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Tag: S. A. Bolich

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: Art of Swearing

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

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

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

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

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

AH: Cursing has an object.

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

BC: In fantasy, curses do come true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

DPF: Or the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

DPF: A nunnery at that time was a whorehouse.

SAB: When is cursing appropriate or too much?

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

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

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

DPF: Like Betty White in the film Lake Placid.

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

BC: Basically putting shit on muffins.

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

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

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

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

BC: “Frag” is close enough to “fuck.”

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

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

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

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

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

SAB: Be true. You can’t censor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BC: I like George Carlin.

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

SAB: It depends on the editor and the audience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SAB: Don’t put modern terms in fantasy.

DPF: Don’t make it anachronistic.

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

MisCon 28: Creating Conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BC: Increase the tension.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JRW: Like Pride and Prejudice.

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

JRW: Introduce it in the first sentence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DPF: What is a hero?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DPF: Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Writer-centric View of SpoCon 2012, Part 4

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

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


(Left to right: Maggie Bonham, S.A. Bolich, Rosemary Jones, C.J. Cherryh)

The “World Building II: People & Cultures” panel was attended by Rosemary Jones, C.J. Cherryh, S.A. Bolich, and Maggie Bonham. (AQ is an audience question.)

Moderator: What are the most important things about creating a race of people?

CJC: I start with a pen or pencil sketch. Once I was amused when I was accused ripping off Avatar. But they should have checked the dates [because mine was earlier]. You should make things harmonious. Chicken eggs are shaped the way they are because they have to come out of chickens. There are limits in what you can accommodate. Assume that it’s a compact form and that it folds nicely or you will have problems. Or design it differently. It could be biologically compatible with humans or have a different ecology. I had a race of methane breathers who were not compatible. Start with pen and paper but have “wickets” that they need to pass through to be logical.

RJ: I like using Chinese folklore. I look mostly at culture rather than races. If you live in a large city, someone needs to take the garbage out. I write about NPC characters. The support systems can be fascinating. If you have a magical graveyard, someone needs to build it, maintain it, and rebuild it. A lot of it comes out of our culture and other people’s cultures. Read about how people manage it before rather than now. They’re without electricity, but they use solar power in Uganda to power cell phones – a lot of the world isn’t hardwired. Other parts of the world skipped steps that we went through. So when building subcultures, think about those moments. What if we turned left than right? What if we do things we don’t do any more? Steampunk asks these sorts of questions – what if dirigibles really worked?

SAB: Culture arises from the environment around you. The sea is different from a mountain. Culture is driven by day-to-day interaction with the land. There are certain adaptations with animals and people. What does it do to drive culture? Is it outside or inside the mainstream? That will affect how they interact with everyone else around them. Is magic accepted or not? How will they survive? How does food, houses, clothes, and people look like? Europeans don’t look like Africans and there’s a reason for that. So look at the environment for how they live and their technology level. Build the world around the environment and how people react to it. For river dwelling people: how do they get things? How do they build things? And what do they trade to get it? Many things go into the culture to get it to thrive. Now, very few people know how to make everything themselves, so who else is needed for it?

MB: I agree. Read Guns, Germs and Steel to see how environment shapes humanity. Anyone interested in world building should read it. I also read esoteric stuff like An Edible History of Humanity which is about what kind of food people ate. There are also ancient recipes, information on how people ate, Craigslist, and newspapers. There was an article in The Guardian where one of the first recipes was eating hedgehogs. [Note: The article was actually in The Daily Mail.] I consider survival important, so understand where the food comes from. You can’t have a few farms to support a huge city. Or a fortress with many armies. Because how are you going to feed them? You need crops, people who work it, water, and transport. Empires can’t make and do everything. Even closed empires like ancient Japan still needed some trading. When creating a society, have a scene and concept and build the world around it. Then ask questions: how is it done? I wrote a scene where a character died and another character is burying her. You can’t just leave bodies on battlefield because of disease. So who gets conscripted to burying people? It’s detail that you don’t think about unless you’re a writer. Don’t necessarily put all the details in, but you as a writer needs to know. You need to have a money system and the knowledge needs to come across pages.

