Scarlet Letters

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

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Guest Blog: Nick Valentino

My initiation as an Underlord in The Literary Underworld
Guest blog by Nick Valentino

First off, let me say that I'm honored to be a part of this blog tour! Thank you to everyone in the Literary Underworld for all their hard work and dedication. I count myself extremely lucky to know such good people! Thank you for including me!

For years I was in a metal band and our philosophy was tour tour tour. The idea behind it was if you play enough shows in front of people all around the country then surely you'll get recognized. Well, in a band you have to deal with other people that have their own lives, problems and agendas. At the point when the touring ideal started to die around me, I started writing stories, then books.

My mission was to get published and take my own touring machine on the road. Not too long after I had some decent stories, I got published and I relentlessly booked up a year and half of travel. From Victoria, BC to Atlantic City, N.J. I saw so many cool places and met thousands of amazing people from every genre of the author/geek/gamer/fandom scene.

Some of the hardest-working and downright coolest people I met were from a traveling bookselling group called The Literary Underworld. They were EVERYWHERE in the southeast and covered tons of cons. They also have an amazing website that you absolutely need to check out. They have a little of everything. Seriously, if you like any kind of fiction, they have it. Steampunk, Fantasy, Horror, Gore, Aliens, Monsters... just to name a few... it's there. The coolest part is that these are all the up and coming authors. These are the temporarily underground authors just waiting to burst forth. I was at MidSouthCon when they accepted my steampunk novel, Thomas Riley, and instantly I gained a whole new group of friends.

You should see them go! They always have the newest books and from what I saw at the con, they were selling like hotcakes. So this is your chance. Take a look at The Literary Underworld's website and get in on all the best books from your favorite genre. You won't be disappointed, and like me you might also discover a whole new group of friends and books!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Guest Blog: Publishing ladder tougher climb for SFFH writers

Guest blogger: T.W. Fendley

I'm a writer of historical fantasy and science fiction with a Mesoamerican twist for adults and young adults, and one of the newest "Underlords" in the Literary Underworld. I first learned about this cooperative venture from the founder, Elizabeth Donald, a few years ago at Archon, the annual St. Louis-area science fiction/fantasy convention. I made sure to contact Elizabeth after L&L Dreamspell published my debut historical fantasy novel, ZERO TIME, and was thrilled to join this great group of writers.

Our ongoing Literary Underworld Blog Tour is reaching out to readers like you, who care about authors and small presses. We want you to know that when you buy from this co-op, you make a difference. Authors may receive up to three times more than they would if you bought their books from a big-box retailer. We appreciate your support and especially your interest in our books!

Soon after I started writing fiction in the mid-'90s, a co-worker asked me to join a group of romance writers. It was just the inspiration I needed, even though I didn't write romance. The Crescent City Writers introduced me to the business of writing and to critique groups. Many also belonged to organizations like Romance Writers of America (RWA) and Sisters in Crime (SinC), which had local chapters in New Orleans where we lived. Around the same time, I took a worldbuilding class taught by renowned science fiction writer George Alec Effinger at the University of New Orleans and joined his excellent science fiction and fantasy (SFF) writers' workshop.

It quickly became apparent, though, that the rungs of the publication ladder were harder to climb in the speculative genres. Of more than a dozen writers in our romance group, only the three newest of us weren't published. Although twice as many writers participated in Effinger's workshop, only one was published. Some differences between the groups were readily apparent--the romance group members helped sponsor conferences that brought in agents, volunteered at booksellers' conventions, and invited guest speakers to help the writers improve their knowledge of everything from forensics to taxes. They worked on the business aspects as well as writing, while the SFF workshop focused only on critiques.

Where were the local chapters of science fiction, fantasy and horror (SFFH) writing organizations? Now, more than fifteen years later, I'm asking the same question. The SFWA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America) and HWA (Horror Writers Association) are the premiere spec fiction organizations, but I've never encountered local chapters. In fact, the criteria are so stringent that many published writers can't qualify for membership. Small press and self-published authors are excluded because of SFWA's requirement for authors to receive a $2,000+ book advance, and short story writers must sell to "approved" markets to be SFWA-eligible. HWA is more lenient with its associate membership, which requires "one minimally paid publication in any of several categories. (This might be something as unassuming as a 500-word story for which you've received $25 or more.)"

Compare this to RWA general membership, which is open to "all persons seriously pursuing a romance fiction-writing career" and SinC, which seeks authors "pursuing a career in mystery writing." SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) welcomes all those "who have an interest in children’s literature and illustration." While I understand the desire to maintain high standards in the SFFH genres, I wonder if exclusivity may prevent the kinds of interactions and mentoring that could launch more talented writers into the publishing world's top tiers. Fortunately, as the lines between mystery, romance and spec fiction blur, SFFH writers can benefit more from organizations tailored for their writerly genre "cousins." And some of us are lucky to live in places with an all-inclusive groups like the St. Louis Writers Guild.

Of course, not all SFFH groups are so exclusive. I commend online organizations like Broad Universe for offering newbies a hand. It’s a great group of women who are serious about writing and who have fun, too. They host readings and book sales at conventions, and place magazine ads featuring their members. They’re even helping me learn how to do podcasts, which I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Check out the August Broad Pod with four humorous excerpts, hosted by yours truly.

