Next up of the Dragon*Con writing panels I attended were Fabulous Women of Fantasy (featuring Laurell K. Hamilton, Lynn Abbey, Katherine Kurtz, and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro) and Politics in Genre Fiction (featuring Lee Martindale, Elizabeth Moon, Chuck Gannon, John Ringo, Michael Williamson, and S.M. Stirling). I’ll share my notes below.
This post is second in a series where I share the wisdom from the science fiction and fantasy authors who lectured at Dragon*Con 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia over Labor Day weekend. Clicking on the topics in Part 2 below will jump you down to those sections.
These fantasy authors related some awesome anecdotes from their writing careers. But first, intros:
Laurell K. Hamilton is best known for her NY Times Bestselling Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series and her Merry Gentry series (set in Fairie world), both of which are urban fantasy. She has over 30 published books available.
Lynn Abbey is best known for her work in the Thieves’ World shared-world 12-volume anthology series and in the Dungeons and Dragons universe. She has 20 or so published books available, as well as being in numerous tie-ins and anthologies.
Katherine Kurtz is best known for her NY Times Bestselling Deryni novels and has around 40 published books available in the modern fantasy genre.
Chelsea Quinn Yarbro may be best known for her historical horror series about the vampire Count Saint-Germain, but she has 92 published books available, so you may know her from many other series, like Messages from Michael.
In the mid-80s, editors told Hamilton that her “mixed genre” fiction wouldn’t sell, but of course she helped kick off paranormal romance. Lynn Abbey was also told that her female sword and sorcery wouldn’t sell. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro was told that you can’t write a “positive vampire,” but her Hotel Transylvania ended up in book clubs and kicked off her career.
Developing as a Writer
Yarbro says she thinks she’s gotten better as a writer. Kurtz says her genre didn’t exist yet and started with simpler plots originally. Abbey says her craft has gotten better, but she writes about generations differently now that she’s older.
Hamilton says she’s definitely a different writer than when she started. She started out with elves and dragons but she was told the market was dead. She didn’t know how to write a book and stumbled her way through Nightseer, the first novel she ever wrote (except for its sequel, she has no trunk novels). Now as the writer she is, she would write the sequel differently. She can “write without flinching,” and she’s afraid that would make those books too harsh now.
Pursuing Writing as a Career
Hamilton said it was Andre Norton who gave her the idea that women (not just dead white guys) could write—she realized Andre Norton was a real person. And if Norton could do it, so could Hamilton.
Abbey had to write a story in high school. The Berlin Wall had just gone up, so she wrote about high school kids who were separated. When she was done reading the story out loud, the teacher and the kids alike broke into applause.
Kurtz thought she’d be in space medicine originally. She went to med school and decided to write about it instead. She worked for LAPD. While in LA she went to a scifi convention and made contacts there, and when she sent her first novel out, it got accepted. She was friends with and frequently had afternoon tea with Anne McCaffrey.
Chelsea Quinn Yarbro promised herself at the age of 6 that she’d write 100 novels in her life. She did theater as a teen. It took 2 ½ years to sell her first story. In the next 6 months, she sold 3 more. Anne McCaffrey was one of her mentors later. Her mentors helped her think of herself as a pro writer.
Abbey went to ConFusion in Michigan. She was injured in a car accident on her way to pick up Gorty Dixon, the Guest of Honor, from the airport. He felt terrible and asked if he could do anything. She had him read her manuscript, and he mentored her through craft and publishing.
A teacher gave Hamilton Writer’s Digest magazines, and then she went to a scifi con in her early 20s. There she attended a writer’s workshop. 3 months later she sold her first short story.
I had to leave to meet friends partway through this panel, but what I caught was interesting. Lee Martindale did a great job as moderator, making sure everyone kept to the topic of politics in fiction.
One of the panelists noted that in pre-state groups, around 1/3 of males and 15% of females died by murder (that we know of). That’s understated because we only have bones to reference; we can’t see the soft tissue (so a knife in the gut wouldn’t show up for archeologists). Clearly, humans’ natural state without government is acting our politics out through violence.