RJ: In science fiction and fantasy we generally talk about huge moments, but there’s also the mundane. They recently dug up notes near Hadrian’s wall and we got a feel of the correspondence that said something like…

CJC: Mom, send socks.

RJ: It gets chilly up there and he wants socks. These are the moments you can put in fantasy. Who’s going to send socks to your soldiers? Are there even socks? The lovely thing about the human race is that we come up with so much weird stuff. Like the funeral stuff in King Tut’s tomb, there’s a whole industry to bury dead people. Ancient Egypt was not a subsistence level society. They had money to spend on stuff and bury dead. The Romans are a good example. Society is stable and they go to Pompeii for vacation. You can find souvenir Pompeii perfume bottles. You can find Roman cups in a shipwreck and at the bottom is scratched “This is Joe’s cup”.

CJC: Sometimes you can get some crazy stuff. In Turkey, in Asia Minor, I went to a village which had a shiny tractor. But the villagers only used it to pull a drag board on the threshing floor. They had done the same thing by hand for hundreds of years. Progress is not a neat thing. Things survive because it’s traditional. We do things that are not exactly logical because our parents did it and that was the way we learned. Logic is not universal. Logic was developed by a certain extent by the Greeks for solving problems. The Greeks and Romans saw in straight lines. But there are cultures that don’t see in straight lines. You put things in line because it made your parents happy. So all these things get passed without words. It’s implied with your parents approval.

SAB: Progress doesn’t go from here to here (except maybe the internet). We have a million phrases that refer to horses. So you have to get rid of them if you create a new world with no horses.

CJC: There are no birds in my Foreigner world.

SAB: These phrases still linger even though city dwellers don’t know anything about it.

CJC: “Aback” is a sailing term.

MB: The phrase “hell to pay” is not paying hell but putting pitch at the bottom of the ship.

CJC: The Romans had difficulty having ships staying together so they roped them together and put pitch in. That’s why they needed to put them to shore to drain.

RJ: In early navigation, they had a sightline sail because they didn’t want to stray from shore.

AQ: What book would contain all these terms?

RJ: A dictionary of phrases?

CJ: Patrick O’Brian.

RJ: The multi-volume Oxford dictionary.

CJC: You can check the Discovery Channel. Don’t believe what they say about the Romans, but they’re good about the Celts and Visigoths. In America it is poorly covered.

RJ: South America, China, Ghengis Khan, and barbarians can give quirky story ideas. The Great Wall didn’t work to keep out the Mongol hordes because someone bribed them. It’s a desolate place so you want to take the money and get out of there. Think about this. Also there are mildly good people and mildly bad people.

CJC: Some people will cheat and game the system.

MB: Everybody, regardless what character or society, if it is a human-like society, everyone has motivation. Usually self-interest. It can be as simple as get food and procreate.

CJC: But one problem is with the concept “I”. In some ancient cultures, “I” is more like “we”. It’s like being married where you can’t distinguish the wife from the husband and it’s more like a collective. In ancient cultures that were isolated by grass, sand, or sea, they haven’t dealt with anyone else. So to enter into mindset of others who don’t think it – then they can’t cope because it’s “weird”.

MB: When it’s a closed society, like Japanese society, they’re aware of things but still there’s “us” and “them” in certain groups. I have a friend who’s half-Japanese and half-American who went back to Japan. She accidentally made gaffes and the women there were angry at her for not doing things properly. They assumed you knew the etiquette and proper word choice.

CJC: In Iceland, if you’re planning a raid, you send them a notice that you’re doing it.

RJ: They’re still hiring people in Iceland to ask if it is okay to build buildings in certain places.

CJC: One general advised his enemies where he was invading and nearly got himself killed.

RJ: In battle sequences, someone usually comes by and shocks everyone with new technology. Like stirrups. There are little technological quirks, but not all of them are battle quirks. Mali used to lose 23% of their crops from pests, but they could stop it by covering the crops with plastic bags.

CJC: That’s also the reason that barley and alcoholic drinks were due to ground storage pits.

RJ: No matter what civilization it is, they’ve discovered something to intoxicate people. Once discover it’s fun.

CJC: It transitioned from religious to recreational.

