09/1/17

What we say, what we don’t say

When I edit, I have to block out the world around me, ignoring the news, fun events, and generally forcing myself to focus on word choice, grammar, and mechanics. This year, that editing cave saved me from becoming embroiled in a couple of controversial situations. Now that I’ve mailed my copy edits to my editor, I’m reading over scores of emails (literally several hundred of them) and trying to figure out how to respond.

First there’s DragonCon, an event I’ve loved attending over the last thirteen years. The largest fan-run convention in the southeast, folks affectionately call D*C “nerd mardi gras.” This year some 84,000 people came to geek out. Unfortunately, there were a myriad of small-scale assaults, like the guy going around ripping off costumes glued onto delicate body parts, and one serious incident were two chairs were thrown from a tenth-floor balcony into the crowd below, causing two women to go to the emergency room with head wounds.

I enjoyed parts of DragonCon: the Georgia Philharmonic Symphony playing sci-fi and fantasy themes, the random moments of joy when I discovered new music by seeing bands play live in the halls, the atmosphere, the shopping. But I don’t feel safe anymore. A woman in front of me was grabbed by a stranger intent on pulling off her clothes despite her protests. There was no security and nothing to be done about it. That’s not a party I want to support.

But should I say something? Should I wipe my blog free of references to DragonCon from years past when things were reasonable? I’m not naïve enough to believe there was never a problem at any of the previous Cons I attended, but the silence from DragonCon staff seems deafening. Do I say my relationship with them ends as of this year, or do I volunteer and work from the inside to make things better?

Meanwhile the Romance Writers’ of America, a group I recently rejoined, struggled with questions of racism and privilege. The published authors network (PAN) forum included a note from a longtime volunteer who felt outreach efforts were misplaced. It stated that rather than recruiting and working to include marginalized groups, RWA should only focus on writing. Almost immediately, authors big and small stepped in to say that’s not okay.

RWA has a history of being a group for heterosexual, cisgender white women, but that’s changing. Most of the authors who spoke want it to keep changing. Some of them felt passionately enough to copy quotes and comments from the private forum group onto social media, much in the way I’m posting this to my blog. That’s where the problems started. Until the information was shared outside of the group, the conversation focused on the problem. Once it became a public issue, people wanted to talk about privacy and witch-hunts. It was no longer about discrimination or diversity, but about victims and rule breakers.

The two situations are very different, but coming late to the debates thanks to editing, there’s a common question of what do I say? And where do I say it? Does it make a difference if I speak out on the internet or in person? Is saying something on my blog enough or do I need to plaster the same message on all my social media outlets?

One of my favorite philosophers is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He’s the one who said “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

I wish I had a better idea of what being silent means for me, in this moment. I won’t deny this year has been hard – disasters, human rights issues, and violence have dominated the news. I see protesters speaking out, spreading hope, and people working hard to find solutions. For me I think the solution is not to name people or harp on controversy. There are plenty of people doing that. Instead I’m going to write the stories I want to see in the world, and hope their visions turn into reality.

09/5/16

DragonCon Report 2016

Labor Day weekend means DragonCon for me, at least most years. Other folks expect to bar-be-que or drink some beers. Me? I’m hoping to ride the dragon, literally:

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I’m riding a half-size model of Toothless from How to Tame Your Dragon, displayed to raise money for the Make a Wish Foundation. Toothless is wearing their band around his leg.

There’s more to the con than costumes, but any Con report would be remiss not to include them. This year some of my favorites included costume designers who envisioned another world. One designer imagined a regency period where British Colonialism didn’t exist and allowed Caribbean and African influences to flourish. Another pair created a gender swapped Avengers set in the Civil War era:

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Civil War Iron Woman and Captain America

There are also costumes with very large props, such as the life-size Luck dragon with the Empress from Never Ending Story.img_1170

But the real beauty of DragonCon for me is the way science becomes fun, and learning difficult new ideas turns into a party game.