In Stirling’s Dies the Fire series (Emberverse series), a man becomes king and his death renews the land. The series is about myth reborn and fighting fire with fire. He explores concepts around superstates: Is the UN really doing what it said it would? Helps with education and health care, not peace. Stirling noted that no politics will work in all situations.
Stirling says he’s always found it easy to write people different from him. He’s an atheist and materialist but his Wiccans came across as advocacy to some. And some fans even converted!
Moon looked at how longevity treatment would affect politics. In her Suiza series, it’s young pitted against old. For her, New Texas went against her own beliefs, making it hard but fun to write, with characters you hate but aren’t bad. She shows that being compassionate is hard. Her characters are honorable people but are also often against her political leanings.
Ringo says he’s a Libertarian neo-conservative if anything. He believes in a small government but is socially liberal. Last Centurion was less socially liberal but was socialist. For him it was like a possession because he wrote 150,000 words in 9 days. However, Ringo says he can’t write someone who’s 180 degrees off his leanings. He considers it a personal failing.
How to Write Politics
From the panelists:
People who hold the power think they’re right. Everyone else is delusional, or wrong.
Technology conspires to change which governments thrive and which don’t.
Those in power will have some kind of self-validating myth. What were the initiating ideals of whatever political group came to power? What did they evolve into?
Look for legitimizing myths, such as 51% of the population = right, noble bloodlines, or a deity as founder and ruler.
This post is second in a series where I share the wisdom from the science fiction and fantasy authors who lectured at Dragon*Con 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia over Labor Day weekend. Clicking on the topics in Part 2 below will jump you back up to those sections.
Have you attended writing panels at scifi conventions like Dragon*Con? Leave a comment below or find me as +Traci Loudin on Google+, the perfect place for fans of science fiction and fantasy to hang out.
I had a great time at Dragon*Con and collected a ton of great writing tips, which I’ll share in the next few posts. +David Dorian Granruth and I also hung out and took about a million photos of cosplayers, and we also saw the Lost Girl cast and a panel with Jayne and Shepherd Book from Firefly. We also went to some fun fan panels for Lost Girl, Continuum, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., where we speculated with other fans about what’s to come in future seasons.
While we were at the Westin, we saw a platoon of uniforms clearing corners and generally acting like soldiers in an active war zone. I was vaguely amused, but then an Alien came out of nowhere and started slaughtering them! It was the most fun LARP I’ve seen. Photo time afterwards:
Soldier cosplayers and the Alien that slaughtered them at Dragon*Con
It goes without saying at Dragon*Con, but we saw, oh, a couple thousand AMAZING costumes. And we participated with a little steampunkery. But mostly we just tried to take it all in, this being our first Dragon*Con and all.
And the dealer room… my god, it’s full of stars… Let’s just say we spent everything in the budget and then some.
This post is first in a series where I share the wisdom from the science fiction and fantasy authors who lectured at Dragon*Con 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia over Labor Day weekend. Clicking on the topics in Part 1 below will jump you down to those sections.
Panelists: Debra Dixon, Claire Eddy, Diana Gill, Laura Anne Gilman, Georgia McBride, Samantha Sommersby
This was an all-female panel with a variety of writers and editors, including Jim Butcher’s editor. What is urban fantasy? It’s usually set in our time, +/-10 years. Writers should establish setting as a character. Voice is essential, which is why first person is so common.
In the 80s, horror was hot, but the market quickly became saturated. In the 90s, many horror writers moved to thrillers. Urban fantasy’s roots are in the romance genre. Fans crossed over into paranormal romance, and then delved into urban fantasy. So UF often features romantic subplots.
However, while romance often dominates PNR, UF often features “happily right now” or may not need a romantic subplot at all. The panelists recommended that writers work the edges of urban fantasy and get over sexy shapeshifters. Vampires and werewolves are at 20% of 2012 numbers.
Tons of UF are mysteries, capers, private investigators. The panelists recommend writers branch out and read mainstream fiction, not just urban fantasy. Comedy is hard to pull off, but it could be a niche. Weird West is growing in popularity.
