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Month: August, 2012

A Writer-centric View of SpoCon 2012, 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, and Part 3


(Left to right: Maggie Bonham, S.A. Bolich, Rosemary Jones, C.J. Cherryh)

The “World Building II: People & Cultures” panel was attended by Rosemary Jones, C.J. Cherryh, S.A. Bolich, and Maggie Bonham. (AQ is an audience question.)

Moderator: What are the most important things about creating a race of people?

CJC: I start with a pen or pencil sketch. Once I was amused when I was accused ripping off Avatar. But they should have checked the dates [because mine was earlier]. You should make things harmonious. Chicken eggs are shaped the way they are because they have to come out of chickens. There are limits in what you can accommodate. Assume that it’s a compact form and that it folds nicely or you will have problems. Or design it differently. It could be biologically compatible with humans or have a different ecology. I had a race of methane breathers who were not compatible. Start with pen and paper but have “wickets” that they need to pass through to be logical.

RJ: I like using Chinese folklore. I look mostly at culture rather than races. If you live in a large city, someone needs to take the garbage out. I write about NPC characters. The support systems can be fascinating. If you have a magical graveyard, someone needs to build it, maintain it, and rebuild it. A lot of it comes out of our culture and other people’s cultures. Read about how people manage it before rather than now. They’re without electricity, but they use solar power in Uganda to power cell phones – a lot of the world isn’t hardwired. Other parts of the world skipped steps that we went through. So when building subcultures, think about those moments. What if we turned left than right? What if we do things we don’t do any more? Steampunk asks these sorts of questions – what if dirigibles really worked?

SAB: Culture arises from the environment around you. The sea is different from a mountain. Culture is driven by day-to-day interaction with the land. There are certain adaptations with animals and people. What does it do to drive culture? Is it outside or inside the mainstream? That will affect how they interact with everyone else around them. Is magic accepted or not? How will they survive? How does food, houses, clothes, and people look like? Europeans don’t look like Africans and there’s a reason for that. So look at the environment for how they live and their technology level. Build the world around the environment and how people react to it. For river dwelling people: how do they get things? How do they build things? And what do they trade to get it? Many things go into the culture to get it to thrive. Now, very few people know how to make everything themselves, so who else is needed for it?

MB: I agree. Read Guns, Germs and Steel to see how environment shapes humanity. Anyone interested in world building should read it. I also read esoteric stuff like An Edible History of Humanity which is about what kind of food people ate. There are also ancient recipes, information on how people ate, Craigslist, and newspapers. There was an article in The Guardian where one of the first recipes was eating hedgehogs. [Note: The article was actually in The Daily Mail.] I consider survival important, so understand where the food comes from. You can’t have a few farms to support a huge city. Or a fortress with many armies. Because how are you going to feed them? You need crops, people who work it, water, and transport. Empires can’t make and do everything. Even closed empires like ancient Japan still needed some trading. When creating a society, have a scene and concept and build the world around it. Then ask questions: how is it done? I wrote a scene where a character died and another character is burying her. You can’t just leave bodies on battlefield because of disease. So who gets conscripted to burying people? It’s detail that you don’t think about unless you’re a writer. Don’t necessarily put all the details in, but you as a writer needs to know. You need to have a money system and the knowledge needs to come across pages.

RJ: In science fiction and fantasy we generally talk about huge moments, but there’s also the mundane. They recently dug up notes near Hadrian’s wall and we got a feel of the correspondence that said something like…

CJC: Mom, send socks.

RJ: It gets chilly up there and he wants socks. These are the moments you can put in fantasy. Who’s going to send socks to your soldiers? Are there even socks? The lovely thing about the human race is that we come up with so much weird stuff. Like the funeral stuff in King Tut’s tomb, there’s a whole industry to bury dead people. Ancient Egypt was not a subsistence level society. They had money to spend on stuff and bury dead. The Romans are a good example. Society is stable and they go to Pompeii for vacation. You can find souvenir Pompeii perfume bottles. You can find Roman cups in a shipwreck and at the bottom is scratched “This is Joe’s cup”.

CJC: Sometimes you can get some crazy stuff. In Turkey, in Asia Minor, I went to a village which had a shiny tractor. But the villagers only used it to pull a drag board on the threshing floor. They had done the same thing by hand for hundreds of years. Progress is not a neat thing. Things survive because it’s traditional. We do things that are not exactly logical because our parents did it and that was the way we learned. Logic is not universal. Logic was developed by a certain extent by the Greeks for solving problems. The Greeks and Romans saw in straight lines. But there are cultures that don’t see in straight lines. You put things in line because it made your parents happy. So all these things get passed without words. It’s implied with your parents approval.

SAB: Progress doesn’t go from here to here (except maybe the internet). We have a million phrases that refer to horses. So you have to get rid of them if you create a new world with no horses.

CJC: There are no birds in my Foreigner world.

SAB: These phrases still linger even though city dwellers don’t know anything about it.

CJC: “Aback” is a sailing term.

MB: The phrase “hell to pay” is not paying hell but putting pitch at the bottom of the ship.

CJC: The Romans had difficulty having ships staying together so they roped them together and put pitch in. That’s why they needed to put them to shore to drain.

RJ: In early navigation, they had a sightline sail because they didn’t want to stray from shore.

AQ: What book would contain all these terms?

RJ: A dictionary of phrases?

