“Contentless Dialogue;” A Writing Exercise by Daryl Gregory

“Contentless Dialogue” is a challenging and eye-opening writing exercise that writer Daryl Gregory gave us at his one-day writing workshop last Saturday. The workshop was sponsored by Locus Science Fiction Foundation (and magazine) and held at their editorial offices. It was the first one, and I hope they do more.

Some of us, and by “us” I mean “me,” rely heavily on dialogue to provide information. It’s tough to do that in a naturalistic way and the risk of dropping into clunky expository speechifying is high. Gregory pointed out that physical description, physical responses and action can deliver as much information, and create as much tension, as the spoken words in a scene with dialogue. Then we put that theory to the test with the exercise.

(By the way, if you haven’t read anything by Daryl Gregory, you are missing out. I recommend his near-future thriller Afterparty, his novella We Are All Completely Fine and his debut novel Pandemonium.)

Gregory gave us a page, about twenty lines, of bland dialogue between Character A and Character B. When I say “perfectly bland,” I mean:

  • Hi.
  • Hello.
  • How are you?
  • Okay I guess.
  • Do you know what time it is?
  • No.

And so on. Seriously. Farther down, one or two questions with meaning emerge, but they are neutral.

Then we were given seven scenarios. Each one described a relationship between A and B, and noted a recent event. These included:

  • Character A is a teenager, coming down for breakfast. Character B is A’s parent, fixing breakfast. (I think that’s pretty tense right there.)
  • Character A and Character B are room-mates, each seriously attracted to the same third party, and neither one is willing to step back for the other.
  • Character A and B are siblings. Character A has just been released from a locked ward after a suicide attempt, and Character B has just tracked them down at a bus depot.

Then we were to write a scene that would allow the readers to intuit which scenario we had chosen, using only the lines of dialogue we had been given for speech between the characters. We were prohibited from any interior monologues or direct dialogue, (“He loves me, dammit!” or “Why are you holding that butcher knife, Sammy?” were out of the question) that would reveal the scenario. We could however use physical reactions and action, and description of the setting, to reveal clues. And we could use close third person, we just couldn’t reveal the scenario from that character’s POV.

A couple of things make this work as an exercise. One is that the pool of readers (the class) have the range of choices already. This also worked because Gregory gave us half an hour to work on it. Too often writing exercises are so time-limited that it’s hard to get anything meaningful done.

This exercise is really hard, and really, really good.

It reminded me to think about physical responses, and pacing, and how glances, tones of voice, and dialogue emphasis — use of italics — can change the meaning of an otherwise neutral line.

In my next post I will include my exercise. Since I didn’t include the scenario I chose in the list above, you probably won’t be able to figure out what’s going on. Maybe we’ll see.




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Make a Scene, by Jordan E. Rosenfeld

Writer friend Terry Connolly introduced me to Jordan E. Rosenfeld at this year’s MCWC. Rosenfeld has a craft book called Make a Scene; Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time.

“Scene” as a narrative choice had been a big part of the discussion in the short fiction workshop. There is a lot of energy in a scene, much more than you find in indirect narrative. I was intrigued. I had never thought much about scenes, the same way I don’t normally think much about air, because I tend to write in scenes. I was surprised to find out that many people don’t.

Rosenfeld, who is a contributing editor to Writer’s Digest as well as a freelance writer, defines scene this way:

“Scenes are capsules in which compelling characters undertake significant actions in a vivid and memorable way that allows the events to feel as though they are happening in real time.”

I like several things about that definition. The feeling that it is happening “in real time” is what gives a scene – and the story it’s in – energy. The other important clue for me personally is in the phrase, “significant actions… in a memorable way.” I’ve gotten much better, but far too often I indulge myself in a scene where characters I like sit around sipping cocktails and ruminating on the nature of existence. That’s fine, only it might not have anything to do with the story. Unless the world is running out of tequila, sipping a cocktail is usually not a significant action. My “characters hang out” scenes can still exist, but they could (and should) be shorter.

Rosenfeld lays out the architecture of a scene; the Scene Launch, the Scene Middle, the Scene End. It seems obvious, doesn’t it, but in our workshop Lori spoke extensively about the scene that starts, not with the scene, but with a “preface” or “thesis statement.” Rosenfeld gives some tips on how to make a scene launch an actual launch.

