Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Chicon 7

Are you a gardener or an architect?

with 4 comments

There are many different kinds of writers. I like to use the analogy of architects and gardeners. There are some writers who are architects, and they plan everything, they blueprint everything, and they know before the drive the first nail into the first board what the house is going to look like…And then there are gardeners who dig a little hole and drop a seed in and water it with their blood and see what comes up, and sort of shape it…I am much more a gardener than an architect.

That’s George R.R. Martin talking, and if my experience this weekend at Worldcon is any indication, the distinction between literary gardeners and architects may be Martin’s most lasting contribution to the way we think about writing. Of the ten or so events on writing I attended, either as a viewer or a panelist, I’d say that the gardener/architect distinction came up in at least half, usually to appreciative murmurs from the audience. Either approach, the speakers were quick to say, is perfectly fine, depending on the writer’s methods and personality—which is certainly true. But I also noticed that nearly every writer who brought up the distinction identified himself as a gardener, with an implicit sense that architects are slightly inhuman technicians whose left-brained approach can deprive them of the happy accidents of character and incident that lie at the heart of writing.

Well, in case it isn’t abundantly clear by now, I’m an architect. My first blog post was called “Nails and Houses.” My favorite book on storytelling of any kind, David Mamet’s On Directing Film, abounds in architectural metaphors, and I seized every chance I could to recommend it at my panels this weekend. (I have a feeling I sold more copies of Mamet’s book than any of my own work.) I’ve used a lot of different metaphors to describe outlining, which I’ve called a stealth first draft and compared to the relationship that a screenplay bears to a finished movie, but perhaps it’s most accurate to say that the outline is a blueprint. At this point, I wouldn’t dream of starting a substantial writing project without an outline for at least the first major section, and I still believe that having an outline often makes the difference between finishing a project and ending up with a few tantalizing fragments. And while I’m aware that this approach doesn’t work for everyone, it works so well for me that I’ve discussed it at length, both on this blog and elsewhere.

What needs to be emphasized, however, is that a novel is not a house, however seductive that analogy may be. It’s easier to remodel, for one thing. And it can be planned and built in increments: I never outline an entire novel at once, but always leave a residue of plot and character problems unresolved at every stage. In some ways, the architectural approach to writing is less like building a house than like city planning: it involves many connected structures, built over time and for different reasons, each one of which subtly changes its neighbors and the surrounding landscape. Just as a healthy neighborhood consists, according to Christopher Alexander, of the coordination of patterns scaled to human needs, writing a novel is about orchestrating many self-contained pieces—beats, scenes, chapters—into a harmonious whole. And the result, if you’ve done it properly, is less a city like Brasilia, with its structure imposed from the top down, than London, which makes sense on the ground but also reveals surprising patterns when seen from above.

And what I’ve discovered about these architectural habits is that they’re very much like what Mamet says about his own methods: applied correctly, they set the imagination free. As a blueprint, an outline helps you organize materials and find places for elements that otherwise might be lost. I’m much more likely, for instance, to remember and utilize the free-floating fragments of inspiration that come at odd moments—while shaving, showering, or taking a walk—when I have a larger structure in which they can fit. This requires a certain amount of flexibility, of course, and a willingness to revise in light of new developments. Even when I’m working out a carefully structured plan on the page, I’m often surprised by unexpected plot or character turns, which emerge, not in spite of the pattern that surrounds them, but because of it. That tension between structure and serendipity is one of the great joys of writing. And fortunately, with a novel, it’s always possible to remodel, rebuild, and, when necessary, demolish.

Written by nevalalee

September 5, 2012 at 9:36 am

Goodbye, Worldcon; Goodbye, Stanley

leave a comment »

What can you say about something like Worldcon? It’s only been over for a day or two, and I already miss it. For much of the past weekend, I’ve felt like I was practically living at the Hyatt Regency, even though I still went back home to Oak Park every night—which makes me feel as though I only got half the experience, since so much of the life of the convention clearly takes place sometime between midnight and four in the morning. And after telling myself that this was likely to be my first and last convention, I’m already starting to wonder when I can come back. (San Antonio next year probably isn’t in the cards, but London in 2014 is awfully tempting.) I went in looking forward mostly to my own panels, but emerged having learned a great deal more than I managed to convey to anyone else, not just about writing, but about speculative fiction, fandom, and the ties that bind them together.

