Convention Report – May & June

It’s solstice time! Well, just past, anyway. And time for a check-in on the three conventions I’ve attended so far this year.
The SFWA Nebula Awards Conference kicked off my season over May 18th – 21st. Pittsburgh hosted the event this year, and the location was by and large terrific. The event space itself was just the right size – not too crowded, but not so spread out that you couldn’t easily get to things or feel like you were missing out because things were happening elsewhere. The con suite was a bit tight, and there was an issue Saturday night with the post-award party – we were loud, and there were non-SFWA people on the floor, so the party had to relocate downstairs. But otherwise, the facility worked really well for the size of the event.
I got a lot out of the programming too, and so did Michelle, who came along with me. Mary Robinette Kowal and her programming team have worked very hard to make this a convention both for pros and “early career” writers, folks like myself or just a bit further down the path, i.e. those with a few sales under their belts. But the established folks were warm and welcoming to those of us working to break in, sharing their knowledge and experience through the formal sessions as well as in pick-up conversation throughout the weekend. My VP 20 pals Karen Osborne, Jo Miles, and Jennifer “Macey” Mace had similar experiences. All of us met a number of people at all levels of the field, and I think we all walked away with some new friends and contacts.
One of the highlights was meeting astronaut Dr. Kjell (pronounced “chell”) Lindgren, the toastmaster and a life-long fan of science fiction. Dr. Lindgren also very graciously took about 45 minutes on Saturday to chat with Karen and myself about medical issues in zero-gravity and vacuum, things very relevant to our works. Five-year-old John was bouncing up and down, but 52-year-old John managed to comport himself more-or-less like an adult during our conversation.
The following weekend brought Balticon 51, my local con. Now, despite being a lifelong fan of science fiction & fantasy, last year was the first time I’d attended Balticon for more than a single day. Balticon 50 in 2016 experienced a number of issues, organizationally and logistically, but those were mostly ironed out this year.
I split my time at Balticon between volunteering with the science track, attending panels, socializing, and being on panels myself. I wound up sitting on five panels: one on worldbuilding, two on cyber & hacking (one science track, one on hacking & cyber ops in genre), one on infodumps which I moderated, and one on “writing after the workshop”. I’m not sure I was at my best on the first panel, but found my groove after that, and one of the panelists on the infodump panel complimented my moderation.
Assisting the science track team turned out to be a great experience. Balticon has a very strong and varied science track, which isn’t surprising given the sheer number of research-related institutions in the region. My volunteer gig was running the camera while recording the sessions, which meant I got exposed to a lot of cool science – everything from the science of touch to dinobirds.
Balticon also featured a lot of hanging out with friends, both people I already knew and others I met at the convention.
My most recent con trip was the one I’d been most looking forward to: 4th Street Fantasy in Minneapolis. Where the Nebulas is a professional conference, and Balticon is very much an old-school SF/F con, 4th Street is something of it’s own beast. Programming is a single track of panels, ten in all over the weekend, and the topics are at a pretty high level, intellectually-speaking. But what I was most looking forward to was the opportunity to connect up with my Viable Paradise 20 tribe; fully fifteen out of the twenty-four of us attended.
Man, 4th Street was a blast. The Cheese Weasel Reunion was everything I’d hoped for, and I got to spend some time with a couple folks I didn’t get as much time with on the Island as I’d have liked. We got to have a little send off for our classmate Karen Osborne, who’s headed to the Clarion writing workshop later this week. And, of course, about half the VP instructors were there as well.
I was a little nervous going into Saturday as Scott Lynch, who runs the programming for 4th Street, had approached me a week before about being on a panel titled “Dreaming Under Darkening Skies: Writing and Living During the Cold War,”, and I’d accepted. Knowing I’d not only lived through the last half of the Cold War, but that I’d served in the US Army during the Reagan years, Scott thought I’d have an interesting perspective to offer. Fortunately, my co-panelists Elizabeth Bear, Beth Meacham, and Marissa Lingen were awesome and it was easy to fall into dialogue with them, despite it being the first panel of the morning. I quickly got over my jitters and folks seemed to really get something out it.
(Let me just say that I’d pay money to listen to Stella Evans, John Chu, Arkady Martine and Max Gladstone talk about whatever they wanted to for hours. Their Sunday panel on “idea commerce” was by itself worth the trip to Minneapolis.)
I got to meet still more awesome people at 4th Street, fans and writers alike, and am
already making plans to go back.
“But John,” some of you are likely saying, “Wasn’t there some sort of controversy at 4th Street?” Yes, there was, and I don’t mean to diminish the impact it had on good friends of mine. But that warrants its own post.
One convention left for the summer for me: ReaderCon in July. Meanwhile, back to that story about paragliding telepathic gene-tweaked smart dogs.
And one final note: I’m participating in the Clarion Workshop Write-a-Thon in honor of my friend Karen Osborne, who is attending this year. My goal is to write 25,000 words between June 25th and August 5th. You can sponsor me (either a one-time donation, or a per-word pledge) here.