CJ: Patrick O’Brian.

RJ: The multi-volume Oxford dictionary.

CJC: You can check the Discovery Channel. Don’t believe what they say about the Romans, but they’re good about the Celts and Visigoths. In America it is poorly covered.

RJ: South America, China, Ghengis Khan, and barbarians can give quirky story ideas. The Great Wall didn’t work to keep out the Mongol hordes because someone bribed them. It’s a desolate place so you want to take the money and get out of there. Think about this. Also there are mildly good people and mildly bad people.

CJC: Some people will cheat and game the system.

MB: Everybody, regardless what character or society, if it is a human-like society, everyone has motivation. Usually self-interest. It can be as simple as get food and procreate.

CJC: But one problem is with the concept “I”. In some ancient cultures, “I” is more like “we”. It’s like being married where you can’t distinguish the wife from the husband and it’s more like a collective. In ancient cultures that were isolated by grass, sand, or sea, they haven’t dealt with anyone else. So to enter into mindset of others who don’t think it – then they can’t cope because it’s “weird”.

MB: When it’s a closed society, like Japanese society, they’re aware of things but still there’s “us” and “them” in certain groups. I have a friend who’s half-Japanese and half-American who went back to Japan. She accidentally made gaffes and the women there were angry at her for not doing things properly. They assumed you knew the etiquette and proper word choice.

CJC: In Iceland, if you’re planning a raid, you send them a notice that you’re doing it.

RJ: They’re still hiring people in Iceland to ask if it is okay to build buildings in certain places.

CJC: One general advised his enemies where he was invading and nearly got himself killed.

RJ: In battle sequences, someone usually comes by and shocks everyone with new technology. Like stirrups. There are little technological quirks, but not all of them are battle quirks. Mali used to lose 23% of their crops from pests, but they could stop it by covering the crops with plastic bags.

CJC: That’s also the reason that barley and alcoholic drinks were due to ground storage pits.

RJ: No matter what civilization it is, they’ve discovered something to intoxicate people. Once discover it’s fun.

CJC: It transitioned from religious to recreational.

RJ: You can have civilization and introduce coffee. Suddenly you have a composer who can stay up all night. Bach was a coffee addict.

SAB: There are changes civilization. The eastern European population became more well fed when they discovered New World crops.

CJC: But there was also monoculture. The potato blight led to cannibalism.

MB: That was a result more from English politics.

SAB: Society is can be static, but then someone invents something like the steam engine, and it sends ripples throughout.

MB: But it doesn’t change automatically. Gunpowder. Not everyone went to guns. They used gunpowder for mines and castle sieges.

AQ: What if you have a story where several years have passed and the technology has advanced suddenly? In Avatar, the first series had swords but in the second series, they suddenly got radios.

CJC: What’s the delivery system?

MB: Do they have factories to help them survive?

SAB: You need a whole support system for advanced technology.

MB: In The Planet of the Apes, why was it a primitive society but they also have automatic weapons?

CJC: I would love to see a modern automatic weapon using gun powder. In my Foreigner series, the humans lost the war and had to give their technology to their opponents. One of the technologies nearly turned over is the cell phone. The keeper of technology realizes what the cell phones will disrupt. Things get circumvented. Look at what modern technology does and what it lets loose on the “hen house”. Before we hand out a supposedly benign technology to another society, we should ask: how can it screw it up?

AQ: Eric Flint wrote a book about giving people in the past new technology. There are people arguing about it.

AQ: Starting in 1500s, there were firearms, but then the shoguns banned them for 200 years. But it was a rigid society.

RJ: China also tried to do this. Japan is unique because it’s island. There was opium trading. The British traded it for tea since they were addicted to tea in England.

CJC: Some Americans argue about other countries, why do they not do a, b, or c,? You have to consider how their borders are drawn. England by geologic accident had iron. If you talk about resources on a planet, not all of them will have a Canada where meteors come down and deposit minerals. There are people running around looking for circular depressions for minerals. So when considering your society, how many times and where they’ve been hit by asteroids? Or does the planet have no metal core?

AQ: What about the galactic core? There are problems with radiation and concentration of metals. More radiation means more mutations.

CJC: I recommend the program “How the Universe Works”. Start with the early ones. It has technical detail. Also similar programs on the ancient world. My family are genealogy buffs. In the microcosm of individuals, why and where do they move? The reasons may not be what you thought.

RJ: We tend to focus on things like the steampunk movement. I started to look at weird and wacky cultures in this country that were artificially propelled. In my book City of the Dead, one of my ancestors carved gravestones in Chicago. The story came down in the family that he was paid a little money to carved in Chicago and then had it shipped to New York. But when we looked at a picture of it, it looked like cousin Tommy. So he probably looked at himself to carve it. Look for those people in your family and build the story.

CJC: Each of us are compounded of many stories. Use your imagination. Where did things come from? People came to America from religious upheaval in Europe or the Black Death. It’s not just persecution. Maybe they also just had money to get out of town.

SAB: In Albion’s New England and the Sea, they looked at different cultures, houses and what they ate. It’s an interesting book for American culture. They all spoke English but they came from different parts of England so you see different cultures develop in one culture.

RJ: If they don’t get along with people at home, they left.

AQ: What about religion in culture?

CJC: In the hearth based religions of the Romans and Japanese, the two cultures are remarkably similar in strange ways. But sometimes things get set up. An ancestor religion could become a ruler cult.