RJ: You can have civilization and introduce coffee. Suddenly you have a composer who can stay up all night. Bach was a coffee addict.

SAB: There are changes civilization. The eastern European population became more well fed when they discovered New World crops.

CJC: But there was also monoculture. The potato blight led to cannibalism.

MB: That was a result more from English politics.

SAB: Society is can be static, but then someone invents something like the steam engine, and it sends ripples throughout.

MB: But it doesn’t change automatically. Gunpowder. Not everyone went to guns. They used gunpowder for mines and castle sieges.

AQ: What if you have a story where several years have passed and the technology has advanced suddenly? In Avatar, the first series had swords but in the second series, they suddenly got radios.

CJC: What’s the delivery system?

MB: Do they have factories to help them survive?

SAB: You need a whole support system for advanced technology.

MB: In The Planet of the Apes, why was it a primitive society but they also have automatic weapons?

CJC: I would love to see a modern automatic weapon using gun powder. In my Foreigner series, the humans lost the war and had to give their technology to their opponents. One of the technologies nearly turned over is the cell phone. The keeper of technology realizes what the cell phones will disrupt. Things get circumvented. Look at what modern technology does and what it lets loose on the “hen house”. Before we hand out a supposedly benign technology to another society, we should ask: how can it screw it up?

AQ: Eric Flint wrote a book about giving people in the past new technology. There are people arguing about it.

AQ: Starting in 1500s, there were firearms, but then the shoguns banned them for 200 years. But it was a rigid society.

RJ: China also tried to do this. Japan is unique because it’s island. There was opium trading. The British traded it for tea since they were addicted to tea in England.

CJC: Some Americans argue about other countries, why do they not do a, b, or c,? You have to consider how their borders are drawn. England by geologic accident had iron. If you talk about resources on a planet, not all of them will have a Canada where meteors come down and deposit minerals. There are people running around looking for circular depressions for minerals. So when considering your society, how many times and where they’ve been hit by asteroids? Or does the planet have no metal core?

AQ: What about the galactic core? There are problems with radiation and concentration of metals. More radiation means more mutations.

CJC: I recommend the program “How the Universe Works”. Start with the early ones. It has technical detail. Also similar programs on the ancient world. My family are genealogy buffs. In the microcosm of individuals, why and where do they move? The reasons may not be what you thought.

RJ: We tend to focus on things like the steampunk movement. I started to look at weird and wacky cultures in this country that were artificially propelled. In my book City of the Dead, one of my ancestors carved gravestones in Chicago. The story came down in the family that he was paid a little money to carved in Chicago and then had it shipped to New York. But when we looked at a picture of it, it looked like cousin Tommy. So he probably looked at himself to carve it. Look for those people in your family and build the story.

CJC: Each of us are compounded of many stories. Use your imagination. Where did things come from? People came to America from religious upheaval in Europe or the Black Death. It’s not just persecution. Maybe they also just had money to get out of town.

SAB: In Albion’s New England and the Sea, they looked at different cultures, houses and what they ate. It’s an interesting book for American culture. They all spoke English but they came from different parts of England so you see different cultures develop in one culture.

RJ: If they don’t get along with people at home, they left.

AQ: What about religion in culture?

CJC: In the hearth based religions of the Romans and Japanese, the two cultures are remarkably similar in strange ways. But sometimes things get set up. An ancestor religion could become a ruler cult.

MB: One of the things religion is used for, if you don’t have science, is to explain how things occur. They make up stories about the stars, why the sun crosses sky, why the seasons changed, why Uncle Ed got eaten by a bear. Why good and bad things happen.

CJC: They hope to change the universe.

MB: It’s to tell them they aren’t alone in the universe.

AQ: What about the introduction of technology? There were cargo cults in the South Pacific. They saw planes with goods coming to a runway, so the natives knocked down trees and hoped the planes came to them.

MB: That’s superstition.

RJ: Why does the hero jump over the cliff? It’s not logical. Religion can drive people to do things completely against their self interest.

MB: Even if it seems illogical and doesn’t make sense, it will make sense in certain circumstances.

* * *

Stay tuned for Part 5 on world building don’ts.

