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Tag: Diana Pharaoh Francis

MisCon 28: Transitioning Through Time – Scene vs Summary

(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: Transitioning Through Time – Scene vs Summary
Panel members: Diana Pharaoh Francis, J.A. Pitts
Panel description: How does a writer move the reader through time?
Whether you’re writing a sweeping generational saga, or a short story that takes place over the course of a day, how do you move your characters through time, transitioning them from one moment to the next without relying on worn-out cliches? Join us as we talk about transitions, time stamps, and other tricks of the trade for moving your story forward.

JAP: I used to think that I had to put in every single minute in my stories.

DPF: I used to think I had to show the characters going to each destination.

JAP: If I have to get to A to B, just show B. Driving is boring. Same with porn. It’s engineering when dealing with story. Don’t be afraid to say “the next day.” The reader will go with you.

DPF: Films cut from one scene to the next. We have been well trained by films to make those jumps so take advantage of that. Use signposts to situate your reader. You don’t have to tell how you got there.

JAP: You don’t have to say “ten minutes later.” Use the setting. Don’t show all the minutiae.

DPF: For instance, if you’re writing about a guy in a bar, use the crowd as an indicator.

JAP: Is indicating the time critical? In 24, it is critical. In Lord of the Rings, it’s not critical to know the time they took to get to a place. I learned that it is rare to have more than one full moon in a month.

DPF: Pay attention to things that happen through time, like the change in seasons.

JAP: There are exceptions. Nightfall had no nights. Game of Thrones had no winter.

DPF: You want to know what the groups of characters are doing in relation to each other, so you need to keep track of time.

JAP: In science fiction, you have to consider time dilation on a generational ship in contrast to time on Earth. If you have someone driving from Missoula to Seattle, you can’t have them talk on a phone ten minutes later.

DPF: Show the important stuff. Take a short exposition to tell time as a brief rest for the reader but quickly move past that. Do a summary to facilitate jumps in time. Don’t devote too much time on the journey.

JAP: If you’re retelling, don’t drag the reader through it again. Don’t bog down the reader in the transition. Many editors don’t like flashbacks.

DPF: Flashbacks can kill your pacing. Make a conscious choice for why it works.

JAP: It’s like any other tool. Use it wisely, not excessively. With a shorter work, use different tools.

Q: Is there an alternative way to use flashbacks?

DPF: Yes. Do a summary.

JAP: But not as a “as you know Bob.” Learn the rules first before you break them. What will work with your piece? Robert Jordan took 500 pages to tell about three days.

DPF: The journey matters. Readers should be engaged with the story line. The flashbacks disrupt it and may anger them. So you have to decide. “I told you that story to tell you this one” – but only if done well.

JAP: As a storyteller, your job is to make them turn the page.

Q: I have a character who gets distracted by his past. Is a flashback reasonable?

JAP: Constant tension will burn out the reader. You need some down time. In Die Hard, there are funny quips to lessen the tension. If it’s only used to be distracted, just skip it.

DPF: It depends on how important it is to the plot and character.

JAP: It has to move it forward.

DPF: If they have to stop and think in a battle…

JAP: That’s three minutes before they die.

DPF: Flashbacks shouldn’t be in the middle of an action scene. Continue until they’re safe. But there’s opportunity to include it while they’re going to battle.

Q: Is it reasonable to put the time as chapter headings?

JAP: It can be done well.

DPF: If it works for your story, use it.

Q: If you’re translating a martial arts film to the page, how do you transition without losing the audience?

JAP: Is it critical to see every single move? No. Just include enough detail for the reader to understand. You can tell how long it takes but don’t show every single step. Trust the reader to fill it in.

DPF: I had a food scene in a story, but my editor wanted it cut. I ended up cutting it out because it didn’t fit in the story. Step back and see if it works. Also ask for feedback.

Q: But I’m confused why we do see all the martial arts in films.

DPF: But that’s the point of the film.

JAP: You have to look at your genre and the type of story. Some are more heavy with setting or character. Find the balance.

DPF: Change it up and bring them back.

JAP: You can make it as drawn out as you want, but read other writers doing similar things and learn from them. As an exercise, I typed out Stephen King’s dialogue to learn.

Q: What about movie descriptions?

DPF: Pick the details that matter that push forward the plot.

JAP: There’s the problem of the white room setting and not knowing where the characters are. If there are no transitions, then the reader will assume that it’s in the same scene. You need to put in signposts. Page breaks, section breaks, chapter breaks.

DPF: When you have a time jump, you can do a hard break. A character could be hurt and then jump straight to the hospital. “Book saidisms” is using anything except “said.” Or using too many adverbs. “Said” becomes invisible. Others are too visible. In the early Harry Potter books, everyone talked mysteriously. There were too many adverbs. Don’t call attention to it.

