Sunday, July 11, 2010

Westercon 63

It’s that time of the year.  The days get longer.  The sun rises hot into the sky.  And one has dreams of running away from the mundane world to join a conference room filled with other pale-faced nerds to participate in a discussion of manned space flight, or hear about an author’s latest science fiction/horror/time-travel/romance novel. 
That’s right.  Convention season is here.  
I made plans to go to three conventions this year.  Comic-Con, by far the largest convention focused on the ‘popular arts,’ which is less than two weeks away in San Diego; The World Science Fiction Convention, or WorldCon, which will be in Melbourne, Australia this year starting September 2nd; and Westercon, a regional convention that is held over the Fourth of July holiday weekend each year in some city in the western United States.  This year Westercon 63, or the 63rd running of the convention, was held in my hometown of Pasadena, California.  I was able to go to the convention all four days.  This is my ‘after-action’ report.
Thursday, July 1st
The programming the first day of any convention typically starts late.  This is to give the attendees time to register or check-in, get their badges and find their way around.  It is also the first chance you have to run into those ‘convention buddies’ you meet every year, compare schedules and make plans to meet for lunch or dinner.  
I attended two panels on Thursday, which were: 
Astronomy 101 - A gentleman named Michael Siladi stepped in to host this panel when the person originally scheduled was unable to make it in time (another common occurrence on the first day of the convention as you’ll see below).  This panel was about amateur astronomy and how to get into it.  Mr. Siladi provided a lot of information on where one might go locally for optimal star viewing, where to find like minded enthusiasts, what to buy and when to buy it.  Most interesting was the information on some of the newest software one could buy, including programs for smart phones that provide an overlay through your camera’s viewfinder to identify the stars you are looking at.  Pretty cool.  
As a writer, some of the interesting tidbits were about the lives of such hobbyists.  For instance, most Astronomy Club meetings take place on the night of full moons.  Why?  Because the light of the moon interferes with star gazing.  We were also told about some ‘portable’ telescopes one could buy that required a trailer hooked to a truck to pull them.  
Visions of Future Past - A panel about past efforts to imagine what the future would be like that were plausible yet failed.  The question posed to the panelists were why did they fail and what would things be like if they had succeeded.  The panel included Richard Foss and Janine Ellen Young.  David Brin was scheduled to be one of the panelists, but didn’t make it.  Some of the technology discussed included Monorails, Picture Telephones, Zeppelins, Turbine Cars, Steam Powered Cars and Orion Space Craft.  Flying Cars were specifically barred from discussion (I did not take down in my notes the reason given for this decision, though it seemed to land on ‘it’s panel topic unto itself’).  The audience for this panel was very talkative and contributed a lot of their own opinions on the subject.  
The most interesting point I got out of this panel was how sometimes failed plans leave social residue.  One example was one of the Metro train lines in Los Angeles, which swings around the nearest business district to stop at what appear to be abandoned warehouses.  The reason: when the route was being planned those warehouses were the sites of several aerospace companies which had hundreds of employees.  By the time the line was completed those companies had been bought out, moved or closed their doors and the employees the line intended to serve went elsewhere.  
Notable quote: “Monorails are the technology of the future…  And always will be.
I had planned to attend a panel about Character Generation but instead meet up with some friends over a late lunch/early dinner.  
Friday, July 2nd
On the first full day of the convention I went to four panels: 
Writing Workshop: Generating Speculative Fiction Ideas - The panel was hosted by a science fiction writer named Maya Kaathryn Bohnoff.  She spoke about where she got the ideas of the story she wrote.  Some of her suggestions including eavesdropping on conversations, making lists, using your other senses to spark ideas, such as taste, touch and smell, and deconstructing objects (Why is this thing here?  What does it do?  Who left it?  Etc.).  Most notable about this panel was that the famed science fiction author Larry Niven joined us as a fellow participant.  I can honestly say that, for that two hour period, I was a writer on par with Larry Niven.  She had us do an exercise by picking an object from a bag of stuff she brought with her and deconstructing it to write a story.  As a result I have the beginning of a new story idea that I will finish and try to submit one day.  
Funniest moment: After completing the exercise, Larry Niven stood up to read his assignment first.  A bunch of people exclaimed that they ‘just couldn’t’ read theirs after him.  Larry ended up reading his piece last.  
Notable Quote: Ms. Bohnoff quoting the comedian Steven Wright, “I’ve always wondered, if you’re driving at the speed of light would your headlights work?”  
Is Manned Space Travel Gone Forever? - Hosted by Dr. Jim Busby and Robert J. Cesarone.  There were two other panelist whose names I didn’t catch due to arriving late.  This was a wide-ranging discussion that covered things as diverse as political will, technological developments and Nickel mining on Earth.  There were a number of emotional, and sometimes contentious opinions offered by those in attendance.  The only thing everyone seemed to agree on was that mankind will escape the Earth and eventually colonize the planets, and maybe even the stars beyond, but who those people and when it would happen, as well as what we should be doing about it now, was open to debate.  
Notable facts: The two largest nickel mines on the planet, both in Canada, are the remnants of an iron-nickel asteroid that hit the Earth millions of years ago.  Iron-Nickel asteroids have approximately one Quadrillion dollars of profitable material per cubic kilometer (this per a study done by one of the panelists for a nickel mining company).  
Rudy Rucker - Rockets or Cyberspace or ??? - A talk given by science fiction writer Rudy Rucker, one of the convention’s Guests of Honor, about the relationship between his work, society and the trends in science fiction when he was working on his various projects.  I am not familiar with Mr. Rucker’s work, to be honest.  I went to this panel to find out more about him since the convention had named him as a Guest of Honor.  He struck me as a quiet and thoughtful individual who uses the various tropes of science fiction (Faster than light travel, cyberspace, etc.) as symbols for exploration into the human condition.  He was also not afraid to give his political opinion which caused one angry, though brief, exchange between him and a person in the audience that identified himself as ‘ex-military.’  His newer work focuses on bio-tech, which he seemed to feel was the next mode of exploration science fiction will follow.  
