Archive for September, 2011

What I learned about writing from being an extra

I spent the day yesterday working as an extra on the new NBC series Grimm, a supernatural cop show which is being filmed in (and, unlike Leverage, is set in) Portland. The show premieres on October 21 and, with luck, you’ll see me in the seventh episode, as a reporter holding a microphone in the police chief’s face and also possibly as an out-of-focus figure in the background of some other shot. Will the show be any good? Heck if I know. But I had fun working on it.

Extra work is, as I’ve said before, very much like jury service. The pay’s a pittance, the hours long, and there’s lots of waiting, but you get to play a small but vital part in a large, complex, and societally significant enterprise. Also you get to spend time with interesting random strangers and see tantalizing bits of a larger story whose beginning and end you may never know.

Being as how I was sitting around the set for a long time with not much to do but watch and think, and being as how I am a writer, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a few writing lessons.

The first one came from the fact that, once we extras were all costumed up, you could tell at a glance exactly what kind of character we were supposed to be. This one was obviously a perp, that one a tough cop, that one a no-nonsense detective, that other one a caring social worker. This is no accident — the casting directors look over photographs of the available talent, choose people to represent the desired type of background character based on their appearance, then select appropriate costumes and props to thoroughly reinforce that first impression.

The writing lesson here is that not all characters need to be fully rounded. The purpose of extras is to make the scene look realistic (it would be pretty odd if our heroes were all alone in the police station all the time), but apart from that they should not be allowed to take any attention away from the main characters. Making them obvious types means that the viewer can see them, understand who they are, and not spend any additional brain power on them. By contrast, I’ve seen some beginning writers apply everything they’ve read about developing believable characters to every character, even the spear carriers. This is distracting and counterproductive. You don’t want to be too stereotypical — not every cop is a beefy Irishman, not every nurse an attractive white woman — but there’s no need to build up a life story and background for every person who appears in every scene.

The second writing lesson is that props are a great way to quickly communicate character. I myself had been a police detective in a previous casting call, but this time — wearing the same suit and standing on the same set, but with a microphone instead of a gun and badge — I was a reporter. If you have a character enter the scene wearing a stethoscope or carrying a wrench, you’ve prepared them for action and communicated their role to the reader in just a few words. This technique can be used with major characters as well, to create an initial impression or communicate their current intent.

The third writing lesson is that nothing is deeper than it has to be. When you see a scene with many people bustling about in the background, what you don’t see is that every one of them was carefully positioned and began moving just moments before the beginning of the shot. Often there’s a line of extras waiting just out of sight, each one with instructions to step out at a certain interval after the previous one. And the wall they’re waiting behind? On the side that isn’t facing the camera, it’s unpainted plywood. In writing, you don’t necessarily need to know everything about your characters and your world — you just need to know a little more than you’re showing, enough to create a believable illusion for your readers. (Of course, as you go on writing about the same characters or world you may find that some of your early handwaves need to be fleshed out. This is one of the things that revision is good for, and one of the reasons later books in a series can be much harder to write.)

None of these writing lessons was new to me, and every one of them can be overdone or used inappropriately, but they’re all useful techniques and it’s good to be reminded of them every once in a while.


So now I can finally talk about the big project that has kept me virtually silent on all social media for the last month or so.

It started… oh, a couple of years ago, when I realized that the year 2011 would mark both my 50th birthday and Kate’s, and also our 20th wedding anniversary. This confluence of major milestones seemed to call for a big celebration, and after some cogitation I decided I wanted to hold “BentoCon: A Science Fiction Convention and Square Dance.” The name BentoCon commemorates the fanzine Bento that Kate and I have been producing on an approximately annual basis since 1989, and the combination of science fiction and square dancing commemorates the two hobbies (or is that ways of life) that have occupied so much of our time together.

The idea of a birthday convention is not our invention. The first one I’m aware of (though we did not attend it) was Elise Matthesen’s EliseCon, which begat Jane Hawkins’s JaneCon (which we sort of crashed), which was followed by Donya Hazard White, Deb Notkin, and Jeanne Gomoll’s CroneCon and Ellen Klages’s month in France. But BentoCon was going to be the first with a square dance.

After kicking around ideas in a desultory fashion for a year or more, at the end of 2010 we decided to get serious about the project, and signed a hotel contract in January of 2011. Over the next few months we sent out invitations (although we would have loved to invite everyone we know, the space was limited and so, unfortunately, some lovely people had to be left out), arranged for a celebratory cake, booked a square dance caller (our good friend the talented Bill Eyler, and asked some of our friends to help us run it (notably Karen Schaffer, who headed up the hospitality suite, and Mary Kay Kare, who ran the at-con registration desk). Kate and I ran the program, publications, hotel, audio-video, and displays as well as being the chairs and guests of honor. I joked that we really could have used a couple of GoH liaisions.

