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the logo for Archon science fiction convention

Because Archon’s Doing it Right

By Jan S. Gephardt

I am happy to report that I’m going to Archon 44 after all. Why? Because—and only because—Archon’s doing it right.

The Email That Changed Everything

At left, a vaccination map of the US, shows Missouri’s vaccination rate is less than 55%, and Illinois is less than 70%. At right, the most current chart available at publication time shows that on Sept. 20, 2021, there were 207,974 new COVID-19 cases in the USA.
The vaccination map at left is by Josh Renaud, courtesy of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The chart at right is from The New York Times, via Google.

You may recall that a few weeks ago, I very reluctantly decided to withdraw from this year’s FenCon, a Texas science fiction convention that my son and I have come to love. I had been watching the COVID-19 trends in the St. Louis area and growing more and more convinced I’d have to do the same with Archon. But then I got the Email That Changed Everything.

“The Archon Chairs have decided to require vaccination OR a negative COVID test within the previous 72 hours,” the email said. “Documentation is required for both. . . There are no exceptions to this policy.” This is such an unusual and—sadly—BRAVE position to take in this part of the country that I actually gasped.

Archon 44 Co-chairs Alan DeVaughn and Scott Corwin are boldly going where many regional convention chairs have feared to go. And while they’re at it, they’re going “all the way.”

The state of Illinois has mandated masks for indoor public spaces for anyone older than 2 years old,” they wrote. “The mask must cover your nose and mouth, unless you are eating or drinking. If you are asked to put your mask on by an Archon staff / committee member and choose not to comply, you will be asked to leave. There are no exceptions to this policy.”

At left, protesters hold up signs with slogans opposing vaccine requirements. At right, protesters from a different group hold up signs with anti-mask slogans.
At left, protesters demonstrate against vaccine mandates (photo by John Lamparski, via The Atlantic). At right, anti-mask protesters in Kalispell, MT (courtesy of the Flathead Beacon).

Archon’s doing it right.

Yes, Archon’s doing it right, and I couldn’t be more pleased. I plan to honor their commitment to follow both science and good sense in the best way I know how: by coming with my books, my artwork, and my work ethic. I’m scheduled for nine events and panels—and I plan to show up for all of them as well-prepared as I can possibly be.

I’m also going to do everything in my power to promote their event—for example, on this and my other blogs, and on every social media platform where I have a presence. Because Archon’s doing it right, they have earned my heartfelt gratitude and loyalty.

If anyone reading this was on the fence and wavering about coming to Archon, please make this policy your deciding vote for going!

Oh, and a word to the wise: book your hotel reservations (use the link on their homepage to get the convention rate) as soon as possible. Historically, they fill up fast!

This montage shows views from Archon 42 and 42, held in 2018 and 2019. Above are two art panels. Below, two views of the Gateway Center, one in sunshine and the other in rain.
Top L, artists Brent Chumley, Rachael Mayo, and Allison Stein discuss creating fantasy creatures in 2019. Top R, Rachael Mayo and several attendees discuss art materials at a 2018 panel. Below, R-L, we had much sunnier weather at the Gateway Center in 2019 than 2018. (All photos by Jan S. Gephardt).

I Have History with Archon

As I noted in the article on my Events Calendar, Archon has been around for a while.

The “44” in Archon 44 means this annual convention has been around for a while. G., Warren, Pascal and I all went to earlier Archons when we were just starting in fandom. And a few years ago, Ty and I started going to them again. If you follow my blog, you might remember posts I’ve written about hall costumes at Archon 42 and 43, and the Art Show.

It’s a well-established convention, run by people who generally know what they’re doing and find excellent ways to make it a good weekend for attendees.

After years in the funky, rambling, since-demolished Henry VIII Hotel in St. Louis proper, the convention has found an excellent new home in the Gateway Convention Center and DoubleTree Hotel in Collinsville, IL.

Throughout my career, I’ve had some great moments, and met some wonderful people at Archon.

Photos from the “writing side” of Archons 42 and 43, held in 2018 and 2019. These photos show a variety of people engaged in panel discussions, readings, and demonstrations.
At left, EMT Kevin Hammel conducts a highly informative 2019 presentation on gunshot wounds, for writers who want to get it right. Top center, a 2018 panel on Diversity in SF, which included, L-R, Jennifer Stolzer, Kathleen Kayembe, Camille Faye, and Debbie Manber Kupfer (M). Top far right: I prepare for my reading in 2019. Below center L-R: Donna J. W. Munro, Marella Sands, and Christine Nobbe chat with the audience before their readings in 2018. Below R, Jennifer Lynn discusses Shamans, Druids, and Wise Women in a 2019 presentation. Photos by Jan S. Gephardt, with the exception of one (guess which) by Tyrell Gephardt.

