Don't Shake the Flask

Because you don't know if it'll explode

Month: June, 2013

The Circuit Diagram Outline

While working on the outline for Camp NaNo, I decided to do something different for some of the prep. Below is a scan of just part of the outline in “circuit diagram” format.  It’s kind of nifty since it allows me to see where all my characters are temporally as well as their physical locations.

I like trying out different types of outlining techniques, particularly visual ones, to see what works and what doesn’t. And I’ve found that I tend to avoid the verbose techniques (like the snowflake or phase methods) because nothing kills creativity and spontaneity like writing out every single detail ahead of time.

Some Ideas for Camp NaNoWriMo July 2013

Well, another Camp NaNoWriMo is coming up soon which means it’s time to get organized on all of those ideas. Or attempt to, anyway. I find myself oscillating between feeling like the idea is so silly that I might as well use a lorem ipsum generator and that it’s so crazy it might just work.

The current working title I have is Six Persimmons. It’s more of a placeholder, really. I’m not sure if there are going to be any persimmons in the story, let alone six of them. And as for the ideas and themes floating around:

  • Mashups. I really like fairy tales especially for the way they explore archetypal themes and characters. One fairy tale that I’ve always found intriguing is The Snow Queen. So if I were to compare my nascent story to a fairy tale, that one would be it. But that said, I am definitely not adhering to the original story. There will also be quite a bit of inspiration, theme-wise, derived from The Shining and shows like ×××Holic and Iron Chef.
  • The cat house. So, this is my nickname for the fictional apartment complex where most of the plot takes place. It’s named that because every single occupant in that apartment complex is a shapeshifter of the cat persuasion. And like real cats, these characters are all crazy, neurotic, and inexplicable. They don’t particularly like playing nice with each other. And since they’re going to be snowed in, they’re going to be even crazier than usual.
  • Obsession. This will probably be a major theme. Every character will have an obsession of some sort. For example, the main character is a translator of foreign language novels and has an obsession with finding the right word or phrase to express a concept. Her apartment looks like a dictionary factory had just exploded.
  • Gentrification of neighborhoods. Like other minorities who form their own ethnic enclaves in the cities, the shapeshifters traditionally live in segregated neighborhoods. However, the human yuppies are moving in, driving up the property prices–so it’ll be interesting to explore a bit of that conflict.
  • Unnatural weather. I sort of covered this theme before in my 2009 NaNoWriMo novel but I’m going to have another crack at it this time at a different angle.

So, that’s what I have at the moment. Now onto some semblance of an outline…

Notes from MisCon 27, Part 12

(To see all my posts on MisCon, including last year’s notes, go here.)

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.

Panel title: Writing Yourself Into (and Out of) Corners
Panel members: M.H. Bonham, Jim Butcher, John Goff, Dave Gross
Panel description: In this panel we’ll talk about to write your character into a corner (literally, figuratively, emotionally), and how to get them back out again.

JB: What happens when you write into a corner? How do you write into a corner and what does it mean?

DG: I wrote about a character I didn’t create (like Spiderman). The character was not revealed yet. But I had to write it in a short period of time. Others who owned the character changed the character’s motivation and told me I had to revise it by Thursday. The conflict still paid off with the different character, but there were shifting relationships.

MHB: Throw everything and the kitchen sink at the character. Sometimes you have to take a break and work on something else. I get ideas when driving. Don’t use the God card too much–only once in a great while. Think out a solution.

JB: At the beginning of writing Grave Peril, there was no mystery or bad guy, so I needed to throw out those chapters. If I’m in a corner, there’s no clear path and I don’t know what to write next. During a deadline, getting a character into a corner is easy.

JG: I write mostly game related material, so there’s mostly action. I wrote about a vampire and a gunslinger and I found myself in that situation frequently.

JB: How do you get out of it?

JG: I killed him. But the gunslinger was also undead. I don’t like blood, so I go as far as I can go and twist it.

JB: I don’t think there are corners. I think they’re for something awesome to happen. Think laterally. Look for a solution that is not two-dimensional, outside the box.

MHB: By thinking outside the box, ask what is the worst thing that could happen. Delaying the problem could make it worse.

DG: You could avoid getting into corners by outlining. Outliners are like the idiots that drive too slowly and pantsers are like the maniacs who drive too fast. You need to balance between the two.

JB: There’s great strength with solid structure. Have a good idea before you start writing. For example, if you’re driving to California, you need to know which highways to take.

Q: Have you ever come up with an idea where the solution to the problem is a McGuffin that comes out of nowhere?

JG: Yes.

JB: It’s cheating.

MHB: I used to be a pantser but now I outline. If something goes off, I write WTFIDK in the manuscript to indicate where other things go.

DG: I’m an outliner. 90% of my writing is licensed work. They want to know what you want to do. There was one author who had an 80k outline for a 100k manuscript. I try to have tight outlines. I try to get it down to 5k but usually it’s around 15k. A good editor once said that you have to lay the pipe down early.

Q: How horrible is it to insert flashbacks with characters and themes?

JB: If it’s right there, that’s obvious. Lay the groundwork for it.

JG: I like to use flashbacks more for character development. I try to avoid using flashbacks as the solution.

MHB: I use flashbacks as character development or to reveal a piece of the puzzle.

DG: I use them as action beginning the chapter and use them as explanation, but I only use them at the right time.

Q: Do you find yourself coming up with a clever solution first and then writing the character into a corner or is it more common to write into a corner and then bang your head against the wall trying to come up with a solution?

MHB: I used to come up with the trouble first, but now with outlining, I know where I’m heading.

JB: The danger you run into as a writer is that craft can overcome the character. If it doesn’t make sense, you need to let it go if it doesn’t go with the story. The outline helps you get to those places without too much fuss.

DG: I started reading many authors. I’m a film fan and I learned from Buffy. You can pen the story sooner than the audience expects as long as you have something bigger later.

