The Same Old Story, Until It’s Not

This weekend my grandmother went to the hospital for pneumonia. She’s back home now, taking it easy and taking her medicine. But earlier this weekend the doctors were saying she might be in there for a week. So on Saturday morning I woke up early and drove out to the rural town where I grew up. I rode with my mother to the hospital, and we spent five hours hanging out with my Nana.

My Nana likes to tell stories about when I was little. There are stories I know by heart. The one about a very young me walking through the forest with my Nana and asking her who made the trees, and commenting that the tree-maker had done great work. How I talked my grandfather into giving me the old piano he had just bought. I don’t remember the doing of these stories, I only remember them as told to me by my grandmother. I’ve heard them again and again, until they feel like folk tales. Stories about other people I don’t know.

When my family gets together for a holiday or just to hang out, usually Nana only gets to tell a few of these stories. There’s always some other distraction that gets in the way. There’s the holiday meal to eat, clothes to swap, movies to watch. So I hear the story about the trees, then the one about the piano, and my memories of my childhood begin to feel like they are made of just these moments.

This weekend at the hospital there was a television in my Nana’s hospital room, but we didn’t watch it. My mom, Nana, and I talked. There were the stories I knew. But then we kept going, and my Nana told me stories I hadn’t heard before. In these stories the kid-me is shockingly bossy, telling my mother that she’s driving the car wrong.

When I sit down to write a story, the first few paragraphs are painful. I’m excited to get the story down, but frustrated that every word, every action feels like I’ve written or read it a hundred times before.

If I can push myself past those first words where I’m walking on ground I’ve covered before, then pretty soon I’ll look up and find myself in a strange forest. Someplace I haven’t been. And that’s when the story gets going. The real characters step out from behind trees, we start walking.

I find out who they really are.

Lessons Learned from Star Trek: Replacing Your Characters

Here at the little apartment in north Alabama, we’re done with our viewings of Star Trek: The Next Generation Season One, and are well into Season Two.

The second season began with a horrible mindscrew for Deanna Troi, where she was forcefully impregnated by an alien life form. The next episodes began to get better and better, thank goodness. We got to see Riker as the cultural-savvy vagabond he is at heart in “A Matter of Honor” when he joins the crew of a Klingon vessel as part of an exchange program. This was immediately followed by the best Star Trek TNG episode so far – “The Measure of a Man”, where a court decides whether Data has the legal right to decline an operation which would very likely erase the essence of his self. But after this episode, the stories took a nosedive again. We watched “Samaritan Snare” last night, and it was tedious and boorish.

There are times when I feel the burning desire to skip the poorly rated episodes. To just toggle past them on the menu screen when my partner says, “Oh, I read that this one is one of the worst episodes ever.” But I’ve watched them all. Every moment of techno-jargon, of A and B plot lines that never intersect, of Riker’s father in a too-tight onesie.

But I’m glad I stuck it out, because I was able to watch a fascinating character development in one of the Enterprise’s new crew members.

Doctor Pulaski.

[ At this point, I suppose I should alert you to spoilers about Star Trek: TNG second series episodes. I’ll only be referencing a few episodes, but in order to talk about Pulaski’s character arc I need to reveal the endings. So proceed with caution. ]

At the beginning of Season Two, we learn that Dr. Crusher won’t be journeying forward with the Enterprise. She’s been given another assignment. This creates two problems:

(1) Without Dr. Crusher on board, Wesley Crusher becomes 100x more annoying. His plausibility for remaining on the starship after his mother has left is non-existent, and Riker gets shoved into being Wesley’s guardian.

(2) The Enterprise needs another Chief Medical Officer.

Dr. Beverly Crusher may not have been the greatest physician in the world, but she was likable as a character. Sure, her “will they or won’t they?” chemistry with Picard was only 1/6 of a Mulder-Scully, but she and Picard had a past together. They had friends and coworkers they knew in the larger world of Starfleet that made the often flimsy plots of the first season feel more like stories. And I admired her ability to coach Picard through taking care of her injuries as she slipped into shock after falling into a giant hole on a hostile planet. She often seemed flabbergasted by medial traumas, but she always came through in the end.

