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Friday, April 24, 2015

The Art of the Sex Scene (ConCarolinas 2014 Writing Panel Notes)

Hello again! As promised in Wednesday's notes, here's what I took away from what was lovingly called "the sex panel". Once again, a different take from what you can find under this tag in the archives. What else can I say? Enjoy! ;)

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The Art of the Sex Scene
Tyffani Clark Kemp, Susan H. Roddey, Alexandra Christian, Crymsyn Hart, Marcia Colette, Tamsin L. Silver, James R. Tuck
Moderator: Emily Lavin Leverett
When you chose to write under a pseudonym, if you did, why?
EL: Edited under a pseudonym because of professional commitments.
TS: Chose a penname because of father’s religious affiliations,
CH: Hart is real, Crymsyn is not, used to work at a place where she might have been fired
AC: Teaching second grade when she started
SR: Writes under 2 names because writes wildly different things. Never intended to write romance. Not hiding anything.
TC: Wanted to publish each genre as a different name because of friends who would have wanted her to write good girl
AC: Why would we have sex if we weren’t supposed to enjoy it? Jesus needs love too.
JT: Working on a Christian erotica in his spare time, called Come to Jesus.
EL: The point is, a lot of it was about our jobs. It’s okay to write something where people get their heads chopped off but it’s not okay to show sex. In this insecure job market people don’t want to risk unemployment.

Audience question: What about copyright issues and theft?
JT: The second you create it, you own the copyright. Frauds and ripoffs will only happen when you’re successful, so don’t worry about it right now.
CH: There was a situation where one person was lifting whole passages from old Harlequin romances, but only after several novels, and it was a reader who picked it up. She’ll probably never write again.

Audience question: Are erotica writers more geared towards finding an agent, or less?
EL: The things erotic writers sell the best are shorts, which usually aren’t represented.
AC: Publishing is so not trad right now; agents don’t want to pick up anyone unless they’re guaranteed to make sales, and lots of smaller presses don’t require an agent.
EL: Even bigger ones don’t want an agent.
JT: Write short, write quick, submit to as many as possible, and once you have a platform and some fans, self publish (from then on). Erotica is where the money is.
AC: And your genre is also important if you’re going to go that route. What’s selling right now are BDSM, male/male.

EL: Men are sexy. Several men are several sexy.
TS: Apparently women not regularly reading regular romance not being comfortable with their sexuality.
JT: Like men watching girl on girl porn.
EL: Edited a lot of m/m, and a lot of them were gay love stories.
SR: The type of women reading this are not outwardly comfortable with their sexuality or admit they’re sexual creatures.
AC: Participate in your own sex fantasies.
Audience comment: m/m Yaoi manga has been popular for years in Japan.

Audience question:  What has changed with women’s roles in erotica, and them taking the stereotypical passive roles?
EL: It can be anything these days.
SR: Depends on the subject, and on who’s writing. Sometimes you can pick up that they’re extremely misogynistic and extremely angry. Occasionally it’s a man you’ve stuck boobs on.
AC: Traditionally in erotica the female roles have been a lot more empowered than they are in traditional romance. A lot of the new wave involves the women being fascinated by the idea of being dominated. A curiosity. We may be trending back that way.
EL: One of the fascinations with 50 Shades is that women are working and taking care of the house, and like the idea of a guy coming in and and saying they’lll take care of everything. It’s a pleasant fantasy.

Audience question: Recently read an article which said that sex lives are disrupted by men trying to make love to their wives to make porn. Are you conscious of realistic sex vs. porn sex when you write?
CH: Make the body parts match up.
EL: And unless you’re writing weird sci-fi the dick can only be in one place at once. But experiencing sex via the written word is different from experiencing it visually.
AC: Issue with the concept that erotic writers and erotic romance writers are writing instruction manuals. A lot of people are taking fantasy in books and porn on television too seriously. Sex is supposed to be about fun, and fun is not always possible in the real world.
JT: When you write a sex scene and you try for reality you realize that reality is messy.
TC: Wants to read something different, steamy, not something she can do in the bedroom.
EL: Awkward sex scenes can be sweet and can even be effective if done right.

Audience question: Do you need experience to write it?
JT: You need research partners.
EL: Or you need the BDSM handbook.
TS: Read books on it, get to know it, look up things on the internet like you probably do already, read books by writers writing great erotica. Emulate what you see. Write stuff, get feedback. Just as you would with any other writng.
MC: Critique groups will give you great feedback.
CH: You can buy the mannequin dolls you can pose. It helps if you’re writing a 4-5 person ménage.
AC: As with anything, readaing in your genre, reading good things, is important. You don’t need a ton of experience. But it does help to have a little bit. Also, watch some porn.
SR: Yes, watch porn. If you don’t have a lot of experience, it helps to have experience of hwo things work and what goes where and what it looks like so that you can make it look okay on paper.
JT: Watching porn is great, but as a male writer if you’re going to watch porn, you have to take porn with a grain of salt, because those ladies in the more extreme porn are not human.
EL: Don’t write “She was so excited when he came and she didn’t.”
AC: Thomas Roche writes incredible erotica. Also, Ellora’s cave is pushing their for men line.
TC: Was a virgin 4-5 months before she started writing her erotica, so you don’t need to be super experienced but you do need to know the basics.
Audience comment: Has toured a BDSM club and sex toy stores.

