Month: April 2008 Page 1 of 2

PPWC: Recommended Reading List.

A list of books recommended to me over the course of the conference, not including any craft books recommended during seminars:

  • Little Britches, by Ralph Moody (the Colorado boy’s version of Little House on the Prairie)
  • Modesty Blaise, by Peter O’Donnell/Ralph Holdaway (comic strip)
  • The Company of the Dead, by David Kowalski
  • Legend, by David Gemmell
  • After Hours, starring Victor Argo
  • Patricia Cornwell, in general
  • Chushingura, a.k.a. The Tale of the 47 Ronin

Hey, let me know if you know more…

PPWC: Sunday

Sunday

Inexorable and Satisfying Endings with Laura Reeve. Fiction can either introduce a new perspective or confirm a reader’s beliefs. Genre fiction mostly confirms a reader’s beliefs. Each genre has its own expectations for endings. Romance novels? Happy endings. Mysteries and thrillers? Find out who dunnit and how. Literary novels? Resonant endings (to be explained later).

Societally, we’ve been trained to expect the screenplay, three-act structure. Protagonists have to be active. –This changes according to fashion; Pride and Prejudice had an active heroine, but the demand changed to more “saintly” heroines who radiate goodness, and suddenly you get Mansfield Park.

The tone of the book should indicate the type of ending. The climactic scene should deliver emotion at the appropriate level and can’t be neutral for the characters. The length of the climactic scene should be proportional to the story. In a novel, the denoument is prevents the reader from being “ridden hard and put away wet.” Denouments now have to be dramatized and not full of blah blah blah, either.

Good series comes from strong, standalone books, not cliffhanger endings. Genre series are usually based on a single character or a single environment (a world, like the Darkover series); literary series can be based on character development (for example, the Rabbit series). Series are based on complex things; complexity is found in the middle of a book, so look there for ideas.

Resonance is striking chords of recognition and meaning. An exercise to help find resonance:

  • Determine what the character’s wish-fulfillment goal for the story would be, if it were possible.
  • Now find out what the second-best possibility would be.
  • Finally, write down what the bare minimum would be, what the character would settle for, if that’s all she could get. This is probably the most resonant ending.

Advance Screenwriting with Kenny Golde. Novices tend to overwrite screenplays with too much description and dialogue and not enough pictures. Don’t put in camera angles per se, but the more a screenplay looks like a movie, the more the audience will see it as one. Visual information tends to stay in your head — so don’t refer to images from other movies. Make the familiar new, or you’ll alienate the audience. Actors love subtext, as long as the underlying emotions have been set up previously.

Tips:

  • Make sure dialogue isn’t in big chunks; people tune them out. But a scene with no dialogue is hard to sell, too.
  • Make description brief to give yourself more pages to tell actual story.
  • Be visual. Don’t say, “She wants out of her small town” in the description. Say, “There’s something in her eyes that tells us she wants out” — which is still risky, but it’s something you can see.
  • Start and end scenes with strong visual images.
  • Allow yourself to change your script to respond to the actors’ strengths.
  • Take an acting class.
  • Describe the moments when nothing happens. “A beat goes by. Tony’s head sinks.”
  • Use emotional cues only if it’s crucial to the plot.
  • Take out most of the “beats.” Let the actors do it.

SF/F Subgenres with Laura Reeve. I liked her first talk so much, I came back for more…

Genre is how to define your book for placement in bookstores/libraries and publishers’ imprints. Subgenre is how to define how your book will be packaged who your audience will be — the cover, audience, and who you’re working with in a publishing house.

SF/F accounts from 5-18% of all published fiction, depending on the year. Not many publishers handle it, which means a savvy agent is a must, even more so than for literary work, in which you have many options if your book is bounced the first twenty times. Ralan.com has a lot of good information on the SF/F marketplace.

Paranormal romance has been shaking things up. SF/F bookstores are leery of shelving it with SF — it might scare off the male demographic, looking for ships, etc., and finding backless demon wenches. (Really? Thinks I.)

