Helen (heleninwales) wrote,

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Novacon #33 -- an account of last weekend

Novacon #33 7-9 November 03

This is long, so it's tucked away behind cut tags.

Friday night

I'm safely ensconced in my room at the Quality Hotel, Walsall, still quivering from the traffic on the M6. I do not do heavily congested, and the M6 to the north of Birmingham must be one of the most heavily congested roads in the UK. I laughed mockingly at the 40 mph speed restriction signs on the approach to Junction 10. We should be so lucky! It had been a stop start crawl for quite some time. I came off at the right place, went into the right lane, as instructed, took what I thought was the right turn and -- where was the hotel? I shudder to think what my blood pressure was like for the next 15 minutes as I crawled round in a circle to approach the Junction 10 roundabout again. As the traffic edged nearer the roundabout, I became increasingly convinced that I recognised the road. I didn't go to Novacon last year, but I had been to this hotel before, though I'd arrived by bus. Could it be the road leading to the hotel? And then there it was. Not very well signposted really, but a moment later, I was happily diving down the service road and pulling up in the car park. I should learn to trust my memory; it would have saved me a good 10-15 minutes of anxiety.

I'm just indulging in the standard British panacea for all ills ie "a nice cup of tea" to calm my nerves, then I'll shower and go and look for people to talk to.


I went to the first panel on the state of SF publishing in Britain today. It seemed to boil down to, "There's some good news and some bad news." I did wonder whether I should be taking notes, but it will be some time before the WIP is ready for submission, so it may all have changed by then anyway. Publishers who seem to be taking on new writers are Tor UK and another, possibly Gollancz. I think... I knew I should have taken notes.

Déjà vu

It took a while for the realisation to dawn, but I think I'm in the same room I occupied 2 years ago. First of all, I recognised the picture at the end of the corridor then, after unpacking and making aforementioned "nice cup of tea", I decided that I recognised the two pictures in my room. So unless all the rooms have the same pictures on the walls, then this is the very room I was allocated two Novacons ago. Although the hotel has hundreds of rooms and it would appear that the probability of being in the same one again is low, it has very few singles (or in this case, a small double that they designate as a single), so it isn't as unlikely as it first seems. On the other hand, they could have bought a job lot of identical prints and furnished each small double the same.

Saturday morning

Up, dressed, went in search of breakfast. I slept very well, which often isn't the case the first night away from home. The room is on the cool side, which probably helped as we don't have heating in the bedroom and in all but the bitterest or most stormy weather, G insists on having the window open. Thus most hotel rooms seem overheated and stuffy in comparison. Slightly odd dream about race horses, probably brought on by the décor of the dining room in the hotel where we ate dinner last night. Then another odd dream about going on a boat trip through a high arched brick or stone tunnel (it was too gloomy to be sure which). There had been lots of rain, so the ride was going to be exciting. This may have been inspired by the late night comedy show on the radio last Thursday night. They were doing various take-offs of the sort of things real TV and radio channels do in earnest. There was an item on "sewer diving", done totally dead-pan, perfectly mimicking the earnest way real broadcasters do items on things like cave diving or base jumping into bat infested caves in South America. (These latter sports being subjects of real documentaries.)

After having consumed a substantial breakfast and having spent 40 minutes writing 708 more words of the WIP, I descended on the dealers' room just after 10 am. Browsed the bookstalls very selectively (I do still have 58 books on the To Read shelf), but couldn't resist Mary Gentle's Grunts. Also bought 2 copies of Locus, which is supposed to be The Thing to read to keep up on what's happening in SF publishing. I exchanged a few words with people I know and introduced myself to Charlie Stross, who I've known obliquely for many years, but have never met in person before.

I then dumped my spoils in my hotel room and headed for the pool. Yes, this hotel has a swimming pool! I couldn't remember whether it had or not, but thinking that a swimming cossie doesn't take up much room, I'd tossed it into my bag on the off chance. Besides, the one advantage of coming in the car is that I didn't have to worry about taking stuff that wasn't, in the end, needed. The swim was good. I thought I was fit, but I was breathing hard after a couple of lengths -- which were very short lengths as it's only a small leisure pool. I can also feel the slight pull and trembliness in my upper arms that means I've been using muscles that have been unused for some time.

I'm now typing this up and nibbling my way through a snack of nuts and fruit with bread and oatcakes before heading back to the con fun and taking in another panel.

As I was getting dried after the swim, and thinking (as I always do), "I enjoyed that, I ought to work out a way to swim more often," the warm tiredness of my muscles and the struggle with wet towels that are not quite big enough and the effort of pulling on clothes when the skin is still slightly damp recalled the many times I used to swim as a child. Swimming was one form of exercise that was readily and cheaply available to an inner city kid. Manchester had many pools, or "swimming baths" as we called them and ours was only about 10 minutes walk away, near enough for us to be allowed to go on our own when we were no more than 9 or 10. And after a swim, especially in winter when we would come out into a raw grey day, we would buy hot Vimto from the shop a couple of doors away. The proprietor was obviously cashing in on the swimming pool trade. And I still get cravings for hot Vimto after a swim, when I feel relaxed and tired with the slight sting of chlorine at the back of my nose. And yet the last time I tried Vimto, as an adult, I didn't like it and found it too sweet. But in my memory, the taste is clear and linked to pleasure. Odd how the human mind works.

