Keep up with her blog to empower marginalized female voices at Psycho-girl.com
We rolled our suitcases into the Marriott Hotel in Quincy, Massachusetts, and after hours in the car-pool, I was eager to stretch my legs and pee. We’d arrived for Readercon 27, this year’s installment of the annual convention for writers and readers of speculative fiction, and lucky for me and my cohorts, just one long car ride from our base in Brooklyn.
After urinating and parking the luggage, I located my lanyard with our group’s proud name: Brooklyn Speculative Fiction Writers. Here we were, 25 strong, and ready to rule the world. My own name sat right over that identifier, but does the label apply if I write (yes!) or only if I write well (well…)? My car-mate’s novels are all killer, but mine is…in progress. As I got my bearings in the mid-range, jewel-toned lobby, I thought about how this place was packed with real, paid, professional writers, of whom I knew not one. And who was I but a socially anxious 51-year-old geek female, even if I fake my way pretty well? But I threw back my shoulders and willed myself to pass.
All I have to do is make my novel good. Nothing else matters if I can make my novel good. How do I do that?
We’d barely time to gulp down $12 veggie burgers in the thumping pub before the panels began. The salons were freezing, but the topics were hot, running the gamut of things that might interest the writers of sci-fi, horror and fantasy-adventure. In Living in the Future, panelists discussed maps and cellphones – conveniences that may or may not exist in the eons ahead. In Futurism’s Blind Spot, we wondered if projected tech change trumps the sociological. Nice warmup, after which I put myself to bed under a fluffy Marriott duvet. I wanted more.
After slurping a hot coffee, I attended The Politics of Food, where I was prompted to wonder if replicated food, a-la Star Trek, would better serve the working class or the privileged. At There’s a Queer Person at the End of This Book, the conversation centered on characters “coming out,” the necessity based on hetero-sexist assumptions. Can my future world exist outside of cis-het-normativity? What about erasure? Pondering Why Women Become Protagonists, I realized that my female lead may kick ass, but she does not have to stand in for all women. She’s a human being, so let heroism spring from her natural, personal characteristics, and for god’s sake, not some – ugh – past trauma.
At Fantastical Dystopia, I wondered whether my fictional world is a dystopia, or merely dystopian? What cataclysm birthed it? Might that cataclysm signal a hopeful wipeout of status quos? At Who Gets to Tell My Story, some fiery discourse covered cis/het writers telling queer stories, or white authors creating protagonists of color. Where is the accidental normativity in my imaginative world?
My shoulders shivered, but my mind was on fire. I found a balanced breather at Brooklyn Speculative Fiction Writers Group Reading, where members of my awesome group made some creative heat in the compact Blue Hills Salon. Go team! (Seriously, check out our Kaleidocast podcast of stellar original spec-fic short stories.)
After dinner, I attempted shy networking at Meet the Pros(e), and mostly watched an eighties dance party that was a veritable nerd prom. Wait! Award-winning, best-selling authors look and act so much like me? While this in no way informs how well my writing stacks up against theirs, I’m absolutely certain at least a few of them are socially anxious. That was something to chew on later as I snuggled under the fluffy duvet. Maybe just maybe…
At Beyond Strong Female Characters, I remembered that my female protag should not be a masculine model. She’s clever, not a cutout, learning on the fly. Her strengths are specific and she feels pain. At The Apocalypse Is Already Here, It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed, I knew the future is better saved by advanced paradigms than by advanced technologies. At It Gets Better: The Value of Utopian and Dystopian Futures for the Currently and Historically Marginalized, I applied the tragically current utopia-dystopia metric: what percentage of my fictional population can murder another percentage without consequence?
I missed Cowboys of Space and YA Tropes We’d Love to See the Last Of. I didn’t explore Robots as Proxies in Science Fiction, nor did I find out If Thor Can Hang Out with Iron Man, Why Can’t Harry Dresden Use a Computer? My fingers were ink-stained, my brain spinning, my tweets tweeting, my hashtags tagging, when panel burnout took hold. I excused myself to the awesomely deserted jacuzzi, and pressing up against pounding hot bubble jets, I wondered if the Marriott would ever get warmer, and for all this brain rush, was any closer to making my novel good? I ducked out early from the Brooklyn Speculative Fiction Writers all-night “Cards Against Humanity” playoff to go quietly again under the fluffy duvet. The nerds next door rocked it until 3am.
Bingo! While Mary Robinette Kowal offered Short Stories Explained (For the Novelist), I stubbornly heard “novel” every time she said “short story.” But this was a talk I almost skipped, and it contained the answer I craved! It was only a difference of word count, as easy as Ls=(((C+L)x750)xM)/2. Read carefully: Whatever the length, you simply apply the MACE quotient, an acronym standing for the kinds of stories one might tell. There is “milieu” (your character goes to a place), “ask/answer” (your character asks a question), “character” (your character’s self-definition is challenged), “event” (something external disrupts your character’s status quo). Each can be a driver. Open just one story or open one of each, just know which is which, and consider your allotment of words. Close each story in reverse order. It’s simple math, my dear Watson: employ story structure for maximum punch.
I tucked away my laptop, paid up, and warm outdoor air brushed my timid shoulders as we rolled our suitcases back out to the car. It was real, Marriott, but I was ready to get home, newly eager to find out how big a world I might build on a little composition. Let’s roll, writers. Hang that lanyard in the doorknob. We’ve got work to do.