Lunacon 2014 (2): Saturday

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Even though Lunacon is over, I’m going to keep writing up my notes and impressions, if only to keep writing in general.

Saturday was the busiest day of the con, and it certainly showed in my personal programming grid.  I faced the typical con paradox:  Too many good panels all at the same time.  I ended up at the following:

Lunacon 2014 (2e): Magic and Religion

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Saturday 3 PM.

Panelists: Carole Ann Moleti; Michael F. Flynn, Raymond Feist, Jane Sibley

Interesting tidbit: religion = re+ligio = a rebinding of society (to join again).  Religion has always had a social purpose, to increase community and tie society together.

The panelists offered a definition of magic as “a belief that mundane objects have hidden powers”, whereas religion is generally more abstract and removed.  For example, if a stick brings forth water when banged against rock, it’s magic.  If banging the stick against rock brings forth water because God intervenes, it’s religion.  Religious talismans and symbols (and prayers, I guess) work by evoking the higher power, not through themselves.  I’m not sure I entirely buy this distinction but it’s worthy of thought.

Cities are often centers of “high” religion whereas villages and rural areas are typically bastions of household religions.  You could see this clearly in ancient Greece and Rome, where the myths we learn in school are in fact the high tradition of the citied elite.

It was inordinately fun to watch Raymond Feist shut down Michael Flynn at every turn, casually squashing his gambits and shooting down his points, without even ever seeming to notice he was doing it.

During the panel there were escalating background noises — renovation work down the hall, a panel on electronic synthesizers going on next door — which make the whole thing a little bit like a Muppets sketch.

Lunacon 2014 (2d): Gamification in Education

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Saturday 2 PM

I sort of felt obligated to go to this panel (and the one on The Future of Education), seeing that I am a teacher and all.

It was OK.  The title proved to be inaccurate: This was more about the use of existing games in a school setting.  Gamification usually refers to adopting the tropes of gameplay — varying difficulty, badges and other rewards, etc. — for use in education.   Instead, the panelists related how they had used games to advance their classes.  Two of the three panelists work (at least part time) for companies that make educational games, so that wasn’t too surprising.

While sitting there I thought up a game I might use in covering diffusion:

  • Start with a grid grouped into larger boxes (I’m thinking a 21×21 grid, divided into 3×3 boxes).
  • In some of the boxes, place pennies to represent molecules of gas.
  • Every turn, for every penny, roll 1d8 and move accordingly along a cardinal direction.
    • If the target square is occupied, the moving penny stops and does not enter.  Instead, the other penny moves in the direction indicated.
    • Pennies that hit the edge of the grid bounce back.
    • As a variant, give the pennies two speeds, based on the heads/tails status.
      • heads = moving; tails = stopped
      • A moving penny hitting a stopped penny itself stops.  The hit penny moves off.
      • A moving penny hitting a moving penny bounces back (in the opposite direction) and is stopped.  The hit penny is also stopped.
    • Using the larger boxes allows you to compute density variations.

Two quips about using games:

  • Magic: The Gathering is a good introduction to business strategy and resource management.
  • AD&D is “hours of improv comedy with an algebra test in the middle”.  😀

Games mentioned

  • Compounded: A game about the periodic table
  • Phylomon: a Pokemon-type collectible card game about ecology
  • Bio Blitz

Lunacon 2014 (2c): Reading by Merav Hoffman

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Saturday 12 Noon

Panelist: Merav Hoffman (duh)

I don’t attend a lot of readings, because I generally prefer reading things at my own pace.  I don’t find the timbre of the author all that engaging.  On the other hand, Merav was a very welcoming presence at my first Lunacon and I wanted to make sure I at least caught her to say Hi, and this seemed a good time to do so.

I came in at the tail end of someone else’s reading, and I can’t really comment on it.  Then, after a few minutes’ break, Merav asked us “Dogs or elephants?”  Apparently she writes childrens’ stories and had two ready to go.  The common consensus was, dogs.

Ironically, she  then read a story of hers called (I think) “Circus”, but it wasn’t about a circus, it was about a dog named Circus. (It did also have acrobats in it.)  It was sweet and simple, and flowed really smoothly.  I was reminded of the Bard writing group at Hun, back when that was a going concern.  (Part of me wonders if it would be worth reviving in some form.)