JAP: Read aloud when you can. Many bestsellers don’t use said. But you fail if the reader actually notices. The number one mistake is that you don’t write. The number two mistake is that you don’t finish what you write.

DPF: The flipside is that you revise one thing over and over again and never move on to the next thing.

JAP: Rewriting is dangerous. The more you do, you suck the voice out of the story. Read. Refill the well. Learn. Practice. You need to practice your craft by continuing to write. Most new writers don’t understand because they don’t have patience.

DPF: The creative mind and the editor mind are not the same mind. Stay in the creative mind to finish then go fix later.

Q: How do you shut off the editor mind?

JAP: Ken Scholes has a mental exercise for that. Rope up the editor and put it in a box. I train myself with music. If it plays, it’s creative time.

DPF: Another author has specific music he listens to. Use Write or Die. Write every day. Get into the habit and it will flow better every day. If I miss a day, I have to concentrate more. It’s like swimming in a river.

JAP: I’m a binge writer because of my day job. I get in the mood to Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. I have friends who have different places for editing and writing. They write on the computer and then edit on paper.

DPF: Some people have separate hats.

JAP: It’s psychology. “Shut the fuck up and write.” It should be cross-stitched on the wall. Use any trick you can come up with. A rookie mistake is to spend all your time researching rather than writing.

DPF: Don’t polish every word.

JAP: Be bold.

DPF: Be willing to hear critiques.

JAP: No editor will come to your house to see if your story is on the computer.

DPF: No one will call you to check.

JAP: So you have to finish your work. If you’re writing about real people, change them into elves or just don’t tell them.

DPF: My parents read my books. They have sex scenes, but we don’t talk about it.

JAP: People will miss things. Kids won’t understand everything. In the beginning, what you’re writing is all about your life and you’re not good at masking it.

DPF: Graham Green said that every writer has a “sliver of ice in your heart.” Writers still take notes during an accident. Your writing situation will never be perfect.

JAP: Just write. Online, they say there are only twelve stories or whatever. Who cares. You will approach writing in a unique way.

Q: What about TV Tropes? Does it help or hinder?

JAP: There’s not just one answer. Research where you find fulfillment.

DPF: Writing is the best job in the world. Have fun!

MisCon 28: Writing What You Don’t Know

(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: Writing What You Don’t Know
Panel members: Diana Pharaoh Francis, James Glass, Joyce Reynolds-Ward
Panel description: Maybe you love researching for a book or story, and maybe you hate it. Regardless, you have to do it, or you risk having your book thrown across the room in disgust. In this panel we’ll learn the best ways to research, how to organize your notes, and how to achieve balance between research and writing.

JG: What if you don’t know how to research?

DPF: My book, The Black Ship, was set on a clipper ship. I have never sailed in my life so I realized that a lot of research would be involved. The language of sailing. The captain’s orders. Weather. Navigation. Even if it’s fantasy, you also need to get it right. I looked at fiction and nonfiction about sailing. I did a three hour tour in Seattle on a ship. I talked to people, like captains and workers at maritime museums. I kept notes and kept it in my head so it could flow naturally from my tongue. If you still have to look things up, you’re not ready.

JRW: I wrote a book on neurobiology so I had to take a course to become familiar with the concepts and the language. I learned how people reacted to stress. In my weird west and alternate history stories, in order to do it right, I needed to know the change points in history and how to extrapolate from that. For writing an alternate history about how the Oregon Territory became independent rather than part of the US, I needed to study books on Northwest history since you still have to get the details right. I use Evernote to clip articles and tag it.

DPF: Scrivener also does it.

JRW: It helps especially for online research.

JG: Life can also be research. Live life. If anything interests you and you have the opportunity, do it. Write from your own experience. If you need to know about biology, read it. If you have a problem with science, read a freshman textbook.

DPF: You can also take online classes.

JG: TV, science news, subscribe to their feeds. Read up and keep up about it. Live life to the fullest.

JRW: I wrote books about politics. I drew on my experience as a political activist during my 20s. If you’re doing fantasy or historical, then you should embrace living history, museums, and historical reenactments. Get all the senses, not just hearing and seeing. You need sensory knowledge.

JG: I wrote a story about ballet dancers. I was the president of a ballet company, but I also had to read ballet reviews and used the library for research.

DPF: Living history is a great resource. There are people out there who still work in traditional ways. I have links on my webpage for research. It could be about clothing, tanning, fighting, etc. Keep track of where you did your research, you can milk it more than once. Transcribe interviews. But don’t overload the narrative with detail to prove that you know it. 90% of the research won’t make it into the story. Characters should act and speak appropriately.

JRW: Know and acquire the correct word. It can make a huge difference.

DPF: In one book, I had a goshawk. I did research by asking a colleague of mine who knew all about them. A goshawk “stoops” which is a falconry term. However, the copy editor decided to replace “stoop” with “swoop.” If I had let that go, I would have been killed by the readers. It would have killed my credibility. It would have been like mistaking manual for an automatic transmission.

