Prose & Cons: Can-Con 2017

Less than a week to go before Can-Con. I think this is my fourth visit to Ottawa. I’m looking forward to morning walks along the canal, seeing my Ottawa friends, and perhaps some fall colours.

I have a light schedule at Can-Con this year: I’m taking a workshop on Friday, doing a reading on Saturday, and joining a panel on Sunday. (See the convention’s full program here.) That’ll leave time for meals! We know some nice restaurants, and we’ve made some reservations already.

Friday: We fly in late Friday morning, so I couldn’t make the noon workshops. The second batch are at 2:30, and that includes Nailing Your Beginning with James Alan Gardner, which I’ve signed up for. I need this; I suck at beginnings. I’ve been more or less stalled on my WIP’s opening for months. As it’s a sequel, I thought it would be easy, but I’m finding it hard because this time around, no-one will be explaining stuff to the main character, which may leave readers struggling or confused. Maybe I should have her explain things to someone else…

After that, registration, opening ceremonies, perhaps a panel, and then dinner out with Caroline.

Saturday: Lots of cool panels and readings to attend, and I’m scheduled to do my own reading from Avians at noon. Guess I better rummage around and select a scene or two. Su J. Sokol and Ryan McFadden are the other readers in the room for that hour, so that should be a fun session. I’m likely to be too busy for a proper lunch date, so I’ll probably just grab something in the lobby bar and get back to the con. I’ll sacrifice some of the early evening sessions to make time for a nice dinner, though, and then I want to be back for a later panel and the Bundoran Press party.

Sunday: we have breakfast plans, and I’ll have an easy morning sipping coffee at the con, then in the afternoon, I’m sitting on the Leveling Up Your Writing with Formal Courses panel with Curtis C. Chen, Suzanne Church, Leah MacLean-Evans,  and Kelly Robson (moderator). I think that means I’ll be representing the more affordable end of the education spectrum compared to full six week Odyssey or Clarion resident courses or a university Master of Fine Arts program. I took an Odyssey online course one winter, and got a lot out of it.

We don’t fly home until Monday, so we’ll have all Sunday evening for a leisurely supper.

Internet karma

People and information are closely entwined. Usually I think about this in the context of privacy issues, but this coin does have two sides. My debut novel, Avians of Celadon, is finished. Not published yet, but editing is complete. One thing that has been worrying me is the need for more thorough fact-checking on my science. Once it goes into print, errors are irreversible. It’s science fiction, and while that leaves room for creativity on the speculative scientific developments, that’s no excuse for sloppy world-building when it comes to the parts that bear on atmospheric science, aviation, or good old-fashioned volcanoes. I’m a career pilot, so I know something about air and airplanes. Volcanoes, not so much. I’ve visited some volcanic areas, I’ve seen a bunch of documentaries, and I’ve read a ton of articles on the internet, but for some things, you really just need to pick the brain of a vulcanologist. If you’re making a joke about mind-melds right now, I’m glaring at you. Maybe I’d better stick to spelling it volcanologist.

Geologists who specialize in volcanoes. Where to find one. I scoured some of those internet articles for names and universities, and found an email address for a likely seeming guy, but he never responded. He’s a little bit famous, and he’s probably pretty busy, and anyway his university is likely in summer hiatus, so he might be away or something. It was a long shot.

So I tried Twitter, specifically #volcano. Oho! Volcanologists tweet stuff. I followed some of the more likely looking people and organizations, to see if they ever mentioned sites where you could Q&A with an expert. I wanted to know weird and rather obscure stuff, like is there a supersonic shockwave from a volcanic eruption? How far does it go? What about volcanic bombs, those blobs of lava that come flying out when a volcano erupts – the slopes of volcanoes are littered with them, but can they fly as far as an artillery shell, or are they more local?

I didn’t find any dedicated Q&A sites, but I did see some fascinating Twitter profiles, including one Jamie Farquharson, a student of Geography/ Volcanology who is working on his PhD. His passions include both volcanoes and SF.  He’d be great to talk to, I thought. A couple of weeks later, he followed me back. That was courteous of him, and it also allowed me to send him a direct message. So I did, thanking him for the follow-back and mentioning that I needed help with volcano science. He was enthusiastic, and said he’s a fan of my blog. I presume he means this one. I think what happened is, he saw the notification that I was following him and checked out my profile, like you do. I tweet about this and that, but he would only have had to read a handful of tweets to find a link to one of these blog posts. So there’s a kind of payback for putting yourself out there on the web. I often find it rewarding – one of my other blogs, icepatrol.ca, got a lot of hits this spring – but now I feel rewarded.

