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Month: May, 2012

A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 8

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7

On Sunday morning (5/27), I managed to get to the panel “Plotting Over the Course of a Series” a couple of minutes before it started. The panelists were J.A. Pitts, Peter Orullian, and George R. R. Martin. (AQ is an audience question.)

JAP: There are many types of series. But how far out do you plan?

PO: When I first sold, it was a complete surprise. And they wanted outlines for books two and three by 48 hours. I’ve consulted pro writers who said that it didn’t matter what you put in the outlines. They’re guideposts. But I already knew the ending.

GRRM: When I first started A Song of Ice and Fire, I had two one-page outlines–which bears no resemblance to the books. The publishers like books in triads, groups of three. First you come up with an overplot. I did my Wildcard series with a New Mexico gaming group where we had a retreat for the writers to plot it out and hammer out the details. The act of writing creates a new story. Some of it is technique you can get from writers in Hollywood. You can write a television episode and get help from other writers. Some writers like to break a story. But I don’t like anyone else breaking my stories.

JAP: Tor asked me how many books I had planned. I told them I already planned three, so they bought three. I break my stories with my son who finds the piece that is missing in the story. You need multiple arches and character plotlines. You need to find anything that’s surprising.

PO: I use Excel for outlining. I have a row for characters and a column for what happens. But by the second book, I’m coloring outside the lines so I needed revision. For me, it’s more of a discovery process, which is part of the fun. For writers like Brandon Sanderson, they need more architecture.

GRRM: Not all writers are pure “architects” or “gardeners.” Do you have a green thumb? Then you’re more like a gardener–you plant the seed and let it grow. If you’re an architect, you have to plan out how many rooms and so on. Writing is both. But then again, architects really don’t do any building. They let a contractor do it. So if the architect makes the contractor do the work, what’s the writer equivalent?

JAP: James Patterson and Tom Clancy. They have other people write their books.

GRRM: That’s fraud! It’s like V.C. Andrews. She became even more popular after she died.

JAP: I ended up putting stuff meant for book 4 in book 3, so the title changed. I put in many plot points subconsciously. It’s like the gun on the mantlepiece. It’s organic. But I do like to outline to see what to do next in order to get to the end. Do you do a different arc for each character? What about secondary characters?

PO: I trust the process. Sometimes you drop a hook and don’t know why. But trust it. It will work out if you relax and go with the narrative.

GRRM: I don’t do plot arcs for all of my characters. Some are bit players–they end up dying or they’re there to just serve tea. But I certainly have arcs for major characters and major secondary characters. Sometimes I don’t know all the details from A-Z, but there’s also a lot of discovery. That’s the fun of writing.

JAP: One negative side is if you have interesting things happen, but then you can’t get back to what you originally planned. Do you end up changing your plans or do you prune back? Connie Willis listens to what her characters have to say, but then she tells the characters what will happen. Do you religiously stick to outlines?

PO: I color outside lines a lot. My editor tells me to pull out the gratuitous writing, so only a tenth of what is written is used. However, I don’t get too far to the point where I need to scrap the book. I write to please myself. But I also have a day job so I can write for myself.

GRRM: When people label something in a book as gratuitous, is it unnecessary to the main plot? I don’t think that anything is gratuitous. Plot is only one element and not the most important. Otherwise, we would just read the Cliff Notes. Create a book that’s immersive. Great books will make people feel like they lived it. Critics will call a lot of detail, sensory detail, gratuitous. But by describing, it makes scenes come alive. They also call sex scenes gratuitous. But the journey is the thing and the details in the journey. Richness of detail might not be in some other genres–like John Grisham. I like gratuitous scenes.

PO: One example of detail is the description of women’s clothing in Robert Jordan’s books. Other writers might have no plot but rich description.

JAP: Learn the rules so you know how to break them. If words don’t do two or three things, then cut them out. It’s like poetry. But you can’t be so sparse. You have to figure out what’s right for your writing. One example is the wedding feast scene in Dickens’ Great Expectations. Keep the reader engaged and don’t bore them.

GRRM: Different readers are bored by different things. I get bored by action movies–especially car chase scenes. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote a screenplay with twenty pages of just talking in a car because he thought people would be interested. Then again, I liked My Dinner with Andre. Write for yourself and hold tight to it. Write what you want to read and hopefully you’ll find an audience. Urban fantasy has the advantage of being in the modern day. You don’t need to describe McDonald’s because everyone knows what it is. But in epic fantasy, you need to describe the inn.

PO: James Patterson used “lobby” as a shorthand. But in a secondary world, get into sensory detail. Due diligence of imagination will be the view lens of what happens with the plot.

JAP: I don’t like to take shorthand. I don’t take my characters to Starbucks. I take them to some other coffee shop. Plotting is the skeleton. I mostly describe character.

AQ: If you write a phrase of dialogue or prose into the outline, does it make it into the story or is it more organic?

GRRM: Outlines are more functional than polished. More comes from the actual writing.

PO: James Patterson created a spare part of a novel, turned it in, and it worked. That became his formula. When Kevin J. Anderson builds a building, he needs a detailed plan. Brandon Sanderson writes many notes including narrative. But don’t be slavish to the outline.

AQ: You mentioned the gun on the mantlepiece, Chekhov’s law. How often do you realize you have forgotten to set up a plot point?

GRRM: Often, because I get distracted. It’s easily resolved in a novel by rewriting the novel. It’s tricky in a multi-part saga since the first couple of books are already published. Gene Wolfe, the author of The Book of the New Sun, was the editor of an engineering magazine so he wrote on weekends. He wrote four books in first draft and then revised all four at the same time. That’s the way to do it. But realistically, you either need a full-time job, be disciplined, win the lottery, or marry an understanding woman with a good job.

PO: If you’re still editing book one, you can still go back. But after it’s published–be thoughtful so you don’t paint yourself into a corner later.

JAP: Balance what’s right for your career.

AQ: It’s hard to know how much research to do. How much time do you set aside for ground work and outlining?

JAP: I take the same amount of time to do an outline as the first draft of a 90,000 word manuscript.

PO: I do a lot of thinking about world creation although not all of it. I do some creating as I go.

GRRM: I don’t do outlines.

AQ: Are you ever surprised by a minor plot twist?

GRRM: Yes. Sometimes it leads to the best stuff, a better idea. Sometimes it’s a dead end so I need to go back.

PO: I literally had a character turn left rather than right and it turned out the path was my favorite. Once I got most of the way through the book and decided to do something else. The revisions took a lot of work and were grueling, but it panned out.

JAP: Sometimes I do an outline and get bored. So I trash the outline and make a new one that’s better.

* * *

Stay tuned for Part 9, which includes a panel on the psychology of going into space.

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A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 7

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6

“The Grammar Panel” was attended by M.J. Engh, Brenda Carre, Andrea Howe, and James Glass as moderator. (AQ is an audience question.)