JG: Copy editors can be dangerous. I thought Dan Brown described Istanbul beautifully and brought it to life. If you can’t afford to go, then read books about the place. Look at pictures. Travel is best if you can. If you’re going to put in a restaurant, ask permission for their name. If not, then change the name.

JRW: P.R. Frost needed a picture of a location in Las Vegas for her book. Since I was going there anyway, she got me to get a picture of it. Getting your friends is another resource.

DPF: I was writing about San Diego so I used Google Earth. I needed to know what was at a dead end street near Balboa Park, but Google didn’t show it. So I asked online and got a stranger who lived there to get pictures for me. With Facebook and Twitter, take advantage of social media.

JG: If you’re writing about a place on earth, you should be able to visualize and experience everything.

JRW: Be careful with what resources are reliable. Don’t count on Wikipedia. It’s a starting place. Sometimes, though, you want to get the crazy stuff if you’re writing about that.

JG: YouTube is a resource, but make sure you screen it. There are some good crash course material. John Green has some good YouTube videos.

DPF: If you don’t know where to begin, get an overview from places like Wikipedia. Then start digging.

JG: Even if you think you know the subject, you get to a point that you don’t know. I’m a physicist, but I needed to get the position of Titan so I had to go back to research it.

JRW: I have experience with horses for 15 to 16 years, but I also have to look up references for writing about horses. Even if there’s stuff you know, you need to do the research.

DPF: Sometimes you don’t know you have to do the research until you run into it.

JG: Don’t hesitate to call the local university.

DPF: They want to share their research.

JG: Research can also be used to generate ideas. Do interviews.

JRW: Sometimes you can get ideas from your Facebook friends by looking at the feed.

DPF: Discovery Magazine.

JRW: Boing Boing.

JG: How much is too much? When does the research stop and the writing begin?

DPF: When I can start writing without looking up things constantly. When the story pushes, I do it by feel. I still look stuff up, but when I can start, I start.

JRW: When I write and need to look something up, I put it in brackets–look up X, Y, Z–and do it later. If you can explain the concept to someone else, you’re ready to write.

JG: Research enough for a general idea. If you need to get a detail, just lie and circle it. Then go back later and check. I don’t let the details stop me. Get the first draft done. Then the corrections.

JRW: It depends on the scene. If I’m in the middle of action, I write that first.

Q: Do you have to be 100% accurate in fantasy?

DPF: Physics still works in fantasy. Unless specifically something doesn’t.

JRW: There’s still geography in fantasy. Think about the implications.

DPF: Make maps. Where do they get the food and other supplies? Where would they build cities for trade? What makes sense? Can it be that way? There’s one place in the maps that’s wrong in my book.

JG: You want your magical system to be consistent. Establish the rules and stick to them.

DPF: People don’t like deus ex machina, especially when you violate your magical system.

JG: You need rules and limitations. Otherwise it’s not believable.

JRW: A planet with only one ecosystem is not believable.

JG: In science fiction, you need to get your science right. In one of my stories, I said that methane smelled. But it is actually an odorless, colorless gas. If you have the tiniest error, the readers will nail you to the cross.

Q: In fantasy, if you need to know the geology, you can do the research. But if you’re doing science fiction, how can you research alien physiology?

JG: In that case, you can make up your own. Balonium. But if it’s carbon based, you need to research that.

DPF: Make it consistent. Think about the world on which they developed.

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: 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?

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 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.

A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 18

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

Previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9. Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, Part 13, Part 14, Part 15, Part 16, Part 17

The final panel I attended was called “Lore of Swords” which was presented by Diana Pharaoh Francis, Ruth Frey, George R. R. Martin, and J.A. Pitts. (AQ is an audience question.)


(Left to right: George R. R. Martin, Ruth Frey, J.A. Pitts, Diana Pharaoh Francis)

JAP: Why are people so fascinated with swords? Most of history, you just didn’t want to get killed. So why would you use a sword?

DPF: It’s a good weapon. It needs skill. And you can use it on horses. In urban fantasy, a steel sword is 92% iron. Magical creatures don’t like iron so it works better than shooting with lead.

RF: For the historical aspect, why is there this mystique? Lots of weapons were used historically. One classic is the axe. The axe could be deadly, but you could also use it around the house. Not much metal was used to make it. On the other hand, the sword used a lot of metal. Back in that time, knowledge about metal working was not advanced. A sword was only good for one thing, like Alton Brown’s “uni-tasker.” It was for kings, the aristocracy, and warfare. The technology was very advanced so it would seem that the smiths wielded magic to make them. So there was the mystique, the swords were given names and passed down through the generations. In the 13th and 14th centuries, the common people could afford swords now, but there was still the mystique. If you think of films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the mystique crosses cultures.