I'd be curious to know if I've simply overlooked some great spec fiction organizations. I'd love to hear from you!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: With Zero Time -- Dec. 21, 2012 -- quickly approaching, I've been working to complete two ebook novelettes set in the same universe as my novel, Zero Time, which is available in print and ebook formats. A prequel, Jaguar Hope, will soon be available on Kindle, followed by The Mother Serpent's Daughter, which tells the master shaman's story.  I'm also seeking an agent for my young adult fantasy novel, The Labyrinth of Time, and homes for a variety of SFFH short stories.

Readers can find me at:
Literary Underworld
Facebook page
Goodreads author page

COUPON!! Go to and use the code LUblogtour to get 15 percent off your order!


Zero Time: As the end of the Maya calendar nears, an expedition to Earth has zero time to save its race from extinction. Only Keihla Benton can save two worlds from the powers of Darkness. But first she must unlock the secrets of Machu Picchu and her own past.

Finalist for the 2012 Walter Williams Major Work Award presented by the Missouri Writers' Guild
Semifinalist in Kindle Book Review's Best Indie Book of 2012 contest

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Have a little cheese...

Warning: I am about to whiiiiiine.

I am SICK AND TIRED of my leg.

I'm tired of not being able to go up to my office without a giant production number. I'm tired of hurting after I'm on my feet ten minutes. I'm tired of my wobbly knee randomly giving out without warning and making me grab something fast to keep from falling. I'm tired of hobbling up and down stairs like a ninety-year-old woman. I'm tired of the itchy stupid brace that won't stay where it's supposed to and has to be restrapped every half hour or it becomes useless. I'm tired of forgetting and standing up too fast, feeling the wrench and having to sit down real fast.

It's been a week and a half and it should be better by now, since it isn't frigging broken. "A real bad wrench" is what the doc called it. She said I had to be on restricted duty for a week. That expired four days ago. This is ridiculous.

I know, perspective, anyone with real injuries or disabilities is rolling their eyes hard enough to give themselves a migraine. That's why this is pure selfish whining.

I have things to do, dammit. Work. Cleaning. Shopping. Stuff.

Dear leg: Shut the hell up and get better.
No love, The Whiner.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Dragoncon, Day Four and More