(Left to right: M.J. Engh, James Glass, Brenda Carre, Andrea Howe)

AQ: There are specific rules used in novels that are not taught, like dialogue. Are there any copy editing resources for that?

MJE: How you punctuate dialogue depends on what sentence it is in. For example: He said, “I’m hot.” and He smiled. “I’m hot.” Is the dialogue part of the sentence or not? One resource is Woe is I by Patricia O’Conner.

JG: Strunk and White.

BC: The Transitive Vampire.

AH: I recommend the Gregg Reference Manual. There are examples for every rule.

MJE: Chicago Manual of Style.

AH: The books aren’t cheap, but they’re worth it.

AQ: Is the discussion on “who” versus “whom” dead?

MJE: Language is always in the state of flux. “Whom” isn’t quite out yet. And it depends on what audience you’re writing to on whether it’s correct or not. Know the rule and apply it appropriately.

JG: One exception is when the character doesn’t know the grammar rules.

MJE: In dialogue, it’s the character’s viewpoint.

AH: Dialogue usually has not “whom” but “who”.

BC: It’s word choice.

JG: One of the dangers is getting overly obsessed with grammar in fiction. You don’t want a character speaking in high English. You need rhythm. Break it up with sentences of different lengths as long as you don’t overdo it.

MJE: There’s often a misapprehension of grammar. It’s not a set of rules. It’s like language, always changing. When you’re learning a foreign language, you can’t just memorize words. You need to learn the pattern of the words. The “rules” are from studying how people talk.

AH: It’s very fluid because the language is alive. Ancient Greek and Latin are dead. As writers, you need to keep up with the times or you’ll lose the audience.

JG: You should read a lot, of all kinds. Go back and read what you’ve written. Does it sound right, even if you don’t know the grammar rules?

BC: Look at how other writers write. You don’t have to write in that style, but you can try it–even typing it out–to see how it works. It’s like painters learning from the greats by copying them.

JG: You’ll learn the rhythm and the beat.

AH: Examine how they communicate on the page strikes you. Is it in the word choice, punctuation, etc.?

JG: I liked to put commas everywhere which broke things up. It helps to read aloud to see where the natural pauses are.

MJE: Even when it’s not grammatically correct, it’s mostly common sense.

AQ: How do you approach inner dialogue? Do you explicitly state, “He thought”?

AH: It’s “He thought” not “He thought to himself”.

JG: I underline thoughts to indicate italics.

MJE: It can be flexible but be consistent on how you indicate this. If everything in the story is his thoughts, then you don’t need to underline.

JG: But you need to give the reader a clue that it’s his thoughts.

AH: Make sure “He thought” is not italicized since it’s part of the narrative.

BC: George R.R. Martin uses a lot of internalization.

AH: Italics are very common.

MJE: People know what it means.

BC: The problem is when you also have telepathy. You need to be clear and consistent.

AH: Mercedes Lackey used colons to indicate telepathy.

MJE: I’ve seen brackets used, too.

BC: Anne Bishop had a story where there were three personalities in one person. The personalities carried conversations with each other so she needed a way to distinguish the three. She used stars and such.

JG: You can also distinguish different people by the way they speak.

AQ: I’ve seen dialogue in foreign languages in angle brackets.

JG: They also put them in italics.

AH: Or subtitles.

AQ: Do you use the Oxford comma?

MJE: Absolutely yes.

AH: Yes.

JG: If you have two things in a list, you don’t have to worry. But more than that, yes.

MJE: There are definitely two schools of thought. Some publishing houses have rules to leave it off. However, there are situations where the last two items are difficult to distinguish.

AQ: There are the examples, “I like to thank my parents, Mother Theresa, and the Pope” or “I invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.”

AH: It’s okay to use commas. There’s no shortage of them.

AQ: Commas between two clauses are now disappearing, especially between short clauses.

AH: You decide on how short the clauses should be. But whatever you do, be consistent.

AQ: What if you have dialogue, then something happens, and then more dialogue–do you break it up into different sentences?

JG: You can do separate sentences or use a comma. Whatever reads best.

MJE: You can break a quotation in the middle with a dash. It depends on mood, rhythm, and meaning.

JG: There’s the long dash.

AQ: What’s the difference between a hyphen and a dash?

AH: They all have different uses, so see a grammar book. The hyphen is used to combine things like compound words (twenty-five, eight-and-a-half-years-old). The n-dash is used for ranges (8-25). The m-dash is used as an interruption for dialogue. This is a different thing in poetry.

AQ: What about the situation where you have dialogue, some action done by someone else other than the speaker, and then more dialogue?

AH: You need a new paragraph.

JG: Because it’s a topic shift.

BC: If you have someone explaining a great deal, not only do you need new paragraphs, but you need to use action to break it up.

AH: For instance in Buffy, the character Giles is always moving while explaining. If he wasn’t moving, it would be boring.

MJE: You can also break it up with the reaction of the person who’s listening.

AH: Make it realistic. Use a comma when it’s a verbal action. If the action isn’t realized, it’s a period.

JG: Again, read. See how other writers do it.

AQ: If you can get older copies, you can find grammar exercises with sentence diagramming. If you can’t decide if it’s wrong or right by just listening, try diagramming the sentence. If you can’t diagram it, it’s the problem.

JG: You can also learn a foreign language to know grammar.

AQ: Someone once told me that everything should be in past tense, including the character’s thoughts.

Entire panel: That’s a problem.

AQ: Some people have been taught that it’s the convention.

BC: A lot of things on the internet have bad copy editing. You need someone to vet it.

AH: Not your best friend or mother.

AQ: What degree should the grammar be when sending something to the editor?

JG: If it’s not a good story, then it doesn’t matter what the grammar is. But if you want a story that sells, you need to clean it up well.

MJE: The editor will think, “If the writer doesn’t respect their own work, then why should I?”

JG: Be professional.

AH: It’s the same thing as a job interview. They won’t think you’re taking the job seriously if you come in with cutoffs and flip-flops. Put a business suit on your manuscript.

JG: You might get told by the editors that they get 2,000 submissions, but in reality you’re only competing with 200 because most of the submissions are written in crayons.

AH: There aren’t many copy editors any more, so your submission could go straight to publication.

AQ: The blog Making Light has a post called Slushkiller and another on how to get published.

JG: It’s the same in magazines as big book publishers. There’s a slush stack and the A stack. Keep writing and get better and better and one day you’ll get into the A stack. It took me eight years. It’s a process that takes a long time.

BC: Editors talk to each other. They’re waiting for the right story.

* * *

On Saturday, I also attended a panel for Inuit fairy tales (presented by Parris ja Young) and heard the tale Skeleton Woman. There was also a panel on vampires presented by Virginia Jones and Elizabeth Brock which talked about vampire mythology around the world. Much of the talk was based on the book Vampires: A Field Guide to the Creatures that Stalk the Night by Bob Curran.