GRRM: What she said. Swords are cool, man. There are different types of swords–cutlasses, rapiers, broadswords, etc. There are a hundred and one varieties. So you can decide what’s best for what purpose. It’s not like that with other weapons. A spear is a spear. If you found a dead knight, you would take his sword. A sword could do a lot of damage in battle. Is killing thirty-seven men in battle an exaggeration? Maybe not. The knight had armor and sword training while those thirty-seven men just had pointy sticks.

RF: Knights were trained since they were seven years old. While everyone else was just rounded up when it was time to fight.

GRRM: It was good to be a knight, especially in battle. A spear can be potent, but most spearmen were not trained and the spears didn’t have metal points. Swords were a status symbol. It was like a Lamborghini while a spear was a Honda. They had magical sword legends. But no one names their axe. (Who calls their axe ‘Fred’? Maybe I should…) Legends beget legends. Modern science fiction and fantasy also picked up on swords like Excalibur and contribute to the mythology. Like Elric’s Stormbringer. Or the Valyrian Steel sword in my stories.

RF: There’s a nice updating of it in science fiction. An example is the Jedi light saber which is a variant on the sword. The amount of training and variety of techniques you can do contributes to the mystique. If you give an untrained person a sword, he won’t be able to use it. Someone who can use it will seem magical.

JAP: I started my book by picking a sword for a short story. I picked the Norse sword Gram. If you have a powerful sword, it will make your opponent scared.

DPF: I needed to figure out what you couldn’t do with a sword. If it’s a long sword, you don’t put it on your back. If the sword is belted to the waist, it would be difficult to sit and walk with it. It would make it hard to mount a horse. I’m into realistic weaponry. If you have a hand or half sword, then it doesn’t have the sharp edge. In battle, a long sword would be a bad idea since you could cut down your own people. So what are you capable of doing with it? Can you wear it day to day? What’s the maintenance?

GRRM: It will depend on what sword you’re writing about. The type of sword could drastically change your fighting technique and whether you’re wearing armor or other type of clothing. In fencing, the sword against sword is primarily defensive. In medieval times, defense was the shield. I can see film choreography, but it is not realistic. It’s for show not killing. In real life, it’s to kill and they will aim for your leg, not the shield. In film, you seldom see hits on legs. But on Viking battle fields, you will see remains where the wounds were on the legs. It’s not like theatrical shows. Fights are generally short and over in minutes. All it takes is one mistake.

RF: I study the use of weapons as a martial art. But that will bore the audience since technically you want to end the fight quickly. On the battlefield, you might not necessarily want to kill people. You just want to maim in order to neutralize while the others after you will finish them off. Reality is brutal.

JAP: How much on the battlefield relies on luck rather than skill? Is it due to the mystique of the sword?

RF: Probably. Some people buy too much into the mystique. For example, the Agincourt French knights were devastated by the English archers because they thought they were invincible.

GRRM: You’d think by Agincourt, which was eighty years after their defeat at Crecy, they would have learned their lesson. But knights were generally the terror of the battlefield. The mounts were also part of it.

AQ: What length determines a long knife and a short sword?

RF: People argue over it. I would recommend looking at Oakeshott’s Topology of Swords. It’s classified on a spectrum so it’s hard to draw the line.

AQ: Why is there still a mystique for the sword? We have machine guns and atom bombs now.

GRRM: Swords are cool. Replicas are being made of the swords from my books at Valyrian Steel. But there is a mystique about guns. Every night I’ve been in Montana, the dinner conversation inevitably went back to guns. Guns provoke a similar mystique. Is it about killing people? No, because you can kill people with kitchen knives. Are there legends on it? It’s undeniably there. There aren’t many legends on other medieval weapons. And other replicas don’t sell as well. Other weapons don’t have the glamor of the sword. No one names their morning star. Why does magic not attach to some of the other weapons? Well, there’s one example, the warhammer which Thor had named. The warhammer is better in a fight than a sword. Nonetheless…

JAP: But you need strength for the hammer. And swords are superior to guns when fighting against zombies. You don’t need to reload. In D & D, the sword does more damage than the morning star.

AQ: Do you act out fight scenes?

DPF: Yes. Also I can imagine it in my head. There was no penicillin at that time, so you will want to kill your opponent before you get scratched. A cut could kill you.

JAP: I do taekwondo to see how the bodies move while fighting. It’s not what you see in films and comics. You should call the experts.

RF: Definitely make the play physical.

GRRM: No, I don’t act it out. It’s a good way to smash furniture, destroy your house, cut off your fingers, conk your own head, and spray your brains on the wall. I like to watch the TV show Deadliest Warrior, especially the first two seasons. They tested medieval weapons with computer simulations between Spartans and ninjas. With their tests, they used packs filled with gel simulating blood so you could see the damage. There were weapons that could cut through a pig carcass. Defense always wins. One mistake in writing fight scenes, and I’ve been guilty of this, is pitting guys with heavy armor against a quick guy in light armor and having the guy in light armor win. But in reality, he would lose.