Audience question: What is the most difficult thing about writing sex?
CH: Making the sex not boring after 80 books. Will cut and paste, then change it because you can only have so many insert tab-A into slot-B.
SR: Sometimes when writing an erotic romance, you can dim the lights and close the door.
JT: You don’t have to constantly one-up yourself. Hopefully sex doesn’t become routine but you do learn what becomes comfortable and enjoyable. There’s a temptation to starting off Vanilla and making it more creative or escalating it. That’s not necessary.
TS: Keeps in mind: How does the sex move the story along? When does someone realize there’s more than just sex. Emotions are important as well. It’s a way to keep it fresh.
AC: Humor is how she keeps it fresh. Sex is supposed to be fun. If it’s not, you shouldn’t be doing it or reading it.
MC: Likes to change up the scene. Change where the sex takes place, to make the sex interesting.
SR: You do it because you can.

Note from the authors: This is very binary. M/M, F/F, M/F – but one thing to keep in mind is that you can’t forget there are things people consider non-normative. There are spaces in erotica where these non-normative voices can be explored. Which is really important in the SF/F community.
AC: Trans is the up-and-coming term.
SR: “Gender fluid”, too.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Romance in Fantasy: How Much is Too Much? (ConCarolinas 2014 Writing Panel Notes)

Hey everyone! So I'm back with more notes. Emerald City Comic-Con was amazing, and I can't wait to share the notes I brought back from that trip. But, owing to my less than spectacular summer and fall, I still have everything I learned at last year's ConCarolinas! So, with that in mind, let's have a gander at the first topic ...

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Romance in Fantasy – How Much is Too Much?

Chris A. Jackson, James R. Tuck, Tamsin L. Silver, C.L. Wilson, Susan H. Roddey, Marcia Colette, Alexandra Christian, Crymsyn Hart
Moderator: Janine Spendlove

So, How Much is Too Much (if you’re writing a straight up fantasy novel)?
JT: Love between two people is what makes this whole world happen. If you don’t have love, if your character doesn’t have a connection with another character, then the story doesn’t feel right. Even platonic love.
CJ: RPG fiction is steering away from it, and the fiction suffers.

Romance writers – do you set out to write a romance novel, or does it just happen?
AC: It just happens. She never set out to write a romance novel. Always about the story first. And the stories always seem to have a relationship in them. That’s the kind of story she wants to tell. She writes the story she sets out to read. The interaction between the characters is the part she likes best.
SR: It’s not about writing a romance novel, it’s about writing a story. If the romance happens, that’s how the story was going to naturally progress.
MC: One thing she likes most about the characters is the whole journey. When they set out, you don’t see something happening, then there’s always this sexual tension that builds. She goes with the tension, even if it doesn’t explode until page 200.
Audience comment: The hero becomes worthy of the relationship, worthy of the heroine falling in love with.
AC: It’s okay for her to save him on occasion.
JT: It’s happening in the Deacon Chalk series. Made a conscious decision to write a character that’s completely broken. A girl he meets is the one who saves him.
CL: Sets out to write romance in every single book. Both the fantasy and the romance elements are equally important to the storyline. The woman has to earn her happy ending as well. Both have personal emotional and external issues that together they overcome and they cement a solid lasting relationship. There’s always an external plot but the romance plot drives the action forward and ideally contributes to resolving the external problems as well.

Without Naming Specific Stories, What Are Pet Peeves of Yours?
JS: That rescuing the princess is presented as a reward. It promotes an undercurrent of misogyny.
SR: Finding a book that has so much promise and looks interesting but then the story can’t decide where it wants to go, and you lose sight of the world or the romance because it can’t make up its mind. Especially a romance novels with fantasy elements.
AC: Men with boobs. Loves to read urban fantasy with a good romance. But she’s sick of the urban fantasy stereotype that she has to either be a whiny waif, or a bitchy tomboy who would basically be a guy but has a female name.
JT: Women are strong. They’re vessels of life. If men had babies there would be no people in the world. So the trope of superstrong feminine characters in fantasy doesn’t need to happen. Women are strong enough already. They are stronger in different ways.
JS: Women in the army bring diverse things to the table.
CJ: The idea that the character is incomplete without a relationship. You are a human being without a relationship. A relationship is something else. The relationship doesn’t complete you.
JT: Hates the fated love, “we have to be together”. Likes it when they have to choose, they have to earn it. Not love at first sight. If love at first sight happens it should fuck up their lives completely.
MC: Using the love triangle as the main source of conflict. If you can’t come up with a better storyline than that, just don’t write the book.
JS: Man-Made-Boy made it work out, but that’s an exception.
Audience comment: When they’re in the midst of danger and they stop for a sex scene. Or there’s so much sex in the book that they don’t manage to accomplish anything.
AC: Erotica and erotic romance is not pornography. Pornography is about the sex. Erotica and erotic romance is about the story. More artistic. About the relationship.
CW: In romance, the relationship helps them grow. In erotica, the sex is the catalyst for change.

What about inter-species romance? (E.g. humans and dragons)
CJ: The idea that non-humans are people isn’t much explored, and he enjoyed bursting that bubble.
JS: Falling in love in interspecies isn’t hard, but how do you tackle intimacy?
CJ: Magic to help make it work.
SR: The problem is whether or not they can classify it as bestiality if you have a human having sex with an animal or similar creature, an act that is illegal in most states in the US. Is it illegal for a human to have a relationship with the animal when the animal is not in human form?
Audience: If Amazon finds out a shapeshifter has sex with a human in their non-human form they can pull it.

Audience question/comment: Unhappy with the trope of “when a woman is raped but they fall in love with their rapist and that (somehow) makes it okay”.
JT: That story happens more than we’d like it to.
JS: We’re becoming more culturally aware of that. That’s what matters.
CJ: Know your market, know your readers.
SR: If the relationship is the product of the environment in which you set your story, that may justify it more. Technically, what we do today would be considered different or obscene in a different world, no matter how bad.

