Saturday, August 29, 2015

A Tale of Two Conventions

I was in the lunchroom at work after coming back from Spokane the previous week, when one of the employees that works in the department I oversee asked me, “Did you have fun at Comic-Con?”  

"Comic-Con was in July," I told her.  "I went to WorldCon last week." 
"Oh.  What's the difference?"  
Huh.  A lot, I thought.  But, how do I express it...?
Every "Convention Season," which runs for the most part from April to November each year, I make a point of always going to Comic-Con and WorldCon.  There are other conventions that I've been to.  AnimeExpo, which is at the Los Angeles Convention Center these days, focuses on cartoons, or anime, and comic books, or manga, imported from or inspired by Japanese work, is one I've been to a few times.  Westercon is a regional science fiction convention, held in a different city each year in western North America, I went to once when it was in my home town of Pasadena.  WonderCon, which is run by the same people that run Comic-Con, is one I've gone to each April since it moved from San Francisco to the Anaheim Convention Center a few years ago.  I'll be going to the Long Beach Comic-Con in September for the first time to check it out.
But Comic-Con and WorldCon have been the two I "Have To" go to each year for the past decade.  They each satisfy a different part of my psyche.  
Comic-Con is the bigger and more well known to the general public of the two, though WorldCon is much older.  About 130,000 people go each year.  And though its name points to its origins as a comic book convention, what you can find there is much, much broader than that.  Movies, TV shows and video games now dominate the big ticket items you go to see at Comic-Con.  And they're not all strictly related to comic books, or even science fiction, any more.  The convention refers to itself as one for "popular arts," and that pretty much says it.  
I started going to Comic-Con when I was writing and publishing my comic book stories and continued to go when my focus returned to writing science fiction and fantasy stories and novels more or less out of habit.  There was a few years where I questioned if there was any reason for me to continue going.  I think there is.  
WorldCon was first held in 1939, and every year since the end of World War Two.  It is run by an organization called the World Science Fiction Society and is held in a different city somewhere in the world each year.  Since I started attending in 2007, I've been to places like Yokohama, Montreal, Melbourne and London.  One of the reasons I enjoy going to WorldCon is because of the opportunity to go to places I did not think I'd have a chance to go to when I was younger.  In 2017, the convention will be in Helsinki, Finland for the first time.  That should be an interesting trip.  
WorldCon is a smaller convention that Comic-Con.  There are usually about three to five thousand attendees, depending on where it is being held.  There is a fluctuating number of "associate members," people who are members but are not attending the convention itself.  My impression is that they pay for associate membership to support the convention's continuation and to give themselves the chance to vote on the Hugos, the awards handed out at each WorldCon to celebrate the best work in a number of categories from the previous year.  Comic-Con has the Eisner awards to celebrate the best work in the field of comic books from the previous year, its strongest tie to its past as a purely comic book convention.  
The difference is more than just size and age, though.  
Comic-Con is as glitzy as it is big.  It's presentational.  There is a distinction between Performer and Audience there.  The biggest events are related to some presentation of the most popular TV show, or the biggest blockbuster that is about to come out.  People will wait in line overnight for a chance to entry Hall H, or Ballroom 20, the two largest presentation areas at the convention center, to get a chance to be the first to hear about the next season of their favorite show, or hear the big secret announcement about everyone is talking about online.  
The line between Performer and Audience is blurred when you step outside and see the legions of cosplayers walking, crawling, rolling or strutting about, trying to become your favorite hero or heroine, if only for the amount of time it takes to snap their picture.  Comic-Con is like Hollywood, filled with stars and people dressing up like them.  
It's also like Hollywood in that people are often there to pitch.  Pitch their comic.  Pitch their movie idea.  Pitch their book.  Comic-Con projects itself outward towards others.  It's about being seen and heard.  