Using History: Does it help or hinder a good plot? - A panel about how to use history to create alternate histories, or secret histories, for your stories.  The panelists were Tim Powers and Harry Turtledove.  There was some very good, basic guidelines provided by the panelists about doing research for one’s stories.  Set a deadline for when your research will stop, since research is not writing but it can feel like it.  Use original sources whenever possible, such as diaries, biographies or journals.  If original material is not available, use a ‘network’ of sources to filter out the unknown prejudices of the author or the time he was writing in.  
There were a lot of interesting tidbits thrown out during this panel.  For instance, there was a special tool made in the middle ages used to push back the hands of people tossed into boiling oil (which tells you how often people were tossed into boiling oil that they had to make a tool for the occasion).  The word “Groovy” was first used in the 1920’s.  
Notable quote, from Harry Turtledove: “Fiction has to be plausible.  History just has to happen.”  
Saturday, July 3rd
Saturday is usually the busiest day at a convention.  It is the day people will come when they only have one day to go.  It is usually when the most interesting panels, or the most famous Guests, will make their appearance.  As a result, it is usually when your hardest choices about what to do are made because of the conflicts in schedule.  I chose to go to the following panels this day: 
Raising the Bar: Professional Writers teach Professional Techniques - Hosted by three writers: Maya Kaathryn Bohnoff, John DeChancie and Eileen Gunn.  The panelist open with a discussion as to whether writing can be taught or if there are some people out there who are “word deaf,” the same way a person can be ‘tone deaf’ and be unable to sing.  This segued into a talk about writers that ‘pour out words’ and those that rewrite.  All three panelists agreed with the old saw that ‘writing is rewriting.’  Mr. DeChancie offered that being an attentive reader was key, and that you should stop and take notice of something that moved you and deconstruct it.  It ended with some examples of strategies used to keep up with the three rules of writing (Write, Finish, Submit), such as writing a story every week.  A lot of what was brought up in the panel were things I had heard before, but it never hurts to hear them again and remind yourself of what you should be doing.  
Notable tidbit: John DeChancie offered this technique to learn structure.  Take a piece of work by your favorite author and write it out for yourself, word for word, punctuation mark by punctuation mark.  Doing this you will ‘feel’ how the author built the story he created.  The other panelists seconded this technique.  
Basics of Writing: What Every Writer Needs to Know - This had a stellar group of panelists, which included Larry Niven, Laura Frankos, Eileen Gunn, David Brin and Marv Wolfman.  Jerry Pournelle was scheduled to be on the panel but didn’t make it. This could have been billed as a continuation of the previous panel from the perspective of different writers.  The size of the panel, the largest I experienced at this convention, made for a lot of back and forth discussions, ideas springing off idea, and changes of direction.  Topics touched upon included maintaining the disciple of writing, developing one’s ideas, learning to deal with and accept rejection and enjoying your work.  
Notable quote by David Brin: “Writing is the one true magic.”  
Anthropogenic Global Warming - Hosted by Doug Jones and Robert J. Cesarone.  This was the most unexpected panel I went to in terms of how it turned out.  I guess I assumed that the issue of man’s role in climate change would be fairly settled amongst the members of science fiction fandom.  That assumption proved to be incorrect.  The opinions on what is causing global warming and what to do about it are, if this panel was an accurate indication, as varied as one might find in the broader society of which we are all members.  I will say that, in comparison to the discussion I hear out in our broader society through the various media outlets, this discussion was much more polite with a much greater emphasis on providing evidence to support one’s contention.  It’s too bad I couldn’t bring a bunch of the pundits waxing poetic in those outlets to this panel to show them how discussion and debate are supposed to be conducted.  I did learn something about how the calibration of the instruments gathering your data can change how they appear when graphed out.  
Notable quote, from one of the panelist (probably a re-quote from an unnamed source): “Who controls the Past controls the Future.  Who controls the Present controls the Past.”  
Sunday, July 4th
In comparison, the last day of the convention is often the quietest.  People often leave early to make their way home.  The panels I attended were: 
Workshop: Writing, Editing and Critiquing your own Work - A writer named Will Morton hosted this event, the longest I attended during the convention both by design (it was scheduled for 2 hours) and by actual length (we switched rooms and carried on for an additional hour and half after the end of the scheduled time period).  One had to sign up to participate, and you were expected to bring a short story to share with the other participates which they critiqued after you read it out loud.  It took us a while to get started and though only four of the eight people signed up brought stories, we still had to go well over the time to get everyone’s story in.  It was generally agreed by everyone that stories should be submitted in advance for all to read before the panel starts.  My participation actually started several hours before.  Deciding I wanted to work on something new, I got up at 5 AM Sunday and wrote a 7,400 or so word story by 9 AM to bring to the panel.  I got some interesting feedback that I’m already using in my rewrite.  
Notable event: One of the other participants in this panel was an individual who is a member of an online writing group I also participate in.  We got to meet for the first time and sat together after the panel ‘talking shop.’  
Medieval Weapons Demonstration - I think this was an impromptu event since it was not listed on the schedule.  Eytan Kollin, a local writer who co-authored the book, ‘The Unincorporated Man,’ with his brother Dani, brought out his impressive collection of medieval bladed weapons and gave us a demonstration of their use in the courtyard of the Pasadena Hilton.  He is a teacher of history and economics and has participated in historical reenactments and battle recreations with his melee weapons.  A running theme throughout his demonstration were things that he reads in novels about melee weapons that are not accurate.  It was a fun and interesting way to end the convention.  
Notable tidbits: It takes three hours to clean one’s sword and armor using some sort of vegetable oil (such as olive oil), sand and a cloth.  This was done every day and/or after the weapon got wet (such as during a rain storm).  Weapons were often stored disassembled in barrels of pigs fat (the fat kept the rust causing water off the blade).  
Conventions are fun for me.  It gives me a chance to reconnect with others who share my passion for speculative fiction and for writing.  It reenergizes me by reminding me of the things I want to do with my stories, and of the things I ought to do to get what I want out of my writing.  They inspire me to carry on.  
Hope to meet you at one soon. 