In the first season I scoffed at the notion that Wesley Crusher was annoying. I loved “Coming of Age,” where Wesley takes his first try at the Starfleet Entrance Exam. Maybe he’s made humbler somehow just by us knowing that his mom is on board the ship. But with Dr. Crusher gone, Wesley turns into a bit of a third wheel. Since it is awkward for him to stay there after his mother is no longer acting Chief Medical Officer, his every action is open for speculation. “Why are they letting him take charge of a geological survey team? He’s not even supposed to be there!”

So replacing Dr. Crusher was a bit of a conundrum. How do you go about replacing a main cast member in a way that fans will not reject? This happens all the time in long series. Mulder disappeared and was usurped by liquid Terminator guy. Samantha had two Darrins.

You can either have a new character replace the position held by the old character (X Files), or you can place another actor in the character’s role and hope no one notices (I Dream of Jeannie) or make fun of the change (a la Roseanne) so that no one cares.

Thankfully, Star Trek: TNG chose to create a new character to fill the role of Chief Medical Officer, and  whether by luck or by design, the writers at Star Trek: TNG pulled this transition off gloriously.

This is how they did it.

STEP ONE: MAKE THE AUDIENCE HATE THE NEW CHARACTER

From NikiSublime’s Flickr 

How do you do this swiftly and effectively? You give that new character a prejudice, a flaw so unappealing that you did not think it possible in the story’s universe.

In a word: bigotry.

In the first season we learn a lot about Mister Data. He’s the most capable person on the Enterprise. He has a drive to become as human as possible, and his attempts to become more human are heartbreaking, annoying, and funny. (Like the time he tries to sport a Riker-beard). They’re complicated, because he’s a complicated, self-aware being.

But Pulaski will have none of this. She’s a medical officer. Her jurisdiction is the human body. When she meets Data, she refers to him as “it.” Pulaski constantly questions Data’s abilities to reason, to feel empathy, and even to die.

From watching the first season, I thought everyone in the 24th century was enlightened and accepting of alternate life-forms. But it seems as though the Enterprise is a bit of a protective bubble for Data, and that there are people out there – like Dr. Pulaski – who view Data as nothing more than a collection of mechanical parts.

After two episodes of Data-bashing, my dislike of Dr. Pulaski was cemented.

STEP TWO: MAKE THE NEW CHARACTER ALMOST DIE

And then she almost died.

The key in this near-death experience is the method of how the character falls into the deadly situation.

For Dr. Pulaski, it is her drive as a Medical Officer that pushes her to take a risk.  On the planet below,  the adults are rapidly aging. The children are genetically modified, and are kept in a contained facility apart from the adults. The children show no signs of the rapid aging disease. The lead scientist appeals to Dr. Pulaski to save their children, and Pulaski, being thorough, takes a shuttle craft away from the Enterprise and beams the child there in order to conduct a physical exam. This exam will tell her whether it is safe for the children to beam aboard the Enterprise so that they can be taken care of when all the adults die from the disease down on the planet.

The exam goes well until – ARTHRITIS! Dr. Pulaski grabs her arm, and hails Picard. The children are contagious. Dr. Pulaski’s caught the rapid aging disease. She’s going down to the planet to see how she can help them now that she’s infected.

She begins to age, but she works steadily on towards trying to find a cure. She takes full responsibility for her actions, and despite my frustration at her treatment of Data, I begin to feel sympathy for her. And I start to understand how it is possible, maybe, for a person so dedicated to the art of healing the human body to feel umbrage at an android, whose body is alien to her.

STEP THREE: EASE OFF THE BIGOTRY AND SHOW THE CHARACTER’S UBER-CAPABLENESS
Mister Data was on that shuttle craft with Dr. Pulaski. And he points out to her that it is not certain that he will remain unaffected by any contagion. In other words, he could die, too. Maybe this shared near-death experience with Data clicks some gears in Pulaski’s brain, because pretty soon she backs off her admonitions of his non-personhood. Perhaps she just becomes less outspoken about her beliefs, but she certainly begins to treat Data with more respect.

The final step in establishing Dr. Pulaski as an accepted member of the crew is when she saves Picard’s life. This happens in the amazingly awful episode “Samaritan Snare”. One I would rather not have watched. But I’m glad I did because this is when I knew Dr. Pulaski had truly arrived. And I forgot all about Dr. Crusher.

Picard has an artificial heart. It’s not working properly, and he needs a replacement. He takes a painfully long shuttle journey with Wesley to a starbase while the Enterprise is off being boorish without his command, all because Picard is afraid that if Pulaski performs the operation then word will get out and the crew will no longer respect him.

