Monthly Archives: July 2015

Conning Your Way: Mr. Diva and the Worldcon Workshop


The writer’s workshop at this upcoming Worldcon has been so well enrolled (thanks to the hardworking program coordinator, Adrienne Foster) that a request for more moderators went out.  I asked a couple of people if  I could pass on their names. They both asked what  a moderator does. I Googled to see what I might send them on the subject.  While I found a lot on moderating panels, I found only a little on moderating one-time writer’s workshops where the work is distributed in advance, in other words, SF and fantasy con workshops. Since I’m told I’m a good moderator, I’ll share my process and some experiences.  This week, I’ll start with one of my experiences…

My Nightmare with Mr. Diva.

If you are into SF and fantasy and haven’t heard about the Hugo kerfuffle at this year’s Worldcon, I think I envy you.  But dickishness isn’t limited to Hugos and Sasquan (who by the way look like they are putting together an amazing Worldcon.  Scuttlebutt I heard is that over 10,000 people are coming. Wow!).  I am lucky enough to be a panelist and a workshop moderator this year.  I’m thrilled to happy hamster dance status.  But it’s not my first Worldcon.

Many, many years ago, I was excited to be asked to moderate at a Worldcon writer’s workshop.  What’s more, I had a BIG NAME as a pro critiquer in my section.  Oh, fan me before I feint!  So I was certainly twitterpated at the prospect of not just meeting him but also sitting down and working next to him.

When the workshop started, he was nowhere to be found, so we started without him.  We had three manuscripts, two were military SF and one was fantasy.  Now even back then, I’d been an editor for over a decade, so I knew writing.  The two military SF manuscripts were rough as sandpaper, but the fantasy submission showed enough promise that I was going to ask the author into our writer’s group.

For that con, the timing of the workshop was off what I usually did at con workshops. We either had only 2.5 hours (instead of 3) or an extra pro. This meant that each person was severely limited in the amount of time to give the critique.  One of the other pros was in the middle of his short turn when Mr. Diva whirls in like a cartoon Tasmanian devil.

Before he sits down, he announces, “We all know everyone here wants to hear from me, but I’ve got places to be. So I’m just going to give all three critiques and get out of here.” He then sat down and dived into the critiques.  He spent fifteen to twenty minutes each on the two guys who wrote the military stuff, praising them.  Lastly, he turned on the fantasy author and told her how boring and not worthwhile this work was, giving her less than five minutes of his time.  Then he just upped and left.

In all of thirty-five to forty minutes, he’d disrupted the workshop with his whirlwind entrance; he’d been discourteous to a fellow professional by cutting him off in mid critique; and he’d stolen time from the other critiquers.  But that’s fairly insignificant stuff for a big fish splashing about in a little writer’s workshop pond.  What was unforgivable was his treatment of the submitting writers.

He’d stolen time from them. Each one did not get the benefit of a broad critique.  They did not get to ask him questions at the end or get clarifications on points.  But worse still, he was wrong.  He let his preferences cloud his judgment of the works.  As a military SF writer, his critiques demonstrated a bias for those two manuscripts that shared his genre.  As an editor, I edit things all the time that are outside my main interests, but that doesn’t mean I cannot recognize good writing independently from the subject.  The woman fantasy writer had better skills and a more developed writing style.  Mr. Diva did a hatchet job on the woman’s work and, judging from his comments and the more promising quality of her work, he at best did so purely out of a disinclination for fantasy.  At worst he was sexist, which it sure felt like at the time, but I can’t say for sure. In the end he undermined her, dismissed her work, gave her an unequal share of his time, and stole the time other critiquers would have spent on her manuscript. She certainly did not get the value of her manuscript submission fee.

Mr. Diva swept out of the room, leaving me there as moderator to figure out how to clean up the mess.  I did the best I could to get her extra of the remaining time, but it was precious little.  The other pros and folks still had their comments to make on the military SF.  I sought her out afterwards and apologized.   I did invite her to our group, but she declined.  I was sorry about that.  She showed real promise.

Since then I’ve given a lot of thought on how to improve my moderating skills so that I can ensure each participant gets a fair critique.  After all, the point is to give them the direction they need to write better and to improve their manuscripts.  I’ve often thought about what I could have done differently.  It’s a tough call, but if I had it to do over again, I think I would say something like this:  “Mr. Diva, I’m so sorry to hear that your schedule is overloaded.  But right now, so-and-so is in the middle of her review. I’d hate to be rude and interrupt right now.  Everyone here would love you to take a seat and join us but if you are too busy, perhaps I can help out with that.  Why don’t you just hand out your written comments to the authors.  That will allow you extra time to pursue whatever you need to.”

