Scarlet Letters

The not-so-private thoughts and rants of Elizabeth Donald, journalist/author and founder of the Literary Underworld.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Midsouthcon, Part II

First order of business on Friday was business: set up the booth. I was moderately pleased with the new displays, but I can already see where some refinement needs to be made. I also need better signage and more clipboards.

After setting up the booth, I left to have lunch with Andy. As always, it was chicken salad at La Baguette, two hours of catching up and laughing over old times. Then he had to go to work, and I picked up a boxful of almond croissants to share with my roommates. It's a good thing I don't live in Memphis anymore – I'd weigh 300 pounds.

La Baguette. Party City. Buster's Liquor*. Office Max. Walgreens. All of the above, then back just in time to open the booth with the rest of the dealer's room. Sara Harvey joined us soon enough with her books, and the real work of the weekend began: Shameless Huckstering. I blessed the Lucky Magical Unicorn of Commerce and bid it to suck in our prey.

We took turns manning the booth around the panels, until it was nearly time for the party. Jesse showed up at my panel on ebooks, in which I debated the ascendancy of the 'net format with Eric Flint, guest of honor and editor of Baen's Universe. I'm pretty sure he's never rejected me.

It was lucky Jesse showed up, because we had one hour to simultaneously decorate the room and get ourselves dolled up, so we immediately conscripted him into slave labor. I had chosen the Vampira Cleavage Dress of Doom, but first we had to hang stuff. I had brought the decorations I used for the A MORE PERFECT UNION release party. Wall/mirror clings: yes. Stringy little bat overheads: bring thumbtacks next time. I ended up balancing my stocking feet on the arm of a chair while attempting to hang the bats on the edge of the curtains and fell right the fuck off, catching myself halfway and breaking my own fall with, um, my ass. It was not my most graceful moment.

I will say the glittery shiny door curtain – blood red, of course – was the single best advertisement we could have had in this particular hotel, which has an atrium design. The moment we hung it up, people began cruising by, even though we were still twenty minutes from opening.

Downside: the shiny red door curtain tried to eat the guests. Strand after strand wrapped itself around someone's neck or caught on their wings, and there was a trail of red glittery strands up and down the hallway outside.

I am basing a monster on that curtain someday.

Angel provided a beautiful chocolate cake – by Wal-mart, no less – imprinted with the cover of her new book, NIKOLAI. She was the only one who knew how to mix stuff. Sloe screws, by the way, rock. Me as a bartender: not so much. "Um, I can, y'know, mix stuff if you want, or how'd you like a sloe comfortable screw?"

I had to duck out right away because there was a guests' reception, and I was required to attend in order to get instruction on the Darrell Award reading scheduled for the next day. When Selina Rosen commands, you show up.

At the reception, someone hit on me. Now, this happens occasionally when I wear the Vampira Cleavage Dress of Doom. But this was creative.

HIM: Excuse me.
ME: Yes?
HIM: I'd like to thank you for single-handedly bringing cleavage to the con.
ME: *laugh*
HIM: And if you're interested, I'd like to share some very high-powered marijuana with you.
ME: … No thank you, but I appreciate the offer.

I really don't think I've had an offer like that since high school. Hee.

I relieved Angelia at the bar in our room party so she could go to her reading, while Sara set up to read tarot. It was a huge hit, with the line for tarot stretching around the room. Actually, sitting around the room. Each time she finished reading someone, everyone shifted over a seat. "Next!" It was hilarious.

Selina and the Yard Dog crew dropped by, and after three different people had tried it, I sicced Selina on the stubborn bottle of Vampire Wine. "Oh sure, give it to the OCD person, because you know I'll fuckin' keep at it until it's done!" she accused. Sure enough, she dug and dug at that thing until it was open. Then it turned out to be really sucky wine. Live and learn, the bottle was cool.

We had guests of honor drifting in and out, a terrific crowd that I fear may have emptied other events going on that evening. But as someone told us, we were The Party. At the time, I regretted putting our party on Friday night, because we didn't have time to promote or prepare. But in the end, I was glad to do it on the night when less was going on, and leave us free to enjoy ourselves on Saturday night.

