Don't Shake the Flask

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Month: May, 2014

MisCon 28: It Came from the Slushpile

(To see all my posts on MisCon, 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: It Came from the Slushpile
Panel members: Sheila Gilbert, Patrick Swenson, Betsy Wollheim
Panel description: Join our esteemed editors as they relive some of their more intriguing cover letters and writing samples received through their years on the other side of the publishing spectrum. We’ll learn what works and what doesn’t and how to make sure yours is the best it can be.

PS: When I was editor of Talebones, we never closed to submissions.

BW: However, DAW has terrible response times.

PS: Don’t do this: spiral bound and pink paper. I also had one with crayon. But I did have a great cover letter from a fifth grader. There’s no excuse these days not to follow standard formatting. Google “manuscript preparation” and find William Shunn.

Moderator: I’ve seen many types of formatting. What type of formatting do you prefer?

BW: Double space, printed, and include page numbers.

PS: If it’s double spaced with a good font, I will read it.

BW: It doesn’t matter what the font is as long as it’s readable.

SG: Don’t get hung up on font. I’ll look at it as long as it’s easy to read and clean with no mistakes.

PS: Back when everything was done with typewriter, the rule was that if you had more than two mistakes on the page, you had to retype it. Also in the old days, they used 12 point Courier because it was easier to establish column space.

SG: Now we can just change the font on the computer.

BW: My father once sent an ambiguous letter to C.J. Cherryh. Fortunately she assumed correctly that he was going to publish her books. Many DAW writers came from the slushpile.

SG: Find the right publisher for your work. I knew there was a brand new author who managed to sell their story to several countries before it got published.

PS: Here’s a cover letter I received that started with “Sounds of Christmas Music is a brutal horror story…” Sometimes I got submissions from the Department of Corrections…

BW: Never respond to anyone from prison because you don’t know what they’ll do. Sometimes we’ll get really crazy stuff. Once we got a submission written in ballpoint pen and fully illustrated. In it, the Hindenburg was burning…

SG: And it was drawn like a teenager with a banana sausage tree and a flying gurney.

PS: Another editor I know received a velvet lined box with the manuscript inside.

BW: Don’t tell us that your manuscript is going to be the next bestseller. We’ve also gotten submissions where they’re asking us to send them $100,000 before they would send the manuscript.

SG: Don’t tell us who you want starring in the movie of your book.

PS: I got a submission where they were writing as if I were dead. It began with “Dear Departed…”

Moderator: How many submissions do you get?

BW: About 100 novels per week. It has increased with electronic submissions. It also increases when economic times are hard.

SG: You can tell if it has been a hard winter because in the spring, there will be a flood of submissions from Canada.

BW: I don’t like “Sheena in the jungle” type stories where the main character is a scantily clad Amazon.

Q: Do you get a lot of NaNoWriMo novels?

BW: I don’t read a lot of them because they’re first vetted by other readers.

SG: We have interns. If they like one of the stories, they can do a pitch to us on it.

PS: I also get a lot of cast off stories from whatever anthology had recently closed. I would get a lot of flash horror stories when a flash horror anthology closed. Or a lot of zeppelin stories when that anthology closed.

Q: Do you get a lot of those cast off stories from Reader’s Digest contests?

PS: No, I don’t recall.

SG: Short stories are different from novels. 44,000 words is not a novel. Research your market first. Is it for a magazine? Or is it too long for it? Look at the guidelines and what they publish. We don’t like to encourage bad things.

Q: What positive thing influences you?

BW: At the minimum, write at a professional level.

SG: A cover letter can destroy your chances if it’s bad. You can include credits if they’re professional sales.

PS: Let the writing speak for itself.

Q: Have you ever gotten any form cover letters?

BW: I’ve been confused with another editor.

SG: Me, too.

Moderator: What do you personally want in a manuscript?

BW: I’m just looking for a good book.

SG: No trends.

BW: Don’t jump on the bandwagon. Write what’s inside you.

SG: We’re only concerned with a book that grabs us with its characters and ideas.

Moderator: If someone submits a novel, what’s the minimum word count?

BW: 80,000.

Moderator: What’s the maximum?

BW: Tad Williams’ manuscript was too large for a normal paperback so we had to use special paper. Patrick Rothfuss had over half a million words for one book.

SG: We were happy when we could do a trade paperback for that one.

Q: I’ve gotten the advice that we should just keep sending stuff because editors like to see writers improve.

BW: That’s wrong. Only send the best that you can make it. The exception to that is one author whose friend submitted it for her by bringing it to DAW.

Q: How do you know when your manuscript is ready for submission?

BW: Get critiques from friends, writing workshops, etc.

Q: Do you like to see short story writers grow with continuing submissions?

PS: I don’t have time to read all of it. I encourage when they do get better, but not when they continue to make the same mistakes. Write the best that you can. Have it seen first by writers groups and beta readers.

Moderator: Also, don’t write the same story over and over again.

SG: Some get an agent and then send something else.

Q: With 100 submissions per week, how many of those become new authors?

BW: About 0.001%. Most of them are not agented. Most are not written at a professional level.

SG: Anyone can say that they’re agented. It’s probably not a good idea to have your spouse, sister, etc. as your agent. Now some agents only take you on once you have a manuscript accepted. So don’t be afraid to submit unagented. Except for vanity presses.

PS: Agents act as extra gatekeepers.

Q: If you’re no longer agented, should you mention that in your cover letter?

BW: No. But we don’t care. Other editors might.

SG: Also include your writing credits.

BW: Some agents work with Tor but not DAW. Or vice versa. If you want to submit to DAW, find an agent who represents DAW authors.

SG: Some agents are shady.

PS: Look in Locus to find some reputable agents.

