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Tag: J. A. Pitts

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: Evolution of a Writing Career

(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: Evolution of a Writing Career
Panel members: J.A. Pitts, Ken Scholes
Panel description: J.A. Pitts and Ken Scholes take us through the evolution of a writing career, what it takes and how to get there.

(Note: This was entirely a Q & A session with both panelists answering the questions.)

Q: What should we expect with electronic publishing?

A: It’s more opportunity for selling books. It’s like selling meth. You need a good story that the publishers want to buy. Everything else is business. What do you want in your career? 99% of writers are midlist and slowly climb from there. It depends on what’s right for you. Don’t put things out before they’re ready. Pay attention to the contracts or they’ll take your rights. It can be hit or miss because things are changing.

Q: What do you think about writing contests?

A: Don’t pay for writing contests. Except for the Writers of the Future Contest. Your mileage may vary. The Writers of the Future has launched several writers. If you submit to Asimov’s, you’re competing with professionals. If you submit to the contest, you’re competing with your peers. It gives yourself a deadline.

Q: What’s something in self-publishing that nobody’s told you?

A: The internet is forever. In self-publishing, you have to do everything. Usually the people who are successful in self-publishing already have fans from traditional publishing. Keep your eyes wide open. No one’s an overnight millionaire. Note that whenever a self-published author gets a call from New York, they always take it. Be leery because people do self-publishing poorly–they need an editor. Every time you write, you practice writing. If you give stuff away, it’s not selling. Instead, use a blog to build an audience. Even with a readership, you might only get enough money for lunch. By being so busy with all the aspects of self-publishing instead of concentrating on just writing, it can be used as an excuse not to pay your dues.

Q: Should you focus on short stories to get the contacts even though you prefer to write novels?

A: No. Focus on the novel. Check for more information. Don’t write short stories unless you like reading them.

Q: How do you know when your work is good enough?

A: You don’t. And don’t ask your mom. You need to find a person who is ahead on the writer’s path to critique your work. Cultivate these relationships over time. Also mentor the people behind you to pay it forward. Get first readers. Cultivate learning to say no and what to ignore. I had a short story with religion in it, but twenty people told me that religion shouldn’t be in science fiction. But I ended up selling that short story. Some people may want to bring you down. Some people will stop talking to you once you sell a novel. Go to cons and workshops. “Trust your mirrors” – find someone who can fill your blind spot.

Q: Should you find first readers in a different or the same genre?

A: It depends, but I recommend the same genre. Other writers are more critical. If you get good readers, they will tell you where they get confused.

Q: If you don’t have a strong group of readers, where do you find them?

A: Online can be dangerous–some are just trolls.

Q: Do you need security papers for your work?

A: No. Once you write it down it’s already copyrighted.

Q: What manuscript formatting should you use?

A: See Asimov’s gets 5000 submissions a month. Only eight to twelve stories will be accepted so they’ll look for any excuse to reject it. Like formatting. So follow the rules.

Q: How do you get an agent?

A: I sold to an editor before I got an agent. Do your homework. I landed an agent after meeting them at a convention.

Q: When you’re submitting your work, do you submit the same thing with some tweaks or is it completely different?

A: For Heinlein, once he was done, he didn’t change it. Never write the first thing that comes to mind. If you keep on tinkering with the story, you may break it.

Q: What’s the best place to submit it?

A: Check the listings at Start with the best paying market and work your way down.

Q: When you’re sending a solicitation, do you include one paragraph about what you’re doing?

A: [For science fiction], only if you’re a scientist. Otherwise they don’t care. Only include pertinent sales information. Make the cover letter brief and follow the rules. For query letters, see their guidelines. The quality of your writing sells, not the letter.

Q: I only have one science publication. Is that relevant?

A: No. Only include things that tell that you’re a good writer. Look for acknowledgements to find agents. Strategically query.

Q: Do you have to be outgoing [to get contacts in the publishing industry]?

A: No, but it helps. At the end of the day, it’s what you write that counts.

Q: How do you outline a book?

JAP: I have a spreadsheet and a word document. I outline every single scene before writing.

KS: I’m a pantser with some planning. I decide the size of the story first and then use the screenwriter’s notion of acts to plan the story.

Q: Which agents should we submit to?

A: Check Publisher’s Weekly to see what deals the agents have made. You might find a “good” agent, but they haven’t sold anything.

Q: How do you choose to turn an idea into a novel or a short story?

A: How many plot lines and characters do you have? How big is your idea?

Q: What revision system do you use?

KS: Before, I revised based on feedback. Now, with my editor I revise one chapter at a time, but most editors don’t do this. My editor catches things before they go in the wrong direction. Copy editing is for details. You can change in galley proofs, but it’s difficult because it costs money to change.

JAP: It’s a trust issue with yourself.