Funny thing about the demon in my knee: he remains asleep for the most part unless I’m walking. On Sunday morning, I awoke relatively pain-free and forgot that I was injured. Then I got out of bed.
That little fucker stabbed the back of my kneecap with his pitchfork and yanked the nerve bundles at the same time. Oh yeah, still injured. By now the calf muscle had also decided it hated me, and tied itself up into a little pretzel. You know after you get the charleyhorse, how the muscle stays knotted up, tight and painful like you’ll never relax it again? Yeah, like that.
No time to whinge; I had the most important obligation of my weekend ahead. I consider my reading vitally important, and I don’t get why any author wouldn’t. It’s the chance for established readers to hear what I’ve got coming up next, and for new readers to hear my stuff for the first time.
I usually advertise the hell out of my readings. However, the new material from Moonlight Sonata isn’t tested before a live studio audience yet (which means I’d better test some of it on Jimmy before the next show) and I haven’t selected anything from King of Swords I can use yet, and if I’m going to read something from Absolute Zero it would probably help to, y’know, write it.
So I approached the reading with no idea what the hell I was going to read, and had forgotten to mention my reading at any of my panels or distribute the flyers I had printed at great expense. Oh yeah, Donald, you know what you’re doing.
Fortunately I had a shill: Wrenn had agreed to come to the reading with me and even brought coffee. And someone else showed up. Fuck it, I’ll read to two people. I’ll read to one person. I’m not proud.
Since both were new to my work, I picked “Sisyphus” from Setting Suns and the Piasa sequence from Blackfire. Those are two of my most requested pieces. They stayed through both, they didn’t yawn. Bonus.
Then I had a bizarre realization: Spare time. Sure, my books were available in the dealer’s room, but I didn’t want to bother the booksellers by loitering about and getting in the way. So I had time to shop.
First stop: the hall o’ celebrities. My son is a big stargazer, and has a binder full of autographed photos I’ve brought him from my travels. This year’s priorities were the cast of Warehouse 13, John Barrowman of Doctor Who, Michael Dorn of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Adam Baldwin of Firefly and Chuck. I got Dorn, which also enabled me to ask how his romantic comedy project was going. I had read about that in a recent interview and resisted the urge to ask for them to put CultureGeek on a reviewer list.
Alas for the kid, the Warehouse 13 crew was on their way out, and I could only tell them in passing that they had a giant fan in Edwardsville, Illinois. True enough, Warehouse 13’s quirky steampunk adventure has filled the Smallville- and Chuck-shaped hole in my boy’s heart.
Then I visited Mitzi. My dear friend Mitzi lives in Kansas, so I don’t get to see her much. We missed this year’s Independence Day camping trip because we were in Florida, so I needed to catch up. Mitzi volunteers for the Walk of Fame and helps handle celebrities. This year one of her charges was Felicia Day, of The Guild and Doctor Horrible fame.
Apparently Ms. Day was desperate to escape the signing line, and asked Mitzi where the authors’ row was. So Mitzi texted me about it. I was having lunch with Keith, Wrenn and Jay at the time, and we had ourselves a sad little giggle about that. Authors’ row. What a beautiful idea that would be: a walk of fame for guest authors. We’d be happy as the proverbial clams if such a thing existed. Dear Dragoncon…
So I dropped by to visit with Mitzi, and since Ms. Day had been unable to cruise the mythical authors’ row, I gave her copies of the zombie novels with my compliments. She was delighted and we took a picture together.
Then I cruised the dealer’s rooms. Usually I start my Christmas shopping at Dragoncon; with the number of geeks on my list, it’s a good place to begin. But this year I was sadly disappointed. It was much the same material as in previous years, with fewer books than ever before. Two independent booksellers, plus three big-name authors (Kevin J. Anderson, Laurell K. Hamilton and Sherrilyn Kenyon, mainstays of Dragoncon) and I think I spied one small press and the Authors’ Lair, a cooperative similar to my own Literary Underworld. That’s it.
I considered buying yet another Harry Potter wand for the boy, but he’s broken three in a row, no kidding. Sure, I thought about the Avengers movie poster signed by the entire cast plus Joss Whedon, but that was $2,500 and I’m not insane. There were fake ID badges from every fandom in the universe, costumes, lots of bootleg-looking anime and obscure horror movies, costumes, stuffed animals, endless T-shirts, swords and other sharp things, costumes, posters, gaming supplies and costumes.
In the end, I picked up Magic cards for the boy and yet another Godzilla T-shirt for the man. These were my burnt-offering presents, gifts I offer so they’ll let me back in the house after they’ve degenerated into Lord of the Flies for four days. Seriously, the half-drunk cup of milk Sara Harvey’s little girl left on the dining room table on Wednesday night was still there when I returned on Monday. Buncha fucking savages in this town…
But no, we’re not done! Time to talk short stories, back in the bowels of the Hyatt. By now my knee had warmed back up to an aria of galactic proportions, that little demon yanking away on the long nerve fibers inside my leg. They were kind enough to let me prop my leg up on a chair, bless them, so the entire audience could see that I had also ripped the hell out of my black slipper at some point during the festivities, and I am just the classiest dame in Atlanta.
Most of the panel involved selling short stories, which also sidetracked into getting published. There was the usual bit about self-publishing in ebooks, and I said my standard piece about the need to learn your craft before you embarrass yourself, which went over like the usual lead balloon.
Afterward a young woman came up to me and said she had just made her third professional sale and qualified for SFWA, and wanted to know if membership was worth the cost. Embarrassed on both our behalf (behalves?), I had to tell her that despite seven books on the shelf and contracts for three more, I do not qualify for membership in SFWA or HWA.
See, both organizations require similar credentials: three short-story sales to magazines that pay 5 cents a word or more, or a book contract with a $5,000 advance and 7 percent royalty. But my living has been primarily in the small press, and nobody in the small press pays advances. My royalties have all been 7 percent or higher, and I like earning money from Day One.
My vampire series was published by a press no one could call small: hundreds of titles and millions in sales every year, even back when my vamps were new. I was in every Borders in America, had the multi-city book tour and sure, it was nice. But even they didn’t offer an advance.
I talked with some SFWA officers once, years ago. I pointed out all these salient facts to them, and asked if they had ever considered acknowledging the growth of the small press and the fact that advances are rare now. They said they knew this was a trend in the industry, but that they felt it was important to maintain the same standard, to encourage even the small presses to offer advances. Authors deserve that investment, they said.
Sure they do, but most of us don’t get it, I said. As SFWA, HWA and other writers’ organizations keep asking for more members, they shut out hardworking writers who are legitimately published by good presses that just happen to be small. I’d honestly put most of what I read in the small press above a lot of the stuff I see coming out of New York these days, with or without my own meager contributions.
So I directed the embarrassed young writer to some of the others on the panel, who had much longer resumes than mine and would be better able to advise her on the value of the organizations.
A quick drink in the VIP consuite later, I returned to the bowels of the Hyatt for my final panel: Stephen King, Pt. 2. Okay, that’s not it’s real name; something about what was new in the world of King.
Um. I was alone.
Not alone in the room; oh no, we had a very respectable crowd for a panel at 10 p.m. on Sunday. There was a moderator. And me.
I threatened to break into a song-and-dance routine to entertain them, except the demon in my knee would not allow such a thing. How was I going to enthrall this large room of people without anyone else to hide behind?
Fortunately my moderator – who had the difficult task of keeping his panel of me in line – was quite knowledgeable about King, especially the stuff I didn’t know, like The Dark Tower.
Look, I tried. I had to confess to the crowd: I read the first book twice. And I still couldn’t get into it. They swore if I read the second and third books I’d get bitten and once I read through all the books the first one would make sense. Oookay, says I.
I rehashed some of the same material from the previous Kingology panel, about how King’s work is about one thing on top and something else underneath. I bashed Kubrick around some more, since he can’t hurt me much, and we talked about the upcoming Doctor Sleep. I had to confess I hadn’t read the numbers book (11/22/63 for those playing at home) because my TBR stack has reached frightening proportions, but it’s high on my priority list. Then we debated whether they will ever make Eyes of the Dragon into a movie, and can they possibly find a way in the remake to do the final battle of IT justice, seeing as how it’s my favorite book?
In the end it was a blast, the first time I’ve carried off an entire panel with only a moderator by my side unless you count my readings. I was delighted by the crowd – “Why aren’t you all drinking??” I demanded – and of course I was talking about my favorite writer, so I enjoyed myself immensely.
And by the end of the hour, I had promised to try more of the Dark Tower books. Aw hell.
After a few more drinks in the VIP consuite, I wandered back toward the Hilton and finished my Dragoncon experience by catching up with my dear friend Parish Roberts in his room. Parish and I had managed not to see each other for most of the show, save a brief drive-by hug in the hallway, so it was lovely to catch up with him and his lovely wife and other friends in their room.
Until oh my goodness, it was 3 a.m. and my alarm was going off at 6 for my 8:45 a.m. flight. Poor planning, Donald.