She covers types of scenes; conflict scenes, contemplative scenes (sipping a cocktail, the Main Character…) and the so-difficult action scene.

The book is very well laid out. I read it cover-to-cover, but the Table of Contents is well set up to allow you to browse, which is probably how I would use the book in the future. Like many Writer’s Digest books, this one makes good use of examples, of bullet points, sidebars and graphs to break up the text on the page. A graph in Chapter 3 (page 23) lays out the elements of a scene with a goal of rising tension. I put a sticky-flag on it, because it’s a compact visual of what should happen in a scene and in a story.

I consider myself an experienced writer but there were plenty of good reminders for me in this book. The person who would greatly benefit from this book, though, is the emerging writer. Lots of new writers don’t have confidence in their scenes, or a dependable sense of when a scene would work better than indirect narrative (or the reverse). Make a Scene lays that out in a clear, accessible manner.

Make a Scene is a good book for any writer’s bookshelf… or even any reader who wants to delve more deeply into the structure and function of narrative. It’s a valuable resource for the emerging writer in your life. If you need to get the new writer you know a gift, consider Make a Scene.

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Kansas City; In Which We Go for Barbecue

We went for barbecue! We were in Kansas City, Missouri, so we had to. Kat and her husband Rob, Kelly and Kip, Kate and I went. Bill is a vegetarian and it just didn’t seem like it was going to be as much fun for him, so he passed on this excursion.

As it turned out, we actually went for Barbeque; specifically Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque, complete with the variant spelling.  Over the rest of the trip I had two people inform me that we had picked the “wrong” barbecue place and the only real barbecue was Gates Barbecue; thus capturing the passion and partisanship this type of meat cooking excites among the folks of Kansas City.

The Arthur Bryant restaurant we chose was in a slightly run down neighborhood. It’s an old-fashioned two-room storefront with the menu on a sign above the counter (you can see it there) and a line that after we got there snaked out the door and around the corner in to the parking lot. Apparently Bryant’s process is more sauce-based, and Gates is more spice-rub based. You couldn’t prove any of that by me.

Arthur Bryant's Menu

Arthur Bryant’s Menu

The tables have pristine white linen tablecloths and crystal vases with — ha! Just kidding! What’s one thing a BBQ place won’t have? Linen (or even cloth) table coverings, because who could afford the laundry costs? What’s one thing they will have? Lots and lots (and lots and lots) of paper napkins.

I had the pulled pork sandwich because I almost never have pork and I was curious. It really does come on white bread that is the consistency of Wonderbread. Since the bread is mostly a staging area for mounds of succulent, sweet-tangy, tender meat, and since I didn’t eat it, I didn’t really care. I ordered coleslaw as a side, and a peach iced tea because I had never had one and it sounded regional.

The meat was… well, succulent, tender, all of the above, and way too much for me to eat. This was the only time on the trip that I regretted the lack of a fridge in the room. The coleslaw was crunchy, with a creamy dressing that was also tangy. It provided a counterpoint to the pork and allowed me to rationalize that I was eating “vegetables” so it all okay. About the peach tea, well, now I can say I’ve had one.

Kate had a beer and I think that was the right choice. I’ll know for next time.

Taking pictures of the cooks and food preparers seemed to be a regular thing, and this lady was engaging and funny… and pretty expert at what she was doing.

This lady made my pulled pork sandwich.

This lady made my pulled pork sandwich.

Kat ordered the burnt ends, which don’t sound great, but will surprise you. They are the charred ends of the tri-tips. She gave us bites, and they were delicious. If/when I ever go back, I will try some of the beef-based selections. And when I go back, I will check out Gates so that I have given BBQ a fair appraisal.

The food comes in plastic baskets like you used to get at A&W, for anyone who ever went there. The joint was packed and loud. Forget having a serious conversation… but I was too busy eating to really miss that. I looked out the window and saw the street light up. A few minutes later it did again. I said, “Is there a storm?” Sure enough, it was lightning. We couldn’t hear the thunder over the crowd noise in the restaurant.

My one secret hope on the trip was that I would get to experience a Missouri thunderstorm. We went outside to a downpour of dime-sized drops of warm rain, arabesques of lightning and the slow rumble of thunder all around us. I was thrilled. And I would say I was the only one of our party who was.