Q: Have you come up with a cool solution that you have to make up a problem for?

JB: Sometimes, depending on the story. But it can be hard. You need to predict how characters will react, what the response will be, and what the emotions are. Does it make psychological sense?

MHB: I agree. You need to consider the emotion of the character. One author had a love interest in a space opera. She wrote a sex scene and afterwards the characters acted differently because there was too much emotion. So she had to cut the scene.

DG: I mostly approach it like a mystery. Think who gets killed and why. Determine the mechanical resolution and how to obfuscate or delay the answer.

JG: Yes. I’m like an outlining pantser with a highway map especially for character motivation. I once had a poker playing character I needed to kill off. So the character died in a cyclone of cards.

Q: Do you ever realize halfway through a book that you need to redo the outline? Or do you just continue?

MHB: I just continue and return back to where I need to go. Sometimes I need to change and don’t reoutline unless it’s really messy otherwise.

JB: I do change the outline and seek an alternate route, a new way to get there.

Q: For that route, do you go with the vanilla option or the science fiction/fantasy option? Like Indiana Jones shooting the swordsman?

JB: That was Spielberg in a corner. He couldn’t film a sword fight scene so he decided just to shoot him. When writing fantasy, using fantasy is usually more fun getting out of a corner. Use what’s close at hand. Consider the creator versus the character getting out of the corner.

DG: Go back to who the character is. If the character thinks that he is human but he isn’t, maybe that’s how he survives the situation.

MHB: I once had a sword with a personality. When all the magic was taken away, we can still use the sword. Come up with a solution which is a way around. Or go in the opposite direction.

JG: I don’t want to use a supernatural solution if it’s not a supernatural story. Ask, what can the character do?

Q: Is it more beneficial to get the character out of a corner instead of making the corner collapse and having the cavalry come in to rescue the character?

DG: The character must have earned the rescue, otherwise it’s a deus ex machina.

MHB: Only have the cavalry come in to clean up the mess.

JB: You can have the cavalry show up but only under specific circumstances. Don’t have them show up in the middle of the story. Instead, they should show up at the end of the book.

JG: You should also establish earlier that the cavalry even exists. You can use it to get conflict. And remember that you’re writing the book about the character and not the cavalry.

Notes from MisCon 27, Part 11

(To see all my posts on MisCon, including last year’s notes, go here.)

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.

Panel title: Mastering the Revision Process
Panel members: Patricia Briggs, Diana Pharaoh Francis, Andrea Howe, Christie Meierz, Patrick Swenson
Panel description: Learn revision techniques for both novels and short stories.

PB: There was one well-known writer who said that he only revised to editorial demand. But most people are not that good of a writer. There’s no such thing as a manuscript that can’t be better with at least one revision. How do you approach the revision process?

CM: I power through when I’m writing and then revise immediately after I’m finished.

PS: I’m an organic writer. I revise while I’m writing to work it out. As for rewriting the opening–write and don’t go back. I start revising right away, but I need to read the last chapter again to remind myself what the characters did.

DPF: What I used to do is that when I realized something needed to be revised, I looped back and revised. But this was not productive. So now I write straight through and then go back and revise linearly. Writing is in the revision. It’s only in the revision that you craft it.

AH: Never stop learning throughout your career.

PB: You always hope that every book is better than the one before. The story comes alive in the revision process. You write a lot of crap along the way, but you need to turn off the editor. The editor pulls the logic thread. Andrea, can you tell when you’re editing that someone is an outliner or a pantser?

AH: No. You can’t tell just from looking because outliners often change things.

PB: I’m a pantser.

PS: I’m also a pantser.

DPF: I used to outline but when I start my books now, I don’t know how it ends.

CM: I’m a pantser.

PB: So most of us are pantsers. But for anyone pantsing, there are often weird scenes that crop up with plot threads that don’t do anything. With an outline, there are patterns. With revision, you can polish these things out.

PS: For those scenes, do you go in another direction or wait it out?

PB: I usually have a running book in my head. As a pantser, you write things that you have to take out later.

DPF: One of my books didn’t come to me until one day it came out and I wrote 50,000 words in twelve days. But then when I was tweaking it, there was a thread that pulled everything out. So I had to add an additional 60,000 words. It was a domino effect. What changed in the beginning caused a change in the rest of the book.

PB: Have you had revisions you didn’t like?

CM: In one revision, I had to stitch together four pieces together to make one. But in the end, it was much better.

DPF & PS: Revisions are always better.

AH: Yes. I’ve seen revisions that made it worse. I had asked one author for a revision on one thing, but they changed something completely different and made it worse.

CM: In one of my stories, I had a conversation between an empath and a whale. In the original, the editor liked it but asked for some changes. In the revised version, my husband didn’t like it.

PB: The editorial comments that make you mad are usually the ones that you need.

DPF: I once had a scene where my editor said I needed to fix it, but I couldn’t change anything. So I needed to figure out what the problem was. Finally, I figured out it was the pacing, so I killed the slow moments. Readers will identify the symptoms so you have to figure out the problem.

PB: How do you identify the problem if you can’t figure it out?

AH: I put it aside for a couple of days and come back to it. Or I sit down with the writer and ask what they’re trying to accomplish.

DPF: I look for things like out-of-character moments and pacing and track back from that scene to where it started. Is it likely or unlikely and does it make sense? How do the characters react and is it appropriate? Sometimes I try different stuff.

PS: I put stuff aside for a while. Ask, is the story clear? Think about it from the reader’s standpoint. Get fresh readers. Are the characters reacting?

CM: I put it aside. And ask my first readers.

PB: Trusted readers will tell you what’s wrong. Even if you think what you write is perfect, it isn’t. I sometimes have scenes to remind myself to do something. I write these scenes because I don’t know what to do next, but I need to take out these scenes later.