For some reason the surgical staff wear all red scrubs on the starbase. We see Picard slip off into anesthetic bliss from a tiny piece of metal stuck to his forehead, and then the lead surgeon declares they’ll all be home in time for supper.

But complications arise.

The lasers won’t keep stuff together.

Everybody starts sweating on their foreheads.

Dinner is cancelled.

Lead surgeon guy calls in a specialist. The specialist says they have to take the artificial heart out and do the procedure again.

Lead surgeon guy freaks out. “I’m not qualified to do that.”

But he knows someone who is.

The Enterprise hits Warp 9 back to the starbase, and Picard wakes up to a familiar face.

Picard: What the hell are you doing here?

Pulaski: Saving your life

Picard: Oh, come on. This is a routine procedure, quite commonplace.

Pulaski: True, but you are not a commonplace man. You’ll be out of recovery in four hours.

Picard: I didn’t want you involved in this.

Pulaski: You’re welcome.

Picard: If you’re here the entire crew must know.

Pulaski: You’re still the captain. Invincible.

Picard: huh. Thank You

Welcome to the Enterprise, Dr. Pulaski. 🙂
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[Or should I say, Welcome Back.]

Halloween Stories

Happy Halloween!

My neighbors went all out this year, with an amazing combination of visual and auditory special effects. Children were crying as their parents dragged them to the front door, which is the sign of a spooky job well-done. 
Our decorations were a bit more modest, although I got several compliments on my growing collection of Star Trek pumpkins. Last year I carved Spock, and this year I added Uhura. Since these are intricate and take a bit of time to carve, I use the hollow craft pumpkins that you buy at your local craft store. The patterns are from pinkraygun

Spock and Uhura greet Trick-or-Treaters from my windowsill
One of the aspects I love most about Halloween is how central stories are to celebrating this holiday. Every part of celebrating Halloween has a story element present. When you decorate your front porch, decide which scary movies to watch, and choose your costume, you’re forming the narrative of your Halloween. Even if you choose a costume that is one of the basic Halloween concepts, like a witch, how you portray being a witch is going to be different from how anyone else does it. I met five or so little girls tonight who were dressed as witches, and each of them had a different witchy story conveyed by their outfit. You could begin to guess a little bit about the person underneath the pointy hat by whether it was covered in iridescent cobwebs or was a simple black that highlighted dramatic makeup. 
You might have heard of All Hallow’s Read, a new tradition of giving scary books to people on Halloween. As Neil Gaiman explains, this isn’t to replace trick-or-treating or costuming or any other Halloween activities. In addition to all of those fun traditions, you give a scary book to someone. This year I am going to give The Walking Dead comic book to my younger brother. He’s been enjoying the television series adaptation, and it seems like a good opportunity to rekindle his interest in comic books and, hopefully, reading for pleasure.
And for you, reader, I want to share a collection of Ray Bradbury stories. These are from a DVD set I bought when I was in Alaska. I watched the first two discs in October of last year, when I was jobless and aimless. Bradbury’s stories helped put some of the wonder back into every day life. 
The Ray Bradbury Theater has stand alone stories, all written by Bradbury. Some of my favorite episodes are “The Playground” (starring William Shatner), “The Crowd”, and “The Screaming Woman” (starring a very young Drew Barrymore). You can find whole episodes on YouTube, or buy the box set rather cheaply online ($10). 
Here’s the opening sequence:

“Well then, right now, what shall it be? Out of all this, what do I choose to make a story?”
What was your Halloween story like this year?

Strange Southern Thing: Unclaimed Baggage

Whenever I reveal my Southern heritage to people, they usually do one of three things:

1. Start singing “Sweet Home Alabama”
2. Ask me to speak in a Southern accent
3. Ask me to tell them odd stories of the South

I’ve never had a Southern accent. I’m not sure why. Most of the Southerners I know who don’t have accents are usually ones who read a lot when they were kids. Maybe having all of those words go straight from page to mindspace set up a kind of accent-barrier. The best I can do at a Southern accent are an occasional “might could” and every now and then, and when I’m speaking to Southern strangers, a “ya’ll.”

Since doing a Southern accent is off the list, I’d like to share some beautiful, awesome Southern strangeness – places and people and objects that are uniquely Dixie.