Balticon!

I need to do a write-up of the SFWA Nebulas weekend at some point, but there’s only been a short break before Balticon 51 starts tomorrow (Friday, May 26th). I’m on four panels:

Friday, 7 PM: How We Imagine the Future and What it Says About Us (panelist)

Sunday, 9 AM: Hacking and Cybersecurity: Phishing, Botnets, and Data Breaches, OH MY!  (Science track, moderator)

Sunday, 10 AM: Hacking and Cyber Ops in Science Fiction (panelist)

Sunday, 9 PM: Handling the Unavoidable Info-dump (moderator)

Balticon is my home convention, though I’ve only been to it once before – which I’m coming to realize is my loss. Special guests this year include my Viable Paradise instructor Steven Brust and S.M. Stirling. It promises to be another great convention. Hope to see you there!

Rolling Into May

Things have been busy in House Appel. On the writing front, I wrapped up the fifth draft of The Frozen Past and as soon as I can wrangle the synopsis into shape, I’ll start querying it. Between the Writing the Other class I’ve been taking online and doing some beta reading, the writer brain has been pretty engaged. In odd moments I’ve begun addressing the changes to the outline of the next book, which lacks a working title. (I’m calling it “Exile Cluster Book 2” for now.) The changes are necessary because it finally became clear that a character I created on-the-fly while drafting some early scenes needed to become a viewpoint character, and ultimately, she’s displacing one of the two existing viewpoint characters. This means ECB2’s protagonists are a couple of 60+ women kicking ass on a space station. I hope I can pull this off.

April also brought a milestone in my bariatric post-op journey: I’ve dropped a full 100 pounds since surgery, about 140 since first starting the process. This brings me to 260 pounds or so. There’s a ways to go and a lot of work to make it down to 200, but it should be possible. And it’s only possible with the great support I get from Michelle, Alexa, Ben, and my medical team at Hopkins Bayview.

Where swords are concerned – well, I’ve plateaued for a bit, while Ben has advanced pretty rapidly. He’s reached a point at which our senior instructor no longer fights him from nach, or “after” – Brian will not take the vor against Ben, meaning he won’t wait passively for Ben to attack, but will seek to launch first attacks against him. I’m definitely not at that level yet (and have the bruises to prove it!) but improvement is coming, if slowly.

Looking towards the summer, this year marks my first as a science fiction con-goer, and I’m doing so as an “early career” writer. The last two weekends of May will be taken up with first the Nebula Award Conference in Pittsburgh, followed by Balticon. And I got some big news on the Balticon front over the weekend: not only will I be heading up a science track panel on real-world hacking and cybersecurity, but I’ll be on four additional panels over the weekend. At the moment, I’m set to moderate one of those. More details on that closer to the con.

June takes me to Minneapolis and the Fourth Street Fantasy convention, and July sees a combo of 25th-anniversary trip for Michelle and I to Cape Cod, followed by Readercon in Boston. We may pop out to visit some folks in western Mass after Readercon.

Somewhere in there, work will begin on the first draft of the next book. I’m also noodling around with a shorter piece featuring a minor character from The Frozen Past that everyone loves and wants to see more of. And in odd moments, I’m playing with ideas for a far-future, is-it-science-fantasy-or-super-science-as-magic story, book length.

Busy looks to be the watchword for the summer. Stay tuned.