Q: How do you start with a hook? Do you start with a character, reaction, etc?

A: You want the first sentence to grab people and get them to read more. Don’t include dreams or waking up. But you can break the rules if you can do it without the reader noticing. Include the genre, character, and problem in the first page.

Q: How much research do you put in?

A: Enough. Don’t do too much. You need one to three good concrete details and the readers will fill in the blanks. If you put in more detail, they will then tell you how bad it is. I’ve asked 10 to 12 experts on something and they’ve all given me contradictory opinions. I used to do research for short stories but now I keep notes. Do enough research to tell the story. Consider how much you’re being paid for the story and how much work you’re putting into it.

Q: Are there any tricks to research?

A: No. Determine what research is important. You don’t need to go into tiny details and waste time on researching buttons.

Q: How do you perfect dialogue?

A: Screenwriting is all about dialogue. Don’t listen to other people. Dialogue is active, it changes tension. It gives information, but don’t make it “as you know Bob.” It pushes the story forward. Read it aloud.

Q: What reference do you use for world building?

A: Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding.

Q: Is there specific marketing you have to do for a location-based self-published book?

A: Just put it out there.

Q: Should you put a story out on the internet?

A: What do you want in your writing career? Putting it on the internet is not a paying market.

Q: How do you maintain a relationship with an agent?

A: Be a professional, polite human. Don’t badger. Be clear and concise. Be able to say no.

Q: How do you market self-published books?

A: I don’t do much with self-publishing. You could use a blog to build audience. I recommend using traditional publishing to build an audience first. For printing, talk to small presses.

Q: How do you choose the right verb?

A: See Stephen King’s On Writing. Choose mostly the first word that comes to mind. Make it clear and colorful. Finish your project first and then fix it.

Q: How can you sort out the good advice from the bad advice?

A: If the advice rings true, it’s good. If you don’t know, ask questions to clarify.

Q: What are your main literary influences?

A: It changes all the time. Lester del Rey, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Wheel of Time. Read what you want to write. I write urban fantasy so I read it. Everyone should influence you. It helps fill the well so you can fill with story.

Q: Where do you draw the line for editing?

A: Don’t be a dick to the editors. Know what’s right for you. Communication is important. Ask them why they want it changed.

Q: Are simultaneous submissions okay?

A: It depends. Look at the guidelines.

Notes from MisCon 27, Part 9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CB: Is there difficulty in writing men?

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

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

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

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

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

JF: Environment influences character.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: How do you separate societal stereotypes with reality?

CB: Hard work.

JF: I pick and choose.

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

Notes from MisCon 27, Part 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PS: It doesn’t hurt to know someone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DB: Or if editors already bought something similar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JAP: Publishers want to buy your product.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes from MisCon 27, Part 2

(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: Plot, Plot, Plot
Panel members: Carol Berg, Jim Butcher, J.A. Pitts, Patrick Swenson
Panel description: What is plot? How is it different from storyline? How do you keep your writing moving fast? Our experts will share what they know.

CB: What is the difference between plot and storyline? For example: “The king died and the queen died” is a storyline. “The king died because the queen died” is a plot.

JB: I buy that, but I don’t have a distinction because I just write a story. Everything happens for a reason.

JAP: Plot and theme go hand in hand. They have to work together for the story phase. Different things happen to different people.

PS: It’s wherever it takes me. Characters are reacting to push what they want. If there’s no plot, it’s just action. You need a character who wants something and can’t get it. At the end, the character gets it.

CB: You need a goal, motivation, and conflict. You can have a list of events but it’s not necessarily a plot if there’s no connective tissue. In action movie sequels, things just happen. In a plot, actions and events of a story happen because a person encounters a situation and they react. How do you decide what events happen in your plot?

JAP: I outline a lot. Then I check if the plot is covered. And then the continuity.

JB: I write what is fun to write about. The challenge is to bring those images in my brain to the story and how to get the awesome into the story.

CB: The connective tissue is the hard thing. We can think of cool things, but we have to figure out how to make it work logically. The plot is a road map–write with a destination in mind. How do you get them there? Ask why would he do that? What are the alternatives?

PS: I throw in a bunch of stuff and see if my detective character reacts to it.

CB: Sometimes we know where it ends and cool things happen in between. But the problem is, now we get into character. You cannot divorce plot from character. How can you get a character to do something really bad? Plot flows out of character and how to make them do it.

JB: How do you get a character in trouble? You don’t want to control the reader’s destiny. You can tinker with the character’s past to get them to do it, but it’s clunky. It’s better if you design in beforehand. Then it can happen no other way. You can’t separate plot from character.

JAP: Know your character. How will the character react to the MacGuffin?

PS: I once saw a movie where they asked some authors what they would do if a character does something that they didn’t want them to do. They answered, “Change their past” or “Kill them.”