Perhaps Jamie concluded that I was serious about writing, or amusingly witty. Or a half serious half-wit. Whichever it was, he invested a huge effort in answering my questions. He read excerpts of my book. He sent diagrams and photographs and videos of volcanic eruptions to illustrate his answers. Better than that, he spotted some things that I had taken for granted about volcanoes that are wrong. Even fresh lava does not glow bright red by daylight. So many documentaries take advantage of twilight or night shots that brightly glowing lava was fixed in my mind. Best of all, he answered my emails overnight, so that in under a week I had all the information I had despaired of finding for months.

For the record, supersonic shockwaves slow down and die out rapidly, usually within a few kilometers. Volcanic bombardments, too. Perhaps the most useful thing he told me is that volcanoes are all different – eruptions don’t follow a set pattern, they are notoriously unpredictable. Sucks if you are a volcanologist, but rocks if you are a writer!

This is my little thank-you to Jamie, my new geology guru. It is also my tip of the hat to the internet and it’s potential to connect people. When we share information we are all building something together. It’s bigger than our previous collaborations, like cities. It’s as big as civilization. It may even BE civilization. Bring a brick.

Writing update

This will make three posts in a row that have nothing to do with driving to the West Coast.  I may have to change the subtitle instead of just choosing a style that makes it hard to see.

My New Year’s Resolution this year was to make 2014 the year I become a published author.  I think it is unrealistic to hope that I will get my novel published this year, even if I find an agent.  I am quite sure that agents have many good reasons to be leery of first novels, but even leaving that aside, the sheer time it would require to go from manuscript to book makes ten months an awfully tight timeline for a beginner.  With that in mind, I am dusting off my short story skills.  I have always enjoyed writing short stories, going right back to grade school.  In the late seventies or early eighties, I even managed to get a couple into print, courtesy of CanPara, the magazine of the Canadian Sport Parachuting Association.  In professional circles, this probably doesn’t qualify me as a ‘published author’, as this was not a paying gig.  But they printed some pretty good stories by other writers, so I am still faintly proud to have appeared in their pages under the pen name of Conway Brown.  So what was I writing then, and what am I writing now? In grade five or six, I wrote a mystery set by the ocean.  It was awful, of course, but not make-your-eyeballs-bleed awful. In grade seven or eight, I wrote science fiction; I remember a story about a navy crew recovering a mysterious metal orb from the sea (remember, Dad was an oceanographer) just as the mother-ship turned up to retrieve their probe.  My two efforts for CanPara were an aviation adventure (stingingly but accurately labeled a ‘Cockpit Drama’ by one of my skydiving friends) and a near-future or possibly alternate world science fiction piece that combined parachutes and airships.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century.  My first novel (tentatively titled Skytraders) is science fiction.  Solar-powered airships are a wonderful technology if you need aviation but don’t want oil refineries on a virgin planet.  But the story is really about gliders and the girls who fly them.  Somewhere, someone just said, ‘Dammit – he means women!’ I do know the difference. The Avians of Celadon (If I was Anne McCaffrey, that would be the title) are girls.  If they are good enough, and lucky enough, they get to be women later.

While I’m waiting for people to get back to me on the novel, I’m trying to retroactively pay my dues in the short-story arena.  I have entered a couple of contests this year – hey, it is only February, I’m working on it, okay?  – one in Ontario, one in Manitoba.  I also submitted a story to a science fiction magazine on January the first.  At that time, they were saying that their response time was likely to be between two and six weeks, which is pretty quick.  However, their website suggests that it is more usually in the range of two or three months.  Two months have gone by and they haven’t yet sent me a scathing rejection letter.  My hope is that this means that the story is not bad enough to go straight into the shredder of shame, but not good enough for an immediate offer in its present form.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it strikes the editor as having potential.  I concede that it is somewhat awkward.  I was ‘licking the spoon’ when I wrote it – using the world-building and backstory from my novel to spin off a prequel tale.  This made it easy to get started, but may have stilted the narrative.

