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Finally, my post-Shore Leave post (on Shore Leave)

Sorry it took me so long to write this — it’s been an exhausting week. As I mentioned, I had to leave a day early and drive a fair distance out of my way to pick up some belongings for a relative who recently moved to the DC area. So I spent 6 hours driving on Wednesday. I stayed with my relative’s friends, who were nice and welcoming, but I never get any sleep on my first night in an unfamiliar place (I recently read an article about this — it has to do with the brain’s instinctive alertness to danger, so it’s not just me), so not only was the big drive to DC on Thursday really long — more than 12 hours, as it turned out, including the frequent rest breaks I needed — but I was making it on no sleep and plenty of coffee. The folks I stayed with were kind enough to let me have a travel mug full of coffee to take with me on my drive, in addition to the first cup I had that morning, so that was pretty much all that kept me functional through that really long trip. Oddly, though, even with my car packed with a significant amount of extra weight, I got the best gas mileage I’ve ever had on that part of the journey, even topping 32 MPG. (I learned the habit from my father of always writing down mileage and gallons when I fill the tank to calculate MPG.) I wonder what made it so efficient. Could the extra weight have actually improved mileage somehow by giving me a bit more traction or something? That seems counterintuitive.

(Oh, and when I accidentally stretched out my laptop’s power cord too far Wednesday night and it came unplugged, I discovered the battery is dead. Something I’ll need to take care of when I can afford to.)

The drive out wasn’t entirely smooth, though. I committed to making it in one day because I didn’t want to pay for a motel and because the forecast called for heavy rain in the DC/Baltimore area on Friday — but as it turned out, Friday was quite clear, whereas I hit a fierce, intense thunderstorm at one point on Thursday. The weather radar at the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s travel plazas didn’t show its position clearly — I’m not sure it was a live feed, since it didn’t match what was on my phone’s radar app. But then, that app didn’t seem to show where the storm actually was either. (I wish there were a way to combine it with Google Maps, get both route and weather info at the same time.) Still, as scary as it was, it was mercifully brief, and was the one period of significant rainfall I experienced on the trip.

I made it to Cousin Barb’s home near DC a little before nightfall on Thursday, though I had to wait in the car for a while until she made it home. I hoped I’d be exhausted enough to get some real sleep despite being in a relatively unfamiliar place, but it was very humid, so I got almost none, though I do remember a couple of brief dreams, so there was at least a bit of REM sleep in there. Anyway, on Friday morning, I relied on my new travel mug full of coffee to keep me going as I drove my relative’s belongings to their new place, though I spilled a fair amount of coffee on an empty bookcase and my own tote bag because I overestimated how well the mug’s lid was secured. Nothing important was damaged, though.

After spending the rest of the morning with the family, I finally headed off to the Shore Leave hotel, which was another hour’s drive. I was so worn out by this point that I don’t really remember much detail, but I did the usual thing — shower, change clothes, rest up for a while, then finally venture out into the hotel and look for friends to talk to. As usual, fellow Star Trek novelist and Only Superhuman editor Greg Cox was one of the first people I ran into, and we and some others sat in the hotel Starbucks and chatted for a while about various things. I’m pretty sure Bob Greenberger (former DC Comics editor and Trek novelist) was there too, and Trek novelist Dayton Ward showed up for a time, but I’m not sure who else was there or what we talked about.

Eventually, at 7 PM, I had my first panel, which let me show off Among the Wild Cybers for the first time. Though the panel was nominally about anthologies, i.e. collections of stories by multiple authors, single-author collections like mine were included in the discussion too, so I got to talk about such things as how we chose the story order.

The big debut of the collection was supposed to be that night at Meet the Pros, but I got bad news from the book vendor: the distributor had failed to deliver the books in time for the convention. They were slated to reach his store on Monday, which was after Shore Leave ended. This was very frustrating. I’d brought a half-dozen copies with me (albeit slightly imperfect ones, from the first print run that left out the Only Superhuman preview at the back), but I’d given two to family members and I needed to keep one for my later panels, so I only had three copies to offer him to sell on consignment. As it happened, nobody bought any at Meet the Pros anyway, though all three copies sold on Saturday. Still, Meet the Pros was busier this year than it’s been in a while — perhaps because William Shatner was a guest at the con this year so there was larger attendance — and I did a good job selling the backlist Star Trek novels I brought with me.