WorldCon is much more introspective.  It moves at a much slower pace.  In part because it the demographic of attendees is considerably older than that of Comic-Con.  At one panel in Spokane, one of the moderators with free books to give out asked, "Any teenagers in the audience?"  No one moved.  "Anyone with teenagers at home?"  Her table was mobbed.  
WorldCon's focus is much more narrow that Comic-Con's.  In 2007, while on a tour of Japan with other convention-goers, I got to chance to talk with Michael Whelan, a well known science fiction artist.  He told me of a time, back in the 70's, when the people that run WorldCon wondered if they should expand the convention's focus to include more media-related panels, as part of a way of increasing membership.  They decided to retain the focus they'd had, which is on the literature of science fiction and its related sources.  As a result, the convention has remained relatively small and somewhat older as far as the attendees are concerned.  
Maybe its a function of my own increasing age, but this suits me fine these days.  I enjoy going to panels discussing things like the New Horizons probe to Pluto.  Or I would have enjoyed it had the room, a very large room, had not filled to capacity before I got there.  But its discussions like that, and the ones that such panels spark that take place with people over lunch or the numerous parties that are thrown each night after the panels are over, that I enjoy.  
Which is something else about WorldCon that I enjoy that I don't get as much at Comic-Con.  It's the people I get to see each year at WorldCon that I look forward to.  Maybe its because WorldCon is so much smaller that Comic-Con, there are more people there that I recognize and know.  Like Joe, with whom I will attend a baseball game with (if we're in a country that plays baseball) during WorldCon.  Or "The Brits," a group of guys from the United Kingdom I met on my Japan tour before Yokohama in 2007 that I met each year.  At Spokane, we got together for breakfast at the same place, the Satellite Diner, each morning of the convention plus the day after.  We talked about the panels we'd seen, the Hugo nomination controversy, politics, beer, stuff like that.  I called it, "Breakfast with the Brits."  We became such regulars that the waitress that served us each day gave us free Satellite Diner mugs the last day we ate, and the owner gave us each a big hug.  Or another friend, Jo (no "e" at the end), who I met through the writers' group we were both a part of that started at another convention, who I talk shop with about writing and who's up on all the stuff going on in fandom.  
What I get out of the two conventions is different.  At the end of Comic-Con, I'm usually exhausted, ready to get back to my routine, but happy I went, and geared up to sell my writings.  At the end of WorldCon, I'm more refreshed.  Sad that I have to go.  Wanting to stay just a bit longer.  Or at least, wanting to take some part of it with me.  I'm usually filled with ideas of things to write about.  
All these difference went through my mind when I was asked about the difference between the two conventions.  Work was about to start, though, and I had to get back to my office.  So I said...
"Comic-Con is like going to a Las Vegas for geeks.  WorldCon is like going to a family reunion of nerds."  
"Oh."  She then filled up her coffee cup and left. 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Meeting People at Sasquan

I went to the Nippon 2017 bid party on Wednesday night.  I wanted to see the 2017 selection go to Shizuoka, Japan.  
There was a lot of people there, which was encouraging.  After greeting the host at the door in Japanese, I went inside and walked around.  
I'm not very good at parties where I don't know anyone, I have to admit.  It takes me a while to get to know people or me to know them.  I wandered the rooms of the suite the party was being held in, listing to bits and pieces of conversation, then moving on.  
In one of the bedrooms, I found a pile of snacks on the dresser.  I watched as one guest after another picked up a package, looked at it, asked what it might be, then returned it to the pile.  After I while, I stepped up myself and picked up one of the snacks myself.
This was the name of the snack.  In English it's spelled, "Umai," and means "Delicious."  The flavor was written above Umai in katakana.  I had picked up "tako," or octopus flavor.
I knew enough above Japanese snacks to not be surprised at this, to an American palette, odd flavor.  I also found "Beef Tongue," "Veggie Salad," and "Natto," which is fermented soybean flavor.  "Pizza" and "Cheese" flavors were the most normal to American tastes. 