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The Aladdin Hotel

The Aladdin Hotel

The Aladdin Hotel

The Aladdin Hotel was built in 1926. At the time, it was probably huge (sixteen stories, I think they said), and luxurious. It is still luxurious, but now blades and cylinders of glass and steel tower over it. It doesn’t look majestic, it looks charming.

It is right across the square from the Convention Center, and there is an underground tunnel from the lobby through the parking garage, so if there is a thunderstorm you can make it to the Convention Center (or the Little Theater, theoretically, at least) without getting your fancy duds wet.

Inside, lots of red, black and gold. The floor has marble tiles and there are those pillars. My room had black and red furnishing against a neon-lime-green wall. “What? Yikes!” you say. Well, first of all, that high-contrast thing was a big part of art deco, and secondly, since it was the wall behind the bed, I wasn’t constantly being reminded LIME GREEN! LIME GREEN! The bed was tall. This hotel offers a “pillow menu” and the bed had four pillows, a sampler, ranging from soft to very firm.

The lobby, from the Martini Loft

The lobby, from the Martini Loft

When I checked in they offered me a complimentary glass of champagne. I didn’t say no to that! My room was on the third floor, and they upgraded me to a corner room just because they could. My view due west was stunning; my view south was blocked by the parapet of the Budget Rent-a-Car roof and a large air conditioning unit, but above that, both the Crown Plaza tower and the Power and Light building were visible.



They’ve redone the place recently, probably as part of the whole downtown refurbish. So the room was not huge, but it was well laid out, and the bathroom was not “quaintly” genuine 1930s bathroom, but fully modern, done in a black and white style that looks 30ish.

The hotel has a spa somewhere on the premises and a ballroom, probably on the top floor for the view. It is a long narrow building and the stairs (I like to use stairs) were a bit strange. From at least the seventh floor down to the third, they ran down one staircase; on the third floor



that staircase ends. You must walk to the other end of the building, to a flight of stairs that look more like they were meant for kitchen and housekeeping staff, and it goes down to the second floor. To get out onto the second floor, which includes the Martini Loft, the hotel bar, you walk through the employee locker area. Then there is one more fancy flight of stairs that takes you into the lobby.

The Aladdin also has a restaurant called the Zebra Room. Guess the color scheme! Go on, guess! It has a limited menu which is the same as the room service menu, of course, but the food is well-prepared and tasty. Breakfast is part of your room cost, and you get a voucher to take with you into the restaurant. The voucher is good for up to $15 worth of breakfast (if that makes sense); if you are going to order enough food to go over that you pay the difference. I never came close. In addition to a straight breakfast menu, the hotel offers a breakfast buffet with eggs, meats, cold cereal, fruit and pastries and a customized omelet station with an assigned omeletteer (I just made that up). I usually ordered off the menu. My personal favorite was the mini-malted waffles.

My view west near sunset.

My view west near sunset.

The kitchen was slightly understaffed for the number of guests they had, I think. Food was slow, particularly in the morning. The server would usually bring out toast first if you ordered it, so that you had something to nibble on while you waited. The morning I ordered the waffles, when they came out, decorated with strawberry slices and fresh blueberries, I said, “These look wonderful!” My server said, “I made them myself.”

Lunch and dinner entrees are not California cuisine. Kansas City is meat country, although there was chicken (I can’t remember if there was a fish option). Our reviewer Bill who is a vegetarian was able to put together a dinner of starters, basically hummus and pita bread with a quesadilla. The hummus was pretty good. The last night I was there I had the hamburger sliders in my room and they were good.

The appointments of the Martini Loft, far better than the drinks.

The appointments of the Martini Loft, far better than the drinks.

There were a few limitations. The building is old; even though the bathroom had been modernized and redesigned, I do not think they re-plumbed the entire building. I can’t imagine the cost of that. At the height of the Con, when they place was full, I noticed the toilet flushing a lot more slowly. It did flush, but it was a noticeable slow down. Fortunately, this part of Missouri was not in a water crisis and has a great aquifer, so I didn’t feel bad about multiple flushes. And by Sunday, my last night there, the problem had disappeared.

The rooms do not come with mini-fridges, but if you request it they will bring one in for you.