RF: One caveat. If you have five or six lightly armored guys against one guy in heavy armor, they can take on the knight.

AQ: There are sword making differences between the east and west. For Japanese swords, two materials in layers were used to make a strong blade. Did the Europeans ever catch on?

RF: The Japanese compensated for the poor materials they had on hand. The Vikings and Norse would also do something similar. But as the technology got better, the metal became good throughout.

GRRM: It did develop independently in the west. Damascus steel, which was brought to Spain by Moorish influences, was highly prized. In recent decades, samurai swords also assumed the mystique while people began discounting western knights as oafs. But that was also martial arts. A samurai blade was sharp because there was no armor. It’s useless against armor. Only magical swords don’t get blunt. If you pit a knight against a samurai, the knight would win.

RF: There are an insane variety of swords, but they’re not all from the same time and place. They’re finely tuned for when and where they were developed. A fight between a knight and a samurai would never happen because they weren’t in the same place.

AQ: What are the best books on swords?

JAP: There are these books by George R. R. Martin….

GRRM: There is a book by John Howe who is a Tolkien artist and a re-enactor.

RF: I would suggest Ewart Oakeshott’s Classification on Swords and Arms and Armor of the Medieval Knight. There are also medieval texts online by classic medieval masters.

JAP: Don’t use Wikipedia, but you can use their sources.

DPF: I do research on swords and fighting in different cultures. I also see how blacksmiths make swords. This will inform how the character will do things.

AQ: How would people wielding great swords, like giants, fare in battle?

GRRM: Most two-handed swords were not used in battle. They were usually used for ceremony and cutting off heads. In battle they were clumsy. However, in post-medieval times, there were large groups of pikemen. Soldiers using those swords were used to break up the pikemen formation so the horsemen could come in. They were not used to fight. But if you write fantasy, you can do this for a superhuman like Hulk but not a normal human.

RF: They did double duty and it was a hazardous job.

AQ: Can a sword made of better material cut through a sword of poor quality?

JAP: Due to the laws of physics, no.

RF: You can break one on impact, but no, you can’t swipe through another sword.

GRRM: It will notch it, but there’s no swiping through unless that sword is made of butter. So what’s your favorite sword fight scene? Mine is the fight between Inigo Montoya and the man in black in The Princess Bride.

RF: The Duellists by Ridley Scott.

JAP: The final Boromir scene in Lord of the Rings.

DPF: Rob Roy.

AQ: How about Errol Flynn?

GRRM: In the original The Adventures of Robin Hood. It’s a classic. But Errol Flynn actually didn’t know what to do. Basil Rathbone had to figure out how to make the idiot look good.

* * *

And then there were the closing ceremonies for MisCon where there was a screening of the MisCon 27 Trailer and the announcement that next year’s guest of honor is Jim Butcher.

A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 17

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

Previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9. Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, Part 13, Part 14, Part 15, Part 16

The “What is Urban Fantasy?” panel was presented by Diana Pharaoh Frances and J.A. Pitts.


(Diana Pharaoh Francis [left] and J.A. Pitts [right])

DPF: I wrote about an ugly vampire who didn’t become pretty after being turned. So what is urban fantasy? A lot of it isn’t so urban now.

JAP: I think of Charles de Lint and Peter S. Beagle. Now paranormal romance has taken over. But urban fantasy has been around for a long time.

DPF: There’s also War of the Oaks.

JAP: Urban fantasy has something magical in the recognizable world. Like Buffy or Harry Potter.

DPF: Sunshine by Robin McKinley had a different world, but it was recognizable from the day-to-day actions. Urban fantasy has a quality in the present or maybe slightly in the future and has real kinds of places like grocery stores.

JAP: And cars. There’s crossover into romance and hard-boiled mystery. Like Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. There are different flavors. Usually you don’t know until you read it. It’s also marketing.

DPF: There are many contemporary fantasies that are not urban. Lisa Shearin has real stuff in an epic fantasy situation. In Kari Sperring’s Living with Ghosts, it’s not usually urban even though it has cityscapes and is Victorian. There’s an unpacking of mystery.

JAP: If the characters enter a Starbucks, it’s probably urban fantasy. You also have to look at the attitude and morals of the characters. There’s a significant amount of women point of view in urban fantasy. You can see this from all the published books listed in Publishers Weekly.

AQ: Does epic fantasy have to be non-technological with swords and such?

DPF: In my epic fantasy series, I wrote that stuff so I knew it was epic. But you can put it in the present. But you need elements like big battles.

JAP: It’s how they categorize. If you don’t have most of those tropes, they won’t market it as urban fantasy. Christopher Moore is marketed as mainstream even though he has some of those elements. I write urban fantasy because I like it.

DPF: C.E. Murphy has an epic quality in her Shaman series even though it take place in the present day.

