ConDFW is an annual “speculative fiction” (aka sci-fi, fantasy, horror, etc.) con with a decidedly literary bent. The panels are geared to authors and publishers; the topics are focused on writing and getting your work seen by others.
What follows is my report of my Day One of the con (it was actually day two of the con, but real life got in the way; so it goes). Bear in mind that I am reporting only on what I took away from the panels; I’m not going to provide a play-by-play but an overall impression of “what I learned”.
Tropes…and How to Avoid Them
Tropes are essentially stereotypes, a literary shorthand that, when used well, can imprint ideas/impressions on the reader quickly and with fewer words. It’s a shortcut. The problem with tropes, like all such short cuts, is that they can be used too much. If used too often they indicate lazy writing and stop a story dead in its tracks.
Sometimes you can’t get away from tropes. It struck me as I listened to the discussion that, in many ways, genres are defined by their tropes. These common points of reference are what separate one genre from another. The trick is how you approach tropes in your fiction.
Some examples of tropes: space pirates, characters with glasses are always scientists, the beggar is actually the king in disguise, all spaceships have shields, you can get news from the bartender, etc. A particularly hated trope is the “end of the world is nigh and only one person can save it”.
Cover copy is “trope city”, which makes sense. Cover copy is trying to describe the essential plot in as few words as possible and connect with readers who would appreciate those particular tropes. Television is also rife with tropes. As episode lengths get shorter to accommodate advertising, this trend will likely continue.
The panelists also provided advice on “breaking” a trope. First, you have to lead the reader down the path toward the familiar. Then, you turn it on its head. Get them comfortable and then shake them up. You can even lead them toward one trope only to change it to another.
Essentially, tropes are both a blessing and a curse in genre fiction. I think of them as radioactive: they can be used to give your fiction some “bang”, but you really have to know what you’re doing or you’ll destroy your story.
Steampunk: History and Hoopskirts
Panelists: Courtney Stewart, Cynthia Talbot, and Guy Brownlee
This panel focused primarily on steampunk costuming but also offered some insights into this increasingly popular subgenre of speculative fiction.
First and foremost, the panelists insisted that there are no “rules” for steampunk…though there are “guidelines”. Essentially, the look that you are shooting for is a combination of sci-fi and high adventure hearkening to the Victorian (or even early Edwardian) period (essentially, anywhere from the 1850s to the beginning of WWI). After this point you start delving into “diesel punk“.
Another good tip that Cynthia Talbot, a professional Victorian costumer, presented is the “3 Rules of Costuming”: Costuming can be (1) Fast, (2) Cheap, or (3) Good. Pick two because you can’t have all three.
Another insight to this style of costuming is that the Victorians actually used outlandish color schemes in their evening wear. It was common to have bright colors such as teal and tangerine clashing in layers on a lady’s frock. Synthetic dyes were the latest craze at the time and used to full advantage (or disadvantage depending on your color sense). It was also not unusual to have a pea-green overcoat…so as to cover any staining due to the horse-dung infested dust that frequently filled the air in the streets at the time.
A good online source for costuming tips and networking is cosplay.com. Other sources of inspiration were: the cosplay troupe The Outlanders; the writings of Tim Powers, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and H. Rider Haggard; the book The Warlord of the Air by Michael Moorcock; The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson; The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling; the television show and movie “The Wild Wild West”; the television show “The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.“; the anime “Steamboy“, “Nausicaä and the Valley of the Wind“, “Castle in the Sky“, and “Last Exile“; and the roleplaying game “Space 1889“. Musical inspiration can be found in the band Abney Park.
The panelists also suggested looking at thrift stores and places such as Goodwill to find pieces that can be easily converted to the steampunk aesthetic. Lowes and Home Depot can also be a source for props or other accessories such as keys and gears.
Finally, my favorite quote of the day: “Brass is the new black.”
The Urban Fantastic: Take 2
I came in a bit late to this one after getting A. Lee Martinez’s autograph (squee!).
Speaking on this subject were authors P.N. Elrod, Carole Nelson Douglas, Crystalwizard, and Thomas Knowles. I also offer my sincerest apologies to the final author that was pulled from the audience to join the panel. She contributed a lot to the conversation but I failed to catch her name.
What is urban fantasy? There are many definitions and guidelines. What most would agree on, however, is that an urban fantasy is set in a contemporary, realistic setting and contains fantasy elements.
The contemporary setting is important because if you delve too far back you enter the realm of “pulp” or “diesel punk” or “steampunk”. Too far forward and you are in “cyberpunk” or outright sci-fi. The definition of “urban” can have some nuance as well. Charlaine Harris‘ “Sookie Stackhouse” series is set in a small rural town in Louisiana but is generally regarded as highly successful “urban” fantasy. That being said, these pieces are seldom set in the wilderness or on the long outdoor journeys that you find in quest fantasy.
What’s hot now? Female empowerment. In many ways the supernatural element of the subgenre grants heroines atypical strength (ala “Buffy the Vampire Slayer“). However, the case can also be made that strong female leads that do not have some sort of supernatural “cheat” can also prevail in this fiction due to the “excuse” of it being a fantasy. One trope to be aware of is the “male in skirts” that often emerged in the early days of the genre–a female character that takes on traditional masculine qualities for the sake of strength. Strong female characters are possible without turning them into men.
Many female authors have had to use their initials to cloak their sex to ensure that their works are given an even chance (C.J. Cherryh, for example). Panelist P.N. Elrod had also run into this at conventions. Carole Nelson Douglas told of how she was essentially run out of fantasy publishing in the 1980s. The strength of these characters could also be an outgrowth (or a backlash) against the sexism that has long permeated the speculative fiction field.
One of the advantages of writing in urban fantasy is that it is easier to fact check yourself first-hand. You don’t have to be an expert on a particular historical period nor do you have to create a world out of whole cloth. It is an act of “spinning the familiar”, twisting it a bit to make room for the fantastic. However, no matter what, fiction of any kind must seem real to the reader.
My wife and I intend to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary by attending Dragon*Con this year in September (our anniversary is in March/August…long story…). Our costume mode for that con will be “steampunk”. My wife is much further along in her gathering than I am. Luckily the vendor room sported several booths with very nicely made costuming supplies with a decidedly Victorian bent. As a result, I’ve now officially started constructing my costume with a new chapeau (see photo below).
I started reading A. Lee Martinez a couple of years back with Gil’s All-Fright Diner. You should also check out his A Nameless Witch as well…very good stuff. I have a few more of his books on my “to be read” shelf at home. I also read his blog and follow him on Twitter. He was gracious enough to sign my copy of In the Company of Ogres. We chit-chatted briefly about the recent optioning of Gil’s as a movie by Dreamworks. He was very nice and seemed to be having a good time.
My wife and I attended the art auction…which is always a lot of fun. This year it sported two very entertaining auctioneers but a smaller audience…probably due to the weather. We also came away with a very unexpected piece of art…which is a story best told somewhere other than on this blog! I also got (in the silent auction) a very nice print by Alan Beck.
In Part two of the report I’ll detail the panels I attended on my second day of the con.