Research who’s currently publishing what. Editors need to be able to visualize your book, even down to what the cover might look like. Don’t resist categorizations — it tells editors who the readers are going to be. It’s just a tool.

Subgenres:

  • Hard SF. If you say you write SF, people will think Hard SF. For actual Hard SF, the packaging will be about ideas, rather than people.
  • Adventure/Space Opera. Interplanetary, interstellar conflict. (Fudge science.) The covers show scenes of worlds and conflicts.
  • Epic Fantasy. Not a series of stories, but a long series of books with one story. These are hard to break into, since the publisher has to make such a huge commitment.
  • Traditional Fantasy. Single-title fantasy books, but otherwise the same genre as epic. The same covers as epic. –It’s getting so only fantasy books can use “X of Y” as a title structure.
  • Alternate History/Historical Fantasy. Both are more literary than average. Lush settings and high-quality voice are standard.
  • Military SF. It doesn’t have to be about war, but the POV must come from a military background.
  • Contemporary Fantasy. Un-quest fantasy. Use this if you’re not sure.
  • Magical Realism. A literary term. A dreamlike element has been included. Literary types tend to stick to the original Latin American, 50s/60s origin and get PO’d if you misuse.
  • Cyberpunk. Almost a requirement to be distopian. Not selling as much these days.
  • Urban Fantasy. Contemporary fantasy based on a recognizable mythology (vamps). Not the same thing as paranormal romance, but fueled by the demand. Intentionally low entry point, that is, you don’t need to know much about fantasy to get into it. You could give one to your mom.
  • Horror. Often called Dark fantasy. “If you write horror, figure out what your other leg is standing on.” — Mystery, fantasy, etc.
  • SF marketed as Fantasy. No magic, but it still feels like it. (Anne McCaffrey, Darkover.)
  • Steampunk. Roc is throwing in steampunk fantasy now, too.
  • Slipstream. The new weird. Literary fiction with cognitive dissonance. –Basically, not a lot of people have a handle on this, and it isn’t a major market.
  • Mundane SF. Leave out any “wink nods” of fiction, impossibilities we use to help move stories along, like time travel, interstellar travel, etc. More of a short-story category.

I asked her what Spider Robinson was. “He’s not very defineable,” she said.

Keynote Speakers were the Simonsons.

I was invigorated. I was exhausted. I spent too much money on books.

PPWC: Saturday

Saturday

Agent Pitch to Cherry Weiner (wee-ner). I’d been hearing I was getting too long for my story. Cherry said, “70K? And you’re trying to cut words? No, honey. Add 30K and send it to me.” I don’t know if I’ll get that many in, but man was it a relief to hear that. I’ve been wanting to flesh out some scenes that I cut down. Dance on air 🙂

Graphic Novels, Part II. Everyone threw ideas at the Simonsons. Here was mine:

The Magic Thread, set in modern-day Japan, Manga. A thirteen-year-old girl who hates her family has to save her mother from an evil snow goddess and an ancient whale curse using a magic thread that can find anything. However, she’s derailed by a promise of “help” from a petulant fire god looking for his mortal body.

Walter said he didn’t know much about manga, but Louise liked it.

Various comic companies mentioned as possibilities for everyone’s ideas:

  • Vertigo (Karen Berger)
  • Devil’s Due (likes to get movies made, pays for squat)
  • Darkhorse
  • IDW
  • TokyoPop
  • Papercutz

Basic Screenwriting with Kenny Golde. We covered the basics of screenwriting. Playwrights and screenwriters seem to know structure in a way novelists can only dream of. He sketched out the basic structure of a movie, which other people have covered better so I won’t.
Main points:

  • Every moment of a movie is based on a goal.
  • The clearer the goal, the more engaged the audience is.
  • Comedies often have the most specific goals.
  • Each goal must be crossed by some kind of obstacle.
  • The characters should never achieve goals as they expect to.
  • Bad drama has simple obstacles.
  • The level of obstacles should build through the movie.
  • Good movies have character crises, or moments when the character cannot directly achieve the goal because of the nature of the character. Example: The end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy can solve everything by shooting the ark with a bazooka — except he’s an archaeologist, and he can’t.
  • Never take the climax out of the protagonist’s hands.
  • Read bad scripts as well as good. Try www.script-o-rama.com.
  • Transcribed scripts are made after the movie. Draft scripts are more valuable, because you can see what was cut.
  • Linda Seger’s Making a Good Script Great is good.
  • Final Draft software is the industry standard. You can format your work using MS Word, but if you sell it, buy a copy of Final Draft or you won’t be able to trade your script back and forth.