PS: Sometimes I have scenes that slow down. So I put in another person for conflict.

DPF: When in doubt, throw in a dead body. If I don’t know what to do, I open a different file to think it out.

PS: I put asides in brackets.

PB: Or in all caps.

CM: I put them in different font colors.

AH: But in the final manuscript you should find those things and take it out.

PB: Laura Anne Gilman had a book which had a ring which told who was fertile together. It was a happily ever after ring. There was an inscription in the ring, but in the text it read, “[insert here]”. That’s bad when it happens.

DPF: Or brilliant.

PB: Do you notice from writers the same mistakes?

AH: Misuse of punctuation.

PB: That makes sense. It’s the last thing you pay attention to. Are there tricks for revisions? There’s reading things aloud.

CM: Put it in different formats.

PB: Go into the reader brain.

PS: I like to print it out to revise and read it backwards. I recommend The 10% Solution by Ken Rand for self-editing.

DPF: I read aloud and read backwards. For content editing, I outline the book after I write it to find gaps in plot and motivation. Outline on a whiteboard or large butcher paper.

AH: I get my clients to tell me the problems that they can’t see, like words that they gloss over. Then I find and replace with highlight.

PS: It’s easy to pass the obvious. Once I was given a conference program to proof and I skipped over a misspelling in my own name.

Q: I’ve heard that in revising, there’s a lot of rewriting. Like rewriting ten times. How can you speed that up?

PB: Experience. Ten times is unusual. Usually it’s because it’s dragging or you need to change a viewpoint.

Q: Do you revise in a new document or in the same document?

DPF: For me, every chapter has its own file. Then I put each of those into a whole file after I revise each chapter. That way when I need to fix it, the original is still safe.

PS: I now do it in one whole file.

CM: I date my saves.

DPF: Don’t print. Revise and copy.

Q: What writing programs do you use?

CM, PS, DPF & AH: Microsoft Word.

PB: Word Perfect.

Q: So when you have a piece of writing, when do you let your peers read it? When do you know it’s ready?

AH: When the deadline hits. Otherwise you could revise forever. It’s never going to be perfect.

CM: Sometimes I give myself deadlines. Or when it feels right.

DPF: When it’s good enough without embarrassing myself. Then I give it to the editor to get feedback.

PS: Make it as good as you can make it with the time available.

PB: It’s ready when the deadline hits.

Notes from MisCon 27, Part 10

(To see all my posts on MisCon, including last year’s notes, go here.)

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.

Panel title: Urban Camouflage for Storytellers
Panel members: Clay Cooper, John Goff
Panel description: How should your protagonist blend into a crowd? How should she act to attract zero attention from her evil overlords? Come and find out how to vanish right before their eyes.

CC: So what is everyone’s perceptions of urban camouflage?

Q: Blending in, looking like everyone else.

CC: Yes. It’s blending into the surroundings and not be different. At MisCon, you’ll have a hard time blending in.

JG: Even if you’re wearing a polo shirt, you’ll stand out at MisCon. It’s hard at a con to blend in. But when you’re at a class teaching surveillance, there’s always someone who thinks clown gear can help you blend in. It might work the first time, but the second time–no. Same with an ice cream truck. People will notice it when it moves.

CC: If you try to keep a wide berth from someone, they will notice. If you make eye contact, they will remember your face. So don’t look at people’s eyes.

JG: Stay far enough away that they don’t notice you. In psychological studies, they find that people look for faces in things. The worst thing you can do once eye contact is made is to look away suddenly. Instead, just smile or pretend to scan for someone else.

CC: Look past them.

JG: Or give them the vacant look. For clothing, dress to fit in. I like cargo pants with zippers and zip off sleeves because it makes it easy to change my appearance. Change so nothing sticks out. Glasses or contacts. No t-shirts with logos. Earth tones and dark colors are better. Blue jeans usually work.

CC: Unless you’re in an area where no one wears jeans.

JG: Khaki works both ways. Also hiking boots.

CC: Hoodies, when up, draw attention. Or wearing a jacket when it’s hot out.

Q: How about hats?

JG: It depends. If you want to be anonymous, avoid color, shape, style, anything that catches attention. It should be subdued. We tend to walk in a straight line, so don’t swerve.

CC: People get the creepy vibe when someone walks behind them.

JG: Psychologically, people have perceptions of their personal space. They have an awareness of it. Someone following is a predator. The posture gives away what they feel about personal space. In interrogations, one intimidation tactic is to move closer and closer. You risk drawing attention if you invade their personal space. So keep outside of that radius.

Q: Is there a difference tracking someone in the city versus a small town?

JG: Depends. On foot, it can be horrible depending on the number of people and cars. It’s hard to be unnoticed although it’s easier in a city. In a small town, it’s not an option. In a small town, everyone knows everyone. One time, a boss tried to do surveillance in a small town but it was complicated by the fact that the postmaster (who knew the target) also worked at the sheriff’s office.

Q: People in towns are so rude. They just look at you.

JG: It’s a coping mechanism to prevent you from impinging on their personal space. For example, when people get in an elevator, everyone looks at the door.

CC: Or what happens in the bathroom.

JG: In a small town, there’s less personal space and more connectivity. So give yourself a reason to be there that everyone accepts. Like being a surveyor. With a vehicle, it’s easier to go unnoticed.

CC: At 35 mph, you become invisible.

Q: What about construction vehicles?

JG: You can only use them once. And you can’t follow people with it. White vehicles are good. Ten years ago, everyone used SUVs, but now their popularity is down. However white vans can stick out.

Q: What makes it difficult to follow someone?

JG: If you get cut off by a train. If you’re in a tailing vehicle, you need some identifying marker to follow. It’s hard to follow a silver Camry because everyone has one. In heavy traffic, it’s the luck of the draw. In that case, you can stay far away if the car is obvious. It’s difficult if they’re going above the speed limit and if the person thinks they’re being followed. They could make illegal u-turns, sudden shifts, going onto off ramps, turning around in parking lots, or just stopping and sitting. It’s really tricky going from urban to rural on a highway because you need to keep visual contact.