It’s important when you moderate to think about the process and the pitfalls in advance.  You won’t always foresee every problem, but there are many you can.  Think about what you will do to handle people who talk too long, start up a conversation with the author or other participants, or just come in late.  One person came in late at one of my workshops and sat down in a chair that we’d gone past in our critique.  When we came to the end of the circle, I forgot to go back to her!  Fortunately someone else was on the ball and let me know. Now I make a note to go back to anyone who comes in late.  Take the time. Sit. Think.  Visualizing these things will help your workshop flow more smoothly.

Travel into Your Imagination


No good vacation goes unpunished.  They are work from the whole booking-travel-and-lodging thing to the packing thing to the prepping-your-work-and-personal-life-to-survive-two-weeks-without-you thing. I find myself so harried before vacations that I wonder, why am I doing this again?  This vacation, my work life was particularly bad…STRESS!

But I marched all my ducks into a row with my trusty cattle prod and got on a plane to cross another bucket-list item from my to-do list.  I’ve always wanted to take any one of my good friends back to the Northeast to share my childhood stomping grounds.  Finally one of my dearest friends agreed to come with me to spend a week each in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

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But this is a blog about writing, not vacationing, so what’s the deal?  Well, in addition to the fun, family, and friend time, I’ve gotten more out of my travels. I’ve cultivated  a wider first-hand understanding of the world from people to places to nature.

This was my friend’s first trip to the Northeast.  For the most part, she’s spent her time on the West Coast.  Sharing such a different place with her was an interesting experience for me.  I saw things in new ways. We spent a lot of time driving so we talked a lot.


Wolfeboro claims to be the oldest resort town in America. We got to see it from the deck of the Mount Washington on a day cruise.

For instance, we were driving through New Hampshire when my friend asked, “What is the biggest city in the state?”  Huh, I didn’t have any idea.  So out comes the trusty smart phone and voila!  It’s Manchester. Of course next to that information is the population: 109,565.  Wow, that twisted my head.  Largest city in California is Los Angeles at 3.8 million.  My hometown, what I think of as a medium-sized suburban area between San Francisco and San Jose, has a population of over 140,000.  Shoot, the population of the Bay Area is five times the whole state of New Hampshire (7 million vs. 1.3 million).  And cities…well, the Bay Area alone has 101, while New Hampshire totals 13.

The point of this is that wherever we are, we get sedentary in our thoughts of what is “normal.”  While we know that things are different in some way anywhere we go, feeling it gives a whole new perspective.  If you follow my blogs, you have heard me say that what readers want from fiction is an emotional experience.  You as a writer can give them that experience so much more vividly if you yourself feel it first.  Statistics don’t generate such emotion, but every day of our week in New Hampshire, we felt and saw the ramifications of these statistics.

NH. cov. bridge.20150703_104450_resized

That sign reads: Five dollar fine for riding or driving on this bridge faster than a walk.

NH.cov.bridge.20150703_104546_resizedI live within three minutes of three major freeways.  I go everywhere on freeways.  But in New Hampshire, we went almost everywhere on twisty two-lane highways (just one lane each direction) with turnouts for passing if we were lucky.  We only got on the interstate thrice in the week, and two of those were to cross into and out of New Hampshire.   Every day we were there, we drove along highways overhung with leaves that I knew would burst into glorious golds, reds, and oranges in the fall.  We rumbled across a one-lane covered bridge with a sign warning of “dire”  penalties if you drove faster than a walk (a walk?! How different is that?  Not even a number, just something subjective…talk about a different mindset from the Bay Area).  We rode alongside twisting brooks bubbling white over river rock.  We wended through notches of bald granite towering over us.  I never noticed how spectacular they were until my friend did…I had remembered them as normal from childhood; I needed her eyes to really see them.  The whole state of New Hampshire is granite, and it infiltrates its very nature…maybe down to the state motto, which is as intractable as the craggy granite cliffs: Live Free or Die.  Something as simple as the ground people walk on can characterize not only them, but become a metaphor for an entire culture.

NH.conway.church2.20150702_163415_resizedOn our car trips, we passed through dozens of towns, with clapboard general stores, steep, snow-shedding-rooved old houses, and quaint white churches that looked like they belonged on postcards.  But you better be paying attention…some towns were only two blocks long—no blinking.