Audience question: What about falling out of love?
JS: Not fun to write, but it’s interesting and fascinating to understand why those two people are no longer together. Every relationship you ever have is a failed relationship until your last one.
CW: Tries to appeal to romance, so often it’s the villain causing the split, but eventually strives for a happy ending.
JT: When you step out of genre you can do a really good job of it. E.g. the movie Closer.

When writing so many intimate scenes, how do you keep it fresh?
CH: Has a tendency to go way outside the box, dives into space yetis and shapeshifting aliens and bigfoots.
CJ: Writing an intimate scene that isn’t physically possible is just as hard as writing a fight scene like that.
MC: When the toys are in the room. Puts people in different places, different situations, keep it fresh.
TS: Also, keeping it fun. When working on it, characters became friends and to keep it interesting but keep the lighthearted playfulness helps.
CW: It isn’t about the sex. It’s about the emotional state of the hero and heroine at that moment. There is more happening
JT: When you write a sex scene, you have to ask yourself what the point is. Why? The purpose and the feel has to have meaning of some sort to be relevant to the story.
CJ: Not so much about self gratification as it is about enjoying the other person’s gratification.
ST: If writing a book with explicit sex and lots of scenes, you don’t have to write out every single act. It’s okay to fade to black, move onto something different see what you want to see.

Note: after that last question, the authors all emphasized an important fact:


Check back Friday for that.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Looking Past the Target Audience (ECCC 2014 Writing Panel Notes)

And here we are, just under the wire. I saved the best for last; this panel on avoiding dated tropes, othering, and how to approach writing diverse characters in one's work was lively and intense. There's a lot of great info here. This actively extends the conversation touched on in other posts, such as Everything We Know is Sexist: Now What? and Writing Diversity. A discussion that should never end.

No, I don't normally wait a full year to post all of my notes from a convention, but I'm glad I finally have the opportunity to get these posted. Don Rocko and I are driving down to ECCC 2015 later today. In the meantime, enjoy what I learned at this awesome panel!

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Looking Past the Target Audience

Rachel Edidin, Regina Buenaobra, Cheryl Lynn Eaton, G. Willow Wilson, Andy Khouri, Sfe M., Scotty Iseri

What this Panel is About
- Brief history: This panel started a year ago because of the lack of intersectional diversity
- This is not Diversity 101. This is much more.
- Intersectionality: What it means to look at diversity from an intersectional angle

RB: Intersectionality assumes that we all live at the intersection of different identities, we’re a mix – power dynamics and struggles with various identities, not just one single identity

RE: When someone is described as from a mixed race background, assumption that it’s “White and (something).”

Panels often address one subject – the women’s panel, the queer panel, etc.

There are still a lot of stereotypes

Diversity in media and representation of characters – what does it mean to see yourselves in media? What do you look for? What do you latch onto when you find it?

CLE: Depends on age of person. When younger, visual representation was important, but as she got older wanted to find meaningful stories, creators of colour, women telling stories.

AK – Looks for intersectional characters. Lots of characters are delineated. White guy from Kansas, black guy from Africa. Willow’s Miss Marvel is Islamic American, dealing with tension that is rarely represented.

This not just about allegorical representation, but otherness, because people grow up thinking allegory is enough. Often the “different” character is used as cautionary tale. Healthy character stories, people living fulfilling lives, are never told.

AK: Example: Queer villain trope in fantasy

RE: There’s a consistent trend of queering and effeminization of male villains, even female villains – this is about moving beyond that.

RE: Geek culture – default definitions of not what a geek is, but what they look like, what their identity is, how they identify and react with that culture. What are your interactions and challenges?

SI: There have been growing pains – geek culture is now mainstream culture, cons are big, whereas as a tribe we’ve been historically downtrodden and pushed aside. But the fake nerd girl bullying is a reaction to all these new people in our party.

AK: Geek culture used to be defined as your interest in fringe tings, but now everyone has to share their experience of being into something few people used to be interested in.

CLE: By being part of a minority, it can be frustrating when you fall into different groups and those groups cut you out because of certain parts of you (coloured, female, etc).

Mandarin short on Thor 2 video: Mandarin goes to jail, and the assumption is that he is LGBT.

GWW: The impression is that when you’re in a fringe group, there’s an assumption it’s okay to other different groups. Even you’re part of a minority, it’s okay to make fun of everyone. There’s the assumption that you will find no allies in some groups. Someone even more on the outside than you are is still okay to make fun of. And then allies you could have had feel they don’t belong. There’s an unconscious need to keep the people you see as beneath you down.

CLE: It’s cute when you do it with Star Trek vs. Star Wars identities, but with these other identities, it hurts.

RE: If you ever hear someone call Big Bang Theory “nerd blackface”, tell them to go to hell. This is something you see in feminist communities, too. In one group, women who were gamers, comics fans, and yet heterosexual felt that because they were girls they had to make it clear that they were super straight. When we talk about women in comics we don’t mean “Women like you”. So, how do you change the landscape of the industry, the community?

SI – Looking for women writers for tv show, to maintain that balance in the room, but looking at narrative tropes of sci fi, not wanting to do star wars where bad guys are eerily foreign yet slightly familiar, looking to make a show with a good balance of creative talent, diverse, but anti the usual stabs at ethnicity (token character, etc) – imagine a world beyond that where they don’t have to do the Xmas ep.

CLE: Don’t have to do the Xmas episode when you have those people in the group to begin with. It’s normal, it’s natural. It’s up to the people in charge of building the community, the hiring, to make this a reality.

