In these increasingly divided times it’s always great when you can get together with a group of like-minded people and have intelligent discussions about literature, art, history, philosophy, and other “thinky” topics. It’s also great to share a laugh and break some bread with those you might not see as often as you’d like. In fact, it’s always great just to “get away” for awhile and focus on things that matter to you, while in the process relaxing and having a chance to enjoy yourself.

All of these reasons–and more–are why I love attending the World Fantasy Convention. This year marks my 10-year anniversary as a fan/member of WFC–although I’ve only been to five conventions in those ten years. Finances didn’t always permit it–especially when the con moved out of the country, or all the way on the other side of it. Last year I missed it because of a last-minute illness, but this year I didn’t even have to take an airplane. Driving down to Los Angeles from the Bay Area is always a pleasure–you spend most of your time on the I-5, and you pass through some truly beautiful country.

Art by Tim White

Cruising through the Angeles National Forest before you descend into the L.A. basin is a mystical experience. Tons of vegetation in those hills, but hardly any trees. Pyramid Lake sparkles like Tinseltown dreams, a promise of bounty waiting just over the horizon. Coming in from the north, you pass right out of those mystical hills and discover the Mulholland Drive exit. That is the moment you know you’ve reached the City of Angels, or more specifically the Hollywood Hills. I didn’t have time to take a drive up Mulholland like I’ve always wanted to do–I was already late for the convention–but the next time it’s definitely on my “to-do” list.

The high point of this year’s WFC, as always, were the great discussion panels. One of particular note was the “Long Time Writing” panel, which my pal Darrell Schweitzer lovingly called the “Old-Timers Panel” (which he’s allowed to do because he’s one of those old-timers, having attended every WFC since the first one in 1975). Anyway, this was a great panel of writers who have been creating popular fiction for decades: Robert Silverberg, Joe Haldeman, Bruce McAllister, Kevin Murphy, Howard Hendrix, and Gwynne Garfinkle. I found this panel pretty inspiring because of where I’m at right now. I turned 50 a few weeks ago, and I’ve been trying to figure out where my writing career is going next. Hence my recent decision to quit writing short stories and focus exclusively on novels.

Art by Bruce Pennington

These writers have kept their careers going through all the obstacles life has placed in their path, and they never gave up. Silverberg retired once in ’75 and came back around ’80, and now he’s enjoying his second retirement. And yet his body of work is still being published, optioned, and adapted. The Rolling Stones don’t NEED to write any new albums to be superstars, and Bob Silverberg doesn’t need to write another word to secure his place as a Grandmaster of the field. Joe Haldeman told a great story about being shot–shot!–while riding a bike. He actually survived a random drive-by shooting–how many people can say that? Bruce McAllister talked about a health scare that left him on medication that kept him alive, but prevented him from writing for years. And yet he came back and wrote again. And he’s still writing.

Another hard-to-forget panel was “When Hollywood Comes Calling,” wherein Silverberg and McAllister joined Eldon Thompson, Curtis Chen, and John Skipp to discuss the wacky process of selling your ideas to Hollywood producers. All of them had crazy stories about the process that reminded me of every movie I’ve ever seen about the inner workings of the entertainment industry. “It’s all who you know” is the one incessant rule that seems to run Hollywood. When personnel changes, projects get killed. So many great stories of Hollyweird were shared that I can’t remember them all. It made me glad that I write novels instead of scripts.

Art by Bruce Pennington

One thing I’ll never forget is Silverberg’s story about getting paid $10,000 to write a STAR TREK episode treatment–an offer that came out of the blue, especially since he had never seen a single episode of the show! Nevertheless, he wrote the treatment, got the check, and spent an evening with Gene Roddenberry playing Pong. The treatment never became an actual episode. One of the panel’s most important takeaways: If your book/story gets optioned, take the money but don’t expect it to actually get made. Only 1 in 1000 optioned stories actually get developed into movies/shows. Dealing with publishing companies may be hard sometimes, but it’s a picnic compared to dealing with Hollywood’s bizarre twists-and-turns as projects are lost in development hell and life-changing decisions often turn on a boardroom whim. Silverberg’s advice? “Just cash the checks, and forget about it.”

