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Welcome to my blog!


This blog was my online wordsmith workshop, where you'll find notes on my writing experiences, excerpts from my fantasy and science fiction novels, and essays of a more homeworld flavor.  Some of the advice therein may still be of interest to new writers so I have left it here but due to technical difficulties, I no longer post here regularly.  You can look me up on Dreamwidth, although I do not post frequently. 

Feel free to share a link to this site. If you opt to download it or share content, please give due credit to this website and the author: Emmalyn N. Edwards. Thank you--Emmalyn

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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Context - THE con for writers
By far the best con for fantasy and science fiction (and historical and other genre writing too) that I've been to. The only thing that would add to it would be to have a personal critique of something I've written. That they didn't have for any of the workshops I went to. The workshops (unlike the panels) have a small fee for each but well worth the price, mostly in the 20-30 range.

Only one I didn't think I got my money's worth and it wasn't that the teaching was bad or anything, it just wasn't what I wanted and expected. It was on writing for a teen audience, and it had some good material for that, but it was strictly for contemporary fiction and younger-end teens, not the older end of YA and not historical or futuristic stuff at all. I didn't bother doing most of the short exercises because the very thought of writing about contemporary issues (the instructor focused specifically on those that were genuinely new in the last decade or so, like online harassment and school shootings, and not on issues that haven't really changed) and having characters that were football players and cheerleaders and "drama geeks"--whatever that is--or other characters from our own teen experiences, made me nautious. (Now, if she had told us how to convert our teen memories into something that applied to a non-contemporary culture, maybe I would have found it useful...)

I have lots of notes and lots of modifications to make to some of my novels and will share what I can in future posts. Put it on your calendar for next year end of August, Columbus Ohio.

I've posted the rest of the current chapter for the Fantasy Explorations tab.
31 aug 10 @ 5:36 pm

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Still waiting
Still no responses regarding my latest two agent queries. I keep telling myself that that is better than reject letters. It is certainly better than quick reject letters which always makes me wonder if they rejected it based on some phrase or typo rather than giving it serious thought.

I got some positive feedback on the short story I posted to my other blog (my entry to the Parsec competition). He liked my prose at least. I do like word smithing but I have found that it's not always a good thing for getting published. The feedback is usually that the reader likes some of the prose, which to me means that the flowery stuff makes the less flowery stuff stand out as unsuccessful, when it is probably the less flowery stuff that conveys the meat of the story in a lot of cases, and in the end the story always wins. In this case, the prose was more of the meat, my way of trying to convey a magical place that had been twisted inside out, senses scrambled and all. I haven't found a way to fix it (it got a quick reject as not a winner) and suspect that it's one of those cases where the premise just doesn't work for a short story, at least.

Not surprising. That's why I write novels.
24 aug 10 @ 8:59 pm

Friday, August 20, 2010

medieval bits from Confluence
The Medieval in Fantasy session was of couse anarea dear to my heart.

I thought a couple of the speakers a little disingenious nn their confidence, generalizing as if we knew everything there is to be known about the middle ages and as if the right kinds of details were readily available to the writer. They did point out like in other sessions that for writing fiction, the versimilitude of the of the story, the details are quite important, even if the story is far fetched and fanciful. They provided a lot of good material, of the “things to keep in mind” sort.

One of the reasons medieval is so popular in fantasy si that the Victorian era romanticized the medieval as an era of heroic chivalry and courtly values and such, but if you are going for realistic, getting a little more in the mud is appropriate. Even Q Eliz reportedly didn’t bathe often.

The culture especially in later medieval but not only then, was hierarchical of the caste sort, that is, by birth rather than wealth. There were some Yoeman farmers but the vast majority were poor serfs and peasants, many owned/controlled by the church which owned vast pieces of land until the protestants broke up the land and essentially freed many of the serfs that had been on the land.

Many knights were poor, every wealth they had in their horse and armor, and usually one groom to take care of the destrier and even they were rare, as both are very expensive and hard to acquire. Once attained, however, very “uplighting” to be high above everyone else, see further, greater awareness of surroundings, etc

A more wealthy knight might afford men at arms, servants, more than one groom (hard work to take care of the destrier and the destrier more valuable than people).