The biggest lost opportunity I saw for the Aladdin, though, was its bar, the Martini Loft. The place really is a loft, a mezzanine on the second floor looking down onto the beautiful art deco lobby. The views from the tables near the windows are nice; there are comfy couches and overstuffed chairs along one wall. The bartender who was working both nights I tried out the bar was untrained and not inspired. I asked for a sidecar and he asked what was in it. When I gave him the ingredients he improvised and has the distinction of giving me the first bad sidecar I’ve had. I thought maybe he just didn’t know that drink, which would still be odd, but would be an explanation. Kat asked for a Cape Cod, which is vodka and cranberry juice with a lime slice, and it came with no lime. She said it was all right, but I suspect the proportions weren’t quite right. This is sad because it’s a glamorous little bar.

This is a working mailbox, original to the building, and I mailed my friend Linda a letter from it.

This is a working mailbox, original to the building, and I mailed my friend Linda a letter from it.

Other nights we went over to the big fancy Marriott which has a huge bar that pours out into the lobby, with a water feature and alcoves; lovely but modern… and they had a squad of bartenders who knew their drinks. The difference was immediately noticeable. I think the Aladdin is missing a bet; they’ve got an historical building, why not specialize in glamorous cocktails? Or at least invent a signature drink. “The Aladdin?” What could be in it?

Last, and best, was the staff. From the housekeeper to the concierge to, well, everyone, everyone was friendly, cheerful, knew what they were doing, and helpful.

At least twenty-five percent of the fun of WorldCon was seeing parts of Kansas City, and half of that was this vintage hotel. Holiday Inn did a good job with this one.

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From WorldCon: SFF As Protest Literature

One of my favorite panels at MidAmeriCon II (WorldCon) was “SF as Protest Literature.” It had a great set of panelists: Jo Walton, who wrote Among Others and the SMALL CHANGE series in alternate-history Britain, where Hitler triumphs and England is a den of fascism; Bradford Lyau, a bookstore owner and scholar whose non-fiction book The Anticipation Novels looks at the influence of French science fiction; Alex Jablokow, author of the novel Brain Thief and a number of short stories that have appeared in Asimov’s; Ann Leckie, author of the IMPERIAL RADCH series, and Mark Oshiro, who blogs as Mark Reads and Mark Watches, and who said in his introduction that he reviews with a social justice slant.

The topic appealed to the nostalgia-lover in me because it made me think of the 1960s and 70s, when protest literature and music were a big part of my life, but it ended up being much more than that. Whenever I hear Jo Walton speak, I come away with at least three more books on my TBR list and this panel was no different.

What is protest literature? Is it a stance, a style? Something else?

Oshiro commented that he has just finished a novel that will be out sometime in 2017. He said he realized his “whole opening scene was a protest.” Reading SF, he had trouble finding himself – brown, gay – in the work.

Bradford’s view is longer, and he noted that early HG Wells works, like When the Sleeper Wakes, which critiqued capitalism, were works of protest. I liked Bradford’s long perspective; it gave a good context to this topic.

Leckie pointed out that almost by definition, since SFF creates other worlds, it is giving a critique of this one. “Even if you don’t mean to give a social critique, you almost can’t help it,” she said. She also pointed out that there are some people who choose to read her Imperial Radch series as a “naked political polemic,” when she did not intend it that way; you can’t control how readers will interpret your work.

Walton mentioned that inherently, SFF says, “The present doesn’t have to be like this.” She believes that the social critique has to be in service to the story, and that it works best when the polemic happens in the reader’s mind, rather than on the page.

Are there currently right-wing writers engaging in SF protest literature?

Jablokow mentioned The Turner Diaries, published in 1978 by white separatist William Luther Pierce under the pseudonym Andrew MacDonald. Walton felt that G.K. Chesterton was basically a protest writer in many ways; she pointed out that John C. Wright is a current example of someone writing protest literature from the right.

How do you write it? Are you worried about it becoming dated or silly?

Jablokow talked about the “technique” of protest literature. Create, he said, a “steel man” adversary instead of a “straw man.” In other words, make your protagonist face the strongest argument for the thing you are protesting, not the weakest and silliest; then play that out. Leckie followed up, saying “Very often we don’t see the mismatch between the narrative we’ve been told, and what is really in the world.”

Walton named two books she felt really did change the world: 1984 by George Orwell, and The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin.

Walton also said that people comment that she puts many gay characters in her work. She says that this is partly because she knows a lot of gay people. Even in creating a different world, she is drawing on what she knows and experiences. She isn’t “making a point,” she is drawing on her own social circle.