Q: Also make sure the agent actually reads your work and doesn’t just pick it up because you’ve got a contract.

Q: If I send in a submission and it gets rejected, can I edit it and send it back?

SG: Only if you specifically get a letter back that says that you can revise and resubmit. If it’s a form letter, then send your work elsewhere.

BW: If the revision is drastically different, you can resubmit. But not if it’s only slightly different.

PS: You also can’t submit it to different editors in the same company.

Q: What if you have no writing credits? What should you put on the cover letter? And what is “professional writing” anyway?

BW: It’s good writing. Unfortunately, it can’t be defined.

PS: Don’t summarize your story in the cover letter.

BW: Send your entire novel so we know that you can finish writing it. There are many different examples of professional writing which varies with style and voice. Dickens and Nabokov are different, but both are professional writing.

Q: Can you mention that you’ve been a finalist in a writing contest in your cover letter?

Panel: Yes.

PS: As for cover letters, don’t send propaganda or letters looking like ransom notes.

[This session ended with PS reading a truly bad cover letter containing crossed out information, handwritten corrections, misspelled words, all caps for italics, and rambling and inappropriate digressions.]

MisCon 28: Art of Swearing

(To see all my posts on MisCon, 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: Art of Swearing
Panel members: S.A. Bolich, Brenda Carre, Diana Pharaoh Francis, Andrea Howe
Panel description: Warning, Will Robinson! Bawdy language and creative insults ahead!

SAB: What’s the difference between cursing and cussing?

BC: Cursing is hexing, making something happen. Cussing doesn’t have the same connotation.

AH: Cursing has an object.

DPF: It’s the difference between “goddammit” and “goddamn you.”

BC: In fantasy, curses do come true.

SAB: Where does the curse come from? Do you invent it?

DPF: In my Crosspointe books, the culture is sailing based. In this world where having an intact ship is important, people use the word “crack” instead of “fuck.” Cursing also comes from religion, but since they have no hell, they turn to the sea which is literally black water. So they tell people to go “to the black depths.” Work the system around the culture. Cursing comes from culture.

AH: You can swear and still be polite. As an editor, I think of the story as a river. It needs to be written within the banks. When you make something up without basis, then you’re out of the river. You need to stay on the river. You need to be in the basis of your society.

BC: Not only do you have to understand the basis of the society but you also have to understand the basis of the person. What if the character doesn’t swear? Then what do they do if they get hurt?

SAB: Some things are universal. Many curses are scatological. Shit, everyone’s got it. Someone has to shovel it. They’re also often related to reproductive anatomy, religion, and whatever they despise in society. In one of my books, they despise priests so calling someone a believer is an insult. There’s always someone low on the totem pole or with the short end of the stick.

BC: You can find many of them on the internet or on Wikipedia.

DPF: Or the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.

BC: There are interesting terms like “fart catcher” or “bum basher.” They show a way of looking at the world. They seem original now, but they were once common terms.

DPF: Many terms are just twisted labels as raunchy terminology.

BC: We all have physical bodies. It’s why the physicality of these terms is intrinsic.

AH: But what if the characters are ghosts? How do you deal with that? You can’t use traditional cursing.

DPH: Cursing can be something that’s admired. It can become a contest for who can be the more creative. Cursing doesn’t have to be an insult. It can be a game like what it can be in Ireland and Scotland.

AH: Like the Shakespeare phrase, “Get thee to a nunnery.”

DPF: A nunnery at that time was a whorehouse.

SAB: When is cursing appropriate or too much?

BC: Sailors and farmers curse a lot. It’s appropriate if it feels right to the locale and the connotation of the situation or conflict.

DPF: The earthiness of language is used in certain situations. For instance, locker room talk. You don’t attempt to soften the language there. In my Crosspointe books, the male characters are more earthier to each other than when in a more formal setting or speaking with women. It depends on who you’re around. If others swear more, then everyone swears.

SAB: And if everyone’s genteel and someone suddenly swears, it can make a big impact.

DPF: Like Betty White in the film Lake Placid.

SAB: Or the horse race scene in My Fair Lady.

BC: Basically putting shit on muffins.

SAB: Someone can talk a blue streak to relieve tension because he is scared. You can use it as a moment to get into your character.

Q: In Firefly, Mandarin Chinese was used for cursing. Does this also work in written stories?

SAB: You can do it in film, but it’s hard in print. You need to put it in context.

DPF: It’s hard to use foreign cultures for that. It throws the reader because you’ve translated everything else except the indelicate words.

BC: “Frag” is close enough to “fuck.”

SAB: Where would you not go? What’s out of bounds?

DPF: I would say it’s character-centric. I can’t say there’s isn’t somewhere I won’t go, but I try to tread lightly if there’s something like denigrating women or gays. It needs to make sense in the culture, even if it’s a character the reader doesn’t like.

BC: Like violence, cursing can have a negative effect.

SAB: Be true to the historical setting. But you have to balance authenticity and offending the audience.

AH: Sometimes you need to make the audience uncomfortable. Do what you need to do or write something else.

SAB: Be true. You can’t censor.

DPF: There are slurs of all kinds that are meant to be offensive. What can I say that will most hurt you and expose vulnerability? Those are true insults. Let out the inner bully.

BC: It can be a type of aggression. Or it can be non aggressive if you’re mincing words.

Q: Curse words like “shit” and “fuck” start with abrupt sounds. But somehow it’s totally different if it was “Wednesday.”

DPF: I shift to “oh my gravy” since I have children. But if I’m by myself, it changes.

SAB: Cursing can also be admired. George Washington was known to have a hell of a temper. He could swear for five minutes and not repeat himself. Everyone else was in awe.

Q: Everyone has their own idiolect. Who is your favorite character who does it?