I will spare you the details of my flight home, as it was mostly uneventful for me and the demon in my knee. My menfolk greeted me with hugs and kisses, and did not completely demolish the house while I was gone.
The next day my doctor X-rayed the knee and discovered the demon was not a break as I had feared, but ripped-up ligaments and damaged tendons and all that soft-tissue OW that comes with twisting a joint in a manner God never intended. At the time of this writing, I am still wobbling about on a brace and have had to rent a wheelchair on at least two occasions, but I am healing and will be fine probably by next week.
As usual, I am grateful to have the Dragoncon experience again – and not just because I have good friends I only see there. Dragoncon has an energy I love, excellent panels that challenge the mind and I never fail to come back with it rejuvenated and filled with a creative energy that I ride for weeks afterward. Thank you to the kind folks who run the tracks and continue to invite me to spew my blatherings on their panels. Thanks to the readers who fill the seats in those panels and ask such great questions, keeping us on our toes. Thanks to my friends who make a visit to Atlanta such a wonderful experience.
And especially thanks to Keith, Wrenn and Jay. The day after I came back, I opened a fortune cookie that read, “You will have many friends when you need them.” My three roommates proved that beyond a doubt, taking care of me despite my best efforts to stop them. I couldn’t have asked for better friends.
See you all next year, I hope!

