Sunday, July 29, 2012

ArmadilloCon 34

This weekend I attended ArmadilloCon, a writers' convention in Austin, the heart of Texas and my current home. It was pretty laid back, but I still met a lot of interesting people and attended a lot of intriguing panels, so I thought I'd post a short writeup on the talks I listened to. Hope this is useful for the people who weren't able to make it out!

Writing in Multiple Genres
Panelists: Frank Summers, Bill Crider, Urania Fung, Alexis Glynn Latner, Kenneth Mark Hoover, C.J. Mills

Some of my compatriots weren't enamoured with this panel, especially as an opening to the convention, but I found it pretty enjoyable. It was less a pragmatic "should you/shouldn't you" or "should you have a pseudonym" discussion, and more of a philosophical one. The consensus essentially came down to the idea that the story is paramount; genre, if it exists as an inherent part of storytelling, is secondary. Though Ms. Fung made a good point that genre exists for your readers to find something they might like, but they also exist for writers to find readers. Some assorted topics of discussion:

  • Crossing genres, even within the same story, is much more accepted now than it was even 5-10 years ago
  • Some other mediums, such as comic books, were trailblazers in helping readers become more comfortable with crossing genres.
  • Names thrown out of authors that do this particularly well: Orson Scott Card, Dan Simmons, Isaac Asmiov, and even Seth Grahame-Smith, author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. 
  • Motivations included listening to the needs of a story, writing for a specific market you're interested in, and simply wanting to be defiant toward the publishing industry. 

Trends in eBook Publishing
Panelists: Rhiannon Frater, Bill Crider, Liz Burton (Zumaya Publications), Gloria Oliver 

Anyone with a passing interest in writing or publishing knows that eBook publishing is the way of the future (way of the future...), so I had to hit this one. I was pleasantly surprised with the level of discussion on the panel. Excuse my French, but Ms. Burton of Zumaya Publications knows her shit. I can't hope to do any of the comments justice, but here's a quick rundown:

  • eBook publishing has obviously exploded lately, but it started back in 1996. Which is, like, woah.
  • One of the biggest misconceptions is that it doesn't count any money to make an eBook, which is false (or at least, false for good eBooks). That still doesn't mean $13 is a good price (it's not). And it doesn't mean that $1 is a good price either (leaves no room for sales, makes it very hard to raise price for future works). Consensus hovered somewhere around $4-$8.
  • Amazon and B&N provide the majority of sales. This isn't really news.
  • NO DRM. All the panelists and the audience seemed in agreement about this. It provides no benefit to stopping piracy and just annoys reader. Ms. Frater also made a good point on this topic. She told a story of a friend who found her book on thepiratebay and was flat out ready to quit writing because of it. Frater did an experiment where she tracked downloads on the file, only to find that, even though it was available, it had somewhere around 5-10 downloads in nearly a year. So essentially meaningless.
  • Some worries about the new marketplace: ease of plagiarism (copying and publishing under a different name) and buying and reading a book, and then returning. Ms. Burton said there are continuing discussions with Amazon on this issue.
  • Mr. Crider pointed out that he made more money in on an eBook of an older title than he ever did when it was published in hardcopy. His electronic sales outpace his previous paper sales by a vast majority.
  • At least in Ms. Frater's case, her agent and publisher (TOR) doesn't mind her self-publishing work on the side, especially when it's used to promote her traditionally published novels.
  • Big 6 is learning how to deal with all this, but it's slow. They're used to dealing with retailers, not direct customers.
  • E-ARC (Advanced Reader Copy), blog tours and cover reveals can be fairly useful to build buzz.
Writing a Strong Female Protagonist
Panelists: Rhiannon Frater, Chloe Neill, Patrice Sarath, Michael Bracken, Jaime Lee Moyer, Katharine Kimbriel 

As someone who writes a lot of female protagonists (that I hope are strong), this was one of the panels I was really interested in. Unfortunately, though the panelists were all eager and helpful, with a nice body of work, it wasn't quite what I was looking for. Jim Reader pointed out that it should have just been a panel on strong female characters, and while I don't necessarily agree (a panel focusing on female characters, and why there are so few of them compared to male characters, absolutely can and should be done), I do think that the panelists sort of went this way. There wasn't a whole lot of advice about female characters specifically; instead, there were a lot of tips on strong characters in general. Again, great info. Just not what I was looking for.
  • The evolution of female characters in general has been from sidekicks/love interests -> belligerent, bitchy, lone wolf, "man in a skirt" types -> fully formed, well rounded female characters
  • To give you character likability, find their core strength
  • Avoid common tropes and caricatures
  • Motherhood is often thought of as weak; it's interesting when this is inverted (I loved this, mostly because my novel has a strong motherhood component that I never try to play anything other than a strong and valid role)
  • Good leaders recognized people who can do things they can't
  • One of the points I strongly disagreed with is the idea that sometimes weak female protagonists are fine because a woman juggling a job and a family, etc, might just want an escape. I, quite frankly, call bullshit. I think creating a weak, blank-slate character is a lazy way to attract readers. I mean, I'll never bash a writer for writing what will sell (Shakespeare gots to get paid after all), but I believe you can write a strong, relatable character that people will like instead of a mindless puppet who exists to be rescued.
The World After Fossil Fuels
Panelists: Katy Stauber, Alan Porter, Jessica Reisman, Fred Stanton, Adrian Simmons

