Ad Astra Roundup

This entry is only at about 15% caffeinated, so please pardon any disjunction and weirdness. Yanno, more than regular.

Ad Astra. (Over here.) That’s where I was all weekend, my sixth Ad Astra but its 30th anniversary. I drove down with fellow writing group members Sylvie and Julia, a convention newbie (who was hilarious to watch with all the squeeing). Much money was spent, booze consumed, but here are some snapshots:

  • Dealer’s room was twice the size it had been the last few years, which meant more (happy) spending. The art room was about the same size as last year.
  • Same odd twitchery when it came to preparedness at the Registration desk and signage for Friday night.
  • Lots more panels on Friday night, so that when we went to bed it felt like we had had a full Con day. Sunday was similarly packed with goodies.
  • That said, the Saturday panels felt a little scarce in the afternoon/evening, probably to make sure more people go to the big events like the Masquerade and dance (which was awesome, so I heard).
  • I am, sadly, shmooze/mingle impaired. Severely. I trust that next year, with the help of the other members of the writing group, this will be overcome.
  • Darth Vader, complete with a cadre of Stormtroopers and voice synthesizers, is rather intimidating even if entirely fictional.
  • Howard Taylor of Writing Excuses and Schlock Mercenary is both approachable and delightful and, best of all, HILARIOUS. He was a real stand-out for me this Ad Astra.

Beyond that, there are three things that I came away from this Ad Astra.

NOTE TAKING

Instead of my speedy note-taking by hand, I decided to really give the iPad my ultimate trust and do all my notes electronically. Now, sitting down in a hotel chair for an hour or so is not a way to type on the iPad. You’d end up squishing down the chair and certainly fall off entirely, if your spine didn’t get up and leave before it came to that. But with Notes Plus and my stylus, the potential was there to do this in my own hand-writing and without a scrap of paper. (I even left the back-up notebook at home so I couldn’t chicken out.)

Turns out, I didn’t need to worry. Notes Plus worked fantastically, and I got a lot of comments from other panel attendants who wanted to know what program I was using. On top of fluid hand-writing, there is a built-in voice recorder. While the audio is low, it’s loud enough that if needed I can re-listen to the panel and add anything I missed.

PANELS

I think starting with my next convention, either SFContario or the next Ad Astra, I am going to change my panel selection criteria.

I’ve gone to eight literary conventions now and normally I pick panels based on what it was that I was focused on improving. Yes, there are a bazillion how-to books out there, but the back and forth between panelists can often crystalize that knowledge for the listener much quicker and more deeply than just reading a book in solitude. Even better when the panelists have widely different opinions and experiences. It drives home how individual a process writing is and how many different roads to publication there are for us. Perspective!

In early years, I focused on the how-to — plotting/outlining, characters, world-building, research, time management. In later years, I’ve been heading more to the post-creation stage — editing/revising, market issues, querying and agents. In the last two years I’ve made a point to check out any panels that have spotlighted how successful writing groups operate and took what I learned back the group I belong to, the Underground Writers. I also tried to balance these writing panels with general topic panels which are terrific for story fodder.

But I came away from this Ad Astra dissatisfied. Not with the panels per say — on the whole they were interesting. What I was missing was the opportunity to listen to writers I both admire and who have damned interesting things to say. I missed out entirely on Guy Gavriel Kay, Stephen Jones, Tanya Huff, and Ellen Datlow, only got to see Julie Czerneda on one (great) panel, the same with Peter Watts. I was so busy trying to pack in the must-listen topics that I completely missed out on the people I wanted to listen to, regardless of topic. A mistake I will not make again.

PUBLISHING

By far the most productive panels for me were the Writers Groups Behind the Scenes (featuring the Stop Watch Gang) and the workshop Publishing: A View from the Other Side.

The Stop Watch Gang did a live critique session. Suzanne Church (who is all kinds of awesome) read out her story so that the attendees would have a reference point and then the rest of the critique group did what they normally do — critique! Five minutes per person is all they are allowed (enforced with a stop watch, hence the name). The writer remains silent but takes notes and at the end, if there are more questions or comments, there might be more discussion. They give the writer hard copies of the marked-up stories with more comments than the five minutes would allow. To conform to the length of the panel, they were limited to only three minutes, but they were still deep and constructive and varied opinions. They meet monthly, and generally critique 3-4 stories. Stories that have been critiqued by the group are not critiqued again; they went on to say that is why being a member to more than one critique group is valuable, because you can workshop your pieces with multiple sets of eyes.

Our writing group does critique, but sometimes we babble or get side-tracked. I think the three of us agreed that a time limit would be constructive. It’s also further emphasized that I need to rejoin the Online Writers Workshop. (Now that I’ve actually been critiquing for a few years, I feel confident about participating. When I signed up the first time I simply lurked in terror for the full year…)

The publishing workshop was put on by the editors of ChiZine. They took samples of cover letters they have received and a random sample of free, e-pubbed works and asked us to go through them as though we were slush readers.

What. An. Eye-Opener.

First off, these troopers commit to reading four chapters 0f what you send them. Four full chapters, when it’s readily apparent from either the cover letter or the first paragraph that there is nothing of value there. These guys are HEROES. I could not do four chapters; on only one of the submissions did I get to the end of the first page/beginning of the second and that was more out of schadenfreude than anything else.

What was so bad? Bizarre formatting. Intensely weird and/or self-deprecating cover letters. And this is before we got to a lick of prose, none of which stood out as anything I’d read willingly. I kept muttering, “…oh god…oh god…” as I read. How could people send this stuff? Really? What possessed them? Content aside, a little research would quickly tell you how to format, what not to do in a query. Like another workshop attendee said, you wouldn’t do this with a job application and resume, so why for something like this?

As horrible as it sounds to say it, this workshop made me feel infinitely better about my own submissions; rejections I get will be based on storytelling ability, originality and style, so I know where I can focus my efforts to improve.

However, one thought occurred to me that hadn’t occurred to me before: if you have an editor that has decided to read your story despite a poor cover letter or synopsis, your work has to be ten times, a hundred times better, because the reader has already been poisoned by what came before.

And that slush readers should earn medals. Failing that, hazard pay.

Okay, this entry ran away with me. In short: Ad Astra YAY! But time to change my Con strategy. And back to writing.

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