But that was then. What about Now?

ecause Archon’s doing it right, I’ll have an opportunity to show off my new book (readers who’ve followed this blog in recent weeks probably noticed I have one) sooner than next February (looking at you, Capricon 42). And I’ll get to display my artwork in an in-person display for the first time in almost 2 years.

“A Bone to Pick” by Jan S. Gephardt, envisioned as an ebook on the left and as a trade paperback on the right.
Jan’s new book A Bone to Pick became widely available in a variety of formats after Release Day, September 15, 2021. Cover artwork © 2020 by Jody A. Lee.

I’m scheduled for an autograph session on Friday, a reading on Sunday, and seven panels (several of which I’m moderating). I love doing those things, because they give me opportunities to have great conversations with other panelists and audience members. I get to meet creative, interesting new people (and so can you, if you’ll join us at Archon). And I also get to re-acquaint myself with people I haven’t seen for a while.

I’ll come equipped with an expanded collection of S.W.A.G., badge ribbons and bookmarks for all (or—if that last order doesn’t arrive in time, at least most) of the books and stories Weird Sisters Publishing has produced so far. If you’re a subscriber to my monthly newsletter, and you tell me so at Archon, I’ll even have an exclusive-offer “I’m a Member of the Pack” badge ribbon for you.

Here’s Jan at her Autograph table, surrounded by S.W.A.G.
Jan at her Capricon 40 autograph table (photo by Tyrell Gephardt).

Introducing “Stripped ‘Scripts”

Also because Archon’s doing it right, my son Tyrell will have a first opportunity to present his new service to authors, called “Stripped ‘Scripts.” Through it, he’ll bring his skills as a developmental editor to a new audience.

What’s a developmental editor, and why would a writer need one? In the movie industry they’re sometimes called “script doctors.” While that name gets applied to services from high level plot-revision to hands-on rewriting, the idea is basically that when a plot or a manuscript has gone off the rails, dead-ended somewhere, or developed another kind of structural dysfunction, all hope may not be lost.

A good developmental editor can look it over and offer an analysis. They’ll often have a better idea of what’s wrong and how to turn it into a structurally sound story than an author who’s “written themself into a corner” and run out of ideas. I’ll freely admit that my stories have benefitted from Ty’s “big picture” view. I also appreciate his fresh takes on cultural adjustments to varied technical innovations, and his martial-arts expertise.

Here’s a photo of Ty, along with his business card for Stripped ‘Scripts
Photo and developmental editing business card design are both courtesy of Tyrell Gephardt.

Because Archon’s Doing it Right, We can Relax and Have a Great Con

I know I’m not the only science fiction fan who has missed going to conventions. I’ve blogged elsewhere about why I love science fiction conventions. Not rubbing shoulders with other writers and the fans who keep us afloat has been disappointing, but necessary during the pandemic.

But although it seems as if it’s taking forever, it’s now in our power to make this fourth wave the last one. It’ll be a bit longer, no thanks to the purveyors of an unprecedented flood of misinformation. But we can do it. Spread the word. Speak up in support of those who are doing it right. Kindly (if possible) help to educate those who are sincerely confused.

Science, technology, and government services (sometimes government really isn’t the problem!) have given us the tools we need. They’ve placed research, growing understanding of this virus, and three phenomenally effective vaccines within our grasp. We’re the taxpayers who’ve underwritten much of this historic work. We now have the right and privilege to avail ourselves of these new tools and understandings.

And because Archon’s doing it right, we now can do it at a science fiction convention!

IMAGE CREDITS:

Many thanks to Archon’s Facebook Page, for the logo header image. The map showing vaccination rates in the United States was created by Josh Renaud for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The chart of COVID-19 cases in the United States is regularly updated by The New York Times, accessed 9/21/2021 via Google.

The montage images from Archon 42 and 43 are all by Jan S. Gephardt except for one, taken by Tyrell E. Gephardt (of Jan’s reading). Ty also took the one of Jan at her Capricon 40 autograph table. Moreover, he provided the photo of himself, along with the image of his “Stripped ‘Scripts” business card.

Many thanks to all!

The good news about self publishing is you get to do everything yourself. The bad news about self publishing is you get to do everything yourself. – Lori Lesko, Wise Famous Quotes.

Indie Issues

Lately, I’ve been increasingly bothered by a cluster of tendencies I call “Indie issues.” They crop up in the writing of otherwise-competent self-published authors, and they happen often enough that I’ve started to recognize them.

Perhaps you’ve noticed, too. No, I’m not talking about plain old bad writing. Of course, beginning writers often write less well than seasoned pros. And yes, a number of Indie writers don’t yet know their craft. To get to “good,” a writer has to go through a period of “bad.”