My one regret about the party: no one put anything in the tip jar. Angelia and I spent a ton of money on booze, food, decorations and flyers. I've thrown a lot of promo parties, and never once had an empty tip jar. I suppose each con has its own practices – at Dragoncon, it's pretty much expected that if you drink, you toss a buck in the jar as a courtesy. Perhaps MSC just doesn't do it. Or maybe I should've given the tip jar to Selina. No one says no to Selina.

For a wonder, we didn't get shut down, despite being louder and more obnoxious by far than last year's pirate party, which was shut down in 45 minutes flat. I yelled last call at 1 a.m. and by 2 a.m. we had the room pretty well put back to order.

Oh, and Sara Harvey and I slept together. Why are you looking at me like that? Angelia is over six feet tall and there were only two beds in the room. I cracked that among my crew, I was the only woman who was not bisexual, and if there was to be any sex in our room, I would be manning the video camera. Sorry to disappoint you, Sara was a perfect gentlelady

Next: It's an honor to be nominated….

* I'd like to add that despite Buster's proximity to the University of Memphis and its 25-year history of providing hooch to inebriated college students, this was the first time I'd actually made a purchase at Buster's. No, really.

Midsouthcon, Part I

Of course, we got a late start. Is there any other kind?

We rolled into Memphis about 5 p.m., which pretty much negated my intent in taking Thursday off work. First there was a snafu at the printer, which required reprinting half my order. Then we had to get gas, and stop at the storage place to pick up the party decorations, and we went to the Halloween store to stock up, but alas, they were closed. At that, we were lucky to get there by 5 p.m.

After sending my son off with his father, I turbo-changed and tore back out of the hotel for dinner with friends. Memphis and Nashville are the two cities to which my college buddies have gravitated, so visiting either city is like old home week. My compatriot Angelia Sparrow joined me with her husband, as did my mother and stepfather. And three old pals from school. The pictures are on Flickr, though it took me forever to remove the red-eye laser beams from David's eyes.

I can say "old pals" because it's officially been 15 years since we all started college together. Ow. Another gray hair just sprouted on my head. I've tried to blame my son for them, but at the latest infraction, he grinned and said, "Actually, it's because of your age." Remind me why I thought an independent-minded, smartass kid was a good idea?

Dinner was fabulous, as it only can be at the Memphis Pizza Café. I always have their alternative pizza – no sauce, with olive oil and garlic and stuff. I always add feta cheese, which provides the perfect balance. Andy and I put away that whole pizza by ourselves. Who needs Weight Watchers?

Dinner was a surreal experience. On one hand, we're all grownups now, with the gray hairs, extra pounds and pictures of the kids to prove it. On the other hand, after a few minutes of awkwardness, it was as though none of us had ever been apart. I had been a little worried that I wouldn't recognize Scott Duesterhaus – the last time I'd seen him in person, the year started with a 1. But he walked up and it was as though we were freshmen again, hanging out in the dorm lobby endlessly debating where we should begin our Friday-night carousing.

As Andy remarked later, it was as though we'd never been apart. We all fell back into our snarky roles, jibing each other with the same pointy sticks we'd been using since Bill Clinton was a brand-new president. I recounted in accusatory tones the story of how David and Scott had been responsible for my first intoxication:

ME: There I was, this innocent young thing…
ANDY: *cough*
ME: I was.
MOM: Uh huh.
ME: Anyway. I had ordered a Zima –
ALL: *collective OMGs as we remember when Zima was invented*
ME: And I was shocked, shocked I say, that it had no effect on me. So I turned to my companions and said, "Guys, order for me."
ANDY: And that was your mistake.
ME: Words I have never said again, for good reason.
DAVID AND SCOTT: *innocent grins*
ME: And they looked at each other, and in perfect unison, they said, "Long Island iced tea."


There were many memories tossed about, with more than a few in my direction because my mother was present at the table and it was a golden chance to embarrass me. Fortunately my mother has heard it all (or guessed it all).

After dinner, the old married folks all vanished in a puff of smoke and Andy and I proceeded into midtown. See, I'd heard tell of some nightclub in town named Nocturnal. In case you don't know, the vampire club in my Memphis-based supernatural mystery series is named Nocturnal Urges. This was too good to pass up.