In the evening, there was a costume contest. And then after that, a drag and burlesque show. I was very entertained by the drag queens. The burlesque dancers–not so much.

* * *

Stay tuned for Part 8 where J.A. Pitts, Peter Orullian, and George R.R. Martin talk about plotting a book series.

A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 6

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

I was a bit disappointed that Patricia Briggs could not make it to MisCon because I’m sure she would have had some interesting things to say about “Elements of Romance in Speculative Fiction.” The panelists who were able to make it were Vicki Mitchell and J.A. Pitts. (AQ is an audience question.)

JAP: I grew up in a house full of women. My grandmother in Kentucky taught me to read science fiction. I was raised as a feminist. But I also witnessed men treating women badly.

VM: I put in romance for whatever the story calls for. Often it’s something that drives the characters.

JAP: I’m a character writer. I want the characters to be well rounded. For others, like Jay Lake, setting works for them. But I think human interaction is critical.

VM: It often depends on the setup. If you have the correct setup, then your characters will naturally draw sparks off each other. However, if you’re aiming for a buddy-buddy relationship, you have to be careful not to draw sparks.

JAP: In the television show Moonlighting, there was a lot of romantic and sexual tension between the two main characters. But once they hooked up, the show tanked. It’s the perspective. You need a reason for the romance. The character wants to protect or impress someone. Without romance, a lot of literature is boring.

VM: What if your character is trapped between two romantic interests? What do you do? It may not necessarily be a happy ending.

JAP: In Alyx Dellamonica’s Indigo Springs, there’s a romance but it’s not entirely happy. Sometimes the person you love doesn’t love you back.

VM: That can drive the story.

JAP: It can be a major or minor part of the story. In Lois McMaster Bujold’s books, there would be less meaning if there was no romance.

VM: The characters drive her whole series. Romance tells us what make people tick. If a story is character driven, at one point romance will be used.

AQ: I read that in character building, tension tells who the characters are. But some people go too far with erotica.

JAP: I keep being told that Twilight is a romance but I don’t see it. However, some people think romance is having the guy take care of you. Everyone’s notion of romance is different. So you can’t please everyone. Romance is integral if it drives the story.

AQ: How about subverting obnoxious romance cliches?

JAP: The cliches say something about the character–that they don’t think enough of themselves. It’s also taste and degree. You don’t need romance in your story, like The Dresden Files. Romance is a tool you can use.

AQ: Do you have any tips on how romance can be integrated into the story?

JAP: If you first reader starts gagging, the romance is not well integrated. Read the scenes aloud and if you can’t get through it, it’s too much. Make the decision if the romance pulls the plot along or is critical to it.

VM: What is the story you’re telling? Whether it’s primarily science fiction or fantasy, if romance is driving the story, both characters A and B need to solve the problem.

JAP: One example is Casablanca–romance has a strong impact on character motivation.

AQ: How do you put romance into the story without being unrealistic?

JAP: It takes a lot of practice and reading a lot. Writing is really work. Cultivate good first readers. Determine your style and strengths.

AQ: The current trajectory is that young adult fiction is meeting with science fiction and fantasy. Regarding romantic relationships with kids and teens, do you approach it differently if the character is older or younger?

JAP: It depends. If the relationship is sexual, yes. But romantic, not really. It depends on what story you’re trying to tell. How would you feel about it?

AQ: Emotions in younger people are bigger and more raw because it’s the first time for them and there are no filters.

JAP: Take for example George R. R. Martin’s work. He has characters who are fourteen. Romance is as real and viceral as you can make it, whatever you can make it.

AQ: I have a hard time believing in younger romances.

JAP: It’s relative to culture and the time you’re in. But in science fiction and fantasy, you’re making everything up. But take in consideration the taboos. When Harold and Maud first came out, people were shocked.

AQ: What if you’re writing in another world but you look at the attitudes in the past. Do you just “file off the serial numbers”?

VM: You can replace it with your own serial numbers. It’s called world building.

AQ: How is speculative fiction different than science fiction and fantasy?

JAP: You can probably get a lot of different definitions for “speculative fiction” but I think it’s anything with a fantastical element that’s outside normal.

VM: It’s a catch-all that covers anything discussed in science fiction and fantasy.

JAP: I don’t know of any genre that does not have romance. Romance is integral to being human.

AQ: In speculative fiction, you’re not bound to rules like genre romance.

JAP: Harlequin and places like it have rules. But Nora Roberts doesn’t follow the rules. There are exceptions. Epic fantasy has rules. It has tropes like dragons and quests.

AQ: Is the marketplace open to pushing the boundaries like polygamy, etc.? Or does it become a distraction?

JAP: Speculative fiction tends to be more open. But the key question is: is it integral to the story? In my book, I have a lesbian character and people talk about it because it’s something new. In Planet of the Apes, the kiss with the ape caused controversy. The market is open to it as long as it’s a good story.

VM: I agree.

JAP: It’s not the best way to build a career with sensational publications.

AQ: Is explicit sex necessary?

JAP: It’s unnecessary if no one buys the stories.

VM: Some people say they skip past those scenes.

JAP: Mostly readers want to know the build up and the afterglow. What’s important to the story? What’s your audience. Has anyone heard of Fifty Shades of Grey? What do you want to be known for? Do you want to get libraries to buy your book?

AQ: When Heinlein wrote young adult books, he just wrote a regular book and took out the sex scenes before sending it to the publishers.

AQ: Fantasy sells better within romance.

VM: Other authors and I used to get together and get drunk enough to write the sex scenes.

JAP: I once went to a workshop for writing sex scenes. For one person, that scene was just a kiss. For another person, it was Penthouse.

VM: If you don’t want your mom to read it, don’t write it.

JAP: I actually disagree with that.

AQ: What if you’re worried about being pigeon-holed?

JAP: You can write short stories about it. Robert Silverberg wrote a lot of porn under a pseudonym. Ask yourself what you’re comfortable putting in your story.

AQ: Since you [JAP] were an English major, do you have any advice for becoming a writer?

JAP: If I had to do it over again, I would be a history major. I have a masters in library science so I know how to research. But as an English major, you need to unlearn stuff.

VM: English teachers will not do the work to understand science fiction and fantasy.

JAP: In English, they teach their point of view. You need to get the critic out of your head.

AQ: Then why do they teach that in the first place?

JAP: They teach to the Pulitzer rather than the Hugo.

AQ: Do you have a way to shut up the inner critic and write?

VM: Learn to tell it that you’re writing. Schedule rewrite time and tell the critic to come back then.

AQ: And does it work?

VM: Sometimes.

JAP: The first draft is the vomit draft. I use music. I make playlists for my books. I shut up the critic with The Dark Side of the Moon. Hemingway drank a lot. Many people go into the zone when they write. For some, like me, it’s a happy place. For others, it’s a place of terror, so they drink.