Keynote Speaker was David Liss. He reminds me of Lee’s brother Mike, both physically and characteristically. Very funny.

It’s No Mystery with Alane Ferguson. Not the talk I was expecting; this was about some simple steps you can take to improve your writing. She was very interesting, but I knew most of this stuff already — but if I’d known it when I was sixteen, I would have saved myself ten years. (I say this because a fourteen-year-old was in the class; she’d won an award for her YA work. Fourteen…an award winner…already going to conferences…clearly, she’s smarter than I ever was.)
Tips:

  • Plot is a skeleton. Refine your conflict until you can write it in 2-3 sentences that revolve around the protagonist.
  • Don’t add too much backstory; use “markers” to sum it up. Example: Mona had a tiger tat on one arm –> we conclude Mona is the kind of person who’d do that, and whose parents couldn’t stop her.
  • Cliche’d characters are dull.
  • If you’re looking for color words, check out the makeup aisle.
  • Use adjectives on a jewelry principal; some accessorizing is good, but don’t get tacky.
  • Let us know the characters’ motivation.
  • Using one POV is easiest.
  • Choose descriptions based on the impression you want to give, not on a literal description. (Don’t say “brown eyes” when you want to imply attractiveness, say “chocolate.”)
  • Stories are made of plot, characters, and dialogue. Weave them somewhat like a braid in your scenes, so we get a little of each: “Outside, a dog yapped. Mandy opened the door to let in a ball of wet, stinky fur. ‘Schatzi! Where have you been?'”

Writing a World that Works by Carol Berg. This woman is my hero of the conference. I’ve been stuck on Iron Road since November 15th, when my characters traveled out of realms I could reasearch (Iowa, 1946) to the strange place known as The Land that Could Not Be Googled.

Tips:

  • SF/F worlds aren’t the only ones that need to be developed; anything out of the audience’s experience has to be handled the same way.
  • A setting is a simple where/when description of a scene. A world is the backdrop, an interconnecting reality.
  • Settings are more vivid if you develop a functional world, even though 90% of the world is an iceberg below the surface. Use the 10% above water to hint about the other 90%.
  • Don’t do it all up front. The world should service the story, not the reverse — unless you’re writing a “world” story.
  • Establish how earthlike the world is. For stories very earthlike, research the earthlike bits (Chicago) and design the rest to fit seamlessly.
  • If not, borrow elements of other human cultures, so you can do some research.
  • Check out Patricia C. Wrede’s world-building questions. Don’t bother answering the ones that don’t apply.
  • Check out Diana Wynne Jones’s Tough Guide to Fantasyland to help weed out cliches.

Four main categories of often-ignored aspects of a world:

  1. Economics. How do people make money? How is food grown — using slaves, agribusiness, feudalism, or tenant farmers? What does the middle class do, if there is one? How does trace work? What’s imported? Who supports the aristocrats? What’s valuable? How are materials transported?
  2. Diversity. Is there a trade language? What’s the civilization before this one? Are there ruins? Are the settlements meant to defend things, keep people out — or in? What are the race and gender roles? Religion, science, and beliefs evolve. Early adopters contrast Luddites. A lack of homogenity is a source of texture and conflict. Empires aren’t grown overnight, but on years of conquest and diplomacy. How much do people know about the rest of the world? What would cause isolation — people tend to spread out.
  3. The Supernatural. What are the bounds of magic, divinity, myth, and science? Where are frictions/resentments? Do the people believe the gods are real? Is the cosmos the way the characters believe it is? How did the world come to be? Legends, rituals, feast days, superstitions. Magic has to have rules, limits, and consequences if it isn’t a copout. If everyone can do magic, how could anybody starve? What are “Newton’s Laws of Magic” in your world? Swearwords.
  4. The Outside. What is the wider world like? Wars your character’s not involved in. What would your characters see if they turned aside from your plot?

