Alabama Phoenix Festival 2014

Art by Carly Strickand

On Saturday, Bryan of Geek Notions and I traveled to Birmingham for the Alabama Phoenix Festival. This was an excellent con – just big enough to have a great variety of panels, guests, and vendors, but not so huge that it was overwhelming. Everyone I interacted with was laid back and enthusiastic about geeking out. I would love to attend this convention again next year, and maybe have an author table or cosplay. I think I’m going to add leveling up at cons to my writing goals for 2014.

My awesome con-partner, Bryan, has also written a con round up. You can check it out here.


How to Write YA
Panelists: Ciara Knight, Anne Riley, Jessica Hawke, J L Mulvihill, Ashley Chappell, Amy Leigh Strickland

This was the first panel I attended, and was my favorite of the entire con. The panelists were smart and funny and honest, and the audience asked great questions.

One of my favorite takeaways from this panel was a new way of looking at low ratings on Amazon. One panelist pointed out that having a variety of ratings shows that real people are reading your work, in addition to friends and family you may have asked to review your book. Another panelist pointed out that sometimes low ratings sell books – what one person may hate may be exactly what another person is looking for (i.e., sex scenes!).

It is always good to go to these panels, even if you are a seasoned writer who has heard most of the tips before. In my experience there is always one piece of advice that is new, and just being around other writers always fills up my energy reserves for my own writing.

But another good reason to go to these panels is to pick out which authors’ books you might be interested in. There were a ton of Indie authors at Alabama Phoenix Festival. I wanted to support one of those writers by buying his or her book, but I only had one day at the con (and just a small amount of time between panels) so attending a writing panel was a great way to help me figure out which writer’s work I might enjoy.

A.G. Porter spoke about the process of choosing a cover artist for her books and gave excellent information during the panel. When I found her table in the exhibitor’s room later in the day she had one of the best author tables I’ve ever seen. Professional and friendly, she’s the kind of author I hope to be one day when I begin publishing novels. I bought the first two books in her series and look forward to reading them.

My book bounty for the weekend

The Full Scale Millenium Falcon Project

The next panel was with the creators of the cockpit and console for the full scale Millenium Falcon project. This is a labor of love project, with people volunteering their time and money to make a screen accurate replica.

The panel was fun, with lots of questions from the audience and a bit of Star Wars trivia thrown in (where did Boba Fett first appear?). After the panel they encouraged everyone to check out the cockpit down in the exhibition hall.

It was pretty awesome.

The seriously cool cockpit and console

Curious Twi’lek and Bryan in Han’s seat

Find the Greeble! Where’s the battery pack?
Adam Savage signed the console!
Greg Dietrich spent some time pointing out greebles on the quad laser cannon, and another member of the crew showed us around the console, pointing out which buttons to press and explaining the construction process. 
The Millenium Falcon cockpit was kind of the convergence point for the whole con. While we were hanging out there we talked with people we’d met at Free Comic Book Day, and I ran into Stan from Kingdom Comics, the comic book store I used to visit when I lived in Birmingham. I hadn’t seen him in maybe eight years, but he recognized me and gave me a hug. The whole convention had that kind of vibe – a really laid back and fun geek hangout with friends you don’t get to see that often. 

Star Wars: The Coming Darkness
Film Screening, Q&A Afterwards with Director Josh Mason and Cast

This was my first time attending a fan film screening at a convention. Like the Millenium Falcon, the funding and manpower for this project all came from volunteers.

My biggest fear about watching a fan film was that it would be long and meandering, with pithy dialogue and a much too serious plot. But Mason’s film was fun, with a tight, action-oriented plot and only as much dialogue as was needed to move the movie forward.

There were some issues with the speakers, so the sound was a little too loud on the background noise and too soft on the dialogue at times. And as someone who grew up in Alabama it is hard to divorce myself from southern trees appearing on a distant planet. But those were minor issues, and all-around this was a great first fan film experience.

It was a welcome break in the middle of the day, where I could sit in a dark, mostly quiet room and eat a sandwich and not feel like I had to interact with anyone for a bit. I could recharge my introvert batteries so that I could interact more in the second half of the day. I think I will to try to work in a fan film on my schedule for future cons.

