this time I had a stronger connection to it: first in my brother, and second, now that I’m actively working toward the goal of being a creative professional myself, this debate has a direct impact on my own work as well.

I didn’t see the other nominated shows, but if Memphis is more accessible to mass audiences, isn’t that a good thing? As an aspiring writer, my goal is tell a really good story that touches people’s emotions. Isn’t that the very definition of accessibility? What’s the point of producing something edgy if no one wants to see it? Art for art’s sake, I guess. To that I say bah humbug.

I don’t write this post because I take the criticisms of Memphis personally– after all, Memphis won the Tony no matter what certain critics think, and I don’t think a Broadway production the size of Memphis needs to be defended by me. No, I’m more interested in the larger debate on what makes good art (be it theater, writing, movies, painting, music, etc.)– is it edginess? Originality? Accessibility?

For me, this is what art is, and always will be, regardless of what either critics or the dictionaries say: it’s a creative work designed to evoke an emotional response in the viewer/reader/watcher/listener, and to hopefully make them think. Successful art, then, is art which evokes the response it was aiming for (which doesn’t have to be a specific emotion). All other things that we strive for in art, such as originality, are in service of that higher goal. Accessibility, then, is another factor in service of the art: if more people see it and are touched by it, the art, whatever medium it’s in, is stronger as a result.

Anyway, those were just a few thoughts that came to me as I celebrated Memphis’ win. And as I expressed in my earlier blog post about Memphis, I think it’s a great story, even from a writing perspective. Anyone who thinks it was solely about racism was not paying close enough attention: what made it good was that it wasn’t just an outdated morality play, it was a drama involving very real, very believable, and very flawed characters. The 1950’s were just the backdrop against which their personal stories played out.

Anyway, I hope no one interprets this post as sour grapes against the critics who blasted Memphis’ win (well, except Michael Reidel, at whose expense I will continue to enjoy a hearty laugh). Rather, this debate, on what makes creative works like musicals “good”, has a very real and very direct impact on me as a writer, and it’s interesting to contemplate. I don’t think there really is a right answer… I have my opinion of course, and some people will disagree with me, which is fine. But if I ever get a novel published, I just want to spin a good yarn that’s fun to read; to hell with what the critics say. Memphis was the Broadway equivalent of my favorite kind of novel.

Congrats again, Memphis!

Reminiscing from the Roan Highlands

The Roan Highlands is a stretch of the Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee, and it’s famous for having some of the beautiful mountain meadows in all of Appalachia. It’s also famous for its wildflowers, particularly the rhododendrons, which bloom in June… right when we happened to be visiting.

So with that in mind, I enthusiastically packed my camera and headed off, hoping that our worries about rain that weekend would prove to be nothing more than worries. The plan was to park at a bed and breakfast near the trail, then get the owner to shuttle us to a place called Carver’s Gap. From there we would then walk about 15 miles along the Appalachian Trail (and a third of a mile along a road) back to the bed and breakfast.

As we parked and unloaded our gear, it began to rain, and we began preparing for a long day’s hike through the wet. But almost as soon as we had donned our rain gear, the shower stopped. So when we reached Carver’s Gap and began our trek upward into the mountains it was cloudy and humid, but pleasantly cool and most importantly, not raining.

Sure enough, the rhododendrons were on full display, with countless clusters of pink blossoms scattered across the hillsides. Plenty of other wildflowers were competing for attention, too, and we saw lots of cameras mounted on tripods as seemingly hundreds of photographers swarmed along the trail, seeking to capture the beautiful displays of not just pink, but yellow, orange, red, white, and purple as well.

As we rose higher into the mountains, the number of dayhikers and photographers dwindled. Eventually we left the meadows for the cover of forest, and the wildflowers too became more scarce, though what flowers we did see were still impressive. The most interesting find of the day was a Gray’s Lily growing on the side of the trail. Gray’s Lily is a rare, possibly even endangered flower that only grows in a few locations in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia, mostly high meadows above 4000 feet. Apparently one of the causes of its rarity is that it’s often eaten by grazing cows (more on this later), so we were lucky to find one mere inches off the side of the trail.