What makes a rich detail? Details are rich if they cause emotional reactions and reveal something about the characters — not just the world.

Exercises:

  • List five items found in a garbage heap that your characters have passed by.
  • Walk outside the boundaries of your fictional starting location. List five items your character would see.
  • Now list five things your character would notice if he were blindfolded.
  • What are your character’s reactions to each of these items?

Graphic Novels: State of the Industry with the Simonsons and Steve Saffel. Anybody who’s been keeping up with comics knows the industry has changed: lots of retailers carry comic books…er, I mean, graphic novels. Manga has drawn in more readers. Lots of material is being repurposed — both novels converted into graphic form and graphic works with novel spinoffs. The field is more diverse. Perseopolis. Blankets. Y. Jodi Picault’s Tenth Circle even includes comic-type material. However, the limited shelf space is going to have to be honed. Bookstores are a dangerous market: bookstores can return copies for no charge.

Mainstream publishers are going to be more inclined to sign on finished work; they don’t maintain “bullpens” or collections of writers, artists, letterers, etc., the way Marvel and DC do. Writing comics (without creating the art) is hard to break into, but be wary of brining in the wrong artist just to have a partner: in the editors’ heads, you’re married.

You don’t need an agent as much as you need to meet other people in the field, so go to comic cons. A lot of big publishing houses are showing up at comic cons, looking for graphic novels to publish — completed graphic novels. One-shot comics are still a possibility, but most writers have started to work in 4-5-issue arcs to boost the possibility of getting them republished.

Electronic comics publishing is waiting for better graphics on book readers. Some names thrown around as favorites: Dr. McNinja, Zot, Megatokyo, Zuda comics at DC, Freak Angels. And an audience member threw in DrunkDuck.

Keynote Speaker was Vicki Lewis Thompson, who led a round of Mad Libs. I miss Mad Libs…

PPWC: Friday

Friday

Agent roundtable with Pamela Harty, Kate McKean, and Laurie McLean. My major revelation was that some agents have a focus on selling a novel, while others may also work with you on your proposal, editing on the novel, and even marketing. The impression I got was that small agencies with multiple people share a lot of information with each other. You’re more likely to get an “I give editorial comments” agent if the agent also writes.

Don’t even look at a book that’s out for submissions. In tech-editor speak, once you send your book out, you don’t have configuration management control. Move on to the next thing, and don’t write the second book in a trilogy if the first hasn’t sold yet.

Read and Critique “X”. Bring the first page of your story — in standard manuscript format — and read it in front of an editor or agent. This equates to fourteen lines of text, about a minute. The theory is that if you don’t hook somebody in the first page, you’re not going to get them to read further. Kate McKean’s comment: “Hm…the storytelling voice schtick might get old after a while. Make sure you’re dramatizing. There is actual dialogue after this first page, right?” She also asked whether there would be body-snatching. “Lots,” I said. “Cooooooool,” she said.

Graphic Novels, Part 1 with Walter and Louise Simonson. Speaking from my South Dakota heritage, let me say the Simonsons were good folks.

Walter works like this:

  1. Write a one-page summary of the plot.
  2. Wait for the editors to approve plot.
  3. Draw out an appropriate number of boxes to brainstorm pages — 22 pages for a regular comic or 48-96 pages for a graphic novel. The idea is to pace the story so you’ll know when you’re halfway through your page count.
  4. Draw out quick sketches to compose each page on a piece of typewriter paper.
  5. Copy the layout sketches at 1.5 size (this is standard).
  6. Work out forms — structure drawings — skipping the lettering.
  7. Write the actual script (as late as possible, to keep flexibility between words/pictures)
  8. Make the final drawings, including balloons. (He noted most people do computer lettering/balloons, but he thinks it takes away from some of the drama and gives a little control over text to the editor/company that he doesn’t like.)