Saturday evening

Went to two panel items this afternoon. The space tourism one never really came alive, though some interesting points were made. It would have helped if Julian Headlong had said something other than "everyone will be vomiting" when asked for his opinion.

Farah Mendelsohnn interviewing Jon Courtenay Grimwood (guest of honour), on the other hand, was very good indeed. I haven't read the books in his first series (and to be honest, from the things said about them, I don't think I want to), but I thought the Arabesk trilogy was excellent. Jon said lots of stuff that was interesting to a writer. He seems to work by the multi-draft, method, layering in different things at each pass. Also, as a journalist, he is very conscious of word count and keeps his novels to 140,000. He also works from a starting image. Being dyslexic, he has to type and says he is very conscious of the sounds of words. When asked about infodumps (which apparently exist in the first sequence of novels, but are conspicuous by their absence in the Arabesk books), he says that he writes them out in full each time at the point he wants to put the information in, then as he edits, he removes all bar one sentence, making sure it's a different sentence left from each infodump. (Note to self: Stop trying to avoid infodumps on the first draft of the WIP. Let them flow, mark them as such if you want, and leave them to be dealt with later.)

After the talk, I had a brief conversation with Farah on the joys of short books, then retired to room for a quick cup of tea. I will now go in search of more conversation and food, before the next programme item I want to see.

Oh, yes. One minor annoyance. I'd brought the software for the l'espion camera to install on the borrowed laptop I have with me. I thought I could download the photos, enabling me to take more than the basic 20, which is a camera full. But when I tried to connect the camera, I discovered that the USB port is disabled for some reason. It told me to go and alter the settings in the BIOS after reading the hardware manual. Pooh… So I'm stuck with just the 20 pictures then.

After a very nice dinner of veggie cannelloni (I thought the hotel dinners were very acceptable and reasonably priced), I caught the second half of the talk on crime and SF. Emerging from the programme room into the bar, I spent the rest of the evening in conversation with old friends and also a couple of new acquaintances.

After a brief foray into the cold night air to look at the lunar eclipse, I returned to the warmth of the bar for a few moments before retiring to my room to wind down and prepare for sleep.

Sunday morning

Up, breakfast, back to room to type up 637 words of the WIP. Then off in search of conversation and another visit to the dealers' room. There isn't anything on the programme that I want to see until 2 today, so I will probably fit in another swim before lunch.

The dealers' room

Llygoden is not buying books. Llygoden has 58 unread books. Llydogen does not need more books. But what is Llygoden carrying? Are those not books? See Llygoden carrying books.

OK, it's a fair cop. But I only bought 4, and Grunts is research for the WIP. Oh, yes it is. I need to know about orcs. That's my story and I'm sticking to it. And the Liz Williams is because people have been saying she's a wonderful new writer, and The curse of Chalion is because I really like Lois McMaster Bujold and they're hard to get locally. And the Dave Langford collection of short stories is because he's a hilarious writer and it's another book I wouldn't get locally. So I didn't really buy any books, not many, anyway.

And I bought a necklace and earrings off Guilia. Very pretty they are too. I'll probably wear them tonight.

I had a swim after that, and now I'm eating a snack before going to the next programme item. Oh, and I phoned my dad, just for a chat. And then I noticed that my mobile credit was getting low, so I topped it up.

The panel at 2 pm was The Turn of Fate -- Alternative Histories. One of the best items, actually. Panellists were writers Harry Harrison, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Ken MacLeod and Charlie Stross, chaired by Paul Kincaid.

I have read work by all the writers except Charlie Stross (and would have read him if any of his published books were available here yet!). Good discussion ensued -- prompted by questions from the audience -- about where to chose as the turning point, when to set the book (past, present or future?) and what sorts of things you can do when writing about an alternative future that are not so easy to do when writing a normal contemporary novel. Advantages include such things as not having rapidly moving real world events wrecking your storyline. I actually managed to ask an intelligent question, namely, had the writers spotted a possible divergence point and worked from the "what would things be like if it had all happened differently?" or had they wanted to use a particular setting and had then looked back for a point or points where changing history would make that setting possible. It turned out to be a 50/50 split. Harry Harrison said he'd taken a "what if?" moment and extrapolated. Ken MacLeod had done an "alternate history" version of one of his SF futures, by taking a decision made by one of his characters and saying, "what would have happened if the decision had gone the other way?" While Charlie Stross said he had "cheated" by creating his situation and then looking back through history to work out what would have had to be different to make it work. Jon Courtenay Grimwood said he'd taken this approach too, but he wouldn't call it cheating. This was interesting, as it confirmed what I had suspected, ie that he had developed the city and cultural milieu of El Iskandria and had then tweaked a few points in history to make it possible.

I managed to talk with Jon afterwards as I took my copy of Felaheen for him to sign. We briefly talked about the use of alternative history and fantasy to enable one to write about situations today that would just bring out a knee-jerk reaction in the reader if one wrote about the actual situation. Shifting it to another setting enables you to explore ideas without getting bogged down in real world politics.

More conversation with a variety of people followed. Then, at 7.30 we migrated from the bar into what had been the dealers' room where the Arabesk food was being served. It was very good; the hotel had done really well, cooking a selection of North African dishes to Jon Courtenay Grimwood's specifications. After we'd eaten, the room gradually became rather noisy and so we migrated back to the bar for more conversation. Finally retired to my room at around midnight and I'm now more or less ready for bed at about 12.45 am.

It was a good con. Hope to do it again next year...


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