I’ll have a chance to talk more about my panels on this blog in the future, and it was a real pleasure to meet writers like Jay Lake, Stephen Leigh, Vylar Kaftan, Russell Davis, and so many others. The real fun, however, came in attending other events, sometimes almost by accident. My favorite was the panel “Media Tie-In Novels: Art or Commerce,” in which such authors as David Gerrold and Peter David traded war stories, both good and bad, about the curious and often undervalued work of writing movie, television, and gaming tie-ins. (Game designer Tom Dowd had kind words for Vonda N. McIntyre’s novelization of Wrath of Khan, which I picked up later that day in the Dealers Room.) And of course the Hugo Awards were great fun: I got to chat with Locus reviewer Rich Horton and root for my favorite nominees, and while Community didn’t win, I was especially glad to see Kij Johnson win Best Novella for her wonderful “The Man Who Bridged the Mist.”

Yet the most significant moment of this year’s Worldcon was highly personal. Much earlier, I’d received an invitation for a special event sponsored by Analog, which I wanted to attend in any case, but it wasn’t until Friday that I learned the real reason behind it: the retirement, after thirty-four years, of editor Stanley Schmidt, with the highly capable managing editor Trevor Quachri taking the helm of the most legendary magazine in science fiction. At the event, Stan received heartfelt tributes from Sheila Williams, editor of Asimov’s, and writers whose names I’ve seen in print countless times, all gathered in the same crowded room. I hadn’t seen Stan in person in almost four years—we had lunch, oddly enough, on the day of Obama’s inauguration—and I’m grateful I had the chance to thank him myself and meet his charming wife Joyce. I had to run home soon thereafter, but I heard that the party ran past two in the morning.

And it isn’t surprising: we all owe Stan a lot. He was the first editor to ever buy a story I’d written—my novelette “Inversus,” which appeared in the January/February 2004 issue of Analog—and that first sale, which came out of the blue, was one of the great turning points of my life: it was my first concrete evidence that I might actually become a professional writer one day, and I’m sure there were many other authors there that night who could say the same thing. Since then, I’ve sold Stan a number of other stories, not all of which he accepted the first time around, and it’s safe to say that I wouldn’t be at Worldcon at all if he hadn’t picked up “The Boneless One.” His support has been important to me in ways I can’t even begin to express, which is why I was so glad to see him get a standing ovation at the Hugos on Sunday—the biggest reception of the night. He deserves it.

Written by nevalalee

September 4, 2012 at 9:49 am

Dispatches from Chicon 7

with 6 comments

If you happen to wander into the lobby of the Hyatt Regency in Chicago this weekend, the first thing you’re likely to notice is an abundance of Indiana Jones hats. From time to time, you’ll also see a few Yoda ears and Starfleet uniforms. You’ll also encounter a lot of guys who look startlingly like George R.R. Martin—including George R.R. Martin himself. But most of all, you’ll find a large crowd of rather peculiar people, superficially ordinary at first glance, who nonetheless seem somehow different from those you generally encounter around the Chicago Loop. It’s hard to pin down what sets fans apart, or why, as I approached the hotel, I kept noticing people, otherwise nondescript, who I just knew were going to the same place that I was. But if you spend enough time at the World Science Fiction Convention, you start to develop a sixth sense—or, in this crowd, maybe a seventh or eighth sense—for this kind of thing. And the overall feeling is exhilarating.

You could sense the diversity of the convention just by looking around the table at the New Writers panel I attended. There was moderator S.J. Chambers, who went from an editorial job at Strange Horizons to a Hugo nomination for The Steampunk Bible; Thomas Olde Heuvelt, a wunderkind who once found himself, to his chagrin, being billed at a convention as “the Horror Hunk”; Emma Newman, who got into Oxford with the help of a science-fiction story and then took a break from writing for ten years, only to return with a vengeance; Hanna Martine, a Chicago-area mom who switched from epic fantasy to paranormal romance after growing tired of the former’s lack of sex; and yours truly, who did his best to explain why he was attending a science-fiction convention with a book like The Icon Thief. (Later, one of the attendees advised me that, with this crowd, I was better off leading with my appearance in The Year’s Best Science Fiction and leaving my novels out of it.)

One of the things I love about Chicon so far is how funky it is. This isn’t a slick event like Comic-Con with a ton of media coverage, but an event for fans by fans. The big celebrities aren’t movie stars or directors, but the likes of Robert Silverberg—although I hear that Dan Harmon might make an appearance at the Hugo Awards on Sunday. This is a convention whose earliest incarnations were attended by the likes of Heinlein, Asimov, and Bradbury, whose names are still invoked with awe and affection. And that sense of continuity is everywhere you look. Its spirit might best be expressed by the appearance at the opening ceremony of Erle Korshak, who, at the age of seventeen, was the secretary at the very first Chicon, held on September 1, 1940. When asked how it felt to be at this year’s convention, Korshak replied: “It makes me glad that I’m still alive.”