A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 16

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

The first Monday (5/28) session I went to was a panel called “Publishing Options Today.” It was attended by S.A. Bolich, Margaret Bonham, Darryl Branning, and Deby Fredericks. (AQ is an audience question.) Note: While it seems to me that the big publishers aren’t particularly swimming in roses and rainbows right now, I felt that this panel was more biased towards small publishers and self-publishing–seeing that there was no one from the big houses on the panel to offer a counter viewpoint.

DF: I’ve done podcasting. It’s do-it-yourself.

SAB: Or self-publishing.

DB: It’s harder to break into big publishing.

MB: Big publishers are still looking for things, but it’s getting tighter and tighter. They’re run by marketing, not the editors. So it will come down to the marketing. They’re looking for the next bestseller.

AQ: What’s midlist?

MB: Midlist is when you sell between 5,000 and 80,000 copies. For non-fiction, it’s lower. If you’re not hitting the bestseller lists, they don’t want you. For smaller publishers, they may keep you but you will have to change your name. If your second book doesn’t do well, they will drop you. In a month, maybe one in a thousand people might get published by a big publisher. Even less than that actually break even. And less than that become best sellers.

SAB: But don’t get discouraged. I started in slush and got turned down at the last minute at three publishers. It may be because of the competition or the subject isn’t hot or your story is unclassifiable. That’s why you should go to a small press if it’s unclassifiable. Because the big publishers don’t know how to sell it.

AQ: What are the submission requirements?

MB: I do get some odd queries, but I give them a benefit of a doubt. The guidelines say I want established writers, but that’s used as a gatekeeper. You could say that we met at this con and I’d be more likely to look at it. Cons can also help you meet agents and editors.

SAB: It’s not guaranteed but it’s possible to get through the door that way.

DF: If they see you talking, they will notice. They want an author with a great presence to speak for their publishing house.

MB: Are you willing to market your books? Most houses don’t pay for that in their budget. So you need to bust your ass to promote your book whether it’s published by a New York house or self-published. A bestseller is usually over 80,000 copies sold to customers.

AQ: What if your initial run is 10,000 books. What’s the time span for you to sell out?

MB: It varies from house to house. For romance it’s about one to two months. Three months if you’re selling greater than 80,000 copies. And some by six months.

SAB: Hardback has a longer arc since it’s one year until the paperback. For the paperback, you’re only saving shelf space.

AQ: In a bookstore, they only keep books on the shelves for 90 days.

MB: If you’re really good, a hardback will sell 35,000 copies or more.

AQ: So basically you have to sell 10,000 copies per month or you’re out.

MB: Yes.

AQ: How do you interest the publisher with the next book?

SAB: By earning out your advance.

MB: They will profit from you before you earn out your advance. But a good sign is if you do earn out the advance. You have to push your books for three months or you’re gone. If you have good sales, then you could maybe stretch it out longer. Most books sell only 500 copies.

AQ: But what if you sell 10,000 to 20,000 copies over a lifetime?

MB: But that’s for non-fiction. Some non-fiction sit six months or more on the shelf before they’re sold. But they’re usually on “evergreen” topics (like books about dogs). Fiction is not evergreen. It’s entertainment. It’s like movies. Movies are in theaters for two weeks and then they’re gone.

SAB: E-publishing is a whole other industry. You never go out of print with e-books. And it gives you a chance to build an audience over years rather than weeks.

DF: The expense is more for a print book, but even for e-books, you still have to pay for staff salaries and office rent. There’s lots of back and forth on what the price of an e-book should be.

SAB: For e-books, you still need an editor and a cover designer. You need to send it to reviewers and there are other people who are supporting the book.

AQ: The publishers used to use other distributors, but now they let Amazon do it.

DF: Well, Amazon puts restrictions on what you can charge. And there’s also Google scanning all the books and putting them out for free.

AQ: So can you sell directly from the author?

DF: You may still need to pay for staff.

SAB: You can set up your own server.

MB: E-books are a different paradigm. You can use contract people and offer a bigger percentage. For a big house, it’s 9-11% For a paperback, it’s 7-8%.

AQ: How do you avoid a small percentage? Don’t they have bad marketers since they basically don’t do anything?