This trip reminded me of how people in a smaller, less populated world lived (or at least one of the ways).  And as small as these towns seemed to me, many were metropolises compared to the types of towns I put into my fantasy novel.  These contrasts generate the feelings I draw upon to write from an emotional place to create an emotional experience for readers. I can characterize entire civilizations with just a few choices, so long as they are good solid choices…solid as granite. When I write, I lean on the memories of these woods where I roamed as a child, on the snow and the thunderstorms, the small towns that close up at 5:00, and the apple pie that grandma put on her old rustic farm table. Even the air smelled different on the forested little island of Black Cat where we stayed.  Travel refreshes and adds to those memories.  This trip revitalized my connection to things that I use in my writing.


Grandma’s house, full of hugs, apple pie, and memories. I used to sleep in that room to the upper left, but it was a shed dormer then, not a gable. And Grandma’s beloved tiger lilies are gone…but then, that’s why we need our memories.

Whether you live in a concrete metropolis with seven million people trying to rush about on ten-lane freeways or alone on a tiny island that needs a boat to get to the nearest town, if you write, you can weave travel experiences into your imagings.  Get out of your “normal” and feel—feel something different.  Everyplace has its own characteristics, from real estate to food to landscape to nature and to people. Get out there. Smell it, touch it, taste it, listen and see it.  What surprises you? What touches your heart?  What can you use to make your own worlds come to life?  Weave the magic moments of your travels into your story the next time you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard to create vivid new worlds to share with your readers.


Cabin on Black Cat Island, a view from the dock.

The Writer’s Toolbox
Real Heroes Don’t Get Charlie Horses
Part 4: But how do I do it?

inkwellIdentifying the words that have connotation worth mining can be a challenge if you are not used to thinking of words in this fashion. Poetry is rife with examples of mining connotation. Find some you like or that has an emotional component like one you are looking for and read it. Make notes; pay close attention to metaphor; write down words that attract your attention. Contemplate what those words contribute. Look them up in the dictionary, then the thesaurus.

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Hey, as long as you have the thesaurus open on your desk or desktop, peruse it. Think about how some words evoke different feelings within you, even though they are under the same heading. Pairs like shadow and shade, rock and stone, chill and cool all have different connotations. Shadow tends to be spooky or disturbing, shade restful. Rock is a little less formal-sounding than stone, and the use of rock is more common in the western United States and stone more so in the east. Cool is refreshing, chill is unpleasant, even scary.

As you look through the thesaurus entries, note that the long and complex words tend to leave you cold. Long Latinate-based words can be too neutral. In the worst scenario, they can be so dispassionate as to feel cold. When you are working with neutral words, some are better than others even if neither has heavy connotation. Shorter words tend to be better and are usually not Latinate. Our original example of The clouds moved across the sky, though neutral, is much better than The clouds locomoted across the sky. They are both synonyms from the thesaurus, but locomoted is long and Latinate. Latinate words run the risk of being boring, off putting, cold, or scientific feeling. That said, I like the sound of The clouds traversed the sky. Maybe there is a story where that would be the right choice.

Now that you have looked through some thesaurus entries, it is time to try an exercise to help your next scene. I had a terribly difficult time with a battle scene, and I kept consulting with readers and SCA fighters and reading books on tactics. The scene got more organized, but it never got better. I finally figured out that all the staging and proper window dressing in the world was not going to save the scene. What it lacked was an emotional connection to the reader. Emotional situations were happening; they just weren’t connecting with my reader on an emotional level. So I did two things, I looked for ways to expand my understanding of what sensory events were occurring in a battle (in my case I watched movie and Internet clips), and I spent time with a thesaurus to generate lists of words related to events, the sensory experiences of the characters, and relating to what I watched on the clips. Here are some of the words I looked up: battle, slash, clangor, explode, rage, weak, energy, dance, destroy, adrenalin, taste, scent, perfume, odor, cloying, and fetid. Note how the last five relate. If a word doesn’t work (perfume didn’t work for me) keep looking. Look up entries from within the list you are looking at, they themselves will likely have alternative choices, which will help you refine your word lists.

Now you have useful words swimming about your head ready for you to pluck. Or a list you’ve generated to peruse when you feel you need stronger or different terms. The result for my battle scene was nothing short of transforming. It may not have become the definitive scene to end all battle scenes, but it jumped the chasm from boring to engaging.

Go Forth and Do

If you look at your writing, you may see that you have made choices already where connotation is aiding you. Now you understand what it is you were doing when you chose those words. With your conscious understanding of connotation as a tool for writing, you can control more effectively how your reader connects to the scene you are portraying. You can amp up or dial down the emotional elements, revving up your readers or resting them so you can take them refreshed on the next thrill ride. Your job as a writer is to provide the reader the emotional experience they seek. Connotation can be a powerful and subtle tool for manipulating the emotional connection between your story and your reader, so get out your virtual whetstone, hone your new tool, and put it into your writer’s toolbox.