JAP: You should worry about your story before figuring out the genre. Don’t come to the wrong conclusion. It’s usually for the editor to decide.

AQ: Can you have an urban fantasy in a non-western setting? Why does everything take place in America?

JAP: It’s because that’s where all the Barnes and Nobles are. But you do see blogs that talk about books that are set outside the US.

DPF: Marjorie Liu is a world traveler and sets her books in different places.

JAP: If it’s not contemporary, they won’t market it as urban fantasy.

AQ: Kylie Chan, an author who lives in Hong Kong, does Chinese contemporary fantasy.

JAP: You need to search out stuff if you want stories outside of America.

AQ: What about Japanese manga getting imported to America?

JAP: Nick Mamatas blogs about it.

DPF: Lauren Beukes does South African fantasy. Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring. There are books out there so dig a little bit.

JAP: There are different types of urban fantasy, too. There’s some with alternate histories or hidden histories which don’t alter what we see.

AQ: How do you balance character, setting, and plot in urban fantasy? Is there not as much world building since it take place in the present day?

DPF: I would disagree with that.

JAP: Some people don’t, but I like to do world building.

DPF: You need to add the details to make it vibrant. It’s a different kind of world building. Sometimes it’s all action because readers are impatient. In urban fantasy, it’s very common to have a murder, crime, or major event on the first page. For epic fantasy, you can wait for that later. In urban fantasy, you do the world building at the same time as the action. But sometimes you need to stay focused on the forward motion and mention the details later.

JAP: The number one thing in urban fantasy is character. For the primary character, it’s all about the characterization.

AQ: If the characters go into a different dimension, is it still urban fantasy?

JAP: It depends if they come back.

DPF: In Ilona Andrews’ series The Edge, the characters can cross back and forth between the Broken and the Weird, ordinary and magical dimensions. In Wen Spencer’s Tinker and Wolf Who Rules, the characters go to an alternate plane and come back to Earth. It depends on how it’s handled.

JAP: Does the magic affect the real world? In Andre Norton’s Quag Keep, it doesn’t so it’s not urban fantasy.

AQ: What if you have a story where your character becomes a computer and then comes back?

JAP: That’s probably science fiction. Write it first and then let the editor decide.

AQ: In The Chronicles of Narnia, the characters came back from a magical world, but it’s not urban fantasy.

JAP: That’s a portal story.

AQ: In a lot of urban fantasy, either the character already knows about the magical world or the character is a normal person who finds out about the magical world. Are there challenges in writing either one?

DPF: My characters start out knowing about the magical world, but they have to tell everyone else about it.

JAP: Do you find it easier than the other way?

DPF: I don’t give my characters time to react, even if they don’t know anything about magic. They have to deal with things now and can’t waste time thinking about it. That’s why kick-ass heroines are common in urban fantasy. Because you need action right away. But there’s a danger in putting in an info dump with sidekicks.

JAP: My character doesn’t believe in magic. I find it difficult because of the info dump. It’s past the point of discovery.

AQ: I’ve gone to writing classes where they’ve told me never to write a particular thing. But I viewed it as a challenge.

JAP: Break the rules or it will be boring. My writing group found out there was an editor who didn’t want anyone submitting stories about babies, vampires, or cats. So we all wrote baby vampire cat stories and sent them in. He actually took one of the stories. But then the press went out of business. If you kill a dog, do you have to be the bad guy? You can do anything if you do it right. Don’t be afraid. Practice and write every day.

AQ: Is there a science fiction writer’s group in Missoula?

Panel: You might want to check with your local bookstore or library.

JAP: Look online for writer’s workshops.

AQ: Do you use existing mythologies or something made-up?

DPF: My stuff is mostly from existing mythologies. It’s about magical things that have disappeared. What happened to them? And if they came back, what would they be like? It’s a rich area and I can pick mythologies from all over the world. But there’s nothing wrong with making it up.

JAP: I use Norse mythology, but I screw with it. You can stick enough to it to recognize it, but don’t be afraid to twist it. Is it right for the story? If it’s boring, then don’t write it.

AQ: What about turning D & D gaming stories into novels?

JAP: Lots of editors don’t buy it because it reads like a gaming session. Write to the character.

DPF: In those stories, characters are way to thin.

JAP: Make sure it’s robust.

AQ: How would you categorize Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint? It reads like fantasy, but there’s no magic.

JAP: It sounds like it’s interstitial.

DPF: Kushner is part of the interstitial movement.

JAP: It’s fantastical but mundane.

DPF: You know it’s fantasy because of the Tom Canty cover. So maybe it’s a story of a magical place that is focused on the people who don’t do magic.

JAP: Where do they shelve it?

DPF: In fantasy.

AQ: Do you have modern good and bad guys in urban fantasy or are there strictly paranormal villains who have nothing to do with real life?

JAP: In the Dresden Files and urban fantasy in general, there’s a mixture of both.