While imports are famous, a lot is local. Most cloth is made by local weavers with only a small selection of cloths, and a lot of other crafts are also local creations: potters, taylors, weavers, smiths, fletchers, coopers (barrel makers) are very important due to the need to store food for the bulk of the year: barrel staves; steam-curved, are also VIP for the military who must take what they can with them for long sieges as are ferriers (who make and repair horse tackle and related equipment). Caravans brought bails of silk, spices, pepper.

Smiths go through a LOT of lumber (covered with clay to build heat), so lumbering at the edge of forests is big business

It also adds to the common coughing and respiratory problems, abcessed teeth and other practical issues that can be built into a story for amusment value or to make it seem more horrible for all. For the latter, working for food is common, even for kids, especially orphans, another way to get stuff is to be good at games, for all ages, winners get the gear and stuff of losers; pick up tournaments are common for this hope.

Women could sometimes inherit their husband's property and control it but the typical was a year and a day rule - they had to prove they could control it that long, and they had to keep family, friends, and enemies from forcing them into a marriage. Most often the women that succeeded were able to hide the fact that their husband is dead for the required time. The woman is often in charge of many household maintenance tasks including brewing of ale, VIP when lots of the water is unsafe to drink and no refridgeration is available for long storage of milk. Woman did laundry, but often treated as a special profession, a technique not all know (they didn't say but i recall from elsewhere that soap was early on considered a thing for laundry, not people, so maybe one of the "skills" was the ability to make soap): the military rarely allow women along but the washer women were an exception for the health of sweaty fighters (gambazons under armor could get ripe and quickly unhealthy) and maybe women cooks. They wore silk next to skin under battle gear because the tough fabric slowed the arrows and made them easier to get arrows out when they needed to be backed out instead of pushed through.

Tanneries and dyers are very stinky, including vegetable dyes , purple (not just very particular snails, but rotting snails long in the mediteranean sun: enhanced by sunlght, like indigo) and from the leftover materails left in piles to rot: towns often didn’t allow them in town.

Saffron crocus fields blooming in the fall, yellow a popular wedding dress color: Irish like yellow-orange fabric, from saffron dye: saffron also shows wealth (at least elsewhere)

Sugar addiction is an Elizabethan thing, not earlier medieval. (From my own studies, they didn't typically differentiate sweet dishes as dessert per se: meat flavored with wine, cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg or with fruit would be the "sweet" as a contrast to herbed "savory" vegetables or soup, for example, and meals typically concluded with wine and spiced nuts)

Padded doublet is needed under chainmail (hot rust has a sharp scent, too) otherwise still bone breaking force even if the blade doesn't get though (Vikings cleaned mail by rolling it around in a barrel of sand).

Sieges might result in dysentary as sewage accumulated, often lifted due to plagues and fatal levels of dysentry (you couldn’t just get an IV for dehydration), worsened because they mistakenly believed that running water was safe, despite whatever was upstream.

A good castle might have an internal spring which can be a big aide if seigers on the outside can’t get water, or they might poison the wells with dead carcasses. From the outside, alies of the defenders might burn fields as a way to attack the siergers and starve them out.

Disease causes weren’t know so they might believe it was caused by a curse or other mystical things, didn't know that sharing wash water could pass it along, or that it might come from contaminated milk.

They were often bettee off if they couldn't get medical help.
Barber was often also surgeon and dentist

“Bleeders” literally bled patients to reduce red humor, but also provided local medicine/drugs. Horse doctors might do the same thing to horses as were done to humans

The humors:

Women doing mens things, including whistling was seriously frowned on. It was believed that a woman’s whistle could summon the wind, and the sight of a woman’s hair might drive a man to madness according to some cultures.

The wells are gathering places for women because they often fetched the water and were so occupied at home that it might be the only place/opportunity they had to get together between markets.

Fighting on rough ground is dangerous: easy to take someone down by just making them back up where they can’t see the holes and dips and trip rocks behind them, then when tired, even harder to watch for such dangers, or might just fall down out of weariness and drop swords because arm too tired to hold it up.