* * *

Stay tuned for Part 7 which is all about grammar.

A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 5

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

I’ve only written, like, two query letters before and they were kind of hit-or-miss, so I figured I’d see what the pros had to say about this in the panel “The Art & Science of Query Letters.” The panelists were S.A. Bolich, Margaret Bonham, J.A. Pitts, Eldon Thompson, and John Dalmas. (AQ is an audience question.)


(From left to right: J.A. Pitts, Eldon Thompson, S.A. Bolich, Margaret Bonham)

JAP: What’s solicited and unsolicited? What’s the goal of the query letter?

MB: Your goal is to pique the interest of the reader, that is the editor. You need a good lead to pull them in. Offer them a question to interest them. It should be short, sweet, and to the point. Give them a feeling of your writing style. You should address your query to a specific editor or it will go to the slush pile, especially in places where they take unsolicited queries.

ET: It is always better to target your query.

SAB: It’s far better to send it to an editor as requested material. I find I have better luck with editors than agents although agents can get you better deals.

ET: You need a track record if you’re unsolicited. You need to say, “I met you at this particular event.” You need to target the recipient. And have your work done before you query.

JAP: Editors and agents need a query. When they say to send a query and you’re not on a deadline, you don’t have to worry too much. But if you’re on a deadline, you need to do it.

ET: Get it polished first. Do your homework. Don’t send a cookbook to a sci-fi editor.

MB: That’s a waste of time and effort and it may annoy the editor. I once got a query from a girl. There were several e-mails as I tried to see what she wrote, but she didn’t even know what an rtf file was.

ET: You can hide deficiencies in a query. You’re teasing, you want them asking for more. Know what they’re publishing. Flattery can get you in the door and it shows you’ve done your homework. You want a mutual working relationship, so filter.

JAP: Look at Publisher’s Weekly. 60-80% of the editors are there and you can find who published particular books. Editors all talk to each other. So have professional interactions.

SAB: Keep up with the industry since editors move around.

JD: There are books on how to write query letters. All publisher sites have guidelines for you to follow.

JAP: There are many examples on the web such as a blog by an agent from the Donald Maass Literary Agency. You need to ask yourself, what are you trying to accomplish?

ET: You need to look at it from their perspective. They’re trying to look for good material, but they receive lots of stuff. It’s like L.A. traffic, you have to fight your way through.

JAP: For Surrey International Writers’ Conference in Canada, you can have a one on one with editors. I met my editor at RadCon. Act like a professional. If they say to e-mail them, then it’s solicited. Have the e-mail ready.

MB: In one of my writing classes, there was a lady who just wrote titles. So you have to write the book. The book must be finished.

JAP: They’re content sellers. They dream of finding the next Harry Potter, but they have to get through the backlog. You need to be compelling and practice your craft. This shows in the query. Query letters can be different depending on who you send it to.

ET: I have different templates for each type of submission. You have to figure out, what is the “in” with that person? When you’re talking to an editor, don’t keep talking or they’ll glaze over.

JAP: Do the elevator pitch. It’s short, two to three sentences. X meets Y.

ET: But only draw attention to successful properties X and Y.

SAB: And it has to be something that they’re familiar with.

ET: Or don’t hate.

SAB: It needs to be interesting so they want to see it.

ET: The pitch should be 25 words or less according to some. Others say 17 is the magic number. It doesn’t matter how many subplots you have, there’s a main theme.

JD: [An example of a pitch] Second Coming – what if it happens in our time?

MB: Great! Send it to me.

JAP: Twitter is where the elevator pitch started.

ET: A key error is when people try to describe the premise. Don’t use superlatives. Don’t say “awesome” or “wonderful” since you’re asking for an opinion. Don’t tell them their reaction.

SAB: Show, don’t tell.

AQ: How many people don’t come across as professional?

Entire panel: Most.

MB: For me, the first chapter or first page is usually make or break.

JAP: Online, there are people who track this. 40% who get rejected can’t follow basic rules. They send it to the wrong house or can’t spell the agent’s name right.

MB: They don’t have coherent sentences, they use texting and abbreviations. You need good English. Follow the guidelines from query books.

JAP: Pro writers will also put out their query letters.

ET: I have one on my website.

MB: You can buy the editor drinks.

AQ: What if you go to cons to meet editors but you don’t know where they are?

JAP: If you write mystery, go to mystery cons. You can look at dedications, Publisher’s Weekly, online search, and networking.

JD: It’s easier to get an agent if you have short fiction sales, even if the agent doesn’t handle short stories. You can also ask other authors to intercede with their editor and you may get past the slush pile.

ET: What about introductions to yourself in query letters?

MB: Generally, no. Usually you start with the elevator pitch before listing your credentials. Be succinct. List credits especially if it’s a credit that the editor knows about. This may not necessarily be pro ‘zines since editors know other editors.

ET: But if you have no credits, don’t address it. Use your strengths for the intro. If you have no strengths, don’t address it either.

JAP: If you write a medical thriller and you’re a doctor, say you’re a doctor.

AQ: One resource is AgentQuery Connect.

ET: You can use a focus group or some test people to see how your query letter comes across.

SAB: Especially people coming in cold.

MB: Many editors read queries at 2 AM and they’re bleary-eyed. If they can’t make heads or tails of it, you’re not clear.

AQ: What about newer agents?

JAP: Ask yourself, what do you want? If you want to sell to New York, get a New York agent (although there are exceptions). Target the top and go down. There’s no licensing to be an agent. You might want to get a middle agent if an established agent is concentrating on high profile authors.

JD: Some agencies have staff.

JAP: If the agent is in a good agency.

AQ: Does length of the book matter?

JAP: Depends on the genre. Is your story right? Let the agents and editors worry about marketing.

SAB: Before querying, go to Preditors & Editors.

ET: Don’t go to anyone who will charge you to read your stuff.

JD: Go to the publisher’s website and follow their instructions.

* * *

Stayed tuned for Part 6, which is on romantic fantasy.

A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 4

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Sometimes, no matter how many pictures you take, they all come out blurry. Or some random person’s head is in the way. Nonetheless, I have notes from the panel on constructed languages called “Creating Realistic Languages.” The panelists were Diana Pharaoh Francis, James Glass, and George R. R. Martin. (AQ is an audience question.)

JG: Is it really a requirement to make up a language in fantasy and science fiction?

GRRM: It’s not required. You might need a new language in a fantasy or ancient setting or in a world where it makes sense because the people speak multiple languages. Usually you render the main language as English for the reader. Tolkien set up different languages for us to follow by saying something like, “This rock is called Weathertop, but in Elvish it’s this and Dwarvish it’s that, etc.” But I have a problem coming up with one name let alone five names for every damn rock. Tolkien was just showing off. It’s like an iceberg. Nine-tenths of his work was below the surface. But for the rest of us, we give the illusion that we’ve created a language–it’s more like ice cubes on a rack. I once had a fan who asked me for a dictionary on High Valyrian. But I had only made up six words. In Game of Thrones, we hired a language creation expert to make it up. He was part of an entire language creation society.

