FULL BLEED: GOING DOWN TO THE MEDICINE SHOW
Let’s begin with some ramen. It was really great, good broth with a solid body and flavor. The noodles were thicker, somewhere between traditional ramen and udon in thickness. Some nice pork belly slices, half a boiled egg, shredded seaweed for flavor. Just excellent, even though it was bordering on hot outside in Santa Clara. The ramen place was in a little strip mall not far from the hotel that I’d just set up at, for the science fiction convention that I was attending and a guest of (though I still paid for the membership because that’s how things run). This little chunk of Santa Clara was sort of a no-man’s-land between an amusement park and the 101 freeway. It wasn’t even a place people worked (unless you count the hotels and restaurants), but a place that people passed through on the way to more fun places. An interzone.
I’m familiar with them. Sometimes it feels like I live in them. Neither one thing nor another. That’s me. Here I was going to an SF show (which did welcome fantasy as well, to be fair) with a boxful of my new book, which is horror. Or is it crime? Or weird fantasy? Interzone city. But then I’ve always been there. Neither fish nor fowl. Me, the guy who thought that doing interesting work was more important than fitting the work into categories. I’m still doing that after thirty years of rolling rocks uphill. Evidently I don’t know how to do anything else. I won’t run down the list of bent genres like so many mangled miles of barbed wire that I’ve put out there only to bother people on one side or the other of the equation. Not horror enough. Too much SF. Who even mixes baroque cyberpunk with Norse mythology?
Anyways. I’ve never particularly fit anywhere. Still don’t. So it’s always weird and fraught when I come back to various scenes or conventions after time away. The last time I did anything like this was World Fantasy in 2019, I think. The one in Los Angeles. I was fine for a few days but by the time I got to Saturday I needed to wander the city for most of the day to recharge and on the final day, I just flat out left early like a coyote chewing its leg to get out of a bear trap (pay no attention to the malaprops, I got a million of them). Wasn’t anyone’s fault but my own. Hard enough to create work but then to try to engineer an opening in any particular genre or crowd or varying measures of success and yeah, my systems lock up after not so long a time. One of the side effects of having come up feral. That’s a more hones way of saying autodidact, when it comes to writing. I don’t particularly need to try to be an outsider or misfit. It’s how things come out.
Got myself set up at the Small Press Big Universe table, a co-op of independent authors who are all putting their works together for visibility, not unlike fish schooling together so they stand a chance against much larger fish (or to confuse and beguile sea birds who might otherwise swoop down to pick them off one by one.) I’d be back there every day at the show, so I figured I’d accustom myself to the place. Then up to the first panel where I was joining a group of rather much more successful writers and talking about what we wished we’d known before undertaking this whole thing. Which is a lot, as it goes. Honestly, still felt out of place speaking at all in this company. I’m a dude who has been professionally published precisely once novel-length-wise, and only a handful of short stories. I won’t say I acquitted myself admirably or anything, but I don’t think it was embarrassing. Other than the admission that I come from a family of successful writers and after thirty years of work, well, yeah, one novel sale. I’m under no illusions at this point. But it’s still difficult to wrestle with. Jacob didn’t work so hard. After all, angels like all things ineffable will exhaust themselves simply being on this mortal plane. They’ll give up rather than be subjected to gross materiality for this long.
Wrestle with yourself? Talk about being the last guy to bleed out of a knife fight is the winner.
Spent a couple hours at the table, selling books. This is the part where I’m supposed to tell you that everything went great, that I made a great impression on passers-by and won them over with my winning attitude. Nothing succeeds like success.
So I’ll just say that. It’s easier that way. Two hours of that.
Drove to a comic shop run by a friend and burned up some store credit on that lovely slipcases edition of the collected Love and Rockets comics, which is more precious to me than say most of the SF published that I’ve read since 1985. There’s a lot to experience there. Looking forward to going through the whole thing, once I tend to this massive pile of unread prose. Which will definitely happen someday. After that, had some lovely sushi (one of my favorite things, and a rare treat as most of the time I’m the only person in the house who likes it.) And since I do all the cooking, it’s nice to eat stuff that I haven’t cooked (or actually can’t, in the case of anything more complicated than nigiri.) Went back to the room and read some South Central Noir and half-slept for the rest of the night, high-flow air conditioning dedicating me slowly until the sun crept up.
Disappointing breakfast at a place that usually delivers, supplemented by a couple of doughnuts from Stan’s in Sunnyvale. Big day and no time for lunch breaks between panels I was speaking at and panels I wanted to attend and the table I needed to be selling from. Spoke on a panel about collaboration, particularly from my experience in working on comics, but also working with a big client and their IP, as well as uncredited co-writing (aka ghost-writing). Hopefully my perspectives were useful or at least interesting. And no, I can’t talk about the particulars of the co-writing that I did. Its funny how you say you can’t say something and people for interesting ways to get you to say it and nope.