CB: Connie Willis once said that you are the creator of the characters; they are not real. You are in control. You have to do the hard work of making it work. Plot, designing the right character, learning what they would do. Have you ever plotted yourself into a hole?

JAP: I outline, but then I get off the outline because I come across something cool. If I get into a plot hole, I get angry, do something else, and then go back to the original outline.

JB: There are no dead ends, only opportunities. You overcome it for something awesome. Don’t automatically assume it’s a wall.

CB: In one of my stories, I had a boy who was kidnapped. But I had two other narrators in first person. So who can tell his story? Finally, I had to have the child tell the story–and it was some of the best writing I’ve done. It can be an opportunity. Or go back to your last decision point and see if you made the wrong choice.

PS: I go on a chapter by chapter basis with cliffhangers. I use it as an opportunity. Look at it in a different angle. Reposition the character.

CB: Is there a difference if you’re in the middle of a series or a new book?

JB: In a series, you must balance if a character is needed and how much they appear on stage. Consider which side character is relevant or is the best person to approach the story. Also consider if a new character is needed–don’t double up on what an established character can already do. In a new series, you can drop in characters all the time. In an old series–I have to consider that a new character will be put on the wiki and I end up not doing it because it’s too much work.

JAP: If an ensemble gets too big, some of the characters have to go away. Everything has to be unique enough that it’s not like something that you wrote before.

CB: I don’t necessarily plan out a series ahead of time. Each book is a story, but it’s also part of a larger escalating story. How can you raise the stakes without being repetitive?

Q: Some disasters happen in your [Jim Butcher’s] latest book. How do you know if it’s too disastrous?

JB: I check how late it is in the outline. But you can’t have too much disasters. New writers tend to hold back. You need to make it more disastrous. More disasters are always good.

Q: Aristotle said that character is plot. What’s your take on that?

PS: A character is in charge of his own destination. Escalate the trials and failures.

CB: One drives the other.

JAP: There are lots of things without plot but have just character and they are successful.

JB: Also keep in mind the context that Aristotle was in. In the ancient world writing was different then–it was more about value.

Q: As a character grows, do you alter the plot for the character or try to squeeze the character into the plot?

CB: Never squeeze the character into the plot. Characters rule. If you’re altering the character to fit the story, you’re mutilating the character.

JAP: It depends on what you’re doing. In a short story, it’s a closed room. You don’t have to show who they are. In a novel, you do.

JB: In an expanded story world, you give more room for the character to grow.

CB: People change in response to traumatic events. If they stay static, they’re not human. We know what stress does to people. Adjust the plot as you go along. Characters have to change.

Q: People say that there are only a set number of plots. Do you think there are archetypal plots?

CB: No, not while writing.

JB: Joseph Campbell did not write stories. He wrote about them. He didn’t know the process. I’m too busy doing my stuff to think about that. It’s all about people and how they react. It’s human nature.

JAP: You learn the rules so you can break them. It’s only in the back of my head, but not while writing. The real issue about the set number of plots is that it’s a teaching tool. People don’t know there are other stories and variations.

CB: There are stories that satisfy us. Campbell was looking at why they satisfy us. These stories seem real and go beyond the book.

PS: It’s not so much plot as how people react and how they solve their problems.

Q: Do you think death is necessary and central to the plot? I’ve read books where there’s usually a death of a character that we can relate to.

CB: I hope not.

JB: Not essential, but it works.

JAP: Killing a character is part of the toolkit. If you always use it, it becomes predictable. But it’s a powerful tool.

Notes from MisCon 27, Part 1

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

I wasn’t sure whether or not I would have been able to make MisCon this year, but happily I was able to see some of the panels. And yes, I took some notes. I managed to lose my pen at the second panel I attended on Saturday (if you were sitting next to me and were irritated that I was rummaging through my bag like mad for a writing utensil, sorry!), but I was fortunate enough to bump into a friend and bum a pen from her.

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: Authors, Readers, and Social Media
Panel members: C.J. Cherryh, Jane Fancher, J.A. Pitts, Peter Wacks
Panel description: Let’s discuss social media. What can it do for writers? Readers? What do you expect from your favorite authors on social media? How do new writers learn the best ways to take advantage of social media? Will this trend continue or do you see something new coming along?

JAP: Publishers don’t do marketing. You have to do your own marketing.

JF: Social media has allowed me to meet some of my most supportive fans. The publishers haven’t ever done marketing for me. So you have to do anything you can. The Internet is one way.

Q: What would you prefer–a blog with a few die-hard fans or silence? Sometimes it can become a popularity contest.

JF: If you have a lot of “friends”, sales can go through the roof. It is a popularity contest so in some cases it doesn’t matter if you publish crap.

Q: I’ve posted an average review of a book and the author’s rabid fans down-voted my review to oblivion. It was an average book, so I was open to trying the author’s other books. But the fan base ran me off.