DPF: I like to see comedians because they can swear well. It’s also the delivery. It’s not about the words but the creative way they develop the insult. “Fucking her is like fucking an empty room.”

AH: Another example is Monty Python and the Holy Grail with the guy on the wall who says “fart in your general direction.” It’s fun even though it’s insulting.

BC: I like George Carlin.

Q: Is there any censorship anymore? Does cursing influence editors?

SAB: It depends on the editor and the audience.

DPF: For the French translation of my books, I didn’t know why my books suddenly started selling well when they switched translators. It turned out that the first translator took all the bad things out of my book.

Q: How about gender? Men can get away with it, but for women it’s not as acceptable.

DPF: I’ve haven’t seen it, especially in urban fantasy.

Q: How do you take into account the evolution of swear words? Some words that used to be acceptable are no longer acceptable now.

DPF: It’s context. Show why it has changed in this world. Do things to help the readers draw those conclusions.

SAB: My father called someone a rotten old heifer. It’s acceptable, but it’s still an insult.

AB: A bitch is a female dog, but “son of a bitch” is an insult.

BC: But some people use that as a greeting, “Hey bitch.”

Q: My grandfather insulted people by calling them “homogenized.” He was a milkman.

DPF: Certain words are associated with particular occupations. There are different words for sailors compared to farmers.

SAB: They can also be different for people in other cultures.

Q: What if you’re writing something PG but you come to a situation where the only possible outcome is swearing?

Q: In Harry Potter, Ron says some cuss words, but in the text it just says, “he swears.”

DPF: You can substitute it with “bite me” or “suck me” for similar emphasis. But we should swear more.

AH: Make it applicable for the character and the world. Don’t put the reader on the bank. Don’t put in something that can be cut out later.

SAB: Don’t put modern terms in fantasy.

DPF: Don’t make it anachronistic.

BC: Swearing can spice up writing. But swearing can also be therapeutic.

MisCon 28: Creating Conflict

(To see all my posts on MisCon, 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: Creating Conflict
Panel members: S.A. Bolich, Brenda Carre, Manny Frishberg, Joyce Reynolds-Ward (Ann Gimpel, Vicki Mitchell, and Kevin Noel Olson were originally scheduled for this panel, but they were not available.)
Panel description: We all know conflict is the heart of any story, but how do you create conflict, how much is enough, and what do you do when you need more conflict? We’ll also discuss how to find the conflict inherent in your characters, plot, and setting.

JRW: Do you have any general thoughts about creating conflict? Are they big things? Little things? How do you define conflict?

SAB: It’s something the character has to overcome. The conflict can be as simple as trying to start the car. It’s anything that drives the plot.

MF: It’s the obstacle in the way of the protagonist. Conflict has to have some stake, something at risk. Conflict can be internal to the character.

BC: There are two types of conflicts. One moves the story forward. For the other, a conflict is just a conflict. Determine which conflict is important.

JRW: It’s not important if it doesn’t advance the plot. Conflict has to change and affect the character. The reader is “meh” if the characters are not different in the beginning or end.

SAB: For any meaning, there needs to be action to advance the plot. A story about refusing to eat eggs is not an interesting conflict. But what if the wife was trying to get the husband to eat the eggs, but he was refusing to eat them because they were poisoned?

JRW: There are the classic conflicts. Man versus man. Man versus society. Man versus nature. Man versus himself.

SAB: But there are many stories now. You can make interesting stories about conflict with the self.

BC: In a conflict, there is a “villain” of some sort, pushing the character forward. Sometimes it’s a human being. Sometimes not.

JRW: How do you go about creating conflict? Is there a strategy or does it just happen?

SAB: For me, it just happens, but it follows logically from the rest of the story. It forms from the plot and drives it forward. The conflict is the crossroads for the character to ask, “What am I going to do?”

MF: Many of the conflicts in my stories are internal but I have a direction for them to go to drive the story. Sometimes I initially make the character black and white in order to have more room for them to grow. For instance, the main character in one of my stories was an ambiguous character involved in a scam. In the end, he finds redemption. However, my beta readers didn’t think he changed enough. So I made the character a bastard in the beginning so by the end he finds a revelation and is changed.

JRW: Often times, I need to rewrite the conflict. When I’m plotting, I don’t see the implications (especially at book length) with the small conflicts.

BC: Conflict can be a small thing or embedded in a larger story arc. It’s only when you get to the end that you get a sense of where everything is going.

SAB: When I write a story, it’s only when I get a third of the way through that I see the overall point. What are your characters fighting about? What are the stakes? What are they going to lose? If there’s no conflict and nothing’s happening, create a bigger conflict. If in doubt, make something happen. Ramp it up.

BC: Increase the tension.

MF: I usually know the arc ahead of time. The incidents in between scenes are a shock to me. It’s only in the course of writing the scene do I figure out why things are fundamental to the plot.

JRW: In one story, I needed a conflict. The idea hit during a snow day. It didn’t change the beginning or end, but it brought the middle to life.

SAB: Where do you (the audience) get trouble in writing conflict?

Q: I like to avoid conflict in real life. So I don’t want my characters in conflict. How do I change that?

MF: There’s a problem with the term “conflict.” I think of it as dialectic opposites, like yin and yang. Conflict is an interplay between the two. Think of it as a contradiction. Shift that to change the nature of the whole.

JRW: You’re trying to resolve that contradiction. There’s a change of status between beginning and end. It could be small or large.

SAB: If you’re hesitant about putting your characters into conflict, just turn them loose. For example, let a character say all the stuff that you wanted to say. It’s hard to create conflict with people who are only nice.

JRW: But there was conflict with Pollyanna when she couldn’t positively think her problem away.

SAB: Step outside your comfort zone and what you were taught about creating conflict. Do something bad so you need to fix it. Real people aren’t nice all day.

