Friends and Fun at Potlatch 21

Last weekend I attended Potlatch, a literary sci-fi/fantasy convention in Seattle. It was a small convention, with only a couple hundred attendees; in fact, it was easily the smallest con I’ve ever been to. I mean, there was only one panel going at a time! Crazy!

That said, it was a fun weekend. As I make more friends and get to know people in the Seattle genre writing scene, faces are becoming more familiar, and local cons are becoming less intimidating from a social anxiety perspective. Fellow writing group members Folly Blaine and Mark Edwards were there, and I met a lot of folks at the Writing Workshop, which was probably the highlight of the weekend.

This was my first time attending a writing workshop at a con, and I’m glad I did. There was a little rockiness in the planning stages– apparently Potlatch didn’t expect more than a few people to sign up, because only one author, David Levine, was lined up to lead it. But eleven people signed up, which means they had to get a second session going. Luckily, author and Nebula-nominee Vylar Kaftan stepped up to help, and the workshop was able to proceed (although three sessions probably would have been even better than two).

I was in Vylar’s session, along with Mark, Brian LeBlanc, Caszie Schroeder, and Kelly Horn. Over the course of two hours, we did a Clarion-style critique session, in which we took turns giving feedback on each person’s story. It’s always interesting to do a critique session with new people, both to read different styles of stories and to hear how other people approach giving critiques. (Note to self: do a separate blog post about critiques sometime.) Vylar also had some great feedback on each story, and the overall discussion was really fun– the only downside was that we had to rush to get through it all in two hours.

As far as sci-fi conventions go, Potlatch is a bit unusual in that anyone can sign up to be on panels– you don’t necessarily need to have a bunch of short stories under your belt or be the most experienced in order to join a panel on a given subject. And this was not a detriment– in fact, I’d say that having less experienced authors added an interesting voice to some of the panels that you don’t usually hear. Maybe I’ll sign up for a panel myself next year, if I can force back my anxiety long enough to contemplate it in anything more than the abstract.

Potlatch is closely tied to Clarion West, and on Saturday night there was an auction to raise money for scholarships. (For those who don’t know, Clarion West is a six week writers’ workshop held at University of Washington each year for science fiction and fantasy writers– but it’s expensive, at about $3,000 per person.) It was the first time I’ve ever bid in an auction, and it was pretty fun. I walked away with some old science fiction magazines, and signed books by Jack Skillingstead and Octavia Butler. Good times. I later heard that they raised at least enough for one full scholarship, which is awesome.

The crowd at Potlatch did skew a bit older than at most cons, which isn’t a bad thing, although it did mean that some of the panel discussions tended to focus on older rather than newer stories. In the panel on “Collapse Fiction”, about post-apocalyptic worlds in science fiction and fantasy, most of the examples cited were fairly dated– again, not a bad thing per se. Robert Heinlein and Philip K. Dick are awesome authors who should absolutely be read by anyone who loves the genre. But for new and aspiring authors, wanting to learn about current trends, it’s more useful to look at authors in the past few years– Scott Westerfeld or Suzanne Collins, for example– to get a sense of where the genre is and where it’s going. It took a question from a younger audience member to move the discussion toward present day.

The generation gap was also evident in the Friday night trivia contest, which focused on the history of Potlatch and Clarion West, and mostly asked questions which would only ever be known by people who had been immersed in the local community for decades. Which is all well and good if you’ve been attending Potlatch for twenty years, but for those of us who haven’t (aka my entire team), it was a beatdown. We consoled ourselves by seeing how silly we could make our answers, but by the end, our team name (“The Redshirts”) felt unfortunately apropos.

But all in all, it was a fun weekend. Lots of good conversations, some great panels, and once again I walked away with more books than will actually fit in my apartment (thanks largely to the table where they were selling paperbacks for a dollar each). Despite my kvetching about social anxiety, conventions are fun, and if I go for a few months without one, I really start to miss the energy and creativity I feel from simply being in the vicinity of dozens of other writers. In that sense, Potlatch was a rousing success.

