So, Readercon 2018.

I've just got back from spending eight hours on a train from Boston to Baltimore and am thus somewhat incoherent, but I did want to mention some of the highlights of this year's Readercon:

  • Getting to see friends again whom I only have a chance to see occasionally, catching up with them, talking about what everybody's writing and where they are in the OH GOD I CAN'T DO THIS WAIT NO I JUST DID AND IT'S AWESOME cycle
  • Meeting people face to face whose work has been so important to me for so long
  • The strange high hotel on the hill which will never not be a Stephen King setting
  • PROGRAMMING -- I didn't get to go to all the panels I wanted to, but the ones I did were fantastic
  • For the first time ever, having people come up to me and recognize me and tell me how much they liked my work -- or, in one particular instance, how much they appreciated the research I put into the medical aspects of the books
  • Spending much of Saturday learning wirework from Elise Matthesen, whose artistry I have loved and lusted after ever since I first saw her work, and now itching to get my hands on improved equipment and supplies because I want to play so much more with the techniques she taught us
  • Having the concept of larger and smaller infinities actually explained to me by none other than Seth Dickinson, who was wonderfully patient while I worked out where I wasn't following
  • Getting to meet all kinds of awesome people and talking with them about all kinds of stuff including practical necromancy, air crash investigation, the fact that screaming skulls lay eggs, and a whole lot more
  • Dinner at the Indian place with dear friends for the second year in a row
  • Firming up plans to write an actual novella starring Devin Stacy the NTSB necromancer 
  • FOUNTAIN PEN GEEKERY
  • In-depth discussion of Stephen King's The Outsider with John Wiswell and Arkady Martine
  • SPACE PANTS
  • feeling like I'm part of this world, really and truly, rather than an outsider myself
  • finding a copy of book one for sale in the bookshop/dealers room and offering to sign it
  • getting to meet Melissa Caruso even super briefly -- that was AWESOME :D
  • barcon in general

My first Readercon, three years ago, I was a very stripling and had absolutely no understanding of this strange new world; it felt like being given a glimpse into a complex and fascinating universe I very much wanted to be part of. This year, I did feel part of it, and I want to thank everyone who helped make this year so particularly special. 

And next year will be even better. 

:D :D :D 

Housekeeping (& new content!)

I've added another section to the site for posting miscellaneous items, such as lengthy essays on disaster. Want to read all about the Summerland fire in excruciating detail, complete with visual aids? You're in luck. (Keep in mind that piece was written in 2014. I've come on a bit since then.)

I have several other older essays that will be going up in this section in the near future, so stay tuned for more vintage VS :D

On research, being That Person, and knowing when to let it go

So research is for fun, and research is for writing.

I will never get over how lucky I am to have lived before the internet and seen it change the way we learn, which has allowed me to appreciate the vast and staggering wealth of information now available at our fingertips. If I want to look up the location of US Radium’s carnotite mines in Colorado or the spectrum of the Venusian sky, I can. If I want the complete transcripts of The Goon Show, or of any of the Apollo missions, I can find them. If I want to know how somebody would walk through a city I’ve never seen in my life, and describe exactly what they’d be looking at, turn by turn and landmark by landmark, I can do that. Back in the old days I’d have been limited by the catalog of the libraries to which I had access, and without academic credentials it can be really difficult to get anybody to let you in to read cool things, let alone photocopy them. Research was hard, hard work.

It is so easy these days to look things up, and that in itself opens up a new and somewhat paradoxical failure mode: not knowing when to stop. One of the things you learn as you go is how much you don’t know, and this simply keeps unfolding, realization after realization of just how much information you don’t have. It is possible to start off looking up something fairly straightforward like valve gear on a steam locomotive and find yourself surfacing hours later from an article on absorption refrigeration with a head full of thermodynamics (but not the actual information you’d begun the journey looking for). It is also entirely possible to get so bogged down in the minutiae of detail that you simply stop moving, paralyzed by the extent of how much you need to learn to get this right – and here is the part I am getting better at, as I get older: determining where the cutoff is between necessary knowledge and stuff vanishingly few people are going to care about. For any given piece of work, that cutoff is going to be somewhere slightly different: but it’s like that locomotive’s valve gear, adjusting the point in the stroke where steam enters and exhausts the cylinder to make it do the most powerful or efficient work.