Q: Is there an expectation in science fiction and fantasy for more conflict than other genres?

MF: Not necessarily. Conflict is just something that happens.

SAB: Conflict doesn’t have to be like those written by George R. R. Martin.

BC: There can be too much conflict, if you don’t know the people.

MF: If you start a story with conflict, no one cares. You need to care about the characters. Otherwise all the action in the world won’t move the story forward.

SAB: Some people want less violent conflict and more subtle conflicts, like in real life. We authorize other people (like cops and soldiers) to be violent for us, to carry the load for society. They can be mushy even though they’re scared stiff. You don’t have to have swords to have tension.

JRW: Like Pride and Prejudice.

Q: When is the best time to introduce conflict? Can it be too early or too late?

JRW: Introduce it in the first sentence.

SAB: Or at least in the first page. You should launch the story early, but it doesn’t have to be a gunshot.

MF: Ask what is the worst you can do to your character. One military science fiction author set the conflict at the captain’s table.

JRW: You can be very nasty to people and still sound polite.

SAB: You can have tension between ordinary people. We want to know where it goes.

JRW: In a story, you need something to trigger the next conflict. And another one after that, all the way to the ending.

BC: You can’t have conflict without character. Figure out what the character really, really, really wants. That’s what the conflict is about.

MF: Write a character sketch. What is the character’s deepest secret?

SAB: One example is the character Marcus in Babylon 5. His secret is that he can’t let go of his own pain. But he won’t even face it. Another example of a non-violent conflict is a character attempting to light a fire and knowing that he will die if he doesn’t get it. There are many ways that humans can die.

JRW: You don’t have to kill off your characters. Conflict can be about what they really want. For instance in romance, the character may think they want a person but then they discover that’s not what they wanted.

BC: It doesn’t have to be an actual death. It can be a moral death. Or psychological death. Or societal death.

SAB: Like in Stephen King’s The Stand. The society is gone. How you build your society will lead to conflict.

Q: Could there be needless conflict? Or can we just write extra conflict?

JRW: Conflict has to advance the plot. It has to do something in the story.

MF: You leave out getting out of bed and brushing your teeth because it’s not interesting.

SAB: Sometimes you have to write a lot of stuff in the draft to get the story straight in your head. You need to understand the world first and then strip out stuff. Decide what the reader needs to know.

MF: In journalism, they say that you need to know ten times as much as what you actually put into the story. Only 10% is important.

SAB: It can be hard to understand what needs to be on the page. Think about character motivation. What drives him?

BC: Sometimes conflict is about choice. It either gets worse or better.

MF: They’re all choices. Good stories make difficult choices which are understandable whether they are good or bad.

JRW: In stories, you have to keep the plot and character development in mind. If the conflict doesn’t advance them, it doesn’t belong there.

SAB: Characters are human and they handle things in human ways. How he handles it depends on experience.

MisCon 28: First Page – Make or Break

(To see all my posts on MisCon, go here.)

Panel title: First Page – Make or Break
Panel members: Sheila Gilbert, Peter Kent, Patrick Swenson, Mark Teppo, Betsy Wollheim
Panel description: In this panel, you’ll get a first-hand look at how editors react when they read the opening page of your submission. Submit the first page of your story or book to be randomly read aloud by stuntman Peter Kent. Our panel will stop Peter when they would stop reading the submission and tell you why. Submissions will be handed in at the beginning of the panel. Submissions will not be returned and not all submissions will be read.

Instead of transcribing this panel, I thought I’d include a list of the elements that the editors do no want to see in their submissions. A fair number of people submitted first pages (including myself), but the editors were very tough. No one made it through.

Personally, I found the editors’ reactions very informative. For one, I need to set fire to my first line and write another one. And second, I need to be cognizant that whatever elements I introduce into the story, people are going to jump to conclusions even though I’m going to subvert the tropes later on. Hint: editors don’t like mail-order bride assassins even though it’s not about mail-order bride assassins. (For anyone wondering, this was a biopunk story. It’s pretty clearly implied to be so two-thirds of the way down the page, but they never got that far. And frankly, I don’t think it matters what you wrote later if no one can get past the first line. It’s a fail, no excuses.)

Anyways, enough about my own awful prose. Here are some general things the editors don’t want to see:

  • extremely long run-on sentences
  • bad phrasing
  • poor conversation
  • overwriting
  • putting your own feelings into the narrative
  • furry porn
  • starting the story with sound effects
  • starting with the character waking up
  • bodily functions
  • too many things in a list
  • unnecessary information
  • too much description of female characters
  • being too gratuitous
  • a removed narrator
  • too much stuff going on
  • extraneous detail
  • being sexist in the description (all women beautiful, no description for the men)
  • starting with dialog (hard to do well)
  • too much description in action with no focus
  • wasting time telling what the story is not
  • the narrator telling things after the fact (it biases the reader and removes immediacy)
  • making it obvious how the story ends

MisCon 28: Keeping Track of Story Elements

(To see all my posts on MisCon, 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: Keeping Track of Story Elements
Panel members: Steven Erikson, Rhiannon Held, Ken Scholes, Mark Teppo
Panel description: Steven Erikson wrote one of the biggest, most sprawling fantasy epics out there. How does he do it? What are some of his, and other writers’, tips and tricks for keeping track of all those plot lines, characters, histories, personalities, and quirks? Join us and find out!

KS: What do you think are the elements of story?

SE: Welcome to my nightmare! After ten books, keeping track is a major thing. I’m concerned with the character in crisis. I can take a metaphor and make it real which becomes a comment on the human condition which lies under the surface. Emotional convergence is picked up during the narrative.

