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Tag: Eldon Thompson

A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 15

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

The panel “Conquering Writer’s Block” was presented by Eldon Thompson. Remarks were also made by J.A. Pitts, Deby Fredericks, and Peter Orullian. (AQ is an audience question.)

ET: George R. R. Martin puts writers as either gardeners or architects. Most writers, about 99%, are gardeners. Most writer’s block is due to lack of preparation, insufficient plotting, unruly characters, vague setting, or an unclear theme. Insufficient plotting comes down to insufficient outlining. You should do whatever works for you. On the macro level, you need the major moments. Most people know their beginning but not so much the midpoint. I would recommend looking at story structure books. Why? Because you need to know what the maximum impacts are at certain parts in the story. You need to reverse engineer it. Pick major moments and use them as manageable chunks. Then set the obstacles.

ET: In Hollywood, there’s more structure. You need to advance the plot every ten minutes. However, you don’t need to be married to your outline. You can sketch it out. There are people who refuse to outline–like Tami Hoag who writes thriller mysteries. She says that it’s not fun to write if she already knows who did it. But you don’t want to trick the reader so you need to plan out how to misdirect and plant clues. To prevent boredom, you need to build conflict in every scene. If you know the big strokes, you can then focus on the details.

ET: Can you avoid unruly characters? I don’t think so. Terry Brooks viewed characters as trying out for roles. If the character doesn’t fit the role, then you either rewrite the role, kick the character out and stick to the role, or try to force the character into the role. If you’re tugged into a different direction, trust your instinct. You need to know your character well. Who they are. What they want. Where, when, why. These are things you know in the back of your head. Elizabeth George says it’s pathological behavior. You need to know how they will respond if the character doesn’t get what they want. You need conflict in every scene, even if it is subtle. If you can’t find the conflict, stage it differently.

ET: For vague setting, it is the easiest to skimp. Setting sets the tone. If there are arctic waters, it might be murder mystery. You might set a horror story in a remote camp. Science fiction and fantasy settings are critical whether they’re real or imagined. Avoid dinner scenes. Static scenes are not as dramatic. Phone calls are easy in reality but they’re not as exciting. In Star Wars, you had light saber fight scenes in strange settings like lava. The opening in Empire Strikes Back was an ice world. If you use geography, setting can dictate plot points and conflict. One example is in fantasy where you have different questing groups that need to meet at a particular place and time. You need challenges for your characters–swimming, freezing, falling, etc.–don’t make it easy on them.

ET: If you have problems with theme, did you lose track of the emotional core of the story? Did you even have one in the first place? Revisit the premise often. Figure out how you want to express it. The character objective is not the same as the author objective. For fiction, don’t preach. Relay the viewpoint. Listen to the subconscious because it will tell you where to go. If something feels wrong, it is because it is. You need patience if there are no deadlines. Stop, look at things at different angles. Look at all the facets. If it’s hard to see it in a linear fashion, turn it over and over. You can also use the avoidance technique–do something else first to free your mind.

JAP: Sometimes if you have writer’s block, you may need to fix your life first. I had a friend with writer’s block, but it was because he had dying relatives. For others, it was cancer treatments. Don’t beat yourself up about your writing when it’s actually depression. Take to someone about your other problems. But there are others who just make excuses, so you better know what your problem is.

ET: Some write for therapy.

AQ: I have writer’s block because I’m afraid of writing dialogue.

AQ: To learn how to write dialogue, you could talk to a reporter. Notice how people gesture while their talking and their facial expressions.

ET: Dialogue is king in Hollywood. Look at other people talking. How the character feels about things will inform the dialogue. Know your character beyond what is superficial. Don’t do too much description.

DF: You need a good balance. Sometimes you can turn description into dialogue. It will improve with the characters.

AQ: Know the goal and motivation.

ET: Let the story tell itself so it won’t be so hard.

AQ: It’s okay to pause in your writing. There are online tips.