Pre civil war, very random fire by unrifled muskets but rigle made it easier to be sure of hitting someone from farther away part of the slaughter was failure to realize it and adjust tactics accordingly, and did the same thing --massed troops--against machine guns in the ww, but in civil war and gain in ww i, fighters learned trench warfare for the sake of their own survival.
20 aug 10 @ 8:31 pm

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Unfinished threads
Going through the sequels of one of the books I'm hoing to get an agent to take on, I realized that i had stopped working on it with it less polished and finished than i thought (probably our of frustration, realizing that if I couldnt get the first to an agent, the third would likely never be seen).

Among the more minor unfinished bits were threads and hints that I had never followed to resolution. I following up on a few but decided that several minor mysteries could remain unsolved, at least if I provided enough to imply a conclusion. After all, the characters were mostly still alive, and even young, with time to address the issues of their lives. And the rest... there is enough done and undone that my third book needs to be three and four, so I'll solve some of the mysteries there, and leave some still.

Seeing them triggered ideas for more sequels that I might write and I figure they will also serve the reader in much the same way: fuel for day drams if I have built the characters well enough, triggers for curiosity should I ever sell the books well enough to call for more. The fourth book is mostly there, with several gaps in need of filling but not so many that I couldn't do them in a month or two.

The series after... about a dozen page of notes with enough to start a few dozen scenes, and some geenral ideas for direction, events, and and characters playing their continuing roles. I would love to be so successful that it mattered when I worked on them, how long it took me to finish, but I'll be content if the unfinished threads keep a reader's interest and curiosity awake enough to read the first few books again.
17 aug 10 @ 9:39 pm

Friday, August 13, 2010

mispelling creativity and more from Confluence
The new post on the Fantasy Explorations page includes a change in spelling from trog to torg for the evil beasts. i kept mispelling the thing and finally decided, why not. Torg sounds interesting, too, reminiscent of something though offhand I'm not sure what. I may change it back or find a more traditional name that fits the creature I have in mind, but for now it's torg.

Confluence Day 2 continued

internet information overload

Fruma Kloss
Goeff Lindin (M)
David Barr Kirtly
wen Spence
Thomas Sieg?

This one had overtones of the earlier panel on research here and there, with not a lot of focus but some interesting cross talk. The moderator at this one allowed Fruma Kloss did a formal and delightful intro about all the resources she had in hardcopy, including antique encyclopedia even older than mine, and the challenge of sorting through the million responses that might come up from a google query before leaving for some other activity. (She apparently had prepared another intro for another panel but that moderator apparently hadn't understood her intent and didn't let her finish it in one block, which was disappointing as she was a great speaker but less comfortable with the moderator questions)

On the upside of the internet, information, uses of tools, and other ideas are spreading quickly, and it contains a lot of information. On the down side, it isn't a database, doesn’t organize data, and encourages its own use without providing any good mechanisms for doing so. It rewards trivia delivered quickly while relevance is a lost art. It is a tool for the impatient and in that regard can be a handy tool for authors looking for wierd facts like the sound of specific gun going off that the author would like to describe, or some esoteric statistic about a piece of equipment, shallow articles on life in row houses or trailor parks etc. that might provide enough information to get through a scene or three, without providing any depth on the topic.

The main advice for users of the internet, is to maintain control, not let it control us (as e-mail often does: e.g., people who have to check e-mail every few minutes) as if they couldn’t deal with it on their own schedule, letting arguments on trivia take value over careful discourses on more important issues, the latter of which remain rare on social software. (Aside from serious writers, typically, people write comments on what they are comfortable sharing, and most of that is surface trivia, jokes, quips, and unmeaningful experiences. An opinion on the fun of a swimming pool will get far more comments on the whole than a blog on the environmental value of using them as heat sinks, for example)

Though wikipedia has some notoriety for incorrect information, it's usually well-sourced and reasonably correct, especially on geeky topics, and U-tube has lots of useful videos, such as on knife fights and weapon use and tool use that might be worth describing for a scene. Concensus builds over time which helps correct things that are fuzzy, especially facts that can be backed by evidence nd sources. it is NOT good for visual identification: you can’t query for a picture’s content until you can translate it into words. It also leaves lots of questions about decision making or anything philosophical/ambiguous or opinion-dependent.

The effectiveness of group decision making depends a lot on the makeup of the group. A group already like-minded is likely to become quickly extreme, more extreme than any of them would have been individually (aka mob mentality, though the nature of the mob made be unclear in electronic forums). If the opinions are mixed, information will be pooled to make a more informed and balanced decision. Groups are also good for trend prediction, much more so than individuals. The internet can give an illusion of a mix in some forums, and in its absence, gives participants the illusion that their views and interests are more “mainstream” than is the case, because they can always find someone with the same or similar interests, no matter how extreme. (I saw evidence of this at the fanfic con I attended last week: many spoke as if they were part of a mass movement, yet there was far more occurence of people knowing each other, knowing the names from online and other fan fic cons, (and a shared set of terms and words and mutual understanding of references), than I have ever encountered at any other con, small or large, technical or fan-based. To me that suggests they were a smaller, more insular group than most of them realized, though most probably realize that they are not mainstream fans in any sense).

The internet is not a bad place to check how new an idea is, although the lack of newness is not necessarily a bad thing. Writing to a currently popular theme can be very useful for getting published, so long as it has some different elements or a different combination of elements.)

It can be good and bad as a means of reaching out and touching: fans can reach out to authors and it can be easy to take input wrong and use it inappropriately: one rabid fan is not the real audience, even if they are the only one sending a message. Most fans don’t write at all and often those who do are the extremes, whether good or bad. They should not be treated as a NY Times review. (Also, even though some bright fan gives away the surprise before its even released, it doesn’t mean the surprise is destroyed for all the other readers: most aren’t even reading what is posted online.)

There was some discussion about the realm of science and information: is volunteered information driving out paid writers? (But this can be a misleading question: it many scientific fields, the scientist might need to pay to be published in order to reach out, gain fame, and all, so they may actually benefit by being able to publish their findings for free where their intended audience can see it. Fame gets university programs long-term paying students, grants, and other indirect sources of income). Where is the profit for software designers, though, if the software is free? Most of the income of the internet is through advertising (even U-tube etc is adopting advertising, following the customers away from television) and through services: tech support and intellectual support that helps sort out the drech (“KGB” is a cell-phone service that does this, and it may be an early success in a growing trend: “Research” may be a new career field for those with broad intersts and a little computer and vocabulary savvy, unless computer developers can design better filtering/sorting systems. (They may be a temporary field, however, for the generations that didn’t grow up with the internet: those who grew up with it may know the tricks early on, or they may just not bother to focus that deep). Computer techs who know which software is safe to download or how to clear out the viruses and spyware, databasers who can organize the data into useful packages may be the money earners.

A greater concern expressed by some is the question of whether we as a society would drift toward a desire for more active participation (inputs to wikis, active entertainments, posting as well as reading, with tv as merely a last resort) or will the bulk of the trend be toward lurking, passive entertainment, and lack of thought and activity, with the vast realm of reading and viewing material available? (For writers, the desire to be a passive participant doesn't hurt for gaining an audience, but the demand for passive entertainment could mean a more generic interest base and higher competition for the five-minute entertainments that don't require time or thought even to read more than a page or two.

The ability to reach niche audiences is great, to know that you have a steady audience, however small, but it's not so good for making money at it and is balanced against the difficulty of sorting through crap written on popular topics. it also makes it easier for the obsessed stalker to reach back, too. The very top of the fame pyramid isn’t the safest place to be, even if it brings in increasingly impressive wealth. Theoretically, science fiction, as a genre and not an over large one may have some benefits from the internet. However, as the Internet becomes more fully part of mass culture, mainstream, broadly popular topics may push the niches aside. Theoretically, it can help with aggregating disparate individuals sufficiently quickly to bring together a viable/profitable sized group (e.g. by finding enough people to make it worth the effort of putting on a convention) and to aggregate information needed for scientific advancement (like my finding several sample format guides for novels in order to find the common-denominators/concensus: if you have enough of the right facts in the right place and can pull them together, the group or one bright individual with a good search result can do stuff with it much quicker than if several people have pieces of the information but are working in isolation and don't have the other key bits that would make it work).

13 aug 10 @ 10:04 pm

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Confluence Day 2
I participated in the morning writing exercise session. it was run by the same person as last year. Like then, I would have liked a little more discussion, even if that required an earlier start or fewer writing exercises. While the exercises and hearing the results of others as well as reading our own aloud is valuable, I would have liked to give and receive at least basic reactions to some of it, if only because a little chat at the session helps lead to a little chatting afterwards as time allows between panels and other activities. I didn’t end up talking with any of the others, though I remembered a couple from the previous year on sight. Maybe going around and introducing ourselves and our favorite sub genre as an alternative...?

The writing about someone your opposite was a good prompt and very enlightening. I actually generally do, character-wise. My protagonists are confident, out-going, strong, athletic, sometimes impolite, afraid of nothing... and that's how i took the instruction. Most of the others took a more practical approach, however, including changing the sex of the character, physical description, food and other tastes: all factors that I didn't really consider. it was good to hear what other people came up with and as a writing exercise for personal use, I think it offers a good way to develop realistic characters.

One of the other exercises was to write a note containing a "secret" and pass it to the next person. While the exercise was fun, it proved a little awkward socially, as few wanted to use a real secret (that missing the point of a secret, per se, and fictionalizing it proved to result in further ambiguities of intent. A character's secret, after all, is typically something that shouldn’t be too readily revealed, so I found addressing it, as a secret, something the character would want to hide from other characters, challenging in a short writing exercise. As a means of getting interesting topics (not so much secrets as oddities and embarrassments of family history for example) I see the potential. It would certainly be a good source of story themes... But as a quick prompts, mostly the "secret" element got lost and just served to provide a story premise with which to work. I would have loved to have a discussion about keeping and presenting secrets in fiction! con planners: how about that as a panel topic?

Writers challenge: Write a science fiction or fantasy version of something from your own family history. Let us know what you come up with.
10 aug 10 @ 5:09 pm

Sunday, August 8, 2010

More Confluence Notes
Cataclysms, Apocalypses and Post-Apocalypses

Goeff Landis (M), Paul Anderson, Karina Summer-Smith, Brea

A lot of the session was on the many different kinds and themes that might be found in this genre: and plenty of ideas and considerations for writers who might want to write one.

Ends of the World: some typical themes:
The "world” (structures, environment, nature) left as it is but without (many) people or people as we know them (viral, fast society breakdowns as in Ariel)
Ecological disasters (over population, cataclysm, post atomic)
Asteroids (more recent theme)
Space Aliens (though most of those focus more on the arrival, not the end of the world as a result)

What are some of the New Trends?
Some suggested the 2012 issue (Mayan calendar, anything else?) might gain some quick if brief popularity, the alternative to Y2K
Others not so much everyone dying unless people killing each other off, but life as we know it might change...
Viruses and related themes ramain fairly open fields
Zombies are a current rage, not necessarily or only apocalyptic

There are two main subcategories, depending on the nature of the focus: the cataclysm and how people deal with it, and the post disaster conditions and how people deal with it in the next half generation or so. Both offer a continuing interest, not so much because of the nature of the disaster but because they offer extreme conditions that allow the author to explore extremes in character behavior, which has an interest all its own, and an infinite range of behaviors, emotions, personal interactions, etc. Also, the question of what might replace us and our world in the future is often of popular interest.

Some possibilities that haven’t already been done to death:

Physics bases (asteroids are just one option. Others exist though some are probably too fast if looked at realistically or too final for Earth and turn into Space Fiction instead of cataclysmic: for example, the black hole that eats the Earth and sun...)

War, not necessarily atomic, nor necessarily international: for example, individuals who get too much destructive power seems a realistic-enough threat and might be written as a contemporary (rather than science fiction) piece, or very science fiction if it's a futuristic technology. Too contemporary may be taken in bad taste and in general, it might play better, to a broader audience when we don’t have ongoing wars.)

Global warming (someone pointed out that it doesn’t have to be just Green House, pollution effects: in the normal way of suns, Sol is increasing in brightness, albeit infintesimally slowly...)

Separately or as subsets, there are potential issues of the availability of good, clean, drinkable water (note the recent Great Lakes issue, water wars in the wild west, Europe has many more limits than in most of the US already, issues of irrigating desserts making desserts elsewhere....) Take any of the number of real-world scenarios in the news and expand it...

The focus can be on the science topic and how scientists and non-scientists deal with it (use, abuse, try to fix, try to warn...) or on its impact, such as on the resultant social upheaval and how people deal with that (change in who’s in power, what they do with that power, how the societal structure is changed, new traditions, patterns of behavior...)

A new ice age is not currently an overdone trend though it was popular back in the 60s, and global warming predictions include putting ice ages in select areas of the globe that are currently kept warm by the effects of water flow (like the Gulf Stream) rather than direct weather patterns...

Psycho-social things becoming widespread on larger scales: suicide cults, depression as a contagious virus, new fanatic religions cropping up or old ones taking a cataclysmic role (End of Days or what if that had gone badly...; however, Biblical apocalypses tend to fall into mainstream, especially as they tend to focus on the threat rather than the results). Mostly, though the possibilities have barely been touched for those who want to play in social issues and success breeds sales (as I discovered with the one agent who wanted only books that go with the popular trend.)

Socio-political implosion, man vs machine... there's a tendency to make one side always bad, but the movie version of I-Robot took a very different slant than the original book!

Economics: Currently, we are moving toward extremes between city density and “empty” areas; what are the alternatives? What would drive us in different directions? Also, during the Depression, people starved not because of lack of food; food was left to rot because no one had the means to buy or even trade for it. (Compare, during the Irish potato famine, people starved for lack of food available to buy as much as because many were farmers who had lost their only crop and source of income and couldn't buy what little was sent from elsewhere--and because those who might have helped didn’t understand the nature of the problem).

Nature’s reaction to our behavior...(it is easy for this to become too much of a sermon on that behavior, but with appropriate emphasis on the results rather than the cause, perhaps explorations of several possibilities, for balance).

Unnatural genetic engineering escaping into the natural world... (what else might something eat--that we don't want it to--that had been engineered to eat spilled oil or landfill plastics...?)

A problem with apocalypses is that too many have been used as soap boxes with too heavy a hand and others have spent too much time explaining themselves when they don’t really have to in order to be effective, successful books. A way to avoid the sermonizing it to use one “disaster”/problem/technology, to undo another. Another is to look at the good and the bad aspects from different perspectives. (A current real world issue is the “population explosion; but is it becoming too successful, at least for the short/local term--0 growth can be bad for business, bad for the economy, just like machines that last too well and never need repair or replacement: why build more?)

Post apocalypses especially don’t have to explain how the world got that way, they just have to effectively show the condition as it is in the new era, focus on how people are or have dealt with the aftermath. (This has been used as a way to have human-only characters in what is essentially an alien culture and environment, including Ariel’s pseudo medieval culture)

For technical disasters, the tech itself might be the problem, or the 1% of 1% who can get control and abuse it (the latter version is better for getting away from lecturing against the technology itself and focusing on the human condition).

There have been a few young adult ones, but not many.

A side topic was more an open question: do readers really prefer something that seems unreal 9vice Global Warning that is much in the news)? Publishers may think it will fly but that isn’t necessarily true. It may fly better if it touches the theme of the current issue but approaches if from a very different angle, so its not so close to the heart. Readers often want a feel of controllability, especially when their lives feel out of control. A story can better afford to be fatalistic, tragic, when the reader feels in control of their life, so doomsday stuff may not sell well just now.

They can, however, take a humorous slant, for example, Recycleing getting out of control so that stuff is being produced to create recyclables, or trash taking over the world (since economy does well when people have to buy replacements periodically).; mycology as a borg with independence (well that one may not have been intended as a comic suggestion...)
--An archeological view can offer another interesting perspective. Our own era has left so much behind that it may be of little interest for long and longer; lacking unanswered questions until so much is destroyded/recycled (oh just another...) and so little taught (everybody knows that...) that questions are finally reawakened and historians/archeologists realize that they are running out of evidence, records, and old stories

For kinds of apocalyptic stories besides cataclysm and post-apocalypse, there are the subsets of the Survivors, and the Last Ones (where they story ends with them expecting still to be the end of the race, facing the end of the world). also, apocalyptic stories may also provide a way to “speed up” consideration of what will “replace us” in the future (evolutionary) or what might take over dominance (insects, plants). (Humans survive largely because we’ve come close to destroying ourselves, lived through devastating plagues --ala War of the Worlds--biologically, physically, and wisdom-wise: what other challenges might we have to face?)

The discussion ended with some predictions about the future of the business:
--More Zombie movies and other-than-us as the cause will be popular for awhile to come
--new technology will continue to appear on the scene and someone will write an apocalypse story for each of them, though not all will get the same level of “controversy” around them.
8 aug 10 @ 7:57 pm

Friday, August 6, 2010

Life is conspiring and Confluence notes
Writing Outside our Comfort Zone
Panel: Kames Morrow, Bill Keith, Charles Overndorf, John De Chancie

These notes include my own observations, extrapolations, and examples, noted along with notes from what the speakers said as a means of guessing at the meaning and application of some of what they said that either caught my imagination and attention or that I wasn't really sure I understood, so don't blame the panel members.

In general, this one wasn't quite as deep of a discussion as I hoped but it still managed to provide a lot of ideas and suggestions. (The panels often aren't and depend very much on an untested interaction between panel members who haven't always met before the session they are participating in together.)

SF and F are not exactly a natural ground for the oft recommended “writing what you know” at the best of times; even historical fiction and fantasy, we don’t really know how the people really spoke, only what they wrote, which is often not the same, but for anything set in the past, we often do know something of the philosophy of the era. Victorian Ghosts, Steampunk, and some other more recently popular historical eras do provide some basis/need for knowledge, with some appropriate research.

JD focused more on writing AS IF you know it, as if the characters know it, even for things that don’t even really exist. A confident voice and a little knowledge can go a long way.

Ultimately, the purpose is to give the story “authenticity”: make the reader believe that it is real or could be, or enough that they will be willing to suspend disbelief for the rest. There are a lot of ways to achieve it and the authors on the panel have tried a wide range from fairly indepth study to the bare minimum to incorporate a few facts and correct terms. There are a lot of ways to reach that point.

Environmental sociology, attitudes toward land, F-14 technical capabilities: It's not necessary to present or know all the substantive knowledge but the “cool details” that give the appropriate flavor to events may do as well as substantive knowledge

Some of the recommendations for research, and how readily doable it is for historic settings were a little bit... specious? unrealistic at least: I’ve taken grad school courses in medieval culture. “Research” into practicalities for details of daily living, vocabularly and terminology, crafts and culture that would fit into a story is not nearly as easy a feat as at least one of the panel members implied, since most historical writings rarely address it in a fashion useful for writers.) I and some of the other panel members agreed that spending some time with the research is valuable, even important, but not all thought it necessary to spend a lot of time at it. (So far, my research into archeology--picture books and museums--and through re-creation groups has been far more useful for stories than my historical research, no matter the topics i tried to look into.

Most seemed to agree that research-in-depth is not generally as important as skimming a few key chapters and categories to get a few of the right details and words to put the reader into the right world. Knowning more than you tell the reader is sometimes recommended, so that you can let it guide the character decisions and the action realistically, even if you don’t explain it to the reader. (It also helps when it comes time to answer questions of an audience, although fans will often offer fictitious fill in explanations if you get it wrong...) Some readers will disagree even if you know what you are talking about, but some people will argue with a PhD expert, too, so don’t worry about satisfying the one at the cost of boring the rest of the readers with too much information.

Even if research is good and effective and all that, it doesn’t mean we need to give all the information to the reader: fiction shouldn’t be an academic paper nor read like one. Readers read fiction to be entertained (even if, as for some YA, it can be used to give school readers a taste of some historical period or generate interest in a particular kind of science before they go off to college...)

JM compared it to an inverted iceberg: seeing the little iceberg of knowledge, the reader assumes that there is a large end hidden beneath the waters, though in reality they may be seeing the bulk of the writer's knowledge on the page. Still, put your obsessions into your writing, use what you do know: sf and f is good about letting us pick and choose the options. (It would just be nice if some of the other science fields besides physics and computers generated a more vigorous writership of SF to expand the genre).

Real events often lack the drama of fiction: but facts have an easy acceptibility

There is also the issue of knowledge of the genre. Cross genre writing has its place but if you delve into a genre you aren’t familiar with, try to be respectful, not accidentally parody-ing or disrespectfully, out of ignorance; model off the best, not the worst of the genre.

It helps if the writer is passionate about the material. Readers can often tell if you have lost interest. Be interested and curious even if not an expert.

A story can be outside your comfort zone with emotional content, too. Intense emotions can be overdone as well as underdone. For particular emotions, experience does help, but if you don’t have it, be cautious and consistent to the character in your handling. While SF writers are often pushed for more emotion, make sure it's being shown, not told. “Trembled with fear” is telling. However, especially with aliens, telling might be challenging without making them too human. Build up the background that makes a gesture meaningful in their own context. There was some questioning of the degree to which science fiction needs the emotional content, (but in these days of soap-opera like tv shows with lots of familiy and friends involvement taking over the fantasy world stories, it may aide in building popularity and may be part of why many of the vampire tales are doing well.) Still, emotions can be there without being blatant: the real goal is to get the reader to feel the emotion, not necessairly to have the characters be demonstrative.

Big social changes are also hard to manage, so focus in on individuals, not just lots of details, but details about the right things, the things that the individual characters can relate to.

Jm suggested that sometimes what we think of as flaws if we look at a story intellectually are really what “make it” for a mass audience. For main stream, flaws can be fatal, but in genre fiction, it may be more tolerated and may in the end add something valuable (there was discussion about Dune and the difficulty some had going back and reading it much later, but for the first time reader, swept through the story and not analyzing the inconsistencies and problems, it has a huge impact, and that initial impact can be what makes or breaks a story and the saleability of a novel.

CO pointed out that while characterization is sometimes lauded, it has a place and can get in the way of the “cool stuff” if a story doesn’t call for the character building: also, doing such things badly can be worse than not doing it or minimizing it.

Also, be wary of focusing on past successes. ET had a profound impact at the time: it doesn’t have the same impact even with young viewers if those viewers have seen a lot of the movies that have been produced since. We’ve changed, the perception of films has changed, new ideas have been overdone.

In an interesting aside, JD said something to the effect that even if we don’t know the particular core material, the technology or history, if you know how to read it, our autobiographies are in our fiction writing (It brought to mind how I designed the Wall in BTW which was inspired by a gloomy view of the Humanities building on my college campus). i think he meant because we know our own experiences and interests and tend to focus on them, even if we have radically changed the setting. But he said it also applied to many subconscious themes, the kinds of characters we’ve met in real life, jobs and adventures that changed our views of the current world and the focus of our fictitious ones.

One isue i would have liked to see addressed a little more is popular belief in the wrong: do you go with the wrong but popularly expected, because its conveniently available and people will believe, without checking whether its wrong, or should the author put the correct information and challenge popular views? it could probably be a panel discussion all by itself. with every answer a possible yes and no.

A whole short chapter has been added to the Fantasy page.
6 aug 10 @ 11:03 pm

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

agent hunting notes
Well, I didn't get an instant reject on my e-mailed submission to an agent, which is better than the last time I tried, and another book is off to a differnt agent, this one wanting a full package, synopsis, fifty pages and all rather than starting with a query letter like many do. I appreciate the value of not wasting paper, but my efforts to write something meaningful in a query letter tell me that they can't really get much of an impression of the book from that. I'm surprised more of them don't ask for at least a few pages, just to see if the author can write fiction, which a letter is not.

I'be posted the scenes for Onaline on the Fantasy page. Enjoy!
3 aug 10 @ 9:26 pm

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