UF’s future may be diverging from the urban. Charles de Lint revitalized the genre, but his work tends to be categorized as contemporary fantasy. Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.
Panelists: Debra Dixon, Chesya Burke, Claire M. Eddy, James A. Moore, Janny Wurts, Clay & Susan Griffith
Goal, motivation, and conflict help create a strong plotline. Main characters need to stumble and fail; they shouldn’t succeed at everything they try. They need to deal with failure and the unexpected.
Scrivener, index cards, sticky notes, spreadsheets, graph paper — use anything you can to keep track of huge plotlines. My own process is very similar to what one of the panelists mentioned: Put characters and factions at the top of a spreadsheet with time going down and fill it in.
Writing a novel in 3 weeks helps you keep track of your plot. On the other hand, another panelist recommends working on multiple stories at once so that when you get stuck, you can let your subconscious work on it awhile.
How to Get out of a Bind
Write yourself a note that something’s messed up and continue writing. Track what’s at stake. Dialogue stops the action, so know when to use dialogue versus narrative. Do the scenes address what the book is supposed to be about?
For your first draft, speed through without slowing down. You can figure out what to do about the fact no one’s eaten in 7 days on your revision pass.
Ending a Plot
Zelazny had a publisher that chopped a Chronicles of Amber book in half and ruined the plotline. Every book should have a beginning, middle, and end, even in a series. Leave threads, but wrap it up. The best way to leave a cliffhanger if you want one is to end the book and resolve the plot, and put enough of the next book at the end to leave it on a cliffhanger.
Somewhat off topic, but the panelists mentioned that menopause, loss of a loved one, and depression can all have a terrible impact on your creativity and cause changes in your process. You think you’ll never have another great idea.
Were You at Dragon*Con?
Did you go to Dragon*Con? Leave me a link to your awesome cosplay photos. C’mon, I know you gots ’em.
This post is first in a series where I share the wisdom from the science fiction and fantasy authors who lectured at Dragon*Con 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia over Labor Day weekend. Clicking on the topics in Part 1 below will jump you back up to those sections.
The best part about ConCarolinas for writers is the robust writing track. Lots of regional writing professionals stop in to share their wisdom and give back to the writing community. Of course, like any advice, your mileage may vary. What works for one writer, doesn’t work for all of us. You can jump through the panels I attended below and see if you find something to add to your own writing toolkit.
One way to show how badass a character is: Don’t be in their head when he/she’s doing something awesome. Use a different point of view and let us see the badass in action.
When you are in the hardcore character’s head while they’re doing something awesome, show them keeping their cool. Like in the middle of the action, have them thinking about their to do list, reminding themselves to buy milk before going home.
Jaffe reminded the audience that 90% of the work is done by the reader. Get out of their way!
This panel was meant to be about what happens when sidekicks take over the whole story. Most of the panelists seem to let their sidekicks run wild if they “speak” to them. Remember that novels can have more than one protagonist. If your sidekick starts taking over, your sidekick may not be a sidekick.
Most panelists agree that if your fans are the ones demanding the sidekick take over and have their own novel—do it!
One of the most interesting pieces of advice, to me, was the idea that in a series, it’s sometimes good to let the sidekick go off-screen (to stop stealing the spotlight). Then they can come back different and changed. There’s a whole story the reader can imagine there, without you having to devote word count to it. And it gives the sidekick some mystique.
Usefulness of Sidekicks
They give the protagonist someone to talk to.
If you have an Everyman as the main or POV character, the sidekick can be an extraordinary person.
On the flipside, let the extraordinary main character (Sherlock) explain things to the Everyman POV sidekick (Watson).
Other Characters and Villains
Secondary characters help you reveal the world without infodumping your worldbuilding and setting. Jackson shared the insight that “Tertiary characters are setting.” They show the world’s cultures to the reader.
If you’re worried about cardboard characters, Williams suggests: “Have someone treat the ‘token’ character as a token and see how they react.” How that character reacts, and that brief bit of conflict, only serve to further the plot and show your worldbuilding to the reader in an interesting way.
