Monday, August 14, 2017

When Words Collide 2017 Review

In spite of my intent to cut down on programming, this year, I signed up for way too much stuff, 11 events in all. I did two solo presentations, one of which had standing room only, the other less than 20 or so. The second one was scheduled to follow a presentation on the exact same topic by another speaker which was crammed, so either everybody got what they needed from the previous speaker, or I was scheduled against tougher competition. I enjoy presenting and being on panels, but that heavy commitment kept me from taking in other’s presentations. And that’s starting to be a problem because the other presentations are evolving from the standard repertoire to really significant topics.

The Evolution of WWC: Discussion Topics

I have always enjoyed WWC, but after 30 years of going to conventions I have pretty much heard everything everyone has to say about the usual topics. Indeed, I could probably give the spiel from just about any of the regular panels. Those are all good panels, and each new generation of attendees needs to hear that information, but if I can lip sync the talk, probably not necessary for me.

WWC was different initially because it’s multiple genre approach brought in an influx of new topics as speakers from, say mystery or romance or kid lit, who talked about issues and solutions in their genre that were just starting to emerge in ours, and vice versa. One of the best presentations I have ever attended was one by a script writer on blocking out a scene, and it instantly fixed a problem I was having with some of my own writing. But by year 7, I’ve gotten most of the information from those too; or the specific topic doesn’t apply to my writing, e.g., “how to write erotic scenes” not likely to come up in my satiric writing.

But there have been a number of completely new topics the last two years that took the writing conversation to a whole new level. Tim Reynolds, for example, organized one on depression, ostensibly about dealing with manuscript rejection but also dealing with the larger issues of writing with clinical depression. Laksa Media’s book launch last year brought up issues of neurodiversity among writers; this year’s launch addressed issues of writer’s coping with the burden of care for others. I believe Tim also organized the panel on mental illness. And I organized one on writing with dyslexia, dysgraphia or other learning disabilities. And all those conversations flowed out into the hallways, so that I found myself spending the weekend talking to writers about how they write with depression, autoimmune diseases, chronic pain, mobility issues, a wide variety of learning disabilities, OCD (well, those were all editors), and anxiety disorders. As the circle of people in the conversation widened, it seemed like every writer had some issue that others had said would mean they couldn’t write. [Coincidentally, the Kickstarter campaign for “Disabled People Destroy SF” has been sending out essays by disabled writers every couple of days for the last month, and it is mind-blowing what handicaps these successful writers have had to overcome…] I had known some of these writers for over 30 years and had had no clue that they were dealing with any of these issues, a sign that such personal “weaknesses” were always seen as borderline shameful. I am so grateful the conversation has now brought these things into the foreground. The exchange of ideas and information on how to cope with various conditions was surprisingly useful, even for people who had already researched the heck out of the topic that effected them. Because writers are ingenious, and had each come up with some pretty nifty workarounds or strategies that others hadn’t thought of yet. I’d never heard of weighted blankets, for example, but six people in the group testified to how that one little trick had changed how they slept. Okay, now I’m recommending that to relevant relatives.

Maybe all that was just a coincidence, the topics just floating to the surface this month as part of the Zeitgeist, and I cannot really credit WWC with “planning” those hallway conversations. But I think it is fair to say that WWC provides a safe place for writers to talk openly about anything; at least a dozen out-of-towners remarked to me how friendly and open WWC is, how easy it was to meet people, how approachable the guests, and so on. Not saying another convention could have talked openly about disabilities, but, well…don’t recall any of this coming up in previous 30 years of con going.

The Evolution of WWC: Writing Advice

Another way WWC has evolved is that all those workshops and panels seem to be having an impact. The Live Action Slush panels have always been popular--so popular that they have proliferated into a network of genre-specific sessions, each drawing large audience. What is striking to those of us who have been doing these since the start is how much improved submitted manuscripts are. We almost never get any of the “common mistakes” that turned up the first two or three years. The problems we are seeing now are subtler, more specific to that manuscript, and just rarer. A significantly higher percentage of manuscripts submitted are succeeding to earn a “pass”, and even those that get “gonged” do so later in the reading and with much more muted criticism. There is no question that quality has improved.

Similarly, I can’t speak to others’ experience, but the manuscripts that came to me in the Blue Pencil Café were better than those in earlier years. One was borderline brilliant—were Five Rivers not currently closed to submissions (while we clear out the backlog) I would have bought it on the spot. Another was interesting because I didn’t care for it at first, but then I couldn’t find a single thing to fix. I realized I had been prejudiced against it by an opening that made me think of bad fantasy novels, but once I got past that negative stereotype and read what was actually there, it totally grew on me. With the right backcover blurb and cover (to avoid my wrong-headed reaction) the novel might do very well. Two others were suffering from a single flaw each, both easily fixed. (Well, conceptually easy—tough revision slogs for those authors, I would think.) Nobody likes to hear ‘back to the drawing board’, but the fact is a manuscript with a single flaw and much else good in it is infinitely better than the sort of multitude of beginner errors we used to see.

It’s tempting to suggest that the weaker authors have just been scared off from submitting their work to the panelists/workshop’s tender mercies, but I don’t think that’s it given that the proliferation of Live Action Slush panels and bluepencil cafés. Indeed, one of the bluepencil participants explicitly told me her’s was a manuscript I had thumbs-downed at a Live Action Slush the previous year, and what I was looking at was the manuscript revised on that basis. Well, okay then…this year’s version was a thumbs up! I suspect there is a lot of that going on.

In any event, WWC continues to be the best writers’ convention ever. Instead of repeating itself endlessly, the conversation goes deeper each year. There is still plenty of information for new writers (some of it from me), but much of the material is getting more and more sophisticated as befits the growing sophistication of its audience.

Robert Runté, Barb Galler-Smith, Robert Sawyer, and Constantine K, and a piece of Brian Hades, at the Edge table at When Words Collide, 2017.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

I finally finished my major project for the last six months: writing and revising my 32 page guide on writing strategies for theses and dissertations, and have posted it to the Essential Edits site.

I argue that one has to unlearn undergraduate writing skills to learn a completely new skill set to survive.

Research suggests attrition rates of between 50% to 65% for PhD candidates and thesis-route master's programs. Interestingly enough, most drop out of the program after completing all the course work and all the data collection and analysis for thesis/dissertation, which suggests that the problem is in the writing stage—though this is seldom recognized in the literature, and often not even by the students themselves! Reorienting graduate students to the different nature of sustained writing projects could assist many more students in completing their graduate degrees.

The guide is available free from