But my favorite memory from Meet the Pros was getting to meet Michael Okuda, the longtime illustrator and technical consultant for the Trek franchise from Star Trek IV through Enterprise, as well as the co-author of the Star Trek Chronology and Encyclopedia, a member of the team that created Star Trek Remastered, and a graphic designer for NASA. He’s kind of a Trek legend (along with his wife/collaborator Denise, also in attendance), and he’s been of great help over e-mail with a number of my books, but this was his first Shore Leave. I was pleasantly surprised when he came up to me at my Meet the Pros table in order to meet me in person at last. Turns out he’s a really friendly guy. I went to one of his and Denise’s talks later on Sunday, and they’re both really nice people, who later on insisted on taking a picture with me.

In the less fun category, one of my pens started leaking in the pocket of one of my best shirts and left a stain that just got bigger the more I tried to wipe at it. I had to spend most of Friday night hiding the stain under my jacket. The next day I changed back into the shirt I’d worn previously (I didn’t have many other options, since I packed light to make room for my relative’s stuff), only to find it had a smaller ink stain in the same place. Anybody know how to get ink stains out of cotton/polyester?

I actually got a fair night’s sleep after MtP, though not a full night’s sleep, because MtP runs to midnight and I woke up sometime after 5 AM. I remembered a trick I finally figured out last year — since the hotel mattresses are a bit too firm for me, sleeping on top of the comforter makes it soft enough to be comfortable. Although using the other half of the comforter as a blanket made me too hot, which may be why I woke up early. Anyway, when I checked my e-mail on my phone that morning, I got a nice bit of good news, which I’ll share in a later post.

I had a pretty early panel on science fact in fiction, and… I can hardly remember anything we talked about. I’m starting to think I should’ve been more diligent about keeping this blog during the convention, as much as an aid for my own sleep-deprived memory as for anyone else. I remember it being a pretty good panel, moderated by Kelli Fitzpatrick, a new writer friend I met at last year’s Shore Leave and who’s already become an integral member of the gang. After the panel, I tagged along with Kelli and sat in the audience on a panel on cultural and gender representation in fiction, moderated by author/editor Mary Fan, and with my former Trek editor Marco Palmieri on the panel as well. It was pretty interesting, and when the question was raised about the difference between cultural representation and appropriation, I had a thought that I didn’t have the opportunity to express during the Q&A but mentioned to Mary afterward: That maybe the difference is akin to the difference between symbiosis and parasitism, in that it’s about whether the entity that takes something from another also gives something back to it in turn.

At noon, I had a panel on the Star Trek Adventures game, with my editor Jim Johnson and moderator Stephen Kozeniewski. I finally got to see some of the game books in hardcopy form and see the final formatted version of some of the adventures, although Jim tells me that my first couple of adventures probably won’t be published until August or so. Since I have little prior experience with gaming, it was an informative panel for me, even though I can’t clearly remember all of it. But I remember talking about the challenge of adapting my writing style to stories where I don’t know who the main characters will be, and figuring out how to create situations that are at once generic and adaptable to any characters yet designed to encourage character development and growth — for instance, a situation that forces the characters to address a moral dilemma, or to try to convince a character of something by drawing on their personal experience and values, or the like.

It turned out that I had a third Saturday panel that I failed to mention in my schedule post, because I’d forgotten applying for it and my name didn’t seem attached to it on the copy of the schedule I got. It was a panel about Sherlock Holmes and his various adaptations, and fortunately the moderator Roberta Rogow reminded me of it the night before. I was probably the one panelist least qualified to be there, since most of the others (including Keith R.A. DeCandido and Mary Fan) had written various Holmes pastiches, whereas my only bit of Holmes-related writing is that Locus Online post I did a few years ago, plus my blog reviews of the Rathbone films and whatnot last year. But I managed to hold my own, I think.