I opened the tako flavor.  What was inside was one large, tube-shaped, cracker or biscuit.  It was similar to a puffed Cheeto in consistency.  It tasked like takoyaki, cooked dough-balls stuffed with grilled octopus.  Not bad.  
"What's this?"  
Another of the English speaking guests grabbed a package of Umai! from the pile.  I stepped in and told them them the type of snack it was.  The flavor in their hand was the "Spicy Fish Roe" flavor.  
"Really?"  He was looking at me as if I was trying to make a joke.  
I assured him I was telling the truth.  I went through the other flavors there.  He ended up picking the "Grilled Chicken" flavor.  We chatted a bit while he tried it.  It became my unofficial duty for a time to translate the Umai packages for the curious guests.  I got to meet a number of people because of it.
WorldCon is about meeting people.  Yeah, it's about science fiction, what's being published, the various aspects about creating stories, the science behind them and the history of the genre.  But any convention is about meeting other people who are interested in the same field as you.  
The first person I met in Spokane was Shigenari-san.  He was on the same bus from the airport.  He was smiling at everything as he looked around.  He told me he was on the Nippon 2017 bid committee and gave me his card, which said he was also on the Hal-Con Convention committee, a science fiction convention in Japan that moves to a different city each year, similar to WorldCon.  He invited me to the Nippon 2017 bid party.  He also told me I should come out to attend Hal-Con next spring, which was being held in Shizuoka as well.
When I commented to Shigenari-san at the party on how much he smiled, he gave me this saying: 笑う門には福来る.  Good fortune will come to the home of those that smile. 
I met someone for the first time that I've known for years.  Russ is a member of the Anticipation online writing group that I'm no longer active in, even though I'm still officially a member.  I didn't meet him when the group was formed at the 2009 WorldCon when it was formed in Montreal, but I got to know him through exchanging stories and critiques over the years that followed.  We had lunch at a Japanese restaurant and talked about what we do for real work, writing, the people in the group and stuff like that.  Russ does not go to WorldCon very often because it often conflicts with the start of school (he's a professor of geology at a university in Minnesota.  He's creating an online course, Science for Science Fiction writers.  Pretty cool.  I hope he comes to WorldCon more often.  
There was a woman who moderated a panel on Science Fiction and Futurism.  She works for a consulting firm called Sci Futures.  Their clients are large corporations that are trying to determine trends and changing technologies in their field over the next 15 to 20 years out.  What makes them different from other consulting firms is that they take what they've researched and present it in a creative fashion, as in putting together a comic book, short film or short story, to illustrate the "ideal future" they believe their client should follow.  Her title on her business card is "Sr. Writer and Creative Futurist."  It's the first company I've heard of that has science fiction writers on staff.  Very interesting.  
Since I spend most of my time going to the panels focused on writing, I hear a lot of questions and comments from people who want to be writers but haven't gotten anything published yet.  I was struck by the number of comments I heard that were the equivalent of, "I want to write stories, but..." followed by any number of follow-ups in that blank.  But...  I think I need to learn more.  But...  I'm not sure how to finish what I'm working on.  But...  I don't know how to come up with ideas.  But...  I'm not good enough yet.  
Most of the time, I didn't say anything to them.  They were talking to someone else, a friend, another convention member they met at a panel, the panelist they'd come to listen to and ask questions of.  I wanted to say something, but didn't.  
The only person I did reply to was someone I met at one of parties.  The second Nippon 2017 bid party that took place on Wednesday night.  It was a young woman from China, who had "Kike" written on her name tag.  It was the name she was giving to the Americans she met who found her real name too difficult to pronounce.  She is a graduate student with a major in...  Science Fiction.  Very cool.  I might have majored in that had they had it at my school when I went there. 