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In this panel, three distinguished scientist (geologist, astronomer, and marine biologist) told stories. The audience had to guess which of the three were lying. After six rounds we determine the marine biologist should never play poker and marine mammals do terrible things. Dolphins get high chewing puffer fish; Killer Whales kill sharks and eat their liver for fun; and those adorable cuttlefish are cannibals.

Later in the same room I’d learn about opti-genetics, the emerging science of turning on and off parts of the brain (neurons/nerves) by flashing different types of light. Take a look at what this science can do. Making a mouse run in circles seems a little cruel, but as someone who suffers from seizures I’m very interested in what other things we might be able to control this way.

Across the hall in the Space track room, I learned about the secret town of Oakridge, TN and the young girls who perfected the process to refine uranium there. Hired because they didn’t ask questions, separated from their families, and working under horrible conditions, they made history. The panel discussed the book The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II. Listening made me itch to start writing a historic fiction novel set in the same town.

I adore the Georgia Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra’s presentations on Saturday night. No place else in the world features that many talented musicians playing the familiar songs I love. This year’s set included three Batman themes, the theme song from Firefly (with a live banjo!), songs from Star Wars and Star Trek, and a vocal performance of the Misty Mountains Cold from The Hobbit. I and over 3000 of my new best friends knew the performance was worth the hour and a half wait.

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That wait was indicative of the biggest problem I had at Con this year: crowds. With 77,000 geeks and at least a few thousand locals thrown into the mix on Saturday, the crowds were enormous. Suddenly even simple tasks like drinking water or walking ten feet ahead became a challenge. The dealer’s room, normally a vault of geeky treasures, became an enforced march where you couldn’t stray from the crush of people until it was shut down due to over crowding.

Which at least partially explains why this was the first DragonCon that I didn’t bring home a new corset. I absolutely fell in love with KMK designs. Their corsets were unique, innovative, well made, and surprisingly affordable. My last corset was a generically sized, came wrapped in plastic kind of corset, while KMK is a custom sized with a mock up to ensure perfection. If I’m going to invest in a custom-made couture corset I want to savor every second of its construction, something that isn’t possible in a giant crowd. So while I want one, oh yes I want one, it will have to wait. Thankfully, there were enough great times at Con that I’m not too disappointed about that.

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08/1/16

Night Vale Community Radio

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A member of the Night Vale City Council

I’m not sure when I got hooked on the Night Vale Community radio hour, the fictional radio broadcast that serves as entry into the world of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast. I’m sure I’ve only been listening for a few years. I caught on late, and Welcome to Night Vale didn’t start broadcasting until 2012. Somehow it seems like it’s been around much longer, like I’ve been listening forever.

Things like that happen a lot in Night Vale.

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One of the best Carlos the scientist costumes of the night. His clipboard was filled with actual science!

It’s like any other town, except that there’s a dog park that might be a portal to another dimension, and the secret police have outlawed learning. Or maybe learning is allowed again but wheat isn’t. In either case, the library is a dangerous place and the government keeps track of all middle school secrets. Oh, and there’s a five headed dragon running for mayor. So like any other small town, but not in most of the ways you think.

Narrated by Cecil, a wonderful radio host whose thoughts turn out to be deeper than you’d think, each week’s story is an encapsulated plot broken up by “the weather” – a single song by little known independent groups. It’s an example of the slow pay off of a story so strange it takes a minute for you to realize it. I can never tell how much of an episode is real and how much is story. I’m not alone.

Earlier this year I had the good fortune to see the live show entitled “Ghost stories”. Before the doors opened, fans showed off costumes and argued plot lines. (Is the whole show set in the afterlife?) With all its oddness, Night Vale celebrates scientists, like Carlos, Cecil’s boyfriend, and the group was happy to scientifically pick things apart. When the story started though, all that ended. Enraptured silence fell over the audience.