Q: Does a dirt trail help?

JG: It doesn’t help so much.

CC: In a valley area, you don’t realize how close you are until you’re practically on top of them.

JG: If it’s wooded, it helps, but not in a wide open area. Country surveillance is difficult. You can use a ghillie suit as camouflage.

Q: What tech do you use?

JG: For surveillance? You should know where you’re going. A digital video camera, GPS, cellphone, and sometimes night vision gear although that may be legally complicated.

Q: If there were no rules and you were a bad guy, what tech would you use?

JG: Drones because they can hide by hovering at the edge of the treeline. Infrared camera. Theromgraphic equipment to detect heat signatures. Helicopters, however, are noisy.

Q: If you’re the protagonist, how would you avoid detection?

JG: Hack into security cameras. Avoid facial recognition technology by altering appearance.

CC: They can look through sunglasses, though.

JG: The Xbox Connect has a camera so they can detect your heartbeat and blood flow with certain filters.

CC: It’s the sort of technology they use to monitor babies.

JG: With all the things you can do with smartphones, it makes things easier.

Q: How realistic is the media, especially the show Person of Interest?

JG: I haven’t seen it.

Q: Can you clone a phone?

JG: If you have the right software. But that’s crossing federal law.

Q: With a Bluetooth, you could do it at a hundred yards.

JG: I use a prepaid phone to prevent that from happening.

Q: What would you do if you had a suspicion that someone following you wanted to do something to you?

CC: Find a way to turn it on them. Become the stalker to see what they’re doing. If you’re threatened, move to a large crowd.

JG: Simply confronting someone can break it off. Unless they want to cause you bodily harm.

Q: In a crowd, you could turn around and ask why they are following you.

JG: Make a scene.

Q: Some of the creepier technologies out there exist as software in vehicles. It’s possible someone could hack into the car computer and take control.

CC: Then get a manual car.

JG: People can’t break into keyless cars in a conventional way, but someone can follow you with an antenna to get the signal.

Notes from MisCon 27, Part 9

(To see all my posts on MisCon, including last year’s notes, go here.)

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.

Panel title: Writing the Opposite Gender
Panel members: Carol Berg, C.J. Cherryh, Jane Fancher, J.A. Pitts
Panel description: What do you do if you’re a female writing from a male’s perspective? Or the other way around? How do you make it convincing?

CB: I’ve been asked why I write men and if it is hard. I observe men and it depends on the character in a situation. What made you decide to do it?

JAP: I’ve been raised by a single mom. There were no men in my life until I was twelve or thirteen. So I gravitate towards women.

CB: Writing what you know can be boring. The challenge of writing is to write about people who are different.

JF: Some stories dictate a male character. For abused children, the media focused on girls so I wanted to focus on males. For siblings, if they’re all the same gender, there’s more dynamics and more rivalry. It can also explore more territory and viewpoints.

CJC: Writing guys is artistically pleasing. They have physical strength. Women grow up to figure out how to solve problems. Things are often too heavy and out of reach for them because they are made for men.

CB: Part of the reason why I write men is that it fulfills our desire to do things that we couldn’t do and experience adventure. My approach was to write the point of view of a blind man. The problem is to how to make it visual to the reader. You set yourself a challenge to write a different point of view. What do you have to do to make it real when you write it?

JAP: We need more strong women characters. I look for what is the same. We don’t know everything. I go for the emotional content. Why would someone do something different?

JF: Any character has parameters. There are differences in physiological and psychological characteristics between men and women. Otherwise, there are only very few ways males and females are different.

CJC: There’s a degree of power and how they find ways around problems. A character with a job is not gender specific.

CB: They’re all individual. We have to know a lot about the character.

JF: I feel bothered that some people say that they can tell if a male or female is writing something.

CB: Are there particular difficulties in writing the opposite gender?

JAP: I know I come from white male privilege. So I have to research assumptions and check with other people. Media is geared towards white men. You need to be open-minded, try a different point of view that is not the societal driving force.

CB: There are many ways to write a strong female character without clubbing people over the head.

JAP: You don’t write male characters with breasts.

CJC: There are biological, physiological differences, though. A woman wouldn’t force a door open with her shoulders. Using her hips would be better.

CB: Is there difficulty in writing men?

CJC: In literature, men are written in such a way that they still function even when they would be dead in reality. They have the notion that they are a tank.

JF: I don’t have a problem writing them. It’s more about the situation. I’m comfortable with the male mindset. However, I don’t like writers who write males as females with penises.

CB: How do you avoid writing a man who is just a woman? You should pay attention to what they observe. What do they look at? For example, a nobleman and a farmer would not see the same thing.

JF: Conan the Barbarian would not care who your tailor is.

CB: Differences also come from what world and society you created.

JF: Environment influences character.

CJC: I dislike people always attributing deception to women. People are a constellation of social and physical attributes.

JF: And if people create a deceptive man, they also make him effeminate.

Q: In societal situations, what about age and mentors?

CB: Yes, that’s part of their upbringing.

CJC: When you write a world, understand its “geology”. How did they get there?

CB: But don’t necessarily write it on the page.

JF: Know a lot of the background stuff. It’s like peeling an onion. But I don’t plan it. I just have parameters.

Q: What about writing characters in alternate shapes? Like non-human characters?

JAP: Find the commonalities. What makes the character sympathetic to the reader? Highlight those qualities. Make all the characters distinct, with distinct needs, wants, goals, and emotions.

CB: I’ve written a character with two souls. So ask yourself the hard questions. How would that individual react? How to reconcile the body and mind? How would that feel?