DPF: That’s called “passing the buck”! You want consistency of language. Language helps create the world, so it must be developed in conjunction with the world. One easy way is to use a language that already exists. In my work, I’ve used Latvian and Estonian. Do you really need to have a foreign language in your work? No. But do readers expect you to? Yes.

JG: In science fiction, I never made up a language. But I have used French and German. You can also use English inflection–different formalities can be used to simulate another language like Chinese. If you want to create a language, how do you go about it?

DPF: If you have countries side by side, they should have similar languages because of crossover. They should share language commonalities.

GRRM: You have to consider: How do you render the language on the written page? Does the viewpoint character understand the language? If the character already understands French, then you can render it in English. If not, keep it in the original language. This will vary if you have different viewpoint characters with various abilities to understand language. And how does this translate to screen? A lot is about ear. Elvish sounds different than Dwarvish.

JG: You can describe the sound of the language. For instance, with Polish and Russian, you can say one sounds softer than the other and then translate it to English.

DPF: I agree.

JG: What do you think establishes language to match culture?

GRRM: Language not only fits the culture, but it also shapes it. In science fiction, different languages shape culture. See Jack Vance and Samuel R. Delany. If there is no word for one thing, then that thing does not exist in that culture. For example, there are many Eskimo words for snow so they can recognize many different types of snow. If a language has no word for thank you, then that culture has no concept for it.

JG: It’s the same for a jungle culture…

DPF: Language also reveals religion. How people swear and curse reflects culture. What’s blasphemous and taboo in that culture and why? Culturally, you expect that certain classes of people can or cannot say certain things.

GRRM: In Deadwood, David Milch determined that the characters didn’t speak like those in other westerns. Thieves and criminals were foul-mouthed, so he wanted to capture this in speech. But during the Victorian era, the worst that was used was “hell” or “damn”. So if he reproduced this for the modern audience, it didn’t seem unusual. So the writer had to ratchet up the speech to capture the flavor of the time rather than go for accuracy. In other words, he had to convey the feeling of accuracy by being inaccurate.

JG: What about the reverse: what does culture censor? For example, making a comment about someone’s dress is punishable by death.

DPF: In my Crosspointe novels, people live by the customs and by what people are willing to do or not do. There’s lingo, like on a sailing ship or what you do for a living. Here, we have the terms soda, coke, and pop. Dialects tell where you came from and the economic situation. Language also builds the world through syntax and word order. Readers tend to hate arbitrary apostrophes in names.

JG: Readers also hate words that are not pronounceable.

DPF: I once found an angel name in real folklore and used it in a story. But apparently no reader can pronounce it. Instead, they call my character “Tootsie Roll.”

GRRM: I don’t use any long names, but I still get letters from fans about pronunciation. In LeGuin’s Earthsea books, she’s very particular about the pronunciation of “Ged”. It’s “Ged” [hard “g”] not “Jed”.

DPF: Also “Shannara” by Terry Goodkind.

JG: What if the language isn’t spoken or written?

GRRM: In The Long Price series by Daniel Abraham, verbal language is supplemented with gestures and poses. There’s a pose of submissiveness that the character takes while saying “sorry.” But he doesn’t describe any of the poses! What does the pose “I don’t give a shit?” look like? Nonverbal speech looks good in prose, but does it look good on screen?

DPF: That’s like manners during the Victorian era. When you bowed, how did you bow? There were different bows for insults, asking for marriage, etc. It’s called a physical language.

JG: Chinese is a tonal language. In a sci-fi story where tone is used, the language is sung rather than spoken.

DPF: Or the African Click language. Another example of tone is how you say it. For instance the phrase “bless your heart” can be meant as an insult. It’s not so friendly. The speaker can kill with words without you knowing it.

GRRM: In Donnie Brasco, “fuggedaboutit” has many different meanings.

JG: What about other means of communication? Like color. What’s the color of pain? Is there nonverbal language in fantasy?

DPF: There are gestures. For instance, our gesture for “okay” actually means “flicking people off” in Brazil. The word “bloody” doesn’t mean much to us, but it’s a pretty bad word in the UK.

JG: What if you were forced to make up a complete language like Klingon? How would you go about making up the words and grammar?

DPF: When I was getting my Ph.D. in lit theory, I learned that language is arbitrary. You just assign a name to something. You make words up.

GRRM: It’s a daunting task. I would hire someone to do it. I would go back to the roots. Is it fantasy or science fiction? Who are the people? What is the culture? What type of people are they? What are their vocal capabilities? What’s the technological level? However, you can’t just call a rabbit a “snerp” and say it’s science fiction. That’s not a language but a code.

JG: For grammar, I would just follow the grammar in a modern language. But there would be words missing because in some cultures there would be no concept for certain things due to differences in environment.

GRRM: You also need to consider sexual codes and habits. Asimov had three sexes in one of his stories. So what pronouns could be used? Another example is LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness. Language also tells us about the sexual attitudes of that society. For instance “waiter” and “waitress”–“waitress” and words like it were discarded after the feminist movement.

DPF: It also tells us about how people think about race. Like “black” and “African-American.”

AQ: In speculative fiction, how much thought is put in on the change of language over time? Language changes over thousands of years and different time periods.

DPF: Look at England. Over a time of a thousand years, there is a considerable difference. Some people keep some words the same as the past, but others changed. Words enter the language due to religion, technology, and physical changes.

GRRM: Language changes over time, but some languages change faster than others. If you compare Portuguese in Portugal and Brazilian Portuguese, it’s like Victorian English and modern English. But Spanish is pretty much the same everywhere. Except in Barcelona. But you have to cheat about some things or your book will end up being more about the language than the story. That’s why in science fiction there’s the universal translator.

JG: Groups of languages can also combine into one so that only one language is left. There are different evolutionary paths for language. Even just by adding new words for technology, language gets more complex as time goes on.

* * *

Stay tuned for Part 5, which is on the query letter.

A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 3

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Previous posts: Part 1, Part 2

When I arrived at the con on Saturday (5/26) morning, I encountered the freakishly huge line that was for George R. R. Martin’s book signing. After skirting around the line that snaked around the hotel, I randomly popped into two ongoing panels.

In “Pin Curls and Victory Rolls, Cat Eyes and Cupid Bow”, two members of the local burlesque group The Cigarette Girls, Meg Hansen and Aly King, gave makeup and hair tips. As someone who doesn’t do makeup or hair (except for the occasional haircut or wacky dye), I found it all pretty fascinating and alien. It was basically an artistic tutorial into turning oneself into a pin-up. Personally, I found it all too much work. I might as well photoshop myself.


(Hansen and King explain Victory rolls.)