If you don’t allow yourself the possibility of writing something very, very bad, it would be hard to write something very good. –Steven Galloway, Wise Famous Quotes.
(Steven Galloway/Wise Famous Quotes)

Those aren’t the “Indie issues” I’m calling out. I want to focus instead on the problems that happen when otherwise-good writers try to produce a certain kind of book too quickly, in a format that’s too short.

“Indie issues” described

A book that’s not the right length for the story develops all kinds of problems. It may have the potential for a great plot. Maybe the characters have interesting quirks or intriguing problems. There may be some pretty sound action sequences.

But the book comes off feeling half-baked. The pacing doesn’t always feel natural. Characterizations come off oddly shallow. Contrived plot twists may sometimes force the action. The novelist may attempt to grapple with important themes or interesting problems, but these don’t resonate through the characters’ lives in authentic ways, because everything is moving too fast. The writer does more “telling” than “showing.”

The result may be good enough writing. But it’s not great or memorable writing. And that, I would argue, comes from trying to keep the story too short.

A perceived need for speed

Before new writers launch into independent publishing, they may harbor illusions about being able to tell the story they want to tell, with no gatekeepers to interfere.

Then they learn about Amazon’s algorithms. They bump repeatedly into the seemingly iron rule that to succeed financially in this business they must write as fast as possible. Ideally, they should publish a new title at least every three months. Wait too long and people will forget who you are! Or so the conventional wisdom goes.

There’s a sound reason for this push to write fast. It works! Publishing new stories frequently will  catch the attention of Amazon’s algorithms—and that will bring the story to more readers’ attention. Write fast, publish as often as humanly possible, and focus on small collections of books (trilogies and tetralogies). That’s the formula.

Traditional publishers do this, too. And it’s currently the most reliable Indie approach for actually making money on this writing thing. As long as what you write is well-suited to the “speed” model, you can write some really excellent, entertaining, worthwhile, and vivid fiction.

Here’s Diane Kelly with her dog Junior and the 9 covers of her “Paw Enforcement” Series.
Here’s Diane Kelly (with her dog Junior). She provides an excellent example of the “shorter and often, but good” model. (Artdog Adventures/The Weird Blog).

What does “well-suited to the model” mean?

I don’tmean “formulaic.” I don’t mean falling back into clichés. I don’t mean sloppy writing or shallow characters or other such flaws.

The stories best-suited to the “fast and often” model are generally fairly short (between about 250-350 pages). Genre can be anything. Mysteries, adventure novels, thrillers, romances, westerns, and a host of others can and often do sparkle at this length.

From humor to grimdark and all things in between, it’s fully possible to conceive, write, and polish a really excellent story in a matter of just a few months, once a writer has unlocked the necessary discipline and skills.

Length makes a difference

Depending on a number of characteristics, any given story has an ideal length. The idea will just naturally “work best” at that length.

(Lorrie Moore/Writers Write)

Some ideas are best-suited to flash fiction. Some work better as classic short stories (the SFWA standard for the Nebula Awards is up to 7,500 words), while the “sweet spot” for others ends up about novelette (7,500-17,500 words), or novella (17,500-40,000 words) length. Technically, anything longer than 40,000 words is a novel.

But I’d like to argue there are “degrees of novel,” too. And a lot of great story ideas are perfect for that 250-350-or-so page-length. A lot—but not all. I think the “Indie issues” I’ve encountered lately stem from a mismatch of story idea to length.

No, you can’t just trim down some ideas

If you’re locked into the idea that to have a serious career you absolutely have to publish a book every three months, six months, or other arbitrary (but short) time period, your mission is clear. You absolutely must develop a mindset that creates ideas well-suited to that length.

All well and good. But what if the idea that feeds your soul and keeps you up at night needs more room? What if the story’s more complex, the interactions more multilayered, or the setting/culture(s) require more words? What if you have a lot of “moving parts” to orchestrate?

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you. – Maya Angelou, Wisdom Quotes.
(Maya Angelou/Wisdom Quotes)

Going to greater lengths

What if, to shoehorn it all into a 350-page novel, you’d have to amputate major elements and essentially destroy the story?

If you’re an Indie who only gets ideas for long, richly complex books that take a lot of labor and time to create, you have a real problem—and potential “Indie issues”—if you’re convinced the “write fast and publish often model is the only way to go

I beg of you, please don’t amputate big chunks and publish half-baked books. There is another way. It may be harder and longer, but it exists.

A different kind of books

Did you ever notice that some writers only publish a book every one or two years? That’s not because they’re lazy or slow, or because they need serious editing.

It’s because they write a different kind of books. Books that need more “room” (400-500 pages or sometimes more). And books it’s impossible to write, polish and publish in just a few months. Let’s look at a couple of internationally bestselling mystery writers whose books follow this “bigger books” pattern.