Also spoke on a panel about noir in SF and fantasy, which was a lot of fun. Honestly, I could do something like this at every show I go to, even if I make people mad that I break noir into a sort of aesthetic presentation versus the content versus the periodizing term. Much like I have to with cyberpunk now. Got to tie in a bunch of things I love: Blade Runner, expressionism in film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, CL Moore (after an audience member reminded me of her work), Howard Chaykin’s reboot of the Shadow, Chinatown, Chandler. Came up with lots of SF that uses noir vibe and feel, not so much in fantasy. I suspect that a lot of that has to do with an expectation of feel in particularly high fantasy which is likely incompatible with the sort of weary existential trudge at the heart of noir. Lots of fun. Ugh, I completely forgot about Sandman Slim, though people would probably just consider that horror and not worthy of inclusion. Maybe next time.
Watched a couple other panels, mostly process-related stuff. I try to learn what I can that I think will help, though have to keep in mind that not everyone works the same way or remotely the same kind of experiences or aims. I’ll have to tread lightly here and not be too judgmental. My aims, it seems to me, are no longer aligned with trying to land a publishing deal or representation, which a lot of people seem to be after. I would too, if I were trying to succeed in the field. I’m just trying to do good work now. Like I said, after a very long time of falling rocks uphill, I know from what’s likely and realistic and more importantly, what’s satisfying. I’m out of step with the market, if not the form. It’s not a thing that I can particularly change, nor have I got any real interest in changing. If I’m not doing good and interesting work, then what even am I doing? What indeed. And my idea of what is engaging is outsider, but not outsider enough to be considered art or any other elevated version of whatever’s happening in genre or literature. (Yes, all these terms are completely fraught with various dangers and valences that may mean different things to you than to me.) That’s always been true, but a thing that I have fought and fought and fought with. Maybe I should just lean into it and not worry so much. Surely I’ll just find a receptive market segment and not have to think about this so much.
Or I could not think about it at all and just think about what works for me. Which is of course swimming uphill, considering how things are done now. You’re supposed to find community and draft up an army, hit those newsletters and eventually your following carries you somewhere, right? Jury’s still out in my case.
Sigh. Deep breath.
Spent a bit of time back at the table, struck up a conversation with someone who used the descriptor “magical realism” for one of their books, and that became my hook for talking about The Queen of No Tomorrows with them. It went well, not merely because there was someone interested in one of my books (which itself is, granted, rare and weird) but it turned out he also lived in my current neighborhood until a couple years back. And even more importantly, someone who understood what I was setting out to do (and vice versa.) Turns out that Scott is involved with Liminal Fiction, a wide-ranging genre publisher based not too far from me. Anyways, he’s at least a reader. That’s what really matters. Yes, I do a lot of big talk in terms of writing to please myself, but the point is to encounter readers who will engage with the work (and I’ll come back around to this in a bit.) Anyways, we’ll see what happens there. And if you read this, hello Scott!
Oh, I should mention that my favorite local vendor of old SF books and such was there. Dollar a book. Lemme say that again. A dollar a book. I picked up the first five DAW reprints of the Elric books (as much for the covers as anything else) and some other oddities for less than I’d pay for lunch. Always a great deal.
Skipped out on bar-con after the show again. For those of you who aren’t aware, a big part of these shows is unstructured time at the bar after the show where people socialize and gather and that’s… a lot. I’ll go do this at comics shows where I already know a bunch of folks (though I haven’t done any comics works in… well, a long time.) But going in cold? Yeah. That’s simply not happening. It’s not a thing that I’m capable of, in particular. Something about social batteries being drained easily.
Instead, I drove out to a local Salvadoran place for a plate of grilled chicken and pupusas and rice. Afterwards, off to a Mexican ice cream place that turned out to be a canopy and some stand up tables and coolers beneath that. Maybe five flavors to choose from (one of them being carrot sherbet, which I did try but didn’t get a whole cup of). Went with pineapple, also a sherbet not a cream base. By itself it was good, but when the vendor doled out some chamoy sauce on top? Wow. Stratospheric. Chamoy is a mix of fruits and chiles, salt, tamarind and hibiscus flower for some bitterness. Just stellar. Ate quickly enough to spike myself with a solid headache, but worth it. Then to the home and backyard of a local friend where we sipped very smoky whiskey and talked for several hours. Yeah, that I can deal with. A room? Full of people? Yeah, not so much.
Last day of the show. Sneaked over to San Jose for breakfast (peach pie French toast!) and to take some pictures around the neighborhood, including the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, which is as strange as you’d imagine. I still wonder how the neighbors felt when it went up in the twenties or thirties. Were these people just harmless kooks or dangerous weirdos? (Given the reputation of Rosicrucianism, probably more the former, all genteel and such.) Still, it’s nice to have an encounter with the baffling and inexplicable and (of late) unprofitable. Done simply because it needed to be done, not because someone could drive up their third quarter numbers with it. Something weird and obsessive and as much the target of ridicule as adoration. At least then you know you’re on to something.
