Saturday, January 12, 2013

Illogicon, day 2

The con started too damn early for me today with a 10:00 a.m. panel on Finance for Beginning Writers.  The audience was initially quite small, half a dozen or so folks, but it tripled in the first 15 minutes as more people wandered into the room.  We discussed many different aspects of the money side of writing, from what to expect (not much money), to whether to quit your day job (most of us said no, but some argued it could be an effective way to focus), to how to manage the little bit of money you do make (pay your taxes!).  It went well, and everyone in attendance seemed happy at its end.

After a short nap in the car and a small burrito at a nearby Moe's, I returned to the con for a 1:00 p.m. panel on Science Fiction and Ethics.  The discussion ranged over a broad variety of related topics, and though all the panelists had strong feelings on many topics, we managed to successfully avoid much conflict.  I enjoyed this topic and could easily have kept discussing it for another hour.  The audience, which was a pretty good size, seemed to feel the same way, which was great.

During the next hour, I learned a couple of con-related, interesting things. 

First was that our local paper, the News & Observer, had run an article on the con.  The piece even quoted me, which I suppose is good, though more context would have been nice.

Then, Ticia texted me a picture from the con folks about a sketch that Tim Powers had done and then donated to the charity auction.

As always, click on an image to see a larger version. 

I think the sketch is very cool, and I didn't want to miss a chance to own one of Powers' drawings, so I changed my evening plans so I could attend the auction. 

After a little wandering and some rest in a quiet corner, I showed up for my 3:00 p.m. signing.  As is usually the case, I signed only a few books, talked to some friends who wandered by, and dreamed of being one of those writers whose signing line stretches around the block.  As these thoughts took their toll on my mood, I started marking up the signing announcement sheet.  Bored with that, I wrote a short, depressing story in lines wrapping around the page.

I planned to leave it there, but Jennie and Glennis spotted it, and Jennie snapped it up.  That proved to be a good thing, because a little while later one of the con folks said they had heard about it and asked if I would donate it to the charity auction.  I said, sure, and Jennie gave it to them.

If you blow it up and turn your head (or print it and turn it), you can read the few sentences of this bit of bleakness.

I then scooted off to the Baen Traveling Road Show, where I spoke about my books and my upcoming (and still not done) Heinlein afterword.  I also just enjoyed the show and the chance to learn about the upcoming Baen books.

Though I would normally have gone home at that point, I waited around until the charity auction began.  I learned there that somehow they had lost the sheet with the story, so it couldn't go up for auction.  I hope someone has it and enjoys it.

I asked if they would auction the Powers sketch early, and they agreed reluctantly but nicely to do so. 

It was the third item up. 

The auctioneer opened the bidding at ten bucks, and I sat silently as a few different folks bid it to $17.

"Twenty-five," I said.

The room grew a bit quieter.  A voice behind me said, "Twenty-six."

"Fifty," I said.

"I think I heard a 'comma, bitch,'" the auctioneer said.

A voice behind me, quieter this time, said, "Fifty-five."

"One hundred," I said.

No one in the room made a sound.  "Well, I suspect that's that," the auctioneer said, and it was.

I plead guilty to having to leave early, paid for the piece, and headed out to dinner.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Illogicon II, day one

I hit the con at a quarter to three, which gave me 15 minutes to pick up my badge and materials and set up for opening ceremonies.  That was tighter than I'd hoped, but I had trouble escaping from the work that was piling up even as I drove to the hotel.

Fortunately, one of the folks at the registration table recognized me, they were reasonably well organized, and so in only a few minutes I was set. 

Most of the guests couldn't make it for such an early opening, but Writer Guest of Honor Tim Powers had arrived the night before.  He and I sat behind the table at the front of the room and kicked off the event more or less on time. 

I talked a bit about Tim's fiction, which I love, and introduced him.  After he spoke for a few minutes, we were out of planned material--and the audience of maybe two dozen folks was still sitting there, expecting more.  Fair enough; we'd promised them an hour.

When no one asked a question, Tim and I proceeded to talk back and forth in a sort of barely organized stream-of-consciousness discussion that ended up focusing on life as a writer, particularly the annoying bits.  We discussed how much fun it was to be told that no bookstore had your books, or to be asked why you didn't write a bestseller.  Members of the audience asked a few questions, we answered, and before I knew it, we were done.  I think it went well, and getting to spend a little time talking with Tim, even in front of a group, was a treat.