This one was more an interesting standalone discussion rather than one specifically about applying the ideas to fiction. But still, very enjoyable, with some very smart and experienced people on the panel.

  • Limits of Growth is a must-read for anyone interested in this topic
  • Our current energy use won't change until we decide to make a change; even if there's pressure (higher prices, etc) the infrastructure simply doesn't support anything than fossil fuels.
  • High-speed transit would be nice in the US, but it's more complicated than just building trains. Would require all new rails to support higher speeds.
  • Blimps, for all their danger, are actually highly efficient as a form of transportation, as hydrogen is one of the one forms of fuel more efficient than gasoline.
  • ITER fusion reactors, thorium fission and renewable diversification were all mentioned as places to research for those interested.
Alternate History
Panelists: Bob Mahoney, Jayme Lynn Blaschke, Josh Rountree, Penny Griffin, Howard Waldrop
  • Are alternate histories considered scifi or fantasy? In the end, "speculative fiction" is probably a better category.
  • Classic dilemma that almost all alternate histories need to choose between: are certain historical events and technological advances "inevitable," or do strong people and circumstances create events? That is, would the printing press have been invented around the same time even without Gutenberg? Both views are valid, but it's hard to write a story that does both.
  • The main appeal lies in the fact that hindsight is always 20/20, and it's fun to say "What if?"
  • Writing from the point of view of a character inside the alternate world is usually (but not always) better than an outsider. Throwing an outsider in an alternate history can give the reader someone to relate to, but also creates infordumps.
  • Research till it hurts, leave out 99% of it.
  • Reading list: Man in the High Castle, Joan Aiken, Fatherland, Plot Against America, Celestial Empire, Gate of Worlds, Kingsley Amis "The Reformation", The Difference Engine, Harry Turtledove, Scott Westerfield, Nabakov "Ada or Ardor", "The Ugly Chickens" by Howard Waldrop, "Lest Darkness Fall"
Politics and Social Issues of the Future
Panelists: Gabrielle Faust, Adrian Simmons, Chris N. Brown

I loved this one! Another great discussion with some very sharp people about what to expect in the near future.
  • Corporatization of food and war. Ms. Faust had a great point about food giant Monsanto teaming up with Blackwater, the mercenary corporation. Mr. Brown brought up the idea of renegade farmers with urban farms trying to grow in secret, and the police (or hell, mercs) trying to catch them for patent infringement.
  • Disappearance of nation states -- Europe already starting to trash the idea of highly separate nations. Look for borders to become more and more porous.
  • Possible end of capitalism, which sounds like the idealistic talk that has always been thrown around, but the panelists made some good inferences regarding this. Essentially, capitalism is addiction to growth, and it's quickly becoming obvious (especially in a nonscarce economy, more on that below) that this is unsustainable.
  • The end of "race" as a concept. Now, Mr. Brown brought this up specifically talking about the U.S. become more and more of a mixed race country. I agree with him in general, but not on the timeline (he said 25 years; I think 250 years would be optimistic). Brought up the concept that systemic racism exists more because of incentives than human natures. As the incentives (or privileges) fade, so will racism.
  • All of this will lead to amazing instability in the next few decades.
  • 3D printing will become a huge issue, possibly leading to the end of scarcity as a concept (more on this in the "Social Impact" panel below).
  • Distribution is currently strangling production; that is, we can produce a lot, especially since we don't need a lot people (or jobs) to do it any longer. It's costlier and less efficient to distribute this. 3D printing might solve this (either a printer in every house, or one for every community).
  • That lack of scarcity might lead to a lack of required jobs for humanity. Pessimistically, it'll make us bored and violent. Optimistically, it'll allow us to focus on long term problems like the environment, or even cosmic problems like finding new worlds to inhabit.
  • Look for the blending of rural and urban communities as available land shrinks and people telecommute more. Things like urban farming will be one of the most obvious effects of this.
Social Impacts of New Technology
Panelists: Robert Jackson Brown, Chris N. Brown, Madeleine Dimond, Elizabeth Moon

