What Happens in Reno, Gets Blogged

Last week I went to the World Science Fiction Convention, aka WorldCon, in Reno, Nevada. Most cons are held each year at the same venue in the same city, but WorldCon moves to a new city each year. It’s a bit like the Olympics, in that groups from potential host cities put together bids, which are then voted on– except instead of athletes and sporting events and drug scandals, it’s writers and editors and panels and drinking.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew that WorldCon has a higher-than-usual percentage of professionals, and there’s more of a focus on business and networking than at other cons. There’s a lot of fannish stuff going on as well, but WorldCon is one of the best cons for rubbing shoulders with professional writers and editors and talking one-on-one (or at least few-on-one) with the pros.

My own career is still in such early stages that I’m not sure how useful networking really is. I have a finished first draft of a novel that needs a lot of polishing before it has a prayer of getting anywhere, so I’m not really looking for an editor or an agent yet. And I don’t have professional short story sales under my belt, so it’s not like I can expect an anthology invite or anything. Instead, I’m playing the long game, hoping that contacts I make now might pay off in the months and years down the road. I’m also familiarizing myself with the names in the business, and the way the business works. And, above all, I’m hopefully making some friends along the way.

I’d say WorldCon was a rousing success in all those categories. I got to see some friends from previous cons, like Matt Rotundo and Mary Robinette Kowal (who won a Hugo Award for Best Short Story!), and I met plenty of new ones. I was particularly pleased to meet the Inkpunks, a collective of writers who I’ve followed on Twitter for a long time, and various friends of theirs, as well as Cassie Alexander, who deserves special mention for inviting me into the SFWA party. *ninja eyes* I also met several Seattle authors who I’d seen and heard at events back home, including Keffy Kehrli and Liz Argall.

So much happened, it’s tough to form a cohesive narrative, so I’ll hit a few high points:

Kaffeeklatsches. I hadn’t done kaffeeklatsches at previous cons, but these are small group discussions (usually limited to 9 people) with an author or editor, which last for an hour. It’s a way to have a more intimate conversation with industry professionals, or even your own personal heroes. At WorldCon, I had kaffeeklatsches with John Scalzi, Howard Tayler, Lev Grossman, and Jennifer Brozek— these were some of my favorite hours spent at the con.

World Jay Day. Jay Lake is an author who’s been fighting a multi-year battle with cancer, and right now is undergoing chemotherapy. Despite that, he came to WorldCon to host the Hugo Awards, and is all-around an awesome guy. Diana Sherman organized a bunch of people to gather in the Dealer’s Room on Friday wearing Hawaiian shirts, and give Jay a surprise show of support. It was pretty cool.

Meeting my heroes. I got to meet several of my personal literary heroes, most notably Howard Tayler, who writes and draws the webcomic Schlock Mercenary. I suppose it’s odd that a webcomic artist would be so influential on an aspiring author, but he is, for many reasons, not the least of which is that it was through Howard that I found Writing Excuses. When I finally had the chance to talk to him one-on-one for a few seconds, I told him, I’ve been reading Schlock Mercenary for nine years, listening to Writing Excuses for three, and I have a 175,000 word fantasy novel that probably would not exist if it weren’t for you guys. My life has led all sorts of interesting places because of you, and I just wanted to say ‘thanks.’

In general, I tried to stay professional throughout the con. I didn’t geek out when I passed George R.R. Martin or Patrick Rothfuss in the hall; I didn’t squee with joy when I held Mary Robinette Kowal’s Hugo Award or frantically try to get someone take a picture of me with it. Meeting Howard was the closest I came to having a “fanboy moment”, and as I walked away, I definitely teared up.

Parties. Each night I spent a few hours surfing through the various room parties, clustered on the 15th and 16th floors of the Atlantis Hotel. Some parties were put on by fans, others by groups bidding for future WorldCons, and some by publishers. There was also a semi-exclusive lounge hosted by SFWA, which, as mentioned earlier, I got into thanks to awesome friends. My next career goal is to be able to get in to the SFWA suite at cons without help.

I won’t deny it: parties stress me out, especially when (as was frequently the case) I walk into a party without knowing anyone. My inner introvert goes into total brain-lockdown mode, and a very strong part of me just wants to find a corner and hide. But the evening parties provided some of my favorite moments of the con, including meeting and hanging out with the Inkpunks (okay, technically, that was at the bar, but it still counts); hanging out with Lev Grossman on Saturday night after he won the Campbell Award for Best New Writer; meeting Amy Sundberg, Patrick Swenson, and holy cow I could list names forever and still forget someone. Suffice it to say that everyone was totally, absolutely awesome.

The Masquerade. Costumes were not as prevalent at WorldCon as they are at many cons, but what costumes were there were extremely well done. Someday, at some con, I’ll get tired of Masquerades and stop attending them, but it was not this con.