Author Louise Penny with soon-to-be-released “Inspector Gamache” novel #17, “The Madness of Crowds.”
Longer novels, produced at longer intervals, have catapulted Canadian author Louise Penny to much-deserved international bestseller status. Have you discovered her books? (BookPage/GooglePlay).

Maybe you’re familiar with the work of Louise Penny and her “Inspector Gamache” novels. Or perhaps you’re a fan of Deborah Crombie and her “Kincaid and James” mysteries. If you are, you know that they have wildly successful series and tens of thousands of devoted fans.

Looking at some facts, ma’am.

I collected some statistics on both writers’ careers. The stories they needed to tell weren’t shorter, faster-to-produce stories in a variety of trilogies or other short series. Instead, each has developed a long-tailed series that follows the stories of the same handful of “core” characters.

Penny is set to release Book #17, The Madness of Crowds, in August (it’s already a bestseller, based on presales). Crombie’s most recent was #18, A Bitter Feast, released in October, 2018 (yes, that long ago. That’s an eternity in “Indie time,” but her devoted fans are willing to—impatiently—wait).

Deborah Crombie with the cover of her book “A Bitter Feast.”
Photo of Deborah Crombie from her website is by Steve Ullathorne. The cover photo for A Bitter Feast is from the detail page on Crombie’s website. (Deborah Crombie/Artdog Adventures/The Weird Blog).

Since Book #13 of each series, these two award-winning masters of their craft have produced consistently longer books than the “Indie standard” of 250-350 pages. Penny averages 412 pages per book, and she produces a new one approximately every 12 months. Crombie averages 447 pages per book. Her average interval is 19.3 months between books.

“Big Books” aren’t limited by genre

Some of the most influential books ever written fall into this “big books” category. For instance, in my “home genre” of science fiction, the hardcover edition of Frank Herbert’s epic novel Dune weighs in at 528 pages, according to its Amazon listing. A game-changer when it came out in 1965, the genre has never been the same since.

We’ve heard a lot of buzz about Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower recently. Its hardcover edition is 336 pages long, but the sequel, Parable of the Talents, goes to 416.

Big sf books are still being published. N. K. Jemisin’s The City We Became weighs in at 448 pages in its hardcover edition. Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun runs to 464 in its hardcover.

Dune by Frank Herbert, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler, The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin, and Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse.
Some “big books” of science fiction from the past through the present. (see IMAGE CREDITS below).

Is there a place for “big books” in Indie fiction?

I can hear the complaints already. “But those are all traditionally-published!” True. Big corporations with big promotional budgets have bankrolled all of my examples. Indies don’t have big bankrolls for huge promotions. Does this mean people who write “big books” can’t make it as an Indie?

I hope to God it doesn’t! What’s Bred in the Bone weighs in at 464 pages in paperback. And if I can get A Bone to Pick published by September, that’s a little more than 2 years’ interval between them. So I definitely have dogs in this hunt!

The good news about self publishing is you get to do everything yourself. The bad news about self publishing is you get to do everything yourself. – Lori Lesko, Wise Famous Quotes.
(Lori Lesko/Wise Famous Quotes)

A different model of success to counteract “Indie issues”

It looks to be a longer, much-slower-paying game for an Indie who writes “big books” and refuses to succumb to the “Indie issues” that go hand-in-hand with compressing a long story into an arbitrary shorter length.

But traditional publishing has made the longer form work profitably. The careers of Penny, Crombie, and many others demonstrate that truth. And that doesn’t only hold for the big-budget books. But it absolutely is a longer, heavier lift.

If we Indies can’t find a way to make “big books” work for us, then ultimately we aren’t going to have as many deeply-thought-out, in-depth books available to read in the future. And that carries with it the seeds of a profound loss for the field of fiction, as well as for the reading public everywhere.

IMAGE CREDITS

Many thanks to Wise Famous Quotes for the Steven Galloway and Lori Lesko quotes. The montage of Diane Kelly and her “Paw Enforcement” series reprises its appearance on this blog. The Deborah Crombie illustration is also from this blog. I appreciate Writers Write for the quote from Lorrie Moore, and Wisdom Quotes for the quote from Maya Angelou.

I’d like to thank BookPage for the photo of Louise Penny, and GooglePlay for the photo of her The Madness of Crowds cover. Finally, I’m really grateful to the Bookmark for the cover image of Frank Herbert’s Dune. Thanks to Octavia Butler’s website for the covers of Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. I’m grateful to N. K. Jemisin’s website for the cover of The City We Became, and to Rebecca Roanhorse’s website for the photo of John Picacio’s striking cover for Black Sun. All montages are by Jan S. Gephardt.

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