MB: One of the things religion is used for, if you don’t have science, is to explain how things occur. They make up stories about the stars, why the sun crosses sky, why the seasons changed, why Uncle Ed got eaten by a bear. Why good and bad things happen.

CJC: They hope to change the universe.

MB: It’s to tell them they aren’t alone in the universe.

AQ: What about the introduction of technology? There were cargo cults in the South Pacific. They saw planes with goods coming to a runway, so the natives knocked down trees and hoped the planes came to them.

MB: That’s superstition.

RJ: Why does the hero jump over the cliff? It’s not logical. Religion can drive people to do things completely against their self interest.

MB: Even if it seems illogical and doesn’t make sense, it will make sense in certain circumstances.

* * *

Stay tuned for Part 5 on world building don’ts.

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A Writer-centric View of SpoCon 2012, 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 and Part 2


(Left to right: Erik Scott de Bie, Muffy Morrigan, Deby Fredericks, Cthulhu Bob, and Vicki Mitchell)

The “Creating Mystery” Panel: Sprinkle in clues and build tension without giving it all away: learn the art of creating mystery in your writing or GMing. The panelists were Erik Scott de Bie, Muffy Morrigan, Deby Fredericks, Cthulhu Bob, and Vicki Mitchell. (AQ is an audience question.)

CB: What is mystery? Fundamentally, it’s something that you don’t know. Something you have an interest in knowing. It implies some curiosity and some vague awareness. When you’re creating mystery, you need to know the answer. It’s not clever when you also do not know. You need to have the allusion to whoever or whatever it is and hook the reader, audience, or gamer to generate intrigue.

MM: In creating mystery, you need to know yourself. Sometimes I’m reading something and a character appears out of nowhere making it obvious that the author didn’t know what he was doing. Every book has a mystery. It leads the readers along. Do it in a way that you don’t talk down to the reader.

DF: The solution needs to be clued in the first chapter, even if it is veiled. Keep that so you will use it later.

ESdB: It’s important to have clues whether it’s a fantasy or game. Some readers will want to solve the mystery, so you need to give them clues. If you don’t, you’re a jerk to lead them on. It’s okay to misdirect, but you can’t actively hide things from the reader unless you give clues where it’s hidden.

CB: It’s gratifying as a reader when I find the link. It’s the aha! moment.

MM: Engage the reader, otherwise it becomes an over-your-shoulder book.

DF: I’m always afraid that I will be too predictable and that they will figure out too soon and get bored. So take it a step beyond the obvious solution. Even if the guilty person is who you think it is going to be, have more to the story. I had a story where a prince was killing other princes and my husband figured it out. So I made the prince a doppelganger.

ESdB: One technique is to layer mysteries by hiding many things. The reader only thinks there’s one, so they get sidetracked and surprised by a second revelation. In my dungeon crawl book, people get killed and you figure out there’s one traitor. But there’s also a second traitor.

CB: In a book, it’s cool. But a game with two traitors? No.

ESdB: It depends on the group.

DF: Sometimes a person comes in late in the game so you make them a bad guy. But you need to have a really together group otherwise there will be hurt feelings. Being angry might be effective as a villain. Or they might think others are mashing them.

MM: Don’t have a really likeable character who beheads the rest of the group at the end. It betrays the reader. I have read books where a likeable character did bad things at the end. And there was no hint that they were bad. Kill everyone or have a latte.

ESdB: A good way to diffuse the situation, if you want a likeable character to be the villain, is don’t let motivation to be killing all the other heroes. Instead, kill the princess who others are trying to rescue. Manipulating them to do bad things makes good drama. Villains aren’t entirely evil, they have motivations, and it’s not necessarily to kill everyone. The villain can be a friend but then goes his separate way.

DF: It’s the Long John Silver effect.

MM: You have the opportunity to build the path, so establish at the start that the character is bad.

DF: Have the character kick the puppy or whip the horse to show the cruelty within them.

VM: It’s planting the seeds that they are villains. Almost every story is a mystery of some sort where you figure out what happens. Is the hero going to succeed and how are they going to succeed? You need to plant clues subtly and keep seeding them throughout. Don’t necessarily make them important. Put them as part of the scenery, part of equipment, maybe something his grandmother gave him that turns out to be a powerful artifact.

ESdB: But you need to hint at it. Maybe it’s sparkling indicating it’s enchanted.

AQ: How do you put enough clues and make sure it’s not obvious?

DF: It’s like the hidden objects game on Facebook. You don’t know what to look for until you have all the clues. Don’t have just one detail. Have several.

MM: List out all the things you need and then build things around them. Embellish them.

VM: Characters don’t act with one motivation. Have one key action. You can also misdirect the reader and build the character and scene at the same time.

ESdB: If you really want just one clue, that’s fine. It’s fine to be obvious. But not necessarily “how” it’s obvious. Suppose you know the hair is from the killer and you need to find the killer. But then you figure out it’s from dog that had contact with the killer.

DF: You could send it to the lab, but lab has a fire.

MM: Or the lab tech replaces the hair with someone else’s hair.

AQ: How can setting raise the bar on mystery?

VM: Sometimes the clues are part of the setting. Don’t just show the clue. Also show other parts of the setting. Point out furniture other than the important object. Build it into the story.