Got back, packed up, checked myself out, off to the next couple panels before the first one I spoke at. One of those I attended was “Creating Solid Queer Characters in SF Stories” which, frankly, I find more useful than other process stuff. Mostly because it’s an opportunity for people who actually know to speak of their experience. That’s how you learn something valuable, right? If you’re not experiencing it yourself, then be spoken to or speak with someone who has been there. Now, I could write a piece as long as this whole convention report on a panel as meaty as this one, so there’s no way I’m going to be able to cover the whole thing, other than to relay the honesty involved. And to point out that there is no one way to be any one thing. Just don’t pretend to make those monoliths, right? And a good way to start is not to have just one of [any descriptor] character standing in for all of them in your work. And you get to that point by listening and looking for commonality of experience, not slapping together surface characteristics and deciding you’re done there.
I’m giving this short shrift because this is largely an off-the-cuff report, but it’s a topic that’s far bigger and more important than what’s being seen here. Also, I recognize that I’m in the position of needing to learn and listen more than talk.
Was able to listen in on “Writing a Series” which I stopped by for as I happen to be writing a series, though Hazeland is not quite the same thing as they were discussing for the most part, not just in genre but in conception. I’m writing more stories that share characters and will maybe map together in one giant narrative (but I make no promises), whereas the panelists were largely discussing more traditional trilogy structures and that sort of thing. It’s a tricky thing to juggle that many balls at once, mentally speaking. That and… well… sometimes you figure out something in book 2 that would have been good to lay out in book 1 and that’s just not possible. And you can’t plan for everything (more on that one later). As with all conversations with other writers, you gotta understand that people can only talk about what works for them and that may not work for you. Or they’re under restrictions that you aren’t. Or they’re simply different people than you are. That’s all fine. You can still learn something that’ll change a small way you approach things. But there’s never just one right answer.
I was present on stage for “The Disinformation Plague” but didn’t say a lot. My knowledge is purely theoretical and when I start talking about ontology and what’s a fact versus faith, that doesn’t always mesh well with what most SF show panels are about. Lots of interesting and upsetting theories on the Current Situation, but policy prescriptions were another matter. No, the Blockchain is not going to create a system of trust. I’m sorry (that was not an opinion of the panelists, but an audience member, to be clear.) This is also the risk of panels like this, at least for me, in going from generalist to mapping things to a specific right now political set of problems. Because the real issues always run much deeper than that, down in the construction of what is real, or believed to be real. What’s the world that different someones are trying to make? Which is a different discussion. That said, I let more expert folks talk and I’m fine listening even when I see the limitations of the presentation itself.
The last panel I spoke on was about worldbuilding. My philosophy is that less is more. At least on the page. But maybe you can totally wing it. And you can for a time. But you have to do some work to build a reality that doesn’t fall apart after a couple hours. That said, I’m writing largely in a real world setting that I want to make vivid and real (so I spend a lot of time reading on the history of the city I write in, as well as visiting because I love to, etc etc.) But that’s to make the setting a character as much as I can. If you’re creating a whole new setting and civilization out of whole cloth, well, that’s a very different matter. Then you can generate literal reams of pages about the history and cultures and languages and customs and it could go on forever. But how much are you going to show in that one story or even that one novel? Right. I’m big on figuring out what’s in the story and then what do I need to build around it. Lots of other folks want to do the reverse. There isn’t a right or wrong way. And since I came up feral, I’ve got my own way which is not likely to change any time soon, no matter how well-intentioned attempts made to fix things are. It’s not you, it’s me.
This is another subject that I could easily go thousands of words on. But since worldbuilding is intimately tied to the act of creation, that’s not a surprise. The last panel I sat in on took us right here as well, that being “Characters and Voice.” There’s a million ways to approach this. None of them are wrong. Some might be less accessible than others, some will be so open as to be transparent. Success only comes on the reading. Remember (as Catherynne Valente said, which I agree strongly with) that the writing is only half of the equation. The other half is in the reader, who digests the book and produces something else out of it. You can use a metaphor of parentage or consumption or however you choose to. The fact is that the reader makes the book. The writer (and those involved in its production) make a prompt for an experience. Everyone is likely to take a difference set of experiences out of even the same work. Sorry. You don’t get to control what the reader takes out of things. (And yes, you don’t get to pre-empt bad faith readings either. Yes, it sucks.) Once it’s out there, it’s not really yours. You hope that the work makes an interesting experience or heartbreaking or whatever your intentions are that melt as soon as you let go of the book and have to yield to the reader. I know. You thought you as the writer were in charge. Bad news from space, as they say.
Back to the Small Press Big Universe table for about an hour and a truly horrifying podcast interview. Me, not them – I was frazzled and babbling. Though I was asked about what my biggest success in writing was. I gave a kind of mealy answer about having my name on a book published by someone not me (which only took about twenty-five years of being intractable and difficult). What I should have said was that the success was boiled down to me still being here and working and not having given up in the face of a series of indifferent markets, market entry points, magazines and anthologies and yes, even publishers big and small. I can’t say it’s the wisest course of action. But nothing I have done so far is, really.
Thanks to the Bay-Con organizers and Programming and other panelists and guests whose paths I crossed over the course of the weekend. It’s always a good and valuable time, even if I come across as having difficulty with it. Which I do. But that’s me everyday. And of course, thanks to you for reading this far. Until next time.