Director Josh Mason and Screenwriter Michael LoBianco
 answer questions after the screening
One of my favorite moments was the post-credits scene. Just as with author readings, humor and lightness work well in a group setting.

Mass Hysteria: Ghostbusters 30th Anniversary Panel

Alabama Ghostbusters joined comics artist Dan Schoening to discuss his art and general Ghostbusters awesomeness during this podcast/ panel for Mass Hysteria. They gave away two signed comic book collections during the panel, one to a young girl and the other to a man in a Ghostbusters jumpsuit. I’m going to start reading the Ghostbusters comics, and I need to play the video game as well.

The Golden Age of Science Fiction

At every con, there’s one panel that doesn’t quite come together. Panelists drop out at the last minute, it’s at the time of day in the con where everyone is tired, or the vibe is just a bit off for no explainable reason. I think one problem with this panel was its broad focus. It would have worked better to have one person giving a presentation on their writing in the style of Golden Age SF, or with a larger, more diverse panel. Instead of defining what is and isn’t considered Golden Age, it would have been nice to dive into Golden Age with a panelist as a guide and romp around there for a while.


One of my favorite parts of any convention is finding new geek artists. I could spend a whole day just walking around the exhibition hall chatting with authors and artists and debating on whether to buy cool action figures. There were so many amazing artists at Phoenix Festival, so I didn’t have time to see them all, but here are a few of my favorites.

Carly Strickland

Carly designed the badge art for the convention, and had a table of children’s books for sale in the exhibition hall.

But what drew me to her table were these:

Star Trek, TOS alphabet cards. Oh. My. Goodness. These are beautiful, and I bought one of each letter she had for sale. You can buy your own here, and follow her tumblr as she adds new letters.

Bryan Crowson

Bryan was one of the kindest people we met at the con. And everyone at the con was extremely nice, so that’s saying something. He had lovely drawings of the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz as babies, from the perspective of Wicked. There was also a non-flying monkey wearing an equality sweatshirt, and then there was this:

Wave Walker by Bryan Crowson

Dear Reader, do I need to describe how hard I fangirled? This is my biggest regret of the convention – not buying a print of Wave Walker. Luckily, Bryan has an online store and you can contact him via email to order prints or request commissions. Check out his Facebook page for an awesome engagement commission of a couple running away from Godzilla. And if you see him at a convention, stop by his table to hear the stories behind his art. He’s a wonderful guy.

Rick Johnson/ Phat Daddy Studios

Rick was full of love and energy when we stopped by his table. He does amazing comic book art, and what pulled us in was the sweetest Daryl sketch you’re ever likely to see, alongside a kickass Rick and Michonne.

Art by Rick Johnson

Check out Rick’s Facebook page for more amazing art, including a pretty sweet Drogo from Game of Thrones.

Geek It Forward
There’s always a sense of sadness at the end of a con. You have to go back to the real world where you (perhaps) cannot wear your Batman t-shirt to work and no one gets your references.

So it was awesome to stop by the Geek Gathering table and hang out for a bit. We bought t-shirts and got free admission tickets to the convention in September. A portion of the proceeds go to Big Brothers, Big Sisters. Ultimate win!


Books I’ve Loved: Lovely, Dark and Deep by Amy McNamara

Lovely package my copy arrived in – thank you Amy! 

I loved this book. Wren is a great character, and her interactions with others are believable. She’s eighteen, spending a year after high school living at her artist father’s house in the Northeast. All she wants is time alone to process life as it was and is – two very different variations. At heart she’s a photographer, but she’s put away her camera. Seeing the world is painful, and she feels like there’s a false veneer she was led to believe all her life that has been stripped away.

Poetry is always just beneath the surface. From the title, I was a bit afraid Robert Frost would overshadow the story. But instead his appearance is a small one, with Larkin the poetry that Wren connects with as an extension of her own feelings. Poetry is not used as a gimmick or an easy spandrel. It is a realistic part of the world. Which is to say, it comes and goes at the moments when Wren needs the words.