CB: Say you have an idea for a one-shot gaming scenario as a murder mystery. For imagery, have a house and populate it with stuff the house will have and decide step-by-step what occurred. What trail would that leave? Also have other little things like a pulled plug, adjusted frame, changed clock, a latte.

DF: Use the scenery and setting for mood. In the story, it could seem innocuous. What is plausible is that the character wouldn’t realize what it’s used for. But don’t have cute bunnies in a serious detective novel. Unless they’re not so cute bunnies.

MM: For your setting and the world you’re building, any book you’re writing you’re creating a universe and characters need to be developed. Don’t have Bugs Bunny moving but the background remaining static. The setting should also be a character so the reader will want to return to the world.

ESdB: If it’s a science fiction or fantasy setting, take into account difference of cultures and how people will work. Say everyone is mildly telepathic. How can we not know who killed someone if everyone’s connected? How someone managed to block everyone else from knowing would be interesting.

DF: Some use a point of view where the reader won’t know everything. If you have a long work, have multiple viewpoints. If you’re trying to give the reader information that the character doesn’t know, use another viewpoint. Have a treasure hunter find the Rosetta Stone rather than the prof who would solve it immediately. With another viewpoint you also have a choice, and it gives the reader more clues of what is normal and what is not.

ESdB: You can have conflicting points of view. Maybe the characters focus on different things on the Rosetta Stone. Or have the characters all be right, but right in different ways. If all the characters have the same mind, then they all unravel. Each of the characters can have a piece of clue, but it doesn’t make it a mystery where everything could be solved if the characters just talked to each other.

CB: In military history, you find a lot of arrogant jerks who can’t work together.

ESdB: It doesn’t make sense to have characters who are friends not talking to each other. If enemies have to work together, there’s tension. If Muffy and I are roommates and Muffy knows that there’s a latte at the scene of the crime and I know the guy who likes lattes, but we don’t talk to each other, that’s a stupid story.

MM: You could make it work if there’s a miscommunication where one person thinks it’s coffee and the other thinks it’s latte, but don’t make the reader think it’s stupid.

AQ: How do you pace mystery with action?

ESdB: It needs to unfold gradually through the course of the book. Solve it at the end or where appropriate. It depends on the story. If you have characters hanging out in a coffee shop, don’t make any progress until they put the clues together to solve it. They can collect the clues. Or you can have action first and then collect clues. Generally, do it gradually.

MM: As a writer, you have it outlined. You may be tempted to pace it faster since you know what’s happening, so scale it back.

CB: Be wary of tedium. Be gradual but don’t make readers fall asleep. A cliffhanger can keep them reading at 2 am.

DF: Pacing is controlling the speed of the chapter. I’m not a fan of R.L. Stine, but I ended up reading him to my kids. I learned that Stine ends almost every chapter on a cliffhanger. Read Stine to look at his pacing since he is in total control of that. He never has a quiet moment at the end of the chapter.

AQ: We’re accustomed to drawn out explanations and villain monologues. Should we explain everything or not?

ESdB: You shouldn’t explain everything. The reader should have an aha! moment where they finally get it. Maybe explain a little bit but not info dump.

DF: Give the reader stuff to figure it out things themselves, but they don’t have to figure out everything. Keep some surprises in the end.

MM: It depends on mystery and other genres. I once read a story about Ireland where an author explains things for seven pages. Don’t have long monologues. Have it obvious enough so readers can go along, but also have the aha! moment. Don’t do The Speckled Band in Sherlock Holmes.

ESdB: Be careful of the Sherlock Holmes thing where everything is explained at the end. But the current BBC show is better because the audience can make leaps at the same time as Sherlock does. String evidence through the book. That makes it have good rereading value.

MM: You can also have that in movies. You want readers to read your stuff again and again.

AQ: Is there a difference in stringing it out in a game or a story? Is one more obvious?

CB: In a game, it’s maybe a bit more obvious since the gamer is both character and reader. The reader just reads through book. The GM may assume the players know too much.

DF: The game mechanics built in will help guide them, like the perception roll.

ESdB: It’s a unique challenge. Players can stumble onto something that you won’t want them to know, so leave yourself escape hatches if you’re running intrigue. You can make the informant suddenly die.

AQ: What are your favorite mysteries?

MM: Lynda S. Robinson who wrote Murder in the Place of Anubis. It takes place in the time of King Tut. She’s good at giving you all the clues. I’m also a Holmesian but it’s also frustrating. Most mysteries are not mysteries but something within stories. My first experience was writing Holmes fan fic. The BBC series does it better.

DF: They have the advantage of a hundred odd years of stuff written that expands it. Doyle didn’t know he was starting something that big.

ESdB: I like true crime stories and some are great, like The Innocent Man by John Grisham. It seems impossible that he committed the crime, so you follow the evidence. There’s great buildup of tension. You can go to Wikipedia to see what happened, but the novel is effective.

MM: Whatever world you’re building, you want readers to take the next step and not throw the book over their shoulder. You want the readers with you while building mystery. Engaged people are involved in the world even if they know the ending.

DB: Possibly my favorite mystery is Fallen with Denzel Washington. If you like horror, it’s a smart story.

ESdB: it’s older, but it holds up well.

MM: It’s like a mini master class on mystery.

AQ: What about an RPG game when an actual session is being played?