I was seated well back, but the people immediately in front of me were short, and I was able to get some relatively good pictures without having to worry too much about people’s heads being in the way. The best-in-show winner was Torrey Stenmark, for her Avatar costume, which also won at Norwescon earlier this year.

The Hugo Awards. On Saturday night came the biggest event of WorldCon: The Hugo Awards. Given each year for the best works in the field, they’re sort of like the Oscars of Science Fiction. In every category in which I actually predicted a winner, I was right, however, my votes usually did not correspond with my predictions, and in the categories where I strongly supported one of the choices, pretty much none of them won. I don’t begrudge any of the winners their awards; they all deserved them, and nothing happened that I would decry as a travesty of literature or good taste. Too often, science fiction itself is decried as a travesty of literature and good taste– so forget that noise. Fandom is far more diverse than my particular corner of it, and I’m okay with that.

I suppose if I have one regret about WorldCon, it’s that everyone was so dang busy. There were so many people who I’d have to loved to chill with at the bar and shoot the breeze, but the con as a whole was far too crowded and busy for that. Plus, the two hotels of the con were far enough apart that travelling between them was not easy, and even each hotel on its own was so big that it was hard to find people. What the con really needed was a con bar, but alas, despite the presence of numerous bars amongst the two host hotel/casinos, a favorite never materialized.

Speaking of casinos, I managed to go through the whole con without so much as sticking a quarter in a slot machine. All the temptation for me was in the Dealer’s Room: I came home with far more books than I have room for, and I’m now having to improvise bookshelves out of every available surface in my tiny apartment. I haven’t actually had to stack books in the sink yet, but if I live here much longer, who knows what measures might need to be taken.

Now I have less than a week until Dragon*Con, and all the craziness starts all over again. Except even crazier, because well, it’s Dragon*Con.

It’s gonna be fun.

Prepping for WorldCon

Tomorrow morning I catch a plane from Seattle to Reno for the World Science Fiction Convention— four days of soaking up wisdom from professional writers and editors, meeting lots of cool people, and in general having fun and reveling in pure geekery. I spent some time going through the program, marking off stuff I’d particularly like to do, and came up with over 120 hours of panels, readings, and various other activities I’d like to attend. This makes things interesting, since WorldCon is only 96 hours long. And that 120 hour number isn’t even factoring in time spent at parties, or just hanging out with friends. Or eating. Or sleeping.

It’s gonna be great.

In related news, my main goal prior to WorldCon was to finish the first draft of my novel In a Land of Wind and Sky, and today I did so. The draft is 176,902 words long, and it stretches across 642 pages in Microsoft Word. Since the time I wrote the first word of it (November 1, 2009), it’s been 653 days.

But to be honest, it feels a bit anticlimatic. There’s still a lot of work to do, and the line between where the first draft ends and the second draft starts is kind of arbitrary. For my own purposes, “first draft” means that I’ve built all the plot lines and character arcs from beginning to end. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re consistent. Sometimes the character’s voice changes from scene to scene as I experiment with different styles, or setting details are added midway through the story. Major plot elements are introduced and disappear as I try to decide what should be important and what isn’t, or change my mind about exactly what’s needed in order for different aspects of the story to be resolved.

In the second draft, my task is going to be to go through and make things consistent— support what needs to be supported, emphasize what needs to be emphasized, and take out what needs to be taken out. After the second draft, I think it’ll be ready for alpha readers.

But for now, I can head off to WorldCon, secure in the knowledge that if anyone asks if I’ve written a novel, I can say, “Yes.”

My flight leaves in less than 12 hours. Hmm… I should probably start packing.

On the Road Again: Driving the Cascade Loop

Despite having lived in the Pacific Northwest for almost ten months, surrounded by the oceans and Puget Sound, I haven’t gotten out of Seattle much. I’ve only been on one day hike, and one camping trip to the Olympic Peninsula.

So since summer weather in this neck of the woods (by which I mean “sunny and higher than 70 degrees”) is fleeting, I decided to take advantage of it and actually see some of the outdoor scenery for which the Northwest is famous. And thus, with only about two days’ advance decision time, I threw my camping gear in the car and headed out on the 440-mile Cascade Loop Scenic Highway.

The simple need to enjoy summer wasn’t my only reason for going: I’ve felt overconnected, lately, and with two major sci-fi conventions coming up, I wanted to escape and recharge my batteries before so much travel and social chaos. And even though I’m only a few thousand words away from the end of my novel, I felt like a break would be good for the creative batteries as well.

For what was supposed to be a relaxing trip, it didn’t start out well. First, I made the mistake of rushing my departure in order to make it to a McDonald’s about ten minutes down the road before they stopped serving breakfast… hey, I have a weakness for their biscuits. I make no apologies. The problem was that in my haste, I forgot my wallet. So, I had to turn around and go back home– and of course, I didn’t get my biscuit.