Earlier this week I went with my family to the Unclaimed Baggage store in Scottsboro, Alabama. When you lose your luggage while traveling, your stuff comes here. It’s kind of like a thrift store, only it is full of items that people didn’t want to give away. So instead of tatty sweaters and broken toys, you get expensive jackets and eReaders. And then you also get a few treasures, things that were never meant to be lost.

Like Hoggle, from the movie Labyrinth.

I visited Hoggle for the first time many years ago. His face was damaged. It looked like the skin had rotted away around his nose and mouth. An entire cheek was missing. He was encased behind thick glass, the small frame of his body looking empty and withered. But he was Hoggle, Sarah’s friend in the Labyrinth, who gave her the poisoned apple, then repented and helped her storm Goblin City.

Since then Hoggle has been repaired. But I rather liked the old, tattered Hoggle better. I mean, that’s kind of who his character was, anyways. Someone who has lost even the tiniest chance of friendship with others. A person who is hollowed out, decaying within, meets a stranger and decides to fight for her.

Riding in Cars with Authors

Every Friday night at Clarion West there is a party. These parties take place at the homes of local supporters of the workshop – wonderful, kind people who welcome students and local writers alike into their homes.

At these parties we were encouraged not to clump together with our classmates. There were strict penalties for clumping. Sometimes grapes rained from the sky to break us up. But it can be hard to break out of the comforting group of classmates and wander off to talk to an author you’ve been reading since childhood, or an author you’ve only just heard of, whose talk to the class on craft issues was so insightful and helpful that you took ten pages of notes.

The parties took place away from the sorority house where we lived and workshopped during the week. In order to get to these parties, we would depend on either Sarah’s bus-savvy, Alberto’s wonderful kindness, or we would ride with volunteers.

Many of the volunteers that drove us to the Friday night parties were writers. Some were Clarion West alumni, who gave us cheerful advice on how to survive. Some were writers we’d read and heard of long before coming to Seattle. Some were both.

Around Week 4 or Week 5, Vylar Kaftan came up to visit Seattle, and volunteered to drive some of us to the Friday night party. I signed up to ride in her car, along with my classmate Alisa.

Riding in the car with Vylar, Alisa and I got to talk to her one on one about Clarion West, about writing, about being an author in general. It was fantastic. I would have been too terrified to approach her at a party, but on the way to the party we had a great conversation.

I’m thinking of this because I recently read two awesome articles by Vylar posted on the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) Facebook feed. The most recent one is “Submission Statistics and Revision Habits.”

This post is so immensely helpful to me right now. When you come out of a workshop like Clarion West, you have these first drafts of stories that need revision. But you might also have tons of ideas for new stories, and new ways of telling stories. I feel torn between wanting to revise my Clarion West stories and wanting to start new stories. My Clarion West  stories feel the closest I’ve ever been to writing stories that I love, and I feel like they’re just a few paces away from being stories that other people would like to read, too. But I’m afraid I’m getting mired in re-working these stories too much, because it keeps me from writing new stories using the tools I’ve learned.

Vylar makes a wonderful point in her post about revision:

The amount of time it would take to bring an old story up to your current standards is usually better spent writing a new story. 

She goes on to point out that she is not advocating that writers avoid revising their work. But that once you start sending a story out for submission, that you keep it going until you either sell it or decide to trunk it.

 L. Timmel Duchamp, our Week Five instructor, told us how important it is to the writer to submit your stories. To send them out so you can begin writing new ones.

It’s good for you on a deeper level than being efficient and good for your writing. It energizes you and makes you feel like you are part of the writing world, even if the story doesn’t sell.

So I’m setting a goal for myself to revise my stories and submit them, but to also start writing new stories. Very soon.

I’ve heard people say that most people who want to write don’t publish not because they aren’t talented, or have interesting stories to tell. It’s because they give up. Somewhere on the road they decide to take a step off of the pavement and do something else.

For me, submitting my stories is like signing-up to ride with an author I’d like to talk to, but am timid to approach otherwise.

It’s another step forward.

Subtext and Star Trek

My boyfriend and I are on a quest to watch every episode, in order, of Star Trek: The Next Generation. We have recently finished Season One.