I also briefly attended “An Overview of Japanese Clothing History” by Kass McGann. There was a lot of Chinese influence on Japanese clothing. But then again, I knew all of that, so I ended up taking off early.

* * *

I’m primarily a short story writer, so it was with great interest that I went to the panel “Mastering the Short Story.” The panelists were S. A. Bolich, Brenda Carre, Vicki Mitchell, and Kevin Noel Olson. (AQ is an audience question.)


(Left to right: Kevin Noel Olson, Vicki Mitchell, Brenda Carre)

SAB: I do a short story-a-week challenge which is between March and September. It’s a way to get people to get things done. Genre fiction needs a beginning, middle, and end. Readers tend to like stories that make sense.

KNO: So do a lot of stories of pulp fiction. Keep the story moving. There needs to be a definite beginning and end and something in the middle.

VM: You need good characters with motivation, a well-realized setting. Details are nice but less important due to word count length. I have a short story where I use setting as a character.

BC: I have heard short stories referred to as a piece of music with a single solo instrument such as a piano sonata or flute solo. But usually in a short story you don’t have time to convey everything.

KNO: Ray Bradbury said that he doesn’t always worry about structure. He feels more of what he wants to convey than worrying about detail. I suppose you could consider it “soft sci-fi.” To learn how to structure a short story, read a lot of short stories. You need to ask yourself, what is your purpose of writing the story?

AQ: Is that why stereotypes are so often used because in a short story you don’t have time to build everything up?

VM: The lazy writer is going to do that. A better writer will take one or three sentences to tell you who the character is. There are older stories where characters are relegated to stereotypes due to a big idea. But nowadays, good writers do both.

SAB: What is the point of your story? Like poets, drive home the point quickly. You better cough up meaningful words for the amount of money they pay per word. Editors rarely take stories over 10,000 words. In your story, don’t sprawl. You may still lean on what’s known but make it different. For example, you can use the stereotype of the girl next door. But make her from Mars. To avoid stereotype, people watch. The short story should have a point. Every word should count.

BC: Watch people and jot down notes. But be careful you don’t move the stereotype to cliche. You need to know the cliches that show up in other short stories. Short stories have voice, a very strong voice that carries through, beginning with the first word.

SAB: Guidelines are usually open. Editors will take the short story if you hook them with the first line or page.

AQ: But I take longer than that to get into the character.

SAB: Try bringing in the background in lines here or there.

VM: Sometimes you have to throw out the first 20,000 words.

SAB: There was a former editor at Tor who suggested chucking out the first three chapters. Writers of lit fiction don’t know how hard it is to write genre. You have to ground readers in a new world without info dumping and losing the thread. Work the background into dialogue. Every word must work hard.

VM: Each word must do two or three things at the same time.

SAB: Short stories can let you experiment without going into novel form. Including second person, present tense.

KNO: I had a 20,000 words story but the editor only wanted 15,000. So I had to cull out all that was unnecessary. One way to do it was to see other ways of doing things.

SAB: Take out things that don’t move the story forward. Trim words like “he said, she said.”

VM: I use The 10% Solution. In this book, there’s a list of things to look at to shorten your story.

BC: You need to really read the guidelines for word count length. It can be very instructive. If it’s not what the magazine or publisher wants in the guidelines, then in reality your story may not be bad–it’s just not the right place for your story. After rejection, send it out again.

SAB: If you want to burn bridges, send stuff that the editor doesn’t want.

AQ: What tells you that your story is a short story or a novel?

SAB: In one of my stories, I knew in 5,000 words it wasn’t a short story when the characters were still talking and there was a large and complex conflict arc. So if you have large world building and conflict, then you may have a novella or novel. A short story wants to be wrapped up quickly.

VM: In a short story, every question is answered. If something still needs to be explained, it’s a flag that you need to write the rest of the novel.

SAB: Does the character change over the course of the story? Or is the point of the story that the character doesn’t change? If this is not satisfactory, it may not be a short story.

BC: Towards the end of the story, I get a feeling of catharsis. For instance, in a 10,000 word short story, by 8,500 words I get that feeling. If you don’t have that gut feeling by then, you might have a novel instead.

VM: The characters may be waiting for the next thing to happen.

SAB: The three acts to a short story is the set up of conflict, building conflict, and resolving conflict. If any of these take too long, it might be a novel.

BC: There is the try-fail sequence. Start the character with conflict. The character tries to resolve the conflict but fails. He tries and fails several times until the climax, the turning point where the character can’t be the same as before. The decision is made and it’s over.

AQ: Are there any tips and techniques to make the reader care about the character?

SAB: I don’t like characters who are victims, who let things happen to them. For instance, Frodo (LOTR) is forced to be pro-active to go to Mordor. It’s character driven. So the character must do something. this is what makes it interesting to the reader. The world is also one of the characters. Show how the character reacts to the world.

BC: Stretch the character in their ability. Test their mettle.

VM: You need to care about the character. Then make us care about them.

BC: See through the character’s eyes.

AQ: Some writers use short stories as teasers for their novels. What’s your commentary on that?

SAB: Anne McCaffrey did that, but her short story completed an arc of action which left the door open for something else. Make it interesting. Ground the character.

KNO: Once you build a world, that doesn’t mean you can’t use it again.

SAB: You can set new characters in the same world.

KNO: One example is Bradbury.

BC: Another example is The Name of the Wind.

AQ: What concrete things are different between short stories and novels?

VM: In novels, you have more room to play with characters and conflict.

SAB: You can include subplots. In Lord of the Rings, there’s Frodo, but there’s also the subplot with Merry and Pippin. There’s room to explore feelings and emotion. In a short story, you need to decide to concentrate on action or introspection or something else. You can’t do multiple things.

BC: In Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, the short stories are all different with only a thread running through them.

KNO: It’s an accidental novel.

SAB: Zenna Henderson’s The People were short stories originally, but then she wrote a thread between each story. If a secondary character steals the show, you have a new story.

BC: Those secondary characters can be referred to as “men in black.” In another example, one author wrote four or five stories about a jukebox that explore the same theme. If you look at a painting, if it’s representational, you can see the story. It’s the same with a short story.

AQ: Is there a formula for novels like the three acts for short stories?

SAB: For novels there are five acts: the introduction, building the action, the false climax, resolution, and climax.

BC: Lester Dent also had a formula for pulp fiction which tells where everything happens.

KNO: One author said that at the beginning, you have the good guy as the good guy and the bad guy as the bad guy. But by the end, it’s switched. The good guy becomes the bad guy and the bad guy becomes the good guy. This creates conflict.

AQ: How do you find magazines and anthologies to submit your short stories?

SAB: Try Duotrope or Ralan.

* * *

Stay tuned for Part 4, which is on constructed languages.

A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 2

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Previous post: Part 1

I attended the Friday opening ceremonies but was mostly puzzled. I think there were a lot of inside jokes that I simply did not get.


