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Science Fiction Writers’ Week: Film Noir and First Impressions (Writing Con)

Yes, yes, it’s time! Hold on to your hoods, friends, as I regal you with tales from the first day of ProWritingAid’s free conference.

So to start, a moment of applause for the people who put this together. For many reasons, but not the least of which, I can’t imagine the headache the planners went through when looking at time zones. No matter what you try, someone’s bound to be eating goldfish crackers and watching the conference under a fleece blanket at four in the morning.

No, that is not self-referential.

It was still pretty dark when I got up, both from the hour and because it was a grey day. You know, the kind when the sky seems to be a solid mass of thick cloud, silent, watching, unrelenting, without drop of rain. Waiting.

I only turned a little light on, so the shadows from my tea mug and other whatnot on the counter stretched out almost comically, like in old superhero comics. All the color seemed to leech out of the room. Even the green matcha seemed almost grey. All I needed was a hard-boiled detective’s gravelly voice narrating, and I would have been transported into the start of some film noir adventure.

It seemed about the right way to start the morning of the conference.

Getting to the conference itself…

…the first panel was cancelled. This isn’t anyone’s fault at all, since the panelists had an emergency (hoping it was the oh how irritating a flat tire or the oh how inconvenient I’ve been captured by a dragon suppose this is my life now-type emergency and not the more negative kind)…but it means the worldbuilding session was postponed and I can’t talk about it.


On to the next!

Next up was an interview with author Alastair Reynolds.

And after seeing it, I don’t actually think there was an assigned topic? I think the interviewer had some starter questions, but once you get a writer going, they just…go.

It’s a beautiful thing to behold, the ramble.

But perhaps most refreshing was the little detail Reynolds shamelessly admitted–despite having a background in a hard science field, he doesn’t know everything that goes on in his world. There are plot holes. There are continuity errors.

There are also good stories.

I get intimidated sometimes with Tolkien as my no. 1 on the “write like this please, chaos brain” list. It’s a little less pressure to hear perfectly successful authors say “Yeah, I’ve got no clue. Yes, there are continuity issues. Enjoy the story for the story.”

And really, what else are they doing besides leaving plot holes in which fanfiction can appear?

That’s both hopeful and ominous…


As I told you before, I’ve never been to a ProWritingAid sponsored conference before, so I didn’t have a clue how it worked. Nor did I realize there was an hour break between most panels in case something runs long/to stay perfectly on track.

And actually, I really like that because it gives you time to absorb, take a break, think things through, make sense of your half-scribbled notes if you have any (I didn’t really)…

By this point you’ve stopped the conversation to ask if I thought panels were back to back and two hours long each, surely I wasn’t prepared to sit that many hours unmoving and absorbing information?

I decline to comment on such notions.

So next up…


(as presented by Samantha Skal)

Even though most writers see the actual writing, the drafting, coming up with stories from nothing as the fun part (or the part where your eyes start bleeding?), this was an enjoyable one. Skal is very professional, always centered on having a plan, mapping things out, taking the rhinoceros of a project down one step at a time.

And when you have a half-written manuscript as long (and as convoluted!) as I do…having a plan sounds pretty good!

It’s probably a good one to revisit, if I get the chance to watch the replays.

Skipping ahead,

The next panel was supposed to be about the ProWritingAid software. I imagined it was going to be “A Word from Our Sponsor” type thing like the corn flake or Carnation milk commercials in tired, black-and-white TV series–but I didn’t get the chance to find out.

My age-old rival, Time Zone Conversion, struck again.

I was doing pretty good keeping the calculation straight in my head…but I wasn’t paying attention and thought every panel had an hour break between it and the next…they do not.

Which means that I completely blew through the ProWritingAid one because I thought I had more time and was too lazy to recheck and recalculate…

Ah, time zone converter. You have scored a point. But the next victory shall be mine.

Anyway, I decided to opt out of the next session because

  • didn’t want to do face cam
  • was going to be required to speak English to other life forms
  • didn’t want to be ousted as a fantasy writer among sci-fi-ers.

Okay, but this was actually a legitimate concern as the con went on. In case you don’t know, I write mostly fantasy.

Almost completely fantasy. Urban, medieval, chaotic, high, steampunk, what have you. Sometimes even science fantasy (did you know that’s a thing? It’s a thing. I love that it’s a thing), which is why I thought I’d benefit from this con in the first place.