I consider this a "companion" to the previous panel; it touched on and expanded on some of the same topics.
  • Secrets may become mostly a thing of the past. The power that revolves around keeping and telling secrets will cease to exist. This might lead to more accountability and more forgiveness; when everyone has black marks, no one's little mistakes really matter all that much.
  • More talk of 3D printing. The ability to print guns could be mighty useful in a revolution. This requires a huge amount of power currently, however, meaning it's still under the control of the Powers That Be.
  • Speaking of which, all of our technology that supposedly frees us (Internet, mobile web, etc.) is still at the behest of giant corporations, which is worrying.
  • Technology disrupts power structures, which is why governments dislike it. Mentioned was an "Internet Satellite Disruption Kit," basically a quick-connection kit dropped by the West into unstable countries to document state behavior. Also brought up photographing police. Brought up social media in the Arab Spring, use of twitter/etc. to avoid cartel blockades in Mexico. Also brought up Anonymous's hacktivisim against cartels to free a blogger.
  • 3D printing has already been prototyped to make biological materials, i.e., organs. Could we make animals? If so, would this be used to make extinct animals, or new, exotic ones?
  • Networks are becoming much more diverse (slowly), which is fantastic. Used to be only the highly privileged could afford Internet access. Is becoming less the case now.
  • The Internet has led to a culture of outrage. While Internet activism has empowered many and will be a huge outlet for direct democracy in the future, we have to be careful that it doesn't convince us that doing nothing or simply screaming into the void enacts change.
Attracting and Building an Audience
Panelists: Elizabeth Moon, Chloe Neill, Kenneth Mark Hoover, Pauline Baird Jones

How does one build an audience. Well, by doing this: IF YOU ARE READING THIS RIGHT NOW, SEND THIS LINK TO TEN FRIENDS. Seriously, though, there were some decent tips and things to follow up on here. Nothing revelatory, but still interesting.
  • The concept of a "brand" -- who are you and what are you selling? Most authors agreed that you are your brand, and you shouldn't be afraid to be you in most cases. Ms. Neill made a good point, though, that one should know one's audience. Ms. Moon can get away with talking about controversial topics like politics since she writes for an adult audience about socially aware topics and her readers expect this to a degree. Neill, as a young adult urban fiction writer, has not much to gain and a lot to lose from this, so she holds some opinions back.
  • A series-specific brand/website/blog might be a good idea. If so, start early. Moon, on the relaunch of her PaxWorld series, said she started her blog a year before the rerelease of the first book, and she wished she would have started it at least six months earlier. Building an audience is sloooow.
  • Don't be afraid to write want you want, but once you're done, market to people who are likely to like what you've written. Don't market your Fantasy novel to Hard SF fans, even if you also love Hard SF.
  • Keep a positive focus as much as possible -- again, depending on audience.
  • Be a nice person, hold off on the snark. This was highlighted as one of the most important things an author can do. You don't need to be bland, but be friendly and kind to the people you interact with. This makes a difference with readers, but also to editors/agents.
  • Chloe Neill said she dedicates about 50% of her "writing time" (i.e., non dayjob, non-personal) to marketing. Note that this shouldn't all be shilling your work; things like networking, talking to fans, talking to other writers, etc. are included.
  • Tangible items were highlighted as possible effective. Things like buttons, cafepress merchandising, contests, giveaways, etc. provide readers with a connection and constant reminder of your book.

Shew! There's a lot of information here to digest, but hopefully, like me, you've either found something helpful for the business of selling books, or a spark of an idea for your next story. It was a great experience all around (I got my copy of Dark Tales of Lost Civilzations signed by my co-author Joe Lansdale!) and I absolutely plan to return next year.


4 comments:

Tex said...

Dammit, I was there too - I wish I'd known you were local!

Thanks hugely for the notes, though - there were so many awesome panels I couldn't get to, and it sounds like you hit up some of the best. (Do let me know if you're hitting up any other Texas cons, though; it'd be great to go in with a battle buddy!)

Matt Borgard said...

Damn, seriously! We could have met up! I didn't realize you were local too (Austin, or just TX?) although, in retrospect, I probably should have known.

Right now, LoneStarCon might be a little hard to make (I have a lot going on at the end of August), but DFWCon next year might be fun, as I've never been there and I've heard it's pretty awesome. Are there any others I should know about?

Peaches said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tex said...

I'm up in the DFW neck of the woods, and we've got both FenCon and ConDFW happening in the next few months - I've not been to either yet (this is my first year out of cryo-stasis, so I'm still learning the lay of the land), but I'm hearing great things about them from seasoned vets at the DFW Writer's Workshop.

I DID go to DFWCon this year - different thing from ConDFW - and it absolutely blew my pants off. Totally, totally worth saving the pennies for, though I hope you can make it up sooner than that!

(Sorry for deleted post up above, forgot I was on Better Half's computer.)