Let’s see, after that I went down to the book vendors and spent some time catching up with David Mack, who was doing his hour in the Author Chimney, the narrow space between brick columns which is where authors spend an hour at a time signing books for passersby. Dave has grown a goatee and dyed his hair bright blue, apparently in homage to or solidarity with his old boss on Deep Space Nine, Ira Steven Behr. He also had some good insights about Star Trek: Discovery through his connections to the show’s staff, and his words encouraged me about the future of the show after its recent staff upheavals. I did my own hour in the Chimney after Dave left and sold a few more of the books I brought with me. They’d already sold out of the three copies of Among the Wild Cybers I’d provided, which was good, though it’s a shame they didn’t have more copies available.

But the highlight for us authors on Shore Leave Saturdays is the annual group visit to Andy Nelson’s BBQ for dinner and conversation. Since I was so broke, I mostly just ate food I brought from home or from the folks I stayed with en route, but Andy Nelson’s is a tradition, and fortunately I’d made enough on book sales to feel comfortable paying for it.  We managed to get the indoor dining room to ourselves for only the second time since I started going along, which was good, since it was way too hot and humid outside. My usual pulled turkey sandwich was drier than usual, but a bit of BBQ sauce helped with that, and I was given extra stewed tomatoes on the side since my first helping got partly spilled. I had some nice conversation with Keith DeCandido, his wife Wrenn, Kelli Fitzpatrick, and others, and afterward Keith and Wrenn treated me to an Italian ice at a place Wrenn spotted along the way and apparently knew from the past. I got a banana-flavor one and was pleasantly surprised to find it had real banana puree and chunks in it.

It was kind of late when we got back and I was still sleepy, so after enough time to digest my big dinner and dessert, I turned in early. This time, I got more than a full night’s sleep, managing to sleep in well past 7 AM. I mostly just puttered around in my room until it was time to check out, which I did before the Okudas’ presentation at 11. After that, just the once, I splurged on a burger and orange juice at the hotel Starbuck’s — which, interestingly, cost exactly 1 cent more than my entire dinner at Andy Nelson’s the night before. So I was well-nourished for my personal Q&A panel at 1 PM. It was surprisingly well-attended for a Sunday afternoon, and though I didn’t have any specific presentation prepared, there were plenty of questions and we kept up a good conversation about Among the Wild Cybers and my other writing. Afterward, I managed to sell most of the remaining books I had with me, even including two hardcover copies of Only Superhuman.

The remainder of the con was just hanging out in the autograph section talking to other writers. I finally made a bit more progress in the discussion of a project that I’ve been talking about with someone for several Shore Leaves now but that’s been slow to get going. I now at least know the specifics of what I should aim for, and now it’s just a question of actually bringing it about, though at this point I’m not holding my breath for it to progress rapidly. I also let a certain editor know I’d be interested in pitching to their next anthology, a project I think it would be cool to be part of. So we’ll see how that goes. Oh, and this is also when I posed for that photo with Mike & Denise Okuda. (I didn’t manage to meet any of the actor guests this year.) Before I left, I made sure to find Kelli, since she was one of the lucky few who managed to buy a copy of Among the Wild Cybers and had let me know she wanted me to sign it. I’m glad I got to sign at least one copy of the book, especially for a friend.

After that was the usual deal, spending Sunday night at Barb’s again. I considered sticking around for another day or so, but I was getting eager to get home. I gathered that a bunch of the other writers had been invited to visit the Goddard Space Flight Center with the Okudas, and I would’ve liked to be part of that, but apparently they were all booked up already and couldn’t accommodate another guest, so I had to miss out. So on Monday morning I just set out on the long drive home. Having survived the even longer drive I made on Thursday, and remembering how smoothly this return trip on the fastest possible route had gone last year, I felt pretty confident I could make the trip in one day, though I still made sure to have a full travel mug of coffee before I left. Anyway, it was an uneventful trip and I got home safely and I’m still recovering 3 days later. That was a heck of a long trip.

Still, it turned out to be a good trip. I got some significant stuff accomplished both in terms of career and family, and for once I made significantly more money than I spent, partly because I economized all I could and partly because it was a busy con and my book sales were quite good (despite the lack of Wild Cybers). Plus I got a cool new coffee mug!