CJC: I’ve had a character in a horse’s body. So what does the character see?

JF: Find a unique answer. The more you experience, the more options you have for the answer. The answers are limited to your experience.

Q: How do you separate societal stereotypes with reality?

CB: Hard work.

JF: I pick and choose.

JAP: I do the research and have the characters acknowledge those stereotypes.

Notes from MisCon 27, Part 8

(To see all my posts on MisCon, including last year’s notes, go here.)

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.

Panel title: Snarking Up Your Characters
Panel members: Carol Berg, Jim Butcher, Jane Fancher, Diana Pharaoh Francis
Panel description: Who would Malcolm Reynolds, Harry Dresden, and Tyrion Lannister be without their snark? Join us to learn what it means to be snarky, how to add snark to your characters, and how to write perfect one-liners.

Q: Should we define snark before we talk about it?

DPF: No.

JB: Snark at the core is irreverent humor and observation. It’s a deflection.

JF: The deflection is a facade between them and the world.

JB: If it’s insightful, then it’s wit.

CB: When I think of something irreverent, I think teenage boys. It indicates a deep insecurity in the character although they don’t necessarily know it. They think they’re witty, but it’s a comment on themselves.

DPF: When we tend to filter, it’s tact. Snark strips away the tact.

JF: With a touch of humor.

DPF: When you can’t say anything deep about emotional things, snarky interaction may be used. It gives you a feel that there’s something under the surface. It helps form bonds without opening up emotionally.

JF: It could be used to stop an argument.

CB: It can be used as a relief valve.

Q: In dark situations, do you use gallows humor? What is the line for too much snark?

JF: The line is different for different readers. Some think there’s too much snark and some not enough. You need balance.

CB: Any one note character can drive people crazy. You can’t define a character by snark (or any one characteristic). It’s unreal.

JB: And becomes unfun.

DPF: I’m irritated with too much snark in tense situations, like life or death situations.

JF: You have to prove that there’s more to the character than just snark.

JB: Too much snark lowers its value and undermines the drama. For example, in Jurassic Park 3, everyone becomes snarky.

Q: It seems like more male characters are snarky. Is that inherent?

JF: No.

DPF: There are lots of good female snarky characters.

JF: Some examples: Ivanova from Babylon 5, Buffy, the Bitch Queens.

DPF: With snark, there’s a fine line between mean (which makes a character unlikeable) and funny.

JF: You’re not going to please everybody. Some people never like snark.

Q: Is it a requirement to have snark in urban fantasy as compared to science fiction?

JF: I have snarky characters in my science fiction story. Buffy was the original character in urban fantasy who became popular. That set the tone.

CB: I write fantasy, but I have snarky characters to spice it up. Snark prods the serious hero.

JF: Otherwise it’s just grim.

CB: It brings humor.

DPF: I had a character who couldn’t use his hands but needed to go to the bathroom. However, everyone around him doesn’t like him. This had potential for snark and humor.

JF: It’s the embarrassment factor. Snark helps you get over it.

DPF: It helps diffuse embarrassment.

JF: Hopefully there’s at least some characters to lighten up the mood.

JB: How do you get to the point of being comfortable writing snarky characters so that the reader understands it? I practiced a lot in conversation with my son.

CB: Or pretend to be a 14-year-old girl with her boyfriend.

DPF: Comedians are a great source for snark. They give truthful observations in a snarky way. It’s painful, but you know exactly what they mean.

JF: I practiced snark with my brothers and sisters.

CB: Get inside the head of your character. Snark may come naturally with a totally different character. Practice writing the situation.

JF: I don’t consciously write it. I know the character, the set up, and the tension.

Q: There are cultural differences in what is funny and what is dry wit. Is being snarky an American thing?

JF: It’s situational. It’s a euphemism for something else. You need to set up the scene.

Q: When characters come up against authority, can they diffuse it by being snarky or does that sometimes sets off a fuse?

JF: Snarky comments will trigger something. It depends on the situation.

Q: When people react to snark, is this cultural or can you go where no man dares to go? For instance, the fool can snark to the king, but no one else can.

JF: The function of the fool in court was to tell the truth. He was the original stand up comedian. He’s part of the Jungian archetypes. If it becomes too serious, look at the balance of types of characters. You need variety.

Q: In a situation where you have a noble character, how do you create snark?

JB: How can you create snark without that character? The noble character as the target is just as important. You need someone to be the straight guy. Otherwise there’s no contrast. Never underestimate the power of the straight guy. Humor can also come from reversals.

JF: When it finally comes, have a good zinger.

JB: Or a one liner at the end.

Q: Who are your favorite snarky characters?

JB: House

JF: What he said.

CB: Same.

DPF: The characters in Firefly.

JF: Spike in Buffy.

Q: Do you use snark or wit? How do you use it to push the plot?

DPF: I don’t care as long as it works.

JF: I don’t worry about the definitions.

DPF: Wit is sharp, insightful humor. It contrasts what they’re saying with what’s happening.

JB: I go for the cheap laughs.

JF: I try to make that work.

CB: Use it if there’s a purpose to it.

DPF: Suppose there’s a truth that has to be given but the character doesn’t want to listen. Then you can deliver it in a humorous way so that they can hear it and be more willing to hear it.

Q: Different people have different lines for differentiating snark and wit.

JF: Yes, but there’s a continuum. Oscar Wilde was witty by being snarky.

JB: So, what’s everyone’s advice for writing snark?

DPF: Let it all hang out.

CB: Think of the character first and who they are.

JF: When writing dialog, let the conversation flow. Then edit brilliantly.

JB: I think beginning writers hold too much in. Don’t do it. Push things over the top. Practice doing it.

JF: And don’t be afraid.

Notes from MisCon 27, Part 7

(To see all my posts on MisCon, including last year’s notes, go here.)

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.