It’s interesting to see the genesis of the characters, to see actors figuring out which gestures and tones to use. Riker doesn’t have a beard, and has a fantastic layer of ADD, wanting always to Do Something. Mr. Data is sweetly annoying, and even the computer interrupts him to say, “enough.”

There’s one character, however, who I have little patience for, and view her presence as not only completely unnecessary, but also as detrimental to the storytelling:

Deanna Troi.


“I’m sensing hostility from this blog post.”

Let’s take, for example, the first season episode “We’ll Always have Paris.”

Picard is practicing his fencing with a partner when a strange time phenomenon occurs.

Random Lieutenant: “Interesting move sir. But what technique was that?”
Picard: “The technique of a desperate man.”

Random Lieutenant: “Interesting move sir. But what technique was that?”
Picard: “The technique of a desperate man.”

Picard confers with Riker via comlink, who says that they have experienced a similar phenomenon on the bridge. Picard runs up to the bridge in his fencing outfit, grabbing his towel and bringing it with him.

They receive an Emergency Transmission from Dr. Paul Manheim, asking for immediate assistance. The Enterprise lays in a course for Pegos Minor and heads off at Warp 8.

After we return from the beginning credits, Mr. Data gives Riker an infodump on Manheim. Picard supplements it, mentioning that Manheim was teaching physics at the university when Picard was in Paris.

As Picard relates this, he twirl-slaps the towel against his legs. This is really weird for Picard. Usually he is very calm and collected, even during the most dangerous assignment. Any viewer is going to pick up on the physical cues, and is going to appreciate the heightened tension from this character action.

Picard abruptly announces that he must change his clothes, and leaves a few acting commands before heading back to the fencing room.

But Deanna Troi can’t let it pass without comment. This is the whole reason she’s there. Her title is Counselor, but her storytelling purpose is to spell out the subtext of the characters’ actions so that everyone, Absolutely Everyone, will be completely sure of what is happening.
She power walks to catch up with Picard before he steps on to the turbolift, and confronts him, saying that he acted very agitated at the news of Manheim, and that it is her duty to remind him that strong emotions can effect judgement.

Picard asks Troi to advise him.

“There are a few hours until we arrive. Perhaps you should use this time to analyze your feelings and put them into perspective.”

Not only has she erased the tension and excitement that Picard’s interesting actions set-up, but she’s also given Picard advice which he was almost certainly going to employ using his own good judgement. He’s heading back to the fencing room to change his clothes and shower. Everything’s taken care of for the moment on the bridge. Why wouldn’t he take a moment to reflect on the emotions bothering him? If Deanna Troi had not been in this scene, it would have moved more concisely and with greater tension.

There’s a tricky balance between clarity and subtext. Your readers need to know what is happening, but they also want to be able to discover pieces of the narratives for themselves. The importance of clarity was one of my first lessons learned at Clarion West. It is, perhaps, the single most important aspect of a story. If you don’t have clarity, then it is hard for others to even know how to help you fix your story.

But subtext mouthpieces are almost unbearable to me in fiction. I would rather be totally lost in a story than to have another character explain to me what is happening. That is one of my killswitches. Voiced subtext? Let’s see what other books I want to read instead.

In order to have clarity in stories, it might be useful to have a Deanna Troi around in an early draft, to make sure a writer knows what the story is trying to say.

And then the writer can delete her in the next draft, long before showing the story to anyone.

I hope Deanna Troi’s character grows stronger in the next season, and that she can help add to the tension of the Enterprise’s adventures. But the other characters are charging ahead, becoming real people, while Troi is stuck as a scribble in the margins, a writer’s Note to the Self. 

After Clarion West: Evasion

In the years before going to Clarion West, I would find the blogs written by soon to be Clarionites, and would follow them with devotion. Most bloggers would begin talking about their excitement over being accepted to the workshop, then maybe a few posts from the workshop describing their conversations with famous authors, and finally one post after the workshop saying, “I’m home, I’ll blog about Clarion later.” {Christopher Reynaga who attended Clarion West in 2008, has an awesome description of this on his blog.} But that later usually doesn’t come about, and I was always curious and frustrated by this drop off in blog updates about Clarion. I wanted to know everything about the workshop so I could prepare for going there someday, if I were lucky enough to attend.

Neile Graham described leaving Clarion West to us as “raw”, and that’s how I felt my last morning at the sorority house. Some people had already left. Others were packing. When my ride to the airport arrived, things happened so quickly. I went out to say hi to the volunteer who would take me to the airport, and suddenly my classmates were around me, bringing out my luggage and helping me load it into the trunk.