Along with the setting and the use of the present tense, the poetry gives the book a feeling of suspension in time. This mirror’s Wren’s situation, and helped me to connect even more with her.

Wren’s in the process of grieving over a lost friend, but her experiences are also related to depression. McNamara’s writing provides a realistic window into how such an experience affects not only the person in the center of these emotions, but also everyone connected to her.

This is a big book, much thicker than most other YA novels on my shelf, but I never lost interest or felt the story flagged. This is one of those books that is a great companion, and I was sad to finish the story and place it on the shelf.

One last note: the cover art and binding are gorgeous.

*I received this book as a giveaway on Nova Ren Suma’s blog, 99 distractions.*

MFA Flashback: Visiting Writers

J.T. Dutton and Me, 2010, Photo by UAF staff photographer

One of the best experiences during my time as an MFA student was the visiting writer series that my department sponsored. Even though we were in Alaska, my program brought amazingly talented and accomplished writers up to visit.

The visiting writer would give a lecture on Thursday afternoons about their craft interests and areas of expertise. These lectures were open only to MFA students and English faculty, so they were cozy affairs where you really got to  know the writer and ask questions. And the writer had time to respond to those questions slowly and with care. It was almost like taking a seminar class with the visiting writer.

On Friday evenings the writers gave a public reading open to the entire campus and community, followed by a book signing where the local bookstore provided copies for sale.

But there’s another element of the visiting writer that takes place earlier in the week, around Wednesday or Thursday.

Second and Third year MFA students have the opportunity to participate in a one on one manuscript discussion with a visiting writer. The visiting writer only meets with a few students (there isn’t much time for more), and there are usually around six visiting writers each year. So meeting with a visiting writer is a once in an MFA experience for most of the grad students in my program.

My thesis advisor asked me if I’d like to meet with YA author J.T. Dutton, and I was ecstatic at the chance. I emailed her around twenty pages of the novella I’d been working on, and wrote the date for our appointment in my calendar.

I was terrified of meeting Dutton. I was afraid she’d throw my manuscript in my face and tell me I was a horrible writer and that I shouldn’t have wasted her time with my silly story.

Instead, she gave me one of the best critique sessions I’ve ever received. She went over some language and pacing edits with me that snapped the opening of my story to life. It was amazing to watch my story wake up from my lumbering prose just by a few scratch marks through extra words, a few arrows to rearrange sentences in the paragraphs.

Next we moved onto larger discussions about story, and about writing YA. It was the first time I had met someone who wrote YA fiction. So many of my favorite books are considered YA, but for some reason I had never entertained the idea of writing YA as something that MFA graduates did. But J.T. Dutton’s novel Freaked was based on her MFA thesis at UAF. I think I had a prejudice that YA fiction couldn’t be serious, and that only serious writing mattered.

At the reading on Friday night, J.T. read a passage from the end of her novel, and it is a reading that both my partner and I remember to this day as being an amazing experience. It was a beautiful passage about being at a Grateful Dead concert and the feeling of being in the crowd.

Freaked and Stranded by J.T. Dutton

J.T. told me something important during my one-on-one critique session. “This is a novel,” she told me. “A YA novel.”

That story is still with me, and I haven’t written it into a novel just yet. But I know that I can, and that it can be as sad and serious as I want and still be a beautiful YA novel. And it can also be funny and geeky and talk about Star Trek, and those aspects might even make it a much better story.

Studying Up on YA Fiction

I’m narrowing down my focus for my next project: writing a novel.

What I’d like to do is write a young adult novel. I don’t think young adult novels are any easier to write than novels for adults. But somehow, in my mind, writing a young adult novel feels more straightforward. I think that perhaps the concept of writing a non-YA novel is tied up in my mind with obligations to try experimental forms of plotting. Whenever I try this in my short stories, readers wind up confused and unsatisfied.

YA seems to be everywhere these past few weeks. The July 2012 issue of Locus Magazine has a feature on young adult fiction with articles from writers and editors. And I ran across an excellent YA writer blog after looking at the list of writers accepted to this year’s Launchpad Astronomy Workshop

One of the best resources I’ve found is distraction no. 99, the blog of Nova Ren Suma, author of Imaginary Girls. She’s been keeping the blog since 2006, and it is really interesting to look back at her earlier posts where she’s feeling those writerly doubts everyone has and then to look at her more recent posts and see the books she has published, the residencies and workshops she’s participating in.

