Recap of MarsCon 2019, Saturday

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series MarsCon 2019

Most of my Saturday at the con was taken up by meetings for RavenCon programming (in particular the new Science Track, for which I am very excited!). However I did get a chance to browse the dealer floor, the art room, and attend a couple of panels.

In How Does One Write Near-Future Science Fiction?, panelists Patrick Dugan, Jason T. Graves, Drew A. Avera, and Gray Rinehart were moderated by Jim Beall. Unfortunately, though Jim was quite well prepared (a wonderful thing in a moderator), the authors on the panel did not seem to be well-suited for the panel topic, as most did not seem to have a lot of stories set in the near future themselves. However, most were writers of Hard Science Fiction (which is not necessarily the same thing). This mismatch is hardly the fault of the panelists, but perhaps Programming can take a note for future cons.

Though the panel did not spend much time actually answering the question posed in its title, I did walk away with several nuggets of useful information. One suggested way of avoiding the pitfall of having certain readers get too caught up in the numbers or “realness” of the story elements as if they are meant to be predictions is to a) generally avoid numbers all together if possible, and b) stick to explication only where you actually have expertise or knowledge based on research, leaving the rest implied. We discussed the questions of whether near-term science fiction has to also be hard science fiction to be good/enjoyable (not necessarily, and Neuromancer was offered as a counter-example), and also if near-term science fiction needs to attempt to predict the future to be useful (generally no).

I later attended The Big World of Small Press and Indie Publishing, featuring Michael Thomson, Leslie Heath, Melissa McArthur, Kacey Ezell, and moderated by Chris Kennedy. The panelists were all in some fashion indie or small press authors and/or publishers, with a good bit of diversity in how it was implemented (full-time, part-time, completely indie, traditional + indie, etc). All generally agreed that the major benefits to small press and indie publishing were: much more rapid turnaround at all points of the publication timeline (editing, feedback, cover selection, proof, release, etc), a much greater degree of control and input by the author at all points in the process, a more personal connection with everyone involved, and generally a larger percentage of the overall pie. The two major downsides being that mass exposure is much less likely or perhaps impossible, and that the author is expected and required to take on more (or complete) personal responsibility for the product at every step of the process.

The panelists listed the following mistakes they have made in the past that future indie or small press authors should avoid

  • Series sell the most, and waiting too long to continue a series can kill its inherent momentum.
  • Always read a contract, or even better, get a lawyer to look over it (it’s probably cheaper than you think).
  • Don’t forget about pre-marketing, and make sure to do the work to build up a community around a work before releasing it.

Further big news from the con, though it was not particularly con-related… I found out that I got in to the advanced fiction studio at The Muse Writing Center in Norfolk that I applied to last week! I’ll be starting that on February 4th, and I’m looking forward to focusing on my sequel to Red Soil.

Recap of MarsCon 2019, Friday

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series MarsCon 2019

I’m a little embarrassed to say that I missed MarsCon the first year I was living here in Virginia. I saw the name come up on a list of area conventions, and assumed it was a technical and semi-technical con specific to Mars and Mars colonization (like a Mars Society convention or something), not a sci-fi and fantasy con. Then this year, I was expecting to not be able to make it at all due to work travel, but here I am furloughed with all official travel cancelled so… against many headwinds, here I am at MarsCon 2019!

Today I attended two panels. The first was entitled Writing Military Themed Stories, featuring John “Cal” Baldari (Army veteran and a professor of military ethics), Chris Kennedy (Navy veteran and author and publisher of military science fiction), and moderator Kacey Ezell (active duty Air Force helicopter pilot).

We discussed several themes and motifs that appeal to readers, and give war stories lasting appeal: the ideals of duty / honor / sacrifice / service / etc, the vicarious power to use authorized / sanctioned / “moral” force (when in modern civilian life violence is generally prohibited), and the inner journey of becoming a soldier and pushing oneself beyond previously perceived limits to do great things.

We also got several recommendations from the panel for books/movies/stories that they felt portrayed some aspect of the military experience well: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (for the day to day experience), Full Metal Jacket for the training portion, Twelve O’Clock High for the how and how-not-to on leadership and command chain, Catch 22 by Joseph Heller for the insight into military bureaucracy, The Black Company for the moral ambiguity, and several others

The second panel I attended was Moral Conflict in Genre Fiction, which featured Michael D. Pederson (moderator), Professor John “Cal” Baldari, Jason Gilbert, Kettle Macaulay, and Valerie J. Mikles. The panel was less a primer on how to create morally conflicted characters (which is what I was hoping for) and more a discussion of of characters that create moral conflict for the reader/viewer, such as sympathetic villains (which was still interesting). However, I still got several useful nuggets from the discussion. Particularly, I was intrigued by the idea of science-fiction and fantasy settings being actually advantageous for presenting the audience with contemporary moral challenges, as the speculative elements help control / hone the message while cushioning against defensiveness that can arise in real world depictions of complex issues.

The most useful takeaway for me personally from the panel was a realization that I think I have a tendency to try to provoke moral conflict in the reader, and use that to get around creating characters that are truly morally conflicted themselves. It was an epiphany that caps off some recent reading of The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maas. It goes to show that participation in these types of in-person con discussions can often prompt synthesized realizations that may not be obvious from simply getting the information content from somewhere!

Looking forward to tomorrow’s panels, as well as a chance to meet the rest of the RavenCon planning committee for the first time. (I’ve been helping with the new Science Track.) Onward to Day 2!

Review of “Splintered Suns” by Michael Cobley

Despite the high praise on the back cover and intriguing premise, this novel left me feeling kinda meh.

The worldbuilding and the plot were at least interesting enough that I wanted to keep going for awhile, and I did manage to make it through twelve chapters before setting it aside. However, the characters are as flat as a Kiskashin’s sense of humor, and often take actions that don’t seem to be motivated by anything except it would lead to a gosh so cool scene or situation.

While intellectually interesting and many-layered, the plot and side-plots weren’t tightly bound to a cohesive story thread enough for me to become emotionally invested in what was happening. It doesn’t help that the star of the show, Brennan Pike, comes off as a happy-go-lucky cross between Han Solo, a leprechaun, and a cartoon pirate. The dialogue as-written reflects this. So annoying.

Highlights: expansive world-building, huge ancient alien starship, creative meshing of artificial and advanced biological life forms, interesting side plot that takes place inside a mind crystal

Lowlights: somehow manages to be pretty boring overall, despite all of the above

DNF (pg 252 of 483). 3/5 Stars.