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Tag: MisCon

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!

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MisCon 28: Art of the Short Story

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

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

Panel title: Art of the Short Story
Panel members: S. A. Bolich, M. H. Bonham, Ken Scholes, Mark Teppo
Panel description: The ubiquitous short story panel. Join our talented short story writers as they discuss the ins and outs of short stories, and whether it is still (or ever was) the path to having longer fiction published.

MT: Besides monetary reasons for writing short stories, what do you gain creatively?

KS: More self awareness. I love the beauty of it, the challenge. I could challenge myself by asking what’s the quirkiest, fucked up way I can tell it? A short story is like a fling in Mexico. A novel is like a marriage.

SAB: I like short stories because they let you experiment with things you can’t do in a novel. Different point of view, subjects, presentations.

MHB: I’ve never considered myself a short story writer, but it lets me experiment. It’s a very different type of writing than novel writing. It hones a different writing skill set and the writing brain. It’s more concise and precise. Short stories have a word count limit. It forces you to write more concisely. The focus is more on what you’re writing.

MT: I’ve heard of many approaches to short stories. One is that there should be as many scenes in the story as there are characters. Do you have rules?

MHB: When I’m doing a short story for an anthology they have guidelines for writing a story about “this.” A lot of it ends up humorous. I can play with humor more. In terms of focusing, I have a situation that the main character needs to solve and I have them make it worse. At the end, they finally solve it and have an epiphany or surprise that they and the audience doesn’t expect. A wrap up. The main thing with the climax is what the audience gets out of it.

SAB: I’m a pantser. I get a first sentence and go from there. I get one third of the way through before knowing where to go. It’s important where you know where to go. Short stories need discipline because of the word count. There has to be action. You have to have a point to the story. The story must tell you why it exists.

KS: Sometimes guidelines are given by a themed anthology, but it comes down to the person the readers care about. Have the character face problems that the readers can identify with and in a place they find believable. This becomes support for a suspension of disbelief. See Writing to the Point by Algis Budrys. Even though what he says is formulaic, it works. In a story, the character fails and complicates the problem again and again until he solves it and changes.

MHB: You can only do that three times or it feels contrived.

KS: Or if you do it more times, it’s a novel rather than a short story.

MT: What’s the difference between an epiphany and a resolution in a short story?

MHB: In a short story, there can be a resolution, but it’s more likely to end up with an “oh, that’s why it happened.” That satisfies the reader even though the problem isn’t solved. In These Cold Equations by Tom Godwin, the story doesn’t resolve the way we want it, but it gives the reader an epiphany–that we can’t consider things without the human factor. It’s not a resolution, but it exists.

SAB: Choices reveal the character. The villain isn’t born evil. He made choices that led him there.

KS: In my work, the epiphany leads to failure or success. There are two layers. The external conflict leads to change internally. In War of the Worlds (Tom Cruise version), the main character was a bad dad. The Mars invasion forces him to become a better dad. Use problems that people relate to. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

MHB: There are more than equations in humanity. If it’s only physics, we take out the humanity.

Q: How important is it to read short stories in order to write them?

KS: I’ve read many. It’s important. See what the magazines you’re submitting to are doing. Read representative short stories from top writers. Flannery O’Connor. Hemingway.

MT: You can’t expand your ability as a writer without seeing what’s out there. But be careful not to parody. I don’t read in the same genre.

MHB: If you’re primarily a novel reader, the novel form will be ingrained in you. So it’s important to read many short stories to get a feel for pacing, the number of characters, and plots. There aren’t many plot lines in short stories. Once you read and understand, it’s easier to write. It’s the same the other way around, if you only read short stories, don’t write a novel unless you’ve read them.

SAB: You need to pick out a point of motivation and focus on that because there’s a limited word count. Get to the point and develop it quickly with a satisfactory ending. If it’s a flat, illogical ending, you failed the story. Markets evolve. Find out if they want more action or more internal conflict. Editors and readers look for different things.

MT: What happens if you have a short story and realize that it’s a novel idea?