I said to her when she told me she wanted to write, "but...", what I wanted to say to those other people I'd overheard.  That you should just start writing.  That the time will past whether you write or not, and if you start writing now you'll be that much better later on.  That writing is like riding a bike.  You don't get good at riding a bike by sitting there and studying it.  You get good by getting on and pedaling.  Sure, you'll suck at first, and maybe fall off a few times, but if you keep at it you might get somewhere some day.  
I think I said it pretty well.  Kike asked me for a hug before she left.  It was a pleasure to meet you too, Kike.  
The one disappointment at Sasquan has been the results of the 2017 site selection.  Helsinki won by a wide margin.  They were about 500 points behind the second place finisher, Washington DC.  Montreal came in third.  Shizuoka, Japan, my choice, was fourth.  Helsinki ended up with over ten times the number of points Shizuoka did.  Ouch.  
It was sad.  The Nippon 2017 both was abandoned when I walked by this morning.  I've seen none of the members of their site committee around the convention today, after being so very visible for the three days before.  I wonder if they might have packed up and gone home.  
That would be too bad.  But it does have me thinking that perhaps I should take my own advise that I gave to Kike.  I've been wanting to go again to Japan since returning from my first trip in 2007.  Having the convention return to that country ten years after my first trip seemed like a magical sort of thing, just like the first time when two long held desires, going to Japan and attending a full WorldCon, combined before me when I walked into the dealers' room at the 2006 convention that Saturday in Los Angeles.  
Maybe I should tell myself that one doesn't go to Japan by sitting down and thinking about it.  One goes there by going there.  
Shinegari-san told me that Hal-Con is going to being in Shizuoka in April next year.  They are trying to get some well-known American authors to attend.  
I might not be that well known, but he did invite me.  Anyone care to go with me to Shizuoka in the spring next year?  

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Looking Forward to Spokane

Each year I make at least two big convention trips each summer.  One is Comic-Con in San Diego, which I did about a month ago.  Next week is the second, to the World Science Fiction Convention, or WorldCon.  This year it's in Spokane, Washington.  
At this point I'm all set to go.  I've had the time off from work scheduled for months now.  I have my membership.  I have a hotel reservation.  Yesterday, I scheduled a ride-share van to come pick me up at my apartment and take me to the airport at 3:45 AM.  I doubt I'll get much sleep before they arrive.  That's just how it works.  
This will be my ninth WorldCon in a row.  It's become a "thing" with me, every since my first one in 2007 in Yokohama, Japan.  WorldCon is a smaller, more literary, older (both in terms of how long the convention has been held and the average age of the attendees) convention than Comic-Con.  And it gets me places I've not been to before.  Going has turned me into a world traveller, something I didn't think of myself as becoming when I was a kid.  It's one of the reasons I've set it into my head that I "always" go to WorldCon, no matter where it might be.  
This year should be, hopefully will be, a special one.  First off, I'll be meeting with a couple of the people who have agreed to be alpha readers for my novel.  This is a big thing for me because it makes the end of the first phase in the ongoing project of getting my novel completed and published.  
I'm still working away at it.  The epilogue is taking on a life of its own.  I've adopted a strategy of treating it like a little kid given too much sugar before bedtime.  I'll let it run around and do what it wants, and they when it crashes to the floor, I'll pick up its unconscious body, strip off its play clothes and tuck it into bed.  
But I should, SHOULD I say to myself, have it done before I go to the convention.  This is where I'll give my blessed, friendly, intelligent, insightful, gracious, generous (are you getting all this Jo, Russ and Ann?) readers to have them point out all the flaws I've become blind to.  Ann will have to get hers via download since she has made the incomprehensible decision of meeting up with her nerdy friends to deal with "Life" situations.  As if anything that happens in the so-called "real world" is more important that what goes on in our imaginations.  Huh.  Gonna have a talk with that girl soon.  
One of these readers I will meet for the first time.  Russ and I participated in the same online writing group formed at another WorldCon, Anticipation in Montreal in 2009, for years.  I always appreciated his feedback on my stories.  This will be the first time to meet him in the (living, non-zombie-like) flesh.  Dinner's on me Russ.  