Dragoncon, Day Three

All right, let’s get this out of the way: I was warned. Wrenn told me the floor of the bathroom was wet. I just wasn’t paying attention, as I wrestled myself into my clothes on Saturday morning so I could make my first panel.
I fell. It was a bad one. Turns out I can’t do the splits anymore, not that I ever really could. My left foot shot forward, catching the toe under the wooden lip of the sink cabinet and for a moment I thought it was broken. My right foot twisted behind and under me, wrenching my knee in a direction that God never intended.
I let out an unwomanly yelp, which was coupled with the gigantic thud of my ass hitting the floor. I must have startled Keith and Wrenn something awful, because they were pounding on the door. I was in my undergarments and my ass was sopping wet from the floor, so I told them I’d be out in a moment. I hauled myself up into the toilet and assessed the damage.
Left toe: scraped and bruised. Right calf: strained and in that shocked state of numbness that says you did something spectacular to yourself, but it isn’t going to tell you what for a while.
I straightened out my leg, and my right knee let out a lightning bolt of pain that shot the entire length of my leg. It was singing “Ave Maria” off key, and I was seriously worried about my ability to walk.
However, I couldn’t spend the entire day sitting on the toilet in wet undergarments while Keith and Wrenn pounded on the door. So I quite gracefully lurched to my feet and tested the leg.
Hmm. A strange sensation. The pain did not increase much when I put weight on it, but it had a weird wobbly sensation, like at any moment it would simply snap and spill me to the floor. I tried to walk, and the first step told me this was going to be a long weekend.
I convinced Keith and Wrenn that I was okay, and retrieved spare clothing from Monstro. This is why we pack extra underwear for con, folks. I’m just saying.
So it was now twenty minutes to my panel. It is in the Westin hotel. I am in the Hilton. If you have ever been to Atlanta, you know that these hotels are approximately two and a half blocks apart. If you have ever been to Dragoncon, you know that these hotels are approximately sixty-five parsecs and a short lightyear apart. All that lay between me and my panel was the width and breadth of three major hotels, a conference center… and the annual Dragoncon Parade.
I made it. I’m not sure how. I think a wormhole opened up. I had my rolling red bag of doom, a present from my first flunky, Dana. She gave me this little bag with a front pocket and a retractable handle that has attended more conventions than most fans. This weekend, it also acted as my de facto cane, giving me something to balance and lean on as I lurched through the show.
When I emerged onto Peachtree Street (I think… aw hell, all of Atlanta’s streets are named Peachtree Something, so I’m probably safe) I found that the parade had just ended save for three evangelists protesting in the middle of the street. It seems we’re all going to hell and have to confess our sins if we wish to be saved. So far the only sin I’d committed was being clumsy on a wet bathroom floor, and I was perfectly happy to confess that if it meant I wouldn’t hurt anymore.
So I made the panel, with only seconds to spare. I lurched to my seat next to an actual doctor, whom I should have asked for a consult.
This was the Zombies in the Media panel. When I announced my panel schedule before the show, a friend who had recently been laid off from a newspaper said, “Zombies in the media? Are they in management?” I shamelessly stole this joke to start off the panel.
It’s always a little strange for me, blending my work as a journalist with my work as a novelist. Both are definitely work, but they require a completely different skill set. In this case, I was more journalist than author, discussing journalism ethics and their application (or lack thereof) in covering stories such as the so-called “zombie” attack in Florida.
This crew was more kind than most; outside of the profession, I find that journalists tend to become the proverbial whipping boy for most of society’s ills. While there was plenty of blame to toss around, I did not feel like I was the target on a dartboard, which has sometimes been the case. There was a CNN contributor there, and we had a friendly debate on the ethical use of “citizen journalist” material and how mainstream media might react in the case of a true zombocalypse. For a moment I wasn’t sure if I was at Dragoncon or the SPJ national convention, but then I remembered: zombies. Right.
After the panel, the goddamn knee still had that weird, wobbly might-give-at-any-moment feeling, and the pain was starting to swell. This was bad, because it was the start of the Great Panel Marathon: five panels in one day. I’m not sure, but it might be my record.
At this point I was starving, having eschewed breakfast in favor of actually making my panel. I had a brief hour before the next stop, so I went to the Peachtree Center food court to grab sustenance with 60,000 of my closest friends.
See, Dragoncon is located in downtown Atlanta, which has a lot of really big hotels and fancy restaurants. And then it has the Peachtree Center, a mostly-defunct shopping mall with the best food court I’ve ever seen. Indian food, Chinese, sandwiches, sushi, burgers, southwestern… you name it, it’s there. It’s also a lot cheaper than the restaurants, which I’ve spied but almost never tried. Usually my budget is, “consuite, apples and beef jerky,” with the occasional real-food supplement.
In this case, I opted for bourbon chicken, because it was cheap and filling. And then I tried to find a seat.
None. And when I say none, I mean NONE. In the normal world, you would not think of sitting at a mall food court table with a total stranger. At Dragoncon, such niceties evaporate. See a couple sitting at a table with three chairs? Guess what – you’re all friends now. Unfortunately, being the height of noon and all of us broke, the only spot I could find to eat my bourbon chicken was on the floor in front of a shuttered jewelry store, along with six other people.
(My friends were at the Irish pub, the bastards. If only I’d known…)
The most exciting point of the day was when I finished my chicken and had to… stand up. That’s when my knee let me know this wasn’t a simple muscle strain I could ignore. I’m not sure if the nasty little demon trapped behind my kneecap was literally jabbing me with his itty bitty pitchfork, or if he was grabbing the bundle of nerves and yanking on it with all his strength. That time it felt like the latter.
I lurched through the halls and made it to my next event: my signing.
Now, I always do a signing. I think it’s part of our responsibility. If our readers want to actually talk to us, to sit one-on-one and chat, the signing is the best time. Assuming there isn’t a line to Spain behind you, this is when we can get real face time with our readers. I don’t understand writers who hate signings. Sure, it’s a strain on the wrist, but curse me with such problems.
Unfortunately, Dragoncon is the only show where I tend to sit with the crickets chirping. It’s weird, because Dragoncon is a huge show with 60,000 people and I have a significant readership in Atlanta. I know because Facebook tells me so. Each year I sign up, and each year it’s pretty light. As in, only two or three. This year, almost none.
However, I was scheduled with Bobby Nash. It’s always nice to have a friendly face, someone to chat with while we watch Grant from Mythbusters sign approximately nine million autographs next to us. (This really impressed my son: yes, I breathed the same air as Grant.)
Bobby was not having the best of shows. All his stuff had been in his friend’s car when said car was burglarized. Some little bastard got all Bobby’s clothes, his entire stock of books and a laptop. Bobby was still coherent and sane; I’d have been alternately weeping and Hulk-smashing everything in sight.