I hightailed it from there to a nearby cafe that offers free Wi-Fi and worked madly to catch up on the tasks that had hit me while I was at the con.  Though I didn't eat anything and bought only a soda, I feel obliged to note that the food at the Cafe Carolina is decent, and the bandwidth was very good. 

A few minutes before six, I rushed back to the hotel for my reading.  I had expected no one to show, but about half a dozen folks did--though I knew all of them at least via email.  I tried to talk them into letting me off the hook, but they weren't having any of it.  So, I let them pick what I'd read:

  1. "Lobo, Actually," which is in the recent Cosmic Christmas anthology
  2. "The Strangest Thing," a non-genre, Southern story I've never read aloud
  3. A few odd and action scenes from Fatal Circle, the thriller on the shelf that I plan to finish one day and from which I have only ever read the first page--and that only once
They chose number 3, so they got to hear quite a few pages of material no one has ever heard.  I did not throw bon-bons, but that's only because I didn't have any at hand.

I ended up on a quick work call after the reading.  Right after that, I learned the two booksellers wanted me to do a signing the next day, so of course I said, "Yes!"  I love booksellers!  We worked out the schedule, and then I spent some time talking with those booksellers.

Next up and last on my schedule for today was the Liars' Panel, which we did to amuse the audience and raise money for charity.  Sadly, the audience was quite small, though the people in it were great.  Still, we all answered outrageous questions, mostly told the truth but sometimes lied, and raised about two hundred bucks for Hopeline, the con's charity.

By this point, it was definitely time for dinner.  A small group of us dashed to BurgerFi, the first local franchise of this small chain, for tasty organic burgers and hot dogs, as well as sticky cheese fries.  It wasn't at all healthy, but it was good. 

From there, I headed home to work, which I did until now (five in the morning). 

In four hours, I have to get up for day two of the con.  No one should schedule me on a 10:00 a.m. panel!

More about the con tomorrow night.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook

Alphabetically the last of the four movies I caught at theaters over the holidays, Silver Linings Playbook is also by far the best of the lot--and almost certainly far and away the cheapest of them to make.

The basic plot is as old as it gets: boy meets girl.  The boy, though, is a thirty-something man fresh out of a mental hospital, where the courts put him after a violent outbreak that occurred when he caught his wife cheating with another man.  Bright, bipolar, and tormented, Bradley Cooper's Pat is at turns violent, loud, and frightening, then quiet and tormented, touching and scary, a real person who is doing his best to grapple with the serious mental illness he is fighting. 

Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany, the girl Pat meets, is a twenty-something woman with a similar bipolar disorder but very different behaviors and symptoms.  Charming one moment and enraged and frightening the next, Lawrence's Tiffany is another very real, very troubled person.

The supporting cast is also uniformly strong, led by the best performance from Robert DeNiro in years.

The writing is excellent, with a story full of just the right blends of magic and realism, love and pain, suffering and redemption.

I absolutely loved this movie and cannot recommend it strongly enough.  It will at times make you uncomfortable, and it will at other times require a bit of suspension of disbelief, but in the end it is a wonderful piece of work that shows the holiday blockbusters what movies can do on small budgets with strong writing and great acting. 

Do not miss this one.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Two SF spring movies I can't wait to see

While I'm catching up on reviews of recent films, I also feel obliged to look ahead at movies I'm eagerly anticipating.  May brings two of the ones I'm most excited about seeing. 

First up is the third installment in the Iron Man franchise, which once again has Robert Downey, Jr. donning the armor but which gives Shane Black the director's job that in the first two films was Jon Favreau's. 

Yeah, it looks good, and I'm already psyched for its May 3 opening. 

Two weeks later, J.J. Abrams takes Star Trek on its second rebooted journey, this time with Benedict Cumberbatch as the villain. 

I am so there!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Les Miserables

Third in my alphabetically ordered set of holiday movies is this incredibly hyped musical.  I'd seen various trailers for it in theaters for months, and even though I'm one of the six theater-going Americans who's never been to this play, I was looking forward to the movie.  The cast was great, the Oscar buzz was louder than a mosquito swarm in a Florida swamp on a hot night, and I was quite intrigued by director Tom Hooper's use of mics on the actors to capture them singing as they were acting.  (The normal practice is to record the songs ahead of time and have the actors lip-sync them during filming.)  So, I walked into the theater ready to love this movie.