McKeown suggests that if you find yourself flinching from something horrible a character is doing, especially a villain, write the scene where you kill them. “Then you’ll feel free enough to write them as horrible as they have to be,” he said.
Always remember the characters aren’t you!
“You don’t start out life as a villain,” Jackson pointed out. Remember your villain must have had a terrible past to wind up as horrible as they are.
For self-published authors, being able to switch gears not only between writing projects, but also between hats is important. You have people under contract, you are the art director, etc. and you have to manage all these priorities. But it’s always been important for trad-pub authors as well, especially since your publisher could come to you at any time for revisions.
Writing Multiple Novels at Once
Most of the panelists agreed that they couldn’t switch gears and write two novels at once. Jaffe said he staggers his production schedules so that he’ll write on one novel in the morning but answer emails from editor, designer, etc. on a different novel in the afternoon. Hartley said he has to wait for a phase shift before he can write something else.
Coe says it’s important to not switch gears when frustrated. He said if he leaves a work in frustration, he might not pick it back up again. Hunter suggests asking yourself “What is this about?” when you’re having trouble with a novel. It will help focus you.
The panelists suggest writing a short story between novels as a palate cleanser. Jaffe also suggests alternating books between series. So he writes one book in his post-apocalyptic fantasy series and then one book from his paranormal series to avoid series fatigue.
It’s good to have multiple things going at once because then you keep the distance you need for professionalism. Don’t get married to something that needs a lot of work. Let it sit for a while, and then come back and make it better.
Some of the panelists said they couldn’t even write a short story at the same time as a novel. Hartley said he just doesn’t write short stories (which brings me hope!).
Though most of the panelists agreed short stories are mostly only useful for marketing, Jaffe said he’s put out 8,000-word short stories and put five of them together as an ebook for $3.99. It makes decent money compared to submitting them to magazines.
Some panelists suggested calling them “triple shots” and “10 bits.” Tor.com is now paying 20 cents a word for shorts.
And speaking of short stories, if you’d like to get four FREE short stories, sign up to my newsletter! You’ll also get previews of upcoming works and other goodies. No spam — you decide how often I email you.
A slightly off-topic comment came up regarding release dates, so I definitely wanted to pass it along here for the self-pubbers.
When communicating with readers and reviewers about a self-published book’s release date, it’s important to say something more like “the end of June” rather than “July 1.” iTunes can take more than a week to put a book through, Barnes and Noble at least two days at times, though Amazon is usually under a day. So if you email your newsletter fans, they will feel privileged that they’re getting it a week or two before other readers if iTunes and other sites pull through early.
Case Studies in Asshole Publishers
Case study: The publisher asked the author to write a short story in one week from a universe she hadn’t started writing in yet. They wanted it to be from the as-yet unwritten novel’s protagonist’s point of view before she’d even started developing the character yet. This publisher also expressed displeasure if the author wanted to self-publish other short stories.
Case study: One of the panelists had artwork and editing done on a compilation of short stories. The publisher had previously turned down the book (right of first refusal), but once they heard the buzz around the work, they called the author’s agent and forced the author to pull the book down. The agent reminded the author that she would damage her relationship with the publisher if she didn’t do it. The publisher bought the book, and I think she said they also changed the cover, but I don’t recall.
Macbeth is an anti-hero only because he’s the protagonist. Anti-heroes are often not good people, but we want them to like us. They pursue their own MO. As long as we can empathize, they’re not quite villains. They should be committed to their cause.
Be true to the character, regardless of whether they’re bad with redeeming qualities or good with faults. There’s a difference between a code of ethics and a code of conduct. Antiheroes often have a code of conduct that differs from a hero’s code of ethics.
Antiheroes are often good guys who think they’re bad guys. They justify to themselves why they’re being good to people. Maybe it was just convenient for this particular moment.
Hero vs. Antihero
Sadly, I can’t remember which panelist said this awesome tidbit: The hero sets out to sacrifice himself or herself. But the antihero is surprised when it happens.
It’s often how the world views them. In different contexts, she could be a hero or an antihero.