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Shore Leave 40 — my schedule

The Shore Leave 40 schedule is now up at the main site:

https://www.shore-leave.com/programming/schedule.htm

Here are my panels, with descriptions quoted from the convention booklet:

FRIDAY 7/6:

Anthologies – Share The Love — 7 PM, Salon E
What attracts readers to short story collections? Do you prefer themed collections, single author collections, or a Whitman’s Sampler of stories? What draws authors to write for anthologies?
Greg Cox (M), Phil Giunta, Jenifer Rosenberg, Keith R. A. DeCandido, Christopher L. Bennett, Joshua Palmatier, Richard C. White
Meet the Pros — Hunt/Valley Corridor, 10 PM – midnight
The usual mass signing event for all the authors, where Among the Wild Cybers will make its formal debut. I also plan to have copies of older books to sell and sign, including Only Superhuman and some Star Trek back titles.
SATURDAY 7/7:
Science Fact — 9 AM, Derby Room
What really cool recent technologies and scientific breakthroughs or discoveries will shape our near future reality, as well as the way we tell genre stories?
Kelli Fitzpatrick (M), Phil Giunta, Christopher L. Bennett, Glenn Hauman, Mary Louise Davie
Star Trek Adventures RPG — 12 PM, Salon E
Starfleet needs a new crew! Come hear about how you can boldly explore strange new worlds at the game table with friends.
Stephen Kozeniewski (M), Jim Johnson, Christopher L. Bennett
SUNDAY 7/8:
Christopher L. Bennett Q&A — 1 PM, Derby Room
In connection with the Shore Leave premiere of Among the Wild Cybers, the author talks about his 20-year career writing original and tie-in fiction.
So pretty much just Salon E and Derby for me, both relatively small meeting rooms. I wasn’t expecting a huge crowd for my solo panel anyway, not on a Sunday afternoon. But it’s a chance to talk about AtWC and its stories, including the new Only Superhuman prequel story “Aspiring to Be Angels.” Aside from the panels, I’ll probably do a stint or two at the book vendors’ table.

Things are starting to look up

I can’t believe it’s only been three and a half weeks since I put out my desperate plea for donations and was worried whether I’d be able to pay my rent for the month. My fortunes have finally begun to improve since then. The generous donations I received from you, my readers, helped a lot, but in addition, just today I finally got approvals for a couple more Star Trek Adventures role-playing game campaigns I wrote a little while back. And since Modiphius pays very promptly, I should see the money in the bank within a matter of days, which means I should be able to pay my remaining bills for the month on time, and be in a fairly good position for next month.

I’ve even decided to keep my bicycle after all. Now that my situation’s a bit less desperate, I figure the limited amount of money I could get for it wouldn’t be worth the sacrifice. (I’m lucky, then, that nobody was willing to meet my offered price.) I could still stand to make more money if I can, but I feel I have other options now, ones that wouldn’t require giving up so much. And now that I’ve come close to losing my bike, I’m not taking it so much for granted, and I’m starting to feel I should try to get more use out of it again. I could definitely use the exercise.

Meanwhile, I’ve now mailed off all the autographed books that some of you ordered from me the other week. Sorry it took so long, but you should all get your books soon-ish. Of course, I’m always willing to sell more.

Also, there’s still the ongoing Kickstarter campaign for Among the Wild Cybers, now with just 5 days to go and just $77 short of unlocking its third stretch goal. At this point, it looks like the advance I’ll be getting from it will be fairly modest, but who knows? The other day, the pledge tally jumped by over $200 literally overnight, though it’s only gained another dollar in the 2 days since. So it’s impossible to say where it’ll end up at this point. I’m hoping that a lot of people save their pledges for the last day or two of a campaign. But there’s not a lot of time left, folks, plus there are several pledge bonuses that are available only in limited quantities, including hardcover and audiobook copies of Only Superhuman. So if anyone’s been holding off for whatever reason, I recommend acting fast.

As for my situation beyond June… well, as I mentioned the other day, I’ve gotten some promising news on that front, but it’s nothing I can talk about yet. Things might still be financially tight for me a little while longer, depending on how long it takes for things to play out. But I’m now more confident that I’ll be able to make it through, barring emergencies. Although I also have to work pretty fast on a few projects over the next several weeks, and I should probably get back to work on the most urgent one. Still, that’s a better feeling than the borderline panic of just a few short weeks ago. It’s been a very eventful time since then, and it’s only the beginning. And I’m really grateful to my fans for your help in getting me through the roughest patch.