Almost three hours later, I left a bit sad that I didn't. 

Oh, I had a good enough time; I just never cared all that much about anyone or anything in the film.  It was like having a good friend set you up on a date with a nice, attractive person with whom you have absolutely zero chemistry; the evening isn't a waste, and you have a pleasant time, but you leave with the knowledge that you would have been better off staying at home and reading a good book. 

It's not that the movie didn't try to make me care.  Grand, powerful, moving events occurred at every turn.  Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman, Amanda Seyfried, and Eddie Redmayne worked their asses--and vocal cords and, in Hathaway's case, body weight and hair--off making sure we know that This Is Serious, Weighty, Dramatic Business, that People Are Suffering, and that We Must Care. 

I just couldn't. 

I wanted to, I really did.  What happened, for example, to Anne Hathaway, was so horrific, so relentlessly brutal, and so well-acted that my heart was ready to break for her. 

Unfortunately, it all happened at light speed, so very quickly that before I could come to terms with one horror, the next was already well along.  Like food spiced so very hot that all you can taste is the burn of the spices, the horrors here piled on so quickly and so brutally that they lost their power to do more than numb me. 

I understand that Hooper almost certainly felt the pace was necessary because Les Mes is essentially an opera with a fixed set of songs, so there's no way to slow the film. 

I don't care.  I still wanted more--a rare thing to say about a movie this long.  Break it into two films, slow it down with dialog or more songs or whatever, and make a movie--or a pair of them--that gives us time to come to care deeply for all the characters, to care so much that their plights tear open our hearts and make us weep.  That's what I wanted from Les Miserables

Now, I have to admit that I was in the minority in our group; most people cared more about the characters than I did.  Also, I actually enjoyed the film well enough, and I can recommend it if you're a fan of the play or in the mood for some good, old-fashioned French suffering. 

I just wish I had cared more. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

Come see me at Illogicon II in Cary this weekend

This coming weekend, starting January 11, a new local SF convention, Illogicon II, will materialize for three days in the Embassy Suites Raleigh-Durham/Research Triangle.  I was out of town during last year's version 1.0 of this con and so missed it, but this year I'm not only going, I'm the Toastmaster.  So, as you might expect, they're keeping me busy.  If you get a chance to attend, please buy a membership, then come by and say hi.  You'll be able to catch me at all of the following events, as well, of course, in the hallways and maybe the bar.

Friday, 3:00 p.m.: Opening Ceremonies, Smith room

At this first event of the con, I'll introduce the other guests and join them in kicking off the con.  I may tell a few jokes, do a dramatic reading, or enlist audience members to carry me around the room while I toss bon-bons to the crowd.  You won't know unless you show up. 

Friday, 6:00 p.m.:  Reading, Crescent room

Scenario one: I sit alone in a room, sipping a glass of Coke Zero and staring forlornly at the rows of empty seats until I can't take it any longer, reach into my bag, pull out a lovely Retro 51 pen, use it to saw open my veins, and bleed out alone in authorial sadness.

Scenario two:  A huge crowd fills the room, cheers me on as I read a piece of fiction I've never publicly read before, the crowd goes crazy, and they carry me from the room in triumph as I toss the last of my bon-bons to the worshipful onlookers. 

You have the power to make either one happen. 

Friday, 8:00 p.m.:  The Liars' Panel, Reynolds room

Three fellow authors and I will answer ten questions of my choosing.  Seven of each of our answers will be the truth; three will be lies.  You can challenge us--call us liars to our faces!--but it'll cost you a buck.  Each of you who wants to challenge has to pay that buck; no sharing the challenges.  If you're right, if we're lying, we'll put ten bucks in a basket.  If you're wrong and we're telling the truth, all of your dollar bills will go into the basket.  When the panel ends, the money goes to Hopeline, a local crisis helpline, so in addition to having a good time laughing at our weird answers, you'll also be doing good.

I've done this panel at multiple other cons, and it can be a great time.  Bring some money, come prepared to laugh, and we'll have a blast.

Saturday, 10:00 a.m.:  Finance for Beginning Writers, Smith

Saturday morning two hours before I even consider getting out of bed.  The truth about money in publishing and how to handle the meager scraps you'll earn--if you're lucky.