All those books, man. His entire stock. Hundreds of dollars out of the author’s pocket, with a new book that just came out and signings pending. I can’t even imagine it. Forget making any money at the show, too. Granted, it’s hard to make your money back at Dragoncon, but it’s impossible if you don’t have anything to sell. I’d have spent the show drunk in a corner.
I had a brief break before my next stop, so I popped up to the VIP consuite. A word about these folks: wonderful. They volunteer endless hours of their time at the show to feed us guests and monitor the door so we don’t get deluged with fans and can relax for a bit. Each evening it turns into a cocktail party, and you never know who might drop by (more on that later).
The next panel was in the basement at the Hyatt, to chat about heroes in fiction. We had a good time determining the difference between heroes and anti-heroes, whether a protagonist has to be a hero, etc. Some of this stuff is just how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but sometimes it kick-starts ideas you never knew you had.
Fortunately the next panel was across the hall: Stephen King’s Hollywood. This was one of my favorite panels. I expect Derek Tatum, track director for Dark Horror and Fantasy, put me on this panel because I was running my mouth off on Facebook a few months ago about Stephen King movies and what makes them good (or terrible), about the layers of meaning in King’s work, why it resonated with us in the 1980s and why it doesn’t do as much now.
So I got to say bad things about Stanley Kubrick and I got away with it; we debated the merits of Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me vs. the supernatural bugaboos and pondered the intense mythology and psychological pathos of Maximum Overdrive.
Okay, I was just kidding about that last part.
What a great audience. That was one of the best groups, with great questions and friendly debate (even when someone seriously disagreed with my take on King as an economic horror writer who has somewhat lost his way). I can gauge how engaged the audience is by the number of people who come up to talk to us after the panel is over, and we were thronged. One young lady told me that this was the first panel of the show that she wished would go on for three more hours.
(I posted: “Four of five panels: achieved. One more and I level up.”)
However, I was not free for more Kingology. I had the panel about which I was the most nervous: Heroines Among Us, starring me, about seventeen other authors and Mercedes Lackey. Our discussion was centered on strong women in fiction, which of course is one of my favorite topics.
I made my case for Scarlett O’Hara and her impact on me, which I will repeat here in case you weren’t there:
I came of age before the era of Buffy and her ilk; women did not kick ass in most of my childhood fiction. I read Nancy Drew books because I liked watching Nancy solve the mystery. But I was always annoyed by Nancy, because she would get captured by the bad guys and tell them, “I heard everything you said and you’re going to jail! Now let me go!” Instead of something like, “No habla ingles.”
(This got a much bigger laugh than I deserved.)
So when I picked up Gone With the Wind, I was fascinated by Scarlett O’Hara. She was no one’s idea of a role model; she does terrible things and hurts many people in pursuit of her goals. But she was the first female character I’d ever seen who solved her own problems. Everyone else in the book just sits down, flails their hands and weeps for the olden days when their society crashes around them. Scarlett at first depends on men to protect her, but Rhett abandons her at the side of the road with two of the helpless and a newborn.
So Scarlett says “Fuck it,” in a genteel way, and saves herself. She picks up everyone around her: man, woman and child. She saves their lives, saves the family home, and she does it by whatever means necessary, in defiance of the rigidly structured world around her. The racial politics and romanticized views of the Old South were completely lost on me as a young girl, but Scarlett’s strength appealed to me in a way that no character had, or would until I saw Linda Hamilton face down the T-1000 in Terminator 2.
I wish I had taken notes during that panel, because it was marvelous. We discovered Mercedes Lackey (a great and generous lady, by the way) adores Katniss Everdeen of the Hunger Games series. I got to skewer Twilight with my primary complaint, not that Bella Swan is such a miserable excuse for a character, but that her relationship with Edward is a prime example of teen domestic abuse. (In fact, it fits all 15 criteria of the National Domestic Violence checklist, I read recently.)
We were thronged with people afterward. I ended up staying to talk with audience members for at least fifteen minutes, until it was just me talking to people and Mercedes Lackey signing books. I also sold a few books to folks after the panel, and you know what? That doesn’t happen all that often. It used to be that if people liked you on a panel, they’d come up and buy your book. I don’t know if they suddenly thought they were annoying us, but friends, trust me: You will never annoy a writer by giving her money.
At last! I had completed five panels in a day, and limped my gimpy ass back to the room. I hoisted my leg up on a pile of pillows, turned on DCTV. Then a funny thing happened.
I was bored.
I should have been exhausted. Little sleep, running about like a madwoman, yakking my ass off in panels and by then the knee had reached new operatic levels of pain. But by God, it was Dragoncon! It was before midnight on Saturday night and I hadn’t even taken a picture of a single costume!
So I was beyond pleased when Keith texted me that he, Wrenn and Jay were in the VIP consuite enjoying some adult beverages. Never mind that the VIP consuite was in the Hyatt and I had just left the Hyatt to travel across three hotels to reach the room. Never mind the strange 20th-century discordian sonatas my knee was singing. I popped another Vitamin I (ibuprofen to you) and hobbled back on out, through the Marriott Tsunami and returned to the Hyatt.
I have to say, I had good luck with elevators this year. I don’t think I waited more than five minutes for an elevator at any point; my first year, it was not rare to wait up to 45 minutes in the Hyatt, 20 minutes in the Marriott. I made it to the VIP consuite with little difficulty, whereupon my Three Amigos made me sit down and refused to let me get my own drinks.
This also meant Jay was in charge of supplying my alcohol. Whee! That quieted the knee into a gentle bel canto. Randal Schwartz was there – hell, Randal is always there, he’s a Dragoncon fixture and one of the smartest guys I know. Also, he never remembers me. Six years running. Next year I’m going to hide my badge so he has to guess.
So while Keith and I advised Randal on a story idea, Jay suddenly noticed who had walked in: Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite and Sean Maher. You know them better as “three of the Firefly cast.” Yes, they look just like that in real life, except Baldwin was wearing a baseball cap instead of a Jayne hat and Staite is blonde now, which doesn’t suit her as well.
Wrenn and I briefly debated the attractiveness of the actors, though there wasn’t much point in longing after Sean Maher, given that he is more likely to be attracted to Keith or Jay. Too pretty, anyway; we determined that Adam Baldwin is absolutely worth chew toy status. “Not to keep,” she said. “No, not to keep,” I said. “But to play.”
Hey. Don’t judge. The men weren’t even capable of speech in Jewel Staite’s presence. Jay later blogged in a manner that proves he’s a better writer than I: “She actually gives off soft lighting.”
Last call came too quickly, and we staggered back to the room through the Marriott Tsunami that showed absolutely no signs of receding. This was the point where my camera battery died, and I had only taken a picture or two. I would say I’m going to kill my ghost, but that would be a little counterproductive.
Oh sleep, thy blissful kiss.

