Thursday, October 29, 2015
Tuesday after work I was shooting billiards down in the gaming area of Building 305 with my friend and coworker Pete. I may have been winning, but it was Pete's turn when I noticed out the floor-to-ceiling windows a large bird flapping slowly over Interlake, maybe 30 yards out. It was getting dusky, about 5:40 PM. There had been dozens of Canada geese around the last couple weeks but I immediately noticed the wingspan was too big and the cadence too slow for any goose. It was too bulky for a great blue heron, unless the heron had a dark brown or black fur coat on. Then I could make out the tail: white, and as it turned left, twisting its body against those large wings, I could see a white head. Yep, bald eagle over Interlake. It's been 8 years, almost to the day, since I saw the one a mile or so away at Lady Anne Lake, It continued the powerful wingbeats up the south bank and I thought it would land in the top of the taller tree there, but it veered further left and out of my sight line toward the south east. Magnificent to see such a work of nature here once again. They are making a slow comeback in these parts. I still don't remember whether I won or lost the billiards game.
Sunday, September 20, 2015
Part 5: "I am nailed to the hull"
My final scheduled event on Saturday, August 1, 2015 was "Special Event: Writing Excuses Podcast Recording LIVE!"
This is the second time I've had the good fortune to attend Writing Excuses recording sessions. The first was at the inaugural "Out of Excuses Retreat" in 2013. If you get the chance I highly recommend it -- you get to hear the information and feel like an insider at the same time. (I also had the chance to listen to Cory Doctorow doing some of his "With a Little Help from my Friends" recordings live at WorldCon 2009 in Montreal -- again you feel like a real insider. That one featured Neil Gaiman in the role of "friend" so was doubly special.)
Only Dan Wells and Howard Tayler were at GenCon this year so they pulled in multiple guests from the Con to record the several episodes. These are starting to show up now in the podcast stream, for example the September 13 episode is "Being a Good Panelist and a Great Moderator, with Susan J. Morris and Marc Tassin"
By the way, Marc Tassin is the director GenCon Writer's Symposium and does a great job -- you will see him in and around the seminar rooms all the time keeping things running smoothly. He also has a great speaking voice so listen for that.
A handful of us retreat alums also got to help out in a couple ways, either facilitating the audience microphone during the Q&A episode or packing up some of the recording equipment after the session. We then got to go to dinner with The Dan Wells at California Pizza Kitchen where we toasted the event and each other with maraschino cherries. The folks at CA PK were very gracious.
I had a couple regular sessions ticketed for late Sunday morning but I see I took no notes from those. I'm not even sure I went to the final one. Sunday morning's first event had drawn my full attention: "Read & Critique".
I've read my work in public before: critique groups, open mike nights, and such -- but never in front of a panel of pro authors for the express purpose of telling me what's wrong with it. And in front of a (small) group of other aspiring writers to boot. I assure it gives one pause.
There were about 24 of us writers that were there to be judged, split into 3 different rooms with 3 different panels of young but well-published authors. You want your work to be well received but you know that you need the negatives, too, however hard it may be to hear.
We are there to get better, for us this is A BIG DEAL. And most of us are sensitive.
So I prepared a couple of possible things to read -- one fairly safe and one that I felt good about but that needs to be better, and I showed up. The moderator for my session was strict. Disciplined. We readers drew numbers for order. I think I was number 5 of 8. Three minutes only to read. The moderator commanded stop -- mid-sentence or not -- and we stopped. You can read only about two pages in this amount of time. Not much! Then each of the four critics provided a couple minutes of feedback -- with no commentary from the reader. As promised they served up mostly "crap sandwiches": something good then some bad things and then something good again.
I chose to read my piece that needs work. The first author said some nice things then thought the tone of a metaphor I used was a bit off. The fourth author also noted the metaphor, but felt quite strongly that it was well done. Which just goes to show that there are no absolutes.
Due to the rigor of the timekeeping we had about 15 minutes left for questions and answers at the end. I kept quiet, content with the mix of praise, "I'd keep reading if I was a slush reader", and pointers for improvement, but one reader was quite upset -- she felt she hadn't read far enough to assuage some of the criticisms and she asked her questions and made her points through her tears. "Ignore these," she said, "I just get emotional but I want to know." And she soldiered on with her questions.