GWW: And as much as we talk about how important it is to have representation on the creative side, but also we need them on the editorial and executive side, because they are the gatekeepers. The conversation needs to also be, who’s on the other side of the table.

RE: Statistically, people hire other people of their own backgrounds because we’re humans and tribal and look for people like us, people we feel “safe” around. Left to our own devices, there are a lot of decent people perpetuating stereotypes.

RB: Questioning things is important. Example: ArenaNet – has 2 canon queer storylines, a pansexual race, looks for things that may speak to a different audience.

AK: There are benefits to hiring a diverse audience. The nature of the Internet mitigates a hiring bias. Not just people writing about their Xmas, but coming from different backgrounds influences the way you experience the world and the stuff you want to talk about. Maybe not to do with their personal identityy, but what they’ve discovered based on their journey.

CLE: Don’t just say “let’s have a diverse group for diverse experiences” – don’t come away assuming you can write about your culture. Your experience as your identity can write these things, but remember that the filter you were raised with will colour your story. But don’t think you can’t write about a culture because you haven’t experienced that culture directly.

SI: Having a wide variety of experiences affects us overall.

RE: We all bring our defaults and filters, they impact everything, small ways you interact with the world. Who’s doing it right, and what are they doing we can emulate?

AK: We are.

GWW: Ms. Marvel (young Muslim female superhero) – She didn’t think it would work, but she’s happy that Marvel sought it out. It’s stunning, but it’s a choice. At the end of the day, you want as many people interested as possible, but it’s rare to actually see thinking like that. And it’s not a model minority book, either; it’s a story about a girl in Jersey.

SI: Archie comics has done a good job. All characters of Riverdale are American high USA and that’s all normal, even the gay and black characters.

RE: Don’t ask why a character so demographically scattered, ask why aren’t they. With fiction, you can create that.

AK: Show Lost – a very diverse cast, each with their own backstory they bring to the present adventure.

AK: If you build it, they will come.

RE: ECCC tries to program to the audience they want to have, not based on what people who came last year liked. They’ve deliberately created space for diversity. Last of Us: main character is scruffy middle age dude. DLC and book - Naughty Dog deliberately wanted a story that people who bought the game didn’t necessarily want to see, a perspective they wouldn’t necessarily stumble on – intense teenage girl friendship, with the girls romantically involved, and this story made an interracial lesbian teenage couple the central characters. Using that is really cool and smart.

Question: What are good practices for privileged authors who want to include minorities, identities they don’t have?

RB: Ask people of those identity to read your work, review them. More than one.

CLE: Have friends of these various. The wider your world is, the wider your writing is going to be.

GWW: One also has to be psychologically diligent about the difference btw being an ally and being a savior – don’t put your idea of what success looks like into the mouths of these characters. Don’t just go with your own default narrative. An ally listens. Change your identity to allow someone else’s perspective into your life.

AK: Writing this stuff requires living and having experiences, learning about and getting to know people. Don’t just reblog what’s already out there. Go beyond what your understanding of what life is about.

SI: When asked if “is this offensive”, think, is this person going to get more of “okay” or “well, actually” – responsibility to educate rather than just being offended. Question whether it’s your story to tell. IF someone’s already out there writing that story, then give them the privilege and platform to pass it on to that person.

CLE: Mentoring also helps – allow those folks to mentor you.

Tweet other questions to @raebeta; tumblr extends conversation. This topic is waaay to big for one hour, one panel, seven people; so check out

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Writing for Young Adults (ECCC 2014 Writing Panel Notes)

I know, *another* panel on writing YA. Yet every single one I've attended seems to tackle the subject in a different way. Here's what the authors at ECCC 2014 had to say.

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Writing for Young Adults
Ellen Guon Beeman, Lisa Mantchev
Moderator: Ren Cummins

How would you define the differences that distinguish YA fiction from all the other genres?

EGB: It's like Pixar said. About how storytelling is approached. Write the stories you want to tell, then take out bits not suitable for a young audience. Emotionally resonant stories that have strong impact and serious issues, then make sure they’re appropriate for a younger audience.

LM: Enjoyed YA when growing up, and didn’t sit down thinking, “This is a YA novel and needs to be X, Y, Z”. The character determines the story. Different imprints deal with diff stuff. Range of what’s considered acceptable. Various editors have certain preferences. Tell the story your characters are bringing you and they will decide where it’s slotted.

How has having children influenced, tailored or changed your perceptions in writing stories?

EGB: Part of it was edgy and not intended for younger readers, but having daughters – thought, “I can write stuff they can’t read, or I can write stuff for them.” So she writes for them.

LM: Wrote a lot of short fiction, then wrote a novel with a small child. Want to expose kids to certain ideas but have them ask questions. Writing the novels when she was small she didn’t think about it. But now as she’s older she thinks about the books that are out there on the market, and what’s missing. As a parent she brings that into her writing. You find you write edgier as your children get older, and will also write for your core audience aging to keep them as readers. Pushes herself out of comfort zones.

Can you gently nudge your tone, age the books up with your characters and readers? (i.e. Rowling did it brilliantly over 7 books)

LM: When you get to a certain age, everything is typically darker, more important. It naturally edges up over multiple books. The character looks back and sees everything that’s happened.

EGM: Something to be said for providing parents with age-appropriate, too.

There seems to be a requisite that protagonists have to be in the same age range as main character. Do you believe that’s a requirement?

LM: Doesn’t happen as often in YA, as they’re specifically going after readers looking for a certain experience in target parameters, targeted age range is because the readers are looking for someone that’s like them.

EGB: Baen books doesn’t do kids books, so the characters are typically older.

LM: Not every agent handles every genre, but also certain agents represent specific age ranges.