Someone from the audience asked about a protest work becoming dated and Walton nodded vigorously. The world does change, she said. “You do the best you can and if the world gets better you’ll be embarrassed.” That was a good outcome, as other panelists pointed out.

Lyau mentioned another book he thought gave critique of society: The Man Who Awoke by Laurence Manning. It was serialized in 1933. Manning uses the trope of cryogenic suspension to have his main character travel forward in time in 5,000 year leaps; each period is the “age of” something. From sexual freedom to “green” politics and recycling, to supercomputers that guide humanity, the book is also predictive. Lyau pointed out that Laurence was using a “if this goes on… “ approach.

Oshiro said the challenge is to balance your protest points with the need to make a good story people want to read, echoing Walton. “Fiction has a great power to teach without the reader knowing they’re being taught.” I wish protest writer John C. Wright had been in the audience to hear that advice.

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Kansas City, Mo

Nearly half a million people live in Kansas City, Missouri. The city hugs a curve of the Missouri River, and it’s close to the Kansas border, which makes things confusing for a tourist like me.

Kansas City Center

Kansas City Center

Riding in a shuttle from the Kansas City Airport, sometimes abbreviated as KCI for Kansas City International, or MCI, for… I don’t know, really, I watched the city grow in the view through the windshield. We went past railroad tracks with long freight trains, the cars gleaming with multi-colored graffiti. We went over the river and past some old brick buildings, some in use and some that looked abandoned. The shuttle took a freeway exit and drove through city streets. I was going to write “wound through city streets” because it sounded picturesque but remembering back, while there were a lot of right-angle turns, there was very little winding. Kansas City is not a city of curves.

Power and Light Building

Power and Light Building

And then we were in a square surrounded by spools, needles and boxes of glass. Between them, like decorated cakes, were much shorter masonry buildings festooned with trim; designs, mythical creatures, geometric (gasp! Perhaps… Masonic?) symbols, friezes, ginger-breading. There was a large plaza (there is a parking garage underneath it) with a fountain, a string of jets, water rippling down a set of steps. On one side rises the large Bartle Hall Convention Center. Diagonally across it, looking transplanted (maybe) from Las Vegas, is a huge block of a Marriott Hotel, whose face dances with colored lights at night. There is a skybridge to another Marriott, on Wyandotte Street. It’s actually the same Marriott. The Marriott Annex, perhaps? Actually, the less-flashy Marriott is the former Muehlebach Hotel, with a door onto Baltimore Street. It’s an older hotel with a storied history, known for a press conference given there in September, 1964, by a new British music group called the Beatles.

Power and Light Building Detail

Power and Light Building Detail

And on Wyandotte Street, next to the less-flashy Annex Marriott/Muehlebach Hotel is a sixteen-story spire of a building, the Holiday Inn Aladdin Hotel. My hotel. More about it, with photos, in a subsequent post.

Book spines make up the walls of the Main Library parking garage.

Book spines make up the walls of the Main Library parking garage.

The Convention Center is technically in the Library District of Kansas City (which I love) and the library, on 10th street, is both large and whimsical. The center, and the Aladdin, is close to a newish nightclub district called the Power and Light District, with the old Power and Light Building, with its sparkling prism centerpiece, as an icon. The Power and Light District has coffee shops, restaurants, pubs, and a Whole-Foods-like grocery store (locally owned) called Cosentino’s. There is a club called Kill the Devil, which specializes in “cane spirits.” Yes, it’s a rum bar. I don’t think I’ve seen that before. The district is mostly older architecture, and it is beautiful.

Reflection of the gold leaf spire of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception

Reflection of the gold leaf spire of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception

Within walking distance of the Convention Center (which boasts 800,000 square feet) there are at least three theaters, the library, numerous nightclubs and music venues, the Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, and an Episcopalian Cathedral. Downtown is clean, with wide sidewalks and crosswalks that talk to you. “Wait!” they cry when you first press the button. Then, “Walk sign is on across… 13th Street.” It’s not that they talk, that’s nothing new. It’s that every one of them works.

Downtown looks very gentrified. Here are some things I didn’t see during the day while I was walking around in between panels and WorldCon events; homeless people, trash, traffic. Here are some things I did see;  the Missouri Jazz Bicycle run; people making right turns across crosswalks and ignoring pedestrians in those crosswalks; many people playing Pokemon.