RH: I think of continuity details which I need to keep remembering mentally like the arc of the story. I incorporate that into the character so I don’t forget it. It’s not necessarily about eye color and other physical attributes. It can be situations. Was it the first time the character went to the zoo or not? What did they see there? What did they think about the lions?

MT: I tend not to plan a whole lot. I build meta structures with a number of loops to keep track of the book–then I go back and fill in the details. I find a natural rhythm where I don’t have to consciously think about it. For small details, make friends with your copy editor so they can help keep track of them.

KS: There are a lot of things I don’t keep track of in storytelling. I write by ear. The storytelling is internalized. For details in a long series, I reread the books before I start the next. The downside is, if you don’t start in time, you’re fucked. For the rest of you, what would you do differently next based on what you’ve learned?

MT: I write small chunks at a time. So I would just get it down. Don’t do research beforehand. Do the research later for the details.

RH: If I were doing a longer series, I might change my behavior if I find myself plodding. I make a graduated effort. I find a massive series bible at the beginning to be a wasted effort. In revision, anything can change so it can be set up to trip you up later. I also do a lot of rereading. I did it while copyediting the first book while writing the second book.

SE: In the original series, I used years to mark time but I now realize it’s a mistake. The timeline is fucked up. So I don’t mention dates now to avoid cause and effect. I don’t want to be pinned down.

KS: I want to have a world, not an entire bible but more like a map and some ideas, in place before I start on a short story. It’s a good idea to go to that place to live there and see what it’s like but not to deliberately research. If you wander, you can find a story. Sometimes a new place will inspire a story. Fans also help because they read your work. I have a fan/friend who built a glossary for my world and he can tell me details I’ve forgotten. These days, I’d rather go under the knife or write a romance than write another fantasy series. What’s your biggest book mistake?

SE: I had a character who changed gender.

RH: Some of the mistakes were caught during copyediting. But one mistake that made it into the book was that one character said that he was never threatened by a gun, but he was threatened by a gun.

MT: In my first novel, there’s a scene that takes place in Portland at the bookstore Powell’s. In the book, I wrote that the tarot cards were in the rose room. But then I was told that they had moved the cards to the orange room! So I put a note in the back of the book that the location of the cards has changed. However, I think they put the cards back into the rose room now.

KS: I had places that were only mentioned in my first book but never put on the map. The name of one character’s dad changed in different books. There is no such thing as a perfect book. Another author had put Jakarta in the wrong hemisphere. What’s the one question you (the panelists) wished I had asked?

MT: I have a question for Steve. You said you have a last scene in mind before you write?

SE: I just have to get there. Give yourself a lot of room to get caught up. Bring things in for mystery. The key is not to overbuild. Leave room, especially in role playing games.

MT: In an RPG, the GM may drop notes for where the players should go, but the players just go the other direction. It’s spontaneous.

KS: I found that the most useful game was Dungeons and Dragons for planning, interacting with difficult people, budgeting, etc.

Q: Do you have any tricks for keeping track of story elements in shorter fiction?

SE: Take notes.

RH: Have a good memory. It depends on your personality. I don’t recommend a series bible. I like graduated effort. Be aware of your own abilities. What kind of notes do you need? Time is also a factor. Writing it continuously is easier than writing scenes one year apart. Rereading is not a time commitment.

KS: You can hold a short story or novella in your head but not an entire series.

Q: Do you compile your notes electronically? If so, how?

SE: Fans have compiled a wiki for my series. I also have thirty boxes of notes. I have no idea what’s in them. You can get away with anything if you have unreliable notes.

RH: I have some electronic notes on Microsoft Word. I hit “control F” to find what I’m looking for. It’s brute force but effective.

MT: I use a pocket notebook for my grocery lists and book notes. I also use Evernote, Dropbox, and Scrivener which is great because my work and my notes are in the same file. I’m very mobile.

KS: I use a tablet of graph paper. I don’t really use electronic notes because I don’t think it’s robust yet. I’m a mix of planner and pantser. J.A. Pitts has a really robust planning strategy using Excel for characters and scenes. I like to plan it like screenwriting. I’m terrified of the commitment of writing a novel, so I break it up. There are scenes for every character and several scenes for each character. I come up with the box and then come up with the story to fill the box. And as a pantser, I only move from one act to another at a time.

Q: What are your suggestions on what to do if you lose or forget your notes?

MT: Make new notes. If you’ve forgotten it, then it’s not worth it. If you remember it, it’s worth enough to keep.

RH: Losing something can be the best thing. When you’re trying to find it, you’re searching for the “awesome” feeling you had when you had the idea and not the idea itself. So maybe it wasn’t that great.

KS: Everything I write, I lose.

SE: I lost the first 100 pages of one book so I decided to push it to later. It happens.

MisCon 28: DAW Books Presentation

Panel title: DAW Books Presentation
Panel members: DAW Books, Sheila Gilbert, Betsy Wollheim
Panel description: What’s new for DAW books? Join Sheila Gilbert and Betsy Wollheim for a presentation on up-and-coming titles from DAW.

In this presentation, the DAW editors basically talked about all the books that they are publishing for 2014 and early 2015. Many of those books can be seen on this page. I didn’t really take down any notes on what the editors said for each of the books. Some of the discussion, I thought, were a bit spoilerish especially if you haven’t read the earlier books in the series. So I thought I’d point out some books that caught my eye and why.

Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch is the latest book in the Rivers of London series. The premise for the series sounds awesome, but I’ve been a little leery about starting his books due to his behavior online towards readers who have criticized his work. Nonetheless, his books are on my gigantic to-be-read pile. I’ll get to it eventually.

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor. Post-apocalyptic fiction is generally not my thing, but this takes place in Africa. I’m intrigued about how the consequences of the end times will be depicted in a different culture through a lens of magic realism.