EGB: Wrote a very dark story, then translated it down to childrens' books.

LM: Amazon is getting into publishing, acquiring books and putting them out in hardcover; hopefully they will promote the heck out of it

LM: Really do write the story you love and needs to be told, and throw yourself into it, with the understanding that the more passion you put into it, the better end product it is going to be. This is especially true for YA because those books are the refuges, the places to escape when things are bad. There’s a responsibility when it’s being targeted at YA. Your books may be read by someone who needs those words.

LM: Have a teenager read what you’ve written to get their feedback. The voice and cadence. Soak in dialogue. Also, don’t date it with references.

LM: Teenagers have the most disposable income.

How have you found collaborating with other writers?

EGB: When you reach the “I hate this book” stage of the writing process, writing collaboratively is really fun, and the energy is great, too.

LM: It also helps the voice. Google Docs can be fun to collaborate with as well.

Audience Question: What about writing characters older than readers?

You want your characters to be a few years older than your target audience. Lots of people reading it, still read it. Another reason why the New Adult.

Audience Question: When writing other genders, other sexualities, affect the telling of the story, and who will publish it?

LM: Depends on the publisher. If the story is good, it will find a home.

EGB: Readability matters.

Audience Question: How far is too far with romance?

LM: Again, depends on the publisher. There are lots of YA books that include and describe sexual content, and lots that only hint at it. There is some concern about blowback from libraries, school libraries, parents, so it narrows the margin about what concerns each publisher may have. They’re less concerned about the content than what it provokes.

EGB: Has to be plot-important, integral to the story. Every plot element needs to be integral to the story.

LM: Put it in there and wait for someone to tell you about it, if it’s an issue. Won’t stop a publisher from acquiring a book that they love. Put it in there, they’ll tell you how much they want you to dial it back, then it’s up to you to decide how much you’re okay with.

Audience Question: Is there a relationship between the story’s reading audience and protagonists being too young or too old? Usually it seems to makes more sense to go older with a character’s age than the age of the readers.

LM: Sometimes the story calls for the character to start younger and age older. As a kid you don’t want to read about younger characters, but as an older reader, everything goes. 17 is usually a good age.

EGB: The age of the character is often pegged by the story being told. Starts with the story she wants to write then decides the age category.

LM: Also, in a large cast, the best friend is often a year younger or older.

EGB: The love interests are, too.

Audience Question: Do you have any advice for encouraging young writers? What would you tell them?

LM: There are internet resources – tons of online resources. Try NaNoWriMo, but don’t wait for November. January is a fantastic month. But for a novelist, every month is NaNo. It teaches them to meet deadlines and expectations. For the ones who want to keep going, there are workshops taught by writers. Let them find critique groups, too, as peer editing and review is educational and you learn how to deal with it. And if you learn how to say something doesn’t work in someone else’s work, you learn to see your own errors.

EGB: Critique group format: 1-1.5K per session, the writer reads it out loud, everyone takes notes. Always start with something positive. Sandwiching good-bad-good isn’t required, but can be helpful, too.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Breathing Life into Your Characters (ECCC 2014 Writing Panel Notes)

Aaand we're back, with more great notes from last year's Emerald City Comic Con! I really enjoyed the insight here in this great Q&A panel about character.

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Breathing Life into Your Characters

Emma Michaels, Marie Frances, Cornelia Funke
Moderator: Heather Reasby

With short stories: do you have tips and tricks to help add quick depth to a character?

EM: Put them into a situation that tests them. The situation and how they react to it is vital.
MF: Come in with a backstory, what character they’ve developed..
CF: The leaner you can get, the better – you can get so brilliant, sometimes do the first draft fast, rewrite it many times, then read it aloud. Keep some secrets (don’t explain too much). Have them contradictory, have a lot of fun with it, then work on the language. If the language doesn’t work, the story won’t work. Don’t think about how it would sell. Feel like a magician when you do it, and it will be fine.

Do you have any secret weapons or go-to techniques, best ways to get into characters and really develop them?

CF: A character sometimes just comes to you. Keeps a character bible by hand, images of characters she doesn’t know yet – don’t just use actors as models because it’s so dangerous, the characters are already taken and overused.
MF: Characters just come to her. Sees someone who looks distinctive and the character will come to her. Allow the character to surprise you.
EM: Don’t force it if the storyline and character don’t mesh. Do a lot of people watching. Think about the people you love, and even they have flaws.
CF: Every character has a little bit about yourself.

What are some tips for trying to understand in a way characters, especially main characters, that are very different from you?

CF: Expect that they will lie to you, surprise you. (Doesn’t believe in writer’s block, it’s just that the story tricked you and you are stymied by the surprise.)
EM: Observe, make sure the characters don’t give you illusions about them, don’t let them become more than who they are (characteristic wise). Don’t be afraid to test the limits, or to test your own limits as well. Write like only you can write.

Characters more interesting in story you put them in – how do you fix that?

EM: Don’t be afraid to not think of them so much as your friends but of yourself as an onlooker. Put them in extreme situations and circumstances.
CF: Don’t overdo plot. Find out what your style is.
EM: Don’t be afraid to have your fiction be honest. Don’t just write tailored work. Write what you’re actually feeling.
CF: Don’t expect overnight success. Also, characters are only interesting if they have an interesting story.

What comes first, the situation or the character? Tips for characters for both types?

CF: Both work. Can make the location, have a canvas on which you paint, then the location will give you the character. The richness of the location can sometimes evoke characters. But sometimes a character will step into your life and demand a story.

How do you illustrate a character’s flaws when writing young, flawed characters – especially younger ones?