Yes, I’m going to Shore Leave this year

My second piece of writing news today: I can now confirm that I will be attending Shore Leave in Hunt Valley, Maryland as usual this year. The SF/fantasy convention will be held from July 6-8, 2018 at its usual venue, which is under new ownership yet again and is now called Delta Hotels Baltimore Hunt Valley.

https://www.shore-leave.com/

The plan is to debut Among the Wild Cybers at the convention, a process I’ll talk more about once I figure out just what it entails. This will be the first time I’ve debuted an original book at Shore Leave. I’m hoping there will be print copies of Hub Space available as well, but I’m not certain yet.

Hub Space cover

Oh, and there’ll be some actor guy named Shatner there too. I think I’ve seen him in one or two things…

Annotations update: dead links fixed

A TrekBBS member called Extrocomp was kind enough to go through the Star Trek annotations pages here on my blog and alert me to the various links that have gone dead in the years since I posted them, even providing updated file names from Memory Alpha. I spent the morning correcting the dead links — either updating the file locations, linking to Internet Archive snapshots of the now-defunct pages, or finding suitable alternative links to convey the same information (such as Wiki pages, or in one or two cases, the original source of an article that I’d linked to a mirror of). After which, since I can never resist being thorough, I went through my Original Fiction and Marvel annotations on my own and updated or replaced broken links as needed. So now all the annotations should have fully updated links, although there might still be broken links I haven’t yet found on some of the non-annotation pages of the site.

So, thanks, Extrocomp, for your diligence!

 

I’m writing for the STAR TREK ADVENTURES role-playing game!

February 17, 2018 1 comment

I’m now able to announce another one of the writing projects I’ve been working on over the past few months. I’m writing campaigns/game scenarios for the Star Trek Adventures role-playing game from Modiphius Entertainment. This is a new tabletop RPG that debuted last year, with a lot of the writing being done by fellow Trek prose authors that I know from the Shore Leave convention, including Jim Johnson (who’s the line editor in charge of the writers), Dayton Ward, and Scott Pearson. So last year at Shore Leave, I asked Dayton and Scott if I could get on board, they put me in touch with Jim, and here I am.

Star Trek Adventures has several different game threads. There’s the Living Campaign, which you can sign up to join at the site, and which has ongoing storylines in the Original Series and Next Generation/Deep Space Nine/Voyager time frames, written largely by Dayton Ward and Scott Pearson. (EDIT: Rather, I’m told that Dayton & Scott created the basic outline of the Living Campaign, but other writers are doing the regular installments.) There are also a bunch of standalone adventures, which are being written by various different authors, including me, and will be available online as PDF downloads. These are self-contained “episodes” that gaming groups can play in one or two sessions, usable for just about any set of characters. They’re usually set in a specific time frame, but most can be adapted for play in different Trek eras if the players desire.  And of course, Gamemasters can buy the Core Rulebook and use it to create their own campaigns as well. Indeed, we’re encouraged to conclude our standalone campaigns with hooks for possible sequels/continuations that GMs can develop themselves.

I’ve never really gotten into any Star Trek or other role playing games in the past. There was that time a while back when a college friend worked with me on a two-person e-mail game we called Dragon Trek, where I played a Starfleet character who got transported into a Dungeons & Dragons world that she ran as the Dungeon Master. It was her attempt to ease me into gaming by combining our different interests into something we could share, and it was fun for a while, but unfortunately she got too busy with family and parenting, so we never really got past the preliminaries. But the character I created for that game was the basis for the T’Ryssa Chen character I debuted in Star Trek: The Next Generation — Greater Than the Sum about 7 years later.

Aside from that, though, I never really got into gaming, particularly Trek games, since it seemed to me that they often tended to focus far too much on combat and war scenarios, which are not my preferred thing for Star Trek to be about. What drew me to the Star Trek Adventures game is that its focus is less on fighting and more on plot and character development, emulating the structure of Trek TV episodes. Character creation is focused less on physical skills and training (since all Starfleet officers are presumed to be experts to begin with) and more on personal attributes like Control, Insight, Daring, Presence, and Reason, as well as personal values and life experience. For instance, the character creation process even includes a step where you choose a couple of important “Career Events” that give your character backstory and inform their behavior in the here and now. I found that so intriguing that I made a point of developing a campaign that would bring the characters’ backstories into play in the main story. (No, it’s not a time travel campaign.)