I talked to participants in other sessions -- mine was not the only one with tears. We are better for the experience, I'm almost certain of it.
Some of us made one last trip to the dealer room. I wanted to buy a souvenir, something with "GenCon" on it. The T-Shirts were expensive and I'd been eyeing the gamer mats. These look like oversized dinner placemats but they are padded and soft and typically have gorgeous fantasy artwork printed on them. I settled on one with the show's signature art, the ship and three fantasy people despite them looking a bit "uncanny valley" to me. But the one I really wanted was more expensive and luscious: it featured Sandara's "A Party of Cats 2". Now I've got non-buyer's remorse. Maybe next year.
Friday, September 11, 2015
Part 4: Saturday, in which I finally play a game
Panel, what, 12? Sheesh.
Character Voice with Steve Drew, Kameron Hurley, Brad Beaulieu, Jay Posey, Aaron Rosenberg
Yes, some of the panel topics overlapped a bit. I'll try not to overlap the notes.
1) Read your/other authors' dialog without the tags/actions. Can you differentiate who is speaking?
2) Treat characters with dignity (Do your research)
3) There is a lot of current concern about being politically correct and not appropriating culture inappropriately. If you are wondering exactly what that means, don't feel alone. But treat it cultures with more respect than Hollywood gave Native Americans in most earlier westerns and you'll be ahead of Hollywood, if that gives you any solace.
4) Empathy. Each character is the hero of their own story, we just don't know how long they intersect this story.
5) Add body language, habits to build character/voice.
6) Okay to vary POV distance, e.g. when noticing details or doing internal monologue use some voice/idioms but when doing more expository description use less character voice.
Panel Next (that which is skipped when numbering hotel floors): What Makes a Character a Hero (Kerrie Hughes, Steven Long, Sam Sykes, Patrick fills-a-room Rothfuss)
This was Rothfuss' first panel and he brought the attendees in from the gaming tables, the room was more full than any of the prior writing sessions I'd attended. And with good reason, he pontificates well and entertainingly.
1) Consistent moral core - line in the sand; let them bend, evolve but not cross/break
2) Homer Simpson centers on Marge
3) Good guys are heroes. The Greeks had great mean who fell due to a flaw, typically hubris
4) (Considerable discussion of Superman/Lex Luther then Batman, Rob Roy, Harry Dresden (Jim Butcher) and Ned Stark (Game of Thrones)
5) Need people to interact with or there is no story
6) Need to have suffered an indignity
7) Bathos - humor that undercuts tension
8) Identification with a hero needs to be emotional
9) Earnestness is easy to identify with: Han Solo and Luke Skywalker
I spent some more time on the dealer floor, I hadn't covered half of it yesterday. I saw some nice hardwood dice towers -- too expensive for me but I might try to build one, someday. Best I saw for the price were from Geek Chic Furniture (lots of great stuff, not cheap by any nuance of the word). The Cadillac of dice towers were on display from Wyrmwood, in your choice of seventy different woods.
I finally played a game! I played "Code Names" from Czech Games. It's a more literary "Guess Who?" The fellow manning the booth explained the rules and then he and I played against a father and son that had also been watching the previous patrons play. It was pre-release -- they sold out several hundred beta copies, gone first day of the show -- but should be out about now, sometime in September, 2015. I plan to get one.
Fresh from my fun with Code Names I played another game at the Steve Jackson Games booth. They had "Mars Attacks: the Dice Game" set up for demo so even though I'm not a fan of Mars Attacks, I played a round of that. It was fun -- typically the only dice based games I play are Yahtzee and 10,000, but this was engaging without much mental challenge. After that it was time for the Guest of Honor session.
I was a bit uncertain about seeing GoH Terry Brooks, author of The Sword of Shannara. I read that book back in 1977 and it was clearly good but I couldn't get past the hubris or mimicry vis a vis J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings. I wasn't the only one. Turns out Mr. Brooks is insightful and delightful and understands the burden with which he has been saddled. He answered questions from the 200+ person audience about the dozens of books that he has written and then they showed the MTV trailer from the forthcoming series The Shannara Chronicles (January, 2016) which starts with the second book, The Elfstones of Shannara. He then answered audience questions on that. I'll be interested to watch some of that. I'm reading the book now. In fact, I got a free copy and had Terry Brooks sign it on Sunday morning and I got a chance to apologize for not reading more of his work over the past 37 years. He was very gracious.