Hopefully next year I won’t have to pull an all-nighter for work on Saturday night. That made for an interesting mental state on Sunday, but the sleep deprivation was totally worth it.

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One sad note: we got word during the con that a local author and longtime member of the community, Mark Bourne, passed away on Saturday. Unfortunately, I never got to meet Mark, but I just wanted to pass along my condolences to his family and friends, many of whom were at Potlatch this weekend.

You Are Falling Under My Power…

A couple days ago I became an officially licensed hypnotherapist in the state of Washington. Hypnosis has been a hobby of mine for a couple years, partly because it provides some very interesting insight into how the mind works, and partly because, well, it’s just plain fun.

Admittedly, hypnosis has a dubious reputation. The mere fact that it’s associated with “mind control” means that the field tends to attract a lot of charlatans and con artists. It’s not hard to find sites on the Internet which advertise sure-fire ways to hypnotize your boss into doing what you want, or seducing hot women in twenty-two seconds, or becoming the greatest negotiator of all time. Hypnosis is also still somewhat mysterious and not very well understood, which means that people are even more likely to believe whatever specious claims come their way, and to doubt the real information. It’s hard to know which sources are trustworthy and which aren’t. The science of hypnosis is about as well understood as the science of sleep– in other words, not well at all.

That said, there are a few definite facts: hypnosis exists, although usually in a less dramatic fashion than most people imagine. Put simply, hypnosis is the ability of the mind to enter a trance, and chances are you do it multiple times a day. For example, if you’ve ever been driving somewhere and ended up going the wrong way because you were thinking about something else, or gotten so absorbed in what you were doing that you stopped noticing the outside world, then you’ve entered a state called environmental hypnosis.

Environmental hypnosis happens at other times, too: if you’ve ever been so engrossed in a movie that world around you faded out, and the movie felt real to you, that was a form of hypnosis. Or if you’ve ever gotten so deeply into a book that time seemed to fade, that the words on the page seemed less like words and more like a window into a world that you could see and feel and touch, that’s hypnosis, too.

You heard me: writers, when they operate at their best, are hypnotists. Good stories can actually put the reader or listener in a trance, so that the characters and the setting become totally real in the reader’s mind, if only for a little while. The words transcend being mere words, and become a doorway into another world.

That ideal, more than anything, is what I aspire to when I write. It’s incredibly hard to do, and I’ve found that in addition to having the usual elements of storytelling in place—complex characters, vibrant setting, compelling plot—even the rhythm of the words has a crucial role in setting this up. A single misplaced comma or ill-chosen word can cause the reader to stumble and break that trance, and turn the words on the page from a window back into mere words.

Sometimes this is called transparent prose, or invisible prose. Prose that’s so smooth, so flowing, that the reader forgets they’re reading a story. Some people will say it has to be simple (to which I disagree wholeheartedly), but it often has to be constructed as meticulously as poetry— each word is important, in meaning, in style, in rhythm.

Rhythm in my writing is something I struggle with a lot, not just to achieve, but even to define. What is it, exactly? It’s language that flows naturally in the mind, that mirrors the emotions the readers and the characters are feeling, that uses things like flow, and speed, to enhance the writing in the text. In great writing, it’s not just the words that convey emotion and meaning, it’s the style and the construction of the sentences, the paragraphs, the chapters. On every level, the writing has to work in unison.

I love it when writing truly becomes a window, when it transports me to another place and another world, when it creates real characters in my mind whom I become friends with and care about. It’s one of the reasons I became a writer in the first place.

And I suppose in that sense, it’s natural that I picked up an interest in actual hypnosis along the way. I wonder how else I can put it to use.

You are getting sleepy… very sleepy…

You will buy my stories, available soon at major retailers…

Hmm. Maybe not.