The goal of gameplay in STA is not merely to gather loot or gain combat experience points, but to advance character development by challenging the character’s values and achieving personal milestones depending on how those challenges are resolved. There are combat mechanics, but they’re a subset of the larger set of Conflict mechanics that focuses more heavily on Social Conflict, i.e. persuasion, reasoning, deception, negotiation, intimidation, etc. Action is presented more in terms of Tasks and Challenges to overcome, which can be anything from winning a fight to upgrading a ship’s system to making a scientific discovery to convincing a hostile alien to make peace. I think the game’s system does a very neat job of converting Star Trek‘s values and style of storytelling into game mechanics. Just in general, it seems like a pretty versatile system.

For those who are curious about such things, you can read more on the website link in the first paragraph, but the game is based on a 2d20 system, which means that it uses two 20-sided (icosahedral) dice, a staple of tabletop RPGs. It also uses a variable number of 6-sided dice (the more the better) as “Challenge Dice” for determining success in Tasks, Challenges, and Conflicts; Modiphius sells specialized dice with Starfleet delta emblems on them, but you can substitute regular 6-sided dice. I actually have a set of gaming dice including 2 d20s and a bunch of 6-sided dice, among others — it’s actually my sister’s old gaming dice pouch from high school, which she left behind when she went to college and I eventually claimed for myself. (I don’t remember whether I had her permission or not, so I might have technically swiped them, but then, my sister got most of her 6-sided dice by swiping them from the family’s board games, so it evens out.) I used them for the Dragon Trek game, but I haven’t used them since. (I even made a dice roller out of a paper towel roll, but these days it’s a pencil holder on my desk.) I thought it might be necessary to use those dice in the course of creating campaigns for the game, but as it’s turned out, I haven’t needed to. Creating a game is more a matter of following the Core Rulebook to determine what the mechanics and success parameters are for a given Task, so I just need to say what you need to roll to succeed; I don’t need to roll any dice myself. I suppose I could use the dice if I wanted to create a character by random means, but since I’m creating characters to fill specific story functions, it’s better to customize their attributes.

Even with all the help from the Rulebook, it’s been a challenge for me to adjust to a new style of writing. I’m used to coming at a story from the perspective of its main characters, to build plots that are driven by characters’ distinct personalities and objectives and values. Now, though, I have to figure out ways to tell stories in which I don’t even know who the main characters are — stories that can be adapted to any main characters and still work regardless of their personalities and choices. That’s not easy to do. One way is to focus on plot and the problems the characters have to solve, while creating room within the plot for individual character development, or alternative paths the plot can take depending on what the characters choose to do or whether they succeed or fail at a task. Another way is to focus on the personalities of the “guest stars,” the non-player characters I create, and how their values and agendas drive events and compel the Player Characters to respond. That’s kind of the way the original Star Trek and most 1960s-70s television approached things — keeping the lead characters constant from week to week and having most of the character development and growth be driven by the featured guest stars. But that’s less satisfying for me. What I’ve tried to do is to design situations that will challenge the PCs to make difficult moral choices, confront their personal issues, or try to win someone over with arguments based on their own core values, then leave them a lot of room to role-play and debate and work through it all, with their success or failure affecting what happens next in the story. It’s been quite a challenge, figuring out ways to do character-driven storytelling in the absence of specific characters. I hope I’ve managed to pull it off.

However, I have done one campaign so far that’s much more of a big action-adventure epic. I actually tried to do that one first, but it was too complex in its game mechanics, so I got stuck. I ended up writing a couple of others first, getting a handle on how the mechanics worked, and then tackled the big one. That one hasn’t gotten final approval yet, but hopefully it will soon. It should be a pretty fun one.

I’m not yet sure when my first campaigns will go on sale, but I’m told it should be within the next couple of months. I’ll let you know when they become available.

Locus bestseller again!

Blowing my own horn department: Star Trek: Enterprise — Rise of the Federation: Patterns of Interference has made the Locus Bestsellers list in the Media & Gaming Related category for the third month in a row! After two months at first place in the category, it’s now fallen to #4, but I’m still on there!

Thanks to David Mack for the heads-up!