DF: I was once in a gaming group with a player who was a thief who took things. The GM got tired of it, so had him take this item. The thief picked it up and tried to handle it. It was a dagger of monster summoning. Each time he took it up, the monster power went up. Eventually he summoned a nazgul. Another player figured it out and knocked the nazgul into the sea. Which resulted in a tidal wave that swept the thief’s treasure cave out to sea.

ESdB: Readers and gamers have the impulse to have things fair, so that’s important to keep in mind for intrigue. If good people get killed, they want the bad guys to get theirs.

* * *

Stay tuned for Part 4, a world building panel.

A Writer-centric View of SpoCon 2012, 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.


(Left to right: Rosemary Jones, Fallon Jones, Kaye Thornbrugh, Jane Fancher, and C.J. Cherryh)

Here’s the panel description for “Muddle in the Middle”: You’ve got a great beginning and know how the story ends, but that middle part is tricky! See how the professionals push through the hard parts. The pros on this panel were Rosemary Jones, Fallon Jones, Kaye Thornbrugh, Jane Fancher, and C.J. Cherryh. (AQ is an audience question.)

RJ: Most of the novels I did for Wizards of the Coast came from requested themes. I had nine months to write a book for a dungeon crawl. In another book I had to revisit a fantasy city and they wanted it in six months. For the e-serieal Neverwinter where there’s adventure and every section ends with a cliffhanger, I had to write the whole thing in eight weeks.

JF: At least you had the chance to make little cliffhanger sections. In a book, you do it at the end of each chapter. Arthur Conan Doyle also wrote it all before his serials were published.

RJ: I have a muddle in the middle all the time. If I have more time, I use it to fix the middle. I’m used to writing on a tight deadline.

JF: Is it different writing for the gaming industry? There is a gaming market is difference, especially for complexities of the story.

RJ: I usually get pulled in when they’re redoing it. Have a strong ouline. A solution for muddling through is to have a map.

FJ: Even if you don’t have a map, connect the dots to the end. If you have a character, set them on the path and walk them to the end.

AQ: What if the middle of the book is comprised of battle scenes?

JF: That’s a different problem. Battle scenes are not muddle. But ask yourself, is the story about the battle or the effects before and after?

CJC: If you’re in a battle, you don’t think about it. It’s much blurrier. If you’re fighting for your life, it’s not formulated and clear. You’re not a robot. Instead you have the emotional impression of killed or be killed and getting out of there.

JF: Unless the tactics of battle are important to the story, don’t use it. I don’t work from a strict outline. I know where to end up but it’s not an assignment from point A to B. In the prequel I wrote, I knew the ending. The muddle from the middle can come from many things: wanting to explain too much or thinking that characters go certain events but the characters won’t do it. You may need to trick character earlier in the story to make them do what you want them to do. Or follow them to see if it’s a more interesting route. Everyone who writes a complex story has a muddle in the middle. Short stories can barrel through. Sometimes you need to go back to do a rolling rewrite to see where you’re going.

RJ: You have a trilogy with a middle book. How do you set up the middle book in trilogy?

CJC: I used to worry about it. In my Morgaine books, I found out that it was listed as series even though I didn’t intend to make it one. But I’m not one to turn down a presale. One thing I did was to change the environment. It’s the quick and dirty way to create a new problem. Or you could set up a solution at end of the first book which ends up as bigger problem in the second book. Recap in such a way that reader doesn’t feel lectured to. Sometimes I set up a forward to do that.

JF: The Foreigner books are written as sets of three. Do you know where it goes?

CJC: I know where it ends up but sometimes it surprises me.

AQ: I tend to repeat myself even in different setting. How do you avoid that?

CJC: That happens to all of us, so that’s why we have a beta reader. Take the best bits of each and see if you can blend it together and cut out repetitive scenes.

JF: Sometimes you may have five different intense view points. It may seem to be repeating, but it’s important for character development. Scenes need to do three different things.

CJC: There’s development point of view and world point of view.

RJ: If there’s something important that you need to set up, putting in clues and repeating them is important.

FJ: You can emphasize with different details that are constantly changing.

CJC: There’s a difference between repetition and themes. A piece of music has motifs on a theme. Music composition and writing have many things in common.

JF: It’s like John williams or Wagner. The whole idea of character development is to get deeper and deeper. There may be one level of understanding and next time something happens, there may be ramifications in a scene where you can learn more about character.

RJ: Up the emotional stakes of the scene. I tend to write in one point of view for the first draft for the journey. In the next drafts, I ask, are there other characters that wandering into story? In one story, I had a dog wandering, so I used the magician’s trick to distract reader so to expand the scene with the dog. In another scene, a character was caught by some hired goons and I fleshed them out.

FJ: You can do a lot of character development in the middle. You need a character who changes. It’s where your character is doing most growing while going from point A to point B.

CJC: Not all story structure is linear like A, B, C, D, E, F. It can be a set of nested brackets. If it’s a character driven story, you will have a huge mathematical equation with a statement inside and then various parensethesis inside that are nested. Open nested bracket and another one and let them run without closing many of them and opening more. Never end a chapter with total resolution of everything that happened.

AQ: Flowcharts and outlines tend to work well for some people and not well for others. I’ve tried envisioning encounters, various crises and how to fit them together.

