Just got home yesterday from a weekend at Calgary attending this year’s edition of When Words Collide, which describes itself (accurately) as “a festival for readers, writers, artists and publishers of commercial and literary fiction, including genre, YA, children’s books, and poetry,” and wanted to post about it while it’s still fresh, in the hopes that you–yes, you–will attend it next year, if you have an interest in writing. Or, for that matter, reading.
This was my second year to attend When Words Collide, which is only in its third year. It took place at the Carriage House Inn, a Calgary hotel which I was pleased to revisit, since it was the location of the very first science fiction I attended in Calgary, ConVersion, back in the mid-1990s (and for a couple of years in a row thereafter). The hotel has been revamped since then, although apparently they need to do a little additional revamping, since one of the two elevators was out of order for the entire weekend–a bit of a problem since readings, book launches and parties were all on the 10th floor. (Yes, you COULD use the stairs, and I did several times to get to our room on the fifth floor and a couple of times all the way to the 10th, but arriving at a reading breathing heavily really only works for romance authors.) The convention space itself, however, was ideal, with several rooms opening off of a kind of lobby where one could mix and mingle between panels. And there was a stellar lineup of Guests of Honor: Patricia Briggs, fantasy and urban fantasy author; Michael Cassutt, a scriptwriter and producer for TV an film, and a science fiction author; David B. Coe/D.B. Jackson, who writes fantasy, mystery and historical fiction; Barbara Fradkin, mystery author; Shirlee Smith Matheson, who writes young adult books and biographies; and Jamis Paulson, editor of Turnstone Press and Ravenstone Press.
The organizers kept me busy this year (which is the way I like it). I was on four panels in total, beginning with, Friday afternoon, “Violence in Literature.” Five of us, myself, S. G. Wong, Dwayne Clayden, Lynda Williams, Axel Howerton, and D.B. Jackson, all agreed that violence in literature is a good thing. (I was moderating and was rather disappointed we didn’t have someone who would argue otherwise.) Of course, digging a little deeper, what we were all really saying is that violence is often a part of exciting, reader-enthralling stories: violence per se does not make a story good, but scenes of violence are often necessary to tell a good story, and in some genres are even expected. Many of the audience questions were directed at Dwayne Clayden, who’s been a paramedic for 30 years, is a former police officer, and writes hard-boiled detective stories and police procedurals, because part of the discussion focused on how realistic the depiction of violence is in stories and what writers get wrong. (He made several interesting points, including noting that there are no rules in a real-life fight and that in the real world fights rarely last more than 30 or 40 seconds simply because they’re exhausting: if someone hasn’t won the fight in that amount of time, the protagonists are pretty much reduced to panting at each other.)
My second panel, “Transhumanism,” was on Saturday afternoon. If you’re not familiar with the concept, allow the program description to explain: “Western society is rapidly moving toward a time when many dreams of the transhumanism movement, such as advanced genetic engineering, prosthetics, organ/neuro-implants, and age retardation/reversal will become reality. The question is how society – including speculative fiction writers – will respond to this evolutionary change in human beings.” Panel members included, besides myself, Matthew Johnson, Nina Munteanu and Ron Friedman. We had an interesting discussion about what these kinds of advances might mean both to individuals and society as a whole. My own novels Marseguro and Terra Insegura deal with genetically modified humans: my take in those books is that there could well be a backlash against the transhumans by the unmodified humans. Of course, you could also write a story in which the advanced humans enslave the ordinary humans; or one in which the advanced humans keep their enhancements to themselves and work quietly behind the scenes to alter society, or even a cop-buddy movie in which a non-modified cop is paired with one with the latest enhancements: the possibilities for story are as limitless as the possibilities may be for the human race going forward.