After “Circus”, she also read a reinterpretation of Rapunzel, or rather, a sequel of sorts.  Almost as an aside, Merav mentioned that the origin of Cinderella lies in a story from China, which I had never heard.

A propos of nothing, I also have to comment on the surreality of the con: While Merav was reading about Rapunzel, a troop of Star Wars stormtroopers loped past the open door.


Lunacon 2014 (2a): Altering Time and Perception

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Saturday 11 AM Odelle

Panelists: Walter Hunt, David Sklar

This was not especially well-attended: at first, just the panelists and me.  By the end, another 6 or so people had shown up.  First panel on a Saturday is probably a dead zone.

There were really two topics to be discussed:

  1. How is a story paced?
  2. How do you elide the unnecessary details while avoiding info-dumps?

As an example of an author messing with time sense well, one panelist offered up Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.  The other came back with Slaghterhouse Five.  I thought of Catch 22.  

My personal observation: We are very much a cinematically-informed people now.  How can you evoke the equivalent of time-lapse photography or bullet-time effects?

  • Interestingly, to convey speed, it’s important to avoid detail.
    • You might plot out every intricate movement in the sword fight, but long paragraphs slow down the reader’s time sense.
    • Short but evocative phrases can heighten tension.
    • Creative use of punctuation can control time-sense too.
  • Indicating jumps in time without explicit title-carding is possible but tough.
    • For longer jumps, you can use subliminal clues, such as mentioning that a city is inaccessible except by boat in one period, then commenting on the new railroad opening in another.
    • Sometimes you can use fashion or manners to indicate the discontinuity.
    • It can be helpful to encounter the older versions of characters from earlier in the timeline.
  • How do you ensure the reader doesn’t get lost?  Or how do you lose them constructively, if that’s the point?

How do you signal (to editors or readers) that you’re making a stylistic choice and not just being lazy?

Lunacon 2014 (2b): Write What You Don’t Know

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Saturday 12 noon

Panelists: Walter H. Hunt, Laura Anne Gilman, KT Pinto

Sadly, this was not (imho) a very successful panel.  The panelists talked around the topic but never addressed head-on how to avoid the pitfalls of writing about things you haven’t experienced.  Walter Hunt mentioned that he’s spent a lot of time volunteering at a living farm and so sees a way of living most of us can hardly imagine.  The panelists bemoaned the writers who treat horses as simply breathing automobiles.

One thing I hadn’t thought about was, how do you write likeable characters from an unlikeable time?   Historical fiction set in 1802 New Orleans can’t really avoid the whole slave question, and indeed, your hero is likely to know slaveowners or be one himself.  It’s unsatisfying and a little flat to make all your protagonists be modern, liberal, open-minded people who happen to be centuries ahead of their time.  Unfortunately, the panel didn’t really offer any insight into what to do about it.

A different, related difficulty is, how do you avoid having your readers think that you, the author, agree with the objectionable mores of the era in which you set your book?  If your hero does not inveigle against slavery (possibly because he grew up a plantation owner’s son), some might see that as tacit approval on your part.  The published authors seemed to agree, there is no way to avoid this completely.  It just comes with the territory.

I made a personal discovery, to wit, once someone mentions the vampire story they wrote, I just tune them out.  It isn’t fair but I just don’t respect that genre.  In my defense, every single instance it occurred during this Lunacon, my disdain ended up being justified.

Lunacon 2014 (1b): Alternate Technologies in Historical Fiction

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Panelists: Russ Handelman, James Cambias, Paul Calhoun

And here he is, That Annoying Guy From One Seat Over.  This archetype shows up at every con, like a restless spirit.

One of the panelists pointed out that, more or less by definition, this would actually have to be about alternate historical fiction.

Examples of a missed technology:

  • Handelman: Could steam locomotives have happened 50 years earlier?
  • Cambias: Once you have cloth and fire, you can have balloons.  Why did they wait until the 18th century?  (Some people think the Mesoamericans had them.)
  • Calhoun: complex calculators like the Antikythera Device.

All in all, Calhoun was far and away the least effective panel member.

Technology needs a use before it will be adopted.  Muscle power is effective and cheap — you only get machines when the application is impossible or expensive to do with muscle.