DPF: My character has superpowers so she would easily defeat the ordinary bad guy. So you need a worthy opponent for your character. It’s not interesting if the characters aren’t challenged.

JAP: If there’s a big battle scene, people should die.

AQ: Do you bring in politics to urban fantasy?

JAP: It will date you. Don’t put in specific details to date it. You don’t have to say it to stay contemporary. Unless you want it to be specifically dated. But it’s good in a thriller. Otherwise, steer away from it.

DPF: I agree. You can have place things in the background. But current events will make it seem dated.

AQ: What if it’s based on science?

JAP: Then it’s probably science fiction. Write the story, then market it.

DPF: Read Subject 7 which has magical science and altered DNA.

AQ: It seems like 90% of the urban fantasy heroines are red-headed and wear PVC on the covers. How do you reconcile writing characters and marketing?

DPF: Writers don’t write characters that way. Marketing does it.

JAP: The cover is there to make you pick up the book.

DPF: My husband says that if they put 3D breasts on book covers, men will buy the books without knowing why.

JAP: In urban fantasy, there are women on the cover, but most women don’t pose like that.

DPF: You should check out Jim Hines’ blog where he poses like women on covers.

AQ: How do you write women? Isn’t it hard for a guy to do?

JAP: It’s not true. Women are people (most of the time). I had no men in my life until I was twelve. I trust women more so I write women. I did a lot of research and got an education on privilege, white male privilege. I had good insight from my experiences and good first readers. But it’s like that for all writers. No one writes about characters just like them–unless you’re doing an autobiography. I had fans who were shocked that a woman didn’t write my book.

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Stay tuned for the final part which is all about swords.

A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 14

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

Previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9. Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, Part 13

The panel “Mastering the Revision Process” was presented by J.A. Pitts, Diana Pharaoh Francis, Andrea Howe, and Vicki Mitchell. (AQ is an audience question.)

JAP: There are several schools of thought about revision. One, there’s just spellchecking it and sending it out. Letting your heirs publish it. Or what most other authors do. Three to six month revisions.

DPF: How do you know when the revision is done?

JAP: I have a deadline.

DPF: But what if you don’t have a deadline? You’re never done.

JAP: Make sure the story is told adequately. It’s inevitable that the editor will ask for changes. Put it away for a while and then read it with fresh eyes.

DPF: I don’t look at it again until I get it back from the editor.

AQ: So you stop revising if you can’t look at it anymore?

DPF: Just put it away.

JAP: My opinion is that a mistake for beginning writers is to revise while writing and to rewrite too much.

DPF: But what if you have to fix fundamental problems?

JAP: Then it’s architectural.

DPF: It depends on the nature of the change. I print out every chapter as I go and put post-it notes for the problems. Then I don’t revise until I’m done with the first draft.

JAP: I only revise what I’ve written from the day before.

DPF: I find that it bogs me down. I need to get the draft done and I can’t fix it until it ends.

VM: After a few pages, I do spell check but I don’t edit heavily. I always overwrite the first draft.

DPF: What’s overwriting?

VM: I put in too much description, weak words, and so on.

AH: There are too many adjectives and too many words like “and then”, characters that don’t need to be there, characters that repeat themselves. I find that with a lot of teachers. They like to repeat things because they think that’s how people will learn.

DPF: Or characters getting from one place to another.

JAP: You should show but don’t tell. If you find yourself telling but not showing, cut the telling.

DPF: I have a friend who tells and shows.

VM: It could include strings of prepositional phrases like “in the”, “with the.”

JAP: There are people who are “putter inners” or “taker outers.” If you make your descriptions too thin, put in more description. If you need to cut stuff, then take out.

DPF: Figure out what kind of writer you are. Don’t use purple prose and grandiose language–the best, the grandest, etc.

JAP: But you can have that if you have a character who speaks that way.

DPF: In Bleak House, there’s a character who talks a lot. But it’s done for effect.

AH: Make sure it still makes sense. Don’t cut too much.

AQ: So how do you fix it?

JAP: Add more words. Read aloud. Set it aside and read it later. Add what feels right to make it more robust. Find a writer that you like to get how it feels. Share it with other people.

DPF: Imagine it taking place on a stage and you’re the audience. Does it make sense? Is there enough detail? Or is there a lot of flabby prose where the verbs and nouns are not working hard enough?

JAP: I like to highlight all the -ly words so I can go back later.

DPF: So you’ve just finished a novel and you need to edit. What do you do first? How do you approach it?

AH: I generally look at the style if the story is there and give you an estimate on my editing services or tell you to get a critique group. If the person likes the estimate, then we move forward and look at story, character, continuity, and punctuation. If you’re not working well with the editor, then it’s time to find a new editor.