The last few weeks, especially since the Worldcon, were incredibly hectic; we were both working on BentoCon essentially every waking hour and neither of us got a whole lot of sleep. But when people began to show up, and we saw the square dancers and the science fiction fans chatting happily together in our incredibly convivial hospitality suite, we knew it had all been worth it.

We had a fabulous hotel, which in a previous life as the Hotel Multnomah had been the site of the 1950 Worldcon. The main program space included a fireplace, which (thanks to a last-minute inspiration of Kate’s) we decorated with cardboard stand-up photographs of the various awards on our mantel at home. The large and comfy hospitality suite was mere steps away from the program room, and included distinct areas for food, games, conversation, jigsaw puzzles, and badge decoration (thanks to a fantastic collection of stickers sent by Geri Sullivan who, alas, could not attend in person). On Saturday night we had a second function room, just across the hall, for the square dance, to which we’d also invited any local dancers who cared to attend. And the mezzanine area between them all was the site of the registration and info tables, plus two additional tables for a book swap and craft swap. The latter two provided a useful public service of redistribution of quality books and craft items to people who could better appreciate them, as well as draining away any impulse our guests might have had to bring presents.

The hotel’s location in downtown Portland was superb, within walking distance of Powell’s Books and tons of excellent restaurants, not to mention a couple of “pods” of food carts, a half-dozen chocolate shops, and Portland’s only glow-in-the-dark pirate-themed indoor mini-golf. The hotel staff were also fabulously helpful and efficient.

We recognized from the beginning that this event might run afoul of the Geek Social Fallacies, especially #4 (Friendship is Transitive, which we risked violating by inviting people from different social groups), but we needn’t have worried. We opened the convention (after softening everyone up with the singing of rounds and a pair of fabulous cakes from the Bakery Bar) with a pair of panels on “introduction to science fiction fandom for non-fans” and “introduction to gay square dance culture for non-dancers” that got everyone on the same page and gave people things to talk about. Everywhere I looked for the whole rest of the convention I saw dancers, fans, and relatives talking together, going out to dinner together, and singing songs together.

The singing of songs was a surprisingly important part of the event. We opened with the Apple Maggot Quarantine Song from Bento #1 and “To Stop the Train” from Bento #4, complete with gestures. On Saturday we had a group singalong, with projected videos and lyrics, of our favorite songs from Tom Lehrer, Jonathan Coulton, Queen, the Arrogant Worms, Savage Garden, and They Might Be Giants. And my old college roommate Kurt Gollhardt brought out his guitar on Saturday night; a mixed bunch of fans and dancers sang Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and show tunes until the wee small hours.

The relatives were also well received. I’ll note that Camille Alexa claimed to have a “rockstar crush” on my dad, which he asked me to explain. I’m not sure I can. (Sorry Camille, he’s already got a girlfriend back home.)

We had a single track of programming, including readings by the authors present, a discussion of great female SF writers, the “embarrass David and Kate hour” of baby pictures and anecdotes by the relatives, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and “On the Road with Kate and David” with slides, videos, anecdotes, and an explanation by Kate of how she finds fabulous restaurants wherever she goes.

The square dance on Saturday night was a hit; the dancers had a blast and the fans participated enthusiastically. With the addition of some dancers from the Portland square dance community, we had about forty people doing simple square dances, country dances, a line dance, and the Time Warp, plus a couple of full-level demo tips. I’ve been to a lot of introductory square dances and this was one of the most fun I’ve ever attended.

We also had a group Greek lunch on Friday, a catered Japanese dinner in the hospitality suite on Sunday night for those who remained (a much better way to close out the con than the usual spluttering away), and on Friday afternoon a choice of walking tours (Kate led the “Keep Portland Weird” tour to such sites as the 24-Hour Coin-Operated Church of Elvis, while I led a chocolate tour to some of those nearby chocolate shops). Any remaining unprogrammed spots in the schedule were filled in with “nanoprogramming” by the participants.

All in all, it went fabulously well. The worst problem we had wasn’t even at the convention, it was when Janna Silverstein got rear-ended on the way home, damaging herself and her car.

We spent Monday packing up and moving everything out of the hotel. After that Kate and I both came down with sore throats, aches, and general overall exhaustion that has kept us near-comatose since then. But it’s a good kind of comatose.

That was a lot of fun. I think we might do it again… in another fifty years.