What I’m Loving This Month: March 2017

As we roll into March, I’m going to try to keep this space updated a little more frequently. As part of that effort, I’m going to try a once-a-month or so wrap up of things I’ve run into and enjoyed.
What I’m listening to:
Audiobooks: I’m enjoying the hell out of Becky Chambers’ “A Closed and Common Orbit”, the follow-up to her terrific “A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet”. Chambers’ sharp writing is well-portrayed by Rachel Dulude, the gifted narrator of both works. While events of tremendous personal significance for the characters occur in both books, these lean more towards slice-of-life tales, with strong character development. This isn’t the sort of thing I normally read, but that’s part of what makes it great as far as I’m concerned! Not every story needs to see the world being saved.
Chambers has constructed a lovely space-opera universe here that feels real without taking itself too seriously. Her characters are a delight, even the occasional asshole. These are also stories about a generally hopeful future, featuring a wide degree of freedom for most of the residents, both human and alien. That is certainly something many of us can use these days.
Music: “Splendor & Misery” comes from Clipping, an experimental hip-hop/rap group featuring, among others, Daveed Diggs of “Hamilton” fame. It also happens to be a science fiction story told through the music, rap, and spoken word of the album. There is a movement growing to nominate the work for a Hugo Award in the “Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form” category. Having listened to it twice now, I’ll be doing that.
Earworm special: Canadian folk singer James Keelaghan’s “Cold Missouri Waters”, a song about the smoke jumpers who perished in the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire in Montana. I discovered this via the Cry Cry Cry cover on Radio Paradise a few months ago, but for some reason it wormed it’s way into my brain last week and wouldn’t let go for days.
What I’m watching:
My television time has been scaled way, way back, but I make time each week to watch “The Expanse” on SyFy as it airs. I’m a big fan of the books and the series does a great job of capturing them. (No doubt the involvement of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, the two writers who pen the books collaboratively as James S. A. Corey, helps.) The casting is pitch perfect in nearly every role, from the series leads to the secondary characters to the bit parts. Top-notch production values, too. I’ve watched season 1 three times and parts of season 2 twice. This is not just great science fiction on television, it’s great television.
I’m also watching “The Magicians”, SyFy’s adaptation of Lev Grossman’s best-selling novels. Unlike the Expanse, this show has departed in some significant ways from its source material, but I believe it’s remained faithful to the spirit of the books. I’ll admit part of my being OK with this is that we get to see a lot more of some characters who don’t last long in the books.
What I’m reading:
Reading time lately has most often been “beta reading” works by some of my fellow up-and-coming writers, but I recently managed to finish Chuck Wendig’s “Invasive”. This is a near-future SF book about genetically modified ants and, well, some dastardly shenanigans. Wendig writes in thriller mode, with tight pacing and occasionally brutal events in his narrative. I didn’t have as much fun with this one as with his hacker story “Zeroes”, which is set in the same continuity, but it’s still a spiffy read.
Having finished that book and wanting something a bit lighter to read, I picked up Matt Wallace’s “Sin du Jour: The First Course.” This is an omnibus of the first three novellas in Wallace’s “Sin du Jour” series about a catering company that services events for demons. Really. It’s quite funny so far, and just the kind of mental palate-cleanser I was looking for.
What I’m playing:
Well, not much. My tabletop gaming is pretty much on hiatus until I get this next revision on “The Frozen Past” done and off to it’s next readers. Ditto for my computer gaming. I have dabbled a little with Fractured Space, a space-based MOBA (Massive Online Battle Arena) game. I’m not normally a MOBA guy, World of Tanks excepted, but have found Fractured Space quite fun. The problem is the relatively small player base; there’s a fair bit of waiting time between matches. I tend to use these games as mental cool-downs in the time between breaking off writing for the evening and bedtime, and the downtime while waiting for the game to find players to begin a match has stretched beyond my patience point for the last few days.
I’ll try to do this again on in the second week of April.

Wait, it’s the end of February?