A Turn of Light by Julie E. Czerneda. I heard “biology” and “magic” come out of Sheila Gilbert’s mouth. And I’m sold. (Apparently the second book in the series is coming out later in the year.)

Peacemaker by C. J. Cherryh. I won this book at a different panel. So of course I’m going to read it. I’m only agonizing on whether to read this first or start the series from the beginning. Anyone have any opinions on whether this series can be read out of order?

Sparrow Hill Road by Seanan McGuire. Apparently this book’s concept is based on the world of ghosts. DAW is putting out a lot of her books this year, but this one in particular seemed interesting.

Shattering the Ley by Joshua Palmatier. This is a fantasy written by a mathematics professor. The premise sounded intriguing. This is the first in a trilogy.

The Future Falls by Tanya Huff. This is the third book in the Enchantment Emporium series. I really enjoyed the first book but haven’t gotten around to the second book yet so I’ll have to read that one first…

MisCon 28: Anti-Hero, Hero, or Villain?

(To see all my posts on MisCon, 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: Anti-Hero, Hero, or Villain?
Panel members: S. A. Bolich, Steven Erikson, Diana Pharaoh Francis, James Glass
Panel description: What is an anti-hero? How do anti-heroes differ from standard heroes and villains? Do we still love them even though they’re good and bad? What attracts us to them? Who are some of the best ones in modern culture?

DPF: What is a hero?

SE: I’ve been obsessing about that notion for the past ten books. I play with Joseph Campbell’s idea of the hero. I wanted elements of the hero’s journey on the page but I wanted the reader to take the journey. In order for something to be called heroism, it must be witnessed. So in my books, the idea is to write an unwitnessed hero. The reader is the witness, but the reader is also a silent witness. It’s a hard thing to define.

JG: I think a pure hero is someone who is noble and has no flaws. An anti-hero has flaws.

SAB: The hero gets the job done and comes through in a pinch. But he gives up something in the process. For example, Frodo in Lord of the Rings chooses to do the greater good over comfort.

DPF: I’ve read stories growing up of heroes slaying dragons. They sacrifice themselves for strangers. Heroes get the job done but they can also be selfish. They don’t want to do it, but they choose to do so.

JG: The pure hero does it for someone else. He’s selfless.

DPF: But what if you’re only doing it for some people you care about? What about the anti-hero?

JG: An anti-hero has something good in him but is also villainous. The anti-hero has good and dark sides and is more like a real person.

SE: The anti-hero is fundamentally flawed. We need that flaw because it’s a recognition that they’re doing things against their nature. Readers like that. The anti-hero is the most human of these tropes. The heroes and villains are dehumanized because of their extraordinary abilities or actions. You need motivations in villains. There’s no motivation if the heroes can do no wrong.

JG: Villains who are pure evil are one dimensional and boring. A villain believes what he’s doing is right. In writing, you can make the villain or hero change.

SAB: The creepiest villain in Harry Potter was not Voldemort but Dolores Umbridge because she was so awful and human. She thought she was right. Voldemort was one dimensional. In The Man Who Used the Universe (by Alan Dean Foster), the overlord was doing all these awful things, but he was preparing the world to meet an alien threat. Even though he wasn’t good–he was a psychopath–he did it for his own reasons.

DPF: Sometimes the end justifies the means. Hitler didn’t think he was a bad guy. It depends on the point of view. Mercedes Lackey said that “Even evil wizards get up in the middle of the night to eat chocolate chip cookies.” It’s shades of gray. Some people want to protect their family but they don’t care about others. Truth is no excuse for fiction.

JG: How did they get that way? We are what we experience. We are the product of life experiences.

DPF: There are a number of popular not good guys on TV today. What qualities make them sympathetic? You can lose the audience if you let the dog die. How do you decide on a hero or anti-hero’s qualities? Do you consciously play them up?

SE: I use multiple points of view. Heroism appears in countless forms. I like to see heroism through innocence and in characters that get beat down the most. When I write big convergent scenes with a larger tragedy, they need to be balanced with a gesture of humanity. In one of my books, all the heroes die, but two dogs are saved. That’s the smallest gesture of humanity for the largest tragedy that they’re capable of doing under the circumstances.

JG: I write biographies of the characters, histories of what happened to them. My characters start as anti-heroes because of what happened to them before. How they react is because of what happened to them before. In my book Shanji, the main female character has superpowers, but they’re triggered by her memories.

SAB: I used to write organically but I ended up writing about the same character. So now I’m more organized. I ask myself what is the best and worst in a character? I had a character who was very abrasive because of the things that happened to him, but he was also very loyal. Actions are totally driven by the backstory.

JG: It’s a lot harder to do in a short story. In a novel, you have more space. In a short story, I could only tell how one guy became a child molester in one sentence.

DPF: If someone’s a serial killer or did something horrendous, we need a reason for why they did that. But on the flip side, when they’re on trial, we don’t care why they did it. We want to understand them but not necessarily sympathize. I had a character who was a gambler who got into debt. He did something bad but he convinced himself that it wasn’t so bad. He stopped gambling for a while but then he went back to it. It takes a struggle to break habits which creates interesting tension.

Q: I used to write short stories but now I’m transitioning to longer fiction. I have nice scenes but the parts in between are bland. How do you keep the journey fresh?

JG: Write a good novel like a good short story. Make everything count. If it doesn’t count, cut it out.

DPF: Everything in the story should do two or more things.

SE: You can use transitions to include subtext and foreshadowing. Like Chekhov’s gun, keep piling it up for every transition. Keep a list. You can include it in conversations, settings, etc. These can carry the story far, especially for emotional impact in contrast to action scenes.

DPF: If you don’t have to say that they’re moving from place to place, cut it out.