Come learn the truth from our expert panel, which I'll be moderating.

Wrap your dreams in armor before you enter the room. 

Saturday, 1:00 p.m.:  Science Fiction and Ethics, Smith

Is the fact that a situation makes good fiction enough of a reason to use it in a story or novel?  Can we go too far in our fiction, or let our characters make decisions too easily?  We'll talk about how authors draw their fictional lines in the sand. 

Saturday, 3:30 p.m.:  Baen Traveling Road Show, Smith

Folks from Baen will show you pictures of the art and covers for upcoming books, give away free books, and generally amuse you.  I'm not a formal part of the presentation, but if the presentation runs in its usual way, they'll ask me to speak at some point. This is definitely a fun one to catch.
Sunday, 11:00 a.m.:  Ebooks, Smith

You've seen 'em and probably own some.  We'll talk about where they're going and how they're likely to affect writers, publishers, and readers. 

Sunday, noon:  The Books That Changed Our Lives, Smith

We all have some, those special volumes that made us want to write, or that cemented our love of science fiction, or simply that stuck with us for years and years. Come talk with us about those books that earned special places in our hearts and minds.

Sunday, 6:00 p.m.:  Closing Ceremonies, Smith

I'll lead the closing of the con and, if the Illogicon folks have replenished my bon-bon stash, do a final lap around the hotel on the backs of fans, throwing out those chocolate treats to the assembled masses.

Or, we'll just say good-bye.

It could go either way. 

You can read more about all of these events on the con's programming page.

I hope to see you at the con!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

DVD and Blu-ray vendors are trying to make me a video pirate

I have never pirated a single piece of digital content.  I know that's probably hard to believe, but it's true--though I have to admit to having watched a few pieces of pirated content that friends downloaded (and then deleted).  I don't avoid pirating out of fear; I actually like owning copies of my digital content.  I buy CDs and DVDs and Blu-Ray discs in vast quantities (really; I own over six thousand music discs and about the same number of film discs).  I also like paying money to content creators.  I do, after all, create content in book (and ebook) form, and I greatly appreciate it when others pay me for that content.

So why are DVD and Blu-Ray vendors working so hard to make me a pirate?

When you pirate a movie or TV show, the process is simple:  you download it, and then you watch it.  That's it.

When I plunk down my hard cash for a DVD or Blu-ray disc, I expect to do roughly the same thing: Put it in the player, pick the "Play" option from the menu, and watch the movie or TV show.  I don't mind the disc's menu, because I like the extras that come on the discs and the ability to make my choice of their audio and subtitle options.  This simple process is what, in the very early days of DVDs, actually happened.

Today, though, vendors have engineered these discs to piss me off.  I put the disc in the player and wait while the device and the content work out with each other whatever copy protection and special software hoo-ha the vendor has put on the disc.  Often, the wait is long enough that I could more quickly have downloaded the content.

When the disc finally starts to play, however, the truly annoying shit begins.  Disclaimers appear.  Trailers start.  Sometimes, even commercials assault me.  I can't easily skip this crap; no, if I press the "Menu" button on my remote-control device, the disc tells me that this function is not supported.  (I fucking hate that passive-voice construction.  It's not, you assholes, that the function is not supported by the hardware; it's that you chose to turn it off.)  So, one by one I have to fast-forward through the trailers.

Finally, the menu appears.  More and more, though, the menu is not simple.  No, it's some designers idea of how to turn something clean and functional into something so pretty and unnecessarily complicated that you have to figure out how each one works.  That process doesn't take long--there's only so much they can do to the menus--but it does waste time, particularly on collections of TV shows.

Once I find the "Play" option, I expect to finally watch the movie, but on quite a few discs I now have to read warnings that the FBI, Interpol, the CIA, and two thugs named Mick and Larry are going to come bust my kneecaps, throw me into jail, confiscate all my possessions, sell my children into slavery, and pimp my dog if I pirate anything--even though I'm watching on a disc I purchased!

Again, contrast this with the simplicity of the pirating process, and you can easily conclude that the DVD and Blu-ray vendors must want me to stop buying their products and instead pirate the videos.

I really hate this.

These companies should wake up to a basic human truth: if you want to encourage people to do something, make the process simple and reward them for doing it.

Until they do, I'm going to keep cursing my discs and fighting the temptation to pirate content.  I wish they'd help me in that fight.


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