Panel title: The Role of Religion in Science Fiction/Fantasy
Panel members: David Boop, Deby Fredericks, Joyce Reynolds-Ward, Peter Wacks
Panel description: This Sunday morning we’ll talk about religion’s role in scifi/fantasy. Is it necessary? Can you write a society and not have religion? How do you make a religion? What do you research? Where do you begin? Join us to learn the ins and outs of religion in genre writing.

PW: I leave out rants about religion from social media, etc. But it does bleed into my writing. How does it bleed into writing?

DF: Religion is often used as an antagonist in SFF. In real life there are skeptics and deniers of climate change who base their beliefs on religion. These get slapped down, but we should also be respectful. Shoot at people’s beliefs advisedly.

PW: Or be offensive about everything like South Park.

JRW: Consistency matters. Conservatives and Protestants are not the same as Catholics, Lutherans, etc. American bishops aren’t the same as the Vatican. Some of us are wired for religion. Some do religion and sci-fi well, like Russell’s The Sparrow. Orson Scott Card incorporates religion into what he writes. The biggest issue is that many write from an outsider’s perspective and don’t get into the internal battles and dialog. Poorly written, it’s just ritual and evil clergy.

DB: It’s not necessarily what the media says but what they portray. The stories should deal with redemption, crisis of faith, and facing one’s fears. The cliche evil religion is too obvious.

DF: That’s why people use churches and cults. These organizations have resources like the government. They have many members and bases to provide a continual source of conflict. While a small group of bandits can be wiped out in one go.

DB: It’s descended from the Cold War generation, where everyone suspected everyone else. You can compare the country to a religion. But there are shades and different levels. Example: Game of Thrones.

JRW: Religion fuels the believers. There are explicit rituals for particular purposes. For the fanatics, it’s the rationale of true believers. An example is Frank Herbert’s Dune.

DF: Members of a criminal gang will likely yield at the end. But religious followers are less likely to surrender. These are different kinds of fight.

PW: I started from a hopeful place. That faith in itself could change worlds and universes. People get caught up in the bad side of the coin. Is there a good side?

JRW: The best stuff doesn’t proselytize. It presents how it affects the character.

PW: How do you write without religion?

DF: Anne McCaffrey didn’t plan for religion on Pern. Is this realistic? We look for patterns in everything. We want to control unknown events.

PW: Lack of faith is a religion.

DB: In society, we can’t escape religion. At some point, someone wants power. The quickest way to get it is to say that you are ordained by God. And there are people with delusions of grandeur.

JRW: It taps into an emotional resonance in the brain. I believe some people are hardwired for faith.

DB: As an author, you can research and explore other worlds and religions to at least understand some of their motivations.

PW: How much of your writing is taking the world in and preaching it out? Do morals come out of the book or just a character on a soapbox?

DF: We all write our own belief. But we must also be aware of the audience. They don’t want religion and don’t want to deal with that. So you give them what they want. Religion can be part of world building. Use religion as set dressing rather than preaching.

JRW: Everything we write reflects our own morals and ethics but we have to be careful promoting one thing. The audience isn’t friendly towards preaching. Be nuanced.

DB: I make sure the voice in the story is the character and not me. I’m careful that what the character preaches is not necessarily what I would preach. Transcend your own belief. Otherwise it’s the same character all the time. Every character is different. Make it clear that it’s fiction.

JRW: Sometimes I’m seduced by a character. One of my recent characters is a woman who becomes a goddess but is unlikeable in some ways.

Q: For most people, religion gives them answers they don’t have to understand. Is this valuable in real life?

DB: Lewis Black said that religion is used to keep people in line. Some people just want to be told what to do.

PW: It’s useful in defining societies in SFF. For instance, in a generation ship, they may need faith and trust. It defines societal ethics.

JRW: It’s used as a support structure, social structure.

DF: It helps in sharing resources in a disaster.

PW: In Good Omens, they shared cookies. It’s a standard.

Q: How do you develop your own religion? How hard is it dealing with all the different facets?

DB: I took a look at the current progression of religion and tried to see what would happen in the future. I decided that everyone agrees that there’s a god and removed the dogma.

JRW: In my fantasy story, I have seven gods that did battle. They’re modeled on Greek mythology.

Q: With faith and religion, is faith in a person or is it in a religion?

PW: It’s only when many people have the same faith that you get a religion.

DF: And they have it at the same intensity.

JRW: Religion has ritual, structure, and protocols.

PW: Religion needs a divinity. Although now we say that media/capitalism is a religion.

DF: Capitalism is about commerce, not personalities. Religion needs a personality. Although now, corporations are trying to be seen as individuals.

PW: There are personalities that represent commercial media, so it’s getting dangerously close to becoming a religion.

Q: How easy is it to write a galaxy-spanning self destructive cult or religion?

PW: It depends on the quality of writing.

DB: Write about it if it is needed for the character to change. If the character changes too easily without a challenge, it’s not interesting. If the cult/religion is just use as flavoring, it doesn’t add to the story so it should be cut.

JRW: You can’t write a galaxy-spanning cult because it will splinter and there’s the problem of communication.

DB: An example of a galaxy-spanning cult is in the trilogy The Damned by Alan Dean Foster.

DF: As writers, we need to grab a common trope to get rolling. When revising, we need to flesh things out. Use something that is unique. Even if you use a cult, find something about it that makes it unique and a surprise.

Notes from MisCon 27, Part 6

(To see all my posts on MisCon, including last year’s notes, go here.)

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.

Panel title: Writer: Oppress Thyself
Panel members: Brenda Carre, Deby Fredericks, Manny Frishberg, Andrea Howe
Panel description: Get some advice on proofreading, editing, and cleaning up your stories. Learn to crush your exposition, oppress your repetition, and make your punctuation orderly and efficient.

AH: Do you have any pet peeves?

BC: People try to self-edit too much at the beginning. They never get anywhere when they’re constantly tripping over the editor.