KS: That was an accident for me when I wrote the Psalms of Isaak. It came from a dare. I wrote the short story. The market I sent it to closed. Later it sold to Realms of Fantasy. When I saw the artwork for the story, I realized that the story was bigger. I thought I could write four short stories. My second story got rejected, but the editor told me to write it as a novel instead. Then I was later dared to write the novel. So I kicked out the ends of the short story and expanded it.

MT: My experience was different. I took five to six years to develop a world. Each world works differently in each story so I still need to figure out the grounding.

SAB: I have no problem with vomiting out the words. If I’m stuck, I pretend there’s a word count limit. I get the discipline from figuring out what’s important in the short story. Then the excess crap goes away. If by 5,000 words you’re still setting up the world, the story needs to be a novel.

MHB: I’ve only had that happen with one short story. I was experimenting with writing in a Japanese world and had a surprise ending. I thought it was a fun story and thought that there was more I could do with it because the characters were interesting. It’s worth trying to do. If you’re enjoying the characters and playing with the world, then try a novel.

Q: Is it possible to sell a collection of short stories set in the same world? Does that work in publishing?

MT: They call those mosaics, like Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.

KS: Most big publishers don’t like collections because there’s not much money in them. The Martian Chronicles sold piece by piece first. Then they made the stories into a collection and sold it twice.

MT: Rachel Pollack managed to put a cover on a collection of several stories.

SAB: Zenna Henderson brought short stories together by writing bridges between them in The Book of the People.

MHB: Sky Warrior Books rarely does collections, but usually it’s only from authors we’ve known for a while. The short stories have already been published in zines. The author has a name. If you don’t have a name, they don’t have a reason to buy the collection. In a collection, there are known short stories but there’s also new short stories there.

Q: Is it okay to switch point of view multiple times in a short story?

KS: Not for a short story because there’s not enough time to get into the characters. But anything can be done if it’s done well.

MT: After the first sentence, what’s the importance of the second sentence?

KS: It carries out the promise of the first sentence. There’s no time to meander.

SAB: The last sentence is also as important as the first. There needs to be memory.

MHB: Build on the tension and characterization. Pull the reader into the short story as quickly as possible and set the pace.

MT: Always leave them wanting more.

MisCon 28: World Deconstruction 101

(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: World Deconstruction 101
Panel members: Steven Erikson, Rhiannon Held, Ken Scholes
Panel description: You’ve learned all about world building, but what can archaeology and anthropology teach us about deconstructing your world? Should yours be an epic apocalypse or a slow, painful descent into the history books?

RH: Have you ever destroyed worlds in your writing?

SE: In the classics, it takes a long time for things to happen. But civilizations rise and fall. I’m not a fan of civilizations being frozen in development. My stories are about falling civilizations. They always leave scarring on the landscape. Landscapes are malleable. There’s a lot under the feet of the character.

KS: My whole series is post-apocalyptic. Three major cataclysms happen and there are few places that are liveable. My short fiction also has a lot of it. In one story, I wondered what Santa would deliver in a post-apocalyptic world. Bureaucracy may still try to hold on. What if in a magical apocalypse, there was a god that worked like the Old Testament? Or maybe it’s us destroying the world.

RH: I enjoy using far past cultures as a foundation. The imperfect knowledge of the past is intriguing. What is passed down may be from songs, stories and fables. I did that with my werewolf species. What they knew about their origins came from their oral tradition. I’m intrigued about it because I deal with it every day. So what do you think about world deconstruction gone wrong? It bothers me that when a population falls, no one considers that there will actually be more resources available. After the Black Death, the quality of life was actually better. In fiction today, we see people scrabbling for resources even though the resources of seven billion people are still lying around. There’s also the problem of dating a site. A dish might have a pattern dating back to 1915, but it’s still modern if people are still using it. Plastic lasts for thousands of years. It can still be reused. In a post-apocalyptic world, goods can still be reused and repurposed.

SE: I sense that a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction is wish fulfillment. You get to shoot everyone and wipe out everything like the Old Testament. Environmentalists wish to return to a hunter-gatherer society. But how can you imagine eight billion people as hunter-gatherers? It’s not sustainable. You have to bring the number of people down with disease or something else. If the infrastructure and technology collapsed, you’ll have starving people. Then they’ll eat everything. In the jungles of Congo, society collapsed and everything was eaten. I don’t think most people think things all the way through.