How do you leave Clarion West? You don’t. You kind of get taken away from it.

If you’re lucky you’ll have someone like Cassie to help you keep it together with secret tricks about stiff upper lips, Jei and Alex there to hug you and say you’ll see them again, Mark to come out of the house at the last minute and wrap you in a bear hug. And you might have Maria saying she’ll write to you, and Jack saying he’ll see you again. And just when you think you’ve seen everyone for the last time, there will be Cassie and Jei leaning out of an upstairs window, waving to you, making you laugh, and pushing you into tears after all when you thought you’d make it to the airport without crying.

So not writing about Clarion West after you’ve come back to your other life is a kind of shield, or maybe just a good guard against writing overly emotional blog posts (I have trespassed, alas, and must pay the price). Going back to life post-Clarion is hard. So hard. But it is worthwhile, because you carry your friendships, and your knowledge, and your new stories with you.

There is a poem by Rilke that wraps in and out of the feelings I have for my Clarion West classmates. The last Friday night party I spent time talking with Jeremy, about going back, and about how we were just beginning to really know each other. There’s this immense feeling of loss, of almost having.

You the beloved
lost in advance, you the never-arrived,
I don’t know what songs you like most.
No longer, when the future crests toward the present,
do I try to discern you. All the great
images in me – the landscape experienced far off,
cities and towers and bridges and un-
suspected turns in the path
and the forcefulness of those lands
once intertwined with gods:
all mount up in me to signify
you, who forever eludes.
Ah, you are the gardens!
With such hope I
watched them! An open window
in the country house -, and you almost
stepped out pensively to meet me. I found streets, –
you had just walked down them,
and sometimes in the merchants’ shops the mirrors
were still reeling from you and gave back with a start
my too-sudden image. – Who knows if the same
bird did not ring through both of us
yesterday, alone, at evening?

         ~ from Uncollected Poems, by Rainer Maria Rilke

At graduation we were given decoder rings that flash a blue light. I thought at first they were meant to guide us through our writing, to help us translate the mysteries and skills of craft into our own stories.

But the night I arrived home in Alabama after Clarion West, I discovered the real purpose of the decoder ring. I twisted the silver metal until the blue light flashed, hoping it would somehow take us all back to Seattle, back to the workshop and to each other. I stood in front of the mirror in my clothes that smelled of stale airlines, my pigtails I had brushed into place in the bathroom of the sorority house, and hoped that somehow the stories we had been writing would bend reality, and make this strange thing come true. But there was, of course, Of Course, only the blue blinking light.

So real life went on. I took a shower, I changed into clothes different from the ones I had worn the last six weeks. I plugged in my computer and sat at my old desk.

And there they were. Some traveling, some still in Seattle, some already home. All hearing echoes of each others’ voices, seeing friendly faces in strangers’. Spread out across the hemispheres, but still and always together.  

Con*Stellation XXX: Corona Borealis

Another long-missed opportunity that my hometown has offered for years – a science fiction convention! 2011 is the first time that I have known about, and as a result have attended, my local science fiction convention. It is put on by North Alabama Science Fiction Association (NASFA), and has been running for thirty years now.

On Friday afternoon I picked up my convention badge. Somehow the spellings never quite seem to work out for me. But the alternatives always sound cooler than my real name.

The Guest of Honor for this year’s convention was Gene Wolfe. Gene Wolfe! He’s sitting in the middle of the table in this picture taken during the Opening Ceremonies. To the left is Guest of Honor Artist, Lubov. On the left end of the table is Master of Ceremonies, Stephanie Osborn. To the right is Gay Haldeman, Fan Guest of Honor, and her husband, Joe Haldeman.

Gay and Joe Haldeman were an awesome duo. Gay handled panels with deftness and wit and humor. Lubov kept appearing near me at random times during the convention, always wearing beautiful skirts and tops that seemed like she had plucked them from her paintings.

And Gene Wolfe! He was delightful. He told wonderful stories and anecdotes on the panels, and a few in the hallways too. He gave a reading from his current project,The Land Across.

On the last day of the convention, there was an author signing. I had brought my copy of The Fifth Head of Cerberus. I’d been trying to work up the courage to talk to him all weekend.