JAP: I do a lot of writers’ workshops. I read it first to see if I can tell what you’re doing there and get first reader impressions. Then I do a critique read to see what needs to be fixed with continuity. Then I talk to the person to see if I’ve actually gotten it. If there’s more than one person who doesn’t get your story, then you’re not clear. It’s also called witch doctoring.

VM: I go through the manuscript, juggle things, and mark things up until it looks okay. Unless there something seriously structurally wrong. Then I may do something as drastic as cutting a character.

JAP: Always save your revisions in a separate file.

DPF: I call it my “jug file”.

JAP: Know what your book is about.

DPF: I’m a linear writer. Others piece together scenes like a quilt. I do a read through and then linear revision. Anything that changes in the beginning will go through the rest of the book. I look for global things like character, plot, consistency, tone, dialogue, voice. You need to list out the elements you want to look at. Revision is not just changing and reshuffling words. It’s about cutting and adding pages. The revisor is different from the drafter. That’s why you don’t revise as you write. Be brutal with revisions.

JAP: And compassionate since you have to live with yourself. If you’re conflicted about a change, put a post-it note on it and come back to it later.

DPF: Don’t revise your original draft. Save different versions.

AH: And backup.

VM: Keep it in current form on a current operating system and program.

JAP: That’s not necessary. George R. R. Martin writes in WordStar. It’s only in DOS, not Windows. But do backups.

DPF: Multiple backups.

JAP: I don’t trust the cloud because it’s not secure and Apple’s cloud has crashed before. Have copies on disk and hard drive. Have copies in different places.

DPF: And put it in the refrigerator.

JAP: But you have to wait for it to cool.

DPF: There are levels of paranoia. I do Gmail, Dropbox, backups on my laptops and desktop, flashdrives, and hard drive.

AQ: I know someone who lost all his copies when his office burned down. So you need an off-site backup.

DPF: Since I work at a college, I also have backups on my campus computer. I also backup the most current version. I use Dropbox as a carrier.

AQ: Before you sent your work to a professional editor, did you pay an editor?

Panel (all): No!

JAP: Start with people who will do it for free, like a writer’s group. Learn by doing, like editing the work of others. If you’re self-publishing, you might pay an editor. Cultivate alpha and beta readers.

AH: I send people to critique groups.

DPF: You can benefit a lot from that.

VM: You can also teach yourself.

JAP: There are two levels of writer’s groups. There’s the apprentice level which will just do line edits and spell check. Then there’s the journeyman level where they will look at character consistency and actually work on the story.

VM: Watch out for the group that will only say that your story is wonderful. That won’t help you.

JAP: Or your mom, spouse or best friend. If someone says that it’s not bad but you just need to be more clear–fix it.

AQ: How do you deal with the editorial process and about being told to change and cut things?

VM: I had a story where the editor gave me a list of suggested things. Half of those things missed the boat. So I wrote back telling him why it shouldn’t change–and he ended up buying the story. Only argue if you have a good reason because they would know the market.

JAP: Ask yourself what you want in your career. Give justification and establish clear communication. If it gets rejected, remember that it will not be the only thing that you will write. Be able to walk away even if you’re sacrificing that first sale. For example, I had a friend who was told to cut out the section that mentioned that a character was gay. But that detail informed who the character was. The editor argued that he had to take it out because then libraries wouldn’t buy his book. But he stuck to his guns and was willing to lose money to keep the story. But make sure you’re polite and don’t throw it in their face.

DPF: Remember that the editor likes your writing already. They’re smart. So after some private screaming, you’ll realize that most of their suggestions are right. For the things you don’t want changed, call the editor about it. But always talk in the context of the story. For example, I was told to cut a long scene because the rising tension had dipped. But I managed to fix it by adding more tension. Talking matters. The editors can sense the problems but it’s up to you to think about why they made the suggestion.

VM: Media tie-ins have their own bag of horrors. I had a copy editor who rewrote my book.

DPF: That’s copy editor hell.

VM: So I called up the editor and told him what happened. And the copy editor never worked for that company again.

DPF: Copy editors should be looking for continuity and grammar. It depends on the house. Your manuscript will come back with marks from the copy editor. You can implement the changes or mark it with STET.

JAP: Also use change tracking.

DPF: Then it goes to the printing stage. Some copy editors act like editors so you have to cry foul. You may call the editor and request not to work with that copy editor. Copy editing is the last possible place to edit before type setting and the proof stage.

AQ: So going back to editing, what percentage goes through construction, punctuation, etc.?

JAP: It depends on how good you are at each thing. Some do one pass with everything, like S. M. Stirling.

DPF: I do one pass since I’m an English professor, but every writer is different.

AH: I do one pass with everything.

VM: I also do one pass.

JAP: I was a C student, so…

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Stay tuned for Part 15 which includes a panel on writer’s block.

A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 4

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

Previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DPF: I agree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JG: Readers also hate words that are not pronounceable.

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

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

DPF: Also “Shannara” by Terry Goodkind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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