My third panel, also on Saturday, featured myself, Ronald Hore, Ron Friedman and Peter Halasz, and was entitled “The God Particle.” I confess my heart quailed a little when I first read the program description: “What if we had proof positive, one way or another, of the existence or non-existence of a supreme being? What form would such incontrovertible proof take? What would be the immediate impact of that proof on society, and what would be the long-term consequences?” That’s because I knew it had the potential to devolve into a fruitless argument between atheists and believers (not to mention agnostics, believers from different traditions, etc., etc,.). So I was rather glad to once more be moderator, establishing right up front that the panel was not about our personal beliefs but strictly about the question at hand. Although there were flashes of the kinds of argument I feared (I did have to ask two audience members to stop having a rather loud discussion between themselves while we were trying to listen to a comment from another audience member), I think I kept it on track and in hand (and a couple of people thanked me for it), and it proved to be an enjoyable panel. Toward the end I finally formalized my own take on the question. First of all, there can be no incontrovertible proof because you cannot convince everyone of anything. As for the effects on society, it seems to me that we are already running this experiment. There are plenty of people in the world who believe without question in a supreme being: for them, the proof is already incontrovertible. Conversely, there are plenty of people who believe that no supreme being exists; they are as true to their non-belief as the believers are to their beliefs. And of course there are many gradations in between those two extremes. Want to know how proof of God might alter society? Study the way those who believe live their lives. Want to know how proof of God’s non-existence might alter society? Study the lives of atheists. And then imagine a world filled only with people of either kind…and then write a story about it; because as I kept emphasizing, this question was being asked in the context of a writing conference. (How about a story about the only atheist in a world of absolute belief? Or vice-versa?)
My final panel, first thing on Sunday, was entitled “Stories for the Whole Family.” Moderated by Anna Bortolott, it featured myself, Guest of Honor Shirlee Smith Matheson, and Karen Bass. The discussion was about crossover novels: novels that appeal to both young readers and adults. As E.C. Blake, of course, I’m writing a trilogy, beginning with Masks, I really hope will have just such crossover appeal. The panel in a nutshell? Write a really good story and the readers will find it. Simple, eh?
In addition to the panels, I served as reader for two sessions of Live Action Slush, in which editors listen to a page of fiction, submitted anonymously, read aloud, and put up their hand when they hear something that would make them stop reading if said manuscript had arrived in the slush pile. This is actually more fun (if harder on the authors) if the editors are fairly mean about it. The first Live Action Slush I read for was focused on YA books, and the editors were very nice, generally letting me read all the way to the end of the page–even through a few things I would have put my hand up for if I were on the editor side of the panel. What made that session particularly fun was that among the anonymously entered samples was a page from my 12-year-old daughter, Alice, which (if I do say so myself) was on par with many of the adult-written samples. She created a bit of a stir when she stood up and identified herself as the author. My daughter, the writer. (Sniff.) Fortunately, she wants to be a chemical engineer instead, because, really, I don’t need the competition.
The second session I read for featured fantasy, and here the editors were stricter, with many pieces getting cut off in fairly short order (and again, I would have cut some of them off even sooner than the editors did). As I said, that’s a little tougher on the writers, but at least it allowed us to read every single submission, which we didn’t manage in the YA session.
My other major excitement for the weekend was launching two books. One, Spirit Singer, is a re-release from Edmonton’s Tyche Books of the YA fantasy that won the Regina Book Award at the Saskatchewan Book Awards in 2002. I read from it twice, once at Tyche’s own book launch (which I left early, I admit, to go watch Alice on her very first panel, made up of kids talking about the books they read, what they look for in a book, and how they decide what to read, their every word hung on by a room full of YA writers eager to hear from the horses’ mouths), and once at a multi-book launch by several YA and children’s authors. The new edition is very handsome and I’m very pleased to have the book more widely available again. (Interesting side-note: one of the judges who awarded the book the Regina Book Award in 2002 was Shirlee Smith Matheson, one of the guests of honor! I hadn’t made the connection until she made a point of telling me. Very cool.)
The second launch was for Right to Know, my new science fiction novel published by (or about to be published by; the official release date is still a few days away) Bundoran Press, the fist book acquired by its new owner and editor, Hayden Trenholm. I signed quite a few copies over the course of the weekend, so I know people were buying it. Most exciting of all was the fact that the first time I saw Hayden he asked me to write a sequel, to come out next October. It’s the first time I’ve ever actually made a book deal at a convention! I’m really looking forward to writing it and I’m honored to have been asked.
Flesh out the weekend with meals with friends, interesting conversations, the always-fun Writers at the Improv session I participated in (in which teams of writers compete to create the most popular sentences in a story created on the fly from words provided by the audience), and a chance for me to sing “Old Man River” (at the Right to Know book launch, at the request of Robert J. Sawyer), and you can see why I had a great time–and why I’m already looking forward to next year’s edition of When Words Collide, which will also be at the Carriage House Inn.
Really, you should go.