He asked me if it was my copy, and he said it was in wonderful condition for such an old edition. He signed my copy of his book, and I gushed for a minute about how much I liked his writing.

Yay Gene Wolfe! I’m so glad I had the chance to meet him.

Con*Stellation also had a nice Art Room. There were probably twenty or so artists that had art for sale. They had a great range of art, from amigurumi cthulhu to an original painting by Lubov.

There was an amazing Martian landscape, “Oasis on Mars”, by F.R. Amthor. I made the mistake of waiting to buy it. On Sunday morning I came to the con ready to take it home, but someone else had purchased it.

 There was one print that I fell in love with and bought right away (presented here by Furball):


“Hero Worship” by Sarah Clemens.

There’s a little card in the corner of the print that says, “It brings a tear to their eyes to see The Big Guy stomp Tokyo”. I love the wistful look in the dragon’s eyes, and the cunning in the cat’s.

Each year the convention has a kind of patron saint constellation. This year it was the Corona Borealis. The t-shirt art is done by the same artist every year, and it is a tradition for regular con-goers to wear the t-shirts of Con*Stellations past. One of my favorite past-con t-shirts was an aquamarine shirt with Delphinus.

In the dealer room, I successfully kept myself from buying a Star Trek plate painted with the Enterprise sailing into a nebula. I don’t have a good place to display it at the moment without the fear of a cat knocking it over. But someday I will have a china hutch with a few antiques I have inherited. And some Star Trek plates. It is going to be awesome.

I learned how to play the Eleminis  card game, and bought a set to play with my brother. I bought a copy of Tales from a Goth Librarian from Kimberly Richardson. And, I bought these:

Yes. SeaQuest badges. Aren’t they awesome?

Con*Stellation was a great small convention. There weren’t so many people there that I got overwhelmed with agoraphobia (well, except for once during the Friday night mingle session where everyone was in a small room). And the Guests of Honor were always visible hanging out at the panels, in the hallways, on the sofa in the lobby. I talked to some people I had never met before and came away feeling a recharge in my sense of science fiction community.

My dream is to go to the World Fantasy Convention within the next few years, but whether or not I can go, I’m glad that I’ll be able to attend my extremely awesome local science fiction convention. My many thanks to NASFA for all of the great work they did to make the convention happen!

The Cake Appreciation Society

In my application essay to Clarion West, I wrote that I wanted to hangout with Science Fiction writers, because I didn’t know of any in my city. 
Shortly after I came home from Clarion West, I went to a meeting of the North Alabama Science Fiction Association. When I introduced myself as a Science Fiction writer, they told me that NASFA was a group of fans. “That’s cool,” I thought, “I’m a SF fan. This is great. What more could I want?”
And then they gave me the phone number of a person who is the contact for a local Science Fiction writers critique group. 
Yes. There is an in-person critique group for science fiction stories in my city. HUZZAH!!
I had never heard of this group in all of my years of living in Huntsville as a child and young adult, nor in my visits home after I had moved away. But this was my failing – I had thought such a thing was impossible. Surely Science Fiction writing groups only happened in big cities like New York and Seattle. 
At the North Alabama Science Fiction Association meeting that night, they had an auction to raise money for the upcoming convention, Con*Stellation. One of the last items to be auctioned off was a  signed collection of short stories written by the North Alabama Science Fiction and Cake Appreciation Society (NASFCAS). I bid on it and won. 
It took me a few weeks to work up the courage to call the phone number for the writing group. When I finally did, a nice lady named Lin told me about the critique group. Then something awesome happened.
“Your voicemail said that you just got back from Clarion West,” Lin said.
“Yes. It was wonderful.”
“I went to Clarion West, too. Back when they first started,” Lin said. 
Whoa! Not only is there a science fiction critique group in my city, but there’s a writer who went to Clarion West in it! I’ve been living in Huntsville for a year. I could have been working on science fiction stories with a group of talented writers all this time. I could have talked with someone who went to Clarion West and asked questions about the workshop. 
I was too focused on the opportunities that were elsewhere. I was focusing on objects in the distance, and everything close by was blurry. 
But then again, Clarion West gave me some important writerly tools that helped me connect with my local fan group, and then my local crit group:
  • The courage to say that I am a science fiction writer, without preparing myself for an imagined rebuke. Mary Robinette Kowal told us not to be ashamed for writing science fiction or for calling ourselves authors. In the past, I probably would have just told the NASFA members that I like reading science fiction. And they would not have known that I write, and would not have given me Lin’s number.
  • The need for sharing my stories with others, and getting feedback from them. I’ve always been jittery in workshops. They still make me nervous, but after hearing eighteen people respond to my stories week after week, I began to realize that what they were saying was immensely helpful to my writing. At Clarion West, I began to think of feedback from my peers as part of the writing process – an important step between a somewhat working story and a ready to go out for submission story.
  • The sense that hanging out with other writers is part of life. This is more than just the concept that critiquing is useful to writing. It’s more of the feeling of community existing as a real and accessible part of the world, and knowing that you are part of that community. I’ve heard of people attending a convention, or taking a class in dancing, and having that connection, saying “This is my tribe.” Clarion West connected those wires for me, and that’s partly why leaving was so hard. 
Last week was the monthly meeting of the critique group. I revised some stories, and took my little laptop with me so I could share them. The meeting was at a member’s house, and the house was on top of a mountain. 
My car is old, and dying. I only made it a short way up the steep slope, going inches at a time with the engine rumbling, before I pulled off of the road and turned around. 
But I am determined that my car’s inability to climb a mountain will not be a metaphor for my writing. 
The NASFCAS members are holding a public reading next weekend at Con*Stellation. I’m going to be there to listen to their stories and meet them. My tribe is the seventeen other writers I spent six weeks with this summer, and it is also this expanding, enveloping circle of the new writers that I meet. 