Dragoncon, Day Two

Unbeknownst to me, there was an emergency in the night. Sean’s wife was rushed to the emergency room with what turned out to be a ruptured appendix. I woke up and everyone was gone, so I packed up my stuff and did the zombie nails, unknowing.
And Sean still managed to come back mid-morning to take me to the train station so I could still make the convention. Major friend points, folks. Sean, unfortunately, never made it to the show. Lisa had emergency surgery that night, and then made it home, where I understand she is recovering nicely. Any blame for this must fall directly on my ghost, who apparently followed me to Atlanta…
Back to the train for me, and I wrassled Monstro to the Hilton. See, I had had a reservation at the Castleberry Inn, which was two train stops away from the show and only $69 a night. I was to share with my friend and fellow author Jay Smith, whom I had known for eons online but never met in person. Jay is the creator and lead writer of HG World, a zombocalypse radio drama issued by podcast, and if you have a fondness for zombies, radio shows or good fiction, you absolutely must listen to his show.
In the days leading up to Dragoncon, Jay and I were faced with a slight problem: The Castleberry’s idea of a double room is one bed. This is a touch awkward for a married man and an engaged woman. We’re all grownups, and Jay’s wife fortunately had a giggle fit over it. But we were thrilled when Keith DeCandido and Wrenn Simms offered to share their room with us in a host hotel. A room with multiple beds.
This led to a momentous occasion: I met Keith DeCandido. See, Keith and I have been friends for years online; maybe as much as a decade, I think. And we have been at the same convention a number of times, but we had never met. At one Dragoncon, we were scheduled for readings at the same time, directly across the hall from each other, and still managed not to meet.
That’s just as well, because that was the infamous moment when the string broke on my pants right after the reading and they fell to my knees. In a crowded hallway full of my fans. Sigh.
So when I showed up at the room, Keith shouted, “We meet!” I replied that at any moment the earth would reverse its gravitational pull, because clearly we had violated the laws of physics.
It turns out that Keith, Wrenn, Jay and I made a great team. I had a feeling it would be fine, since we’d all known each other for so long. But that’s online, and as all of us know, online friendship does not always hold up in what we laughingly call The Real World.
But the four of us really clicked, and I spent half the trip laughing. We laughed about apples, and the Freddie Krueger colors on the bedspreads, and the fact that both Keith and I owe HG World scripts to Jay. I laughed like a madwoman all weekend. It was wonderful.
Finally it was time for my first panel: 2012. Again. I wonder what the Apocalypse Rising track will call this panel next year, after Dec. 21, 2012 passes and we’re all still alive, surviving on the carrot-based economy. (Ducking Selina Rosen; that’s a story from 2010…)
The other panelists were all scientists, disaster experts and authors. We had a good laugh that four of the six were from St. Louis, disaster capital of the nation. Seriously, I love St. Louis as much as anyone, but we have floods, tornadoes, earthquakes and sometimes we get the tail end of a hurricane. All we need is a brushfire or tsunami and we have all the major disasters this earth can give us.
So imagine my state of mind when beepers and phones keep going off among my emergency-management co-panelists, because there are tornadoes in St. Louis. And my son is there at home.
As soon as the panel was over, I was on the phone. Of course, the boy didn’t answer. Fortunately I had planned ahead and asked my neighbor to be on call for him while I was gone and Jimmy was at work. Bless her, she went over to our house and woke up the boy – nothing but shouting awakens the Great Sleeping Teenager. He spent the evening with the neighbors, just in case of badness.
I am so blessed in friendship.
Jay and I then wandered the show for a while. We visited the VIP consuite, then meandered through the art show – which had some really great pieces. My philosophy on fantasy art is simple: I search for artists who can draw a female figure that is not an eroticized lingerie warrior or an ethereal untouchable goddess. Nearly all fantasy art falls into one or the other. Women either kick ass in a G-string and high heels, or they’re so improbably beautiful and perfect that no one could touch them, with supermodel figures to boot.
It is rare to find art that seems based on real women, and when I find one, I pocket the card to recommend to my publishers. There’s also the usual creepy art, which is usually an expression of someone’s really serious mental problems or issues with women – some of that was blatant this year. But there were some really nice pieces as well, and the raised-paper designs I’ve drooled on for years. There was one image of ghoulish faces reflected in a shovel that I really wish I’d picked up when I had the chance, or at least noted the artist so I could pick it up later. (Anyone remember who that was?)
I briefly lost Jay in the massive crowd that fills the Marriott. If you haven’t experienced Dragoncon, you might not be familiar with this. On the main levels of the Marriott, the central hotel of the show, you will find a constant sea of humanity in every possible costume. It used to be the Hyatt’s job to host this gigantic undulating mass, but the fire marshal put his foot down about the crowds and the dangers in that smaller space, and somehow the vast majority emigrated to the Marriott.
The plus side of this is that if you want to do some of the best people-watching in the nation and/or spy some really fantastic costumes, the best place in the world is the Marriott Marquis in Atlanta. The downside is that getting across the Marriott any evening at Dragoncon is like swimming upstream through a tsunami.
Finally, Jay and I ended up visiting a panel about killing characters, a subject near and dear to our hearts. Thus I fulfilled my goal to attend at least one panel I was not on, often a difficult task at Dragoncon.
By walking in the door, I ended up on two more panels; Nancy Knight asks and I obey, because her panels are always thoughtful and the audiences intelligent. I really love the panels at Dragoncon, and I wonder if all those folks waiting endless hours in line to see celebrities trade jokes in a ballroom know what they’re missing. I remember the days when there was a large ballroom set aside for a writer to speak, and it was full. (Harlan Ellison, in case you were wondering.)
That panel Friday night was filled to bursting with people standing in the back and sitting on the floor, including me. Dragoncon may be mostly a media con at this point, but there is still a strong and lively contingent that’s there for the books. Bless them all.
Jay and I had just returned to the room when we heard from Keith and Wrenn that they were in the hotel bar. Never one to turn down a drink, we joined them. It was loud, but we were happy and oh, the laughter. I said before that the four of us really clicked, and that’s when it happened. I laughed so much my throat hurt. Our personalities just meshed that well.
Which is a good thing, since we were sharing a room for four days.

Dragoncon, Day One

Fair warning, folks: This is long. I was just going to do a quick summary post, but apparently I only do "quick" and "summary" when doing fiction. So if you lived and suffered through Dragoncon with me... here's the nonfiction version.