Panel 14: Character: Worthy Opponents (Elizabeth Vaughan, Matt Forbeck, Christopher Rowe, Geoffrey Girard, Terry Brooks)
Girard sat next to Brooks and was clearly in a bit of awe, especially as the panel introduced themselves; Girard has essentially one novel (and lots of short stories), while Brooks has dozens and a major TV deal, etc. Fun to see, both were good natured.
1) Need to balance villains against protags
2) Try to understand the motivations of your villains
3) Christopher Rowe: "I don't like The Joker. I don't even like Heath Ledger's Joker. How about that?" (This is going out on limb, deriding a famous bat-villain with this audience, especially the version played by a favorite son actor, deceased no less.) I believe Mr. Rowe was saying he wasn't believable, all persona and no depth.
Panel 15: Supporting Characters (Maxwell Drake, Elizabeth Vaughan, Geoffrey Girard, Terry Brooks)
1) Ask tertiary characters: What do you want from this scene? - Maxwell Drake
2) "Plot drives everything." - Terry Brooks (the observant reader will not that this does not well align with an assertion in an earlier panel that plot is there to facilitate the characters, give them something to arc against)
3) Have love and hate in every chapter
4) Sometimes supporting characters can show up the main character -- builds character.
There was one more event for me (well, two, if you count out to dinner, which I do in this case) on Saturday, but I'm tired now and want to go, so I'll lump that into Sunday. TTFN.
Monday, September 07, 2015
Part 3 TGIF, with other acronyms to come
(Before I forget, as I know some of this may border on tedium, you won't want to miss the final installment in this series detailing the events of Sunday morning wherein I undergo the most difficult moments of my writing endeavors thus far: a professional writing critique.)
TGIF ! Not really. I was on vacation, it was all good. I used Park Whiz to reserve parking in advance. I picked 3 different lots at an average cost of $6.00 per day. My favorite lot was at 323 W Michigan St, it was small, flat and had a row of trees along one side so I could park and have shade on my car in the afternoon. It was an easy 12 minute walk, three-quarters of a mile, to the convention center past the state capitol building and the Hyatt Regency.
Friday's sessions started for me at 9:00 am with Writer's Craft 101 (Steve Drew, Geoffrey Girard, Josh Vogt, Jason Schmetzer, Kameron "We Have Always Fought" Hurley)
Oh, I stayed out by the airport at the Baymont Inn and Suites. Nothing to write home about, so I didn't. But breakfast was passable and it was an easy 18 minute drive to downtown. Hotel costs remain the biggest burden at these events, $92 per night for 4 nights pushed it well over $400. Best if you have a roomie.
Josh Vogt is a good example of one of the authors writing tie-in novels for RPG developers like Privateer Press and Paizo, as well as his own stuff such as "Enter the Janitor" which sounds a bit like Ghost Busters, but I could be way off. Anyway I had a good convo with Josh on the dealer floor later at one of the game companies booths about how he got his stuff marketed.
1) Steve Drew: "There's no leveling up in a writing career." It was a good quip but they each then shared an anecdote of how they had, actually, leveled up through various actions, e.g. attending a writing workshop, joining a key critique group, etc.
2) Jay Lake: "Do not start a new project until you finish the one you're on." (First pass, anyways.)
3) Authors tend to be authority averse -- writing selects for that.
5) How to do dialog? Do multiple stuff at once: authentic, tension, information, character -- do not write it the way people actually speak: b-o-r-i-n-g.
6) Read dialog aloud though to see if it rings true, but remember the end of the above note.
7) See Elmore Leonard for dialog
8) Read movie scripts -- most are available on the web
9) Recommended: David Mammot (Glengarry Glen Ross)
10) Recommended: Rachel Aaron: "2,000 to 10,000"
11) 30 second fantasy editing: check a) character motivations b) Inconsistencies c) swords
Character Craft: Motivation and Obstacles
(Howard Taylor, Elizabeth Bear, Gwenda Bond, John Howard Jacobs, Lauren M Roy)
My first session with Howard! But he was moderating so he mostly tried to stay out of the others' way. He's a good moderator like that, but it doesn't let his wit shine through. There was later for that.