If you venture out of the Power and Light District you start to see a different city. More about that in a subsequent post.

Convention Center Fountain

Convention Center Fountain

Art Deco Building

Art Deco Building

Detail from Art Deco Building

Detail from Art Deco Building

Mural on Library Wall

Mural on Library Wall

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WorldCon: The Dave Truesdale Thing

On Friday, August 19, the MidAmeriCon II staff expelled Dave Truesdale from WorldCon for violating the Con’s Code of Conduct.

Truesdale is the editor of Tangent Online, and his publication was nominated for a Hugo in the best Fanzine category this year. (File 770 won this category.) Truesdale was moderating, or supposed to be moderating, a panel called “The State of Short Fiction.”

The panelists introduced themselves, and Truesdale wanted to open with a statement. His statement ran about ten minutes; he was worried, he said, about the state of short fiction because there were so many “special snowflakes” who had graduated from University of Perpetual Indignation (I may not have that right, but there’s audio) and were so sensitive that they were outraged by everything. He pulled out a handful of cheap necklaces of round beads and said that sometimes, when you are offended, there is nothing else to do but clutch your pearls, and then you would feel better. He was going to put the necklaces on the table, so that if people felt offended during the panel they could have some pearls to clutch and then they would feel better.

He wasn’t even halfway done, because then he started reading a long statement that was a quote from David Hartwell, he said, or maybe somebody who spoke to David Hartwell once, and it went on for quite a while, until fellow panelist Sheila Williams from Asimov’s Magazine challenged him. As she continued to make points he tried to cut her off not once but twice. The audience got unruly, people walked out, and the panel never really did discuss the state of short fiction.

I wasn’t there. I talked to someone who was, though, a writing friend named Allison. Allison specializes in short fiction. I asked her how she felt about the panel. “It got totally derailed,” she said, “and I never did get to hear about the markets, or the state of short fiction.”

(By the way, I follow Allison on Twitter, and she is both thoughtful and hilarious. Find her @AMulderWrites.)

Someone complained to the Con Committee, which I have just learned is abbreviated by the cognoscenti (which I am attempting to impersonate) as Con Com, and they investigated. The upshot was that they expelled Truesdale from the rest of the convention.

I assume that there is more to this story than a bad moderator hijacking a panel, or recording the panel without telling his fellow panelists (or the audience) that he was doing so. Because of privacy rules, we will never know. Certainly he isn’t the first person to be a bad moderator on a panel, but, as someone who went to WorldCon largely to attend panels, I do want to talk about that for a bit, because that’s what makes me mad.

WorldCon registration is not cheap. When you factor in travel and lodging, we are now talking “expensive.” There are resources for Con memberships, although almost no one is offering fellowships for four nights lodging at a major hotel. Many people go specifically to hear the panels, so there’s a desire to get, basically, your money’s worth.

Then there’s the role of a moderator. The moderator’s job is to help the other panelists address the panel’s subject; to make sure everyone gets to speak, to help them sound brilliant and insightful, to keep the panel on time and make sure the audience’s needs are met. In fact, I probably have those in the wrong order. The moderator’s job is to make sure the audience’s needs are met.

Truesdale put his desire to engage in some performance art ahead of the needs of the audience or his panelists, and that is not cool.

What he did may have been funny. I have been enjoying the phrase “pearl-clutching” for a while now (because it’s everywhere) and the idea of bringing fake-pearl necklaces for people to clutch is a cute visual. There’s a “however” coming; however, when you have planned enough in advance to have purchased props, you have made a conscious decision to subordinate the panel topic and the audience needs to your desire to perform.

If Truesdale were a tie-dyed-in-the-wool liberal, haranguing about the corporatization of the Democratic Party while tossing “Feel the Bern” bumper stickers into the audience, it would have been just as selfish and just as bad.

I went to at least one panel where the panelists didn’t seem prepared and the moderator was uninterested in the topic. I have been on a panel, at a different convention, where our moderator seemed to zone out for about twenty seconds, leaving dead air. (In fact, he was on the Con committee and also moving houses, and he was genuinely exhausted.) I completely understood why he spaced on us. It still wasn’t okay.