ET: What if you’re afraid to stop? Clear writing comes with clear thinking. Scenes come alive better with dialogue but scenes can be too long if there’s too much dialogue. Skip the chit chat.

AQ: What if you have a deadline?

ET: With a deadline, you have less choice. You need to plow through and maybe stay up at night to get it done. I was once at a writing workshop where I had to write a story about a colosseum which was due the next day. But I got stage fright at 2 AM and I ended up staying up all night working on the story. However, when I turned it in, people really liked it. Otherwise, I would have taken my time with it. Writing is hard, so you may be looking for an excuse. You need to force yourself to finish and plunge through. Don’t wander.

AQ: Do you have a minimum word count you do each day?

ET: Yes. If I don’t hit a certain word count, I don’t get to go to the gym.

AQ: What type of word count do you use?

ET: Around 1,600 to 2,000. More if there’s action. It depends on the writer.

AQ: You might have a fear for writing, but you can force through with a word count goal.

ET: Writing is like exercise.

AQ: Would you promote brainstorming?

ET: In groups? I don’t do one. A writer’s group is like the blind meeting the blind. A certain amount of fear is necessary, otherwise you think everything is perfect. You need to figure out how to do it better. If you lock yourself into a corner, you can’t cheat. It’s like playing chess against yourself.

AQ: I do mindmapping software. I work on one character at a time and see how they say it.

DF: Just put something down even if it sounds lame. Then you have something to work with.

AQ: Do you revise? I get rid of the delete and backspace key. You need to give yourself permission to write the “shitty first draft”. Daniel Abraham learned to silence his inner critic with the word count. And I do it at 3 AM when the inner editor is asleep.

ET: I also write at night and then look it over in the morning to eventually polish it later.

PO: You need to practice. You need to get it inside you so you already have the rules internalized. This will help you be completely out of the critical brain.

ET: You need to internalize the structure. Practice. Read it over and over or watch movies. You should not think about that while you’re writing.

PO: It’s okay to be arrogant while you’re writing, but have someone look it over. Get out of your own way. It’s part of your craft. Don’t just show up.

ET: You need to learn the fundamentals.

PO: There’s a lot of romanticism about talent. Most writers work at it so the journeyman metaphor is more apt.

AQ: Some say you need to write ten thousand pages of crap first.

ET: Or a million.

AQ: You need to be in the mindset that you’re crushing the character.

PO: You can’t wait for it. Some stop writing while they’re hot.

ET: It’s building up the writing session. You stop in the middle of a scene so it’s easy to start later.

AQ: Or stop in the middle of sentences. If you’re OCD, you’ll have to finish it. But it can backfire if you can’t remember what you were going to say.

ET: If you have to write it down to remember it, then it’s not worth it to write it.

PO: When I had deadlines, I would fall asleep while writing and end up typing my dreams.

AQ: There was a painter who got blocks. But he just painted anyway, thinking that he would throw it away. But it eventually turned out to be a good idea.

ET: It’s like the free flowing exercise.

PO: Words are not sacrosanct.

ET: Not even the ten commandments. The first ones got destroyed in the Bible. We all get writer’s block, but it will be easier to get through it if you know the ending.

* * *

Stay tuned for Part 16 which is on publishing options.

A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 12

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

The subject of the panel “The Many Ways to Tell a Story” was: “Stories come in many shapes and sizes, from books to comics to games to television and movies. How is storytelling the same among these media, and how does it differ? What are the challenges unique to each? What makes a good book versus movie versus comic?” The panelists were Kenneth Hite, George R. R. Martin, Peter Orullian, and Eldon Thompson. (AQ is an audience question.)


(Left to right: George R. R. Martin, Peter Orullian, Eldon Thompson, Kenneth Hite)

GRRM: How do you like to tell your story?

PO: I like multiple viewpoints to tell the relationship the characters have between one another. A person who does single viewpoint well is Patrick Rothfuss. You have to ask yourself whose eyes you’re telling it through.

ET: There are certain similarities despite the format. There are pros and cons.