I think this is where I first ran into fellow Writing Excuses "Out of Excuses Retreat" 2013 alumni Christy, Alissa, Scott, and Kendra-who-goes-by-Kenny. Twas good to share with them again.
1) Make them want something -- then take it away.
2) What's their worldview?
3) Remember the old standards: man vs. man; man vs. nature; man vs. self
4) Strip away character until essence exposed
5) Revenge is a strong motivator; regret is not.
6) Connections: Mad Max to dog, then to feral boy
7) Training montage / flashback to build competence quotient
8) Use other character reactions to main character actions to build competence
9) Build empathy in dialog by mentioning similar experiences
10) Put two things in front of character and make them choose -- need to be consequences; sometimes needs to come out negative
11) "When in doubt have a man enter through the door with a gun." - Raymond Chandler
12) The two-year-old's question: "Why?", "Why?"
Dialogue and Dialogue Tags
(Kerrie L Hughes, Robin D Laws, Elizabeth Bear, Chris Jackson)
1) On tags: inclined to leave them in for a novel but take out as many as possible in a short story.
2) "No, are you certain?" The water glass was cool in her hand.
3) Long back and forth should have a certain amount of tags.
4) Remove 75% of "nodded" and ilk (smiled, grinned, etc.)
I actually scheduled myself a break in here for lunch. Was hungry. Also I had signed up for the "Foam Fighting Arena" but the weapons were heavy and my wrist and arm were sore and I was gonna feel silly, which was wrong. The folks competing were having a grand time and it was clearly definable as "research". Sigh.
I did wander around the Dealers Floor for a couple hours. It is huge. Hundreds of game manufacturers, collectibles dealers, furniture makers, and an authors and artists section. Everything is set up for easy interaction with the folks manning the booths. You can easily chat with game creators, science fiction authors and fantasy artists. And in most cases buy their wares. They also had scheduled autograph signings, mostly authors but I saw Summer Glau (from the Firefly franchise, etc.) signing for a couple of hours and was very cordial with all the fans that I saw her interact with.
Panel 10 (Not actually a panel)
My final scheduled writing session on Friday was a paid session with Michael Stackpole. This was him giving his prepared class on characterization and while there was a lot of useful information the tone was much more commercial than the panels and other sessions that I attended. You won't find this information on his website since, as he noted, he makes a portion of his living this way; and so I won't include it here for the most part. Maybe just a tidbit or four:
1) Plot is a way to facilitate characters
2) Convey info through characters, e.g. one says "All the trolls we've ever come across are eight feet tall."
3) Sometimes it's okay to do blitzkrieg characterization: George was always well dressed and sang along with the choir but you never wanted to trust him with the collection plate.
4) Roger Zelazney: "A short story is the last chapter of a novel that you haven't written." Get in. Define. Get out.
I hadn't pre-registered but there was a late panel called Advanced Kickstarter, not that I ever intend to run a Kickstarter campaign but Howard Tayler was on it and not as the moderator so I stayed to get a little dose of Howard. Rest of the panel: Susan Morris, Michael Sullivan, Brad Beaullieu, Stephen Hood.
I didn't take many notes, but these things, done well, are a ton of work. Clearly you would want to use the tools: kicktraq.com, backerkit.com, etc.
I did ask a question about setting the goal, e.g. is there a formula that if you know you have X number of fanatic fans and Y number of more casual fans that you could expect X*m + Y*n + C ? I think it was a bit too much math to get across verbally, especially this late in the day, but it did spark a discussion of how indispensable a good Excel spreadsheet can be.
A pleasant evening walk back to my car and then I hit Kroger from some fruits and veggies for dinner; oh, and cookies; some for Saturday, too.
Friday, September 04, 2015
So after what would have been a very tolerable 6 hour drive to Indianapolis my first observation was that the area was very flat. "The map is not the territory." Maybe, but it was certainly flat enough to be a paper map. Why wasn't the drive tolerable? Mostly it was the cracked windshield caused by a truck-spewed rock just north of Nashville. But also the thunderstorm as I descended into a valley someplace in central Kentucky was just plain frightening. Armageddon-end-of-the-world, what-on-earth-are-all-you-drivers-doing-away-from-your-loved-ones frightening. But we all got through it -- as far as I know.
Second Panel: Atmospheric Writing
This one included Dan wells, Kerrie Hughes, Erin Evans and Elizabeth Bear.