Moderation is not about content, it is all about process, and your content may not even get mentioned, if the panel is opinionated enough or the Q&A lively enough.

Moderation is a skill, it requires discipline, and no one is forcing you to do it, so if you feel so strongly about the topic that you can’t put your opinion second, you should not agree to moderate that panel. If Truesdale wanted to fling around beads and speechify, he should not have agreed to moderate.  Then he could have become the real moderator’s problem and not the audience’s. (My sympathies to whoever that hypothetical moderator would have been.)

I have the feeling, though, that if Dave Truesdale had been on the “What’s New in the Solar System” panel, he would have found a way to pull out his handful of clutch-pearls.

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Goin’ to Kansas City

Wednesday morning:

I wave to this woman. She says, “How ya doing?”

“Great!” I say.

“You here visiting?”

I say, “What gave it away; my camera or the big goofy grin?”

“A little of both,”she says.

Reader on Kansas City Library Stairs

This is my hotel. Seriously. It’s a 1930s historic building.

Aladdin Hotel Lobby

Aladdin Hotel Lobby

And here’s my room. From the front room (they upgraded me to a corner room, just ’cause they could) I look straight across at the courtyard leading to the convention center where WorldCon 2016, also known as MidAmeriCon II is being held.

From the side window I see a gigantic air conditioning unit, lots of blackbirds, and the Crown Plaza hotel.

Hotel room black white and redBathroom with pedestal sink

Welcome to MidAmeriCon.


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Airport Dreams

I get up to the TSA security guy and hold out my boarding pass. He’s African American, probably in his late forties, dignified, deadpan and a little blase. He studies my pass. “You are in the wrong line,” he says.

I feel my shoulders slump.

“Step through that door right here,” he says, pointing. There’s a swinging half-door like a bar door, directly in front of me. I push it open and step through into an area where there is one TSA worker and no other people. I forgot that I had TSA pre-check.

He looks at me, still expressionless, that flares his fingers like modified jazz-hands. “Ta-daaa!” he says.


That wasn’t a dream. It really happened.


I never think, when I’m standing under a flat gray ceiling of clouds, that above them might be hovering elaborate constructions, like castles, cauliflowers, or exploded popcorn kernels, drifting thought the sky.



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MCWC 2016

Usually I blog almost immediately about the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference, and sometimes I break down the posts by day. I didn’t do that this year. For one thing, I attended two of the afternoon sessions this year, something I can truly say I’ve never done before, and that cut into that go-back-to-the-hotel-and-blog time.

Secondly, the feedback I got on the short story I submitted was so valuable that as soon as I got back I plunged into a revision, a revision that I think adds another layer to the story and makes it stronger, and then I had an idea for another story and I have about half of rough draft written of that. This doesn’t leave time for blogs.

This is also why I love conferences.

As I’ve said many times before, I love this conference, and over and above great workshop-mates and excellent leaders, part of my love comes from the location, which is beautiful and changeable, filled with eccentric small-town characters, with a long drive to and from, leaving lots of time for mulling and churning, those brain activities that seem to help with creativity more than analyzing, word-counting, outlining and hyperlinking do, at least for me.

Some highlights, though, in no particular order:

1. The Short Story workshop, and particularly Lori Ostlund, the leader. Lori has a brilliant grasp of the short story, not just because she’s smart (she is) but also clearly because she has worked on it, reading thoughtfully and widely and deeply. She is also an expert at making a workshop setting a safe place where the work is respected. That isn’t always the case. Plus, she makes all that look easy. And, as I found out when I started reading her story collection The Bigness of the World, she is a brilliant writer.

2. The workshop participants. Great writers, great folks.

3. Chatty ravens.

4. Grant Faulkner and the afternoon session on flash fiction. Just pure fun! Well, no, not pure fun… some learning in there too.

5. Dinner with my friend Terry at the Point Noyo Restaurant, with the host with the wide smile and the waxed Yosemite Sam mustache.

6. The Botanical Garden.

7. The river otters!

8. Reconnecting with Doug Fortier and Teri Crane.

9. Reyna Grande for her entertaining presentation; and for her and her friendly husband, who sat at our table at the closing banquet.

10. Winning a raffle prize! A tote bag filled with poetry books and a book-light.

11. The seal skeleton that hangs in the window of Fort Bragg’s historical Town Hall, as if it’s swimming through the dark air and out onto the street.

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