MB: The marketers get into mass distribution.

DF: The big publishers have an editorial staff through which books go through the process of being vetted. For e-publishing, the editor is often not there, thus all the typos. Authors are now aware of this, but there’s still a bad perception about e-publishing. So big publishers are still seen as purveyors of quality.

MB: How many people actually look at the publisher? Most don’t.

DF: As a reader, you trust that you’re getting your money’s worth from a big publisher.

MB: Small and medium publishers do have staff.

DB: You might need to pay for an editor if the first paragraph is filled with typos. For that, readers will give you a one star review and won’t look past the first page. If you don’t have a support system, try social media sites. But if you advertise, you will annoy people. Although there are some people who say that if you’re not annoying people, you’re not doing enough.

AQ: If I get spam all the time from a person, I won’t forward it.

DF: For social networking, you can do as little or as much as you want. You can alternate talking about your kids getting braces and your publication dates. You can chain your Facebook, Twitter, and blog together so if you publish a post in one, it will publish it in the rest at the same time.

AQ: I like authors who listen and meet people rather than just blasting everyone with marketing.

SAB: Sometimes I forget to respond to someone on Twitter.

DF: Twitter on my cell phone can be bothersome. But I will check it once per day.

SAB: You have to be careful about social networking. You should enjoy it first. I like Facebook but not Twitter. If you do five hundred different things, you’ll have no time and it won’t be fun. Pick and choose where to build your following.

AQ: You can do short story marketing by writing more stories. Or put your work up on the internet for comments–but you need to develop a thick skin. How do people calculate net with big and small publishers? Can you lose money even if you’re doing well?

MB: There’s a certain percentage of net royalty. For my company, we offer 50% net. So when a book is sold, 50% goes to the author and 50% goes to the publisher to pay for the cover and editing. It can be paid out quarterly or biannually. The publisher can also do hold backs, when the bookstore sends back unsold books with their covers torn off. If you calculate per title, it will be different. You might get a higher net profit from Amazon than a bookstore where the author and publisher might have to split $1.50. If it gets sold directly at a con, it might be $4 or $5.

AQ: What if it’s from a big publisher?

MB: 10 to 30 cents.

SAB: For a hardback, the author gets very little.

AQ: Does a slush author get less than an established author?

MB: It’s sometimes true. It depends on the agent who actually works for the publisher.

AQ: Does Amazon put restrictions?

MB: Yes and no. There are no restrictions. However, if you join Kindle Select, for 90 days you can’t sell any other place, but you’re allowed to borrow and there are free days. But there are ways to get around that.

DF: How much do you charge for self-published work? Since I had a young adult book, I considered the fact that kids don’t have money of their own so I decided to give it away. And hopefully later they may buy my other books.

SAB: A marketing strategy is to give away a free sample. And hopefully that will lead them to buy more expensive stuff. It’s a hook.

DF: But there are expenses. So the cost of self-publishing is not for free. When I did podcasting myself, it cost $35 for the copyright. You have to assess your own budget.

SAB: One downside of this is that people start to expect free stuff. Some people think that all content should be free. But an author needs to make a living. So “free” is not necessarily a great way to market for everyone.

AQ: Editors usually make books readable. I’ve heard horror stories of books getting rushed out with no copy editing. Why are people rushing? Is it because they’ve cut the staff?

SAB: Some just don’t pay attention to grammar.

DB: There are some blogs that do book reviews and they will say what errors are in the book. I heard about an author who started arguing with a reviewer and used profanity.

SAB: That’s the worst thing for an author to do.

MB: It looks very bad.

DF: The editorial staff has been cut significantly. For instance, in children’s fiction publishing, the very best editor was let go. The publishers think that anyone can do editing so they hire a 22-year-old intern. The editors who are left have less experience and have no chops to debate with marketing.

AQ: What about side income?

DF: I have three books from a small press, but I get a little side income from school visits. It pays for the fee to do the podcast. Be personable so you can be invited to speak to teachers and at cons. Decide where to spend the money. Income may not necessarily come from book sales.

* * *

Stay tuned for Part 17 which is a panel on urban fantasy.