1) E. Bear will step into a void and fill it with her opinions. That's not all bad, but wore on me in later panels. She quoted Emma boll: "POV is everything". Also word choice as mood lighting. Give some "telling details".
2) Erin: let characters mood show through the POV narration. E.g. for a rustic feel: "It was darker than 2 feet down a cow's throat."
3) But not just snark. "So, no shit, there I am driving down the road and this truck..."
4) Use "Just in time" exposition to create atmosphere
5) When you're juggling, use both hands.
6) Have someone describe your story back to you after they've read a bit -- they may get the plot right but if they don't mention it's set in the South then you may have failed to convey the atmosphere.
7) Paragraphing: an art for changing atmosphere.
Third Panel: Editing your work (Susan Morris, Erin Evans, James L. Sutter, Howard Andrew Jones and Matt Forbeck
1) Watch out for variance in voice, and inconsistent character arcs
2) Finish your story, then polish it. Later events may shift earlier stuff and early polish is wasted.
3) Put it away for a week/month then attack with fresh eyes.
4) Read your work backwards -- not maybe word for word but scene by scene to avoid getting caught up in it.
5) When a scene just isn't working, ask: what do the characters that are present want?
6) Talk it out -- maybe draft an email explaining -- send it or don't. Or muscle through it.
7) Again: Finish your story. Write or die software makes you keep writing.
Panel 4 (Hell, yes, it's still Thursday, only 2 pm) Defining Genre and Why it Matters
I will recommend that you pull your itinerary together early for at least the first day and get those tickets mailed to you with your convention badge. Even though these writing seminars are mostly free, they still had tickets. There were about 100 seats or so in the rooms and usually far fewer people than that, like 35, but if you wanted a seat up front you wanted a ticket, non-ticket holders had to wait and enter the rooms last. And picking up a packet of late ordered tickets in the Will Call line on Day One meant waiting in a line that was hundreds of yards long. No joke. But it actually moved well, less than 30 minutes to wind through much of the convention center. Still not a fun time, but I chatted with my linies so not too bad.
Steven Diamond, Django Wexler (are people really named Django?), Brian McClellan, Geoffrey Girard, Steven Long.
Geoffrey Girard is an author I hadn't heard of. He's also an English teacher in New Jersey. He started as a short story guy, winning a Writer's of the Future a decade or more back. I enjoyed his flippantry and chatted with him a couple times between sessions. I'm currently listening to his novel "Cain's Blood", a bit gory but you can see the short-story-guy bleeding through -- some chapters could stand alone.
Notes from Defining Genre...
1) Girard: Horror doesn't sell, Thrillers sell. My novel, "Cain's Blood"... running gag joke as he held his new novel aloft several times through panel.
2) For marketing, once committed to a genre, need to hit it 90% (can't drift too much or be too mash-up-y and get good placement at Barnes and Noble)
3) Steven Long has an article defining essentialelements of fantasy and 6 sub-genres. I haven't read it. I expect that statement to be true a year from now. Two. Three....
I did skip my 3:00 panel -- I hit the street outside the Center and selected a food truck for lunch, had some Moroccan shawarma. Good flavor, a bit chunky.
Panel 5: Killing Off Characters: John Helfers, Dan Wells, David Farland
1) Need to care about villains, make them real, or their death doesn't matter.
2) Guides and sidekicks, too (Obiwan)
3) "Fridging" a character: Green Lantern's girlfriend was stuffed in his fridge so he got motivated to be Green Lantern but was no emotional impact on reader.
4) Killing a character can indicate danger to our protag: Indiana Jones and choosing a cup as Holy Grail (No frequency of Indiana Jones references did not seem greater than it would have been had we not been, you know, in Indiana)
5) Good: instilling a sense of "is it safe to keep reading" -- the characters are in real and certain danger.
6) Death can't be the only thing for main / recurring characters -- it just ain't gonna happen.
7) Reference to Robert McKee who has theories about "Story"
Panel 6: Researching Your Story (Geoffrey Girard, Dan Wells, Thomas M. Reid, Delilah S. Dawson)
I've researched a little -- spent a night at a monastery for example. (Curiously also in Indiana).
1) Docents at museums. Some of these geezers will talk to you for hours. And they know their shit.