My Dragoncon trek started with a special treat: a visit from Sara Harvey and family! Sara was on her way to Worldcon in Chicago, and they stayed with us Wednesday night. This enabled us to play with the adorable baby Beatrice, and for Sara to assist me with my convention wardrobe.
By “assist,” I mean, “shake her head in disgust and threaten to send two-third of my closet to Goodwill.” Sara has mad skills, and was able to cull a respectable four-day wardrobe out of my boring pile of momclothes.
Nothing particularly spectacular, since I’m not doing the corsets this year. But enough to get by, even though she hates my blue paisley skirt. I love my blue paisley skirt. I kept putting it in the suitcase and she kept taking it out. I told her I was only taking it as a precaution, and I might not even have been lying. And yet later I discovered it had vanished from my suitcase… and has never reappeared. Woman, give me back my skirt!
Also among the missing were my Square scanner, all iPhone sync cords and the charger for my camera battery. Only a sync cord reappeared. This is still a problem: that charger is a ridiculous $50 to replace. Did I mention my ghost Isabel likes to hide things?
It was nearly 2 a.m. when I finally got to sleep, my to-do list almost complete. The alarm went off at 5 a.m. This was not a good plan.
Jimmy took me to the airport, still sniffling that I was going away for a whole four days. Unlike most other people I know, I actually like flying. I like airports, I like getting where I’m going in hours instead of days, I like seeing the earth grow small under me. I don’t like the rigmarole, but I’ve almost never had a problem with the TSA. I pack properly, I’ve only once been pulled over for extra screening and the airports I’ve flown through are still on the X-ray and metal-detector system, no full-body scans.
However, it helps if you read your ticket. I brilliantly sat in the wrong seat, foolishly thinking I had scored a window seat and would be able to sleep on the 90-minute flight. When the real owner showed up, I had to move to my real seat, a center seat between two strangers with zero leg room. With my rolling bag of doom beneath the seat in front of me, I had to hold myself in a terribly uncomfortable position all 90 minutes, with my legs scrunched up and folding my arms over my chest because otherwise I’d be jabbing my seatmates with my elbows.
Thank goodness for Harlan Ellison. The documentary about him, “Dreams with Sharp Teeth,” is loaded on my iPhone. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I watch/listen to it, I always find some new inspiration in it. Ellison is perhaps not the most admirable human being, and the documentary does a good job exploring his flaws as well as his brilliance. But his relentless pursuit of the written word and the magic it carries both inspires me and reminds me how far I have to go.
I landed in Atlanta about the time Ellison was explaining why he wrote in bookstore windows. It is to demystify the writing process, he says: because we are so distanced from literature in the United States, we tend to think writing is accomplished on an ethereal mountaintop instead of being a job, just like laying pipe. It is interesting that all the writers I truly admire look at it that way, and probably worthy of future introspection.
But first, I had to get off the fugging plane. It seems to take longer to get off a plane than it was to ride it. I finally escaped into the Atlanta airport.
Which is huge.
I mean, it’s long.
Really long. You thought my last book was long? You could read the whole thing in the time it takes to walk through the Atlanta airport from the farthest concourse, which is where I was.
Now, the sign said there was a tram to my right. But it also said that baggage claim was ahead. So I walked ahead. After all, baggage claim was that way. That’s the way I walked.
And walked.
And walked.
Concourse after concourse, gate after gate. After a while, I began to smell a rat. The signs kept saying the baggage claim was ahead, but it neglected to say how much farther ahead. I suspected I had been eaten by the Langoliers, crossed over into another universe where the airport just keeps going around in a circle and you never reach baggage claim. It doesn’t exist.
I finally gave in and asked someone. One concourse away, he said. Take the tram.
Take the tram. Sure. I could’ve taken the tram 45 minutes ago. Seriously, I was so late arriving at baggage claim that the AirTran employees were taking the lost baggage off the carousel and I had to show my ticket to claim Monstro, my trusty trunk-like suitcase that has survived so many cons with me.
Fortunately, David Wallsh is a patient man and a good friend. David had agreed to pick me up at the airport, which saved me having to haul my cookies across Atlanta by train or forking over $40 to the taxis.
David and I reached the host hotels, and already the lines were wrapped around the block. Fortunately for us, badge pickup is pretty quick for guests (and thanks to my friend Vernard, badge lines are no longer than 1 hour no matter how scary they look). I bumped into Vernard and Jeff Pagliei, and much hugging ensued.
Then David and I found a lovely little café he knew well, which had good sandwiches and absolutely wonderful pie. We had a great lunch and caught up; one of the perks of Dragoncon for me is the chance to actually see my Atlanta friends and get updates on their lives.
David then delivered Monstro and me to the home of Sean Taylor, my editor at New Babel Books. Sean happens to live in Atlanta, and was kind enough to offer me lodgings for the night so I wouldn’t have to fork over an extra day in the hotels.
I had a wonderful time with the Taylors. I got to meet Sean’s kids and his lovely wife, Lisa. At the same time, I was as flummoxed as I am listening to Ellison. Sean has three teenagers, a wife, three cats, two dogs, a full-time day job, far more fiction contracts than I could dream of and edits the likes of me and Shane Moore, and yet he still manages to write and stay sane. Just like my friend Angelia Sparrow, who has a husband and four children while working full-time as a truck driver, yet manages to publish four or five books a year on average.
I have a full-time job, a fiancé, a teenager and a house. Yet I have nothing like their output. I am doing something fundamentally wrong.
Sean and I talked shop for a few hours, and then I enjoyed a quiet evening with the family, crashing at a relatively sane hour because – news flash – I was exhausted.