I know that every published author was once an unpublished author, that they probably all felt doubt and uncertainty. But sometimes looking at a published author, it seems as if they were always successful. Awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant when they were two, and at four a fellowship to Yaddo. So it is extremely helpful for me to see the arc of a writer’s career. To hear the voice before, and not just the voice that’s buoyed by their hard earned success.

But it’s more than just the scope of Suma’s blog that I find helpful. She also has a wealth of great posts. Two of my favorites are:

She also hosts tons of really excellent guest posts on her blog from other YA authors. My favorite so far is the “Turning Point” series, where authors describe what set them in motion on the path to becoming published. There’s also a series on “What Scares You?” and “What Inspires You?”

I’ve checked out a few books from the public library on writing fiction for young adults, but so far they’re uninspiring and geared towards complete novices. I feel like I’m getting so much more helpful and timely information from Suma’s blog than there even exists in book form. I hope she keeps blogging for a long time, and that the archives of her journal stay online if she ever decides to stop.

Do you have any suggestions for great online or print resources for writing young adult fiction? What YA books should I absolutely read?

Young Adult Literature at AWP 2012

“How Far is Too Far? Facing Self-Censors and Publishing Censors When Writing about Coming-of-Age for Young Adults”

Laura Otto (Moderator), Ann Angel, Daniel Kraus, Penny Blubaugh, Ricki Thompson
When writers work to capture the emerging adult at the end of the young adult journey to independence, they find their characters exploring the forbidden adult world. These stories often depict experimentation with drugs, alcohol, and sexuality. How do writers, compelled to tell the truth of the adolescent’s journey respond to the interior voice that warns, “You can’t write that”?

This was one of the best panels that I attended at AWP. It was also held in the smallest room, and had only about fifty people in attendance. There were quite a few YA panels during AWP, and I lucked out that this is the one that worked into my schedule.

The Art of Reading Aloud and One Good Reason to Self-Censor
Ricki Thompson, author of City of Cannibals, spoke first.

The thing about AWP is that a lot of panelists come with typed up essays to read. I can understand the compulsion to do this. If I were going to be speaking in front of a room full of writers, I would want to be prepared, too. But at so many of the panels I attended, the speakers had written their essays as if they were going to be printed, instead of read aloud. This distinction has an enormous impact on the take away for the audience members. Long, elliptical sentences and badly set-up quotes can send the audience into zone-out mode.

But the panelists at the YA Censorship discussion were all extremely adept at delivering a prepared essay in an engaging way.

Ricki Thompson gave the best talk at AWP that I attended. Her speech had a clear, tight focus, and it was easy to follow. She referenced YA novels and gave short summaries that helped me understand their context to the panel and made me excited to read them. In short, her skill as a panelist made me want very much to seek out her books.

I hope that Ricki publishes her essay on the internet or in a journal, because it is wonderful.

Here are some of my notes from her speech:

  • Writers have a responsibility to help young readers navigate the truth, not to protect them from the truth. 
  • Art has the capacity to change the world order. 
  • Our culturally-shaped subconscious can do the censoring for us. 
  • “Play and the Theory of Duende” by Lorca
    • mysterious power in art
    • the shiver that runs through us
  • Ricki censors herself when her stories are losing all hope. Teenagers need hope. 
  •  80 year old dancer – won contest – Duende
    • Death isn’t the whole truth. 
    • There is a balance of light and dark in life. 
  • Books mentioned:
    • In Trouble by Ellen LevineYA about abortion. Very hard to find a publisher. 
    • Rainbow Party by Paul Ruditis – YA about anticipating a party with BJs. 
    • Living Dead Girl – Despair overshadows hope at end. 