It will also be the first WorldCon I've attended where I'll participate in the site selection process for where it will be held in 2017.  I've mention previously that there are four cities bidding to host the WorldCon that year.  I've made no secret that my preference is for Shizuoka, Japan.  It will be ten years after the first one I attended in Japan, Yokohama in 2007.  I think that's an auspicious length of time.  
I had hoped to become a one-man campaign to convince others to vote for Shizuoka as well.  It hasn't worked out that way.  But one of my goals will be to convince as many people as I can while there to pick Shizuoka for their first or second choice (WorldCon voting uses what I've heard referred to as the "Condorcet Method" where you rank the candidates in order of preference, where a 1st Place preference gets more points than a 2nd Place preference, which gets more points than a 3rd Place preference, etc..  The candidate that gets the most points over a majority threshold wins).  
My gut tells me that Shizuoka is a dark horse candidate, but I'm hoping that if enough people put it as their 2nd choice it might get in.  Crossing my fingers...
And then, there's baseball.  I associate going to WorldCon with baseball games, even though I don't go to a game at every WorldCon.  I've been to three so far.  In 2007, I got to see the BayStars beat the Giants in Yokohama Stadium.  In 2011, when the convention was in Reno, I went to my first minor league game, watching the Reno Aces play the Tacoma Rainiers.  The 2012 WorldCon in Chicago was a real treat, giving me a chance to see the Cubs play the Giants in Wrigley Field, the second oldest ballpark in the majors.  What made it even better was watching the Cubs beat the Giants.  A game where the San Francisco Giants lose is my third favorite baseball game to watch.  Can you guess what number two and number one might be?  
The game in 2012 was interesting for the connection it seems to have with the game in 2007.  Get this...  In 2007, my convention buddy Joe and I attended the game with another friend in Yokohama.  It was Friday, August 24th.  We were sitting along the left field foul line, just past third base.  The home team won the game, beating the visiting team, the (Yomiuri) Giants by scoring six runs.  In 2012, at Wrigley Field, Joe and I attended the game together with other convention friends on Friday, August 24th.  Our seats were along the left field foul line, just past third base.  We watched at the home team beat the (San Francisco) Giants by scoring six runs.  
When I pointed this out to Joe, he thought for a moment and said, "Woah.  Weird."  
The next Friday, August 24th will be in 2018.  There's only one city bidding for 2018 thus far, New Orleans.  There is a Triple-A team in New Orleans, the Zephyrs, a member of the Pacific Coast League.  The Giants affiliate in the league are the Sacramento River Cats.  We'll see if any other city with a baseball team tries to bid for 2018.  
Baseball is the office sport of Science Fiction, by the way.  I believe the 2013 WorldCon in San Antonio, Texas declared this.  I don't think any subsequent WorldCon committee overturned it.  So there.  
Wherever it is, if I'm still alive and able to get there, I'll be going.  Maybe one day as a Guest of Honor.  
That would definitely be something to look forward to. 

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Solving Drake's Equation - 70 Years & Counting

Last Wednesday, August 6th, marked the 70th anniversary of the day the atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima, Japan.  The first time a nuclear device was used in war.  
The anniversary for the second use of a nuclear weapon is tomorrow, August 9th, seventy years after Nagasaki was bombed.  
It also means that mankind has spent seventy years, and counting, trying to be the first sentient species (as far as we know as of yet) to solve the Drake Equation.  
I have a fascination with the history of the atomic bombings.  Not because of my fascination with Japanese history and culture, necessarily.  It may seem ironic, but I have actually never spoken to any of my Japanese friends or acquaintances about the bombings.  I've been a member of my Japanese Language and Cultural exchange since 2006.  There have been nine anniversaries in that span when the subject might have come up but simply didn't.  I don't know if that's a good or bad thing.  It is what it's been so far.