SE: If you look at the films from the 1940s and 1950s, you see that they’ve included all the scenes from when the character wakes up and brushes his teeth to the time he gets into the cab. Now we skip all those scenes because we’ve been trained. We don’t need all those transitions.

JG: I like how Dan Brown transitions. He puts hooks for the next chapters. He cuts scenes in half. He shortens chapters. In today’s writing, many things can be cut out.

Q: We’ve mostly talked about dealing with the banality of evil, so how come there’s an appeal for more over the top villains like the Joker or BBC Sherlock’s Moriarty?

JG: The Joker adds humor. In the written word, the bizarre becomes interesting. Moriarty is an interesting case because he serves as the perfect foil for Holmes.

SAB: There’s a certain appeal for over-the-top. How much can you stretch it before it becomes too creepy? It’s interesting to explore even though it’s not realistic.

DPF: Even for the Joker, maybe the writer had a backstory for him that we didn’t see for the character motivation. The writer still needs to understand the character even though it isn’t explained to the reader.

SE: You need the hero and the villain. They are two halves of a whole. Batman and Joker. “Every Moby has his Dick.” There are always reasons in fiction even though it’s not true in reality. Where there are supervillains, there are superheroes. They are reflections of each other.

JG: The character of Two-Face used to be good before he changed.

SAB: The villain offers an opportunity for tragedy. Villains are people who could have done better but didn’t. That’s human. There’s a moment that they have to choose; it’s a way to round them out.

Q: How can you prevent the villain from overshadowing the hero? If he does, does the villain become the protagonist?

SE: Sometimes. The notion of the hero is more dangerous than the villain. Lex Luthor is human but Superman is the omnipotent god. Luthor is battling an implacable force.

DPF: Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

JG: Even with a protagonist, you can have a strong antagonist. If the antagonist is too strong, maybe you need to change the story.

Q: There’s fantasy with many villains but no heroes. I can’t think of any science fiction like that. Is it a function of genre on how to treat the hero, anti-hero, and villain?

SE: No. They all have goals. It depends on your approach.

DPF: Fantasy has the traditional good versus evil. But now, evil isn’t strictly evil. Hitler, for instance, saw everyone else as villains.

JG: In science fiction, the protagonist doesn’t have to be human. It could be the environment or something else.

SAB: In my Elements series, the protagonists fight against the elements. The elements are the antagonists. You don’t necessarily need an evil overlord in fantasy. Ask yourself, what else can be a threat?

MisCon 28: Maker’s Spaces

(To see all my posts on MisCon, go here.)

In a rare turn of events, I actually arrived early for a writing panel I wanted to see. To kill time, I popped into a costuming panel halfway through out of curiosity. I made some random notes–unfortunately I couldn’t get who said what–but I think this is useful for people in dire need of cleaning out and/or organizing all their crafty stuff. If there are any errors in these notes, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: Maker’s Spaces
Panel members: Jean Carlos, Marlesa Crawford (Mouse), Faith Emens-Pearson (Mizz Mayhem), Erica Pocklington, Beth Stoops
Panel description: How do you find and organize (create?) space for your creative obsession in your home (or garage, back yard, bat cave, whatever)? Our panelists will share how they do it, and time permitting, you can too.

What sort of spaces inspire you?

  • quiet spaces
  • television shows in the background
  • if designing a specific character costume, it depends
  • whatever inspires you
  • “look books” – scrap books with cutouts from magazines, copies of comics, etc. for inspiration.
  • cooking in the kitchen
  • chalkboard made out of a cookie sheet
  • putting everything in a big tote
  • taking over the basement
  • spray painting outside

What’s the advantage of breaking up a larger space?

  • smaller spaces can force you to finish a project
  • in larger spaces, more projects are only half done
  • smaller space gives you more focus
  • split it into dedicated spaces (sewing area, painting area, etc.)
  • someone dedicated a section for shelves and chairs in the craft room so she could still be inspired and recharge in that room
  • use different totebags for different projects

I have too much stuff from collecting things from second hand stores. How do I organize/get rid of it?

  • pick the top five projects you want to do and go through the collection for things you need
  • put away the five things you least want–if still there later, get rid of it
  • only buy things when you finish a project, set up a reward system

I have a lot of unfinished projects. How can I get them done?

  • take the project you love the most and start on that one
  • give yourself deadlines
  • set aside the other stuff and finish that project first
  • if you aren’t using it in a year, get rid of it

What if you inherited some interesting stuff that you can’t use but you don’t want to throw it away?

  • post it online to sell/trade it
  • by giving it to someone else to use, it goes towards something awesome and not thrown away–it’s still valued, get them to send you a picture of it in their project

What’s the best way to organize small things (like jewelry projects) if you have limited space?

  • pill organizers
  • tote organizers
  • tackle boxes
  • toolboxes
  • wheels on everything so it’s easy to move
  • check local second hand stores for storage boxes
  • look for shape, size, and compartments
  • stores going out of business may have boxes
  • think outside your specific needs, what else can you use it for?

MisCon 28: The Importance of Beta Readers

(To see all my posts on MisCon, 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 Importance of Beta Readers
Panel members: Dave Bara, C.L. (Candi) Norman, Joyce Reynolds-Ward
Panel description: With the upsurge in self-publishing and the ease with which writers can now self-publish, the importance of beta readers has never been more apparent. Join self-published authors as they talk about why beta readers are so essential and how to find (and recognize) a good beta reader of your own.

I arrived at this panel late, so my notes are only for the latter half of this session.

DB: I depend on the reader to tell me what works overall, whether the story holds together and if it’s consistent. You ask for the feedback that you want.

CLN: Did the beta reader understand what I’m trying to put out? Some like to line edit and I thank them for that, but I’m really looking for whether the story confuses them or raises questions.