2) Have something that you explain in unnecessary detail. Covers a multitude of later sins.
3) Have something that you don't explain enough (boldly make them assume that you, too, know your shit.)
My final activity on Thursday was "An Evening with Patrick Rothfuss" (2 hours). I didn't know Rothfuss, only vague rumblings that he is a bit bigger than life. And has a beard. I still haven't read any of his stuff (although he read a couple snippets to us). This was in a bigger room. Packed. About 300 people. Some folks without advance tix did not get in. He regaled us with stories only tangentially related to questions asked from the audience. He was good at it. And we all promised that tidbits would not be repeated out of context. And so I won't. But if you get the chance, let him entertain you. Different than, but almost as recommended as any similar event with Neil Gaiman. Inspired me enough to buy his latest book and have him autograph it, "The Slow Regard of Silent Things". I've also bought the first book on audio, but haven't started listening as yet: "The Name of the Wind". It's a tome.
Wednesday, September 02, 2015
GenCon had been highly recommended to me by the principals at Writing Excuses, specifically Howard Tayler, Dan Wells and Mary Robinette Kowal (authors all), but not as the mega gaming convention that it is -- not in my case, leastways -- but for the Writer's Symposium.
GenCon has been growing every year as the premiere gaming focused convention in the country, some 60,000 attendees strong at the Convention Center in Indianapolis. There is also a much smaller contingent of writer-wannabes. Some of these writers-in-development also love to game; or to write gaming adjuncts. There are whole novels set in Dungeons and Dragons land or in the card realms of Magic the Gathering. But here I know not what I speak of. I know more about the couple hundred who go to hear authors share their wisdom with us, mostly for free -- or more accurately "at no additional charge". (GenCon is fairly cheap as these things go, a full four day pass was just $88.00 -- but a fair portion of activities have add-on costs.)
But let's get back to the authors -- or in this case, the teachers. (I was quite happy when, one day on the dealers floor, Howard introduced me and 3 fellow Writing Excuses Retreat alumna as "some of my students.") There were names whom we may not have heard of like Josh Vogt, to some of the biggest names in the SFF genre such as Patrick Rothfuss and Terry Brooks (yes, for those of you as aged as I am that is Terry Brooks author of The Sword of Shannara. Turns out he's a very nice and insightful person and not the devil incarnate that some of us thought he must be to dare imitate our favorite J.R.R. Tolkien back in 1977. By the way, MTV is bringing Mr. Brooks' book The Elfstones of Shannara to the small screen in January 2016. I'm reading my personally autographed copy now.)
First Panel: Let's Get Emotional
The first panel I attended was on "Eliciting Emotional Response". And for the most part the sessions were the typical panel format: one moderator and 3 or 4 panelists. The moderator would spark the conversation for the first 30-40 minutes and then the audience would ask a few questions for another 10 or 15 minutes. John Helfers, Editor/Publisher moderated this first session. Gregory Wilson was one panelist, among other things he runs speculatesf.com, a podcast, with Brad Beaulieu, something I hadn't been aware of but that I plan to check out.
Here are some tidbits from this Thursday morning at 11 session:
1) Beware the "audience insertion character" -- you may try to use a generic anyman character to get at your readers emotions but you will often be better served by creating a character that the reader wants to be, or wants to love -- or that is interesting (example: The Talented Mr. Ripley)
2) Create 3-D villains -- they are easier to hate and possible to empathize with
3) Readers love SFF worlds, but in the end the "dongle of flarnovar" is not what they ultimately care about.
4) Useful characters run toward the sound of gunfire.
5) Conflict among an ensemble cast can be fun. (Notice during the weekend, those of you who game, the people interacting at your role playing table.)
6) The second Pirates of the Caribbean movie is less good than the first in part because Jack Sparrow is more caricature than character -- he's hard to connect to (a bit of a counterpoint to the watch-out-for-the-audience-identification-character above).
7) Use voodoo: hurt/help the reader by hurting or helping the characters.
8) Need highs and lows -- lulls in emotions allow the reader to recover a bit and then attain new levels: action, action, action (or emotion, emotion, emotion) tends to desensitize
9) Movie recommendation: "Run, Lola, Run"
10) Someone quoted Chuck Wendig: "Treat humor seriously"
11) The cake is gone and I didn't get to eat it either