Batman is super screwed up. He’s self-sacrificing and doesn’t kill people, but he’s really an antihero. It’s hard to draw the line. Pure hero is boring.
We really don’t have heroes anymore. Even Superman and Captain America are being challenged, especially in the Winter Soldier.
Hero vs. Villain
Nobody’s the villain in their own story, so it’s possible an antihero is just the story from the villain’s POV, but villains are usually selfish, even when they pretend to have other people’s needs in mind.
Heroes and antiheroes will set aside their own goals and motivations for others. Villains are unwilling or unable to do that. Villains will only sacrifice themselves to accomplish their own goal, but never in service for the greater good or others.
Give a villain people who want to be her friends, who will tell her we’re all screwed up. That helps the reader sympathize because they’re willing to see what makes her worthy.
Give villains a pet to be nice to gain readers’ sympathy and therefore makes them an antihero.
Redeeming a Villain or Antihero
Once you’ve redeemed a villain or antihero, what do you do? You can’t really write a sequel. So you need to have it where their MO is so strong one redeeming action does not fully redeem them.
Or if they’re redeemed, switch point of views and they’re no longer the main character. An antihero would get so sick of doing good, he’ll go out to purposefully do bad just to remind himself who he really is.
“Every way that you write is right if it works for you.” — Misty Massey Hartley says he does a 10-page outline to avoid those corners. Massey uses shorthand in her outline. Sometimes writing long hand can snap you out of it and get you out of a corner. Coe says his outlines change. Moving the trajectory early on destroys the rest of the original outline.
“You can always go back and change the elements that put you into the corner in the first place.” — A.J. Hartley
Identifying And Getting Out Of Corners
Oftentimes, what you think is a corner is not. If you sleep on it or review what you’d written early on, you might find the seeds of escape. Or go back and plant those seeds.
Don’t break your world’s rules to get out of a corner. Character coming upon a locked door isn’t as interesting as coming upon a door they don’t want to open, Hartley says.
Hartley sometimes puts [insert cool action escape scene] and goes on to write later scenes. It’s risky, but it can be done to avoid losing momentum. Massey says when she skips ahead, she usually only writes one or two scenes before she comes back. Coe says he can’t skip, because he needs to know the baggage before writing the next scenes.
What’s fun is to put them into a corner where the character has to break their code of conduct instead of breaking the world’s magic system. Nice when an external obstacle has an internal obstacle as well. Rachel Aaron is a good example of someone who puts her characters into interesting corners.
As soon as you introduce time traveling, it calls into question every problem they’re ever faced. Because why wasn’t there time travel before? Or later.
Corners Due To Point of View
Even in third limited, you can provide some exposition. It has to be something the character would know, but it may not necessarily be something they’re thinking of at the moment. First person forces you to only show what’s currently passing through the character’s head. Most YA is first, past, Most adult fiction is third, past.
Ask yourself what is the story about? (Not “what’s the plot?”) What is the emotional impact supposed to be?
With George R.R. Martin present at ConCarolinas, this topic was bound to come up. (Though he wasn’t at this panel.)
If you’re writing a story with military or combat, you’ll have to kill characters the reader cares about sooner or later. Sometimes in military combat, people die or disappear suddenly. This doesn’t work for a character the reader cares about.
Characters they care about need a good death doing something significant. Villains need to die horribly. Build up and consequences have to be good enough so readers don’t feel cheated. But it’ll never work for all readers.
Deaths in a murder mystery become a ticking clock for the protagonist to solve. You need to strike characters closer and closer to the protagonist as time goes on. Becomes more and more personal.
Sometimes you can do death without doing death if someone thinks they’re dead. You get the emotional payoff without losing their potential. Like when Simon thinks Kaylee is dead in Firefly.
Don’t kill main characters off screen, but sometimes you have to do secondary characters off screen. Because the payoff is the other characters’ reactions.
In a series, a protagonist evolves by “learning, loving, and losing,” according to Hartness. Actions have consequences. Death must as well. The bad guy’s cousin might take exception to you killing him. Then he becomes the next villain.