Sure enough, the "club" turned out to be a bar on Madison. There it was, NOCTURNAL, as big as life. No vampires, unfortunately. We took a series of photos from the outside, including a few with me standing under the name.

I hereby offer these photos in this Flickr set to all who might be interested. Photoshop away. The best will be featured on the burgeoning fan section of my web site.

Andy and I parted ways, and I was about to go back to the hotel. But I was restless, and just couldn't see going back to the hotel and watching TV. Memphis is my adopted hometown, the place where I stopped being a kid and started the lifelong process of discovering who I am.

So I drove downtown, past all my favorite landmarks. I found my way to the small park by the river and stashed my car in the usual spot. And I went for a walk by the river.

The flooding has hit this area hard. The waters may have receded up where I live, but water travels downhill as surely as the other stuff and Memphis was stuck with a river significantly wider than it usually should be.

I stood under the tree in the surprisingly chilly wind coming off the river and let it blow my hair off my face. I heard voices behind me, and when I turned, a group of ten or twelve young people was passing. They had arms slung around each other, laughing at a joke someone had told. They weren't drunk, just high on being eighteen and out after dark. And they were clearly the best of friends.

They were real. They weren't a mirage or a fold in the space-time continuum. Just the next generation of kids romping the city that used to be our playground.

NEXT: We throw a Halloween party in March.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Heisenberg Compensator School

I firmly believe in the Heisenberg Compensator School of Science Fiction.

I have probably told this story before, and it's likely apocryphal, but screw it. The transporter in STAR TREK was notoriously based on bad science. Apparently some theorem by physicist Werner Heisenberg proved that the matter-energy transporter could not exist. Don't ask me how or why, I am no scientist.

At any rate, at one point in one of the serieses or movies, someone refers to the Heisenberg Compensator as a device integral to the transporter. In one fell swoop, they established credibility and dismissed real science. Because to me, science fiction is about people, ideas and stories. It isn't about How the Starship Works. Save that shit for the obsessive fans in the dorky ears. (What? Do I have a pair of Vulcan ears? I refuse to answer on the grounds that... hey, I was sixteen. Shut up.)

In 1994, Time Magazine asked famous Trek technogeek Michael Okuda, "How does the Heisenberg Compensator work?"

Okuda replied, "It works very well, thank you."

I belong to the Heisenberg Compensator School of Science Fiction. In technology, I don't care how it works as long as you tell me it does. When I wrote "Deep Breathing," I deliberately set it in the future so I wouldn't be bogged down with endless nonsense about how submarines work today. Instead, I could simply have a throwaway line: "Are the gills working? Good, we won't suffocate." Therefore, you know that the "gills" are likely a slang term for a gizmo that draws oxygen directly from the water. They had problems on my little submersible, surely they did. But suffocation wasn't one of them, and I didn't want an endless debate about the gizmos when I could watch my crewmen go crazy instead.

But a conversation with a fellow writer and a friend today reminded me that I tend to get obsessive about other aspects of my craft. Here I am, perpetually one step away from finishing YELLOW ROSES. In the beginning, I got endlessly bogged down in research for the World War I/1920s flashbacks. Then it was ghostbusting. Now it's the rituals of various faiths used to cleanse a space and banish unfriendly spirits.

My fellow author said this is where he usually makes shit up. And I realized, when it comes to technology, so do I. Why not now? Why not simply make up a ritual and call it done?

Well, I get angry when I see bad journalism on TV. Likewise, bad science makes scientists angry. Bad spirituality/mysticism makes witches angry. And I know a lot more witches than scientists.

Still, at this point I'm about ready to risk their wrath and make up my own damn ritual. I'll replace the frankincense with sage and I promise not to call anything devil worship, but it's possible part of the block I've had in finishing this damn scene (and with it, this damn book) has been my obsession with Getting Everything Right.

It's also possible I don't want to finish this book because I'm not sure what comes next. Oh, I've got projects. But there's a lot of uncertainty in my career right now. That's scary.

Fukkit. Finishing the book, ritual or not. I'm sure someone will let me know if I get it wrong.

