Writing Tips From ConCarolinas

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.


Writing Hardcore Characters

Panelists: T. Eric Bakutis, Rod Belcher, Jim Bernheimer, Stuart Jaffe, J.F. Lewis, Claudette Marco, James Maxey, Joe Naff
Ant-Man with his ant buddyCheating, lying heroes are fun. Make sure your character’s character is established before shit hits the fan.

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!


When Sidekicks Take Over

Panelists: Edward McKeown, Chris A. Jackson, Thomas Monaghan, Edmund R. Schubert, James R. Tuck, Michael G. Williams

Hawkeye-HulkThis 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.

kickstarter-women-destroy-science-fiction-lightspeed-magazineIf 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.


Shifting Gears

Panelists: Tonia Brown, David B. Coe, A.J. Hartley, Faith Hunter, Stuart Jaffe, Edmund R. Schubert, Tamsin L. Silver

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.

Cosplay fairy girls at ConCarolinas scifi conCoe 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.

Short Stories

TheVoiceOfTheDarkness-SmallSome 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.

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Self-Publishing Release Dates

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.


The Art of the Anti-Hero

Panelists: Allen Wold, Rod Belcher, Jim Bernheimer, Alexandra Christian, Emily Lavin Leverett, J.F. Lewis, Tamsin L. SilverThis panel was full of great insights.

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.

Sherlock Holmes and Traci Loudin at ConCarolinas 2014, a scifi con in Charlotte, NCBe 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.

Dark Knight Rises: Catwoman GunHeroes 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.


Writing Yourself Out of a Corner

Panelists: David B. Coe, A.J. Hartley, Misty Massey, Edmund R. Schubert

“Every way that you write is right if it works for you.” — Misty Massey
Valentine Wolfe at ConCarolinas Dealer Room
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?


Killing Characters

Panelists: Stephen L. Antczak, David B. Coe, A.J. Hartley, John G. Hartness, David Weber, Allen Wold

With George R.R. Martin present at ConCarolinas, this topic was bound to come up. (Though he wasn’t at this panel.)

Darth cosplay at illogicon 2013If 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


Self-Publishing: Tips and Tricks

Panelists: Jim Bernheimer, Tonia Brown, Rebecca Carter, Chris A. Jackson, Alex Matsuo, Roy Mauritsen, Joe Naff

Mikey Mason filking at ConCarolinas 2014It’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.


The Latest Thing

Panelists: Jake Bible, Faith Hunter, Claudette Marco, Carrie Ryan

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.

How You Picture Yourself In a Zombie ApocalypseThere 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.

Image of the Ageless Universe of books and short storiesWhile you’re here, check out my highly rated, kickass post-apocalyptic adventure novel and its companion short stories.


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