Because she doesn’t do the art, Louise turns over a full script after submitting the idea for editorial approval. Each paragraph indicates a single panel.

It is possible to pitch as just a writer; if the company wants to work with you, they’ll find you an artist (caveat: it’s much easier to sell a completed work). The market has been changing so rapidly, with various non-comic companies starting to sell graphic novels, that a lot of companies are enthusiastic, but confused about how to handle the business. Smaller publishers are amenable to pitches but don’t pay well. Hollywood loves graphic novels right now. Neither knew much about whether you’d need an agent to sell a graphic novel as a movie; they said the comic publisher often acted as the agent. Companies use various arrangements for rights; Walter owns his images but the companies own the printing rights. Royalty arrangements vary. Sometimes, if a comic is out of print for five years or more, all rights revert to the author.

Keynote speaker was Carol Berg.


Pikes Peak Writers’ Conference…

You know how it feels when you’ve actually completed a major writing project that you love? Or what it feels like when you’ve finished a really good book? This whole weekend was filled with the sense of “I can do this.” Maybe not, “I can make a living off this and quit my job in six weeks” but “I can do this.” …And now I have to come back to the daily slog. Except Ray has the day off, and I’m working from home, so I get to hang onto it for just a little longer.

To Sum Up:

A professional business writer’s conference with a good focus on genre, rather than purely literary, fiction. Let me caveat here that by genre, I mean anything that could be marketed as other than purely mainstream fiction (although that was included). This includes the “standard” genres of horror, SF/F, and mystery as well as thrillers and Christian/inspirational fiction.

Recommend for beginning writers as well as those looking to move in a professional direction.

Included info on several formats, including comics and screenwriting.

Did not include anything on paying bills by doing freelancing. People were not as knowledgeable about online publishing as I would have liked, although several (including one of the agents) did mention the advantages of blogging/webcomics.

It really is a business conference. The venue was nice if gastronomically bland. Fifty percent of the not-insignificant overall benefit was in schmoozing with other people in the business. I found other people that I work with but haven’t met who do SF/F (big place), and I’m planning to bug them then I get back to my address book at work, and several people I don’t work with that share my sense of humor and I can’t wait to get stuff from them to read. I met agents. I…have networked!


Alien Blueyness.

Bill Trout and Miss Dewey, after Bill’s made an offer to help her with something:

“See you tomorrow?”

“I’ll have to go home, take my shoes off, wrap myself up in Mom’s quilt, and think about it.”

I goggled at her. “A quilt? Won’t that be hot?”

“Oh, no,” she smiled. She held her hands out, as if she were holding up the quilt and showing it to me. Some people do that, trying to show you what’s in their mind via their hands. “It’s an old, thin thing, no thicker than a couple of sheets. I’ve replaced the back once already. My mother pieced it together for me when she was twelve.”

That stopped me. “She made a quilt for you when she was only twelve? When were you born?”

“Oh, not for another ten years. But she knew I would be coming along eventually, and she wouldn’t have time do to it then. It’s even got my name on it.”

I shook my head at that and held open the door for her. I spent the rest of the night wondering if I would ever be gentle enough to live with such a creature. It’d be like living with a Ming vase. Fragile. Precious.

New Logline…

Okay, it’s after pitch practice, and I have a new logline. Two, actually. One is “Hollywood High Concept” and goes like this:

So Spider Robinson and Kurt Vonnegut go to a bar and decide to write a story about aliens, and that’s Alien Blue.

I’m supposed to say that first. And then:

Anyway, after this ornery New Mexico bar owner is hornswaggled into hiding an alien he hates for 16 years, the alien is found, and the bar owner ends up risking his life, his friends’ lives, and even his bar to save the guy.

Which is just opening up a can of worms, which is (I guess) the point.

The More Things Change.

Ray and I went to the exhibits at the 24th National Space Symposium last week. I could go into detail, but I can sum it up accurately by saying it was the Farm and Home Show of Outer Space.