Deaths Affect Other Characters
Remember, killing a character affects everyone else around them. And it can change everyone’s outlook. Could change everything.
“I have friends on that Death Star.” Even bad guys care when someone in their group dies. Not so much when the monster dies. Killing developed villains can have just as much impact as killing good guys. If a good person kills someone, even if justified, everyone else may wonder if they’re on the right side. Characters who kill without an impact have already been destroyed. They’re a monster, then.
A lot depends on where you put your character’s mind and heart when they have to make the difficult decision to do something they don’t want to do.
Sometimes the way they do something is by inaction—by not throwing the life preserver. Sometimes you even have to let a friend die. Killing passively can affect a character just as strongly as actively killing someone.
Each POV character should have their own arc. Sometimes those end in death, even for the main character. A great example is Mira Grant’s Newsflesh Trilogy.
“It’s rare to find nothing but good people on one side and bad people on the other.” — David Weber
It’s worth noting that at least half of the authors on this panel were actually hybrid authors with small publishers. They write in diverse genres, though most of them have written at least one or two books classified as fantasy.
Jackson noted that he had an agent once who never paid any attention to him.
CreateSpace gives you the best price on your own book. Lulu will do different sizes as well as hard cover. Fiverr.com is good for getting short story covers. DeviantArt and Elfwood are good sites to find artists for more quality work. Joe Naff recommends Devil in the Details editing.
Cover Artists and Contracts
When you sign a contract with an artist, the artist should be able to use the artwork for self-promo but cannot sell the art as posters, etc. Get a contract. You should own your own cover art.
Word of Mouth
Spending time at cons selling books to people because word of mouth will help you sell. At first you may have to invest in your own books—deficit—but it will build up. Start at smaller conventions. Do panels. Get a table. Build that face-to-face fan base.
Square up helps you track. Taking cash at cons makes it hard, but Square helps. When you go from state to state, you should pay local taxes.
Contact book review blogs. If they won’t review you, offer to do a guest blog post for them.
Neither the owner of this blog nor the panelists are tax professionals, but here are some things they noted. As soon as you sell a book, everything is then a write-off. You can do start-up expenses before that as well, especially if you can link it to publishing and have receipts. If you’re not making much, you can do hobby income because you don’t want to pay self-employment taxes, which are big. ALWAYS CONSULT A TAX PROFESSIONAL.
This panel was really more about trends. Ryan said she didn’t think her zombie book, Forests of Hands and Teeth, would sell. Just write what you’re interested in and oftentimes it’s in the zeitgeist. Every time the economy tanks, zombies are on the rise.
There are two more zombie TV shows coming, and Walking Dead isn’t going away anytime soon. Zombies are a trend, not a fad.
Usually you’ll see one dominant book makes a splash, and then the readalikes come along for readers who want something similar. Hunger Games created Divergent and Mortal Instruments, for instance.
Self-publishers can follow trends more easily. Some people consider that selling out, but it’s just business. YA is hard to self-pub. Paranormal romance is shrinking. Genres do well in self-pub, especially romance and thrillers, because readers are voracious. Scifi and horror not as much, unfortunately. Put your genre in the subtitle, but don’t overdo it and don’t mislead.
Steampunk is on the rise and will probably be around a while, however, it’s more an aesthetic rather than literary. Too visual.
Don’t chase trends and write a book that you’ll hate if it doesn’t sell. Ryan says you should love everything you write. Publishers Marketplace will help you spot trends. If you look at bestselling books, those were a trend two years ago. May already be on the decline. But with self-publishing, you might still capitalize on it.
Current trends in the news also fuel literary trends. Disaster movies followed climate change. Usually by the time you hear of it, it’s already on the decline. Sometimes an antitrend backlash that produces its own trend.
Middle grade has a void now that Goosebumps is gone. They want SFF, but you really need to do traditional publishing for MG. Adult space opera is coming back.
Did you find these tips useful? Leave a comment below or find me as +Traci Loudin on Google+, the perfect place for fans of science fiction and fantasy to hang out.
While you’re here, check out my highly rated, kickass post-apocalyptic adventure novel and its companion short stories.