Technology that disrupts existing power structures will be resisted by the people in charge of those structures.  Until the modern age, societies were not tolerant of that disruption, so change came very slowly.  If you want an industrial revolution in ancient times, you’re going to have change the form of antiquity.

Handelman mentioned a book called The Most Powerful Idea in the World, which posits that the Industrial Revolution occurred in England because the English had invented patent law.  I wonder if the century of civil war and ongoing disruption was also vital.

Then, there was a fire alarm and we had to flee the building.  That cut the session short.

Lunacon 2014 (1a): Building Character

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Panelists: Mike Flynn and Ken Atlabef.

I was a little disappointed to see that the first panel sported Mike Flynn as a guest.  At the last Lunacon, Mike Flynn was the moderator for the panels I consistently liked least.  My recollection was that he was a know-it-all who made points only to emphasize his intelligence or to plug his own books, and that the expertise he claimed did not jive with my own knowledge in those areas I had actual expertise in.  To be fair, at this panel, he was much more witty and, since it was a writing panel, a lot more effective.  He did continue to make it all about him, although it turns out, he can be pretty funny.

The first thing I noticed is how old the audience skewed — I might have been the second or third youngest person there, and I am no spring chicken.  This might owe to it being the very first panel to open (before they’ve even set up registration!); maybe only geezers can get away in the mid afternoon on a Friday.  🙂  However, looking over the whole evening, it does seem that Lunacon is trending gray.  More on that later.

The title of the panel was a play on words.  Rather than moral education, it was about how to craft characters that people will care about and that have the strength to carry your story.

The two panelists did make some really good observations, which I think I’ll find useful when I ever wander back into writing fiction.  In no particular order of importance:

  • Most sci fi is  plot-driven.  Other than sci fi, most modern fiction is character-driven.  This is probably why sci fi fans complain that other works drag or seem to be about nothing.
  • It’s important that characters be true to life.  “True” here doesn’t mean factual or literal.  True-to-life means that the characters act in ways that make sense to the reader.
  • The star of Lord of the Rings is Middle Earth itself.  Tolkein didn’t write a story so much as a travelog.
  • Altabef felt very strongly that you need to “profile” your characters fully before writing them.  He came back to this several times.
    • They need to have a back story and you need to know it.
    • You must create as much detail as you can.
    • But you should reveal only the “telling details” — the ones needed to move the plot or to define the character.
    • It’s OK to surprise the reader later but you should never be surprised.
    • That’s what a first draft is for — to uncover the ways your characters will surprise you.
  • Flynn felt that, when you introduce a character, you should provide the reader with a physical image as soon as possible with as much definition as possible.
    • Don’t write stories about ghosts (unless it is a literal ghost story and your character is  a literal ghost).
    • The character should be doing something that reveals who he is.  Think Indiana Jones, who is being Indiana Jones — whip cracking, cautious, observant — within 30 seconds of appearing.
  • Dialog is the way you reveal and explore your characters.
    • Every character should sound like  a person.  They should not sound like the same person.  🙂  A note for Aaron Sorkin, I suppose.
    • You can flesh out dialog (and break its monotony) with eye movement, facial expression, tone of voice.
    • A good writer is observing people all the time and noting their distinguishing tics, mannerisms, etc.  You should constantly observe people to try to figure out their motivations — getting them “correct” is less important than the exercise of coming up with them.
    • There’s a writing exercise that occurred to me that I want to try: Come up with a situation or piece of conversation and re-tell it for each character.
  • Character flaws are useful hooks.
    • It’s best if the character’s flaw has something to do with the actual story.  🙂
    • It’s imperative to avoid Mary Sue syndrome.
    • One technique: Assign each character their Myers-Briggs score, then put them in a situation where they have to act against it.  Use that discomfort.
  • Villains
    • No man is a villain in his own eyes.
    • When possible, include an anti-flaw — a redeeming quality — to avoid the Punch Clock Villain problem.  Unless that’s what you’re going for, which is OK in its own right.
    • Generally, don’t have the villain do it for the evulz.
    • A truly great villain leaves the reader unsettled, because he/she demands sympathy or at least understanding.

Then the group degenerated into discussing Batman.  Of course.