(Guests of Honor, left to right: George R. R. Martin, Kenneth Hite, Rob Carlos)

* * *

Eventually, I made my way to the “Throne Room”, a.k.a. the hotel lobby where the con organizers had placed the Iron Throne from Game of Thrones, to see the evening panel “The Effect of Setting on Story.” The panelists were Peter Orullian, Joyce Reynolds-Ward, Eldon Thompson, and J.A. Pitts as the moderator. (AQ is an audience question.)

JP: How important is setting? In The Maltese Falcon, the setting is important because the city is used as a character.

PO: In Lord of the Flies the setting works metaphorically as the characters move toward the wild state. James Lee Burke uses lush southern settings, creating feelings of lushness and sweltering heat which works well with mystery and convoluted plot twists. It’s also instructive to look outside of genre.

JR: Setting can be a character and should be developed with the same level of thought. In John Steinbeck’s work, the setting influences the protagonists and story arc. There is one school of criticism, eco-criticism, where they look at setting in particular. Tolkien personified parts of the setting, such as Moria.

ET: Setting can set the tone of the story and the emotional resonance. The setting can create conflict where conflict is lacking. George Lucas does this in Empire Strikes Back where the characters struggle against a frozen world. You can create more drama with a dynamic setting.

JP: In modern and urban fantasy, the reader is hooked with the familiar before introduced to the fantastic. Is it harder or easier to do familiar or non-familiar settings?

PO: You can use shorthand in a familiar world. If you say “lobby”, everyone already knows what a lobby is. If you’re doing a secondary world, you need detail to ground you in the new world. Detail makes it seem concrete and gives flavor to the story.

JR: Doing a secondary world is easier because you’re making it up and no one will ding you on the mistakes.

ET: It depends on what you want to do. Get the details right if it’s in the real world. If you make it up, stay consistent or it will kick the reader out of the story.

JP: For example, get a calendar so you know the phases of the moon. Always have internal consistency and don’t change the rules in the middle unless you have a good explanation. Let the reader fill in the details. Can you overdo detail?

ET: Yes. Don’t bore the reader.

JR: You want enough detail to feel real but not to put the readers to sleep. For instance, you can add detail by being specific, like “redwood tree”, or slip in bits and pieces in the narrative. Don’t write whole paragraphs of detail.

PO: In Carrion Comfort, Dan Simmons set his story in the South, but he’s never been there. But he saw pictures and read about it. He researches by “immersion reading.” So you can fake it. One specific detail can go far to establish your credibility.

JR: If you’re not using specific words, you’re also using weasel words.

JP: What about other sensory settings? In Alyx Dellamonica’s Indigo Springs, time flows differently so setting changes. In other books, authors use smell.

ET: The visual sense is overused (except in film where it’s limited to the visual). Show the way someone walks. Smell is a sense that’s underutilized, so it will stand out. The best sensory writing comes from poetry which is used for maximum impact.

AQ: In radio drama, how is sound used as a setting?

JP: Sounds are incredibly important since there is no visual.

PO: You need texture, audio cues. Smell can be typical. Go into a bar and listen to how people talk and other sounds. How writers write dialogue is not how we speak. Don’t neglect the other senses but also don’t use all the senses at the same time.

JR: Touch is important, especially if you have a character who is working with his hands.

AQ: If something has a specific name in a secondary world but also has an ordinary name in the real world, how do you balance this with setting?

PO: You need balance. Words have different connotations. But it’s a writer’s choice.

ET: You have to have something to ground the reader first.

PO: You can contextualize. For example, Patrick Rothfuss includes invention with clarity.

ET: And in George Martin’s work, it’s twisted just enought that it doesn’t seem anachronistic.

AQ: Can you legally write about a business?

JP: If it’s generic, such as a character going into Starbucks to get coffee, it’s okay. But if you’re saying how bad it is, it’s libel.

AQ: What about real people?

JP: If the person is dead, like Abraham Lincoln, that’s okay. But if the person is alive, that can also be libel. If you’re worried about it, just change the name.

PO: If you’re worried about it, you should get books about copyright and libel. Writers don’t do enough thinking about setting as metaphor. For example, the hollow man living in a wasteland. Use the setting as a macrocosm of the theme. Writers used to do this more. Also what about topography–who or why do people live there?

JR: In one of my books, I have the “dry line” where trees physically separate countries.

JP: For anyone under thirty, they grew up on TV and became lazy with consumption. It’s too fast. You need to immerse yourself in books and take time to delve into detail.

JR: Steinbeck had working journals which were very descriptive. For instance, in his journal for East of Eden, he consciously uses outdoor settings for foreshadowing.

PO: In Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, the setting mirrors the darkness of the main character.

AQ: With all the detail, how do you keep the story moving?

JP: You need to keep a balance. You can get a lot of imagery with a few words. Use three sentences rather than several pages.

PO: Not all writers are good at everything. Your novel can still be good if you’re good at things other than detail.

AQ: Can people see the same setting in different ways?

ET: Setting is the crucible for things to happen. You need to build it to force the character to grow. An example is Frodo’s journey in Lord of the Rings.

JP: Setting enables you to show external turmoil to indicate internal turmoil. Sam (from LOTR) had a totally different view point.

PO: Characters show what’s happening internally by how they view things.

ET: This is not how the author sees things.

AQ: Why do some authors, such as Anne McCaffrey, have other worlds but only use the background in side stories?

JP: That’s doing your homework but not showing it in the main story. Another example is The Silmarillion.

PO: However, there are exceptions. There are some writers who are so good you don’t mind reading pages of detail. These are suggestions, not rules.

AQ: How do you put alternate languages in context?

JP: Just don’t bore me. No apostrophes. Don’t drag the reader out of the story. Alternate languages should be used effectively.

JR: One thing that drags me out of a fantasy story is when they use modern day names.

PO: For invented languages, you can create a few words. It’s not necessary to create an entire dictionary. Be thoughtful about it, especially if it has a specific meaning.

AQ: What about creating naming languages like Tolkien?

JP: Tolkien’s names came from Welsh and mythology.

ET: The key thing is consistency. If you use a name with a hard “C”, don’t just use a “K” in the next name.

JP: If you know someone who knows another language, have them check it.

AQ: In Firefly, they used Chinese. In LOTR, Germanic dialects were used for the dwarves.

PO: Consistency and balance is good.

* * *

Stay tuned for Part 3, one of the Saturday morning sessions.

A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 1

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Friday (5/25) was rainy and the traffic was bad. When I finally got to MisCon, I thought I was late. I ended up stumbling halfway into a “Meet Rob Carlos” panel. Carlos is apparently known for being an artist on The Wheel of Time collectible card game. In the panel (or what I heard of it anyway), he was mainly giving advice to people to not gush over famous artists and writers like crazy fans, but to talk to them like real people. Because, surprise!, they’re real people, too.