And while the convention itself has grown much larger over time—about five thousand people are scheduled to attend this year—it still feels charmingly old-fashioned. One of my favorite things about literary science fiction is how low-tech it tends to be: it’s no accident that its most venerable magazine is called Analog, which just began accepting electronic submissions last year, and whose editor only recently stopped sending out typewritten acceptance letters. Fandom was built on mimeographed fanzines, electronic bulletin boards, and Geocities pages, and despite a well-designed convention app, the Chicon website itself has a pleasingly dated feel. The great thing about science fiction is that its finest practitioners didn’t need access to the technology of the future in order to write about it. They just needed a pencil and a dream—and when you look around this convention, it’s hard not to conclude that their dreams were larger as a result.

Note: Today at Chicon at 3:00 pm, I’ll be appearing on the panel “Turning Ideas Into Stories,” also featuring authors Tim Akers, Roland Green, Louise Marley, and Jamie Todd Rubin. This is going to be a good one!

Written by nevalalee

August 31, 2012 at 9:38 am

The Chicon Thief

leave a comment »

Regular readers will know that I envy the world of passionate fans, even if I’ve generally found myself on the outside looking in. As a result, I’ve always been fascinated by the culture of science fiction and fantasy conventions, but I’ve never had a chance to attend in person, partially because I don’t identify strongly with any particular fandom—aside from that of The X-Files, which seems to be on the wane these days—and because my own weird obsessions have tended to take me in a rather different direction. In less than two weeks, however, I’ll be attending the 70th World Science Fiction Convention here in Chicago, also known as Chicon 7, both as a panelist and eager attendee, and I can’t begin to describe my excitement: looking over the convention schedule is like browsing through the world’s best course catalog, with events like “Designing Spacecraft as a Hobby,” “LARPing: Make-Believe For Adults,” and “How to Write for Furries”—although the one I really can’t wait to attend is Sy Liebergot’s presentation on the lessons of Apollo 13.

I’m able to attend Worldcon this year because of the lucky confluence of a number of factors. This year’s convention is being held at the Hyatt Regency Chicago, only half an hour’s train ride from my house, so it’s practically in my back yard. It’s also been an unusually productive year for me on the science fiction front: over the last eighteen months, I’ve published four stories in Analog, including “The Boneless One,” probably my best work, which ended up in the latest edition of The Year’s Best Science Fiction. Realistically speaking, I don’t think I’ll have another run like this for a long time, if ever, so it’s very fortunate that my best year in the science fiction field happens to coincide with the convention taking place such a convenient location. Will I ever go again? I really hope so—although right now it seems best to regard it as a special treat in a year that qualifies as an outlier by any measure.

At the moment, I’m scheduled to appear on five panels over the course of four days, and I hope you’ll check them out if you’re there. Here’s my schedule:

  • Thursday August 30, 4:30 pm. New Writers Session 1. A panel for new and debut writers to discuss their work and careers. Moderator: S. J. Chambers. Panelists: Alec Nevala-Lee, Emma Newman, Hanna Martine, Thomas Olde Heuvelt.
  • Friday August 31, 3:00 pm. Turning Ideas Into Stories. Many people ask authors where they get their ideas. This panels asks: “How do you develop your ideas into stories?” Moderator: Louise Marley. Panelists: Alec Nevala-Lee, Jamie Todd Rubin, Roland Green, Tim Akers.
  • Saturday September 1, 9:00 am. Men Writing Women. Many male writers have written stories from the female protagonist point of view or even using a female pseudonym. This panel will explore this issue from a variety of perspectives. Moderator: Bradley P. Beaulieu. Panelists: Alec Nevala-Lee, Jan Bogstad, Myke Cole, Russell Davis.
  • Saturday September 1, 3:00 pm. Develop Your Story Idea. We will take an idea or two from the audience and work on how we would turn it into a story. Moderator: B. A. Chepaitis. Panelists: Alec Nevala-Lee, Courtney Schafer, Jamie Todd Rubin, Martha Wells.
  • Sunday September 2, 3:00 pm. Stalking the Elusive Story Idea. What is creativity? Can it be taught? Is it possible to generate story ideas on demand? A discussion of the practical aspects of inspiration, brainstorming, and the search for material, from the perspective of the working writer. Moderator: Jay Lake. Panelists: Alec Nevala-Lee, Jacqueline Lichtenberg, Stephen Leigh, Vylar Kaftan.

If that last panel’s description has a familiar ring, that isn’t a coincidence: it’s a topic I suggested, and I’m really looking forward to it. As for the rest, they all look like fun, especially “Develop Your Story Idea,” which could either be fascinating or a magnificent train wreck. Hope to see some of you there!

Written by nevalalee

August 17, 2012 at 10:01 am

%d bloggers like this: