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Friday, June 26, 2015

Finding the Story: Recipes for Writing Fiction (Emerald City Comic-Con 2015 Writing Panel Notes)

A square slice of vanilla cake with lemon frosting and a yellow flower sits on a plate with one bite resting on an adjacent fork. The caption reads: "Oh, this? Piece of cake."

Hey! Want to know what's almost as stressful as moving? One's downstairs neighbours moving. Especially when they decide to stay up to all hours partying because they seem to realize, "Hey, we can't be evicted, so let's make as much noise as we want!"

*sigh* I miss sleep.

But rather than me coping by stress-eating (one thing I am *way* too good at) or writing delicious fictional scenarios in my head about how wonderful the new neighbours will be (that too), let's talk about a different sort of cooking. In his talk given at this year's ECCC, author Michael A. Stackpole breaks down several types of plots with simple recipes he's devised over the years.

* * *

Finding the Story
Michael A. Stackpole

It’s important for him to not suffer writer’s block, so he’s developed techniques to find stories. That allows him to stretch himself as a writer. He needs to be able to judge things and then drop a story in. This is a process panel.

Listen, write it down, retain it more.

He reasons to find a story anywhere (since being blocked is frustrating). Because the worst thing you can do for yourself is agonize over being blocked.

If you find yourself blocked, if the story isn’t working and the words aren’t humming, STOP. Do not continue to push. What it means is that you do not know the characters well enough. You made a decision within 3-5 pages before the story dies that the character does something out of character, which is why the story has died.

Technique: Interview your character.
- Ask your character the same questions asked in a celeb interview in a magazine.
- The more you know about your character will inform the character’s unconscious choices.
- (e.g. Seahawks fans wear their team-themed stuff around the city. You know them by their typical default colors, etc.)
- Having these little details, even if they never make it into the story, inform the story. You learn more about your character.
- Can also apply psychoanalytical books to this (like, 4000 things you should ask your crush).
- Write down the answer the character will give, and the answer they truly think.
- How many secrets do they have in their lives, and how far will they go to keep their secrets secret?
- When you need to write a story, there is some drama or trauma in their lives.

Writers are better than anybody else!
- A lot of stories share a lot of plotlines.
- He doesn’t like the word “formula”. He prefers the word “recipe”. Different people will produce different variants on a recipe.
- This is what drives themes for anthologies, too.

Simple Story Recipes

The Bug Hunt
- The most basic story that gets told
1) Learn that the bug exists. (problem) (eg. A wolf has been stealing sheep)
2) Learn how to kill the bug.  (solve the problem) (eg. How to destroy the wolf – the protagonist learns)
3) Develop the skills and resources to learn to kill the bug. (solve the problem) (how to kill the wolf)
4) Kill the bug. (solve the problem) (or, kill the wolf, etc)
- This same four-step engine is the engine that drives every single problem in every story.
- There isn no problem that won’t work though these four steps.
- When we reach step 4, may fail. So go back to steps 2 and 3, lather rinse repeat until 4) is achievable.
- A novel is a series of these breakdowns.
- Usually linked in parallel, dealing with more problems at the same time.
- Sometimes solving this problem gives you resources and skills to solve more problems later.
- Can break any problem down into these steps.
- You always want to challenge yourself, do the more challenging thing.
- Sometimes it’s possible to have a resolution where the bug doesn’t die, but the protagonist finds other solutions. Or it may set up a problem for later in the series.
- False success; failure to kill the bug but you wouldn’t know it. The bug re-manifests. Or the heroes are tasked with killing the dragon and then the land is overrun by the orcs that the dragon was feeding on. Whether you fail to kill the bug and you know it, or you believe you did and you didn’t, that lack of success leads to more story later.

The Romance Recipe
- You want romance in your story.
- If you have characters capable of being loved, they’re capable of being redeemed.
- Having characters go through that is something we love. We love seeing characters getting together.
- If you can fit romance into your story, do it.
1) Boy meets girl (or boy meets boy, etc). Everything seems fantastic.
2) Circumstances force them apart.
- a) either a misunderstanding or
- b) a hostile third party
separates them. (Circumstances force them apart.)
3) The two lovers overcome difficulties and solve the problem to force them back together again. (Characters go through hell to get back together again. Going through hell: finding bugs, killing bugs, etc.)
- You can play with characters’ availability, obligations, partners, misunderstandings and assumptions
- Just don’t repeat the same situation as readers will see that and get annoyed.
- This will fit into any book anywhere.
- You want your characters to have emotional lives. That makes them more real.

The Murder Mystery
- Suspense, solving crime, always some aspect that can be used.
- Modern Murder Mystery
1) Someone dies.
- In old stories you run into all the characters first, all the suspects. Nowadays you just start with a body.
- Your protagonist needs to be on screen or in the story as much as possible.
- The reader needs to make sense of what’s going on, so start with the body being splattered all over the place, crime techs giving the details, hero
- As a reader’s job it’s to predict they know the ending
- The writer’s job is to throw things off and create a surprise ending
- Whatever problem shows up on the first page of the book has to be solved on the last page.
- Can dress up characters so they look like inconsequential chars and become more important and relevant later.
- Don’t toss out insignificant clues.
2) Suspects are questioned, evidence is examined, someone lies, and we learn a new fact.
- A piece of evidence shows that someone is lying. You break down why they lied. But now they’ve told the truth, someone else has lied.
- Go through the “someone is lying, break them down” process until you
3) Detectives learn facts that expose the lie
- Go through steps 2 and 3 quite a number of times.
4) (optional) Someone else dies.
- New witnesses, new clues, new cycles of steps 2 and 3.
5) After you’ve gone through enough, the protagonist knows who did it.
6) The villain is exposed and captured. (Knowing the bad guy’s identity is not the same as exposing the bad guy.)
- Technically this recipe is a more specific type of bug hunt.

With these three storylines, you can do anything.
- Basic bug hunt: about 4K.
- Beginning novelist: Be over 80K and under 120K.
- More experienced novelists: Can write the longer books.
- Electronically self-pubbed: 50K (avg. length of mysteries and sci-fis of old)
- YA: Character should be 2 years older than target audience.
- Adjust sentence length and word length. The average reader reading for pleasure reads at an 8th grade level. Average sentence length should be about 12 words.
- The human memory handles 12 words very well. Add more, and we lose some.
- The moment you hit a comma, it acts as a new sentence.
- When doing action scenes, the average should drop to 8 words per sentence.
- Use commas and conjunctions to stretch a sentence out.
- Longer sentences make the readers work.
- Use characterization to enhance the story.

Serial Fiction (ongoing story arcs)
- Individual episodes, but an overall story arc.
1. Intro (first thousand words): who the story’s about, what the problem is that will be true for the main line of the story. The problem that will be resolved in the main line of the story.
2. Main. (second thousand words continue dealing with the main line of the story).
3. A
4. Main.
5. B
6. Main
7. Main
8. A
9. Main
10. Wrap it up.
- 70% of this story is dealing with the problem only in this individual story.
- The only parts not dealing with this are A and B.
- A: Soap opera material. Stuff about the life of the protagonist. Can use romance as an idea for example. (In the first A meets someone they might be interested in). In subsequent A, develop it a little more. Key to making the soap opera work.
- If A is a positive subplot, B has to be a negative subplot. Car stolen. Romance problem. Character is in trouble.
- The A and B lines carry on to the next story. The next story, you might have the same things, but in the next story the B fills the A slots. Or we can be dealing with a new problem in the next book.
- Doing a push-pull with the character’s life.
- B is good to be distinct from A but it doesn’t matter.
- Key: Never let the soap opera stuff to be more than 30% of the story. If there’s more main, drop in more A & B.
- Otherwise, once it gets to be more, it forces readers to have to have read all the stories. (And yes, you want that, but you don’t want the story to have to make no sense if you haven’t read the previous stories.)
- A can be negative, and B positive, but you have to have one negative and one positive.
- A and B don’t have to be isolated. They can affect each other, work off another.
- You can have bits of A and B surface in Main, but must keep

Final Thoughts
If you are in a position where you are stuck, throw more characters in, do more things, rather than killing. More characters increase the options. Make it more complicated, not less.
Everything must serve the story.

When do you do the check to make sure the story works?
When working on the next draft, set it down for a bit. Then come back. If you’re yawning, fix it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

What’s an Award Worth? (ConCarolinas 2015 Writing Panel Notes)

Hi everyone! Just like last year, I spent the end of May and beginning of June at ConCarolinas, followed by a writing retreat. I had a great time at the con as usual, and then at the retreat I feel like I had a chance to deepen my craft. (That's what happens when you get a group of like-minded folks together for honest, earnest critiquing. And okay, the lake house we rented had a hot tub, so that didn't hurt.) After a spot of beta-reading for my awesome CP, I'm ready to get back to my work.

I'm actually going to keep my promise (to myself) to get on the older notes (relatively) first, because I have a lot of stuff I'd like to share from Emerald City and even (eep) a few from the last SIWC. But this topic felt important.

Please note: I know this is a sensitive subject. Yes, I have my opinions. Let's leave it at that. As with every other occasion, I'm just sharing my notes on the panel. That said, I do think that there were a few positive messages to take away from this, especially moving forward.

* * *

What’s an Award Worth?
Wendy S. Delmater, Gray Rinehart, Edmund R. Schubert, John Hartness, John Scalzi
Moderator: Misty Massey

There are a lot of different awards attached to genre fiction (Hugo, Nebulas, Stoker, etc). What’s an award worth to working writers?
WD: Abyss & Apex (which she edits) got honourable mentions, recommended reading lists, best ofs, etc.
GR: Hugo nomination for novelette.
ES: Also was nominated, and IGMS they tried but they were able to sidestep that, and they’ve won a few awards. Was once nominated for an Edgar. Years’ best anthologies, honourable mentions, etc.
JS: Hugo, Locus, Romantic Times,  Geffin (Israel), Kurzlazfitz (Germany), Scion (Japan), nominated for Nebula, Norton, award in Spain, Audie, and others.
MM: Mad Kestrel was nominated for SC young adult book award.
JH: Recenlty won best horror for 2014, was nominated for 2013, and one story from Big Bad 2 got honorable mention, and was once nominated for Pushcart prize for poetry. And Charlotte writers for poetry.

So what are they worth to you as writing professionals?
JS: Depends on the award, the context, and the time. Winning the Campbell award was significant because it was the one that put him on the map as a writer. It was useful to him because it differentiated him from other new writers out that year. Hugo was useful because with it comes outward prestige (known outside of the genre). Example: helped expediate his contract with Hollywood for a contract. The rest of the awards have been nice to have on the shelf, but in terms of moving the needle have been the Campbell and the Hugo.
GR: The awards being differentiators: awards that an author can point to for even eing a finalist or a semifinalist can becomes a differentiator because he can expect more and get more because the ahtuor has already proben themselves in that field.
WD: Does the same for short fiction. Especially new writers. They help develop new writers, and grow careers. They have people whose careers they helped start. To help, they’ve put them in for awards, and they can use that as a cover letter credit to take it to the next level. Having cover letter credits is a big deal. An award means that people notice you, but it also boosts a writer’s confidence.
ES: Challenges is that the writers grow up to move on to writing novels and are so busy writing novels that you need to bring in a new wave. Like a graduating class.
WS: Award winners get preferential reading.
JS: With the accolade comes a certain expectation. Which can be great for them because their next book gets reviewed. And that expectation doesn’t go away. It continues to be brought up. An expectation reconfiguration. The awards for later books are really awards for previous work done. But to win an award is to have criticism both positive nad negative. Which can have an effect on your
ES: MRK: The leading indicator on whether you’re likely to win a hugo is whether or not you’ve won a hugo.
JS: Neil Gaiman turned down an award for 2006 because he sincerely believed it had stopped being about the work and started being about Neil. Passed it on.
ES: It’s not always about the best players, it’s about the most popular players, being rewarded for work that came before. Not a problem, but a reality.
JS: Yes. Example: Redshirts. Is it his best? The year he was nominated, he had been nominated three times before and had never won. Aside from the quality of the book, there was everything that goes on with the aspect of the award; everyone knew he’d been nominated for before, and it was also a good year to be nominated. It’s not only about where you are in your career, but also about the year and the playing field, and you have to be okay with that. Otherwise you get bitter and defensive.
JH: And no one gave Redshirts an award for best SF novel of all time. It’s a snapshot. A moment of “this is the opinion of this voting block for this year”.
JS: When he won the Locus award, one thing he said was “I wish it had been given to Ian Banks”. Because the award represented the body of his works that year. But again, it’s a matter of what the playing field is in a given year and who people are voting for. When you get nominated, you have to be aware of all the dynamics, and it helps you to have someone whispering in your ear, “Thou art mortal”.
WD: It’s worth different things on different levels. Recognition. It pushes people to the next level.
JH: Example: Hopes that an award will push him from attending pro to guest status at DragonCon.
WD: It gets you out of the slush pile, onto the radar, and hopefully into a better situation, career-wise.
GR: It means that he (in charge of the slush pile at BAEN) won’t be the first to look at the book. (and in 7 yrs, so far only 2 of 6200 submissions have actually made it from the slush pile to the shelves). Some manuscripts have been in consideration for a long time because there may be a chance that they say yes. But then, the first book he did get out of the slush pile has gone on to be Nebula-nominated. Writers of the Future award winners have gone to the top, too.
WD: The numbers are important because having some small award will get you notice. Publishes 25 out of 2000 submissions a year.
GR: Same thing all over the place, even with venture capitalists.