CF: Don’t write the flaws down. Young characters know who they are. They’re not as masked, they’re clever. The older we get we put ourselves in a box. A child is a hundred people at the same time, and is okay with that. Grownups question everything they say, how they are perceived. Children are in many ways our better selves. Make them as clever and clear as you want. They are surprising with how clever and how much they know.

EM: Sometimes story or character comes from an object.

CF: Often it’s back and forth: story feeds into character into story. Every story is another challenge. They’re so interwoven.

Tips on making characters sound different?

MF: Listen to the characters, let them say what they’re going to say, give them the freedom to do that and evolve on their own. They’ll develop their own voices. Don’t let them completely derail the story, wrangle as necessary, but do listen to them.

EM: Choose something you know they’d be judged based off of, and show that it’s actually really beautiful, fascinating, wonderful.

CF: Watching the world from a slightly different angle is a privilege.

EM: Even getting to see the world as uglier is a privilege.

How do you approach a character with an accent?

CF: Can’t do it in German – doing so is perceived as dumb, making fun of the character.

EM: The same way the character comes to her. Also, if a different language is your first language, the order of the way you think about things, the thought pattern, is different. The character’s language can be simpler, more complex, more poetic.

HR: The devil is in the details. Look at word order but don’t throw a heavy amount of dialect to overwhelm the reader.

CF: Different speakers use word choice differently, too.

How do you convey to audience what the character is thinking, get into characters’ heads, to your audience?

CF: Complete inner monologue chapters, association, remembering, but do it indirectly but have it echo from an object or incident. Inner dialogue.

EM: You can explain things without spelling them out – a word here and there can hint at their thought process. Also, tries switching between first and third person to get the outside, the inside perspectives to see it anew and then choose.

How do you avoid writing stereotypes?

MF: Think outside the box, make characters for the fun of it. See how they evolve.

EM: Look beyond what the stereotype shows. There’s always a reason for something, something that caused something, the way things are.

CF: Sometimes people are actually a stereotype. Some people hide from themselves, wear the mask, want to be just the stereotype. Can use for comedic effect.

What about giving a villain an in-depth story?

CF: The villains are the ones she knows last. Not cliché. Voldemort is a good villain. The ones that surprise you.

MF: Loves writing complex villains with understandable motivation. Usually villains act and heroes react. Villain should be complex, more interesting, to explain why they’ve turned to those actions. The best villains she’s ever read had something redeemable about them, something likeable, so you can sympathize.

EM: Think about the villains in your life. Who’s made themselves a villain to you and how did they do it, how did they become a villain in your eyes? Sometimes it’s about them making a mistake at the wrong moment. Sometimes villains view themselves as having messed up, and working that into a villain can help you know why they’re doing what they’re doing.

CF: Sometimes we underestimate evil. You think there can’t be as much evil in the world as you hear about. It’s easy to romanticize villains. There’s a danger in romanticizing violence, evil, understanding every crime as something we all do. So when you create a character, don’t necessarily make them charismatic. Evil isn’t romantic. It’s horrible. True evil is crippled, and someone who doesn’t love, feel compassion, is a dark hole. Try to make them hateful, have the reader want them to die. Have respect for that. See the potential in evil that it is crippled and not glamorous.

CF: Write for the passion, not to trends.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Business of Writing: Publishing, Money, & More (JoCo Cruise 2015 Notes)

A St. Martin lizard munches on rare greenery sprouting from the dry, packed earth. Caption: Well, this is some food for thought.

One of the many awesome things about the cruise I was on last month was the sheer number of creative people in attendance: musicians, artists, and of course, writers. And I particularly enjoyed this class given by science fiction author John Scalzi, who provided a crash course in the business side of the craft based on what he teaches at Viable Paradise, well-researched and complete with consultation from financial advisors. What follows is what I think is a lot of very useful information, as well as some painful truths about money. But like I tell my physiotherapist when he jabs needles in my injured leg to stimulate the nerves and encourage healing: I get it, it's the necessary kind of pain.

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The Business of Writing: Publishing, Money, & More
John Scalzi

The Publishing Landscape Today

Types of Publishing
- Traditional
- Self
- Subscription Models

Publishing Formats and Typical Earnings
- The rise of electronic models, e-readers, and electronic books
- E-books are a significant part of the landscape. in 2005 they were 1-2% of the market; now authors often sell more in e-books than in hardcover. Frequently, they now make up 30-70% of a writer’s business.
- Hardcovers: There is flat amount paid per unit sold; writers usually get 10% of that cost
- The fixed cost is based on cover price set by the publisher.
- With e-books: the author gets a percentage of the net. 30% goes to Amazon, 70% goes to publisher, then the author gets 25% of the rest.
- The chunk of money authors receive gets progressively smaller the lower the price goes. Meaning the writers sometimes get less from e-books. This is a substantial change in the landscape for writers and authors.

Current Trends
- Traditional publishers have been challenged by the electronic marketplace, but that appears to have settled.
- Borders filing for bankruptcy meant that a national chain was gone, and e-book sales became even more important.
- The good news: things have stabilized somewhat
- Independent booksellers have rebounded (because Borders is gone, and because independent bookstores have gotten smart and have diversified – featuring tabletop games, coffee shops, events and book clubs, etc.). This makes for a more diversified market, which is positive.
- Brick & Mortar sales have stabilized, while independent bookstores are on the upswing.

All About Amazon
- Amazon is a major player in the publishing game, regardless of whether you’re traditionally or self-published.
- Their feud with Hachette involved an argument over a percentage that Amazon would receive for sales, plus an advertising percentage. This subsequently pitted indie vesus traditional writers, which became an unnecessary conflict.
- Contracts always come up for re-negotiation.
- Get used to it, it will happen a lot; be aware that Amazon has a lot of sway and will use it to their advantage.