The atomic bombings and the subsequent proliferation of nuclear weapons, first between two nations, then three, then more, has been a defining element of my generation.  It made the Cold War, with the anticipation of what would happen to mankind if it suddenly turned Hot, what it was.  I have lived my life under the prospect of nuclear apocalypse.  Sometimes it has seem close.  Sometimes as distant as a native California's contemplation of "The Big One" from the San Andrea's fault.  
The atomic bombings have more than their share of historical quirkiness.  For instance, neither Hiroshima nor Nagasaki were the initial targets of the bombs.  For "Little Boy," a uranium based, "gun-type" design, the only one of its kind ever detonated and so unstable that they stenciled "do not immerse in water" on its crate, for fear it might short-circuit and detonate, the original target was supposed to be Kyoto, the ancient imperial capital and cultural center of Japan.  When the list of targets was sent to then Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, however, he removed Kyoto from the list.  He and his wife honeymooned in Kyoto and had memories so fond from that time that he couldn't bear the idea of the city being destroyed.  He crossed Kyoto off the list.  Hiroshima, second on the list, took its place.  
The target for the second bomb, "Fat Man," a plutonium based, "implosion" design, which served as a the basis of all subsequent nuclear weapons made, was supposed to be the city of Kokura.  It was third on the list sent to Secretary Stimson and the site of the largest weapons arsenal in Japan.  On August 9th, when the plane carrying Fat Man approached the city, it was covered with clouds and with smoke from a factory burning from a bombing earlier that day.  The pilots dropping the bombs were under strict orders to only release the weapon if they had clear visual confirmation of the target site.  Several times the plane flew over Kokura.  Each time the clouds and smoke would roll in to cover the target.  Finally, the commander of the flight scrubbed the mission over Kokura and went on to its secondary target, Nagasaki.  
For years, the Japanese had a saying, "the luck of Kokura," to refer to a calamity that missed someone but befell a neighbor instead.  
There is also the "what might have been," aspect to this point of history.  If the testing in New Mexico had gone bad, or if the United States and its allies had decided that the losses would not have been as great as the one million casualty figure often quoted, and the plan to invade Japan, Operation Downfall, had proceeded, what would history have been like?  One aspect that most in the United States don't think or talk about is the fact that the Soviet Union, which had honored a non-aggression treaty with Japan throughout the war despite pressure by U.S. and other allies, finally declared war on Japan and invaded Manchuria on August 9th, the same day the second bomb was dropped.  
What is even less well-known is that the Soviet Union had plans to invade Japan itself.  Specifically the island of Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan's main islands.  They scheduled their invasion to begin on August 24th, 1945.  This was a full two months before the United States planned to invade Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's four main islands, in October.  In anticipation of the American led invasion (Japan has only two coastlines suitable for a "D-Day" style invasion, so it was easy for them to figure out where we'd be heading) the Japanese Imperial army sent the bulk of their forces south to Kyushu.  The Soviets would have faced very little resistance if the war hadn't ended when it had.  
I often contemplate the alternate history that may have resulted from this change.  A Japan, split in half as Korea and Germany were.  The atomic bombs becoming the post-war, Cold War threat, but without the graphic examples provided by the two devastated cities to strike fear at their use that pervaded the psyche of mankind.  What sort of challenges would that world have faced in keeping their use in check.  
But its humanity's ultimate destiny that I think these anniversaries touches on the most.  
Drake's Equation, which I mentioned at the beginning of this entry, is a probabilistic argument used to come up with an estimate of the number of active interstellar civilizations that exist in the Milky Way that we could communicate with.  It was born out of Fermi's Paradox, which states that, given the number of stars in the galaxy, and the number of habitable planets that we estimate orbit those stars, and the number of those planets that might have life, and the sub-section of those planets with life that could give rise to intelligent life, and the percentage of those that would become technologically advanced enough to communicate with us or travel to our world, factored over the apparent age of the galaxy itself, we should have been visited or connected by numerous alien species.  So...  Why haven't we?  Or as Enrico Fermi, who came up with the paradox, put it, "Where is Everybody?"  