To be honest, I was mostly there to attend the writing panels, not really talk to people. If that makes me anti-social, so be it. (I don’t game or cosplay. I’ve read stuff by some of the authors, but I’m no rabid fan. Besides, I’m a nobody and they’re busy. There are other people who are more assertive, but I find them obnoxious. And I don’t want to be obnoxious.)

* * *

Anyways, I stuck around and was able to get a reasonably good seat for the panel on “Tackling the Silver Screen” which was attended by Jay Lee, George R. R. Martin, and Eldon Thompson who was the moderator.

GRRM: After one of my novels tanked, I managed to interest Phil DeGuerre into hiring me to work on The Twilight Zone. From there, I became a screenwriter for ten years. Hollywood is mostly conservative and they want a sure thing. You should keep writing and not worry about the money. There will be adversity, no security, but you need a willingness to gamble. I had no formal training in screenwriting. I only bought a book about screenwriting “for dummies” and looked at other screenplays.

ET: I went to UCLA to study screenplays but actually sold my books first.

GRRM: Compared to other shows, The Twilight Zone was unusual because it had different lengths. Typically, you need to write to take in account teasers and commercial breaks. I learned from adapting short stories to script form. Writing for screen and TV is easier because others (actors, directors, set designers) fill in the details. Structure is important and you need a great ear for dialogue. William Goldman said, “Structure is everything. Nobody knows anything.” A novelist needs technique for world building, description, mood, prose. For a script, you can just write: “They fight” and have the stunt coordinator do everything else. What is hard about Hollywood is the politics. HBO spends four times that of the networks. Game of Thrones gets $5 million per episode. From 1985 to 1995, TV was restricted in what it could do: standards and practices. Know who you’re getting into bed with. One mistake is to get excited and just take an offer without thinking it through. They will want to change your script. You can say no. “No” is the sexiest word you can say because they will come back with a bigger dump truck full of money. People in Hollywood try to solve everything with money–which weakens many prose writers. My house was saved by a bad movie. It’s like selling your child to the gypsies. You need to be in LA for script writing.

ET: They will call for meetings at the last minute.

GRRM: It’s not enough to be a good writer; Hollywood demands you to be good in the room, a salesman.

ET: How do you deal with revisions?

GRRM: I can’t handle it. I only associated with the good staff at The Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast. But there was development hell.

ET: There are notes for revisions from people who know less about writing.

JL: On the web, you have full control of the show.

GRRM: But once you create a hit show, they don’t fuck with you. You have to like rejection. Hold onto quality and your dream. Harlan Ellison said it was like climbing a mountain of shit to pluck the rose at the top. But after ten years of climbing to the top, you realize that you’ve lost your sense of smell. But this is a golden age for television. (Film is another matter, they cater to the lowest common denominator.) In television, there are many buyers and people are taking changes on shows.

ET: How do you keep sane? I keep writing a book series so I have something where I’m my own boss. Some people say you can’t do both screenwriting and writing books and that you have to pick one.

GRRM: I only write one script per year. The rest, I write books while consulting. Running a show is a fifteen hour per day job. Do one thing and do it the best. In development, you make a lot of money, but you’re writing for four guys in a room.

JL: I’m doing something in “new media”, a web series called Legendary: A Tale of Blood and Steel in Portland. There are horses.

GRRM: Where do you get the money to do it and profit?

JL: Felicia Day had a model that worked. We do a full length TV episode and go to the distributors to get a guarantee on viewership, not funding.

ET: How do you balance it with creativity?

JL: In new media, you’re playing fifteen different roles. Everyone wants to help. Some paid, some volunteer.

GRRM: Who are your actors?

JL: We bring guest stars on. It’s not easy to get a project to be a SAG New Media Project. But as long as people contribute, we can continue. We also do crowd funding.

GRRM: All of this is experimental. Like whether people can make money on it. It’s not proven.

JL: But the Halo web series works. And promo videos like Call of Duty.

GRRM: Ultimately, in the future, we will have advanced computer technology so we can dispense with the actors. So writers can do it all. But technology has a long way to go.

ET: So what about independent and collaborative works? In a collaborative work, we need a central voice to say what’s bad or good or it will devolve into the lowest common denominator.

GRRM: In the French auteur theory, there is one creator. But they made the mistake of giving control to the director not the writer. But you need a powerful director to lead the creative team, not some studio guy.

ET: They figure that people don’t go to the movies for the writers. Hollywood is not friendly to writers.

GRRM: But TV is run by writers.

ET: Where writers have control, the best things develop. How do you adapt a book to film?

GRRM: You have to make changes because you’re moving to a different medium. You also have to consider the realities. You can have horses or Stonehenge but not both because of logistics. You have to consider the budget, shooting time, and other practical things. On the other hand, 99% of adaptation changes are not necessary. This is because other people think they can do it better. They go too far with the adaptation because they think they can improve on it. Those that stick close to the source are usually better than those that don’t.

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Stay tuned for Part 2, a continuation on the Friday session.

Dreaming of the Road

Sometimes I wonder if I’m ever going to be “settled in”. It seems like I’m always running errands for one thing or another. The to-do list never seems to end. And already, I’m contemplating the notion of moving somewhere else–primarily because my neighbors think that all the noise I make is waking up their baby. Which is total bullshit. I rarely stay up past midnight. I live alone. I don’t talk to myself. I don’t have a television. And any music I play, I can’t hear it in the next room.

Then again, new parents may in general be crazy. Maybe my presence is just a convenient excuse for why they aren’t getting any sleep.

As for work, I think it’s going well. I haven’t yet transformed into one of those nutty, stressed-out post-docs. But other than that, I can’t really talk much about work. There are these rules they have about what one can or cannot say on blogs and social media. I may have to put a disclaimer on this blog about how everything in here is my opinion and not that of my employer–blah, blah, blah–just to be safe even though I write under a pseudonym, don’t talk about work or even say who I work for.

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Recently, my sister and I have been contemplating doing a road trip together. I guess we could go for complete spontaneity, but considering where we want to do the road trip, I do not want us to be inadvertently stuck in the middle of the desert at sundown with no one but weird snowbirds and their dusty RVs to keep us company.

We’ve divided up planning with me figuring out possible routes with a list of cities and towns we might be passing through while my sister, being the discerning foodie, will make a list of eateries that we should visit. (I suspect we’ll be eating a lot of Mexican food as my sister is always complaining that there’s no real Mexican food in Canada.) And other interesting spots we might come across in our research, we’ll just add to our master list of “things to see if we happen to be there.” This way, with our prior planning, we will go see and eat interesting things wherever we happen to be while avoiding the tourist traps and the burger places owned by giant corporations.

Of course I can’t discount the wisdom of prior travelers, so I definitely welcome any suggestions anyone might have. (We will probably go through bits of I-8, I-10, and I-40. The actual route won’t be finalized until we’re actually on the road. And then, maybe not even then.)