This was The Kid’s first convention, and he enjoyed himself quite a bit, mostly hanging out in the gaming room with his Dad. I got to attend three panels and took some notes, which I’ll share here. It was nice getting out to a convention again, I’m looking forward to being on more panels in future conventions, though being a guest as I was at this one (last minute attendance decision) is also fun. I had some great conversations with Irish Eyes and my own beloved Nathan that helped me pinpoint where some of my current struggle with the setting in the novel has been, which will be its own post perhaps later.
I missed one of the panels I’d really wanted to attend, about the future of NASA and private spaceflight, so if anyone has notes from that panel please share!
When a Story Becomes a Series
This was one of the panels Steve was on, the full author list being: Steven Brust, Amanda Downum, Carol Berg, Julie Kenner, and Stina Leight. I was hoping for much more out of this panel that I received, I’ll admit. I asked a couple of questions pertinent to my current projects and got what I felt were incredibly generic and basic writer-101 advice in return, though I’m fairly sure they weren’t writer-101 questions. I also didn’t like that the moderator wasn’t paying attention to certain panelists overriding less vocal panelists; in particular I don’t think we heard from Ms. Downum nearly as much as I’d have liked. I wasn’t sorry I attended the panel, but I also don’t think I came away from it with any new insights into my work, like I did at some of the other panels.
However, I did still take several notes from the panel:
They started out with an interesting bit of definition; “episodic series”, where multiple nearly-stand-alone stories are connected by a larger world or setting or characters, and a “series arc”, one larger story arc told in multiple story-sized pieces. The next half hour was mostly 101 advice that works for any story, such as looking for a point of conflict to find where the story begins, or start the story when something changes for your characters, and Steve’s standard “start with a cool opening sentence and write from there.”
In the second half they finally got back to more series-specific talk. There was panel agreement that a book in a larger series should still stand alone enough to tell a story and leave the reader with some feeling of satisfaction (though connecting threads to other stories are fine). Steve advised that a writer not hold anything back for another book; even if you are writing a series, use up all your good ideas in the first book. Don’t worry about it, you’ll have more ideas later, and you don’t want to half-ass the project in front of you. Accept that not every reader will get everything you write or like everything you write; don’t let that change what you write. One suggestion for the really important story points was don’t tell the reader directly at all, just give them clues and let them figure it out. More panel consensus that hand-holding the reader through recapitulating every detail of previous stories with each sequel was one of the faster ways to alienate your fans.
They wrapped up with talking a bit about getting stuck on longer projects like series. They advised to “retain your passion” for your story to avoid falling into formulaic prose, though when asked they couldn’t easily advise the audience on how you would actually retain it or revive faltering passion. They recommended to write stories you want to read, since likely at least some other readers will share your tastes. One panelist said that any time she got stuck she found that she wasn’t writing the correct action or piece of the story, and she stops and goes back to looking closely at her characters to figure out a different path. She found that usually the flaw was in the realm of too much exposition and not enough action.
LBGT issues in speculative fiction
This was definitely my favorite panel at the convention, so much so that I didn’t take very many notes, the conversation and questions were so engaging. I got to meet a fellow Unspeakable Horror:From the Shadows of the Closet anthology author, Lee Thomas, who is fabulous as a panelist. The other authors on the panel were Nancy Jane Moore, Rose Dimond, and Katherine Beutner.
One panelist advised to read YA (young adult) spec fic to see some of the up-and-coming treatment of gays in genre fiction; even though there isn’t explicit sex in YA, she felt that they were still doing a good job addressing some of the social issues. Lee Thomas mentioned that he’d like to see more stories that were well done that were in some way specifically about the gay characters, rather than more stories that happen to have gay characters in them.
They recommended the book Writing the Other, for anyone who wanted insight into writing outside your own cultural experiences. Several publishers that do well with queer themes were mentioned, including Lethe Press, Bold Stroke, and Dark Scribe Press. They also mentioned several authors that the panelists felt were doing good work with queer themes in spec fic, including Emma Donahue, Rob Dunbar, Steve Berman, Paul Bens’ Kelland, Ellen Kushner’s The Privilege of the Sword, and Kat Valente’s Palimpsest.
The City as Character
This was the final panel I attended at the con, which was reasonably good. The largest irritation here was again with the moderation, though this time the moderator apparently forgot that the audience was present and that all those arms in the air weren’t actually stretching. The panelists here were Martha Wells, Patricia Sarath, Amanda Downum, Gordon Andrews, Ilona Andrews, and Stina Leight.
A common problem with a story city is that it often feels like an incomplete stage set, or like the false-front towns of old-western movie sets; if you move away from the story action your setting goes blank. You want to go for a world that feels like it is rich and complex and vibrant and still exists whether the reader is present or not.
One person recommended to start with things that already exist, then alter pieces toward the fantastic based on what the needs of your particular story are. A city with a sense of history and secrets helps. Different ages within a city are also important; very few cities have all their parts built in a similar time frame, yet many writers make this mistake with fictional cities.
Several recommended that you travel enough to get an understanding of how different cities have different personalities or flavors or impersonalness qualities. And don’t forget that a city ultimately depends on the people living in it to shape that particular personality flavor. The setting reflects the characters who reflect aspects of the setting in turn, each altering the other.
Figure out which are the defining moments that shaped your city, and how those caused ripples of effects through the city’s timeline. The environment and climate that the city is in are also quite important for city characterization. Was the city a planned settlement? If so, it will likely look much more homogenized with grid-like roads, as opposed to a city that “just grew” over time and changed amoeba-like to fit the inhabitants’ needs.
Cities are often thought of as working in isolation in stories, but even in the ancient world that wasn’t so; they had interconnected trade routes, a network of exchanged goods that were vital to a city’s survival. The city reflects its history, it is effectively the warehouse of collective experiences over time of the inhabitants of the city.
Expectations can work against you perceptually. The example given was Harlem, which is assumed to be a poor and “scary” neighborhood, but also contains some of the most beautiful architecture in America. Quirky or inconsistent elements of characterization such as this will help give the feel of a personality to a story city.
Much good information on these panels, hope you find it helpful for me to share!