Got back yesterday from the revived Fourth Street convention. Had a great time! I got to talk with so many interesting people, a lot of whom I'd never met before. The small size of the convention meant that when Steve Brust wandered by in the hotel restaurant on Saturday and my tablemates asked him where he was eating lunch...he said "Here," and sat down to a meal with us. Nobody stood on ceremony, which was soothing to my jangled nerves. The hotel was okay, the beds being better than the room and the food being better than the [speed of] service - though I have to say the young man who brought me my dinner on Friday night was working his tail off. Having a free shuttle service to the Mall of America [can you hear the self-important boom in my voice when I say that?] and to the airport was a big plus.
It looks to be a near-certainty that there will be a Fourth Street convention next year, potentially at a hotel further into the city; I believe I heard it stated that Elise Mattheson had taken on con chair duties, and that Cory Doctorow had agreed to be guest of honor. Stay tuned!
Notes to self: (a) be more certain of the structure/timing of the convention before booking either hotel or air transportation--it was distressing to discover that my decision to fly home on Sunday meant I would miss at least three good panels and more chances to talk shop with some of my favorite authors; and (b) try to avoid going through Atlanta in the afternoon...but if you do, at least there's the reward of Popeye's fried chicken and biscuits in Terminal C.
So, on to the panel reports. My notes are sketchy, being more of an indication of the portions I found interesting or that might be useful later than a real report on the panel. If anyone reading this has questions about anything I noted, please do ask. I might be able to remember the answer in context. Notes in brackets are mine.
*****6/20 - From Cool Idea to Story
Jim Frenkel (mod), Alec Austin, Ellen Klages, Marissa (Mris) Lingen, Will Shetterly
--Mris accretes ideas until they look like a story
--Ellen said her process was part oyster, part magpie: she practices being in the world and aware until the ideas gain enough substance
--Will said as a younger writer he practiced starting out with the magic sentence from which the entire story would flow, but that he realized it would disappear in later drafts. Now he just works with what comes.
--Alec said he's not sure where the ideas come from, but that he deliberately and methodically accretes them. He knows the set pieces/scenes, then assembles the world they belong to. The hard part for him is writing the bridges between the set pieces.
Mris said that the stuff that's the hardest at first is not the same stuff that's hard later - which is why she doesn't push herself to write what's hard at first.
Ellen said she does cut or lose shiny bits if they don't belong in the story even if they came first.
--Mris said she writes about relationships between characters, not just individuals.
--Ellen said she was a very character-based writer. She gets very into character. (She later, in another panel, related a story of having gone to a yard sale and picked up a box of mixed gears and other mechanical things, imagining that one of her characters would be excited by them, and as she was going into her house with the box she was thinking how much [the character] was going to like them...and then realized she'd bought a box of stuff for a person who did not exist.)
--Will said he never thought he was interested in dialog, thought stories were plot. Now he focuses on dialog.
--Alec said that the shiny bits in a story are revealing of character - that they're only interesting because of character
Re the ending:
--Ellen said that sometimes the shiny bit was the last line - that this was especially true of short stories, which seem to demand that special last line.
--Will talked about writing historical fiction and thinking about at what point can you end a historical fiction story and trust that the reader is satisfied by the upbeat ending, even knowing that the real history says that things blow up shortly thereafter.
--Alec said he usually knows the ending - that he can't write a story without knowing the ending.
Building upon a comment by Jim that editors like to see outlines, what happens if what you have is shorter than what you need?
--Mris said that the words came to her with the idea
--Ellen said she scribbles words until she finds the nugget of story in them and then writes the part of the story she gets with that nugget, that she then has to keep scribbling until she finds the next nugget/leading line.
Re predicting length:
--Will said the scale of the beginning determines the length.
--Alec said that you can subvert length expectations, especially if you're manipulating by way of genre expectations
--Will commented on story in terms of a debate - sometimes we talk about conflict too much, with too much emphasis on that one element of the story.
--Ellen mentioned narrative proprioception
- that the author knows how long a work will be.
Will pondered what would happen if you took a trilogy idea and only wrote the third book? (More than one on the panel and in the audience responded that, of course, everyone knew the second book in a trilogy always sucked...whereupon I, at least, knowing younger writers are told that trilogies sell, winced.)
Mris speculated on her view of trunked work as nurse trees for a forest of future work [and a good bit of use was made of this imagery in later panels as the mulch from which each author and each subsequent author can create stories]. [NB: the original notation of "nurse trees" appears to have been Mike Ford's, relayed to Mris by way of elisem
Ellen noted that writing in the past, as she does, gives an author a stage, an armature on which to hang the story - real events used in the story can lend versimilitude.
Will said that technology can feed your worst habits - computers allow us to rework continuously.
Ellen said she is a visual and tactile writer - sometimes she has to spread the bits out on the floor and move them around to work out problems. [I tried to catch up with her later to talk about this as the concept of notecarding, which this sounds like, is something I'm very interested in, but the entire weekend was one long conversation and I had a very hard time convincing myself that it was okay to interrupt that conversation, even with Bear's help.]6/20 - Grinding Buttons and Pushing Axes
(a/k/a the message panel)
Elizabeth Bear (mod), Alec Austin, Emma Bull, Marissa Lingen, Sarah Monette
Mris said that the message in a story relates to the reader - it depends on the reader.
Steve said that if you can summarize a book in a single declarative sentence, you almost certainly have a book with a message.
The panel briefly touched on the difference between theme and message, eventually deciding that:
theme = what a story is about, its question
message = what you learn from reading the story
Emma suggested that SFF was better than almost any other genre at slipping a message past the reader.
Steve stated his belief that message novels will not survive the end of the era relating to their message unless the novel is about more than the message
Emma said that if a novel's message is not arising from complex characters - if the novel depends on stereotypes to get the message across - it can make you hate that novel.
Someone (Emma?) mentioned a book by Richard Hugo called The Triggering Town
as being a useful read relating to how to use human nature to get a message across.
Emma said that when you're dealing with ground that's been covered over and over, sometimes it's worth covering again to show the next generation's answer to the question.6/21 - The Dreaded Second Draft
Elizabeth Bear (mod), Eleanor Arnason, Emma Bull, Pamela Dean, Caherine Lundoff, Caroline Stevermer
Bear defined a completed draft as finally having reached the end - that you knew you'd gotten the draft finished once you reached the end.
Pamela said there is almost always something else you [she, I think] can be doing to avoid reworking the plot and structure.
Caroline said that the edit after the editorial letter arrives is a different kind of second draft.
Bear commented that even after [or maybe because of] going through repeated revisions/drafts, she can sometimes still find errors: "This sentence no verb."
Emma noted that sometimes your subconscious is very smart and puts things in that you will need later, but that sometimes you have to go back and add in things to support where the story ended up.
[I asked Emma, specifically, about how she gets from the first to the second draft - how to find the focus to use in a second draft - since she indicated she enjoyed that second draft revision and revised with the knowledge that she knew what the scene was supposed to be doing, but the response was put off until the Sunday panel on Lies the Author Tells Themselves...which I could not attend, bah.]
Caroline said that the editor is not your enemy, with regard to revisions requested - the editor is the person best placed to really get what you intended and to have the vision to show you how to get there.
Emma noted that, where the comment from critiques or editorial letters was that part of the story felt wrong, it means that you didn’t supply the underpinning to support that part of the story, not that the element itself is wrong.
Someone [don't recall who, whether on the panel or from the audience] mentioned Clarion Disease - continually second-guessing yourself because you see your work through too many sets of eyes.
Audience member Priscilla (?) Olsen said "and you don't know where those eyes have been," meaning that you don't have sufficient understanding of the background of your fellow Clarion members to understand where they're coming from and what their comments really mean.
Someone else commented that Cory Doctorow said he'd had to go into therapy after finishing Clarion in order to be able to write again. [And if I ever seriously considered going to Clarion, that surely would have quashed the thought.]
The comment was made afterward that perhaps you don't really need to know where your critiquer is coming from; you don't know your editor, so you might as well learn to revise without that information.6/21 - The Chewy Bits
Teresa Nielsen Hayden (mod), Steven Brust, Emma Bull, Pamela Dean, Jim Frenkel, Kevin Maroney
[don't recall if Maroney was there or not]
Emma defined "chewy bits" as the parts of a story where you're challenged - the places where the reader is actively participating in the creation of story. She said that they set you up for the impact of the climax. These can be things you don't always see on first read.