News & Updates
I'm please to announce that my comic, SoftMetal, is back in print through Angry Viking Press.  You can order a copy through their website.  If you order the classic comic book format and want me to sign it for you let me know and we'll make arrangements.  If you download the digital download format and want me to sign your computer I'll do that too (though it seems kinda weird to me).  


Blogger slcard said...

Erick! Awesome! I'm in more of a hurry than usual, but I had to pause to congratulate you on the book. I can't wait for my copy! And you absolutely must sign it! Also, the first flying car was approved for sale in the US on June 30th this year. Just thought you'd like to know. Only 20 hours of flying time and you too could be licensed to fly your very own.

July 11, 2010 at 4:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Eric, what a great job you did summing up the highlights of your conference experience. I'm even more envious now. I especially would have liked to have met Kollin as I'm about to read his book waiting for me at the library.

It sounds like you made some great choices and really got the most out of the conference. Very brave to dive in there with fresh pages and all.

I am so deep into the first draft of my manuscript now with a self-imposed deadline of the end of the month to finish it. Then I can rewrite, which is always an easier stage for me. Anyway, just ordered your comic! How exciting.

So with all your convention trips, I'm thinking August may be the best bet for us getting together again. You'll have a lot to tell us!


July 11, 2010 at 7:33 PM  
Blogger Erick Melton said...

Sara & Donna: Thanks to you both for your congratulations (and for your orders!).

Sara: I knew the flying car was going to start sales soon. It's not quite the Jetson, but it's something.

Donna: I'm with you, rewriting is easier. It feels more like sculpture with me, where writing the first draft is mining the clay. Good luck!

July 12, 2010 at 7:55 AM  
Blogger slcard said...

Hey, Erick. Finally had a chance to read the whole post. Thanks for the summary. I wish I'd been there.

July 19, 2010 at 10:17 AM  
Blogger Erick Melton said...

It was definitely an enjoyable experience. I hope to go again next year when it's in San Jose.

July 23, 2010 at 7:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


This is a inquiry for the webmaster/admin here at

May I use some of the information from your blog post above if I provide a backlink back to this website?


March 24, 2011 at 4:22 PM  
Blogger Erick Melton said...

Certainly. I would appreciate it if you would send me the link to the wherever your using it.

March 24, 2011 at 8:26 PM  

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