CJC: I’ve seen that operate and it’s not pretty. It also depends on the writing. A certain type of writing will attract a certain type of reader. If it becomes self-exclusive and waterproof, it will seal out any other viewpoint. I don’t like flame wars so I try to avoid politics, religion, etc.

JF: On Amazon, writers can’t post reviews.

JAP: Actually, I’ve been able to post on Amazon. Amazon doesn’t apply it consistently.

PW: If you have a hard core fan base, you should try to shape them. Have them run a Twitter or Tumblr account for you.

JAP: It’s not how many fans you have but who likes your books. You write books to garner more fans.

Q: Do you have a fan page to talk to other fans?

CJC: I have a blog, but I don’t go into the discussion to stifle them. Otherwise if I do say anything, it will become canon and it makes it harder to converse.

PW: Find friends to recruit to help you grow.

CJC: But you have to be careful who you choose. Choose someone who is polite, sensible, good-hearted, and knows what they’re doing.

Q: What’s your impression of the Amazon/Kindle issue?

CJC: I wrote a book on the care of fish and put it on Amazon because my SF base is too small. I haven’t put out my SF stuff because they change the rules all the time. For some projects it’s good. But you still need to get someone to edit your stuff.

JF: I use Amazon to sell my backlist. The worst thing that could happen is if you self-publish a book that is rife with errors. You’ll never live down that reputation if you don’t edit. And don’t rely on your own editing.

JAP: Amazon just bought Goodreads. Which means you can by stuff in people’s recommendations on Goodreads. Reviews will be bleeding from Goodreads to Amazon.

Q: With community building and interacting with the community, have you had any gaffes?

JAP: If it’s on the internet, it’s public. With Facebook, they change policies all the time so what was once private could suddenly become public. Be careful what you post. I post because people seem to like it. And it’s a powerful tool because you can reach people all over the country.

JF: I’m extremely open on my blog. It’s about honesty. My books are about honesty, so if you like me then you might like my books.

CJC: Don’t put anything down that you won’t be willing to face in court. Be kind and circumspect. I wait twenty-four hours before I decide to post anything that I’ve written when angry. But if the fans are behaving badly, you should get on them.

JF: When I was on Compuserve, I once posted a comment on an author’s message board. The fans jumped on me and the author just fanned the flames.

JAP: Some people who do social media right are John Scalzi and Cory Doctorow.

JW: I’ve managed to avoid gaffes. But some really stupid things can be pushed and you have to wonder, why?

Q: Do you ever use social media as a focus group to help you write?

Entire panel: No.

CJC: I don’t use social media for my creative process. I would rather spin my own wheels. There will be loonies out there who would say that you stole their idea.

JF: Only a very special person could help me with the creative process.

PW: Fans don’t want to see how their ideas get written.

JAP: You could open yourself up to lawsuits. It might give me ideas for further research, though.

Q (Deby Fredericks): I do a podcast instead of self-publishing. But the only way I knew people were listening was when someone sent me a response that I posted the wrong link.

JF: We just want to know that someone is reading us. Just come and say, “Hi!” We have statistics to prove that someone is visiting the site.

Q: Tell writers that you enjoy their work.

Q: If I’m the only one to comment, am I being a nuisance?

Entire panel: No.

JF: It tells me that I’m not dead yet.

Q: I think people should only comment when they have something important to say. Otherwise it would devolve into YouTube comments.

JF: You could stop them, but then there are e-mails.

JAP: I once didn’t post for five days because I was really busy. But I got a fan comment wondering if I was okay.

CJC: There are a lot of regulars who visit but don’t necessarily comment. They always check the site to touch base with “family.”

Q: Authors seem to use social media in reverse compared to businesses.

PW: There’s no model for authors to use. Businesses use the broadcaster model. Authors, however, need to interact. The trick is to be honest in your communications. I have 17,000 fans, but I feel it’s a waste. I’ve managed to sell a book without help from social media.

JAP: It’s a time sink.

JF: E-books are convenient, but now they are hard to find among everything else out there.

Q: Someone can write a really insightful blog, but I feel “eh” about it. I would rather watch interviews. Have you done video podcasts?

JW: I’ve done videocasts (not necessarily interviews). With podcasts, once you mention an author, sales spike.

JAP: I have a hater on Twitter. But whenever this person rants about my books, I get a sales spike. I’ve done interview podcasts live. There’s Between the Sheets and Skiffy and Fanty. Someone in Norway once invited me to do a blog post on craft. Someone read that blog post and it led to an invitation to a conference. If you put it out there, assume that someone will read it.

Q: What’s the most important platform?

JAP: Anything you’re comfortable with.

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 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.

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Stay tuned for Part 16 which is on publishing options.

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.