There are many different types of ghost stories in the world. Welcome to Night Vale’s ghost stories were about the ghosts of who we could have been if we’d done the right thing. Ghosts of people who weren’t addicted, who parented well, and who made good choices paraded across the stage in the final minutes. Those last stories hit somber notes, leaving the audience moved and maybe saddened. Normally I avoid moments like that, life has enough trouble on its own, but after all the joy I’ve found in the off-kilter town of Night Vale, the bittersweet didn’t bother me.

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02/21/12

One Tough Mother

I’m working on a conference proposal this week about a subject that makes me rant: the portrayal of motherhood as weakness in modern speculative fiction. I’m posting this blog in the (perhaps insane) hope that a few brilliant authors will agreed with me, and want to be on the panel to discuss it with a group of fans.

In mythology and religion, motherhood has been treated as a position of strength as well as gentleness. While depictions of meek mothers certainly abound, strong mothers are also present. The Hindu goddess Durga is a wonderful example. Durga is a fearless mother, who protects with weapons clutched in her eighteen hands. Fierce and feminine, this divine mother rides a tiger into battle.

Historic maternal figures like Queen Isabella of Spain or Queen Victoria, who continued to show their strength after having children, should provide ample inspiration for speculative writers.  Even criminal mothers like, Ma Barker who famously took care of gang members, even eventually shielding them from prosecution, could become a fine character. But where are they? Too often having a baby signals the end of a character’s ability to grow and develop in any direction except a maternal one.

Only two decades ago science fiction had a wonderful example of a mother-warrior, Ellen Ripley. She’s tough. She can fire a gun and run a loader, but at the same time she comforts Newt, connecting with her as she washes the child’s face. She’s exactly the role model I crave: competent, strong, and caring.

She’s also probably lonely, as I can’t think of another strong mother like her. Doctor Who’s Amy Pond can fight off any number of space monsters, but she completely ignores her daughter for several months after the infant is kidnapped. Padme Amidala fires her blaster and works in the intergalactic senate… until she has kids, then she’s too weak to survive heartbreak. Sarah Connor can take down a terminator but we never see her making her son laugh or taking care of him.

Hopefully I’m wrong and the comments will be filled with a thousand examples of characters that don’t suddenly lose the ability to think, fight, or be fierce simply because they’ve managed to reproduce. If I’m not though, and you’d like to talk about why there aren’t any tough mothers in genre fiction today, drop me a note. With luck I’ll find a few brilliant authors, and along with a handful of creative fans, will generate some solutions to the problem.

 

02/6/12

Playing with Web page design

Forgive my self-aggrandizing but I’ve recently received word that my proposal for the Romance Writers of America Conference was accepted. I’ll be teaching a one hour session entitled “Develop a Free Author Website in 60 Minutes (or Less!).” Along with Jami Gold, a social media maven, I’ll cover creating a free website, setting up a blog, and various hosting options.

I started writing in HTML back in 1997. I worked for a defense firm, taking care of passel of wonderfully geeky mechanical and software engineers. They wanted a website. I had the most free time. The solution was obvious to them: I would learn HTML. I surprised myself by doing just that. Back then the language was rather intuitive, paragraphs were indicated with a p, if you wanted to make something bold, you labeled it ‘bold’, italics were indicated with an I, underline with a u and so on.
The W3C (World Wide Web Consortium, the Powers That Be when it comes to the web) ushered in a new changes and rules. HTML expanded to include XML and XHTML. It spun off the sections about format (fonts, color, text size) to a separate language called CSS. Databases driven websites came along, and ASP made them work. But the basic 10 pieces of my HTML vocabulary from that first website still work and I remain convinced that HTML is the simplest language in the world to learn. I’m a bit of an HTML zealot. I firmly believe that just about anyone can create & maintain a website. I’ve taught 63 year old Grandmothers and 40 year old technophobes.

 

I still design web pages in my day job, in fact, it’s the best part of my day. Web design is dependable like math, two plus two always equals four. I like the clean lines of code and how I can know that it will work. I love the intellectual puzzle of making the code do what I want. I can’t wait to introduce a roomful of writers to that fun. Until then, if anyone needs help with a tricky webpage drop me a note. I’m happy to play with it.