RH: People don’t consider the knowledge left behind. Everything is written and digitized, but if we lose electricity and the older people die, we lose the knowledge. In one book I read, the characters think, “Oh, we’ll just grow this mold to cure the disease!” You can’t just do that. Where did they get the knowledge? Who survived and what knowledge was passed down?

KS: What’s your preparation for the post-apocalypse?

RH: My family has various skills and we own land on an island.

SE: Uh oh. We live on an island. It’s overdue to fall in the ocean.

RH: But it’s a good barrier to disease. In that situation, you should gain allies as soon as possible to bring skills together.

SE: I think it’s a crapshoot. I’ll think about it when it happens. Maybe it’s cultural. Americans thought this all up.

KS: My military friend has land that’s high ground and defensible. I have a friend who’s an OB-GYN. I have other friends who are nurses, hunters, etc. We’ve got a team. And with my skills, I’m going to raid a music store and become a bard. We’re going to stockpile.

SE: But once you do that, you’ve painted a large target on your back.

KS: Then we’ll get a militia.

Q: My brother would start a cult. He wants to be the head of it. Is hierarchy easier to maintain?

KS: I used to be a preacher, but there is also precedent of a science fiction author creating a religion.

RH: It depends on how many people are with you. With fewer people, it’s more flexible but you run into trouble if you need manpower to build something. With more people, you need infrastructure.

SE: There’s a survival threshold. If there are fewer people to start with, it’s important if someone dies.

Q: In fiction, they think that the military will suddenly disappear. But in real life, there’s a lot of people with military training.

KS: I have a friend who knows many military contacts.

Q: I know a mortician. Morticians have a contingency plan for getting rid of bodies if something catastrophic happens. You can see manuals for this online.

KS: You can also find documents online on what the military will do in case of an apocalypse.

RH: Homo sapiens as a species will survive an apocalypse, but it will only be a fraction of the population. But in fiction, it’s about the relationships.

SE: We wouldn’t be able to survive because we don’t have the knowledge base. But indigenous people will be able to survive.

RH: Ways of getting food will depend on the number of people. If someone has knowledge of farming, it can bring the population up. But if those people die, the lower population will be hunter-gatherers.

SE: A pristine environment depends on location. Prehistoric groups are small. There’s not much up in northern Canada.

Q: There are things that might get misunderstood in the future. Maybe in a thousand years, they might think hoodies were for building tents. How do you interpret the past?

RH: What would archaeologists see from our burial practices? It’s nice because we put dates on our tombstones. But what about the bones? Things rust and rot. Is plastic still there? What would that say about the person?

Q: There would still be pacemakers and cell phones.

RH: They’ll have a sense of our medical technology because they’ll see regrown bones, pins, and fillings. But why would there be drilled teeth?

KS: Obviously, it’s the tooth fairy cult.

Q: In Celtic mythology, there are fairies but there’s also mythologies about war.

SE: You can blend mythologies.

RH: If we have any written materials left, it would be on paper. But that decomposes. They won’t know English. What’s left is what’s carved on monuments like statues.

Q: What about people who are medication dependent, on birth control, etc.?

RH: That’s underrepresented on post-apocalyptic fiction especially since it’s wish fulfillment. The ancient Egyptians used a plant for birth control but they used it too much that it became extinct.

KS: There’s also expiration dates. There will be raids for materials. People will be too busy trying to stay alive to worry about other things.

Q: I heard that if everyone’s still alive after an apocalypse, the canned food would only last for two weeks.

RH: It’s resource stress. There’s not enough for everyone. Then there will be resource wars where they will kill others to take it. In a dystopia with wars, this makes sense. Killing and taking is easier than hunting.

Q: Is that why Central America declined?

SE: It was a fairly rapid fall, but there were ups and downs.

Q: Do you believe in stockpiling? My grandparents are still using stuff they stockpiled for Y2K.

KS: I like to play in the imagination. It’s wish fulfillment, a place to play. It hones down people. There’s a potential for rebirth or to go gently into the night. I write with underpants on my head. I dig into the wasteland of my childhood. In telling these stories, I process the things that happened to me in childhood.