Remember that you don’t need to put it all on the page. You don’t need to stuff your work with those details any more than you need to list each individual movement by a character in a scene. Exhaustive descriptions of sequential blocking are incredibly dull (there is almost never a reason to write “She then [did a thing]” unless you are giving testimony) and so are extensive catalogues of detail. It’s possible to combine this unnecessary amount of information with a profound lack of having done the actual research, which is an impressive but perhaps not entirely admirable feat.

Up to a point, people need to know you know what you’re talking about. Glaring factual errors will throw someone out of your story if they’re familiar with the subject matter; even if they’re not, you owe it to yourself and your work to try to avoid that kind of mistake. (An example: A person with severe oculocutaneous albinism is not likely to have the visual acuity required to be a sharpshooting assassin, even if you think it’d look super cool.) Less obvious mistakes, like not having checked whether or not a character would be capable of getting from point A to point B in a city within a certain length of time, also challenge your credibility. For me, the ideal situation is one in which I know a great deal more detail about what is going on in any given scene than I am necessarily putting on the page; I would be able to answer questions about it if called upon to do so, but I don’t feel it incumbent upon me to put it all in. You need to know the details; your reader may not.

And try not to be That Person. It's difficult not to be when you do know somebody’s got it wrong (and everyone else doesn’t seem to), but in the majority of cases no useful purpose will be served by pointing out how high on the Dan Brown Scale of Did Not Do the Research* the piece happens to be.

 

*TM.

One of the things I love doing when I ought to be doing something else...

...is putting together official documentation for imaginary places. This can range from stuff like business cards (Brightside & Dammerung, Remedial Psychopomps: No Job Too Improbable) to internal documents such as organizational charts. I spent a happy twenty minutes coming up with Hell's organogram, and it's color-coded and quite beautiful, I'm pleased to report. 

Today I've gone back and revisited the visual identity of a couple of organizations within Hell proper. I am a rank and self-taught amateur and only started playing around with Illustrator a few weeks ago, but the sheer scope and power of the program is astonishing: nothing that powerful has any right to be so much fun. 

I've put up both the color and b&w versions of the logo designs on a separate page, to keep things tidy. 

(Technically the Lake Avernus Spa & Resort is part of Erebus Health, along with Erebus General and the Uphir Center, but it's iconic in its own right and they demanded a logo of their very own. Faust -- the EHS medical director -- complains about the architecture, but it's a point of pride.)

If none of this makes any sense yet -- hang on, book two will be out in July, and book three will feature much more underworld shenanigans. 

New site, not quite polished yet

So I've moved my official author site from Tumblr, for a number of reasons; my personal blog is still going to be located over there to provide a regular dose of pretty rocks, fashion history, and bredlik re-blogs, but we'll be at vivianshaw dot net for Author Stuff henceforth. 

I intend to maintain a more active posting schedule on this blog than I did on tumblr, with a variety of topics, and possibly in the future develop a newsletter if there's sufficient interest to warrant it. For now, I've created specific pages with links to my books and short fiction for ease of navigation, as well as a link to my twitter account, and am continuing to refine the design.

I Frequently Hear Music in the Very Heart of Noise, by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny Magazine)

I am completely blown away by this story. It’s lush and rich and poignant and glorious in its self-referential playing-with-history; it layers time on top of itself like folded steel and in doing so produces an intensely beautiful pattern. 

It makes me think of the bit in The Shining where the Overlook is all Overlooks at once, the layers of history sliding into one another; but this is not a sinister timeslip, this inhuman place makes human monsters: it’s exactly the opposite. This living city makes human art. The whole piece is a love-song to New York, to the creature that is the city, and to the gorgeous things made by its people.

There’s a line somewhere – I think it’s in Hilary Mantel’s brilliant A Place of Greater Safety – which comes to mind; the city of Paris has taken somebody to its dark and singing heart, and that’s Pinsker’s New York – only light it up with green and gold exuberance. This story is one of the best things I’ve read in a long time.

Baltimore Fishbowl | Baltimore Writers Club #8: Four UB Alums Take Flight

I did an MFA at the University of Baltimore several years ago, and enjoyed it immensely not only because of the work I was doing but because of the people I grew to know over the years of the program. Marion Winik is a Baltimore author who teaches memoir at UB, and her class was one of my favorite courses in the entire degree -- so it was particularly nice to have Marion write about STRANGE PRACTICE in this piece.