A Far-ranging Education

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When I was trying to summarize my life for the About Tim page, I got thinking about how my education took place all over the planet, and how that made me the person and the writer I am. Snort. As a writer, I like to describe myself as a reject. I have reached that awkward stage where I have to send query letters to agents, a process about as satisfying as printing out the whole thing and throwing it off  a cliff. But I don’t plan to blog about my book much. Back to the education part. I don’t remember much about my first school except that it was called Saint Andrews and I learned there that I cannot dance, which is useful information. I was only there for one year  before dad took a sabbatical at Scripps Institute in San Diego and I had the pleasure of attending Grade 2 in an American school. A keen young teacher there ran a remedial reading class and I was placed in it. I owe her and Doctor Seuss a lot: I learned that books could make me laugh, and I have never looked back. To this day, if someone laughs while reading, I have to know the reason. When we returned to England, I devoured children’s books by the library shelf full. Doctor Doolittle and Professor Branestawm were early favourites. Meanwhile, I attended Plymouth College Preparatory School for Boys. See photo above. They taught me to write with a dip pen and when I had mastered that, (Report Card comment:”Timothy’s handwriting looks as if a spider fell into the inkwell and crawled out on the page to die”) a cartridge pen. Then at the age of nine, I moved to Canada, specifically Winnipeg, home of the newly created Freshwater Institute. What they wanted an oceanographer for, I cannot imagine, but Dad managed to make himself useful as a water chemist and a chemical methodologist. The South end of Winnipeg was growing at a furious pace in the sixties and schools were popping up like toadstools. I attended grade five in St. Avila, then grade six in Fort Richmond Collegiate in its inaugural year when it hosted grades one through twelve (I think). Canadians learn an entirely different style of cursive writing, and use ballpoint pens. Epic fail. By the time I got to grades eight and nine, Dalhousie Junior High had been built (by a blind designer who hated windows and a crazed architect who specialized in split-level monstrosities.) In this bold new school they believed in ‘open-plan’ classrooms, ‘parallel learning streams’ and ‘student projects’. I learned that if you give me six weeks to do a lot of work, I do a little of it in the last three days. Period.  I wrote one of my earliest short stories in the hours after midnight and before breakfast. I still have it. By this time, I was reading Science fiction by the wheelbarrow load: not just the obvious and popular ones – everything I could get my hands on. I read Catch-22 because I thought it was set in an alternate universe. (Having grown up in Britain, I knew almost nothing about the Pacific Theater.) I also wrote my first science fiction then, about a naval team retrieving an alien probe from the ocean. Back to FRC for grades ten and eleven. By this time, my handwriting was so awful that I took typing lessons in evening classes so that my assignments would be legible. I had three good English Lit teachers there, two who were funny, popular and effective, and one who was serious and rather foreign, but who loved literature enough to try and teach it to unappreciative teenagers. I respected him the most. I also met my first computer.

FRC had a dedicated land-line to MUM, the Mainframe at the University of Manitoba. This connection was probably rated at several bits per minute. We used card-punch machines to write baby programs in Fortran V (Watfour.) What for indeed. Somehow, this captured my imagination, and with two of my other slide-rule toting geek friends we went far beyond the curriculum. We would sneak into the Engineering Building (Computer Science wasn’t a faculty back then) at the university and log directly onto the mainframe by plopping ourselves down at one of the IBM Selectrics adjacent to the clean room where we would search the wastepaper baskets for useable logon passwords. And then consume some poor saps processor allotment by playing Maze and Howitzer.  Now that was educational. These games, by the way, printed out one line at a time on the electric typewriter. Pong was still years away.

Grade twelve was a challenge. Dad accepted another sabbatical, at CSIRO in Sydney, Australia. The school year there is completely out of sync with Canada, and the curriculum is vastly different, too. I took Physics and Chemistry in summer school at the University of Winnipeg, packing a year of work into six grueling weeks before we went, and then took English, Math and Anthropology from Winnipeg’s School Division number one by correspondence from down under. Hated Tess of the D’Urbervilles and wrote a scathing essay about authors who torture their protagonists. I joined a surf club to make some friends and ended up, due to a misadventure involving beer and bawdy songs, joining the junior boat crew, which won medals at the national level. This was my only significant foray into organized athletics. Sydney was also where I took my first full-time job, but I’ll save that stuff for another post one day.