Where Lives Happen
Next to speak was Ann Angel, the author of Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing. Ann spoke about her personal relationship growing up loving Janis Joplin, and her journey to write a teen biography about her. Ann also had some great points about censorship and writing YA:

  • Teens need to know they can be okay. 
  • This is where lives happen (in the scary parts of the world). 
  • Books mentioned:
    • Shine by Lauren Myracle
Fantasy Stories and Unfinished Business
Penny Blubaugh writes fantasy YA (squee!). I’m very excited to read her collection of YA fantasy short stories, Serendipity Market. She told us that one of the stories, “Love and Flowers”, is about puppets and Fae. Could a short story collection get any cooler? 
Penny made one of the most interesting comments during the panel. She said that she feels like all YA authors are stuck at one age, somewhere between 14 and 17. Another panelist (I think it was Ann, but I was far in the back and couldn’t see very well), responded that she agrees. And that the age a YA writer is stuck at is the age where they have unfinished business. 
Visible Darkness
The last author to speak at this panel was Daniel Kraus. He was sick and had had travel emergencies that kept him from arriving until just before the panel, but he still gave a really engaging talk on violence in YA literature. 
He began by explaining that he doesn’t have that part of the brain that says “You can’t write about that.” 
Kraus described some of the scenes from his book. I think one had a young boy’s intestines spilling through the hole where his arm had been. They were pretty intense scenarios. But what was really interesting was that Kraus said he had read all of the reviews of his book Rotters, and none of the teens were offended by the violence. He said that from an editor’s POV, it is harder for a book to talk about sex than violence. 
He also referenced Meghan Cox Gurdon’s article “Darkness Too Visible” that was published in The Wall Street Journal
Kraus said that his job is to unsettle young minds, and he doesn’t worry about telling kids scary stuff. Teen readers, unlike adult ones, seem most able to see both sides of the story. The gruesome and the good. 
The Audience Takes the Stage
After the panelists had presented their ideas on censorship in YA literature, Laura Otto opened the panel up to questions from the audience. 
Two guys in front of me were a bit huffy at the end of the panel. They referenced Living Dead Girl, and said they had misgivings about a YA novel based on abduction. Wouldn’t that unnecessarily scare young girls? Isn’t it too much violence to put in the hands of a young teen?
And something really cool happened. The women in the audience, writers and readers of YA lit themselves, began to speak up. Politely, after they’d raised their hands and been acknowledged by the panel moderator. But with passion. 
Their answers? 
  • All relationships are a form of abduction, in some sense. You get caught up in love, you get carried away. 
  • Many people feel the threat of abduction every day. Books allow young people to explore and understand that fear from a safe distance. 
Another guy sitting in front of me asked about life imitating art. He cited that “studies have shown” that children replicate the violence they see in movies and play in video games. 
One of the panelists responded that characters in stories who do bad things experience natural consequences that arise from their own choices. For example, a girl who smokes pot may discover that the boy she has a crush on doesn’t like the smell of pot on her breath. Another panelist said that her daughter told her, “Mom, I read these books because I don’t want to do these things in real life.” 
Hunger Mountain: YA Short Story Market
The panelists mentioned that Hunger Mountain, the literary journal through the Vermont College of Fine Arts, is currently publishing YA short stories. They have two issues out that contain YA short stories, and one even has a middle-grade short story. I swung by their table at the bookfair, and picked up a copy of the most recent issue. 
Issue #16 of Hunger Mountain
It’s a lovely journal. I like that it is a bit larger than most university-run literary journals. It has a great heft and clean, readable formatting. 
Two more resources for those of you interested in writing YA fiction:
  1. Hunger Mountain holds four annual contests. One of them is geared towards YA writers: the Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Fiction Writing is open for submissions until June 30th, 2012.
  2. The Vermont College of Fine Arts has an MFA program in Writing for Children & Young Adults

The Discussion Continues
The discussion surrounding Meghan Cox Gurdon’s article began in the summer of 2011, but I think it may be revived when the first of the Hunger Games movies is released later this month. If you haven’t read the trilogy yet, I would highly recommend it. Set aside a few days and start reading. Warning: you’ll get sucked in. There’s no way not to.

By the third book, I felt overhwelmed with the death and violence. But I appreciated and respected Suzanne Collins for not pulling her punches. And if I were a teen reading these books, I think I’d appreciate her honesty even more.