KH: I provide the format in gaming as the gamemaster. Some role playing games have an implied story while others are broader. They allow as many stories as possible to emerge organically. Night’s Black Agents is a spy thriller with less handholding. For other fantasy games there’s a different framework.

GRRM: The gaming aspect is interesting. Is the video game a new art form? There are various forms that existed to tell stories. Poems, plays, and TV weren’t considered legitimate forms for storytelling when they emerged, but now they’re accepted. Are the video games developing in this direction?

PO: I work at Xbox and we prepare them like a franchise. In Halo, the first element is the story. It’s before developing the game engines or pixels. Then you figure out how to use the game itself–like novelizations, webisodes, or developing a movie. Corporations now look at this to create something novel. In transmedia, the story experience is larger than the sum of its parts.

ET: Transmedia has different facets. King’s Dark Tower series is too big for traditional film. Gaming can still deliver a story to the audience. It’s where the reader tells his own story. The API can allow gamers to build it. What’s limited is time development, so you can bring the gamer into it.

PO: Like fanfic.

ET: You could make that argument.

KH: In the tabletop game, you start from scratch. You can use any story or any character. There’s no set way to determine it. There are two types of video games: some have one arc where you can do side quests. In other games, you can do almost anything. It’s like a sandbox. But it’s hard to say it’s the same type of narrative like Gilgamesh or Casablanca. Narrative is collaborative in gaming.

GRRM: Consider the new versions of Sherlock Holmes like the one on the BBC or Robert Downey Jr.’s version. But Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain. Real Sherlockians would reject these new versions. There are lots of entertainment forms including video games which continue to evolve. But can it ever evolve into art? Art is usually the product of a single person. Our culture lauds artists as great. An author is given credit for bringing a book to art. Are video games waiting for its Shakespeare or due to its form, it will never come to pass?

KH: Bioshock is rather primitive. But you can’t say that they can’t be art.

PO: I would argue that the Shakespeare of video games is already here. They spend millions in development. There are cut scenes. And you feel like you’re participating with the story. There are alternate endings.

KH: That’s not unknown in novels. Bram Stoker had different endings.

PO: Storytelling is not mutually exclusive. You can bring people to the story. Transmedia can bring color. I would say it’s a Renaissance in gaming happening now.

AQ: What about PC gaming?

PO: The cloud is making it all converge so you can do gaming on any platform. Everything primarily resides in the cloud. It’s called cloud sourcing.

AQ: As a musician, I find that there’s a parallel between jazz musicians and gaming in regards to collaboration.

GRRM: You have a collaboration in a band. But the audience is still passive. In gaming, you involve the audience. So maybe it’s like karaoke.

KH: In role playing, you can draw a contrast with other art forms. It’s like a “jam session”. But can you call a jam session a composition? Is it just pure music or are you actually playing something? There are narrow stories in indie games.

GRRM: I’m nervous about collaborative things. Most great art are tragedies: The Great Gatsby, Romeo and Juliet, Casablanca, Citizen Kane. Part of us loves this stuff. But generally in a collaboration, you end up with a happy ending.

KH: When they staged King Lear, it ended up with a happy ending.

GRRM: If you give the audience a right to select the ending, then you may lose the tragic endings. That’s the danger.

ET: If you have no emotional attachment, there’s no reason to put in a happy ending. If everyone is telling the story then someone will ask, “why are you killing my character?” You lose the emotional power.

KH: The Odyssey has a happy ending.

GRRM: But only Odysseus had the happy ending. Everyone else didn’t.

AQ: What about Diablo? There are games that end happily or tragically or are ambiguous. Don’t you have to trust that they hire the right people to make the game? Isn’t there a different Shakespeare for everyone?

AQ: Halo seems like it has less of a story. They put out a new one, it seems, every month. Are there more commercial concerns that hinder storytelling?

PO: No. They have to think about a successful franchise. But they also think of the story. Of course, not all people will like the story just as not everyone has the same favorite novel.