Click Your Heels, Come Home

After visiting the Ham Radio Festival two weeks ago, my father and I attended the 30 Year Celebration Festival at the US Space and Rocket Center. 
I’ve been going to the Space and Rocket Center since I was a kid. I can remember racing my small plastic space shuttle on the asphalt outside the Space Center, grinding the little plastic wheels on the sidewalk to make the ignition sparks light up.
Living away from my hometown for years, and coming back without having really planned to, has changed my perspective on the city.   
The Space Center was one of the many things I took for granted about living in Huntsville.
The Celebration at the Space Center was huge. There were tons of people everywhere. We had to park in a grassy field and ride a school bus to the Space Center, because the usual parking lot was completely full. 
We picked up free Mission Badge stickers and listened to a band play songs from The Sound of Music as we wandered beneath the Saturn V rocket. Then we lined up and waited for the big deal – an astronaut autograph signing. 
We’d been out and about since 9am, and we were getting a bit tired. But there was a whole separate building of the Space Center we hadn’t been in – a building with a traveling Dinosaur exhibit! So Dad settled into the theatre to watch a short film about the last space shuttle mission, and I walked over to the museum building in search of dinosaur awesomeness.
But the dinosaur exhibit was mainly an excuse for small-child friendly activities, like digging in a sand box to excavate fake dinosaur bones. I spent a minute staring at a cast of the T-Rex Sue, the mainstay of the exhibit, and then wandered down a hallway, hoping for some more grown up dinosaur fun. 
Instead I walked into a hallway that somehow survived the museum’s recent overhaul. The Space and Rocket Center used to be packed full of archival goodness. Amazing objects from the space program. Things that filled you with awe and excitement and the desire to know more.
Doesn’t it just make you want to read up on the history of the space program? Or at least watch Apollo 13?
But I guess models of Space Lab and displays of spacesuits don’t bring in as much money as traveling exhibits. So all of these archival bits were whisked away, and the empty space filled with activities for the very, very young.
Except for one, small hallway, one I spent a lot of time in when I was younger, because it held the only Hugo Award I had ever seen in person.
 
The one that belonged to Wernher Von Braun. 
Seeing his Hugo Award motivated me to keep writing when I was younger. It let me know that yes, there are other people out there who love these stories of space and science and strange things as much as you do
My parents took me to so many kid-friendly museums when I was a child. We went to one nearly every time we took a family vacation.
I cannot remember any of them.
But I remember standing in front of the dinosaurs at the Smithsonian. I remember being awed and frightened by the wingspan of a pterodactyl.
And I remember wandering through the Space and Rocket Center, the models of people in Space Lab and the International Space Station sparking within me a burning desire to leave Earth and go into space.
How can we inspire the next generation of star voyagers if flimsy traveling sideshows push away the images, the excitement of discovery?