Q: What about repeating history?

SE: It’s our nature. We have short term memories.

RH: When you’re dying, you don’t think ten years ahead.

Q: A lot of apocalyptic fiction seems to be from America. And it has lots of guns. Is it an American fantasy?

KS: I would want every possible tool to stay alive, not just certain tools. Think broadly.

SE: This country has sustained the myth of the frontier. Maybe it’s a return to the frontier. And it ties into notions of liberty.

MisCon 28: Putting the Military in Fiction

(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: Putting the Military in Fiction
Panel members: Dave Bara, Steven Erikson, James Glass, John Goff (with guest insights from John Dalmas)
Panel description: What is military fiction and how do you write it convincingly? Is a military background necessary? Do the rules change when you’re writing space opera, military fantasy, or other sub-genres?

JGlass: I spent one year in ROTC and it was helpful in writing about a character who was trapped behind enemy lines.

DB: I have no background in the military, but apparently books sell better if they’re called military science fiction rather than space opera. In the future, technology can be so advanced that everything could be automated. So nobody has to go into war unless you’re on the receiving end. Or maybe no one will commit anyone to battle and just use drones and robots instead.

JGlass: But on the ground, there will always be casualties.

JGoff: It’s always necessary on the ground. An equivalent force might not be effective for a village in a third world country.

SE: It would have a canceling out effect if all the machines wipe out each other.

JGoff: Hacking may be less expensive than building new machines.

JGlass: There’s technology for foot soldiers like exoskeletons.

JGoff: The effectiveness of a gatling gun depends on whether it’s used for offensive or defensive sides.

JGlass: There’s a new gun with a packed barrel called a metal storm that’s fired electronically. Speeds are getting incredibly far.

DB: In my favorite movie, Patton, there’s a line: “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”

JGoff: The other side wins by taking less casualties.

JD: The importance is in winning the peace afterwards. For example, after World War II, we treated the Japanese well and it paid off.

JGlass: I haven’t seen much in science fiction about the post war aftermath. How do you bring it to a good end? It’s not dealt with in science fiction. But it’s in real life.

JGoff: Historically, man has not been able to win the peace. World War II is an exception.

JGlass: Or Alexander the Great. He married the princess.

SE: Alexander the Great was the only successful foreigner in Afghanistan.

Q: With the recent events in Iraq and Afghanistan and the guys in vests willing to kill anyone, it’s become asymmetric.

JGoff: Thing is, we’re faced with individuals. We can’t attack everyone. We’re on the defensive. They have the initiative. It’s the same thing in Vietnam. We’re not willing to kill everyone in the room, but they are. That’s when warfare becomes terrorism.

Q: Does it become technology against will?

JGlass: Morality is an issue if you kill everyone. We can win if we throw out morality.

DB: If you have no military background, what’s the best way to learn?

JGlass: With experience, you learn a lot. Also read a lot to see how it’s handled. Use Google. Use lots of sources.

SE: Writers mine their own experience. Hope for some similitude to what you’re writing. For instance, I was once in Manitoba mapping boulder formations but we had problems with bears. We would often lose sight of co-workers so to stay in touch, we would often shout at each other. Once, I accidentally got in between a mother and her cubs. The bear charged and chased me into a lake. I mined that experience in my writing. Once I was drunk and had to piss in the bush. But it turned out it wasn’t a bush. It was a bear and it hit me down while my pants were around my ankles. The absurdity of warfare is implicit. Mine your experience and translate it. In 1983, I was in a helicopter in flames and got dropped in the middle of the jungle in Central America during a civil war. Use whatever you can, the rest is imagination.

JGoff: Don’t get into the minutiae of the background. Use what is needed for the story. In The Black Company, the reader doesn’t get into the minutiae in the background. Instead, you get a sense of what’s there. It’s more about the character.

JD: In conventions, fans want to know how something works, but I don’t know!

JGoff: Schwarzenegger doesn’t know how a machine gun works, but it’s still a good movie. You will always run across such fans.