There were also entire fields of Queen Anne’s Lace (aka Wild Carrot), which unlike Gray’s Lily is an invasive species and generally to be considered an obnoxious weed. But it was still pretty in its own way, mainly for the arrangements of flowers which branched out by the dozens from the tall stems, and the flurry of tiny insects that created a hive of activity (no pun intended) on each bunch of blossoms.

By the time we reached Overmountain Shelter, a massive barn-like structure that was to be our stopping point for the night, the skies had cleared and the afternoon Sun was shining overhead. We discovered that we would be sharing the shelter with a few other hikers and a large crew of volunteers who were in the midst of doing a trail reroute, so we made friends (I cozied up to the people who were listening to the US-England World Cup match on a portable radio), and then spent the afternoon relaxing. We explored the area around the shelter (including traipsing down phantom paths that gradually disappeared into overgrown brush), and watched our fearless leader Josh Hartman stand on one foot and juggle. I even took a turn myself, just to prove that I could indeed keep all 3 balls in the air at once (ignoring the way they all fell to the ground about two seconds later).

As the sun went down, Josh and I used the zoom lenses on our cameras to take pictures of cows grazing on Big Hump several miles away. Big Hump is the largest of the Roan Highlands meadows, and we could see it quite clearly, stretching along the top of a ridge which loomed large on the left side of the valley. Conquering it would be tomorrow’s work.

As we arose the next morning, we were greeted by a foggy, humid day. Big Hump, which had been so clearly visible the previous night, was now socked in by clouds. Rain had fallen in the night, but except for a brief sprinkle as we were having breakfast safely under the shelter roof, it seemed to have tapered off. So we crossed our fingers, hoping that like the tease of a shower we had endured before setting off the previous morning, that would be the end of it.

But a few minutes after we began our ascent, the skies opened up, and soon we were trudging along, heads down, making our way up a steep climb in the pouring rain. As we walked, the trail turned in a muddy little creek, rivulets of water flowing down the mountain and soaking our boots and shoes in the process. The nine miles to the road was beginning to look like a very long hike indeed.

The reason I titled this post “Reminiscing from the Roan Highlands”, in addition to having an affinity (some would say ailment) for alliteration, is that the last time I hiked this stretch of the AT was in 2004, during my Georgia-to-Maine thru-hike. It was winter, so the landscape was brown, the trees were bare, and there wasn’t a wildflower to be seen for miles, but we did get some amazing views. In my trail journal entry from that day, I described being able to see Mt. Rogers and White Top in Virginia, Mt. Mitchell and Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina, and in general I remember this area as having some of the most spectacular scenery of the southern AT, sort of a Franconia Range for the southern Appalachians.

But views were not to be had today, so I had to make do with reminiscing. The rain stopped as we reached the top of the ridge, but the clouds stayed, and so we made our way across wide, grassy meadows that, while still pretty on their own, were completely socked in by the fog.

The climb up Big Hump was a long one, and since we could only see about fifty feet in front of us, it kept looking like we might be nearing the top. But whenever we moved a little further up the mountain, we would see that the length of our climb had extended by exactly as far as we had walked. Doug, one of my hiking companions, accurately described it as “Nature’s Treadmill.”

We reached the top, hoping for a miraculous parting of the clouds, but alas, it was not to be: the fog was as dense as ever. We did get some sporadic parting of the clouds on the way down, offering a few tantalizing glimpses of distant ridges, but by and large the clouds stayed with us until late morning, long after we had made our way off the grassy meadows. Back under forest cover, we began to push harder to get to the road, scrambling over long stretches of very slippery rocks (including one which gave me a nice bruise on my ass as a souvenir), which finally, a couple of miles before the road, gave way to a gently-downward sloping dirt path and a much simpler and more pleasant hike through the woods.

All in all a good trip– we missed out on some views, but the wildflowers were amazing, and I got a lot of practice with macro photography. If you’re interested in the full set of pictures, click here.

The Little Novel That Could

My novel (working title: “In a Land of Wind and Sky”) has gone through a series of fitful starts and stops over the past few months. My muse has been sidetracked by various short stories that I’ve been writing instead, but the novel stays stuck in my head, poking at me occasionally, like an itch that just won’t go away. I’ve done a great deal of editing on it, sending the first few chapters through writing groups, fine-tuning battle scenes and character voices and mixing in various flavors of awesome, but I haven’t gotten much new writing done on it.