The late Harlan Ellison was there in spirit. I’m so grateful that I got to meet Harlan (and hear him speak) at Worldcon 2006. Silverberg told a few great stories about his old friend, as he usually does. Those two were the Dynamic Duo of Golden Age sci-fi–many of their exploits, feuds, and adventures are well documented. But I didn’t know that at one point Harlan spent a small fortune on stone gargoyles for his house. Gargoyles! That’s just the kind of guy Ellison was–a guy who wanted some damn gargoyles–so he got ’em. Who knows? Maybe Harlan was inspired by Clark Ashton Smith’s classic story “The Maker of Gargoyles”–he was one of Smith’s biggest fans after all.

Art by Enrich Torres

The “Heroine’s Journey” panel was a great examination of how female heroes/protagonists differ from male heroes/protagonists. Many great points were made, but my takeaway was this: Female heroes will usually be more nurturing and social than male heroes, so this tends to reshape their heroic journey in significant ways. All of which is a fancy way of saying Men and Women are different. I asked if Bilbo would have taken better care of the Dwarves in THE HOBBIT if he were a female hobbit. My question drew a laugh, but then someone pointed out that Sam Gamgee’s journey is more of a “Heroine’s Journey” because he basically takes care of Mr. Frodo the whole time–Sam the Nurturer becomes Sam the Warrior when Shelob tries to devour Frodo. Writers must always keep in mind that every human being has both male and female qualities, and everyone has their own mixture of these qualities, regardless of biology or sex. This was a pretty deep panel!

I really dug the “Black Fantasy and Horror” panel featuring Sheree Renee Thomas, Tananarive Due, Steven Barnes, and Andrea D. Hairston. There was much discussion of how movies like BLACK PANTHER and Jordan Peele’s US have opened doors for black voices, not only in films and TV, but also in the book industry. Afro-Futurism is science fiction, fantasy, and horror created by and/or featuring the children of the African Diaspora. This is a field with a global reach, since there are black voices being heard now from all over the world. Barnes told a fascinating story of the time a publisher turned his novel’s black protagonist into a white guy on the cover, yet everyone at the company blamed someone else for the decision. Really makes you think. Awesome panel.

Art by Stephen Fabian

I served on a Saturday panel called “A Culture Not My Own” with C.H. Hung (terrific moderator!), S.B. Divya, Catherine Cooke Montrose, Brenda Carre, and Sheila Finch. It was a spirited discussion about using other cultures to build a fantasy world and/or telling stories sat in existing cultures that are not the writer’s own. My perspective as a fantasy writer is that I create imaginary worlds, and in order to do that you have to study the REAL world, i.e. you take elements from various historical cultures and mix them with your own imagination. That’s how you do it. There were a lot of great questions about how to do it right, and how to make sure you’re being sensitive to existing cultures. Having a good intent is important, but it’s not enough: You also have to do your research. Divya suggested using “sensitivity readers” (a specific type of “beta readers”) who belong to the culture you are writing about. Such a great idea–especially if you’re writing about a culture that currently exists. I had a lot of fun on this panel, and made some new friends too.

Overall, I came away energized and inspired–not only by the discussions and the encouragement, but also by the stories from writers who made NEVER GIVE UP their personal motto. You kinda have to do that if you want any kind of longevity in the writing business.

My takeaway: Keep on keepin’ on. Persistence is the name of the game.

Kinda makes me feel a bit better about moving so slowly on this new novel. As usual, I’ll pick up speed this summer when my teaching duties aren’t demanding most of my time. I plan to finish writing IMMACULATE SCOUNDRELS by the end of Summer 2020. Then it will be up to my agent to work his magic, while I move on to planning the next one.