DB: The brain collects all this data. I needed a name for an energy gun in my story so I just made it up and called it a coil gun. Later, I Googled it and saw that it really is a weapon.

JGlass: I usually look it up. But you can also make things up. If it sounds good, then it works for the story.

Q: What are you trying to show by using the military in your fiction?

JGoff: It makes something interesting to read.

JGlass: You can explore contemporary issues like the morality of war, etc.

SE: A kind of empathy is established if the point of view is the grunt on the ground. It shows them battling helplessness, despair, and fear. Many of us feel it with the surrounding geopolitical situation. It’s universal. It resonates with the reader because it’s about forces that we have no control over.

DB: I wanted to put a character on a military ship because it’s more interesting than tracking orcas. Use military in fiction if you want to give characters infrastructure. It forces them to make moral choices.

JGoff: You can’t tell a story with depth without narrative conflict. Military fiction often makes you question. Often characters go in believing in one side and later they begin to realize that the enemy isn’t faceless. It’s switching perspective in the struggle.

Q: Do military movies say the same thing?

JGlass: They say something about the human condition with all the conflict.

DB: I like bringing up internal conflict. In the Warhammer series, there are too many intense battle scenes. There should be more happening in their heads.

JGoff: If an author is influenced by Vietnam, military fiction gives you an insight of the cultural mindset in the time it’s written.

JD: In the Swedish invasion of Norway, many people died from the weather.

SE: In Cambodia, people marched into the jungle and were never seen again. In the book Blood and Bone, the jungle rots away the entire army. It’s interesting stuff. The King of Wulfar led an army. The king died but the army kept fighting. It became a headless army.

Q: What are your favorite non-fiction resources?

DB: Wikipedia, Tom Clancy.

JGoff: I like large overview books rather than detailed ones. Atlases of world history, depending on what time you’re writing about.

SE: Autobiographies by soldiers.

JGlass: Biographies about Patton, Alexander the Great, etc. Military fiction is tactical. Readers like that because it’s like a game.

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 SFWA.org 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 SFWA.org. 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 Ralan.com. 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.

MisCon 28: Developing Cultures for Storytellers

(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: Developing Cultures for Storytellers
Panel members: Steven Erikson, John Goff, Ken Scholes
Panel description: In this panel we’ll learn how to develop unique cultures, economies, art, history, culture, music, language, expletives, etc. to fill your stories with juicy, realistic details. We’ll discuss how culture influences your characters, your world, and its history. Come learn from anthropologists, archaeologists, and writers.

KS: There’s rhythm for believable histories. In my five book series, there’s culture and conflict. In the beginning, the protagonists don’t know there’s another culture. That’s a mystery. All stories have their own world. Even in short fiction, you can’t suspend disbelief if you don’t have a culture.

SE: I recommend that beginning writers find an introductory anthropology textbook. Conflict comes from the clash of cultures. Geography dictates culture and history. Between my ninth and tenth books, I went to Mongolia with a group of Russian anthropologists. I observed the differences in culture between Beijing and Ulaanbaatar. Mongolians are bigger than the people in China. In order to understand why Europeans called them the scourge, you have to know that their diet of dairy and protein made them a bigger people. Understand what effects shape culture. Once we had farming, there was a consequence for not hunting food anymore. People started hunting each other–which became warfare.

KS: Is there any anthropological theory you like?

SE: I like the Neo-Marxist model, without the communism stuff. The hunter gatherers became sedentary and developed pastoral agriculture. Civilization expanded and specialized and increased in complexity. And with the industrial age, it all did damage.

Q: Was Mongolians versus Chinese like Romans versus the Gauls?

SE: Not really. The Romans collectively imposed their rule, but the Gauls (and the Celts) fought as individuals instead.

JG: I work for a licensed property so I build on what was already created. I work on Deadlands which is an alternative history of the American West. In this world, the Civil War grinds to a halt without a resolution and we discover that magic can only be used by certain cultures. This can play up the conflict.

Q: How do you view technology changing culture?

SE: It basically improves methods for people to destroy each other. When I was in Winnipeg, I saw some Lakota and Sioux artifacts and some what if questions became a story idea. What if the Sioux had the power to defeat the U.S. army? They would have still been devoured by the dominant culture.