A Look at E-Publishing
- E-publishing: A great place to be, but sales have flattened out a bit for the e-readers. Their market has settled because everyone now has e-readers.
- Once people thought electronic would take over print, but it appears that print will continue to be around for a long time.
- Pay attention to the new trend: Audiobooks! This has also become a thing. Now people really like audiobooks. This is a growing field, and a fantastic opportunity. As a writer, this will be part of your landscape. In particular,
- This also affects writing: how will it be read aloud? For him, this has led to him cutting down his dialogue tags as a result.
- This will make things more difficult for new authors because Amazon/Audible will be able to dictate the terms.

Publishing Options and What They Mean
- Self-Publishing: Very easy to do, has never been an easier time.
- Downside: it is trivially easy for anyone to do so, so the market is flooded and it is difficult for things to stick out.
- Every year, there has always been that one guy to stand out and be successful. DO NOT RELY ON THEM AS THE FACE OF SELF-PUBLISHING.
- It’s a very competitive market. Many self-published works sell less than 500 copies.
- Amazon is the 500-pound monkey of indie publishing. Meaning they have an exceptional amount of control over the market. You sign their Terms & Conditions; with a traditional publisher you sign a contract that you’ve negotiated.
- This applies to all of the e-retailers (iBooks from Apple, google play, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, Wattpad, etc.). Know what you’re getting into; read the fine print. If you’re okay with the terms being one-sided, rather than negotiated, then go for it.
- Another option: Kickstarter/Indiegogo – Something that works that you can do, particularly if you have an existing audience (Twitter/Tumblr/Livejournal, etc.) – but this is work.
- He sticks with traditional publishers because good at writing and good at talking – he’s not good at copy editing, regular editing, page design, cover design – so for him, it’s worth it to be with a traditional publisher. These are valuable partners and worth it. And if you do the Kickstarter route you then also have to fulfill the stretch goals.  If you’re not willing to do that, then don’t. Screw up a Kickstarter, and it’ll follow you to the end of your days.
- New wrinkle in the process: Subscription Models: Pay a flat fee per month (e.g. $10) and get access to many books. For writers and publishers, it is more ambiguous. How do the writers get paid? There’s a schism between indie and traditional writers. For traditionally-published work: if the reader has read 10% of the book, you get credit for the sale. For self-publishing: Amazon creates a monthly pool of money; everyone who’s an indie author, whose sales get triggered, gets credited as a proportion of that pool. And only the amount Amazon decides to put in. Which is bad news for indie authors because it turns it into a zero sum game. That may be a downward pressure that Traditional authors might also have to fight with. This is potential bad news for bookstores. For writers, the market can collapse, with fewer bigger publishers.
- Is this a scary time to be a writer? No, it’s an exciting time to be a writer. But it’s always been an exciting time.
- 30 years ago, science fiction and fantasy books were sold on racks at the grocery store; now that’s mostly romance, action-adventure thrillers, and very little sff. But back then, bookstore chains were on the rise.
- Every era has this experience, with market models going up or down, and different authors thriving on different models. There will always be people who thrive, people who fight for the scraps. We’ve always been in a crisis in publishing.

How to Be Financially Successful as a Writer

The Truth About Income
- Here’s the tough-love: Be responsible with your money.
- It’s always been a challenging time to be a writer. Prepare to be broke if that’s your only job.
- Many authors make less than $2-3K per year for their writing. Advances are typically not very high. The average starting advance is $6500; sometimes, up to $12K for science fiction, $15K for fantasy.
- And remember, this is spread out, divided into chunks. Upon acceptance, upon delivery of accepted revisions, and upon release.
- If you go the indie route: there’s no money up front; the money you receive is based on sales and payout from the retailer.
- Writers have always starved. Aren’t we lucky?
- Prepare to be broke. Don’t quit your day job. Especially if it gives you benefits and a stable base of income. It’s about the security.
- Even full-time writers can only write for a few hours a day. He spends time answering e-mail.

Keep Your Day Job
- 90% of writers do other things, too.
- Nearly every writer you meet has some other job. Do that.
- When to give up the day job? Never if you can avoid it. Even Wallace Stephens kept his.
- If you are going to quit your day job: If you are making 30% more with writing than you do on your day job from your writing, it could be worth it. But remember, you’re now on the hook for taxes, insurance, benefits, and you have to file quarterly, and other things you. So the amount of money you make will drop. So 30% more will work out to only 80% of what you had before.
- It helps to have a supportive partner. It particularly helps to have a partner who has a good job, stable income, and is good with money. But make sure you reciprocate in the quid pro quo of relationships if that is the case.

Financial Management Advice
- Save as much as you can. Specifically:
- Immediately take half of your income and put it away, for dealing with taxes and life. Your day-to-day like rent and bills comes out of the *other* half.
-  This seems excessive, but in his experience, life appears to have a 10% fuck- you surcharge. Broken bones, broken down cars, other problems.
- It’s ok to have credit cards. But use them like cash, pay them off at the end of the month.
- Debt creeps and crawls, especially credit card debt. It’s the highest interest rate. Your cc company wants the stable income of you carrying that debt. Uses Amex as a charge card that must be paid off. Have credit cards but use them wisely, use them as cash.
- If you have debt, consider paying down the debt rather than saving.
- Clear out as much as you possibly can, as quickly as possible.
- Related to this: pay cash for what you want to buy or not buy. Also, saving up for the thing you want makes you think about the thing you want and whether or not you want it. Save a little every month and think about what you really want. Is the new computer really worth it? Besides, as you save up, prices drop down.
- The idea: do not spend what you do not have. Do not get used to spending more than you have. And when you buy something, buy the best you can and run it into the ground. Don’t just buy the new shiny. You’ll save money that way, even if it means paying more for something up front.
- Try not to live in a super expensive location if you can avoid it. Writers can work anywhere. He has a huge house, but it’s not expensive, because of where he lives. There are advantages to living in big cities, but if you can, live somewhere cheaper and it’ll make a big difference in your quality of life.
- All of this is about the fact that writing is a business. Treat it like a business. No one will look out for your interests more than you. If you don’t look out for yourself, you’re screwed. Even amicable relationships will push to make it as good to them as they can. But creative people don’t want to think about business, they want to think about art; that’s fine if you want to starve. Treat it seriously. Or else have a reliable spouse.