DB: A female editor once said that my female character was too shrill. Another male reader agreed with me that the character sounded fine. Feedback depends on gender and ethnicity.

JRW: You can ask someone who is an expert on the subject to beta read if you’re stretching yourself with a different gender, culture, etc. A beta reader can give expert feedback. You especially need an expert beta reader if there are guns and horses.

DB: It’s important to have a group of fellow writers who understand.

CLN: Or honest friends.

DB: I don’t want to constantly hear that they loved it.

JRW: It’s more expanding in beta than in critiquing. For critiquing rules, you don’t get to say what you’re aiming for. A beta should be someone you trust.

DB: It’s important that you trust the feedback.

CLN: If you’re showing your work, be willing to listen. Some people only want validation. If you’re a good writer, you’re willing to consider different viewpoints.

JRW: If you only want validation, then what use is beta reading? Use it if you need to improve and to figure out who you are as a writer.

CLN: Be aware of what you’re trying to say.

DB: Beta readers should be able to tell you what may work better. We all have heard terrible feedback. Quality of the feedback is important. But be prepared that your feelings may be hurt or that it is confusing. Consider the different viewpoint.

JRW: You’re trying to be read–that’s your ultimate goal. Beta reading is a tool. It depends on people.

DB: You can meet people at cons, everywhere.

CLN: My beta readers are co-workers (I work at a bookstore so I know they love books) and good friends. Tailor who you send it to.

JRW: I found beta readers from usenet. Sometimes you don’t need to beta read the whole thing. Or it can be other things like query letters.

DB: Queries, proposals, etc.

JRW: I also run things past my students depending on the subject matter. Be clear what your purpose is.

Q: How do you send your work to be beta read?

DB: Electronic. Critiquers can be cruel because they like to do so. So be careful.

JRW: Beta reading is more intimate than critiques. Critiquers can be competitive.

Q: As a beta reader, I read for a writer who has good ideas but is a bad writer.

DB: You can learn craft but not talent.

JRW: Sometimes a relationship can be toxic. Beta reading is valuable for detecting continuity.

CLN: Writer-readers what to rewrite what you’ve written. Reader-readers just want to comment on what confused them.

JRW: Teachers can look at it and start grading it with a rubric and just say, “Fix this.”

Q: Do you utilize beta readers you’ve never met?

JRW: Yes, on usenet.

DB: Yes, online.

JRW: I never give my work out to teachers because they would only score it.

DB: It’s vitally important to get your work out there for beta readers. It gives you experience so you know the process.

JRW: Find beta readers who like to read.

Q: What about reasonable time lines?

CLN: There are a lot of variables. Length of story. Fast versus slow readers. You should touch base with longer stories. The important thing is communicating with them.

JRW: If you have a submission deadline, tell them you need feedback by X time. You need feedback for marketing materials faster than an epic fantasy.

Q: Do you limit the number of beta readers per project?

CLN: About four or five because I know I’ll get back two or three responses. Too many would be bad.

DB: There will be contradictory feedback. Pick the comments that feel valid. Greater than three, less than ten. With too much feedback, it all washes together.

JRW: I have two or three. It depends. For expert feedback, I give it more time.

CLN: I have a doctor friend who won’t read the story, but I go to her for facts.

DB: Future science is easy. You can make it up. But be careful of near future science. For instance, Charlie Stross had to completely rewrite a near future story because science changes drastically. So write far enough in advance.

Q: Is there value in a beta reader who doesn’t like your genre?

JRW: Only if they’re an expert in the subject you’re writing about.

DB: I don’t think so. Yes, they can be valuable if there’s crossover, like historical non-fiction and alternative history, but not for specific genres.

CLN: It depends. If it’s general story stuff, then probably not because they won’t understand.

DB: They will be disinterested.

JRW: Make sure your beta readers read the same genre. They can tell if your idea is fresh and new and not the same as everything else in that genre.

CLN: Be careful how you format because it can be difficult to read. I stopped reading for someone because they wrote a rambling story in single space.

JRW: Standard formatting is your friend.

DB: Make friends. Then get them to read your stuff.

Inspiration and Outline

Sometimes, an idea hits you and just won’t let go.

Earlier this week, I was looking through All of Bach, an unfortunately horribly designed website for a musical group in the Netherlands attempting to perform all of J.S. Bach’s works, when I wondered what would happen if all that music wasn’t just music but also magical spells. And that was when the concept for the novel I’m doing for July’s Camp NaNoWriMo was born.

The first thing I figured out was who the characters were. But I couldn’t really do them in isolation without the plot. I ended up with three time lines:

1. The Historical Time Line (1750-1871): This starts at J.S. Bach’s death and ends just after the death of Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg, the founder of Steinway & Sons. I’m taking massive liberties with these historical figures, but I’m imagining them in a parallel fantastical universe where music is magic. This time line details how Bach’s Folio, containing the fictional Devil’s Oratorio gets from Germany to New York.

2. Mid-Century New York Time Line: As the most focused of the time lines, this takes place entirely during 1952. It’s about a classical pianist, loosely inspired by Glenn Gould, who discovers the Folio in his new home (a former Steinway & Sons piano factory). He becomes obsessed with the Folio and slowly descends into madness.

3. The Present Time Line: Set in modern New York City, the protagonists are Juilliard students working on a project for their music history class. The main character is a jazz student who does moving work and rap contests for extra money. He hears rumors that the Folio was stolen from Christie’s before it could be auctioned. Meanwhile, he tries to figure out why one of his friends, a Jim Morrison fan, is suddenly interested in country music.

With three time lines, it became natural to structure the outline around one of Bach’s three-part inventions.


So, with the outline done, I’m off to read up on history, New York, and music in general. And after that, I’ll probably let the idea percolate in my head until July rolls around.