The most obvious possibility that relates to the anniversaries I'm writing about is, they don't exist any more.  It could be that, upon the acquisition of nuclear power, which would be a prerequisite for any effort to send ships to other planets, a technological stepping stone at the very least, the overwhelming majority of intelligent alien species destroy themselves.  Just as we've imagined destroying ourselves since witnessing what two, very primitive versions of these devices could do.  
Building an interstellar society would require the resources of the entire planet.  Which means the technology to do so would be spread across the planet as well. 
In 1945, there was one country with nuclear weapons.  Today, there are nine.  At that rate of expansion of capacity, all 192 countries currently listed as members of the United Nations could have nuclear weapons by the year 3205.  If we last that long, of course.  On August 5, 1945, there were two functional devices.  Today it's estimated that there are 16,000+ nuclear devices.  This doesn't include the 50 or so warheads that are "missing."  By the same rate of expansion, by the year 3205, there would be some 322,000 devices.  
I should point out a truism about human technological development.  In the course of human history there is not one instance of a tool, or weapon, that mankind has stopped making once he made the first one.  They've been modified, upgraded, put to other uses, but never set aside.  From making fire with two sticks, fletching stone arrows, steam power, etc., we continue to make all of them somewhere on this world.  Unfortunate as it may be, I think it's far more likely that we'll hit that 322,000 number of devices before we'll see them all disassembled.  I hope I'm proven wrong.  
Earlier this month, the United States and Iran concluded negotiations on a treaty stipulated to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.  I am not, in this blog, advocating a position on this treaty.  I understand the fears of the conservatives who were speaking out against it before they even knew the terms.  But I also think that this treaty, whether it is ratified or not, is part of our necessary, ongoing effort to be, as far as we can tell, the first intelligent species to solve the Drake Equation.  To bear this necessary technological burden and use it to pull ourselves out of our gravity well, instead of using it to dig our own graves.
If we do survive, and find a way to send our ships into the stars, I don't think we should be surprised to discover that more than one of those other worlds have been turned into graveyards of nuclear ash.  If so, we should pause, take a moment of silence, reflect upon the wisdom of our choices, or maybe just our blind luck, and be grateful that we found a way to do what they couldn't.  We'll then fire a wreath into orbit around those worlds, consecrate them to monuments of evolutionary immaturity, and carry on as best we can.  

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Alpha Readers - Literary EMTs

I’m done with the current draft of my novel.  Pretty much.  Almost.  I’m THIIIIS Close to finishing it.  I actually have all the words down in my word palette, a document I use for trying out and redoing scenes.  I just have to put them all together into a chapter and I’ll be done.  
Except for the epilogue.  I have to write that too.  (Sigh...).  
I’ve noticed a hesitancy, I guess you’d call it, as I’ve worked on this last bit of the novel.  It’s not be writer’s block.  I’ve had words in my head.  I’ve put them on the screen.  I’ve rewritten them.  I’ve gone on to the next set of words.  Pretty much the same process I’ve always followed.  
But as I’ve reached the end of this phase of the project, I have noticed a resistance.  At first I thought it was a form of perfectionism.  Wanting to make sure I finished it off just right.  But that I don’t think that’s the case.  I know that this isn’t the final draft.  It’s really the first complete draft.  The one completed after the rough draft where everything has been brought in line and its ready for the next step.  
Which means, it’s time to have this thing read by someone else, to tell me if it sucks or not.  
There are two types of readers a writer needs to cultivate to assist him or her in their work.  Alpha readers and Beta readers.  Beta readers is the more well known term for someone reading a writer’s work.  This is the set of readers that reads the piece and lets the writer know where some tweaking is needed.  