KH: Like Merry Wives of Windsor.

AQ: Is there a plot to a video game if you have a controllable character?

PO: The video game is on rails, so you will get to the same endpoint no matter what you do.

GRRM: But what if you don’t want to shoot the bad guys?

KH: Then you bought the wrong video games.

GRRM: But I could negotiate with them…

PO: Have you read your own books? There are many video games from Bejeweled to games with an open world.

AQ: What about open source?

PO: There will be open source, but it’s like the Cliff Notes. Look at the construct, but never at the expense of the story.

KH: If you open up print, people will rip it off. One example was Dickens. His work was so popular during his lifetime, they wrote fanfic about it.

AQ: For adapting Game of Thrones to the screen, did they add scenes that you didn’t write? Did they need your approval?

GRRM: They didn’t need my approval. I think the extra scenes were fine as long as it added to the character, but I also dread it because it adds to the time it takes to tell the story.

AQ: How do you feel about new scenes when you haven’t finished the story?

GRRM: Well, we’ll find out down the road.

AQ: Is writing video games friendlier than Hollywood?

PO: There are some committees in video game development, but there’s someone who has the story bible and the shareholders. But it’s not as complicated as Hollywood.

ET: It’s more like TV than film. Less cooks in the kitchen.

GRRM: But isn’t there a problem with finding the Shakespeare of video games? That industry is very corporate. Is there a room for a visionary? Sid Meier is known for his games. But Halo has no byline. Is it all group think and committees?

PO: Single authors are emerging. Like the apps on the iPad. Draw Something had 55 million downloads in three weeks. Mobile gaming has the advantage of the size of its audience. Smaller game developers can be nimble. And bigger corporations are looking for small game developers. So gamers can now think about story and game design.

KH: There are other corporate cultures–like the Japanese and French–where people buy based on creator. It takes a while to get recognized. It was a while before Shakespeare got his name on his plays. For comic books, it wasn’t until Frank Miller and Alan Moore came on the scene in the 80s.

PO: But you need to distinguish it from names that are actually franchise names.

KH: Like Clint Eastwood or James Cameron.

PO: There’s opportunity for a person not part of a studio.

AQ: What about crowd funding?

PO: It’s like Kickstarter.

AQ: With all the new video games, what will happen to books?

GRRM: Books are not going anywhere. Platforms are changing but people still love reading.

PO: Video games may replace the table top games.

KH: There are people who only do World of Warcraft or watch Buffy because it fulfills all of their entertainment needs. But for most people, they like several different things.

GRRM: I began going to science fiction and fantasy cons in 1971 as a comics fan. But every year, those fans get older and there aren’t many kids. But it’s because they’re traditionally hostile to new media which keeps out the kids. And that makes me worried. But then I come to a convention like this where there are younger people. There’s Comic-Con but it’s not exactly the same. It has a wider, younger base. Publishers will find out that younger people will read. So people will do video games and books. And get gamers to read.

* * *

Stay tuned for Part 13 which is a panel on writing villains.

A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 10

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.

The panel “Pitching Your Project” was presented by James Glass, J.A. Pitts, and Eldon Thompson. (AQ is an audience question.)

JG: Are there different kinds of pitches?

JAP: I first met my editor in a bar. And we didn’t talk about books. It was only later that I sent an e-mail and asked what she wanted. My editor said, “Send whatever you’ve got.”

ET: I can’t understate the personal connection. Go to film festivals. Make a connection so they will remember you. So if you have a chance to talk to an editor or agent, don’t just jump into your project. For an elevator pitch, the harder you do your work, the easier it is. And unless you’re a proven writer, when you pitch, your work should already be done. It should be ten to fifteen words. A teaser pitch is about one sentence. A two page synopsis is longer. Be able to pitch in different formats. An expanded pitch would be like a jacket blurb. Take time to craft a pitch at each length.

JAP: You don’t know when you’re going to pitch. So be prepared. Practice.