After finally procuring food, I was on the road and starting to get into the “road trip groove” when the lid popped off my soda, spilling most of it between the driver’s seat and the center console. This necessitated spending about twenty minutes at a convienence store, helping myself liberally to the paper towels from the bathroom, and trying to clean it up. (Speaking of which… anyone have any tips on how to get soda out of a seatbelt mechanism? Sigh.)

Things started to improve once the Cascades came in sight. However, the weather wasn’t exactly cooperating. The day had started out overcast, and although it was gradually improving, the mountains were still shrouded in cloud:

But luckily, it didn’t last long. The weather cleared, and soon even the snow-covered peaks were visible.

I didn’t have a specific plan or itinerary; my plan was to drive, listen to music, and stop at whatever happened to look interesting along the way. My first stop ended up being at a place called Deception Falls State Park, where a half-mile loop trail followed a lovely creek past a series of picturesque, occasionally raging waterfalls, and through some absolutely beautiful pine forest.

There are a lot of little towns around the Cascades, most of which depend on tourism. During the summer there’s whitewater rafting, and hiking, and backpacking, and during the winter of course, there’s skiing. A few of the towns have come up with “themes” that, I suppose, make them even more enticing to tourists. For example, there’s the town of Leavenworth, which has modelled itself on a Bavarian village. Even the signs for the McDonald’s and the gas station were done up in ornate wooden Bavarian style.

In my opinion, it had all the authentic character and charm of Disneyworld– in other words, I was not a fan. But I know a lot of people like that sort of thing, and in fairness, I did have a huckleberry cheesecake ice cream cone there that was absolutely superb.

Another example of such a town was Winthrop, Washington– all done up in authentic Old Pioneer style, and perfectly charming, with friendly people, but it still felt fake to me.

I guess all in all, I’d rather feel the authentic character of a place. And if you have to model your town on an artificial theme, you’re pretty much saying that whatever character you originally had wasn’t that interesting on its own. It’s true, I suppose, and good on them for making the most of the situation, but when I need a reason to visit the area, I’ll stick with this:

The Cascade Loop also provides a fairly dramatic illustration of what a “rain shadow” is. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, a rain shadow is when a mountain range blocks the passage of rain clouds and weather systems, so that the rain falls on the mountains and the area directly “behind” the mountains is very dry. For the Cascades, the weather systems generally travel west-to-east, so the area directly east of the mountains is in a rain shadow. And the landscape transforms from lush, verdant pine forests like this:

Into this:

The eastern half of the Cascades Loop is dominated by that sort of landscape; hardy scrub brush and dry grasses scattered across an almost desert-like environment. I suppose it pretty much is a desert, actually… it just seems odd. Who knew the wet-and-rainy Pacific Northwest had a desert in it?

The eastern side of the Cascades is also where summer hides from Seattle. The temperature went from low seventies to upper eighties, and the air conditioning in my car got way more of a workout than it has any time since I left North Carolina.

I camped overnight just outside of Winthrop. After the sun set, I sat at a picnic table, far from any power outlets, and as I watched bats flit overhead in the quickly-fading light of dusk, I took advantage of the campsite’s free wi-fi to check Twitter and Facebook. I considered doing some writing, but the bright screen amidst the darkness was starting to give me eye strain, and besides, I did feel marginally guilty for staying connected on a trip where I was ostensibly supposed to disconnect myself. So after a few minutes, I shut down the laptop and went to bed… but the novelty of wi-fi at a campsite was still worth it.

The next day, I made my way back over the Cascades, and saw some of the most spectacular scenery of the drive. The highway passed a lot of trailheads, but I didn’t have time to hike them, since I wanted to be back in Seattle by late afternoon. That’s okay, though– this was really just a scouting run of the Cascade Loop; soon I’ll go back and fill in more of the details.

But even sticking mostly to the road, there were still some impressive sights to be seen, like Diablo Lake. And no, the color of this picture isn’t wonky; that was the actual color of the water.

Eventually, the highway came down out of the Cascades and back toward the coast, and I continued outward to the islands of Puget Sound. The highway wound its way down Fidalgo Island and Whidbey Island, and in between them was one of the coolest things on the drive: Deception Pass. (Despite the similarity of the name, no relation to Deception Falls State Park.) And on the day I visited, the clouds were having a field day, coming and going every few minutes and creating some pretty cool effects.

After walking the length of the bridge twice, taking pictures and marveling at the view, it was time to finish the trip and head home. I traveled to the south end of Whidbey Island and caught a ferry across Puget Sound, back to the mainland, heading south just in time to get caught in Seattle rush-hour traffic.

Ah, well, you win some, you lose some. But all in all, I’ll chalk that trip up as a win. The full Flickr set is here. And I’m already looking forward to seeing the Cascades again. Anyone up for a hike?