JF: I have scenes that suggest themselves and no idea of the background of characters. When they suggested themselves then I wrote them. A story is jigsaw puzzle and how to fit them together. I have a general idea of where it’s heading, but I let the characters tell me about . However, in my prequel I found out why the characters did what they did in the subsequent books.

CJC: There are a hundred ways of writing and they’re all right. Methodology changes with each story. I violated own rule of writing in order for one story and wrote the big scene first and then figured out what I needed to write for it.

KT: I use outlines and bulleted lists to give myself something to work from. I need a map to keep on course. In my manuscript, I made a detailed list of the timeline. I start loose and then do detailed things which was tinkering.

CJC: I have a suggestion for people who have trouble with timelines: use old calendars. Then you know who is where and when. It’s easier to see things in that schematic.

FJ: Continuity is important, that’s why you have beta readers. Don’t limit yourself with your outline. In your writing, your characters become their own people.

RJ: During revision, you can go off the outline. You can have a character who is emotionally struck by x, so you can go back and do more with it.

JF: A lot of the expansion of the novel happens in the middle phase. It’s where the causality is taking effect. It’s how it all gets there. Look for phrases that suggest you need to expand. In a short story, everything has to point to one thing. If something points to something else, you need to excise it. In a novel, it’s different. You have a little leeway.

CJC: You can envision the whole novel and then write it, but if it becomes irrelavant to current novel, it becomes a boggy swamp.

JF: There’s no tension.

CJC: Then kick the scene out. It’s like stone soup.

RJ: In a shared world with established history, I write in the cracks. I do lots of research for graveyards, spies, fencing.

JF: It’s like writing supports researching habits.

RJ: For looser stories, go for atmospheric. I envisioned a scene where a character had glass eyes. It started in the middle and then I needed to write the beginning and end to bracket. Doodle. Let yourself be creative.

JF: My first novel was like that. CJ said to outline, put characters in a room and see what happens. The scene that I started that day became the second section in the first book. I had started in middle and realized I was explaining too much so I needed to start earlier.

CJC: Show don’t tell.

JF: Don’t be afraid to be liquid. If it’s happening too fast in the end, split it into more books. I didn’t have three books until I looked at what happened and pulled out things from previous books. Let yourself go with the flow.

FJ: Don’t stay in one way. Writing is artistic, as long it’s as developed.

RJ: If you’re stuck, don’t be afraid to chuck it in the drawer for a while. Walk away from it. Sometimes I need to tell the publisher that I need to set it aside for a couple of days. And I start reorganizing laundry shelves. Or go off write something else.

AQ: Many aspiring writers get stuck and inspiration peters out. How do you prevent that?

KT: Add ninjas. It doesn’t have to be ninjas. Erin Morgenstern, the author of The Night Circus, posted about adding ninjas. When you have loose outlines and get bored, just throw something in and do something unexpected: a new setting, new characters, or sea monsters. Keep it fresh for yourself. If you’re bored, others are bored.

CJC: If it’s boring, you have to be very clever to let castor oil go down. Sometimes it may mean you have too many characters and need to get rid of them. If you draw a map before start story and there’s a desert in the middle, move the mountains or fold the map to get rid of it.

RJ: Teleportation was invented for a reason. When someone asked me how something got into a sealed room, I said: teleportation.

FJ: You have a relationship with the book. Step back if you get angry. It can get into the writing and a reader can tell.

CJC: If you’re too nice to do something, you’re in trouble. Play with multiple viewpoints. Not everything you see or told is reliable. If you take everything as gospel, you may be in trouble. What if your perception is wrong?

AQ: How do you stay motivated to keep writing?

JF: Junk food is great for writing but you get to this.

RJ: You can step away and then fall back in love with the character.

CJC: Science fiction uses a different set of muscles. There are “what if” questions.

JF: Now there are cell phones when you had communicators in Star Trek. When I was doing rewrites, it made things simple.

FJ: Always keep learning. If your fantasy novel has fencing and you don’t know fencing, learn about fencing. Read something else and see what’s missing. If you stop learning, you won’t have anything to teach reader.

AQ: How do you balance writing with your personal life?

JF: I live with my characters. Ever since we bought the house, we didn’t know we would also start a business. So now I don’t sleep.

FJ: If you don’t learn from relationships then you don’t know what to write. Watch people in coffee bars. Watch people who watch people. See the reactions on people’s faces.

RJ: I wrote a theater column in Seattle. I interviewed creators and do non-fiction writing. I see this writing as an opportunity to explore many things. Writing non-fiction helps to keep it fresh and gives new openings. Think about pacing. Most books open with a bang and the end is also explosive. It’s in the middle that you’re most likely to lose the reader. Exciting things also need to happen in the middle. Does the pace have tension?

CJC: Is it a roller coaster or just a gentle downhill? By the time you hit 40,000 words, you have left the beginning. By 80,000-90,000, you need to think to close it. By 100,000, then in 20,000 words you need to pull everything together. Everything is proportional. People expect a certain pace. If it feels like long middle, the pacing is off.

JF: I wrote a prequel which was 200,000 words and wondered if it was a decent return. I ended up with two books instead. I rethought where the roller coaster was. It lead from one book to another, because how big is that final glide?

* * *

Stay tuned for Part 3, a panel on how to create mystery in your work.

A Writer-centric View of SpoCon 2012, 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.