MF: The misuse of less and fewer. The use of triage as choose. It’s supposed to be a medical term. The use of commas.

DF: I don’t like that writers think that punctuation and grammar don’t matter. If you’re doing this as a profession, you should adhere to the standards. Look for an English course. Read a lot. Study your favorite authors and write out a page. Hold yourself to a higher standard. I don’t like writers with an ordinary idea who present it as a new idea. You need to distinguish yourself. Some talk that execution matters more than the idea. For example, in Bunnicula, the cat mistakes a stake for a steak. It’s on you to catch these things.

AH: It’s a writer’s first impression. If you can’t spell or punctuate, then it’s like showing up to a wedding in cutoffs. They’d throw you out of the wedding. Your book will end up in the trash. No one is going to read the story if they’re blinded by mistakes. But don’t let it stifle creativity. On your first draft, if you start cutting things out, it’s a waste of time. Your goal is to finish.

MF: As a freelance magazine writer, you submit a query letter. These first pages is like a job application. If you screw it up, you won’t get the job.

BC: Be aware of correct word usage. Certain words convey certain ideas. Get a really good thesaurus. It’s the lead avenue to word usage. Have a reference in hand.

MF: Mark Twain had some advice, that the difference between the right and the almost right word is like lightning and the lightning bug.

AH: Use a dictionary to get the correct meaning.

DF: It’s like a “cornucopia of trees.” It doesn’t make sense because cornucopia has a certain connotations. Say what you mean to say.

AH: What references you you recommend?

BC: The Transitive Vampire and The Well Tempered Sentence.

MF: Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses, The Guardian‘s article on the responses of twenty-seven editors for writing rules.

AH: The Gregg Reference Manual. It has an example of everything.

DF: Google.

MF: AP Stylebook.

AH: For a novel, use The Chicago Manual of Style. English keeps changing. It’s a living entity.

DF: If you don’t keep up with the change, only few people will read your stuff because it’s not current.

BC: Look at an old dictionary. You’ll find everyday words back then have become archaic. The usage of “lie”, “lay”, and “laid” have changed.

MF: Use “few” if you want discrete numbers that you can count. Use “less” if it’s general. There’s also ’til and until. Till has started showing up in pop publications.

AH: I object to people switching back and forth on the rules. Pick one rule and stick with it.

DF: I hate “impact” used as a verb.

BC: Or “source.”

Q: I view A (space) B and AB as different. But some people don’t. For example, every day and everyday.

AH: I see that on store hours. I post “grammar in the wild” on Facebook. It makes me want to correct the signs. My aunt actually corrected signs.

BC: I once saw in a Sydney paper, “intersection between May and November.”

Q: What about “looking to” as an encompassing term? Like “looking to go to school” or “looking to publish a book”? I see it everywhere.

MF: In this country, there’s mass communication. Lots of regional quirks become national. And it will seem wrong to people who grew up elsewhere.

DF: Some of them are in vogue.

BC: There’s a mapping project on those regionalisms. I also saw a YouTube video of the dialogue of different eras. You may change word usage if it reflects the character. But that does not change the punctuation.

AH: There are some people who deliberately misspell to show a character’s ignorance even though it’s pronounced the same. Keep the weird dialects out.

MF: Long sections in dialect–editors hate that.

Q: In eastern Idaho, the adverb is an endangered species. People say “good” or “drive safe”–they take off the -ly. It seems like a regional thing.

AH: It’s spreading.

Q: Do you put your manuscript away for a while before you look for mistakes?

BC: Yes. I’ve put one manuscript away for six years.

MF: I put away the first short story I wrote for twenty years. Mostly for emotional distance. Usually it’s for a few months. Then you can look at it as writing rather than your baby.

BC: But it’s a good idea to finish the story first before putting it away or you will lose the momentum. It will be more difficult to finish later.

Q: In various writer groups I’ve been in, it’s drilled in that we should get rid of adjectives and adverbs.

MF: No rules of grammar or composition are absolute. Excessive use may be a problem.

AH: It’s everything in moderation. You only break the rules for emphasis.

Q: What tricks do you use to break out of saying the same thing over and over again?

DF: Find a different way of saying it.

MF: Use metaphor.

BC: Use a different structure.

AH: Add dialog.

MF: Some people use adverbs in dialog tags. It’s almost always a beginner’s mistake. How the character feels should be reflected in what they say. With few exceptions, use “said” because it’s mostly invisible. Unique dialog tags sound awful.

DF: Attribution can be confused if the sentence is badly put together. Then you don’t know who is talking. Make it clear who is speaking. You can change gender if it gets confusing with two male or two female characters.

BC: Beware dangling participles and modifiers. In Lord of the Rings, there’s one sentence when read aloud sounds weird. “Bill stood beside the pony sucking his teeth.”

MF: If you read it aloud, you will catch mistakes. A friend was reading a short story about Lewis and Clark and there was a dog named Seaman. There was a sentence: “Seaman erupted from the bushes.”

AH: If you’re tripping over it, the reader probably will too.

Q: When I read my stories, I only see the edit in my head and skip over it on the page. Do you have a trick to see the mistakes?

MF: Read it aloud, slowly, with your mind focused on grammar rather than the story. Read half of the lines backwards. It makes you look at the words.

BC: There’s a difference looking at it on the computer versus the hard copy.

Q: Have someone else read it aloud to you.

Q: What do you think about the trend in literature for using present tense?

AH: I don’t like it. It’s harder to process. But The Hunger Games uses it. Anything is possible.

MF: They started using present tense in magazine writing about twelve or fourteen years ago. Consistency matters–switching present and past tense will jar the reader.

DF: We all have an inner critic or support system that tells you that you can’t do it. Find it in yourself to overcome the criticism and don’t let the doubts oppress you.