JG: My elevator story is over three floors. It was at WesterCon for the novel Brain Gate. I was in the elevator and Tom Doherty got on. He asked, “Jim, what’s new?” So I had ten to twelve seconds to tell him about my novel in two sentences. Then he said, “It sounds interesting. Talk to David Hartwell.” It can happen unexpectedly so you need to be prepared.

JAP: But don’t do the bathroom pitch. I heard about the story of a Penguin editor who had to go to the bathroom in order to get away from some woman. But while she was in the bathroom stall, the manuscript was slipped under the door. Once I was in the elevator with the editor and asked her how she was doing. She said her dog died. So all I could do was say my condolences. Don’t be a jerk or they’ll remember it.

JG: For a short story, you can just send that in. The story will go to either the slush stack or A stack. Here, the editors want you to succeed. But novels are a different ball game. A good place to pitch is a convention like a big regional one. NorwesCon or WesterCon. WorldCon can get hairy since there are so many people.

JAP: You can also meet editors and agents in a bar but don’t be a stalker.

ET: In Hollywood, you mostly pitch in person. In books, you usually do a query letter. In Hollywood, you set up a ten to fifteen minute meeting. Agents are notorious for doing something else while you’re trying to pitch. Producers are better because they’re more invested in the project. If the producers like your sample, then they want you to write their stuff as a “hired gun.” If you love your work, go the book route and worry about Hollywood later. In Hollywood, scripts are written by committee. You can make a good living at it, but unless you’re a writer-director, you have no say.

JG: George R.R. Martin mentioned that things are also written by the director.

ET: Sometimes the director shows up without the script and starts changing things. For scripts, it possible you will have nothing to show after six to nine months of work. Whereas if you write a book, you do have something to show.

JG: But there’s the money.

JAP: I work at Boeing so I make enough in the day job to write in the cracks.

ET: Do what you love. Because otherwise, how do you deal with the BS? You need to deal with it.

JG: What about written pitches? You can do a short pitch at a party. You need to play it by ear. Are they receptive? As a new writer without an agent, you want to break in. But many publishing companies don’t want unsolicited work. However, some pubs, like Baen or Ace, will see unsolicited manuscripts. You need to learn the difference between partials, query letters, and a synopsis.

JAP: The most important thing is to have the best possible novel to be written. Because that’s the final pitch. My editor might take two years to get back to you. So be ready for it.

JG: Say you want to send your work to a big house that doesn’t want unsolicited work. Do you send a query letter?

JAP: We mentioned it in the query panel. You don’t want to waste their time so do an elevator pitch. The editor will remember if you’re nice and kind. When you’re ready, send it in.

JG: Do you go in cold?

ET: More commonly, target the recipient. Do your homework. Pitch the story in one sentence. You need a core idea. Who’s the character and what’s at stake? There are lots of resources out there about writing a synopsis. If three-fourths of your synopsis is the set up and the rest of the stuff is tacked at the end, you give a false sense of how the story goes. You need to pace the query at the rate as the story. You need a teaser or hook. Examples are Titanic, Kissing Jessica Stein, and Billy Elliot.

JG: It’s analogous to the summaries in TV guides.

ET: They’re log lines.

JG: You need a short paragraph which includes that your novel is complete, something about the novel, and something about you related to the novel. And then a short inquiry about what they might like to see like a partial or the first three chapters. But the time until you receive a reply to see the partial can be long. So just wait. And write a thank you letter.

JAP: And while you’re waiting, write something else.

JG: Baen bought one author’s book and while he waited, he wrote books two and three. Which Baen subsequently bought.

AQ: There’s the Query Shark.

ET: You need to lead with your strongest point. Don’t reference any weakness.

JAP: Don’t tell them it’s been rejected elsewhere.

JG: Print out a new copy to send in to other editors because they will know others have read it. The partial should contain a synopsis.

JAP: Learning to write a synopsis is critical. Don’t hide stuff. Give out the important relevant details. Tell them the ending.