JG: In the game I’m working on, there is a northern tribe that shuns technology and a southern tribe that embraces technology. In the end, it is the southern tribe that loses its culture. If you can visit a place in real life, you should go.

KS: Experience the world if you can. Stories are everywhere. Go places and experience the people. I went to France for my French publisher and I made friends with just my guitar. I let people tell me their story.

Q: I’m trying to figure out what western ideology that may be inadvertently ingrained in my world building.

SE: Ask yourself what rules you used to create the world. What if magic worked? Then decide if the magic is gender based or learned. Removing sexist language is hard, but consider how you created the world.

KS: I used to be a fundamentalist Baptist minister, but it was a slow path to what I am now as a secular humanist. Old preachers are a culture in themselves.

SE: Cultures are not monolithic. There are cultures within cultures.

JG: I also run into that in gaming. Try to be respectful. Call out the differences so players can build on it.

KS: How do you handle cultural appropriation?

SE: I grew up in Winnipeg which had the largest population of Native Americans in Canada, so I must include them. It would be a disservice to excise them. There are people in our country who live entirely different lives. Stealing myths and transforming them is not good.

Q: What’s your opinion on appropriation of myth?

KS: There’s a lot of stuff I had to unlearn with privilege, etc. So I still have to find my own way. Be respectful, don’t exploit.

JG: As long as you are respectful, then it’s fair game. There are a number of Japanese films that are westerns transposed to Japan. Then Italians transposed those films back into America, becoming the spaghetti western. As we grow closer together in the world, there’s a lot of cross-pollination.

SE: Karagawa does Shakespeare in Japanese.

JG: I don’t like The Last Samurai and Dances with Wolves where the culture is only accepted if there’s a white dude in it. It’s not respectful. Marketing underestimates the audience.

SE: I recommend 1491 and 1493 for books on culture.

KS: When I had been a pastor, I saw Dances with Wolves and at the time I thought it was the tribe who redeemed him.

SE: When a white man went native, he got a bounty on his head because he was getting a better life. We carry many biases. What would you think if we replaced fifth century Greeks with the Congolese?

KS: I became pro-choice because of Cider House Rules and pro-gay because of Brokeback Mountain. There’s a fine line between outraged enough and not outraged enough.

Q: Save the Pearls is a novel about white people (pearls) subjected to black people (coals). What do you think of inverting race?

SE: Kim Stanley Robinson wrote a book where disease wiped out the European population so the Europeans became slaves.

KS: In The Forever War the protagonist had to adjust when the culture became more gay than straight. It shook me up and made me think.

JG: A friend’s daughter attended a class where they did an exercise like that in order to teach how some people are still treated like second class citizens, but it backfired and made it worse.

Q: If you’re inverting the culture, be careful it’s not too heavy handed. Otherwise it would be more like a photo negative. Look at the point of view of that culture.

JG: Be aware of your biases.

SE: It’s an enormous can of worms with cultural relativism. There are many apologists for horrible things. You have to determine why they’re doing it. If a culture is on the edge of subsistence, they are more conservative. They want to keep the status quo or they’ll starve.

KS: Write with empathy.

MisCon 28: Writing What You Don’t Know

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

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

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

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

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

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

DPF: Scrivener also does it.

JRW: It helps especially for online research.

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

DPF: You can also take online classes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DPF: They want to share their research.

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

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

DPF: Discovery Magazine.

JRW: Boing Boing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MisCon 28: Books – From Idea to Marketplace

(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: Books – From Idea to Marketplace
Panel members: C.J. Cherryh, Sheila Gilbert, Todd Lockwood, Betsy Wollheim
Panel description: Writer, acquiring editor, copy editor, editor, art director, cover artist, publisher. C.J. Cherryh, Betsy Wollheim, Sheila Gilbert, and Todd Lockwood discuss taking a book from concept to the shelves.

BW: So you start with a manuscript, right?

CJC: I start with ideas and words on paper. It’s later when you get to the contract. I have a long relationship with DAW. I usually contract three books at a time. They have advances so the writer can keep eating while writing.

SG: The advance is against royalties.