Ray came home with a bag of swag and I got to say, “I work for that company…and that company…and that company…” Better than a “Go to work with Mom” day, for the most part. We spent a lot of time talking to an AI robot that resembled #5 and just missed shaking hands with Buzz Aldrin.

If only they’d had carnival rides out in the Broadmoor parking lot, it would have been the perfect State Fair experience.

Practice Loglines.

I’m working on my short Alien Blue descriptions tonight to prepare for Pitch Practice tomorrow.

Here’s the Who/What/How (Who tries to do What How?) formulaic version:

After helping hide an escaped interstellar criminal for the past sixteen years, a New Mexico bar owner plays one last gambit to save his town and the alien–by erasing everyone’s memories.

–Sounds okay, but unfortunately it’s not entirely accurate, and the focus of the book isn’t on the last gambit anyway.

Here’s the “Write it like a movie trailer” version:

[NINA is sitting at a table in an eclectic barroom. A hand comes out of nowhere to slam a mug of bright blue beer on her table.]

BILL: ‘Lo there, missy.

VOICEOVER BILL: I got a story to tell–and one night to tell it. It all started when Anam Ba’hana came to town. He ain’t human…

[Cut to a small, old-fashioned courtroom, tinged in “flashback sepia.” MAYOR JACK sits on the edge of a table, glaring at professional MARTIE. BILL stands on the other side of the table, agape. Sitting beside MARTIE is ANAM, looking like a famine victim in a cheap suit. ANAM shakes so hard the table rattles on the floor.]

BILL: You want me to help hide an alien with a death sentence?

MARTIE: [Matter of fact, ignoring BILL] Jack, it’s only until we can figure out how his ship works.

JACK: Now, that’s the cold-hearted bitch I remember.

BILL: And how do you think we’re going to do that?

MARTIE: Tell them he’s a paleontologist. A dinosaur-hunter.

[BILL and JACK look at ANAM. A rope of drool rolls off his gaping lips.]

BILL: Right. Nobody’s going to figure that out.

VOICEOVER BILL: …And neither are the people chasing him.

[Cut to a small bathroom. MARTIE is gripping the sink and staring angrily in the mirror. A cracking sound, and the camera zooms in on what looks like a barnacle, which leaks a stream of blue goo up the wall. A rustle of clothing and a muffled scream. MARTIE’s arm flashes by the screen, with a trail of blue along her wrist. A thump. A pause. The toilet flushes.]

[Cut to the barroom. BILL is encouraging SAM to take a sip of beer. The door chimes.]

MARTIE: [In a flat voice] Anam is coming with me.

BILL: No, he ain’t.

[MARTIE pulls out a gun and aims it at ANAM. BILL hits her repeatedly with the beer mug.]

[Cut to MARTIE lying on the barroom floor. Blue flecks are dripping out of her mouth. Bill pushes back her lower lip and sees a mass of blue shards.]

BILL: What the hell?

ANAM: My brother has stolen this body. Maybe more.

BILL: [Sitting back and looking out the window] Jack!

[Cut to BILL high-tailing it down a dusty, small-town street, dragging ANAM behind him.]

VOICEOVER BILL: And that was just the beginning.

[Cut back to NINA in the present. She’s sipping the blue brew while BILL watches her.]

NINA: What did you do then?

BILL: It’s a long story.

[Cut to a bunch of exciting snippets from the rest of the story, which I am too lazy to go into here.]

NINA: I have time.

[Cut to Nina, who sets the mug back on the table. The camera zooms in until it’s following a suspiciously blue drip down the side of the mug. Title flashes: ALIEN BLUE.]

–Fun to write, but NOT a log line. Also, Bill may seem too passive.

Here’s a more sensible version:

A small-town bar owner fights to save his friends from alien invaders after they hide an interstellar criminal in the New Mexico desert.

–Which does NOT capture the feel of the book whatsoever, but it’s accurate and short.

More after tomorrow’s practice, I guess.

Writing Article.

Here’s a good article on writing “log lines,” or very short descriptions of your work. It’s written to focus on screenwriting but works for fiction, too.

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