JG: How long should the synopsis be?

JAP: It depends. My publishing house wants ten pages or less. Try to keep it short. Two to three pages is better.

ET: In Hollywood, don’t send in ten pages.

JG: So it’s whatever that works for the editor.

ET: Find out the guidelines. A two page synopsis for a 250,000 word novel.

AQ: Is it 250 words per page?

Panel (all): Yes, double spaced.

JAP: Keep it within 500 characters.

ET: Or less, like Twitter.

JG: It should also be entertaining. Don’t be dry. Think of it as an expanded jacket blurb. You could leave some mystery, but you need the ending. Take the synopsis seriously because it’s a selling tool.

ET: Whoever you’re pitching to, they want the same thing–something that’s proven–but also something new and fresh. For example, take a new tack on proven stories. But they won’t take you if it’s too similar or too different.

JG: In pitches, do you compare it to the media? For example, you say your story is “Darth Vader in New York City.”

ET: Do something appropriate. Be true to your material. Don’t compare it to Hunger Games if it’s not like it.

JAP: Run it by other people. Some pitches are insulting such as “Like Good Fellas but with characters.”

AQ: In a Hollywood pitch, should you have a line up for many things?

ET: Yes, they want to know you have more stuff. Think of your career. You want a breadth of material.

AQ: Does anyone still write plays?

Panel (all): Yes.

AQ: What about slush readers? How do I get into doing that?

JG: Graduate from Brown, I suppose.

JAP: You should meet editors at cons, read Locus, blogs, and magazines. E-mail the editor. They’ll contact others if they don’t have an opening. They won’t pay you, but you will learn a lot about what not to do in writing. Check Ralan and Duotrope. Query places.

JG: Nowadays there are less slush readers but the editors read more slush.

AQ: How much do you value your publishing company? Some publishers don’t read their books unless they sell 5,000 copies or more.

ET: Editors do less editing now due to volume. The more you can do, the more likely they will hire you.

JAP: More books are published in one month now than the entire year of 1952.

JG: At Tor, there’s only four people who do it all. The more work you do, the better.

ET: But I don’t want to do my own marketing. So the publishing house is valuable for that.

JG: They send stuff out for you. But publicity, not so much although places like Tor and Ace are better about that. They’ll send your stuff to Publisher’s Weekly to get reviewed. But some houses don’t do that.

AQ: Is there a difference between large and small publishing houses? What about electronic and traditional publishing?

JG: It’s the same deal. You need to check with the individual houses.

JAP: But you pitch the same to all those places.

JG: But don’t neglect the small press. It’s a start. And you can build a career from there.

* * *

Stay tuned for Part 11 which will include a panel on gender roles.

A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 5

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

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

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


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

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

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

ET: It is always better to target your query.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ET: Or don’t hate.

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

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

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

MB: Great! Send it to me.

JAP: Twitter is where the elevator pitch started.

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

SAB: Show, don’t tell.

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

Entire panel: Most.

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

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

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

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

ET: I have one on my website.

MB: You can buy the editor drinks.

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

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

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

ET: What about introductions to yourself in query letters?

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

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

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

AQ: One resource is AgentQuery Connect.

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

SAB: Especially people coming in cold.

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

AQ: What about newer agents?

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

JD: Some agencies have staff.

JAP: If the agent is in a good agency.

AQ: Does length of the book matter?

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

SAB: Before querying, go to Preditors & Editors.

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

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

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

A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 2

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

Previous post: Part 1

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ET: Yes. Don’t bore the reader.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AQ: Can you legally write about a business?

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

AQ: What about real people?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ET: This is not how the author sees things.

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

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

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

AQ: How do you put alternate languages in context?

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

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

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

AQ: What about creating naming languages like Tolkien?

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

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

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

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

PO: Consistency and balance is good.

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

A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ET: How do you deal with revisions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ET: How do you balance it with creativity?

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

GRRM: Who are your actors?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GRRM: But TV is run by writers.

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

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

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