CJC: It takes a while for it to earn out. You get a portion of the cover price which is set in the contract. First you get as good and clean a manuscript as possible before it goes to the next person. Writing is not straightforward. Life can intervene. When I forget where I left off, I do a rolling rewrite. I can do it in about a week. I also edit for spelling, etc. because if a copy editor has to pick up a pencil, then they’ll start “correcting” five other things. After that, I send the manuscript to my agent and Betsy at the same time since the book is already in the schedule.

BW: It’s different with Carolyn compared to a new writer because she has carte blanche. I don’t want the copy editors to change her style, but that’s very rare. Later, I contact the author by letter or phone call for edits. Each author is treated differently. Some like bullet points rather than letters or phone calls. It’s completely individual.

SG: I like direct communication because then I can brainstorm with the author.

BW: My preference is also like Sheila’s, but some authors only like things a certain way.

SG: We can come up with possible solutions and talk things through. It’s best if I can talk to the author in person. Sometimes for new authors, there are long silences while they’re trying to process it. After, we’re then ready to revise. We go through the revisions and do page proofs.

CJC: Sometimes we get mistakes from the typesetter with things like transposed text. For one book, there was a last minute problem. Every time there was an umlaut followed by a comma, it caused the printer to delete a letter and add a space. Since this was early in the digital era, it had to be fixed manually. For proofs, we look for things that shouldn’t be. Mistakes can creep in due to mechanical and electronic errors.

BW: Publishers now do a lot of the printing work.

SG: We also format ebooks.

CJC: In the old days, if we needed to change something, the change needed to be the same number of spaces because it would screw up the paragraphs. Today, it’s more flexible but there’s still not much room. You can’t just rewrite everything or there will be many headaches for everyone else.

SG: You might see lots of glaring errors, but you have to ask yourself, is it important?

CJC: Before you get to that stage, you should reformat your manuscript. It will change the position of the words and you’ll see the errors. Read it aloud to make yourself. Read it as a reader.

SG: Mistakes can also be created from previous changes. If it’s obviously glaring, then it’s probably a computer process.

Q: As the cover artist, once you get the manuscript, what happens?

TL: Once the manuscript gets to that stage, we already have the cover.

BW: We already have the books in their scheduled slots. Sometimes we get a cover even before the book is written.

TL: Usually I have a phone conversation with the author for what they want to see on the cover. Sometimes the author still doesn’t know.

BW: It sucks for all of us, except maybe the booksellers. We think twice about hiring an artist if the artist won’t read the manuscript. They need to understand the story.

TL: If the author gets an email saying that what was depicted on the cover didn’t happen in the book, I get blamed.

SG: Some authors change scenes to match the cover.

TL: Sometimes I do the cover from the book’s outline. But authors deviate from outlines.

BW: Lester del Rey liked a cover so much, he wrote in the extra scene in the Thomas Covenant series. Needless to say, Stephen R. Donaldson wasn’t pleased about that and they had to do damage control…

CJC: For my latest book, I have to come up with a title by Tuesday.

Q: You work with the writers personally, but most authors haven’t met their editors. For the process of submissions, do you need to be agented?

BW: Not at DAW but most other companies only look at agented authors.

SG: Check publishers’ websites for what they want. At one time, publishers had rotating slush piles.

CJC: It was a system of slush pile readers who mined for gems.

SG: Once, there was a fictitious person to whom you could submit manuscripts to. It was to protect the slush pile readers.

CJC: The competition in the slush pile is varied. I have read the slush pile at DAW before. Gems do stand out among the gravel.

Q: What happens with the galleys?

CJC: Now I can do post-its on pdf files so I can search for changes.

SG: It’s great for corresponding with authors from Canada because before, manuscripts would get stopped at the border. After production, authors and readers go through it. There are promotional tools like ARCs (advance reader copies) if we have time–usually minimum four months before the book comes out. Some companies have it six months before. Then there’s work on the cover and catalog, etc. It’s time sensitive.

Q: How did the workflow change with ebooks?

BW: Ebooks have been a learning experience. Before, scanning created many errors. So now we’re pulling them and proofing.