Friday, March 14, 2008


Robin Hobb has an interesting piece out, referenced by damn near every writer on the 'net. In it, she says in quite amusing prose that blogging is the death of fiction, a blog will eat your fiction for lunch and emit a small burp, you can be a blogger or an author but not both... etc.

Funny enough that most of the blogging authors disagree. The authors who don't blog, well, they're quiet. I guess. If an author doesn't blog, does anyone hear her?

I'm being silly, but it's an important point. No less an author than George R.R. Martin, a fine gentleman who whupped my ex-husband's ass at chess twice, wondered if he should post less often. And was greeted with 132 replies shouting Noooooo!

Meanwhile, Patrick Nielsen Hayden of Tor Books has this amusing bit to say:

I dunno, call me crazy, but it seems to me possible that for some writers, blogging is a time sink and a creative drain, while for others it's a source of connection, energy, and inspiration. It might even be that human beings, not just writers, are all different from one another. I realize that this reveals me as prone to wild, nutty speculation, but that's probably why I work with that crazy rocketship stuff.

Sarcasm, thy name is Patrick.

But as usual, it's John Scalzi who really nails it: Don't blog when you should be writing. Work first, play later. Then blog all you like.

I resemble that remark.

Well, it's tough being me. I have this blog, which I update far too infrequently about my writing life. I write another blog professionally: CultureGeek, which offers reviews and snark on TV, movies, books and comics. Yes, they pay me for it. Yes, it's like my job and stuff. It also means my comic books are tax-deductible. Rock.

I also have a private personal blog. Just for me and my 249 closest friends. Seriously, if the readership of this public blog and my professional blog were added together, I don't think I'd come close to the hits on my personal blog. My random blatherings are that much more interesting? There's Myspace, of course, but that's just an announcements list. And there's Multiply, which I only use to keep up with my mother's family.

It's tough keeping up with all this. The one that loses is this one. I tend to toss everything out there and see what sticks, and oops I haven't updated the writing blog in mumblety weeks.

Then there's other writing stuff I do. You know, the other other stuff they pay me for. For which they pay me. The nonfiction. News. That's the easy part. There, you're pretty much stuck with the facts. Nobody ever asks you to wax creative, though I'd about chop off body parts for the opportunity to do so. Readership there? Oh, 55,000 to 65,000 people a day. Depending on the day of the week. Yikes.

And finally, somewhere in all that, I'm supposed to write some stories and books and stuff.

My son is a very understanding child. He just thinks the laptop is permanently attached to Mommy's fingers.

I keep up with all this because I talk like a rabid weasel on PCP, and there's no one more loquacious than a reporter who's actually pretentious enough to use the word "loquacious" in a sentence. And then crows to herself that she spelled it right on the first attempt.

If I stopped blogging - cut out this blog, and CultureGeek, and the personal blog, and the Myspace/Multiply/Facebook - I'd have more time, I suppose. But the only thing that would give me more fiction is to stop writing nonfiction. Because I lied when I said it was easy. It's hard as hell, because when things are going rough in fiction you can always send in the man with the gun. In nonfiction, the man with the gun has already been there, and there's someone real sobbing on the other end of the phone line. Not so funny.

I blog because it's cheaper than therapy. I blog because it keeps me in touch with other people beyond my small circle of coworkers and friends. I blog because it is the purest form of human communication yet invented, solely based on thought to thought, mind to mind, personality to personality. I blog because the 'net keeps me connected to the human race. It keeps me sane.

If that means one less story this year, so be it, Ms. Hobb. There's only so many stories I can write about the same six people I've known since high school, and I've already sent the man with the gun after each of them. Hey, it's how I show my love.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Good news!

I'm happy to report ABADDON is a finalist for the Darrell Award!

This is my fourth nomination for the Darrell Award, with two wins. NOCTURNAL URGES was nominated and won for 2004. A MORE PERFECT UNION was a finalist for 2005. "Wonderland," a short story in SETTING SUNS, was nominated and won for 2006.

Now ABADDON. I am simply floored by the enthusiastic support of the Memphis fiction community for my work. It encourages me to keep inflicting vampires and evil computers on them. :)

I'll find out at the banquet at the end of the month if ABADDON wins. If you're in the area, please join us at Midsouthcon!


P.S. What? You haven't bought ABADDON yet? Good thing it's still available.