Monday, October 31, 2011

Convention Goers Beware

This past weekend I had the mixed experience of attending a science fiction convention. On the positive side, there were several stars there whom I'd wanted to meet for a long time. I got to chat with them, have my picture taken, get autographs. Everything ran very smoothly. Organization was well done. However, I'm not naming the convention or the stars present because of the rather major negative side to my experience:

THE WRITERS TRACK (insert horror movie theme music here)

First of all, out of all the authors they brought in to present to new writers, only one of them was traditionally published. The rest had self-published their books, or gone the route of print on demand. Now, don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with those options, if that's the route you want to take. However, I feel it would have served new writers much better to see a more balanced group of presenters. Often, new writers don't know the difference between these tracks to publication. All options should be presented.

Now for the presenters themselves. Most were polite, nice, well-spoken, personable. While their path to publication does not mirror mine, I had no problem listening to their viewpoints.

Until the last guy.

A man claiming to be "an agent, consultant, and book reviewer" gave a talk on advice for new writers. (We looked him up. He's an "agent" who works for a self-publishing house. That does not fit with my definition of agent.) But that wasn't the biggest issue. His method of showing new writers what mistakes to avoid was to READ EMAILS FROM HIS FORMER CLIENTS, point out their mistakes, NAME THEM, show us the covers of their books, tell us how STUPID these people were (because they didn't listen to every bit of advice he gave them.)

Holy poop!

I certainly wouldn't want to be this guy's "client." I sincerely wonder if his former clients know he badmouths them by name at every convention and conference he attends. It doesn't get more unprofessional than this, in my opinion.

He then went on to ask several people in the room where they were in the writing process. After hearing that my husband and I had legitimate agents, he pretty much ignored us. Go figure. But he zoomed in on this poor new writer in the back who had just begun his first novel.

Our presenter suggested this new writer should hire him as a consultant. He pushed strongly for self-publishing, citing that "if you go with traditional publishing, it will be years before your book gets in print." Yes, that's true. What he didn't mention is that if your book does get into print the traditional way, the publisher pays the author. The author doesn't pay the publisher.

I thought he might redeem himself a bit when he mentioned that agents were a good thing, and to never hire an agent who charges money before selling your book. But then he added that agents who charge reading fees are okay, and one might expect to pay $45 to each agent queried in order for that agent to read the manuscript and make a decision on representing it.

Um, no. Good agents do not charge reading fees.

My writers group sat there, somewhat stunned, trying to remain professional and not verbally rip this man to shreds. I truly had to bite my tongue. Maybe I should have spoken up, but someday I'd like to present myself at conferences like these and promote traditional publishing, so I didn't want to alienate anyone.

But I'm putting my thoughts here, for anyone who might read them. Watch out for this sort of thing at conventions and conferences. Look up the presenters' credentials before taking anything they say to heart. Listen to how they treat others and realize that the clients they are badmouthing could include you if you decide to work with someone like that.

At the end, he had the audacity to ask me and my husband if we'd learned anything.

"Oh, yes," we both said. "We learned a lot."

Yep, we learned that new writers should avoid people like this guy.

Monday, October 3, 2011

100 Year Starship Conference

I like to think of myself as a pretty intelligent person. However, this past weekend I spent my time with hundreds of people who made me feel like a complete moron.

Yep, I attended one day of the 100 Year Starship Conference.

What is it, you may ask?

Sadly, I'm not entirely sure. The basic premise seemed to be that scientists from a variety of backgrounds would come together to present their ideas on what it would take to create and support an interstellar exploration mission within the next hundred years.

I poked my head into several different lectures going on throughout the conference, covering topics in a range from societal views on why mankind should take to the stars, to potential propulsion systems, to estimated costs of creating an interstellar capable vehicle. Cool, right?

Well, it would have been, if I could have understood half of what they were saying.

And, perhaps, I didn't understand much because the conference wasn't intended for me. Most of the attendees were scientists. But it was free and open to the public, which would seem to imply that the public should be able to understand the discussions--that, perhaps, the presenters should be presenting in terms that the above-averagely educated public should understand, and not only those with doctorates.

Now, to be entirely fair, I spoke to other attendees who told me that not all the presentations were incomprehensible to someone without a physics degree. Some, I hear, were quite entertaining, thought-provoking, and creative. I just happened into the one where the screen at the front was displaying complex formulas for achieving near-light speeds, and another where the presenter kept her head down the entire time, reading straight from her notes.

Interstellar travel is a concept that excites me, that fires my imagination as a writer of science fiction. If achieved, it opens all sorts of possibilities for the future of mankind. I feel guilty for complaining about a free conference. After all, no one made me attend. And the concept is fantastic. But organizations like this one are going to need the people like me for support, funding, a positive public opinion, political backing. So, we need to better understand what they are working on.

They did make some strides towards that goal. They brought in a number of successful writers of science fiction to present panels on their views of interstellar travel. I attended one of these, featuring one of my favorite writers, Elizabeth Bear. During the panel presentation, the authors helped make some connections between those working in the scientific fields, and those who loved the concepts but may have lacked the science backgrounds. They brought up the human factor of interstellar travel, what it would be like from a psychological standpoint, how it would affect the evolution of the human race. I came away with several great ideas for future stories.

So, no, the conference was not a waste of time. What I understood, I enjoyed. I just wish my brochure had come with a Universal Translator.