Questions from the Audience:

How can I find an editor for my work?
- Look for the references, see what they’ve edited.
- With traditional publishing, it will be taken care of.
- Indie: it’s work, and will come at a cost, but a good editor can be very helpful.

Which format makes more money for writers?
- Doesn’t matter; it evens out.
- First week of release: NYT bestseller list. But in terms of the money, it typically doesn’t matter.
- It’s okay to try a writer on sale, but if you want to support the writer, buy their books, and for a reasonable price.
- Writers may need to argue for when the prices go down, their royalties go up.

What kind of incentives and punishments do traditional publishers use to keep writers on the schedules?
- If you get a reputation for being unreliable, you won’t get published.
- Contracts help. Authors receive one part of their payment at signing, one part at delivery/acceptance, and one part at publishing. Finish the book, get paid.

What is the best way to find a trustworthy agent, and do they need to live close?
- Not important for them to live in the same area
- Perform due diligence when researching agents.
- When submitting, follow agent guidelines to the letter.

Is it better to get an agent first, or go for a publisher?
- Whichever works, but agents understand the money side. It helps to hire people who know how to do the job.

Writers' conventions: are they worth it?
- If that’s the thing you want to do, then yes; if not, stay home.
- Often there are writing panels at very inexpensive SFF conventions.
- He goes because he likes seeing and spending time with other writers.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Tiger Butter Revisited

I wasn't trying to kill the queen.


And I made one teeny-tiny joke about the succession ... then I got hauled up before her and questioned, and slapped with a label I wouldn't be able to shirk.

The Queen's Would-Be Assassin, her scribe wrote on a button, which I donned with a perverse sense of pride. (Probably because she said she might have a use for my talents.) But as the week progressed, the ink wore off, so with her permission I reworded it: Tried to kill the queen. Now I kill for her.

Which really, is not a great title when you want people to try your hand-crafted treat. Even if it makes for a great story.

Context: Last week I was on the most amazing vacation of my life (so far). Don Rocko and I attended JoCo Cruise Crazy, a high-seas adventure with nearly nine hundred other nerds aboard a ship in the Caribbean.

Naturally I brought some tiger butter. It's easy and fun to make, I enjoy sharing it, and I knew that it would likely be a hit. Yes, yes it was. Including with many of the high-calibre entertainers who were there this year ... but that's another story.

I just didn't realize that the Monarch of the Seas (one of whom is chosen every year) would have an allergy to an ingredient in the processed peanut butter.

The fact is, she's not the only one, so this isn't the first time this question has come up: Does this recipe come with variations?

So I figure that it's time for me to share some updates.

Changing the Style

Assassin or no, I've reduced the amount of violence I've used in making this recipe. The reasons? Moving from a basement suite where the floors have a concrete base means that I don't feel *as* much need to drop it on the floor. Also, when chopping it up into as many pieces as I could fit into three 8-cup containers (which turns out to be two double batches' worth), I was more interested in 90-degree angles, so I cut it up with a sharp knife and a deft hand for breaking larger bits in half.

Changing the Ingredients

Two things to remember: sea salt and icing sugar.

I have a lot of friends with allergies and sensitivities, so that has made me aware of the importance to pay attention to these things. (It's also why when I offer tiger butter to strangers, I call it "peanut butter fudge" even though it actually doesn't have the granular texture of fudge so I'm not sure if calling it fudge is technically correct. Plus, mine's smoother. But it establishes the main allergen right away.)

So I've made a version for someone who was allergic to the corn in processed peanut butter. In this case, I made it with natural peanut butter. I had the actual measurements written down, but they were lost in the move. Sorry.

The trick: before adding the white chocolate melting wafers,

1) mix the natural peanut butter until smooth,
2) liquefy in a sauce pan, then
3) add the sea salt and icing sugar to taste.

Note: it will take more than you might think. I remember using at least a tablespoon or two of sea salt per two cups of peanut butter, and three quarters of a cup of icing sugar. But like I said, to taste. The result is delicious.


Given that the three basic ingredients are peanut butter, white chocolate, and milk chocolate, this recipe can be changed as needed. On my own list is to try making this with sugar-free melting wafers for friends and family members who need to watch that sort of thing. I've made it with almond butter before, just to try it. And if you want to escape the peanut/tree nut connection entirely, you could go for a tasty soy butter alternative. Any other ideas? I'd love to hear them!

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As for the tiger butter's reception on the cruise, the original recipe went over fairly well. Y'know, despite the whole accidental-attempted-regicide thing. On the last night, I had a tub left (since I'd stuffed it in our stateroom fridge and forgot about it), and that led to more than a few suggestions of, "Hey, you should offer some to [insert name of Special Guest]". So I did. No need to name-drop here, but there's a certain pleasure in knowing that they all liked it, too.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to the other thing I like crafting and sharing and don't mind improving, where I can kill as much as needed: writing.