For those of you who have no idea what this SpoCon thing is, it’s a science fiction and fantasy convention that takes place in Spokane, Washington every year. This is my third year coming to the event, and I have to say that although there are some things about sf/f geek culture that puzzles me greatly, I always have an interesting time (in the good sense) and an informative experience. The con itself has improved greatly from year to year so I’m definitely looking forward to next year, even if I do have to drive four hours to get to it.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it to any of the Friday panels as I had work, but I did make it on Saturday, so I guess that’s something. I was partially planning on live tweeting this thing, but it didn’t work out since the wi-fi didn’t work in the conference room. So instead, I’m putting up some panel (paraphrased) transcripts. So here we go with the first panel of the morning: Dos & Don’ts of ePublishing. (AQ is an audience question.)


(left to right: panel moderator Kristy Carey, Muffy Morrigan, Fallon Jones, Maggie Bonham, Jane Fancher, and C.J. Cherryh)

AQ: What are the common hassles and wrong ideas people have about epublishing?

MM: One misconception is that if you’re doing e-pub or small indie you can’t make it anywhere else. Big houses have become exclusive, but there are amazing authors who are going into e-pub. The misconception is that it’s crap if it’s e-pub. Big publishers are not taking chances on people who aren’t multi-million sellers. Even Tor and other similar imprints do this because they’re owned by the big presses. They’re focused now on Jim Butcher-esque things. No one wants to take a chance on it because they want a guaranteed hit.

AQ: If you go with a small and independent publisher, what are the best ways to market your book and get it out there?

FJ: It’s similar to a large publisher. They say they will take care of you, but you need to do things yourself. Get someone to help you with the graphics. You can get students at colleges to design website and do graphics.

MM: Be aware of social media because you need to be on there for a certain amount of time to push yourself. Be willing to love your book to put it out there and say this all the time. I’ve been able to get free advertising in fan fiction. Hit the cons. Be willing to look at people and tell them that you’re amazing and do it every time. Ignore bad reviews. Some people troll Amazon for indie authors to give bad reviews. You can tweet all the time at SpoCon, but don’t always tweet specifically about your book. Intersperse little adventures so your audience will want to share your adventures. I tweeted about a trip and picked up 350 new followers. Social media is evil so you need to set up time to do it. Rob Thurman had a rant on LiveJournal about self marketing even though she’s published by Roc.

AQ: For social media, how do you build audience in the first place if you’re starting at zero and have no audience?

FJ: Go on to websites with authors similar to you and get involved with conversations. Print out flyers and hand them out to people. Make yourself into a human being to become a character they’re interested in.

MM: Also take an interest in other areas. I looked up the Anglo-Saxon history hashtag and started following people. Look at followers of celebrities. Eventually people will follow you. Follow people who have same interests but are not just writers. Soon they will be retweeting your stuff.

AQ: How do you get from ebooks to print? Do you guys deal with print?

Panel: Yes.

FJ: If you can make a lot of sales in e-books, you can try small publishers like Lulu, FastPencil, and CreateSpace. If you already have a following, e-books are cheaper and you can interact more. You can use print books for signings.

MM: CreateSpace is great resource because you get on Amazon. Amazon is 80% of sales. Most are Kindle sales because they’re cheaper. One or two people like hard copy, but more likely you bring them to conventions to sign. There’s a disparity in cost between e-books and print. You need to find a designer and editor, but it will walk you through that, especially CreateSpace (depending on how much you spend). They do distribute internationally without paying more.

MB: But they do charge although not a lot. You have to get an ISBN for various outlets. There’s a lot of crap in self-pub, indie, and e-pub. Even if you put your book out, if it has a crappy cover, is not edited properly, and not good story, you will fall into the wayside with all the other crap. If you’re self publishing, you need to pay for a real editor. Don’t go with package deal like CreateSpace because they will put your book out. What kind of editing for will you get for a hundred dollars for thousand words? Most professional editors charge $5000. Covers done by themselves are crap.

MM: DeviantART is a good resource. I had an artist come from there to do some books. They are affordable. Private message the artist and most will say yes. People will judge books by their covers. Daw put up bright orange covers for Contagion and I thought: Is this what they came out with? Many beta readers for fan fiction are also professional editors.

MB: You should have line editing done or you will look unprofessional. Look around for artists. You can also license art. If you go with a publisher, remember that money flows to the author. A publisher should not charge you upfront for your work. They may take the cost out from royalties, but that’s different story. In my company distribution costs are taken from royalties, but the authors didn’t have to pay for it. If you have to pay, it’s a vanity press or self-pub.

FJ: If you pay them for a “reading”, it’s reading not critiquing.

MM: Line editing is when you check for things like proper comma and break usage. One example: peal vs. peel. If you do it yourself, be aware that you need to pay for art and editing. Professional editing is worth its weight in gold. Or you can ask a friend who is English teacher. Don’t be afraid to go through your manuscript again yourself with a red pen. Ask for references for the editor. If they don’t have references, don’t go for them.

MB: They need references and credentials.

MM: Artists are different because you can look at it. If at a small press, ask them who their editor is. If there are four typos on the first page, people won’t read to the second page.

FJ: Get a flat fee. You don’t want them to charge more and more and hold your book ransom.

MB: Compared to a small press, for a big publisher authors get somewhere around 8%-11% net.