Did you find the award gave you a confidene boost in terms of the work and how you presented yourself?
JH: A confidence boost in his work, and in the way he presents. Doesn’t often mention to other writers that he’s won an award because he doesn’t want to be tacky, but looks at it as a tool when talking to someone outside of the industry, or someone who doesn’t know him, or . When it’s effective. (BK 4 won an Epic award). But it gives him a personal confidence boost that people he didn’t know liked it enough to give him an award.
JS: Confidence not so much, but looks at the awards dispassionately: as tools, as shorthand used strategically to introduce yourself to other folks. With his unusual career, he didn’t have to struggle to get published. Name recognition and awareness in the genre hasn’t really been a problem. He used to be a newspaper columnist, so he came in with a built-in audience. That said, he uses those things strategically. When trying to get attention of people outside of the genre. When Tor was looking at his first book, aware that he came with that audience. When he won the hugo, the main feeling he had was “Yes!” but it was a relief to have won that and to be done with that. He’s already won, so he doesn’t have to think about this anymore. The sense of palpable relief. The awards come with their own dynamics nad pressures and they can loom artificially large in the minds of writers. Hard to explain to some writers on the other side of the fence. It’s great, but then you go home and now there’s the expectation that the next book better be great. He got the deal last week because he has a track record for sales, not because of the award. Terry Pratchett even turned a nomination down in 2005 because it did nothing for him.
WD: Connie Willis  was like an early lifetime achievement award. Not so much about the book. And that’s okay.

ES: Yes, but if you say, “Who gives a shit?”, then why are there wars?
JS: He felt relief when he won the Hugo, because he’d been nominated 3 times before, and went through the pressure, and there’s not necessarily a finite number of times you’ll be nominated, but fashions change, tastes change, and this time that he won it was ripe. Eventually that window closes.
JH: Award winners from the 70s are very different from award winners in the 80s and 90s, and Redshirts might not have even been published in an earlier decade because it was a style that wouldn’t have been published back then.
JS: If he hadn’t won, there’s a chance he might have been upset. It’s a mark of distinction and acceptance in the community. Desire makes us do lots of things, positively and negatively. A lot of the wars come down to desire. “Why aren’t I and the things I love properly appreciated?” And the one thing he agrees with is that there is nothing in any type of science fiction or fantasy that should not be considered for awards, or good writing.
Awards are not what the field is about. They are a signatory, a snapshot of what the field is, but that snapshot is incomplete. There’s so much going on outside of that snapshot that it’s hard for someone not in the window or the snapshot that this isn’t necessarily a criticism of what they love. Some people can handle that, and some feel differently. You cannot tell people that the way they feel is invalid. They are who they are. But remind people that there’s more to life. There’s sales. And fans. People who say “That speaks to me, and you have changed my life by writing that thing.” Focus on those moments, not just on the award, as validation. He can’t say that what any of the Puppies feel is invalid.
WD: And you’ve been reasonable.
JS: No, I’ve been snarky as shit.
JH: But that’s what we refer to as a given circumstance.
JS: That’s why you’ll never hear me say anything bad about the people who are nominated. The question is not whether they can or should be nominated; it’s a question of whether in this particular instance  was the reason they got onto the ballot without controversy. This year, no.
JH: People want to write what they have written. Wants a Stoker so he can get a better deal, and if he gets those things without the statue, okay, fine, but if he gets the statue that’s even better.

About the Sad and Rabid Puppies and the Hugo awards …
WD: She was there on the inside of that. 15 of the 18 nominees were Rabid Puppies.
GR: Was also a Puppies nomination. After much thought, he has arrived at the metaphor that he was offered a ticket on an airplane, said he’d take that ride, and then the plane got hijacked. And the plane landed and took off again, and there’s people on the plane who want it to crash, and people on the ground who want to shoot it down, and he just wants to get off.
JS: Is reading everything. Will rank his reading appropriately. Regardless of the dynamics, there are people on the ballot this year who could and should be on the ballot. People who got on the plane and were surpreised what happened from there. Ultimately, for the same reason he doesn’t go out of his way to criticize other writers’ writing, he’s going to give the writers the same consideration he hopes others would give to his writing.
GR: Other people voting, they’re very wound up over this, and not sure about voting. Lately, he’s told people that if the situation has poisoned it for them, then don’t read his story. Reading should be a pleasure. If there’s some outside force making it displeasurable, then go find something that will give you pleasure.
ES: Decided to get out because they didn’t nominate him for an award because of his work; they were making a political statement. Felt like there was too much going on.
JS: The one thing he thinks about regarding this whole matter is that we do get wrapped up in awards. Yes, it’s the tail that wags the dog, but regardless, it has made us as a community think, what are these awards about, and why do they matter? The one silver lining is that it’s led to a new discussion, appreciation and understanding of what awards are, can be, and should be, and he cannot argue that this was not a discussion that was not necessary for science fiction and fantasy. It wasn’t the way he’d have had it, but at least now it’s happening.