It can be a little daunting around “real” sci-fi writers when your particular brand is androids + wizards.

Yes, I realize I just said I write magic robot stories. I’m aware.

I’m not even going to apologize for that right now. Draw your own conclusions; it got me my first Writers of the Future Honorable Mention.

Anyway, SF/F are besties in the genre world, get lumped together in almost every anthology, and writers of one at least occasionally dabble in the other, so I thought it’d be…fine…right?

But maybe not.

Maybe it’s the fact that the panel was labeled “Speed Dating” and I balked. You’ll never know.

More importantly, my tea ran out hours ago and bookmarkedone needed food. Pro tip: keep your resident scribbler well supplied with snacks. It doesn’t stop us from writing, but we will remember you favorably after the murders begin.

After resupplying the Hoard with snacks…

I scampered back in time for the next panel, “Essentials of Writing Science Fiction.”

…Which could be literally anything! Worldbuilding! Plots! Characters! Rockets, dragons, and cats!

What it turned out to be was Anne Hawley and Rachelle Ramirez pleasantly lecturing on story types, something that (yes, get your shocked gasps and clutching the pearl necklace in now), was a topic largely new to bookmarkedone.

It’s essentially a map. An equation. Like the hero’s journey has certain beats, pop songs have certain chord progressions (I-IV-V-I, I am looking at you), fairytales always come in threes, story types boil down all the tales we’ve ever told into seven different narratives.

It’s kind of beautiful.

And let’s face it, I go about writing in a chaotic way that makes outlining about as distant as certain stars, but to look at a story retroactively, looking back on it at the point when one gets stuck and isn’t sure which way to go–that could be brilliant.

Perhaps it’s because they presented it in such a simple way–what sort of story do you want to tell? What’s most important to you (your characters)? Solving puzzles? Saving lives? Redeeming yourself? It’s crystal clear the way these two present it.

And let’s not forget that they have a recent (or classic) SF/F publication for every example they gave, so it’s both a crash course and a booklist at the same time, like two panels in the place of one wrapped up and tied with a bow–

By the way–Hawley and Ramirez agreed that there is a line between science fiction and fantasy. They confirmed that they crossed it during their recommendations/comp titles and wandered into the fantastical. They happily have no idea exactly where the blurry line dwells.

I like them quite a bit.


One more panel before the day’s end.

Creating Emotionally Impactful Science Fiction

I’ve read my share of dry books. I think everyone has–or at least has left them half read with a bookmark tucked between the pages for me to pull out later when it inevitably winds up on the secondhand bookshelf at the fairgrounds or in the dark corner of a musty, half-forgotten thrift store.

And sci-fi?

Well, it’s got a reputation.

Frankly, it’s so easy to get tangled up in the technical jargon that a story gets swamped under it all. And it’s not just science, it’s anything you know too well–sort of like the opposite of write what you know. Like looking at an impressionist painting too closely.

It’s one of the reasons I have a hard time writing about music. It’s–so much a part of me, I don’t know how to explain it any more than some people could teach you how to breathe.

Anyway, in that light, I was quite interested to see what this last panel of the day had. I was cozied in the garrett, the thunderstorm that had been raging for the last few hours had boiled itself out to a disgruntled simmer, smell of rain tickling my nose–really, I was having a nice day at this point, wasn’t I?

The last panel’s suggestion?

Structure. Know what kind of point you want to make with the novel before you even start. Know thyself, in essence, and discover what matters most. Then you’ll have a story that never varies from its emotional core.

And–it’s certainly one way to go about it.

It’s funny, because right about when I was going to take issue with the strategy, Dani Abernathy remarked that this wasn’t something everyone was going to automatically like.

And she’s right! I–don’t like it.

To be fair, I didn’t hear all of this panel because Ye Thunderstorme was back and playing havok with my internet connection (good for you, buddy. Looks like fun), so I might have missed some Golden Nugget of Truth that would completely change my opinion.


I’m–a very exploratory writer. I think a lot of fantasy kids are. So what if the point is just being there, in that place you’ve built from ink and paper and nothing? What then? I can’t help thinking that just by living with the characters I’ve created, they’ll feel more natural, grow around me and find their own voices, their own character arcs more realistically than if I demand something specific from them.

My particular characters don’t respond well to demands.

Probably one of the many reasons why I adore them.

Anyway, that’s Science Fiction Writers’ Week, Day 1! We’re ploughing on through Friday, so stay tuned for further adventures.


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