But now in the past week I’ve written two new pieces of it in 1,000+ word spurts, because all the editing in the world, fun as it is, isn’t going to actually finish this thing.

So I’m setting myself a goal, here and now, of completing the whole first draft before the next NaNoWriMo. It’s time to face facts: this thing is going to be stuck in my head until I get it out on paper, so I’d best do it as soon as I can, even if the form is a little rough. (For you non-authors, it’s like having a song stuck in your head, except in this case it’s an entire novel, and instead of two lines of lyrics on endless repeat, it’s a myriad of characters and plot ideas yammering at you, interrupting each other, and just generally being a pain in the cranium.)

I’ve passed the 200-page mark (about 62,000 words), but there’s a long way to go. If I can do just 5,000 words a week I can make it to 160,000 words by the first of November. Will that be enough to finish the first draft? I don’t know yet, but it’s worth a shot. Because I don’t know how I’m going to be able to write a second novel in November with this one still pestering me.

In case it sound like I’m being overly negative, don’t get me wrong– I’m thrilled to have a novel stuck in my head. It means the ending is good enough that I can’t ignore it, like I’ve done with several other concepts that still occasionally rattle around in my subconscious. It means this story may yet be finished.

I have, however, let myself get distracted by one thing: sci-fi author John Scalzi and former Star Trek actor Wil Wheaton are holding a fanfiction contest in which the goal is to describe what on earth is going in the picture on the right. (Yes, that is Wil Wheaton is a clown sweater, riding a unicorn-pegasus-kitten as he attacks an orcish version of John Scalzi. A Scalzorc, as it were.)

The winner gets paid for their story at ten cents a word, and published along with several other authors in a book whose proceeds go to benefit the Lupus Foundation. Whether I win or not, I figure it’s good practice for writing a pre-set theme, and besides, it’s not every day you get to write unicorn-pegasus-kitten fanfiction.

ConCarolinas ReCap

On Saturday I drove to Charlotte to check out ConCarolinas. Several notable authors were there, including Jerry Pournelle and John Ringo, and I also wanted a chance to try out my birthday present to myself, a Canon Rebel T1i DSLR Camera. If I want to submit any travel writing to magazines or websites that might actually pay me for it, then I need to be able to take really good accompanying photos. The camera on my Motorola Droid, while decent, just won’t cut it for that kind of work.

So, since cosplayers make good photo subjects, I packed up my camera and headed two hours west to see what ConCarolinas had to offer. Keeping in mind that I was introduced to cons through DragonCon, my first thought was wow, this con is small– it only takes up one hotel! But it was also much cozier: the writing panels were in a room about one-tenth the size of the one at DragonCon, which meant they were much more interactive and laid back, and it was easier to ask questions.

So for an hour I got to sit less than ten feet from John Ringo as he exposited on the neurological effects of military combat. Later I talked with author Stephen Mark Rainey for a good fifteen minutes, chatted with Edmund Schubert, the fiction editor for Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show (embarrassing moment: I didn’t realize who he was and asked if he was a con volunteer), and found Robert V. Aldrich relaxing in the lobby, and talked with him for a while as well.

As for the photography side of things, I actually ended up with as many pictures of ducks, fountains, and swans in the lake by the hotel as I did of cosplayers. This was partly due to the layout of the hotel (a lot of narrow corridors, and not really any good places to hang out and take pictures… except outside, where the humidity was 150%), and partly due to social anxiety on my part. I hate interrupting people and asking for a picture, whether they’re talking to friends or just hurrying down a corridor, and that seemed to be the case for pretty much everybody. Despite its smaller size, ConCarolinas seemed somehow busier than DragonCon. I did get some decent photos, though: the gallery is here.

But the writing panels, and getting a chance to talk to authors and editors, were definitely the highlight of the trip. And chances are good that I’ll be back, particularly if I can convince some friends to come with me next time. For all my complaining about photography opportunities, I did get a front seat at the costume contest pretty easily– small cons do have their advantages.