MM: That’s about 49 cents a book. The dream for huge advances is gone. Now start at ground zero with small press. At a small press you’ll get a person. But at a big press, if you call them you get an answering machine saying: “Dial 1 if you’re an author, dial 2 if you’re an editor, and if you’re author looking for royalties, please hang up and try again.”

MB: My authors have my home phone number. We have 50% royalties for all authors after costs taken out. We share profits with authors and artists. If you do e-pub, be aware that there are cuts being taken out and what you get is very important at the end. You need to know how much it costs to do it professionally if you do on your own. People who do well in e-pub – it’s different than a year ago. Once we did 99 cent books and got a huge following. Now the market is flooded with 99 cent books so people are more weary because of spammers.

AQ: In a case years ago, one guy wrote a thesis in grad school. His thesis was published in a compilation in an anthology. Then he found out that someone else is published his work on amazon and he didn’t get any of the profits. But then the pubs got in trouble because the DOD said the material couldn’t be published.

MM: There’s one evil site, MegaUpload, where we had to look all the time to make sure our stuff isn’t illegally there. Now MegaUpload is gone.

AQ: How can you protect yourself?

MB: It’s very hard. If someone violates copyright, you can go to the ip/service provider and see who owns the site. You can send an e-mail to get it taken off. The problem is if it’s in a foreign country that doesn’t respect this, you’re pretty much screwed and can’t do anything. But if there are copyright laws in the country, you can.

AQ: Do you register a copyright or just put it on there?

MB: You don’t have to register.

MM: There’s an inherent copyright. But can get registered for $35 at copyright.org. They also have copyright for in progress works.

AQ: It’s inherently copyrighted, but to get damages you need to register.

Panel: The poor man’s copyright is to mail it to yourself.

AQ: But that doesn’t work any more.

MM: Make sure you brand yourself. That is, registering domain names, e-mails in your name, LiveJournal set up, etc.

FJ: For a pen name, choose something nobody else has, especially in media marketing. On Facebook, you’re not a real person if a celebrity has the same name as you.

MM: Once you write as a brand person, always use it. Stay away from political conversations because people will latch onto your name. Only do charitable stuff. Otherwise things may come back to haunt you. Be aware of what you’re saying, sharing, retweeting, following. You are technically a public person.

FJ: Don’t turn fans away. If you detest someone, don’t say it in public.

MB: I’ve noticed that there are authors that turn people off and will talk a lot about politics and say a lot of snarky things on the web. If you say you hate person x, tell that to other people who like person x, how do you think that makes them feel?

JF: I hate people without opinions. I used to be afraid to offend the gay community with my writing, but anything worth writing, you will have opinion and you will offend someone. I fundamentally agree. But your readership will be people who have opinions and will care. If you have no opinions, then people won’t read it. It’s getting so PC in this country. It’s very good advice but don’t follow it over a cliff.

CJC: Pick your fights. Don’t get into somebody else’s bargain brawl. Do put your opinions in books so you can develop a persona so people know what to expect.

JF: Are you a publisher or author? Harlan Ellison is controversial and people like to talk about being insulted by him, but he’s respected.

CJC: Make sure the people you offend are people you are wanting to offend.

FJ: You need to reflect on what you write or people will be turned off.

MM: It’s part of branding your writing persona and public persona. It’s different from what you are at home. You need to be aware of creating the personality.

JF: I’m not GBLT but a humanist. I was worried about how my gay characters are perceived. It was not branding which is a problem in marketing. The GBLT crowd is pissed off at romance that put out under the GBLT name because it is more like hetero romance but just with a penis instead of a vagina. There are difficult aspects of e-book publishing. There’s no editorial backing, there’s a glut on market, and a need for a legitimate sieve. What is a well written and well edited book?

MB: Why recommend that if you’re not willing to pay for production of e-book? Maybe go into small press or alternative press.

JF: But some are worse in small press.

MB: But there’s also bad stuff in large press.

MM: I have read a Roc book where in one chapter a car is totaled, but two chapters later, characters are in that car. It needed continuity editing. All books will have errors. There are three sites dedicated to errata in Patrick O’Brian’s books. The nice thing about e-publishing is that you can upload corrections . But there are no book without errors.

MB: It depends on the small press. If the press hires outside editors, it’s a good sign they care about the book. One author hired a major press editor for his work. What was interesting was that he found out that no difference from the small press editors.

JF: Make sure you’re dealing with legitimate editors. If you don’t getting rejection letters, they’re not editing properly.

CJC: One problem is that books are getting out but no one is reading them. The only defense for a writer is to memorize the dictionary.

MB: It’s important to note that Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, etc. have their own processor.

JF: But they also have good explanation about printing out a Word document to turn out a generic book. It just formats. There’s no editing.

AQ: In the process of doing revision on a manuscript, at what stage do you go forward to publishing?

CJC: If you need to change a period, you need to change it all formats.

JF: If you take it as far as you can, then give it to the editor. Have a person you trust who will read critically and give you feedback. A good beta reader that you’re not paying. Get feedback from a raw reader to put the comments into effect. Then give to an editor for feedback.

CJC: Also educate yourself. Do you know when to place period, italics, and typesetting conventions? You can save yourself a bundle if you change your typing style. Type neat.

MB: Critique groups are useful. They give feedback.

JF: Patty Briggs uses them for years.

CJC: If you feel brutalized after a critique, maybe it’s the wrong writer’s group.

* * *

Stay tuned for Part 2 which is about writing the middle parts of a story.