That means I’m way past due for a check-in about various goings-on. For this post, I’ll avoid the toxic spill fire much of the world has become.
Ben and I have been studying HEMA, Historic European Martial Arts – in our case, medieval German longsword – since August. We’ve now graduated from the “Beginners” group at our club, the Mid-Atlantic Society for Historical Swordsmanship (MASHS), and train with our much more experienced fellow practitioners. It’s fair to say we’re reaching the phase in which we don’t suck all the time, though we’re still pretty rank newbies.
This has turned out to be incredibly fun for both of us, and not just because Ben gets to hit me in the head with a sword once a week. (We wear pretty substantial safety gear when we train: chest protectors, canvas tunics, fencing masks with back-of-the-head-covers, forearm protection, and heavy plastic-shell gloves.) It’s been a long time since I’ve attempted any martial arts training. 30 years, in fact! But there’s something incredible about learning to fight with swords. Our latest investment is a pair of Regenyei steel feders, or training swords. These are what we primarily train with now that we’ve moved into “beginning intermediate” status. I’ve also built a pell, a training target we can use at home – outside, anyway, as swinging a 4-foot sword inside the house isn’t practical.
On the writing front, I plowed through the third revision of The Frozen Past in November and December. This was a major revision involving a significant restructuring of the novel. The word count ultimately dropped by about 4k words, but due to the amount I cut, I wound up writing tens of thousands of new words. Some of these were entirely new scenes; others came from major re-writing of existing scenes. This draft was critiqued by the wonderful members of our newly-formed writing group, the “Maryland Space Opera Collective”, or MD-SPOC. One of my Viable Paradise classmates also read and critiqued it for me. I’m now into heavy revision mode, which looks a lot like drafting mode. This means I pretty much spend weekday evenings, much of Saturday, and part of Sunday either downstairs on my desktop or somewhere else, typically a Panera, hunched over a keyboard.
The third draft of The Frozen Past fixed the majority of the big issues, but there’s still a rather thorny set of problems with two characters in particular. Since these are my protagonist/PoV character, and one of his primary antagonists, that’s kind of a big deal. Getting enough information about the antagonist’s motivations and history into the book is proving tricky, and I’ve resorted to gender-flipping this character as a brain hack to help. This seems to be working; it’s letting me approach this person as if they were an entirely new character. This seems to be the biggest single problem remaining in the book.
Once I’m done fixing up the antagonist, my protagonist is next up for adjustment. One issue’s already been fixed in the text, though I need to touch up some later references to it. The other problem is that he seems not suspicious enough for some readers. I’m fixing that a couple of ways. One’s a little more indirect: certain events, Bad Things, actively look malicious right now. They’re going to be throttled back in their depiction so they appear less so – more accidental or coincidental. That should mean I don’t have to tweak the actual character as much.
While I have a punch list of other tweaks, nothing else seems to require as much careful handling as these two items. Time will tell if I’ve got that right! I’m basically a month behind where I wanted to be with this for various reasons, but with if I can put the work in, I think I can have my shoppable draft ready sometime in March.
After taking stock of various factors, Michelle and I decided to put aside our tentative plans to visit Helsinki and London this summer. This trip was intended to combine attending WorldCon 75 (Helsinki) and a celebration of our 25th anniversary. Instead, I’m going to be attending four science fiction conventions this year, with Michelle coming to two of them. May brings the Nebula Award weekend & conference in Pittsburgh, along with Balticon over Memorial Day weekend. In June I’m headed to Fourth Street Fantasy in Minneapolis, which is shaping up to be a reunion of sorts for Viable Paradise 20 folks. In July, Michelle and I will head to New England to celebrate our anniversary and cap that with attendance at ReaderCon in the Boston area.
There’s been a big uptick in political activism in the Appel household. I may say more about this later, but suffice to say that by the end of this week, every member of the household will have participated in at least one protest. At least three of us have our congressional reps on speed-dial, and we’ve lately added the Governor and other state & county officials to the list. We’re not neglecting snail-mail either.
Folks who know me well have likely noticed one big absence: gaming. I have put all the tabletop games I was running on hiatus – Traveller back before my surgery, with Honor + Intrigue and The One Ring going dark in November. While I’m going to be joining a weekly short-term exploratory game at Games & Stuff in March, it’s likely going to be a little while before I’m going to have the brain cycles to actually run another game. I’ve also pulled back from all the gaming conventions I’d been attending, though I’m going to continue to support the Charm City Game Day and hopefully TridentCon. I’ll need to get back into some kind of tabletop game… but won’t be thinking about that until after this revision is done.
I’ll be trying to post things more regularly here. Coming up later this week will be a quick review of some of my recent reading. Until then, be excellent to each other, and #resist.

I Begin As I Mean to Go On

Permit me to offer some perspective I’ve learned over the last few years. I’ve made a conscious effort to meet, talk to, and follow the writings of people of color (especially women of color), LGBT+ folks, and people of different heritages, faiths, and traditions. And this discomfort you’re expressing?

This is their daily life under the status quo. They have to live in a environment in which what’s promoted as normalcy does not account for them.

Telling people in a public forum to stop talking about the issues that concern them? That, in itself, is a political act.

This does not mean there’s a place for vitriol. Nor should one spout falsehoods.

But if there’s anger? It doesn’t come from a vacuum. It often comes from pain. It comes from being smacked around, or watching those you care about being smacked around, and finally reaching the point where one says “That’s enough.”

Unfirend or unfollow me if you feel you need to. But don’t tell me, or others, to be silent.

How to Thank Me For My Service

A friend of my, a female of color, was harassed yesterday by a white man who told her to go back to where she came from. She’s from Louisiana.

The friend of a friend committed suicide Wednesday, because, in part, of fear of losing their healthcare, since dismantling the ACA is very high on the GOP’s agenda.

The KKK is having open celebrations of Trump’s victory, which they see as validating their despicable views.

Trump’s already cutting off the press, which our nation’s founders knew was our first line of defense against tyranny. That’s why it’s in the First Amendment.

Attacks and harassment of non-whites, females, and non-Christians seem to be escalating. We don’t seem to have good data yet, but the US seems to be following the pattern of increased hate crimes seen in Britain following Brexit.

This is not how this veteran expected to spend today.

If you want to thank this vet for his service, don’t give me words. Give me action.

If you see harassment, defend the harassed.

Believe people when they tell you they’re scared. Consider they are subject to things you may be blind to. Give them aid and comfort and safety.

Give money to organizations which will fight against the coming attempts to roll-back of the last 50+ years of progress in civil rights.

Find candidates for public office who will stand for justice. Support them. VOTE.

Don’t let the bastards normalize bigotry and hatred in our society.

I took the oath to uphold and defend the Constitution six times. I did not do so to let my nation fall into autocracy.

Thank me by standing up, speaking up, and taking action.