A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 5

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

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

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


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

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

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

ET: It is always better to target your query.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ET: Or don’t hate.

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

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

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

MB: Great! Send it to me.

JAP: Twitter is where the elevator pitch started.

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

SAB: Show, don’t tell.

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

Entire panel: Most.

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

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

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

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

ET: I have one on my website.

MB: You can buy the editor drinks.

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

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

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

ET: What about introductions to yourself in query letters?

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

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

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

AQ: One resource is AgentQuery Connect.

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

SAB: Especially people coming in cold.

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

AQ: What about newer agents?

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

JD: Some agencies have staff.

JAP: If the agent is in a good agency.

AQ: Does length of the book matter?

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

SAB: Before querying, go to Preditors & Editors.

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

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

* * *

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

A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 3

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

When I arrived at the con on Saturday (5/26) morning, I encountered the freakishly huge line that was for George R. R. Martin’s book signing. After skirting around the line that snaked around the hotel, I randomly popped into two ongoing panels.

In “Pin Curls and Victory Rolls, Cat Eyes and Cupid Bow”, two members of the local burlesque group The Cigarette Girls, Meg Hansen and Aly King, gave makeup and hair tips. As someone who doesn’t do makeup or hair (except for the occasional haircut or wacky dye), I found it all pretty fascinating and alien. It was basically an artistic tutorial into turning oneself into a pin-up. Personally, I found it all too much work. I might as well photoshop myself.


(Hansen and King explain Victory rolls.)

I also briefly attended “An Overview of Japanese Clothing History” by Kass McGann. There was a lot of Chinese influence on Japanese clothing. But then again, I knew all of that, so I ended up taking off early.

* * *

I’m primarily a short story writer, so it was with great interest that I went to the panel “Mastering the Short Story.” The panelists were S. A. Bolich, Brenda Carre, Vicki Mitchell, and Kevin Noel Olson. (AQ is an audience question.)


(Left to right: Kevin Noel Olson, Vicki Mitchell, Brenda Carre)

SAB: I do a short story-a-week challenge which is between March and September. It’s a way to get people to get things done. Genre fiction needs a beginning, middle, and end. Readers tend to like stories that make sense.

KNO: So do a lot of stories of pulp fiction. Keep the story moving. There needs to be a definite beginning and end and something in the middle.

VM: You need good characters with motivation, a well-realized setting. Details are nice but less important due to word count length. I have a short story where I use setting as a character.

BC: I have heard short stories referred to as a piece of music with a single solo instrument such as a piano sonata or flute solo. But usually in a short story you don’t have time to convey everything.

KNO: Ray Bradbury said that he doesn’t always worry about structure. He feels more of what he wants to convey than worrying about detail. I suppose you could consider it “soft sci-fi.” To learn how to structure a short story, read a lot of short stories. You need to ask yourself, what is your purpose of writing the story?

AQ: Is that why stereotypes are so often used because in a short story you don’t have time to build everything up?

VM: The lazy writer is going to do that. A better writer will take one or three sentences to tell you who the character is. There are older stories where characters are relegated to stereotypes due to a big idea. But nowadays, good writers do both.

SAB: What is the point of your story? Like poets, drive home the point quickly. You better cough up meaningful words for the amount of money they pay per word. Editors rarely take stories over 10,000 words. In your story, don’t sprawl. You may still lean on what’s known but make it different. For example, you can use the stereotype of the girl next door. But make her from Mars. To avoid stereotype, people watch. The short story should have a point. Every word should count.

BC: Watch people and jot down notes. But be careful you don’t move the stereotype to cliche. You need to know the cliches that show up in other short stories. Short stories have voice, a very strong voice that carries through, beginning with the first word.

SAB: Guidelines are usually open. Editors will take the short story if you hook them with the first line or page.

AQ: But I take longer than that to get into the character.

SAB: Try bringing in the background in lines here or there.

VM: Sometimes you have to throw out the first 20,000 words.

SAB: There was a former editor at Tor who suggested chucking out the first three chapters. Writers of lit fiction don’t know how hard it is to write genre. You have to ground readers in a new world without info dumping and losing the thread. Work the background into dialogue. Every word must work hard.