Notes from MisCon 27, Part 5

(To see all my posts on MisCon, including last year’s notes, go here.)

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.

Panel title: Learning the Game: Query Letters/Elevator Pitches
Panel members: David Boop, James Glass, Rhiannon Held, J.A. Pitts, Patrick Swenson
Panel description: It’s the game we all have to learn: how to sell our books. Our esteemed panelists will talk about what it takes, how to do it, and all those little details they wish new authors knew.

JG: Let’s start with the assumption that you’re a new writer without an agent and you’re trying to get published. How do you get yourself recognized and be seen by the main editor out of the slush?

JAP: It depends. Everyone is different. I met my editor at RadCon and we did not talk about books. Eventually I sent an e-mail and she said to send her the manuscript. There’s always someone who will break the rules.

PS: I met my editor at Clarion West on week five in the 1980s. I learned how editors worked with stuff sent into Talebones where I was an editor. It was because of Talebones and Fairwood Press that I got recognized in the business first.

DB: I owe it all to conventions where I met other writers. My first book was published by a small press. Get to know the editors as people. Ply them with alcohol while you remain sober. I found out that I graduated at the same time as an editor at Baen. Pitch when you know what they publish.

RH: I got my editor first when I got a short story critiqued. Think of the editors as human beings rather than dollar signs.

JG: The context is important. I started writing short stories. From my reputation as a short story writer, I got an agent. When I wrote a novel, I started at Baen because the editor there knew I won the Writers of the Future Contest.

PS: It doesn’t hurt to know someone.

JG: Even another author, a big author, can get you there. I’ve gotten a recommendation from C.J. Cherryh. Context in industry.

RH: It’s not only your writing talent but your social talent. Prove you’re intelligent, pleasant, and that others can work with.

DB: It’s no longer the idea of the solitary writer. Now editors want to know if you’re going to be a brand, if you can do readings, and decide on that. There’s no one way to do this right. You can try writing short stories, going to cons, workshops, etc. One will strike gold eventually. Persistence.

JAP: They used to give you a contract from a synopsis of your story. It’s now changed. Everything’s on Facebook now. Publishers will google you. Will they find you blogging about writing or drunken pictures from the last party? It’s all for public consumption. When you meet someone, you don’t know who they know. The query is the first person contact. It’s short and succinct and now they do it by e-mail. The rules to writing queries is used to deter people because they already have huge slush piles. You need to pique their interest if it’s not solicited. And have stuff ready for them when they contact you, unless you’re an already established author. You have to have product.

PS: When I worked at Talebones we had a couple hundred submissions in a month. If you’re a slush reader at an online mag, you learn a lot about the process and get to meet the editor.

JG: I published ten stories in Talebones. Everyone’s connected. Get your name out there. Produce something. I once did an elevator pitch for Tor. Learn to summarize your book in ten seconds.

RH: For my first novel, my editor wanted the whole thing after I sent a synopsis. I got an agent after I sold the book and that was when I used the pitch. I “synopsized” my synopsis since it was too long. It’s a lot about marketing–what genre fits and what’s different. Something the same but not a clone.

JAP: When editors acquire books, they only have a certain number of slots. Editors need to go up to the board to pitch your book so they use your pitch.

JG: Editors can love your book, but marketing can stop it.

DB: Or if editors already bought something similar.

PS: I gave a long pitch to an editor and his eyes started glazing over when it went too long. But he was more interested when I gave a short pitch. I didn’t have a pitch until I got an agent.

JAP: Don’t pitch until you’ve already written it. Otherwise you will lose them.

DB: Not every time. I got them reading three chapters. They bought it when it was completed.

JG: When you’re getting started, you need everything written.

RH: When I wrote my first book, I only found my theme after I finished writing it. When you pitch, you also need a theme.

DB: You need to lead with emotion. Why should I invest in these people?

JG: There are one minute and ten minute pitches, which are rarer. Some workshops have pitch sessions.

JAP: Cascade Writers is in July. They’re reading pitches and they will tell you if it worked or not. You can still do it without meeting face to face.

DB: There’s also the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Conference.

JAP: Publishers want to buy your product.

PS: They need to eat so they want your stuff.

JAP: It’s not a zero sum game with e-books. There’s collecting and reading. There’s no shortage of people buying.

DB: You can be more specific in particular genres. For instance, I know someone who publishes nothing but gay space pirates and they’re popular.

JG: Amazon has changed the game with publishing. In a query letter, explain the book, how long it is, what it’s about, what special qualifications you have for it, and ask if they would like to see a partial. Then you wait.

JAP: Look at their guidelines. If it says, “don’t do X”, then don’t do X. You don’t want to piss them off.

RH: It’s a test that you’re following directions. Make a good impression.

PS: There’s no excuse nowadays. Everything’s on the internet.

JAP: If you get rejected, don’t argue with them. Agents will post that out there.

JG: Even if they stung you, write a thank you letter.

PS: Actually, some editors don’t even want that.

JAP: Be polite. It’s like a job interview. They want to see if they can work with you.

DB: You’ve got to roll with it. It’s not always about the writing. It could be just the fit. Maybe they will want your next story, so don’t burn that bridge.

JG: If they want the partial, you want to include the synopsis so they know what goes in the story, that there’s an end, and that you know how to write a synopsis.

RH: I’ve revised my synopsis as many times as my novel. You want main character arcs, not events. For example, if the theme is how your character deals with fear, you want to only include what relates to the arc.

DB: I once sent in a twenty page outline. My agent told me he wanted a synopsis that was five pages. Don’t include sub-characters or events that won’t move the character.

JG: Keep it short. Leave some mystery. Don’t tell all of the story, like the back jacket blurb.

RH: But reveal the ending. Don’t stop before the end. The editor wants to know.

JG: There could be years of delay. Always send the first chapters and then the manuscript. Then it’s up to them.

JAP: And while you’re waiting, write the next book.