Pamela referred to "narrative lust
"--when you're so into a story on first read that you can't stop to ponder the chewy bits.
Steve said he develops chewy bits by asking himself a question to which he doesn't know the answer.
Emma indicated she thought chewy bits had specific gravity [and I think it was Emma who offered the analogy of chewy bits drawing story to them through that gravity, like planets].
Jim said he felt that the rewrite's purpose was to unearth the chewy bits and make them better integrated into the story. The panel was asked if they thought that there could be chewy bits that did not fit in a story, and the consensus was that those that didn't fit should be cut.
Jim mentioned Emma's Bone Dance
as a novel full of chewy bits.
Steve had an epiphany: voice is
image, is the distilling of the chewy bits and the ur-theme of the particular writer - you evoke image through voice.
Someone noted that, with regard to symbolism, theme, and allegory, playing along their edges produces the most powerful chewy bits.6/21 - Advice from New Writers
Teresa Nielsen Hayden (mod), Reesa Brown, Jennifer Evans, Marissa Lingen, Michael Merriam, Kit O'Connell, Jon Singer
[mostly unattributed comments - sorry]
Anthropological bits - the mythic structures that are most used in fiction are the ones that have known stories attached. [Brust, I think, from the audience. He was much in the audience. *g*]
Reesa, I think, noted Daniel Pinkwater's release model for combining electronic and print media: Start releasing a chapter at a time on a website. Partway through the electronic release of the novel, you release the hardcopy book--so, if the online reader wants to know right away what happens, they can buy the book. The author continues to release chapters regularly until the entire book is available online for free.kitryan
referred to "enforced mouse-over text" - where the author puts in a description of the character in a way you can't get away from it - "rippling alabaster hair" [or LKH's Nike shoes and other clothes descriptions] - as something to avoid.
Some members of the audience objected to the suggestion that older writers try to stretch themselves and their understanding of the effects of technology so the younger writers can build upon them [which Jennifer indicated she wanted to see so the younger writers could then hopefully slingshot the older writers even further]. The stretching was offered by the panel as a means by which they could get past the apparent editorial demand that the younger writers stretch themselves and offer new material, only to be told that they'd gone too far. New writers want to be able to share their view of the future, but couldn't seem to get that view into print.6/21 - Playing with Structure
Elizabeth Bear (mod), Alec Austin, Emma Bull, Jim Frenkel, Jon Singer
Emma said that structure was the thing that keeps all events from happening at the same time.
Mention was made of the original Aristotelian pyramid structure - beginning, rising action, falling from climax - and the Renaissance 5-act structure, which led to our modern 3-act structure, as well as a spiral structure that permitted an ever-widening exploration [of the same events, I believe].
Emma said that structure is also how a story interacts with the reader - how it arrives to the reader. [I imagined here the inclusion of chewy bits which reward the reader with understanding of the significance of earlier events as being something that arrives to the reader later than they're actually read, by which chewy bits can be considered part of structure.]
Jim said that he thought structure should be invisible to the reader unless that's what you're trying to subvert. Emma objected to that as a statement rather than an opinion; she felt it depends on a reader's level of sophistication with regard to literature, whether they can or will see the structure without the author's help. Bear said later that what probably should have been said was that the reader shouldn't notice the author's manipulation
of the structure.
Jim pointed out that different genres stress different elements of the story - that mysteries depend on obvious structure to be successful.
The panel thought the following books were useful in studying structure:
--Techniques of the Selling Writer
--Making a Good Script Great
by Linda Seger
[the comment was made that scriptwriting how-tos tended to focus on structure the most strongly]
Someone in the audience suggested Maass's Breakout Novel
, which Jim then noted was more bad than good.
The movie "Adaptation" was mentioned as being an interesting demonstration of structure even as structure is explained on screen.
Books which various people thought played interesting games with structure included Zelazny's Roadmaps
and Doorways in the Sand
, Brust's Agyar
, and Tiptree's story "The Man Who Walks Home."
Lois Bujold said from the audience that if you take away a reader's expectations by playing with structure, you need to give them something else as good or better.6/21 - 21st Century Storytelling
(a/k/a the Shadow Unit panel)
Steven Brust (mod), Alec Austin, Elizabeth Bear, Emma Bull, Sarah Monette, Will Shetterly
The only comment I have for this panel, the last I attended, was "Art creates an artifact or an experience."