VM: Each word must do two or three things at the same time.

SAB: Short stories can let you experiment without going into novel form. Including second person, present tense.

KNO: I had a 20,000 words story but the editor only wanted 15,000. So I had to cull out all that was unnecessary. One way to do it was to see other ways of doing things.

SAB: Take out things that don’t move the story forward. Trim words like “he said, she said.”

VM: I use The 10% Solution. In this book, there’s a list of things to look at to shorten your story.

BC: You need to really read the guidelines for word count length. It can be very instructive. If it’s not what the magazine or publisher wants in the guidelines, then in reality your story may not be bad–it’s just not the right place for your story. After rejection, send it out again.

SAB: If you want to burn bridges, send stuff that the editor doesn’t want.

AQ: What tells you that your story is a short story or a novel?

SAB: In one of my stories, I knew in 5,000 words it wasn’t a short story when the characters were still talking and there was a large and complex conflict arc. So if you have large world building and conflict, then you may have a novella or novel. A short story wants to be wrapped up quickly.

VM: In a short story, every question is answered. If something still needs to be explained, it’s a flag that you need to write the rest of the novel.

SAB: Does the character change over the course of the story? Or is the point of the story that the character doesn’t change? If this is not satisfactory, it may not be a short story.

BC: Towards the end of the story, I get a feeling of catharsis. For instance, in a 10,000 word short story, by 8,500 words I get that feeling. If you don’t have that gut feeling by then, you might have a novel instead.

VM: The characters may be waiting for the next thing to happen.

SAB: The three acts to a short story is the set up of conflict, building conflict, and resolving conflict. If any of these take too long, it might be a novel.

BC: There is the try-fail sequence. Start the character with conflict. The character tries to resolve the conflict but fails. He tries and fails several times until the climax, the turning point where the character can’t be the same as before. The decision is made and it’s over.

AQ: Are there any tips and techniques to make the reader care about the character?

SAB: I don’t like characters who are victims, who let things happen to them. For instance, Frodo (LOTR) is forced to be pro-active to go to Mordor. It’s character driven. So the character must do something. this is what makes it interesting to the reader. The world is also one of the characters. Show how the character reacts to the world.

BC: Stretch the character in their ability. Test their mettle.

VM: You need to care about the character. Then make us care about them.

BC: See through the character’s eyes.

AQ: Some writers use short stories as teasers for their novels. What’s your commentary on that?

SAB: Anne McCaffrey did that, but her short story completed an arc of action which left the door open for something else. Make it interesting. Ground the character.

KNO: Once you build a world, that doesn’t mean you can’t use it again.

SAB: You can set new characters in the same world.

KNO: One example is Bradbury.

BC: Another example is The Name of the Wind.

AQ: What concrete things are different between short stories and novels?

VM: In novels, you have more room to play with characters and conflict.

SAB: You can include subplots. In Lord of the Rings, there’s Frodo, but there’s also the subplot with Merry and Pippin. There’s room to explore feelings and emotion. In a short story, you need to decide to concentrate on action or introspection or something else. You can’t do multiple things.

BC: In Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, the short stories are all different with only a thread running through them.

KNO: It’s an accidental novel.

SAB: Zenna Henderson’s The People were short stories originally, but then she wrote a thread between each story. If a secondary character steals the show, you have a new story.

BC: Those secondary characters can be referred to as “men in black.” In another example, one author wrote four or five stories about a jukebox that explore the same theme. If you look at a painting, if it’s representational, you can see the story. It’s the same with a short story.

AQ: Is there a formula for novels like the three acts for short stories?

SAB: For novels there are five acts: the introduction, building the action, the false climax, resolution, and climax.

BC: Lester Dent also had a formula for pulp fiction which tells where everything happens.

KNO: One author said that at the beginning, you have the good guy as the good guy and the bad guy as the bad guy. But by the end, it’s switched. The good guy becomes the bad guy and the bad guy becomes the good guy. This creates conflict.

AQ: How do you find magazines and anthologies to submit your short stories?

SAB: Try Duotrope or Ralan.

* * *

Stay tuned for Part 4, which is on constructed languages.