SG: They used to do it with an outside company with no quality control. Now they have at least two people keying and comparing manuscripts.

Q: Are there things you like to illustrate or not?

TL: I don’t like covers with the hero’s back to the viewer and facing the monster. Or the back of the monster. I want the face on the cover to convey personality. I want to convey the soul of the book with action. However, I don’t want to give away the second part of the book on the cover.

CJC: Readers get unhappy if you give away the ending.

TL: Usually three to five chapters in, I will find something that is cover worthy.

Q: Is there a situation where you picked a scene from the first page?

TL: No, but sometimes the cover is literally a scene from the book but usually it’s the essence of the story. Sometimes it requires phone calls and emails to the author. Sometimes it’s obvious. If I haven’t nailed it down, Sheila is a sounding board.

CJC: There might be a mention in a science fiction book that the clothes were similar to colonial times, but Todd makes it look like future fashion. He doesn’t make the cover suggest that the story is about George Washington.

BW: In one book, there was a line about a statue perfect in its arrogance. That made it into the cover. Most art directors don’t read the books.

SG: Usually the art directors base the covers on what the editor has told them. Then when they show the cover, everyone else hates it so they’re back to square one. Then they have to do it over again and then the art director is asked why they’ve gone over budget. So it’s better to read it and have confidence that the cover has something to do with the book.

TL: Sometimes something else could be the problem. One artist had a piece of artwork that everyone thought was fine, but the director for some reason was adamant that it had to be redone. It turned out that the director thought the character in the art had no pants because he was colorblind.

BW: I know one art director who took it to the entire department to present a cover.

SG: We shot one cover where we had to move mannequins around the office.

BW: People thought we had dead people in the windowsill.

Q: How can we break in as an editor?

BW: You can become an intern, but unfortunately we don’t pay interns. As an intern, you can gain experience. Then you can apply for the position.

SG: These days for any career, there are many unpaid internships.

Q: During post-publication, what do you expect from the author?

BW: A lot of authors do their own marketing online. People are interested in the author’s voice, not the publisher.

SG: Blogs are great marketing tools. It can reach everywhere. But it also has to be professional. Online, you can see how people look like. On the phone, you get an image, but it can be wrong. For instance, Jim Hines. People read and interact on his blog and already feel like they’re friends with him when they do meet him in person.

Q: What’s the difference between a query letter and a cover letter?

SG: A query letter asks if you want to see more of the manuscript. A cover letter comes with the manuscript.

MisCon 28: It Came from the Slushpile

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

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

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

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

BW: However, DAW has terrible response times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moderator: How many submissions do you get?

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

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

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

Q: Do you get a lot of NaNoWriMo novels?

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

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

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

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

PS: No, I don’t recall.

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

Q: What positive thing influences you?

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

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

PS: Let the writing speak for itself.

Q: Have you ever gotten any form cover letters?

BW: I’ve been confused with another editor.

SG: Me, too.

Moderator: What do you personally want in a manuscript?

BW: I’m just looking for a good book.

SG: No trends.

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

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

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

BW: 80,000.

Moderator: What’s the maximum?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PS: Agents act as extra gatekeepers.

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

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

SG: Also include your writing credits.

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

SG: Some agents are shady.

PS: Look in Locus to find some reputable agents.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Panel: Yes.

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

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

MisCon 28: Art of Swearing

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

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

Panel title: Art of Swearing
Panel members: S.A. Bolich, Brenda Carre, Diana Pharaoh Francis, Andrea Howe
Panel description: Warning, Will Robinson! Bawdy language and creative insults ahead!

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

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

AH: Cursing has an object.

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

BC: In fantasy, curses do come true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

DPF: Or the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

DPF: A nunnery at that time was a whorehouse.

SAB: When is cursing appropriate or too much?

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

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

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

DPF: Like Betty White in the film Lake Placid.

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

BC: Basically putting shit on muffins.

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

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

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

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

BC: “Frag” is close enough to “fuck.”

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

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

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

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

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

SAB: Be true. You can’t censor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BC: I like George Carlin.

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

SAB: It depends on the editor and the audience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SAB: Don’t put modern terms in fantasy.

DPF: Don’t make it anachronistic.

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