(Sigh...).  It’s not the prospect of having someone tell me that this chunk of words I’ve been working on for the past several years sucks that I find so daunting.  First off, I don’t think it sucks.  I enjoy working on the story.  I enjoy reading it after I polished up a scene and put it in its place.  There’s very little suckiness in these pages.  I’m sure of that.   
There are places where it can be improved, I’m sure.  And some of those places I know are hidden to me because of how long I’ve been working on.  Assumptions overlooked.  Scenes not connected properly because of how much time has passed between writing one scene and its follow up.  This I get.  I need a new eye to go over it and point these things out to me so I can clean them up.  
The issue is finding people to do this and at the appropriate stage.  
Short stories are pretty easy.  It usually doesn’t take that much time to read it from start to finish, and the number of hidden places that need reworking are quite small.  Asking someone to spend an hour or so, at best, to read a shorter work is not that burdensome.  It usually doesn’t take that much feedback to get what I’m looking for.  
Novels are different.  They’re bigger.  The rough draft of my novel was over two hundred seventeen thousand words.  The current draft is several tens of thousands of words more compact, but it is numbered in the hundreds of thousands range.  Asking someone to take up the task of reading something like this is much bigger favor.  
I can hope that what I’ve written is so awesomely good that they’ll thank me for the opportunity to read it first.  I’m not going to count on that prospect though.  I’d sooner quit my job right after buying I was SURE was the winning lottery ticket.  
There is also the type of reader I’m looking for right now.  And the type I’ll need to have later.  What I need now are Alpha Readers.  Later, I’ll be looking for Beta Readers.  
Alpha Readers are, as the name implies, people who will read the draft first.  Earlier in the process.  They are getting a much more clunky and chunky version of the story as compared with the final product.  Taking a disaster metaphor, they are the EMTs that arrive on the scene and triage the victim, determining what treatment is needed to keep the subject alive.  They are much more likely to come upon a messy, disorganized scene, where bits and pieces might be strewn all over the place, some of which may be need to be put on ice so they can be reattached to the body later, for everything to make sense.  
Beta Readers get the victim after he’s been stabilized.  These are the doctors and nurses at the hospital.  The emergency past, they give the orders for long-term care.  
From a writer’s standpoint, the Alpha Readers look at the messy, bloody manuscript and tell you where its about to fail, where the life of the story isn’t being sustained, so you can go in and take care of these major wounds right away.  The Beta Reader provides more general assistance, telling you what didn’t quite make sense, where the story lagged, and what they thought happened and why (as opposed to the story in your head that you tried to get on paper).  
My hesitation in finishing the novel was due to my resistance to idea of approaching someone and asking them to take up the responsibility of being an Alpha Reader.  It comes from a self-reliance I was raised to possess.  If there was a device I could employ to switch of my recollection of my story so I could read it again as if for the first time, I would do it.  I would write down my feedback, flip the switch back to its original position and then rewrite the story.  
Side Note: I am recalling a story I read, years ago, whose title I’ve forgotten, where a writer finishes a piece of work that he knows is a masterpiece.  Disappointed that he can experience the discovery of reading it for the first time, as his readers will, he has himself cloned and then kills himself so at least his clone, the closest person he can make to himself, will have that pleasure.  I kinda get that story now.  
In order to finish the story, I have recruited some Alpha Readers.  All three of them are members of an online writing group I used to participate in.  All three know my work.  All three are published writers.  They’ve read and critiqued my short stories for me and given me terrific feedback.  They also have very different points of view when it comes to writing and story telling that will give me a very broad range of feedback.  
I have agreed to feed them.  In Spokane, during WorldCon, if they attend.  In other ways I will determine if they cannot.  I hereby, formally agree to be their Alpha Reader as well, in the future, should I be called upon to do so.  And, if...  When my novel is published, I promise to include their names in the dedication.  I think it’ll go something like...
To Ann, Jo and Russ.  You were my literary EMTs who helped get my story off life support.  You have my thanks.  
There.  With that, I’ll pull the patient out of the rubble and hand it off to them.